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

Sunday, 1 July 2018

Normandy and the longest day

Normandy via Belfast?
From the beginning this trip was growing arms and legs.  It started off as a weekend and a couple of nights doing a loop around Northern Ireland.  Then, well we are in Ireland anyway so why not head south?  The ring or Kerry was the latest destination.  Someone then suggested that as we were planning over 1000 miles why not head for France?  So it became a Friday to Monday with a couple of nights in northern France.  Instead of just milling around, why not ‘do’ the D-Day beaches?  This is how we found ourselves, on the longest day of the year,  heading south from Stirling at 7:30pm for a planned 4 day, 1700 mile raid on Normandy.  So much for a few days camping on the North Antrim coast!  Right away we realised that this was going to be motorway and A road dashes between the sights we wanted to see, digs and the tunnel.
Andy grabbed a snap before we hit the road, bikes pictured left to right - Colin on his speed triple, me on the RT, Stewart on another speed triple, Scot on his Multistrada and finally Andy's Tiger 800 in the foreground.   

Late start for day 1, 7:30pm, Photo by Andy Forsyth

We decided to leave on Thursday night to get a few hundred mile start on the run down to the tunnel, so we hit the motorway and headed for Preston and our first overnight stop.  We stopped halfway for fuel and a drink at Todhills, just outside Gretna Green.  At about 11 we checked into the Tickled Trout at Preston, had a pint and turned for the night.
On the road again at half 7 the Friday morning the sun was already starting to burn away the overnight mist and it looked like it was going to be another cracking day.  The M6 north of Birmingham was murder, but it faded away as we picked up the toll road, well worth every penny of the 3 quid toll.  Grumbling stomachs soon guided us to the services at Norton Canes for a McD's breakfast.
Once off the toll road the traffic was heavy all the way to the tunnel.  Mile after mile of average speed roadworks and the M6 & M40 slowed things right down and the least said about the M25 the better.
At least at the tunnel we got on an earlier train and rode more or less straight on.  France at last!

On the train to France!
More France train

Within a kilometre of getting of the train it had all gone wrong!  Three off us got on the correct road, Colin ended up heading back for England and Andy got stuck on the roundabout.  After 4 circuits he got his bearings and joined us as we waited for Colin to join us.  Together again, we picked up the A26 and headed for that evenings digs.  130kph toll motorways were bliss after the horrors of the British trunk road system.  Following Andy's TomTom sat nav it was all going well until we got off the A road and into the countryside and a closed road in the middle of a village.  Turning around we ended up stopping on the island of a roundabout, I'm sure the Gendarmerie would have been delighted.  My Garmin immediately came up with an alternative so I was sent out in front to lead.
We finally pulled into Les Ballastieres at about 7:00pm.
Les Ballastieres was a real find, the owners Sue and Paul are incredibly friendly and even greeted us with a beer on arrival!  The accommodation, for 21 Euros, was something else.  Shared indoor camping pods, indoor bike parking and a games room!  Oh, and a fridge full of dumpy beers for a Euro apiece on trust!  Well worth looking it up if you are looking for digs in the area...

The bikes in the courtyard at Les Ballastieres
Indoor bike parking

Indoor sleeping pods

The games room

After sleeping like a log we were back on the road, albeit an hour late!  The plan was to head for Utah beach and the memorials around the area.  Getting there, however took way longer than we thought.  Fuel stops all took longer than we thought they would and the tolls were also a drain on out time.  Not just getting through the tolls, but Scot breaking them!  For the first few tolls we stuck together,  the first three got their ticket fine and then Scot pulled up, with me behind him.  No ticket, pressed help, no help, pressed help again, got help that never turned up...they just closed the lane!  Pushing a RT and a Multistrada out of a slightly uphill  French toll against the flow was a nightmare.  It wouldn't be Scot's last moment at the tolls.
A couple of stops later we finally pulled up at Utah beach, one of the two places I really wanted to visit on this trip.
Walking down to the wide, quiet and deserted beach was a strange experience given the violence unleashed on that June day in 1944.  It was sobering moment standing alone on these sands for a few moments.
Coming away from the beach we spent a while wandering around the memorials and displays.

