Tuesday, 13 November 2018

...and now for something completely different

After a relaxing week gently grilling under the Balearic sun, drinking and eating way too much, I was looking forward to the second week of our holiday back on the bike touring the Highlands of Scotland with the wife.  After the washout in Wales at the end of August, Audrey was also keen to get away on the bike once more before the end of the year.  Landing back at Edinburgh airport we swiftly drove home to get unpacked, wash the undies and pack the bike for a quick getaway the next morning.
The second Monday in September dawned warm and dry, what is up with the Scottish weather!  We decided to get to Inverness as quick as possible so we settled in for the run up the M90 and A9. Audrey was loving her new Scala Pactalk.   Chatting away and listening to music makes motorway and A road mile munching so much easier.  After about an hour and a half Audrey asked if we could stop for a quick leg stretch, so I puled into the next lay-by and we hopped off.  After about 10 minutes we got ready to move off, so I went to start the bike....... silence not even a click.  I turned the ignition off and then back on, the clocks went through the self check but the engine wouldn't turn over.  Off and on again, and this time nothing, not even a self check.  BOLLOCKS.
I checked the fuses, all fine.  I pulled a couple of panels off to have a look for anything obvious, but I couldn't see anything untoward.
BMW emergency assist it is then.  A quick phone call organised recovery to the nearest dealer, a second call to BWM had a taxi waiting for us at the dealers to take us the 60 miles home.  Five hours after leaving home we were once again standing in our driveway dressed in bike gear, but with no bike.
We threw the packed pannier liner bags in the car, got changed and then set off again on 4 wheels...  Eventually we pulled up at out lodge for the week just after 11pm, it had taken us over 12 hours to travel 165 miles!

Sick RT

I put the bike and it's problems to the back of my mind, after all there was little I could do about it, and resolved to make the most of the rest of our holiday.  I won't bore you with the details since we were in the car, but here a few snaps of where we got to....

So, back to the bike then.  Clarkes in Dundee had the bike for four weeks, their garage coildn't find anything wrong with it.  BMW UK could not come up with anything other than to check all the wiring.  Clarkes carried out all the requests that BMW UK asked of them plus some fault finding of their own.  After four weeks they came up with nothing, nill, nada, zip.  They have no idea what went wrong, or what is wrong with the bike.  So I got it delivered back to me with a new battery.  I am now in discussion with BMW UK on where we go from here.  At least it is starting now!

The RT is back on tour, but for how much longer...

Sunday, 9 September 2018

The Somme

Even though I had only been home from Normandy for two weeks, I was feeling unusually anxious about this trip.  This was my first solo trip outside the UK for many years and I just couldn't shake the thought of things going wrong on my own, when abroad.
My mood wasn't eased in the slightest when I almost low sided the bike losing the back end after picking up a screw in a month old rear tyre.  At least I know I can now plug a tyre successfully and get back on the road.


Although the plug was holding, I was picking up the wife in Wales on the way home and I didn't want to risk a plugged tyre on a fully loaded bike or on the faster French roads either.  The usual places in Scotland couldn't help me at short notice, couldn't fit me in, couldn't get a tyre, blah, blah.
So I emailed Lloyd Motorrad in Carlisle, "no problem, if you can get here before 8am on Friday morning we'll get it done before we open".  Absolute top team who went out of their way to help keep the trip on, even answering emails before 6 in the morning!
Therfore the trip started a day early, I booked digs in Preston thinking I would take in some of the Lakes and the Dales on the way.  I still had digs booked in Chipping Norton for the Saturday night and the tunnel on the Sunday.
After running down the M74, the guys in Lloyds wheeled the bike in, changed the tyre and within an hour I was having breakfast in McDs.

Top team at Lloyd Motorrad

After breakfast I headed for the Lakes, planning to run down past Ullswater over the Kirkstone pass then along the side of Windermere.  It rained all the way, every mile.  Pulling into Kendal it was clear my 3 year old GoreTex gloves were no longer Goretexing as they should.  After drip drying in a cafe over a coffee I headed for the Dales in the vain hope of better weather, I should have known better.  The rain was now mixing nicely with mist over the hills, miserable.

