ISLE BE SEEIN’ YA!
Craving a long-distance trek, JT’s Boxster heads for the far north of Scotland – and beyond…
When continental travel is off the agenda, the next best thing is a road trip in bonny Blighty. So, when our pal Charlotte announced she was booking a farm cottage for a couple of weeks on the Orkney Isles - and would we like to join her - the response was an affirmative no-brainer!
Ahead of the venture, going local, I got an oil change for the Boxster off Matt at Autowerke, and had the Group4 Fuchs wheels and their Falken boots perfectly balanced at Norwich’s Kingsway Tyres; I drove away in what seemed like a different car.
With the best will in the world, north Norfolk to the Orkney Islands is a two – make that a three-day journey in itself, given the luxury of being on our hols. It’s roughly 650 miles in one direction, excluding excursions, and we broke it up into three legs: Cromer to Biggar in Scotland’s southern uplands, to overnight with another pal, Glenys. ‘We’ being Mrs T, Ferdi the miniature longhaired dachshund, and me, three-up in a fully laden Boxster. The advantage of a mini-dachs is that he is small enough to occupy a lap for long periods, and did very well on the journey.
The tedious bit is the two hours getting out of East Anglia and trudging up the A17 to join the A1 at Newark; and then you feel you’re on your way a bit. We paused for refreshments off the A66 at picturesque Appleby, Westmoreland, which should have been in the throes of its annual gypsy horse fair but was bereft of any such equine actions. Having stormed Beattock Summit at over the ton, we savoured South Lanarkshire’s lovely rolling countryside around Biggar. There’s a great butcher in Biggar, so we loaded up with local produce for our next stopover at Fort William with our son Alfie, who’s normally an outdoor activity instructor but currently employed as groundsman at a baronial pile near Lochailort on the Ardnamurchan peninsular; (‘Lochaber no more’).
But I’m getting ahead of myself. Before reaching the Highlands, there’s the traverse of Glasgow on the mostly elevated M77 and M8 – in the rain this time – spanning the Clyde on the Erskine Bridge, followed by the innumerable twists and turns up the west side of Loch Lomond after Tarbet. I spotted the entrance to a yacht club where, once upon a time, Antony Fraser and I’d been taken out to dinner by local classic Porsche dealer extraordinaire, Tom Fitzsimmons of Balmaha-based Border Reivers.
We get to Tyndrum, where I’m reminded of a mad dash we made, en famille, aboard an Alfa Romeo 155 V6 (there’s a clue as to how long ago it was) to spend Hogmanay at Portree on the Isle of Skye, when the prevailing blizzards froze the snow on the wipers, and it was so cold the heater refused to clear the windscreen. Now, it’s merely drizzling.
After Tyndrum, the landscape gets remote, the A82 hauling ever higher onto Rannoch Moor, which, by rights, ought to hold the award for the most dour and inhospitable terrain in the country. This wilderness morphs into the foreboding pass of Glen Coe, flanked by awesome soaring mountains, broken up by waterfalls plummeting from giddy heights. Our boy actually goes climbing here… After Ballachulish bridge it’s not so far to Fort William where Alfie is billeted. The Ben Nevis Inn at the foot of the eponymous mountain – where the trail starts from - provided a decent birthday dinner treat for him. Cullen skink, haggis, cranachan? Yum!
The following morning, I pointed the 986 northeast up the Great Glen towards Inverness. The stretch of A82 after Fort Augustus, running alongside Loch Ness, was literally deserted – not a single car encountered, certainly going our way and just a few coming south - enabling me to monster the blacktop and indulge in some vigorous driving through the swerves, serving to point up just what a fantastic car the 3.2 Boxster is, given its head.
Here’s where the story goes slightly awry. In genial discussions pre-trip with NorthLink Ferries, who I would recommend unreservedly, Mrs T had bought into an overnight crossing from Aberdeen to Orkney, complete with dog-friendly cabin and three-course dinner. During these negotiations, she’d been reminiscing about our 24-hour voyages to Santander in the good old days, and got carried away, because although the Aberdeen ferry does indeed go to Orkney, it takes a mere six hours to get there, while the 24-hour voyage gets you to Shetland. When this oversight came to light at Aberdeen’s port check-in, the ferry company kindly refunded the overnight cabin – though Ferdi was confined to a kennel – and we still enjoyed our dinner watching the dive-bomber gannets and gulls go fishing.
It was a pretty civilised ferry journey, and these days any lengthy sea crossing implies ‘foreign’ travel, and hence is a bonus on any road trip. We rolled off MV Hjaltland at Orkney’s capital, Kirkwall at 10.00pm, still almost in daylight, with a 20-minute 16-mile drive to our pal’s holiday cottage near Stromness. Our daughter Zoë was already ensconced, having travelled up on the overnight sleeper from London, together with Ferdi’s cousin Caspar. The two dogs couldn’t believe their luck, and were engaged in constant ragging thereafter.
For us hoomanz, the next few days were spent sightseeing, as Charl piloted us around the main island in her hire car. The scenery consists of long, low slopes, and a couple of massive hills - at 1,500ft they qualify as mountains - on Hoy as the distant backdrop, while a general dearth of trees is counterpointed by some surprisingly dense pockets of woodland in valleys sheltered from the omnipresent Atlantic breezes. On any single day on Orkney you can experience almost every type of weather: sun, rain, gales; this is April with attitude. In order of visitation, cultural highlights ticked off were Skara Brae, a settlement of slab-lined Neolithic homes literally embedded underground, Hobbit-like, on the cliff tops. The Ring of Brodgar – 27 standing stones (a henge allegedly composed of 60 stones originally) installed around 2,500BC, probably pre-dating Stonehenge and Carnac in Brittany and, at over 100m across, the third largest stone circle in the British Isles; and the similar vintage Stones of Stenness just along the road.
