December 2018 – a rail journey from Edinburgh to Tweedbank and a short but stunning walk to Melrose in Roxburghshire, where you will find the ruins of a magnificent Medieval Abbey.
I took the train to Tweedbank in the Borders – it’s the end of the line. It takes 1 hr and the service runs every half hour. It costs £9.30 with an Over 50s Railcard ( I booked the ticket and renewed the rail card last night online through Scotrail for £15 for the year and it took about 5 minutes). Then it’s a 40 minutes walk each way into the town of Melrose, although that doesn’t allow for what I call ‘astonishment time’ ie time for stopping at intervals because, Oh my, look at that, oh I must take a photo, I just can’t believe it, it’s so gorgeous!
If you like you can stop reading this now and open YouTube or Spotify and find Fording the Tweed By Savourna Stevenson, so that you have something magical to listen to as you continue reading and imagining you are taking this journey with me.
Choose a day where it won’t go above 2 degrees celsius so that it stays white and hard underfoot. Wear thermals under your normal clothes, plus a coat, woolly hat and cosy gloves.
You know what they say, it’s not the weather that’s the problem in Scotland it’s having the right clothes! Not being able to bend your elbows because you have a thick jumper on under your not-quite-big-enough jacket is a small price to pay for all this beauty.
You will travel on the Waverley Route, so called as it refers to Sir Walter Scott’s Waverley Novels. Start by facing in the direction you are coming from and sitting on the left. This way you will have wonderful views of Edinburgh – Arthur’s Seat. Ignore the rest unless you enjoy the industrial outskirts of cities.
When you hear the nice lady announce Gorebridge, change seats so that you are looking the way you are going and you can either plump for right or left (the views are equally attractive) or, like me you can leap from side to side because, well because the views are equally enticing.
People seem to have it in for Galashiels, so I will blog separately about that. Suffice to say that it is impossible for a whole town to be boring and I know some lovely people who live there and they like it a lot. It has an excellent brass band for a start.
You will not need a map nor must you look up the way in advance or use your phone. Believe me, if it’s possible to get lost I would have and it’s not. I promise. Sit back and relax. Feast your eyes on the hills, rivers, pretty houses, and majestic trees. Over on one side you will spy the traffic – be pleased that you are not driving, have a nice cup of tea and a comfy seat – you can just gawp.
Tweedbank station is new and modern with a massive car park. There is one line, two platforms and everything is properly signposted. There is a bus if you prefer.
Otherwise, walk along the only way you can and straight ahead you will see the cycle path.
Today I was enchanted by the way the hoar highlighted the seed heads, fence posts, and each individual blade of grass.
You won’t get lost – there are multiple signs: Melrose Link on the left; National Cycle Network on the right.
There will be aluminium buildings to your left. When the SPPA (Scottish Public Pensions Agency) is ahead, admire their gardens and peer at the poor folk inside working on such a wonderful day. Smile. Then walk to the right of them, following those signs.
You will see that you are joining the Southern Upland Way.
Very soon there is a road to cross and opposite, through a little wooden gate at waist height, is a path with steps going down and there is the Tweed River, burbling on your left.
On the right you may be lucky enough to see two Highland cattle, and if it is cold enough it will look as if they are vaping with condensed air coming sideways simultaneously from both nostrils in opposite directions.
I scraped the ice from the tourist board telling about the fantastically named Skirmish Hill where King James V’s men fought those of the Duke of Buccleuch and won. The 14 year old monarch is said to have watched from a safe place.
At the kissing gate go to the left of the houses and you will see signs. Almost immediately continue through the woods to left. The way goes uphill with a wooden handrail, green with lichen.
The ferns were all flattened by frost as I came into a clearing, going gently downhill. Here I spied more information, this time about fishing: grayling and salmon who make the courageous journey from sea upstream to fresh waters to spawn, often against all odds.
There is a choice coming up:
You can either go past the hedge which is too high to see over (I stood on one of the handy benches to get a shot), ignore the sign and keep on going for a while to see the Chain Bridge, but then turn back and take Town Centre sign. This will take you between the rugby club (left) and the green park (right)
Or keep walking past the church to the Chain Bridge and around behind the town centre coming in by the road directly to the Abbey.
I took the second option because it was signed Abbey Walk.
Everyone is very friendly as are their dogs. A collie politely laid her pink ball at my toes, her nose flat along the ground, eyes expectant. The second time she came back she showed me the tricks she could do with it, presumably as encouragement and to distract from my muddy fingers. The third time, the gap between me and her owner having widened considerably, I informed her this would be the last, before hurling it behind me.
Here you can halt to admire the horses on the left, or perhaps the motorbikes on the right. (You can pick up a copy of their free magazine too.)
You will continue onto a small road here. Turn left if you wish to visit Newstead.
Hang a right at the main road where the signs mysteriously disappear (sorry I guess what I wrote above was wrong at this juncture).
Walk past the Abbey Woollen Mill shop, or visit if you like. Carry on past the houses and careful because it’s a busy road, but not for long.
Don’t take the next right (St Marys Road) unless visiting the Harmony Garden. The nearby Georgian Manor House is available for holiday lets.