This was as good as the Lake District would get.

It didn't get much better in the Dales, Ribblehead viaduct in the mist and rain.

Arriving at Preston the staff at the hotel looked less than impressed as I checked in while simultaneously slowly flooding the reception .  Surely tomorrow will be better.
Saturday was better, the rain had dried up during the night and the morning sun was quickly drying things up.  I picked up the M6 and then the M5 heading for Gloucester once again confirming my opinion  that the motorway network in this country is a joke.  After a quick fuel stop I headed through the north Cotswolds for Stow-on-the Wold.  After the motorways and anxiety of the last few days the winding roads of the Cotswolds were a welcome relief.  As I rolled into Chipping Norton I was beginning to feel like my old touring self again, everything was going to be just fine.
The only cloud on the horizon on Sunday morning was the M25.  I wanted to be at the tunnel for 11am, so I planned to hit the M25 about 9am.  This is the answer to the M25, Sunday morning at 9am.  I was at the speed limit all the way from Beaconsfield to Ashford.  I made up so much time I had to kill 45 minutes at Ashford before making my way to the tunnel.
At the tunnel I rode right through check in and onto an earlier train, with none of the 2 hour waits that had been reported.

On the train for the second time in a month

The only other guy on a bike was a guy on a Harley heading for Amsterdam.  We chatted about the usual rider stuff for the 35 minute crossing before heading our separate ways.
Once in France I picked up the A26 and headed for Arras where I fuelled up and grabbed a quick bite to eat before heading for the digs.  Leaving Arras I just headed south as the digs were roughly in that direction and I really needed some decent riding!  After a couple of hours of getting happily lost I asked the sat nav to direct me to the digs.  I don't think there is a bad road to be found here.  An hour later I pulled in to Avril Williams guest house in Auchonvillers.  I was immediately greeted with a brew, shown around the grounds and then to my room.  This place will not be to everyone's taste, it's a bit shabby, but it's clean and comfy.  Most importantly it is in a perfect location for the WW1 Somme sites.  Avril does evening meals and the Sunday roast pork was superb.
After a breakfast of bacon and eggs I headed north to Vimy and the Canadian national memorial.  I headed north under a crystal blue sky, with the sun warm on my back.  This was more like it.  Riding down through the battlefield to the memorial is surreal.  As far as the eye can see there is not a square meter of the landscape that does not bare the pock marks of the shells expended during the battle.  In what seems like futile defiance, trenches still weave through the 100 year old carnage.

Vimy memorial

Detail of Vimy memorial

Vimy memorial

After leaving the memorial, it is a short ride back down to the museum and visitor centre.  Unfortunately when I arrived it was closed, so I contented myself with a walk around the preserved trenches and battlefield at the rear of the visitor centre.  Again the entire area is cratered with shell holes surrounding the trenches.  I couldn't begin to imagine the hell that was unleashed here.

The Canadian flag flies over the restored trenches at Vimy

Not an inch of the battlefield has been untouched by shell fire

Leaving Vimy I realised any ideas I though I had about WW1 were not even close to the reality of what happened here.  Heading south I fuelled the bike, and myself up at Bapaume then headed for the Thiepval memorial.  When you walk around the memorial and see over 72000 names of soldiers who are still missing it hammers home the brutalising reality of war on the western front.  I'll get back to Thiepval memorial later.
I was on the hunt for a name on the memorial for a friend.  Richard is part of a group researching the names of the fallen on the cenotaph from our home town, Bo'ness.
You can find their Facebook group here
Or the website of the project here
I spent an hour looking for 'Private H Hannah' but could not find the name where the memorial register said it should be.  I checked the register of the missing at the visitor centre, again no luck.  There is obviously an error somewhere.  After a few texts back and forward I reluctantly gave up, Richard would look into it some more and get back to me that evening.
I decided to have a look around the museum attached to the visitor centre, it is well worth the 6 Euro entry fee.

