Tuesday, 20 August 2013

North Ronaldsay Day 1

My first morning on North Ronaldsay, the most northerly of the Orkney Isles. It was touch and go whether I'd get here at all; trying to match up flights and ferries was a major pain in the proverbial and it was only after numerous phone calls, copious amounts of head-scratching and much staring at timetables, turning them upside-down to see if they'd make more sense that way, that I finally got everything to work out. 

I flew up in a tiny plane yesterday evening. Everyone and their dog (well, one dog) was squished together with enough leg room for, ooh, maybe one leg. It was only a 15 minute flight so the squish wasn't a problem. I took some photos of the islands from above, enjoying recognising the ones I've been too.

Arriving at the airport terminal / airfield / toilet with a runway attached, I hoisted my collection of bags as they were passed out of the plane, National Express style, and wandered over to the people waiting to collect passengers. Quickly finding Simon, who it turns out was based at the Fair Isle observatory when I was there in 2010, I piled everything into the Landrover and we drove the few minutes to the bird observatory where I'm camping for the next 3 nights. I had wanted to stay in the hostel so I wouldn't need to worry about carrying camping gear on the tiny plane, but it was fully booked with people who are in North Ronaldsay filming a children's programme for CBeebies. Although I'm camping (£5 a night) I can still use the hostel facilities - fortunate as otherwise I wouldn't be able to cook as I don't think I'd have been allowed to carry fuel on the flight (though liquids and sharp objects were no problem).

I got my tent up and retired to the hostel kitchen, which I had to myself, to cook up enough food to last several days and using all the fresh vegetables I'd bought I'd bought in Kirkwall.

... back to this morning ...

I was up, showered and leisurely breakfasted and ready to head out for just after 10am. Just as the electricity went off. It doesn't usually go off; they've had mains electricity here since the 1983, but today, and possibly tomorrow, there are workmen here doing something to the powerlines meaning the electicity is off for the whole island until 5pm this evening.

I explored the area around the hostel, spotting a couple of heliogoland traps (used to trap birds for ringing) and trying to get to a gorgeous white beach. But there was no way my brain was ever going to be capable of figuring out the knots tying the gate firmly into position and I couldn't be bothered climbing over as I wanted to focus on the north part of the island anyway.

I veered off track to check out a standing stone - the only one known to have a hole in it, and then stuck pretty much to the main road which took me from the bottom to the top of the island. I wanted to get to the north so I could visit the old and new lighthouses.

The old lighthouse was built in 1789 by Thomas Smith and is one of Scotland's oldest lighthouses. The 70ft stone tower which was topped with oil burning lamps and copper reflectors cost £199 to build. In 1806 the building of Start Point lighthouse on Sanday made the North Ronaldsay beacon redundant and it was decommissioned in 1809, its lantern being replaced with a giant stone ball. It was soon realised that North Ronaldsay did need its own lighthouse and a new, much higher one was built close to the original beacon. At 139ft it was, and still is, the highest land based lighthouse in the British Isles. Originally its red brick exterior was left au naturel, but in 1889 it was painted with a couple of white horizontal bands to aid visibility.

I was going to have a look at the old lighthouse first but as it began to rain heavily I made for the new lighthouse which I knew had a cafe and visitor centre I could shelter in. I paused inside the open door at the bottom of the lighthouse itself and then, as the rain paused slightly, went for a wander round the buildings. The former lighthouse keepers' cottages are now rented out as holiday lets by the National Trust for Scotland (and very nice they looked too, from the tiny peek I had through the windows).

The cafe was full of lunching BBC film crew and so I had a look round the exhibition rooms. One room had photos and exhibits concerning North Ronaldsay in general and the other was more specifically on the lighthouse and the lives of the keepers. There are a few short films but due to the power cut I wasn't able to watch them. A smartly uniformed lighthouse keeper popped his head in the door and asked if I was the lady looking for a tour of the lighthouse. I wasn't the lady he was looking for but I was a lady looking for a tour. Billy had been keeper of the light for over 40 years and is a native of North Ronaldsay. He lost his full-time job when the light was automated in 1998 but still looks after it when need be and also acts as tour guide. Today he was in the role of TV star as he was the lighthouse keeper the BBC were here to film. The short 15 minute programme involves Billy showing his (real) grandson around the island and telling him about his life as a lighthouse keeper. He told me he would be with the film crew till about 2.30pm and then he'd be able to do my tour. As the crew had finished their lunch and were getting back to their filming, I went into the cafe to have my lunch.