Instead go straight on see to see Melrose Abbey on the left, behind the wall. David I foundede the first Cistercian Abbey in 1136. The heart of Robert the Bruce is believed to be buried in the chapter house there. Opening hours and link to the Historic Scotland page are at the end of this blog. The bus stop is to the right of the monument.
The town centre is in the middle of a triangle with a unicorn on an extremely high pillar in its middle. Originally this would have been the Mercat Cross where all goods for sale, proclamations were made and criminals punished. The heraldic unicorn is the supporter for the Royal Arms. Here you will find a pharmacy, and library plus The Roman Centre. There are lots of hotels, cafés and nice independent shops. There are lots of bookshops, partly because the people who live there like to read, and there is also a Book Festival. Explore!
After your browsing and sightseeing, you can return the other way if you did what I did: to get back to the station, walk out of town along the A6091 road with the Co-operative store (food) on your right, and head towards the Melrose Rugby Club. Anyone will be able to point you in that direction as rugby is THE sport in the Borders.
If it’s still light, enjoy the grand trees, admire the mole hills, and tune into the water as you wander.
A gentleman and I passed the time of day as we recognised each other from the morning when we were both going in the opposite direction.
Remember that things look different when retracing one’s steps! You must cross two roads and keep both the SPPA and the aluminium buildings on on your right. Keep following the white Scottish thistles and yellow arrow. The final cycle path part is fully lit when it’s darkling (3.30pm at this time of year).
Birds twitched: robin, chaffinch, blackbird, pidgeon, crow, mallard and a heron unusually crouched by the riverbank. Luckily there are still plenty of berries available.
There is a little shop at the station selling hot drinks, snacks and G’n’T. I was reliably informed that passengers usually buy it on the way up in the morning!
Don’t believe all the moaning complaints you might find on the inter-you-know-what. The trains are great. Well, we were only delayed 10 minutes homeward bound. I know I am not a commuter but.. take a leaf out of our school girl days (I took a daily return to school for 7 years) and if the train is cancelled don’t go to work, go for a walk instead. Look around you and inhale.
I went there to see friends and give Shiatsu. I might go back so if you live there and would like a session let me know. Many thanks to the lovely Chris (designer of my lovely website) and Penny for lunch and chat.
Melrose Abbey is open all year round. April to September 9.30 – 17.30; October to March 10 – 16.00.
A hike from Samobor through Cerje to Okic and part of the way back. November 2018, Croatia. Approx. 20kms.
Samobor is on the eastern slopes of Samoborsko gorje. Situated 20 kms from Zagreb, the journey takes about half an hour and cost 31 kun there (from the ticket office) and 28 kun return (from the driver) .
I took the tram to the bus station and then the Samborcek bus to Samobor, a regular service. Platform 610 is in the furthest corner of Zagreb bus station and it is just a matter of going and waiting there. Don’t expect to find anyone official to ask or see any signs – simply look on the ground for the number and trust!
There is not much of note along the way to this popular summer and weekend destination for those who live in the capital city and tourists.
It is a 10 minute walk from the bus station in Samobor to the centre – follow the signs to Centar.
I visited the market first, walking round initially to see what was on offer, and then choosing certain women for their fresh looking produce.
Long tables were punctuated with stallholders wrapped in shawls sitting in front of a handful of spinach, a pile of rosy apples or bunches of parsley. Without a doubt everything was local, seasonal, and had just been picked that morning.
It was very difficult to make myself understood, even with gestures and smiles. I wanted to buy from every one as they all seemed so keen, perhaps had come a long way with a paucity of goods, presumably relied upon sales for their livelihood.
I checked out a bakery kiosk looking for the speciality Fasnik, I had read about. It looked like a custard tart. What I found was yoghurt based and I was unsure if it was the right thing so I waited.
After a brief visit to the King Tomislav square with it’s cafés, and having failed to find the Tourist Information, I made my way towards a spire on the skyline (I had read a little before I came and had a list of places in my notebook).
From there I followed my nose, as they say, climbing through the woods. It was the lure of the red and white circles I think, reminding me of previous treks.
As I stepped up from one Station of the Cross to another I relished the fresh smell and feel of the soft earth beneath my feet.
The second Chapel (St George’s) was plainer and round the back was a young dog who barked at me. The man with him had made a beautiful yet simple sculpture of stones and sticks which complemented the architecture and natural surroundings.
There is probably a magnificent view from up there but my tummy turned over at the thought of it and as there was zero visibility I didn’t feel too bad.
In fact the sun was beginning to stream between the trees as I got higher and it was warm on my cheek. It was breathtaking. I couldn’t help myself going on and on.
Suddenly I was on a road and soon a sign indicating the village of Cerje. I was still going steeply uphill but the red and white waymarkers continued to draw me.
People were working on the land and apples littered the path which I juicily enjoyed. I skipped from side to side where there was a pavement, to be safe on the tight bends.
Note to self: learn legilimency (as J K called it) to develop the ability to push out the unhelpful memories and worries, once acknowledged!
I spent time at a bus stop because I knew I was on a one-way walk and that the daylight of course ends at 5pm here in November. I photographed the timetable and carried on, confident I would get back to Samobor that way (a bus had passed me earlier).
The homesteads were strung out and I began to wonder if I might actually turn back if the trail was going to continue on asphalt.