All in a basic tin shed.
On Lamb Holm island is The Italian “gothic” Chapel created out of a WW2 Nissen Hut by PoWs captured in North Africa in WW2, whose task was to construct the so-called Churchill Barriers, formidable causeways built from huge concrete blocks placed between islands to keep U-boats out of the vast Scapa Flow naval anchorage. Far from home, the Italians recreated a pastiche chapel referencing such a building in their own country, and their inmate artist Domenico Chiocchetti painted amazing trompe l’oeil three-dimensional architecture and angelic figures, emulating medieval church architecture and decoration back home in Italy.
Encompassing 125-sqare miles and around 100ft deep, Scapa Flow is an evocative seascape in its own right, elucidated by a visit to Stromness museum which revealed that the entire German Grand Fleet was scuttled in these waters in 1919, rather than fall into the hands of the British navy after the WW1 Armistice. It’s a large expanse of sea, but still, you have to consider that a mixture of battleships, battle cruisers, cruisers and destroyers, totalling 52 vessels out of 74 serious warships, were sunk in one day, and the majority are still lying at the bottom of the sound. Sure, and two or three British battleships are down there too, including the HMS Royal Oak and HMS Vanguard. Both these are war graves, with around 800 ratings lost on each one, but since the German battleships had no sailors left on board when they went down they are these days a haunt for divers.
Stromness’ Pier Arts Centre produced some surprises: it houses the Margaret Gardiner collection, comprising modernist works by 20th century artists including Barbara Hepworth and Ben Nicholson, among others, as well as having strong connections with the artistic community of St Ives, Cornwall. Stromness is much smaller than Kirkwall – and the more charming for that - though Kirkwall, with its fabulous red sandstone ‘mini-Durham’ 12th century Romanesque cathedral, has a busy and prosperous heart. Both places have a few good delis, restaurants and cafés, as well as smallish marinas and, of course, the island’s biggest ports. The proliferation of other tinier island communities means that smaller ferries ply from unexpected further-flung settlements, like Houton, Flotta and St Margaret’s Hope, to link relatively sparse populations around the archipelago. Any antipathy towards English tourists? None whatsoever: people were pleased to see us. But anyway, both me and Mrs T attended Scottish unis, and our boy lives and works in the Highlands, so we do have form in Alba. Besides, after the herring boom ended in the 1960s, tourism became an important part of the Orkney economy. There are lots of cattle and dairy, not so many sheep, and a few fishing boats. As a naturalist’s paradise the Orkneys are home to sea birds that don’t occur so much down south; gannets, guillemots and puffins, plus we saw plenty of oyster catchers, shags, lapwings and curlews. Dolphins playing in the swells ahead of the ferry too. Apart from what pass for ‘rush hours’ and gluts at the honeypots, the islands’ roads are not at all crowded. With lots of straights, decent surfaces and most corners sighted from far away, it could be a boy racer’s nirvana. Tempting as that was, I did behave. Not so much on the way home, though, especially heading south alongside Loch Ness again where, for whatever reason, there was a total absence of traffic. Oooh! That grip, that turn-in…
Time to scarper… For the return ferry, we’d booked from Stromness to Scrabster, and that passage took just an hour-and-a-half. We were stuck on MV Hamnavoe’s poop deck on account of Ferdi not being allowed in the saloon, but it was fine weather, not too choppy, and we got a good look at The Old Man of Hoy, a towering 450ft high sea stack standing proud of even taller cliffs.
The A9 heading south from Thurso across Caithness’s Flow Country was taken at a decent law-abiding pace on long straights across sparsely populated peatlands. From Latheron, the A9 tracks the North Sea coast and gets hillier and more interesting as a driving road. North Coast 500? Box already ticked. We paused harbourside at Dunbeath for refreshments, marvelling at the clifftop fairytale castle. Then, the A9 swoops right down by the seaside at Helmsdale and Dunrobin, crossing the Dornoch Firth and bookmarking the Glenmorangie distillery, followed shortly by the Cromarty Firth and then Inverness. A way more straightforward journey than slogging over to the Aberdeen ferry had been. Back on the A82, making for Fort William again and another rendezvous with Alfie, scoffing pizzas and quaffing real ales in the Black Isle Bar, a converted chapel popular with climbers and hikers. Regarding fuel consumption – I hate the word economy; it implies restraint - the fill-up near Aberdeen on the way north saw us all the way around Orkney and as far south as Fort Bill on the return run, where we refuelled again. Round about 30mpg, if you care.
It was an early start, and this time, Glen Coe and Rannoch Moor were bathed in sunshine – which is highly incongruous, given their inhospitable topography, and I have never seen these environs look less hostile. Breakfast at Tyndrum’s “Grab & Go” Real Food café, the only place open at 7.30am, with a cheery welcome and good food. It stayed fine as we circumnavigated Loch Lomond once more and, after a diversionary pause for lunch and a breather at Biggar, we hit the M74 southbound again. A few miles across the Solway, the signs north of Carlisle forecast jams at Penrith’s A66 turnoff, so we promptly hung a left and aimed the Boxster cross-country to Alston, highest market town in England, and venue for a few shoots for this esteemed organ in the past. This is not a quick route, though. After Alston, it meanders over the bleak Tynedale moors on the bendy but poorly-surfaced B6277, eventually joining the A66 south of Barnard Castle. We stopped for gas at Scotch Corner, then spent another four or five uneventful hours on the A1, A17 (cuppa at Holbeach farm-shop café) and A47, and we were back home early evening.