The menu was somewhat limited due to the power cut but I was still able to have a steaming bowl of home-made carrot and coriander soup with home-made wheaten bread followed by home-made tangy lemon drizzle cake and cream and a cafetierre.

The man running the cafe had time to talk to me as I was now the only person there. He's originally from Essex and has been on the island for two and a bit years. His wife is a nurse practitioner and got fed up working in a busy surgery with 18,000+ patients on the list. She said she wished she worked on a small island with few people and lo and behold there happened to appear an advert for exactly her job on a small island with few people. Although there aren't many people on the island, as it is an aging population she is still kept quite busy. As for the man (let's call him Mark, as I can't remember what he was called but think it may have been Mark), he's got himself settled with his role running the cafe, everything home-made, and giving tours of the adjacent wool mill.

Whilst I waited for Billy to finish up with the film crew Mark offered me a tour of the wool mill. None of the machinery was running of course, due to the lack of power, but he was still able to show me around and explain how everything worked. The mill began when it became unprofitable to send fleeces south to be processed. A chance comment at a science fair in Kirkwall led to a North Ronaldsay couple going on a fact-finding mission to Canada to research small-scale wool mill equipment. It all looked good and the investment was made. Now the islanders can wash, de-hair (North Ronaldsay sheep, like Cumbrian Herdwich sheep, but unlike any others, have wool next to their skin and hair on the outside), card, spin and wind their own wool. The hair, by the way, shows as black threads in the wool and is the part of a jumper that gives it an itch factor. As well as hair being removed, lanolin and large amounts of sand are washed out of the fleeces. This leads to a big reduction in the actual weight of the end product when compared to  the fleece at the start of the process.

As my tour finished, Billy appeared and I was straight off on my tour of the new lighthouse. A quick climb up 176 steps (despite being 64 Billy practically skipped up them; I had to stop for a breather) and we were out on the veranda that runs around the top of the lighthouse just below the light.

We stood on the sheltered side, out of the wind whilst he told me the history of the lighthouse. The views looked pretty good today but on a really clear day it's possible to see Fair Isle, Sumburgh Head and Foula.

Ducking back inside we went up into the light itself. The Fresnel lens is made up of many curved and flat layers. Although these days the light runs off electricity with its own generator in case of power cuts, the old parafin lamp is still there. Looking through the lenses everything shimmered, rainbows flickered and images doubled, tripled and flipped upside-down psychedelically.

Billy covered the light-sensors with cardboard to fool them into thinking it was dark. Over a few minutes the bulb came on and started at first to glow blue, but then to get brighter and brighter. Although the bulb itself has a steady glow and does not flash, the revolving lenses make it appear to flash every 10 seconds. Each lighthouse has its own sequence of flashes meaning they are easily identifiable. The beam can be seen for 24 nautical miles. Once the light-sensors were exposed to the light again the bulb switched off immediately.

Back downstairs, Billy walked me over to the fog horn, no longer used as ships can pick up the lighthouse by radar now when it is foggy. A cone shaped piece of machinery fastened just outside the light recognises when a radar is searching and appears as a dot with initials NR on the ship's radar monitor. Billy had intended to put the fog horn on so I could hear it, but then realised it would't work with the power off.

Leaving the new lighthouse I walked over to the old lighthouse which is covered in scaffolding. Funding has been secured via a TV programme to renovate it and the hope is to eventually have a staircase inside so people can also go up inside this one.

I started what I felt would be long walk back to the bird observatory at the other end of the island, but was picked up by Charlie, an aging local with not too many teeth. He drove me all the way back and seemed like a real character. He had a few funny stories to tell on the short journey. He's been up the lighthouse many a time himselft as he was involved in painting it and told me he'd painted the 176 stairs I'd walked up.

Back at the bird observatory I sat in the lounge, with windows on three sides and enjoyed some evening sun.  

Thursday, 15 August 2013

A walk to Start Point Lighthouse

I called in the community shop in the village of Lady (great name for a village) to stock up on muesli and ask if anyone knew where I could find tidal times for Start Point as I wanted to walk across to the island and lighthouse. No-one knew but a customer googled on her phone and was able to tell me the times for Kettletoft pier which is fairly close and so probably similar. 