A sign to a café with a stunning view didn’t yield the desired result: open from 5pm, presumably because it is dark by then and there needs to be somewhere to meet up during the long evenings.
I had to retrace my steps sometimes because the way is generally so well marked that as soon as 10 minutes passed without a sign I knew I was wrong.
There were lots of trees down blocking the way, but walkers or cyclists had been there before me if I looked carefully.
It was downhill at times at this stage and tantalising signs to Okic, which when I looked on Googlemaps said it was a tourist attraction.
As I neared, worrying a bit about the time, I wondered if it would be worth it.
I didn´t let myself stay long (although long enough to admire the woman with the chain saw) and her produce. I rather rushed up the hill, despite my tiredness, and almost immediately lost my path. What made me plough on regardless I do not know, but I ended up in one of my fixes – very steep, knee deep in nettles, several dead ends and my head started to popund. In the end I went over a fence into someone´s garden and out through their front gate, only to hear a loud noise behind me – a bus. I was not at all sure where I was but I flagged down the bus and begged and, yes, he was on his way to Samobor.
Slowly I calmed down, somewhat embarrassed , and my head stopped throbbing. I was all but out of water. Up and down and round he drove at top speed, letting people off, driving round the village square and going back the way he had come through pretty places with shops, bars and attractive churches.
Until we arrived back where I had started at the bus station in Samobor. I could not quite face a traipse back into the town, so instead I drank my green tea in the station cafe (full of smokers, so I sat outside) where the waitress the age of my daughters spoke customarily wonderful English and refilled my bottle adding ice. I marvelled at the table tennis room, the pop-up cinema and creche, all making up the modern station complex (free, clean loos as well!)
There more to see if you visit: a museum, a cave and a castle for example.
Booksa is a book club. Warm and friendly, you must pay an annual fee of 10 kun (£1.20, 1. 35 euros) to join. There is a small library including books in English, newspapers, comfy chairs, wifi and a cafe.
A book is to a man what a binocular is to an astronomer or a microscope to a medical student – an instrument improving observation ability. Matko Peić
They also have book readings etc, mostly in Croatian. The staff speak great English. Like all cafés in Zagreb, there is no food on sale, nor alcohol, but the jasmine tea (proper tea leaves) and hot chocolate are fab.
Without realising quite how wet it was, I set off to walk into the city centre as usual (approx 1 hour from Sopot where I am staying), but the rain was torrential. The bus was quick and straightforward although I still had to walk for 20 minutes or so and therefore arrived at the Museum of Broken Relationships in a completely soaked state. The money in my purse in my bum bag was wet and the stamps stuck together!
It is a most unusual and very popular place, particularly frequented by young people. The exhibits have all been donated by the public, made up from a collection of sad stories with connected items and memorabilia. Well curated, there is perhaps unsurprisingly a sombre atmosphere. The cafe is smart with WiFi and expensive. 40 kun to enter (cheaper for students or older folk).
I took a river walk – after 2 days of torrential rain, I was happy that it was fine again, though cool and misty. The mountains in the distance had however disappeared.
There are white paths stretching in both directions beside the Sava River. Between them and the banks there are expanses of grass which I guess are often deluged because there are mud covered plants there.
I walked to the Botanics and they are gloriously free to enter, bijou and bonny.
Here are some slideshows of plants, fungi, flowers, vegetables and the dome with the giant (up to 2 metres wide) water lilies from Souzth America inside it. Despite winter being right around the corner, there was plenty to see.
Botanic Gardens The Zagreb Botanical Garden is a botanical garden located in downtown Zagreb, Croatia. Founded in 1889 by Antun Heinz, Professor of the University of Zagreb, and opened to public in 1891, it is part of the Faculty of Science.
The Privredna Bank: It was dry and warm, and when I got to the counter the currency exchange was smooth and straightforward. I got a much, much better rate of kun to euros than I did in Italy. But. I have almost never had to wait so long for anything. Ever.
The Post Office: In contrast there was no queue at the post office and although the willing woman had almost no English I managed to make myself understood. Stamps to the UK cost 5.80 kun for a postcard.
Bars and cafes do not serve food. Many allow smokers inside rather than making them go out, even though most have nice awnings with cosy blankets now in November.
Getting around: buses and trams both seem to be very efficient. Buy tickets from tabac kiosks, 4 kun each, in advance and when you get on (you can use any door), go right to the front to find the little yellow box attached to one of the chrome uprights. Insert your ticket with the silver part towards you and wait for it to make a noise. Beware! most tabac kiosks are shut on Sundays so you might get stranded without a bus ticket. I asked and was directed by friendly waiters outside the theatre.
All Saints Day, 1 November 2018 – a walk to the centre, including King Tomislav and Nikola Subic Zrinski Squares.
I walked from Sopot to the centre for the first time, taking the straightest route past the Gradski City Park (details on Zagreb 1), over the fast flowing River Sava, and past the National and University Library (which was closed due to the National Holiday, and is where they are holding The First International Conference on Green Libraries very soon).
I discovered the bus routes end point and underground Garaza shopping centre (also mostly closed) out of which you emerge in the King Tomislav Square (trg kralja Tomislava) by the Glavini railway station (Kolodov). This brought me to a whole other side of Zagreb I had not yet seen – national monuments resembling Vienna but less overtly grand, more comfortable somehow.