Thiepval battle mural and artefacts in the museum

State of the art WW1 air warfare at Thiepval museum

By now it was getting seriously hot in the bike gear, touching 34 degrees as I left Thiepval.  I tracked down a supermarket in Albert and bought a 12 pack of water, I had a feeling I might need all of it!
Just north of Albert I decided to drop past Lochnagar crater as it was on the way back to the digs.  There is just a simple memorial cross at the site where over 27 tonnes of explosives created a crater 100 metres wide and 21 metres deep on the first day of the battle.

The memorial cross at Lochnagar crater

Panorama of Lochnagar crater

When I got back to the digs, there were over 100 US army officers and men already there.  The US and others were attending a ceremony in Amiens and they were using the conference facility the Avril Williams runs for talks etc.  I was invited for dinner and had a few beers with some very interesting army types.  It's not often you get to dine with 2 Major Generals!
I also had a look around the museum that Avril runs, it is a cracking wee collection of military goodies.  Well worth the 5 Euro entry fee.
Tuesday started with a message from Richard about Private Hannah.  There had been a mix up with his regiment, so now at least I could track down the correct pier and face on the memorial and start the hunt again.  After my bacon and eggs I decided to change my plan for the day and head for Thiepval first, rather than Beaumont-Hamel.  It turned out to be a great decision, I got the place to myself for almost an hour.  Within 10 minutes I had tracked down Private Hannah, on pier 6 face 'D' and let Richard know, it felt good to have 'found' him.  They are going to forward the information to the War Graves Commission and get the records corrected.
Private Hugh Hannah, 1006, 2/10th Royal Scots , may you rest in piece, wherever you may be.
Walking around the memorial on a summers morning, with only the birdsong breaking the silence is a truly humbling experience.  I think at one point the wind must have blown something in my eye...

Thiepval memorial

Private H Hannah, amongst the other 72000 names of the missing at Thiepval

Joint cemetery at Thiepval in the peace of a summers morning

Leaving Thiepval behind, I headed the handful of miles to the Newfoundland memorial near Beaumont-Hamel.  Like Vimy this preserved battlefield  brings home the violence of the western front as the trench-lines meander through the cratered battlefield.  As you walk around the memorial park you come across several scattered graveyards marking the worst of the battle.  All of this is watched over by the statue of a Newfoundland Caribou calling out to the lost.

The Newfoundland Caribou calling out over the battlefield

The battlefield at the Newfoundland memorial

Memorial to the highlanders in the Newfoundland memorial park

One of the graveyards in the Newfoundland memorial park

After walking around the memorial park and the visitor centre it was well into the afternoon, jumping back on the bike the temperature was well past 36 degrees.  I headed to the Ulster tower where I know there was a cafe and something cold to drink.  For half an hour I wandered around in the shade drinking cool bottles of water.

The Ulster tower.

Suitably refreshed I had tracked down the German cemetery in Fricourt that I wanted to visit.  The road from the Ulster Tower was amazing.  Very fast and flowing, it was the first time that I actually appreciated just how good the roads are around here.  It was great right up to the point where a Gendarmerie stepped out to halt my progress.  As I slowed down I suddenly remembered that the general speed limit had been reduced from 90 to 80, shit.  In my pigeon French and their broken English we got the message to each other and I was sent on my way with a wave.   Thankfully I was only doing 91 when they got a lock on me, 20 seconds earlier and the outcome may not have been as amicable!
I bimbled the rest of the way and into Fricourt...

The entrance to the German cemetery at Fricourt

War and Germany were blind to religion in WW1

The heat finally got the better of me and I decided to head back to the digs.  After peeling myself out of the bike gear I had a couple of pints and another great home cooked dinner.  That evening there was a massive thunderstorm, the sky almost as bright as day as lightening struck all around for over two hours.  At least it was a bit cooler now...

Bacon and eggs to start the day, again, this has to stop!  Delville Wood and the South African memorial is first on the list and then just ride around and see where I ended up.  As I said earlier the roads around the Somme are fabulous and it doesn't matter where you go there is always something to see along the way, just watch the 80kmph speed limit!
I ended up doing about 100 miles just criss crossing the Somme area stopping at cemeteries and memorials along the way.  Great roads, courteous drivers and motorcycle friendly villages made for some great riding.