The low tide was happening right now so I jumped in the van and headed north. I squeezed between 2 cars and set off down the track just as it started raining. At the end of track I met an older couple and presumably their son on the beach making their way back to the track. They'd tried to get out to the lighthouse but given up because of how slippery it was.

I picked my way over the beach and soon reached the slippery rocks. Several times I thought I was going to have to give up and turn back but perserverance paid off and I managed to find a way through the rocks, seaweed, slime to get to a stretch of water that I waded through getting my sandals and the bottoms of my trousers completely soaked.

Reaching the island, I headed to the right round some derelict buildings and almost made it to the lighthouse. Unfortunately I was stopped by a wall and an electric fence. I was dubious over whether the fence was electric or not, as there were no warning notices and no sign of anything to power the fence. I gingerly touched it and it was fine. Great, I thought and touched it again to make sure. Ouch! The shock went right to my upper arm. I've never felt an electric fence shock so strongly and I wondered if it had anything to do with my rubber soled shoes being so completely water-logged.

I back-tracked and then tried to walk round the other side of the island. This seemed more do-able but I came to a gate that was seriously tied up and would have needed climbing over. I was about to do this, but couldn't really see if the way was passable up ahead and I was concerned about the tide and how long it might take me to pick my way back through the slime.

I decided I was happy with what I'd done - I'd made it across to a tidal island and had a good wander round, and I could see the lighthouse, looking like a gigantic Everton mint, from where I was anyway.

I turned round and slipped and slid my way back to the beach and the track leading back to my car.

A few facts

Start Point was built in 1806 by engineer Robert Stevenson, grandfather of writer Robert Louis Stevenson. It was the first Scottish lighthouse to have revolving light. At the time this meant it was easily distinguishable from other lighthouses. It's still just as distinguishable today due to it having been painted with vertical black and white stripes in 1915, thus giving it its current elongated Everton mint appearance.


I rinsed my walking sandals out thoroughly with fresh water to get rid of the salt. As they dried they began to really stink. The smell got so bad I had to seal them in a plastic bag. I've since put them through the washing machine and they smell slightly better, but not much. They've been wet before and it hasn't been a problem so I think it must be from whatever was in that water I waded through. So if you are intending to do this walk, wear either wellies or shoes you don't care about!


Sunday, 11 August 2013

Should I move to Saudi Arabia?

A rainy Sunday morning on Stronsay. About 350 people supposedly live on this straggly Northern Isle of Orkney, but I rarely saw them. The 'all arms and legs' shape of the island does mean that there are lots of lovely coves and sandy beaches, and it was above one of these (St Catherine's Bay) that I parked up outside the community centre and waited for the patch of blue sky I could see in the distance to reach me. I sat with a mug of steaming coffee intending to read, but stared out of the windscreen instead at the mesmerising seascape of blues, greens, greys and frothy whites. As always, when I get the time to stare at the sea, or mountains, or any other nice, natural view, my mind started to wander and ideas began to form.

Two nights previously I'd pulled up at public toilets at the end of a track, by a beach, just outside the small village of Evie on the Orkney mainland's northern coast. I planned to sleep there. Not long after I'd arrived a car pulled up. The lone woman looked at her maps, got out and checked out the beach, wandered round, basically doing all the things I was doing. After a short while of this, I decided to go for a walk along another track that seemed to follow the bay round. At the same time, the other woman also decided to go for a walk along the track, so we joined up.

Turned out Caitlin was also on holiday, travelling round in her car and sleeping in the back of it. Like me, when looking for somewhere to sleep, she hunted out quiet spots with a nice view and convenient loos.

We walked for further than we intended, getting excited when we unexpectedly came across a geological phenomenon of basically what are reformed rocks. Sand is made from either rocks or shells that have been ground down. Here the process has gone step further and shell sand has reformed itself back into rocks. Or not really 'back' into rocks as it was never rocks in the first place, but shells, as though it was jealous of the sand that had once been rocks and had wanted its own turn at being a rock. We clambered over the formation which still looked like sand, expecting the grains to move underfoot, but they didn't; they were all stuck together, solid as a rock. Very weird.

We continued along the track until we reached the far side of the bay and the Broch of Gurness. The broch stands in the middle of th site and has the ruins of a neolithic village around it. The village is made up of a series of one-roomed houses interlinked by corridors which would have been originally been roofed over for protection against the weather. The houses still have the remains of beds and dressers inside them, all made out of stone, Flintstones style. The most well-known example of this type of village is, of course, Skara Brae on the west coast, but this is pretty impressive too and the I think I preferred this one.