Charenton-le-Pont to Richard-Lenoir métro 5. 5 kms (Charenton-Ecoles metro, Place du Cardinal Lavigerie, Avenue Jean Jaurés, Rue Claude Decaen, Place Félix Eboué, Rue de Reuilly, Rue Faidherbe, Rue Godefroy Caraignac, Square Saint Aboise, Boulevard Voltaire, 11th arrondissement, Richard-Lenoir métro).
Parc Zoologique de Paris.
I was deposited by my bla bla car from Reims in an area I had never previously visited. I decided to walk T the Maria Canal for my Seiki Shiatsu workshop with Catherine Dompas, but I dawdled so much, I had to ake the tube the rest of the way!
Where people live – I have seen this all over London and Paris recently: more people made homeless by the rich-poor divide.
Wherever you go in Paris there’s something lovely to see amidst the blocks of flats, supermarkets and cafés.
Beautiful sun throwing shadows.
Église de Saint-Esprit.
There is a garden in front of the Saint Aboise Church in memory of the Monks of Tibhirine (Algeria). They were horrifically murdered in their Abbey during the Algerian Civil War. A French film was made about it, Of Gods and Men, was awarded the Grand Prix at Cannes in 2010.
To get to Richard-Lenoir métro from Boulevard Voltaire you take a left and walk through a public gardens with vines and a playpark.
An impressive floral display for the end of October.
October 10 2018: Kent – parts of the Greensand Way and Medway Valley Walk.
Distance: 6 miles / 9. 66 kms
Duration: 2.5 – 3 hours
Weather: glorious throughout
Stiles crossed: numerous
Railways crossed: 2
Boats sailing past: 3 yachts, 2 dinghies with outboard motors chugging away and 3 canoes
Churches: St Mary the Virgin, Nettlestead
Grand country houses : 2 – Roydon Hall and Nettlestead Manor
I started walking across the Lees in Yalding around 9.30 am after a starry night and a misty morning.
The Lees, a low-lying meadow, flood regularly caused by two rivers joining the Medway here – the Teise and Beult. Indeed my father once crossed the submerged road thinking he would be fine and became stranded, having to leave his car and wade back.
On a day like today, the water looked beautiful, producing stunning reflections on its smooth surface.
After some confusion caused by my thinking that the locks beside Teapot Island were the ones mentioned in the leaflet (details below), I set off along the pavement towards Yalding Station from where I walked a few days before using my phone torch in the pitch dark. With the canal on my left and the incongruous new wooden houses appearing upside down under the bridge, it was only a short way to the Marina and Hampstead Lock.
Skirting past the new building, I took the left fork and crossed the first railway line. Then a series of fields and woods, easily found for the most part.
Camomile growing at ground level, and at the edge of a field were delicious windfall pears.
There was a path which is accessed beside a sweet cottage and that is hard to find but a kind woman noticed my confusion and pointed it out.
The low point of the walk came when the leaflet directed me to cross straight through the middle of a huge field. It looked pretty but there was no obvious path as before and I spied a large red farm vehicle in the far corner, so I decided to skirt instead, through the long, wet grass. To my utter dismay the farmer was spraying green chemicals and went as close by me as he could without actually running me over. There was no way to avoid it and the smell hung in my nostrils for the next hour. (I arrived home with a most unusual headache and had to go to sleep. On waking I searched the Internet, discovering what they were and how harmful they can be up close. I showered and am hoping for the best).
The noxious fumes abated temporarily as I made my way through the welcome cool woods, away from the acrid smell I thought, to the altogether sweeter scent of chestnuts. The fences made me wonder what they were protecting and brought to mind the small trucks I came across in the Austrian mountains where single men collected wood. There was no sun except in dapples and a grey squirrel leapt across the path. I could still hear the warning parp parp of the train as it came to level crossings in the distance and the drone of far-off traffic, but also the birds squawking and crawing and tweeting.
Sadly, despite the wonderful view, once out of the trees the very strong fumes were evident for miles.
The fences became much stronger and the gates quite serious, when I came across the deer on my left standing still, observing me. I startled a reclining stag and away he bounded, taking off and landing from all four feet at the same time which always makes me laugh.
Then the flock of curious youngsters gathered and crept closer until one of the stags stretched forward his neck and bellowed, causing them to pause. He moved into the centre, whereupon the second, smaller male departed. The others continued to stare, their ears pricked. It reminded me of the grounds of Knole House in Sevenoaks where I grew up and where I first saw deer roaming like this. Further on, three more lazed in the shade of a great oak until I disturbed them. They had fawn spots on their backs and white bottoms with black stripes down the middle!
The red brick Elizabethan Manor house, Roydon Hall was on my left now, with its stepped roof edges and old-fashioned chimneys. Apparently it has an escape route below the cellars, but it appeared to be boarded up although the the lawn was newly mown.
I expect they call this prison-like fencing, ‘managed land’.
There was a square tower with a turret and lake to my left (though later I thought perhaps it was plastic-covered crops) and satellite dish to my right.