Utah Beach memorial site

Utah Beach

Landing craft and memorial at Utah Beach

Naval memorial at Utah Beach

Memorial at Utah Beach

It took us a while to get round it all.  As time was moving on and that nights campsite was still 30 odd miles away we decided to head for the campsite and see what time we had left.  The ride to Omaha beach camping was uneventful, but on arrival Stewart provided ample amusement.
He had cadged toothpaste of me the night before, but at the campsite he found out he had no pegs for his tent, which needed pegs to stay up and no sleeping bag!  This was taking travelling light to a new level!  With all the tents up, apart from Stewart's, we retired to the site pub for a few beers and food.  During dinner Stewart negotiated the use of a few pegs from Colin.
After toasting up some marshmallows, thanks Andy, over a stove we turned in for the evening.  Stewart spent the night in his bike gear sleeping on the ground of his tent!

My digs at Omaha beach camping

Beers at Omaha beach camping

Scot and Colin toasting marshmallows at Omaha beach camping

On Sunday we decided to get on the road a bit earlier as we had planned to ride some of the coastal road past Gold, Juno and Sword beaches.  The downside to this was a lot of the Museums were closed as we passed.  The American museum at Omaha didn't open for a good few hours and the Overlord museum was also locked up tight when we arrived.  On the upside the roads were great and the villages and towns we passed through were very picturesque.  A couple of navigation induced detours added to the pleasure of riding in rural France.
The roads were fantastic and the drivers amazingly courteous to motorcyclists, many of them stopping to let our whole group through junctions.  Or maybe they were just horrified and didn't want to be anywhere near us!
We stopped of a Arromanches to view to harbour and the memorials.


Memorials over the fields at Arromanches

Leaving Arromanches we continued along the great roads past Gold, Juno and then Sword beaches.  After passing Sword we headed south for Pegasus bridge, the other place I wanted to visit on this trip.  I managed to ride over it in both directions!

Pegasus Bridge

My baw heid and Pegasus bridge

The original Pegasus Bridge in the museum

As that was the last of the planned sites, the decision was made to hit the motorway and get back to Les Ballastieres, or digs once again for Sunday evening.  It was all going so well, until Scot struck again, lucky for me I had picked another lane!  This one was a card only toll and a van ahead of Scot broke it!  More pushing a bike backwards against the traffic on a French motorway...

Regrouping after Scot's latest toll escapade and getting the cameras ready for the Pont de Normandie bridge

The one good thing about this motorway route is the Pont du Normandie bridge, a massive arching bridge over the river Seine.  Stunning and motorbikes are free!
Once again a beer greeted us at Les Ballastieres.  After getting cleaned up we walked 10 minutes into St. Pol-sur-Ternoise for a handful of beers and a meal.
Before turning in, I packed most of my gear as we were aiming to be on the road for 7:30am to get to the tunnel in good time.  Getting into the Calais terminal was a whole lot less traumatic than getting out and in no time we were once again getting ready to board for England.

Ready to board for England

How the hell can British roads be so bad?  After all those miles in France, almost always at 130kmph, within half and hour in the UK we are crawling along.  We were planning on lunch at the Ace cafe, but after 2 and a half hours in 30+ degrees on the M25 we sacked that.  The M40 and M6 were little better...

Yours truly, absolutely shagged on the M40

All in all it took me, and everybody else, 17 hours to travel 580 miles from France to Stirling.

Even though it was a high speed, high mileage long weekend, everyone had a great time.  We were all using Scala Pactalks, which made the miles a whole lot easier and the good natured abuse was relentless... on and off the bike.  I will definitely be back, this time checking the museum opening hours and giving myself more time to explore.

There is already talk of a long weekend to the Alps.... we'll never learn!

The route - 1680 miles