The gate had a notice on it giving official opening hours but nothing was closed off so we wandered round having a good nosey and enjoying having the place to ourselves. Well, apart from two very friendly cats and an observant seal that is. I didn't have my camera with me so went back the following morning to take photos, and although there were several tour groups looking round, there was still no warden.

During our walk we'd chatted about where we're from, what we do, and so on. Turns out Caitlin, who's from Angus, lives in Saudi Arabia. She's just finished a year teaching English as a foreign language at the university in Riyadh and is waiting on her visa being renewed so she can go back for a second year.

My intentions when I became a teacher, were never to do it as a lifelong career choice. Life is far too short to spend it all doing the same thing. I always thought I'd be a teacher for five years - two in the UK getting experience and then three years in the Middle East, earning good money and getting to experience life and culture in a part of the world that really fascinates and interests me. But, the best laid plans and all that ...

I'm about to go into my eighth year of teaching and I'm still in Manchester. I have thought about moving elsewhere - I got very tempted by a job in Skerries (in Shetland) a couple of years ago - but the thing that's held me back has been my parents who are getting older, with all the issues that can entail, and since I moved back to Manchester eleven years ago, they've got so used to me being here, it would be quite a wrench for them to have me move away again.

I decided against the Skerries job because it was just too far and time-consuming to get 'home' easily and quickly. It would be impossible to pop home for a weekend and I really didn't fancy spending all my school holidays in Manchester.

Sitting above the beach in Stronsay, thinking in the rain, my thoughts turned to Saudi Arabia and how feasible it would be for me to work there. Many Middle East countries are quite open to tourism and so it's possible to visit and get an idea of the place. But Saudi Arabia doesn't really do tourism. Apparently they're tentatively exploring the idea but it's really in its embryonic stages and will be a long time, if ever, before it really opens up. So the only way to really get to know and explore this birthplace of Islam and politically important country is to work there.

Caitlin told me that by the time her visa was sorted out last year it was October, and the academic year finishes in June, so that's really only eight months I'd be away. And if anything serious did happen at home, it would be quicker to fly home from Saudi Arabia than it would be to get home from somewhere like Skerries which involves two ferries (including an overnight one) and a lot of driving. The more I thought about it the more things seemed to slip into place.

I'd like to develop my writing but living in a busy heavily populated UK city limits opportunities - far too many people all doing - or wanting to do- the same thing. Also I really struggle to find the time to keep up my blog, let alone anything else. Saudi, however, could be a completely different kettle of fish. Friends who have lived in expat communities and wanted to write, have tended to find more opportunities than there are here. Also, there isn't that much written about Saudi Arabia compared to many other places. And if Saudi Arabia is really trying to develop its fledgling tourist industry, now could be the time to become a travel-writer based there. A good chance of write place, write time maybe?

I could also use Riyadh (or Jeddah) as a base to explore other parts of the Middle East, particularly the Gulf. Caitlin said it's quite feasible to pop over to Dubai for a weekend. I could have the chance to get to know the various Emirates quite well and squeeze in a couple of visits to my teacher friend, Dawn, in Oman.

I've also been thinking a lot about Antarctica and how I really need to do something about getting myself there. I don't really want to go on a cruise - as well as being expensive I'd feel too much on the outside looking in. What I really want to do is go to live there for a while - at least six months and ideally for a full year. As I'm not a scientist that means applying for support type jobs, for instance, as a cook. But I know my chances would be really limited and as I get older, my age is going to go against me as well (maybe I'm already too old?).

Ideally I'd go as a writer/researcher, writing from an anthropological perspective. I always thought if I did a PhD it would be Middle East based research, but over the past few years I've been thinking more about how fascinating it would be to carry out research on an Antarctic base.  I've even researched universities that are involved in Antarctic research but I've not been able to get any leads for anthropological research.

If I started to establish myself as a writer and researcher in Saudi Arabia this may give me a way in to Antarctica. Long shot I know, but stranger things have been known to happen.

I'm feeling that coming across that talk on Antarctica in Lerwick and then running into Caitlin (outside a toilet at the end of a lonely track - really, what are the chances of that?) is all part of a universal nudge to try and get me back on track with my life plans and working towards achieving some of my goals. I could even give learning Arabic a pretty good shot whilst living in Saudi Arabia.

All this from sitting looking at a beach in the rain. I really should do it more often!