The South African memorial at Delville wood

The South African memorial at Delville wood

South African wall of remembrance, one of the many on the Somme recording hundreds of thousands of dead and missing

After leaving Delville Wood I just rode around avoiding the main roads, mostly just getting lost.

It wasn't only humans that lost their lives during WW1

Tank Corps memorial

5570 Graves at Caterpillar Valley cemetery.  We are not really learning are we? 

Memorial to the 9th Scottish division

...and that was it, three days in the Somme that absolutely flew by.  It is an incredible place to visit.  I though I knew a bit about WW1.  I do know a bit, an incredibly small bit.  I still can't comprehend the sheer scale of the losses or the battles or the brutality of a war that has left 300,000 dead with no known grave.

I avoided the bacon and eggs on Thursday morning and headed at full speed for the tunnel, if I was going to suffer motorways after the great roads I had spent the past few days on,  I wanted it over quickly.  Once again I checked into the tunnel and got offered an earlier train, thanks again Eurotunnel!  As I was boarding the rain came on, well technically I was back on British soil.  The rain hammered down all the way round the M25 (2 hours) and then accompanied me all the way to Oswestry, where I met up with my wife and a few friends.  A hot shower, a good meal and a drink with friends has an amazing effect on a soaking, tetchy biker!
Friday was supposed to be a loop around north Wales with the wife, but the torrential rain was leaving half an inch of standing water in the car park so that put paid to that.  Pub again then.
Saturday was a grim 300 mile blast home up the M6 and M74.

Wales is still on the to-do list and I'll definitely visit the Somme again in the future.


Tuesday, 14 August 2018

Review - Ear Peace earplugs

I work in a noisy environment so have always worn hearing protection at work, having the effects of hearing loss drummed into me at every opportunity.  Riding the bike is just as loud as some of the places I work, so it made sense that I try to protect my hearing on the bike as well.  For long enough I used good quality foam plugs and was quite happy.  The downside was having to take the plugs out at border controls, talking to officials and the like.  I tried some tuned earplugs but the stems were quite stiff and pulled the plugs out when I pulled my helmet on, so I went back to foam.
Then I stumbled over an advert for Ear Peace plugs, made from soft silicone with 'filters' for different noise attenuation levels.  The big thing for me though was that the tab is soft silicone as well, so shouldn't get pulled around putting on a helmet.

I was heading for France so I ordered a set thinking that a 1700 mile test would be good enough.
The ear plugs arrived well packaged with a nicely machined alloy storage cylinder with two compartments, one large section for the plugs in use and a smaller section for the supplied spare third plug - a nice touch.
The earplugs arrived with red 'filters' fitted, the medium level of attenuation, so I decided to try them as delivered.  Also included are two other sets of filters, clear for the lowest level of attenuation and black for the highest level of attenuation.

Low and high level attenuation 'filters'

Again these are supplied in threes, so you can set the spare plug to match the ones in use.

The plugs go in to the ear easily to the correct depth by holding the tab and keeping it to the top, as per the instructions, and felt comfy in the ear from the start.  So onto the bike for the first 100 mile stint.
The red 'filters' seemed to reduce the wind noise to about the same level as the foam plugs I use.  They also changed the nature of the wind noise, taking out a lot of the higher frequency noise leaving a calmer bass-ier type of noise.  They also reduced the exhaust noise quite a bit, but the engine is slightly louder.  Personally I like it this way round.
Turning on the music from my Scala, I immediately had to turn the volume down.  Hopefully a good sign that voices would be easier to hear, this was backed up as sat nav direction started to come through the Scala as well.
After 100 miles I still could not feel the Ear Peace plugs in my ears as I pulled into a petrol station.  After fuelling the bike I wandered in to pay and I could hear the sales person just fine, brilliant!

I continued to use the Ear Peace plugs for the next 1600 miles around France and they continued to work flawlessly.  Easy to put in and pull out thanks to the well designed and soft tab.  All day comfy and they didn't irritate my ears at all.  I think this is due to the 'filters' allowing air to by-pass the plug and let your ears breathe.