This was the only slight incline and at the top was what I assume was a folly. Its yellow stone and Grecian columns were set amidst lush foliage in the midday sun.
As I strode down the lane, two women and four walking poles approached me to ask directions.
There were beech nuts and conkers on the asphalt.
Several miles along the road took me to the St Mary the Virgin church at Nettlestead with its simple 13th century tower and possible Saxon foundations.
Set in an equally charming churchyard, the building was started by the magnificently named de Pympe family. It has six notably large windows commissioned by Reginald de P.
At the top of each window stand angels with curiously feathered legs. (taken from the history leaflet)
In addition, I was shocked to read that
The original glass of this window with the rest of the 15th century glass in the church suffered damage by impious hands at a time unknown. (Taken from the plaque)
And furthermore, that the visit of the Archbishop of Canterbury in July 24th 1895
… was well nigh “a visit of surprise” so short was our prior notice… And here let me say at once how troubled I am to think that in the hurry of the moment some members of the Parish Church Committee were overlooked. (From an account in the church).
Not far away was an entrance to the Medway river path where I stood back as a cyclist whizzed past.
It was a gentle stroll back to the Hampstead Marina alongside various water crafts including one propelled by a man with a long white ponytail and no shirt, sitting behind an infant in a baby seat and a woman who talked incessantly.
Tall trees shushed a plane and helicopter and the smells were all fruity or woody, wet or damp.
On arrival there were three men with two boats watching as a fourth opened the lock. I joined them as the water slowly filled the space between the gates, fascinated as they floated through and boarded for “a couple of miles down and back, and then a pint!”
I retraced my steps to The Boathouse for a half of Shepherd Neame’s Autumn Ale. I was admiring the hops when a couple stopped to tell me what they were and that they had been hop pickers years ago. Hundreds used to come from London to join the workforce at the picking season.
The sign said,
Cheers! Yalding has always had a strong connection to alcohol! At one time it was producing more hops than any other parish in England. It is also famed for its cherry orchards and the (sic) remains of the Medieval Vineyards have been found in the area. The various crops have been used to produce wine, beer and cherry brandy..
You can download the pdf of the walk leaflet here. It is pretty good and contains useful and accurate photos of fields with superimposed arrows showing where to go. The second paragraph of number 2 is a repeat so ignore this.
Via de la Plata Camino – Day 22 (Tábara to Santa Marta de Tera). Wednesday 11 April 2018. 22 kms.
‘And what’s best is that you are always received without fuss, welcomed, as if they had been expecting you to come. ‘ From Ursula le Guinn’s Left Hand of Darkness
Not in Oliva de Plasencia! I was reading le Guinn on my Kindle while I travelled because it was the Leith Bookworms book and my friends were reading it at the same time. I liked to keep up even if I couldn’t attend the meetings. It can be a good challenge to follow the list because I read books I wouldn’t usually choose for myself, move out of my comfort zone. In this case I had never read sci-fi before but I knew that le Guinn was extremely well thought of (after all she is used as an important part of the plot in the decidedly mainstream Jane Austen Book Club film!)
There was a photo session at the front door with José / Almeida (his pen name), the hospitalero who had looked after us so well, and then I set off with my friend Marie Noëlle and her pals Sascha (Luxembourg) and Maria (Switzerland) under a white sky. Sometimes we all three walked alongside each other, but more often I held back and took a quieter way, meeting up at intervals for coffee and wee chats.
We left the town of ridged terracotta rooves and telephone poles behind, and headed quickly into open country. There is an alternative way to regain the camino by retracing your steps back the way you came, perhaps for shopping before leaving. For me, it was too early for them to be open and I was keen to get off the tarmac asap.
As I walked I reflected on the things I wished I had brought with me: my swimming costume which I left on the line in Caldzada, a pair of flipflops to protect my feet from dirty floors and ideal for wet and dry (though uncomfortable with socks), clothes pegs (there are often a few at the hostels but not enough to go round), a plastic tupperware pot to put food in (although I was able to buy one for a few euros), and ointment for bites.
I was keeping a list of topics for the teaching I had been engaged to do later in April. It was for the Shiatsu Society whose biennial congress was being held in Edinburgh. Topic: people watching – most apt given how many new people I am meeting and walking behind every day, and how lovely it is to sit in Spanish cafes with tired feet and gawp at passers by.
I stayed in the municipal hostel in Santa Marta de Tera for 5 euros.
Via de la Plata Camino – Day 21 (Montamarta to Tábara). Tuesday 10 April 2018. 27.5 kms.
I took the Camino Sanabrés rather than passing back through places on the Camino Francés (Astorga etc) which I had visited the year before.
There was a small village strung out along the road, not so far from Tábara, with a cafe. I sat on the bridge and sunbathed – it was glorious.
Once I got going again it started to rain and I stopped, de-rucksacked and covered up. Then there was a rumble and a thunder and it got dark. The lorries were roaring past and spraying and I was ducking in and out of the ditch at the side of the road to avoid it when there was a fork of lightning at my left shoulder. I have never been so close. I wondered what I should do. Looking around there was nothing and nobody – just trees. I did think perhaps the metal batons weren’t such a good idea, but I couldn’t exactly abandon them and they had rubber handles and tips to earth me. I hoped. (Two days afterwards I met up with the American women and one of them did throw her sticks into the fields because she said she was so scared of being struck.)