Wednesday, 7 August 2013

A talk on the Arctic and Antarctica

Last night I went along to Lerwick library to listen to Gavin Francis talk about his two books. I can't believe I'd not heard of him before as I consider myself to be quite aware of all the travel writing books on the Arctic and Antarctica. I only knew about last night's talk because of an article in the Shetland Times promoting the event. The article mentioned he'd started his Arctic journey in Unst which is another reason I'm surprised not to have come across him before as I'd thought I'd read all the travel writing books which mention my favourite island in my favourite archipelago.

Gavin Francis is a medical doctor who had spent some time working in East Africa and at the end of his stint he felt the need to go somewhere completely different to the heat and crowds of Africa. The Arctic is a bit different to Africa so this was where he headed using the Great Bear as a defining boundary (he visited places the constellation can be seen from) and concentrating on the European Arctic rather than the American.

He followed a route that led him from Shetland to the Faroes and into Iceland and Greenland, before exploring Spitzbergen and Scandinavian Lapland. To add extra interest to his journey (as though these places aren't already interesting enough!) he followed routes documented by early writers. Shetland, for example, was written about over 2000 years ago by an early Greek traveller, Pytheas, who visited around the time the brochs were being built. As his journey went on he followed the writings of far more up-to-date and modern explorers e.g. the Vikings. 

Obviously he didn't get cold enough in the Arctic because not long after he headed off to Antarctica to spend a year working as the resident doctor on British Antarctic Survey's Halley Base. It took a while to get there on a boat that went via the Falklands, South Georgia and Bird Island. Once there it was all hands to the deck unloading two thousand drums of kerosene. A couple of weeks later, when the unloading was done, the ship left and it was time to settle in to life with just 13 other people.

About half the people on the base are scientists of various disciplines and the rest are support staff, such as the doctor, a chef, mechanics and engineers. He says he hasn't gone into much detail about his role as doctor due to there being so few people it would be too easy for people to know who he was talking about and this would of course break medical confidentiality issues. Instead he talks about his time spent partaking in non-medical activities, such as trips out to visit the neighbours; a colony of Emporer penguins. With the onset of 24 hour darkness there was plenty of time to observe the night skies and become familiar with constellations and blase with auroras. He also found time to write 'True North', his book based on his Arctic travels. Since returning home to Scotland he has written his second book; 'Empire Antarctica'.

His talk last night, was divided into two half hour sessions, one for each book, with a 15 minute break between and a Q&A session at the end. The talk was engaging and interspersed with a few short readings from his own books and those of relevant others. He also passed around a few artefacts, such as his boots and gloves (big, bulky, heavy) and an Emperor penguin egg (pointy, bumpy, slightly larger than a duck egg). The library was full, with people even sitting upstairs in what would have originally been the choir (it's in an old church). Many of them were older and although there were a lot of locals present, there were tourists other than myself. I sat next to a Dutch lady who was in Lerwick with her husband on their yacht. They have sailed all over the world, including all the places Gavin spoke about. They funded their nomadic, floatational lifestyle by running a yacht business and the lady also wrote books and magazine articles on sailing and their travels.

Now I have even more ideas buzzing around inside my head. I love all the inspiration I get up here from all the amazing people I'm constantly meeting. I hope I continue to get ideas and inspiration from Orkney, though I'm sure I will. I leave on the ferry tonight.

Monday, 5 August 2013

Already thinking about next year ...

I might have only just started out on this year's summer holiday but I'm already getting ideas for next year.

I've been following Helen Lloyd's blog on her travels to Central Asia which have included getting the Trans-Siberian Express and going to Mongolia, and this has got me wondering if, in six weeks, I would have time to get the Trans-Siberian Express from Moscow to Beijing and the Trans-Mongolian Express for the return journey, whilst still having time to actually see things. If it's possible I would get to tick two challenges off my list in one go.

Yesterday morning I was chatting to an Austrian women at the campsite in Yell. She has travelled all over Europe in her van and this includes Norway. She told me I shouldn't be worried about Norway being expensive as the UK is the most expensive place she has travelled in. She said fuel is more like regular European prices than UK prices (we seem to pay in pounds what others pay in euros) and it's easy to wild camp and many towns have council provided showers. Taking my van I'd be able to take a lot of my own food and so wouldn't have to worry too much about food prices. So now I'm also thinking about Norway for next summer. Of course if I go to Norway I have to go to Hell and so that would also be a challenge ticked off my list.