5 Stars from me and well worth £16 for the comfort alone.

I purchased mine direct from the manufacturer at Ear Peace

Friday, 27 July 2018

'Chewie, we're home' - Orkney Redux

It is 30 years this year since I first ventured to Orkney as a newly qualified diver, 30 years!  I fell in love with the place and over those 30 years I have spent almost 2 years on the islands.  Hundreds of dives on the wrecks in Scapa Flow and beyond, 100 on the SMS Markgraf alone meant I spent most of the time either underwater or overnighting on boats, missing out on the sights the islands had to offer.  Even though I don't dive any more I had a quick trip a few years back and I decided it should be a regular thing...

The A9 north of Inverness is actually quite a good road

After the sweeping curves and climbs of the A9 with the sun glinting on the sea combined with the calmest crossing on the ferry from Scrabster to Stromness I can ever remember, the inky black sea was truly millpond flat, this was shaping up to be a very good trip.  In no time Stromness was coming into view and I was once again feeling like a kid at Christmas, this place has always has this effect on me...

A flat calm Hoy Sound and Atlantic beyond


As it was Stromness shopping week, I decided to stay in Kirkwall this trip.  I had booked  pitch at the Pickaquoy campsite and I had loads of time to meander around the mainland.  Rolling off the ferry the weather was still great so I decided to take the road along the side of Scapa Flow.  I had seen Waulkmill bay a few times from the boat while diving in Scapa Flow and it was one of the places I wanted to visit.  I pulled off the fast A964 main road and drove down the track to the parking for the bay.  As the tide was high the sea was turquoise over the white sand of the bay, under a blue sky with a few fluffy clouds.  Even the tankers at anchor in the Flow looked scenic in these surroundings...

Waulkmill Bay

After wandering around for a wee while I jumped back on the bike and headed in the direction of Kirkwall on the A964.  The road carves back and forth to and from Scapa Flow, the surface smooth and the forward visability good.  As you approach Kirkwall the views over Scapa Flow open up, and if you know where it is over the resting place of HMS Royal Oak and many of her crew of men and boys.
A quick detour down a wee back road brings you the Scapa itself, along with it's white sand beach and views over the flow and out to the Pentland Firth.

The beach at Scapa

RT At Scapa beach

After a few snaps at Scapa I rode down to the campsite in Kirkwall, checked in and put up the tent.
The facilities at Pickaquoy Camping are very good.  The toilets are like your toilet at home, each one of the 12 having a toilet, sink and shower.  There are also another 4 that are toilets only.  The campers lounge is warm and carpeted and the area for washing dishes has 6 individual washing stations.  All of the facilities were spotlessly clean while I was there.  Only downside is there are no views as it is in the city and very close to the Pickaquoy centre.

City camping

It rained all night, luckily I remembered to bring my boots in before I settled down.  I woke to a misty, damp morning but still very warm and sticky.  Throwing down a mug of coffee and a couple of breakfast biscuits I headed off for Yesnaby, my first goal for the day.  Taking the Finstown route this time on the A965 which is again another cracking, fast road that has a great surface and few surprises to catch you out.  Leaving the A965 I picked up the B9055 and rode past the Standing Stones of Stenness and the Ring of Brodgar.  Both of these sites were heaving, there was a cruise ship in at Kirkwall, so I just kept on heading for Yesnaby.  A bit more care is needed once you get off the main roads as there is a lot of mud from farm vehicles and shit from farm animals.  Just ease back and enjoy the view.  Unfortunately the further west I went the worse the view got, the mist was rolling in from the cold Atlantic.  Thankfully at Yesnaby a slight breeze was keeping the mist offshore...

RT at Yesnaby

Yesnaby looking south

Yesnaby looking north

Yesnaby is a special place, I wandered around the rugged cliff tops enjoying the cooling sea air gently sweeping over the wild landscape.
Nicely cooled down I was back on the bike and heading north for the bay of Skail.  Again the roads were less than perfect, so I just meandered along the back roads at a leisurely pace.  At the bay the mist was thankfully once again being held offshore by the biker cooling sea breeze.

The mist being held back from the Bay of Skail, just

Rock stacking at the Bay of Skail

A few mile further up the road I was going to walk up to the Kitchener Memorial at Marwick head, but when I arrived at the bay you couldn't see the top of the headland for mist.  I didn't bother!