Then the hail started and brought about a total landscape transformation.
It did stop eventually and on and on I went, every part of every mile seeming an age. I was very wet, too sopping to be able to get the map book out. Then again, there was only the one road to choose from.
There was a service station on the outskirts of Tábara and I stumbled in to get some cover and ask for directions to the albergue. There was pandemonium in there because the electric storm had shut down the till and no-one could pay for their petrol. I waited with heaviness on my back and realised how exhausted and hungry I was. And I waited.
In the end, I did something I have never done before: I took a chocolate bar off the shelf, sunk to the ground, sat with my legs splayed out in front of me like a rag doll, and devoured it without paying for it first. It was wholly necessary.
To my horror it was a further 30 minutes walk to the hostel and I had thought I was at the complete end of my energy. Hey, I simply had to find more.
It was uphill and a very long road, and just as I was despairing that it would not end, there was a shriek and who should I see coming towards me but Marie-Noelle and her smile, someone I had not seen for several days. She gave me a big and welcome hug on her way to the bar.
There were 10 people round the table drinking wine and eating simple fare. Some I had met before, some I had not, each of us from a different country, and of course we made ourselves understood – a true camino experience at the end of a most trying day.
I am walking the St Magnus Way on Orkney, and this is one of the blog series – 27th May 2018. Below, you can find links to all the others (introduction, transport, accommodation, resources etc). The overall walk is 55 miles (88.5 kms) over 5 days plus a visit to the island of Egilsay where St Magnus was said to have been murdered and, initially, buried.
Day 5 – on timelessness, forgiveness, and dialect
Criss-crossing the west mainland of Orkney: Having started in Evie in the north east; curved around the cliffs to Birsay in the north west; walked coast-to-coast eastwards to Finstown; today I would drop directly south to Orphir. I didn’t know what I would find
Why to Orphir if Magnus’ bones weren’t taken there? The organisers of this route write that today’s trajectory ‘shifts attention to Haakon, Magnus’s cousin who ordered his death and ruled the united Earlship afterwards.’
Highlights: A traditional Scottish moorland, some slopes, and the wonderful shoreline between The Breck and the Bu
People met : a record 3 (between Finstown and Orphir), then loads after that
Favourite and unusual animals encountered: 1 donkey, Shetland ponies, llamas
17.1 kms / 10.65 miles
Time: 6.5 hours Finstown to Orphir village; another 2 minimum to St Nicholas church and back, but I did have a sleep
A screech of tyres heralded two carloads of revellers needing the toilet at 2am (I was camped beside the public conveniences in Finstown). I got up to retrieve my walking top which I had unwisely washed the evening before (unwise because it was too cold to dry properly), and it was cold on my return so that I stuffed my coccoon with newspaper. As I was awake I texted Heather, my lodger about cat litter, and finally dropped off.
When I woke again the sun was shining on me through the tent and it was warm. I think there may have been dew on the outside of my sleeping bag, but thankfully not on the inside!
I had dreamt my recurring dream of being lost in a big house full of rooms. I am convinced they began when I moved from my small town primary school in Sevenoaks to the much bigger secondary in Tonbridge and could not find the right classrooms. Ah, but this time it was my own house. Now, that’s change for you!
I crawled out and found the calm waters ahead, guarded by the pier on my right with the already warm sun rising behind it, and Snaba or Cuffie Hill to my left. Ahead, I guessed from my map, were the Holm of Grimbister, Scarva Taing, the Skerries of Coubister with perhaps Chapel Knowe broch in the far distance. (A holm is an islet, a skerry is a rocky island and a broch is a stone tower dating from prehistoric times.)
7am was so quiet. I was delighted to see a sleek headed seal swimming in the bay, watching as it made its way across to the other side and then back again and then climb out onto the jetty. Oh, not a seal, a mermaid, I mean, a woman taking her Sunday morning exercise! She changed in my / the toilets and I couldn’t stop myself going to say ‘hi’. She was as surprised as I was to see someone up at this time, not having noticed my tent.
None of the remaining matches would light my stove, so there was no tea for me, worst luck. (How come I didn’t bring a lighter? It’s not as if I haven’t been camping many times in my life before). Instead I had the Rhubarb Soda I had bought at the post office (made by Bon Accord in Edinburgh £1.50 – delicious).
I was on permanent battery saver now which, because there was no signal anyway, meant I could not book the homewards ferry.
A million drops sat on the blades of grass, shining in the sun, gleaming, a simple collection of diamonds, of miniscule, suspended orbs.
Having charged my phone at the Community Hall the previous evening, I received two air bnb booking texts, making that five in five days – lucky for me August is busy in Edinburgh with the festivals.
I climbed up and onto the moors, first on a path and then into the wilderness. I met a lovely jolly South African lady with a white bun and skyblue clothes. She didn’t have a rucksack or a dog. Once again a woman had appeared, as if from nowhere, to advise me. She said she had searched and searched and there were no St M Way signs, and predicted that the haar would come in again from the east. ‘I’ve walked all these hills but they don’t cater for walkers here on Orkney’, she said.
Of course the higher I got, the more I could see behind me when I stopped to catch my breath: the green lilypad islands in the blue ocean; flashes of silver indicating the main road. It was hard going with the backpack on the uneven ground though I was glad that I did find the markers when I cast around for them – perhaps I had my eye in after three days.
I was already hungry, but it was OK because I had a whole lettuce in my John Lewis bag (my children would be able to explain, it’s because I believe I need my greens every day!) And talking of rabbits, they were bounding around, keeping me company as I stumbled.
It is simply not done in hiking circles, to have a carrier bag but there was no room in my rucksack for food. I hung it from my straps where it swung annoyingly when I got into my stride and had to be restrained when clambering over stiles. It lasted the whole 10 days! Maybe I should have got people to take photos of me and tried for sponsorship – missed a trick there.
There are clumps of Lady’s Mantle down in the ditches, out of the wind and by the side of the stony track.
Forgiveness is an end-point: only after a proper process of understanding both points of view, acknowledging the hurt or the sadness, and coming-to-terms with all of that can we forgive and then act on it. I shed terrible tears on watching the part of the film ‘Calvary’ where the main character (played by Brendan Gleeson) goes into prison to see his son and you know he has been forgiven. My reaction was testimony to the power of this in my life. ‘I think forgiveness has been highly underrated’, says Gleeson’s priest.
After a while the track peters out and it was just me surrounded by hillocks of heather and bog cotton – rabbit tails on spindly stalks. Mossy mounds had green spears poking out of them, and there were the sort of birds which hover and flutter just above the ground in constant conversation. In places there were canine and then human footprints.
Gradually the landscape started to remind me of Highland walks with its peat banks, bogs and pools. Scrambling through the scratchy shrubs was painful on my knees but I avoided squelching underfoot. It had become very, very quiet. There was no bird song.
Forgiveness is offered to those who ‘follow the faith’, on earth by priests, and elsewhere by God, so it is said. To promise it to a child, who early on has no understanding of sin – not of others’ or their own – is to immediately puzzle her. It is a suggestion that there is already something wrong with that child, that she has already transgressed, and if there is no internal cognition of this, it’s a disaster waiting to happen. What else, but that child grows up with an aura of mistake, not able to make an actual connection between the forgiveness and an awareness that forgiveness is necessary.
Yes, in fact there were odd snatches of various sounds – the distant thrum of an engine, for example. And I could see oil tankers far away on my left. Amethyst violets and rose quartz orchids were glinting at my feet, and then I was on a soft downhill track again.
I came across a pregnant donkey and two brown-and-white Shetlands. She came up close, sort of in-breathed at me and flicked her left ear. It was the ponies who got the carrot which was intended for the donk.
And … what’s more, to be an adult who can offer a child forgiveness sets the offerer apart, as is often the aim. Again, the child is reduced to a transgressor, and what’s more, encouraged to understand that the adult is even more powerful than adults already are compared to children, and yet it is most painfully obvious to them that adults are not always good. How to make sense of that? These things I was with as I walked.
A bird mewed, a flap-fast one, its wings tipped with white. There was rather scaredy herd (or flock) of llamas (with young ones, called crias), and the ubiquitous wind turbine at Kebro Farm, where like all the places I passed farmers were working even though it was a Sunday. In this area there are many incredibly confusing signs saying to go back up (arrows and ‘To Oback Cottage’ etc). Note: Ignore them and keep on going down. There is eventually a St M Way sign at the junction when you get there!
In the same way as Reading is a town of roundabouts, and Glasgow’s all traffic lights, so Orkney’s made up of a complex network of fences, poles upstanding and barbed wire, deadly taut and ready to snatch enough wool to knit a sheep or catch an unsuspecting elbow in passing.
With four per cent of battery left on my phone I could check the time, but why bother? Instead I watched a butterfly doing what butterflies do, and let a chunk of Orkney fudge melt in my mouth leaving a too sugary, but addictive residue.
There was no need for me to be anywhere by any given time – being close to midsummer and because I was so far north, there was endless daylight. In fact there was almost no night. It has been said that stress levels are particularly high when deadlines of time and distance are combined (ie I have to get across town by 8am), so it is a good sign that I can let that go and relax into the walking. I will get there when I get there, that’s my motto.
I noticed, that like the three guys last night who accompanied the lead singer of ‘The Once‘, the sheep looked identical but had different voices – some bass, some treble and some soprano, or is it counter tenor?
I liked the grey cows – I was not sure I had ever seen grey ones before. (No photos, for the above reasons). I went past birds doing that spectacular balancing thing where they sway on top of stalks too thin to be able to see, thinner than one of their own legs. How do they do that!
The farmers forked the deep brown, well-rotted manure onto a trailer; an ideal lane between fields offered springy soil that actually massaged my feet from the underneath; there was only one place where I had to step into an empty blue trough and cling onto the, yes you guessed it, the barbed wire, to avoid the too-marshy path. There were bog grasses there, honed to a calf-tickling tip, but space enough to walk inbetween.
I was heading for the nearly-full moon. Every time I needed a pee I had to take the rucksack off and it required a sort of humpfy-jump to get it back on and arrange all my layers – the tucking in was the worst. I cracked my knee which certainly got the blood flowing again. Ow! ‘It’ll pass’, I reminded myself.