Sorry, I'm not walking up there to stand in the mist!

As Marwick head was a wash out, I kept heading north to the north west corner of the mainland at the Brough of Birsay.  The rain was starting to blow through the wind as I passed the ruins of the Earl's Palace.  Pulling into the carpark, people were starting to take shelter in their cars.

A few hardy sightseers in the rain at the Brough of Birsay
My stomach was telling me it was time for lunch, so I pointed RT towards Kirkwall once again.  About a mile from Birsay the road suddenly improves and you find yourself on the fast A966.  Making a bit of progress along here brings you through Evie, Woodwick and soon after, Finstown.  Turning left 10 minutes later you are back in Kirkwall.
In the town I picked up an excellent crispy chicken and bacon baguette from a shore front van and planned my next move.
I decided to head for Inganess bay, 5 minutes outside Kirkwall, with it's wide sand beach and wreck of the Juniata.

The beach at Inganess bay

The wreck of the Janiata ashore in Inganess bay

The roads were now drying up so I headed for Burwick and the end of the road at the bottom of South Ronaldsay.  The A961 runs from Kirkwall all the way down to the bottom of South Ronaldsay and is a mix of long straits and fast twisty sections around the Churchill barriers.  A great few miles of road, but take care around the farm entrances.

The cliffs at Burwick

That is Scotland over there

RT at the end of the road

Sweeping back up the A961 the sun finally started to break through occasionally and folk were starting to make the most of the late evening sunshine.  I settled for a shower, campsite curry and a couple of beers.

After the usual coffee and breakfast biscuits I was once again on the road heading for the Gloup.  After passing  the airport the roads were not great, more farm muck and animal crap all over the place plus a lot of narrow single track.  The Gloup is a narrow sea cave and channel carved into the cliff face.  This would be a spectacular place in rough weather.

The Gloup

The seaward side of the Gloup

While I was over this side of the Island I headed for a couple of beaches I wanted to have a look at, first was Sandside bay.  I wish I had checked this out sooner, it is now an approved 'wild' campsite and what a view to wake up to...

Sandside Bay

...and this is where you could have been camping...

...yes, here...

Cursing my choice of campsite, I headed a mile down the muck strewn road to Newark Bay.

Newark Bay

Taking the backroads from Newark bay I headed back over to the barriers and down onto Lamb Holm to visit the Italian chapel.  It is one of the places I always try and visit when I am out and about on the island.  I don't know why, I am not religious, but I think this wee place is a real gem.  It costs £3 to get in now and access is controlled.  It used to be free and open all the time, but unbelievably it was vandalised and some items stolen a few years back.

Lunch, once again was calling so I headed back down to South Ronaldsay and headed for the Skerries Bistro.  A wee bit expensive, but the food is excellent.  As a bonus I got to rampage back up the A961 in search of some beaches.  A wee detour along another mucky track masquerading as a road brought me to Dingyshowe bay, probably the best beach in Orkney.

Knocking the mud off the tyres on the A961 once again I stopped at the north end of No. 1 barrier to have a stroll around the beach that has formed around the barrier.

I decided to have a tear down the side of Scapa Flow again before heading back to the campsite and getting tidied up for an early start in the morning.  I managed to stop in the field overlooking Houton Bay and Scapa Flow, where the main wrecks were scuttled and where I have spent so many hundreds of hours under water.

Houton bay and Scapa Flow, excuse the horizon it was a hand held pano!

It poured with rain all night and by the time I got the gear and the tent packed almost everything was soaking wet.  The crossing once again quite smooth and the rain eased up by the time I got back to Inverness.  By then I just wanted to get home so I just charged down the most boring road in Scotland, the A9...

Another great trip, even though the rain tried it's best to get in the way.  I made a mistake with the campsite, even though the Pickaquoy campsite is very good and clean, it is pretty bland.  The only reason I didn't use the point of Ness site in Stromness  was because shopping week was in full swing and it can get pretty hectic.  I will wild camp at Sandside in the future if I can't get a pitch at Point of Ness.

I'll see you again in a couple of years my old friend!

Packed, but lashing down as I get ready to leave Kirkwall