I was just as I was about to head off up the hill to the right across the moors towards Orphir after the last sign, when I most unexpectedly spotted a couple coming up. She was pregnant and telling amusing stories to the man with her – great to hear them laugh! My phone was dead by then so how lucky it was that I saw them, because Orphir wasn’t on the right in that direction at all!
Down I went, taking the correct course. There was a bed of irises, a red bridge and the delightful sound of trickling, peaty, crystal-clear Scottish water. I found another wing, pure snow-coloured with bones attached, and a patch of curly white feathers to mark the spot. Butterflies played above like the very spirit of the bird which had died, like the petals of today’s flowers come to life.
It was hot by this time with a welcome breeze by the burn. There were no signs (although the notes I had made from the route description last night were pretty good from here on) so I trusted my instinct, tripping on downhill now.
For some reason I had put my single double-layered sock into the rucksack before leaving home, and now it had come in useful because I dropped one of yesterday’s pair down the loo when changing in a tight space with an armful of clothes, and after washing it hadn’t dried in time. (I had no idea what happened to the pair. I left them both to dry on a rack in Salamanca and one wasn’t there on my return).
I guessed the repeated but uneven banging up on my right must be people hunting. On the far left I could see a gorgeous beach, Waulkmill Bay I identified from the map, and I would have enjoyed a paddle there and then. I had another debate about the way but decided to keep going on straight. The cuckoo called and I suddenly had a memory – did my dad collect butterflies? I must have been very, very young.
Much as I deplore the waste and emissions of plastics, and of course a wooden staff is more traditional for the pilgrim, this baton is better: wood ones chafe the palms after several hours. What a marvellous view I had from up there! It was still a bit misty to be sure, but I could see all the islands, tankers and trawlers, big ships and little boats, as well as what looked like a submarine.
I always talk to the animals I meet, especially the farm ones. I expect they have a relationship with humans already, and probably my mum used to do that and I learned it from her. Perhaps she still does! I was so glad to have my map because I couldn’t connect the Route Direction info with the reality on the ground and got confused. The two wooden men either end of a bench wi flooer pots atap thar heids cheered me up. In the same way I think in French or Spanish when walking in those countries, I seemed to be rocking some variation of the Orkney tongue in my head.
Then I came across a field of delightful weeny Shetland ponies, foals and their families – somehow I felt a bond! I was gutted that I couldn’t take any photos.
‘Bin fer a dander?’ (Have you been for a walk?), a gentleman asked me as I turned onto the road. There was a man hanging out washing in his boxers at the next house – he scuttled inside sharpish when he saw me! At the brow of the hill, the wooden fella was half way up a ladder. And as I walked into Orphir there were full-sized horses who looked gigantic in relationship to the mini ones from 15 minutes back.
I was back in civilisation: coachloads, a duet on a tandem, ‘sites available for eco-new builds’ the sign said, and another wooden bench – this time there was a bear at one end and a fish at the other and the top of the back of it was the fishing line connecting them both. Whoever makes these garden ornaments is very inventive.
Orphir (say ‘offer’ like the Queen does, or ‘Or’ followed by the ‘fa’ from ‘titfer’)
I went straight on through the village initially, towards the round tower of Earl’s Bu in the hot sun. But then I changed my mind and went back to set up camp first. Thank goodness I did – it was miles more by road and path so I was glad not to have the pack on my back.
Note: Allow at least two hours to go to The Breck, St Nicholas Church, Earls Bu, the Bu of Orphir and back, and take a picnic with you!
Orphir is a collection of grey houses with wooden garden sculptures and people mowing their lawns. At its centre is a church with a milennium garden where I pitched my tent, hidden from view by the shrubs which dripped dew the next morning. There are no shops and one hotel with a bar/restaurant – in other words there was nowhere to charge my phone until the place opened later. A woman on foot passed the time of day with me, a cyclist did too.
I enquired about food and asked what the time was – 3.30pm – gutted – it was two hours before I could eat, and not one cup of tea had I drunk all day. I had my shorts on and there was a slight wind. Oh, but what absolutely idyllic countryside and what a gentle perambulation it was!
I took the sign to Gyre from the Orphir A964 road, and then a left which was signed to Breck. I was confused again just before the sea, but now I know I recommend you keep to the right. The soft, flat turf of the coastal path around Scapa is even more beautiful there on the cliffs above the rocks and the sea was there too and the birds were wheeching. Wonderful.
I slept a while, perched on the edge between the track and a small fall to the dark stoned beach, prickly with heather underneath but therefore cushioned. Further along is the broken-down bridge (which I crossed anyway) and the churchyard of St Nicholas. The ruin made a big impression on me, and I tried to record it in a sketch.
As you come around, the inside is exquisite – pale, smooth stone with a single arched window. Plain and undecorated, it seemed to encapsulate a holiness I rarely felt in the gold and silver interiors of the many cathedrals I have visited.
Nearby is the Orkneyinga Saga Centre which tells the story of the Norse Earls of Orkney. It closes at 6pm and I didn’t get that far. When I went on the Viking Hiking tour a couple of days later and the lovely Ragnhild ‘quoted oft’ from this famous text, I wished I had, and when I got home I thought with hindsight that I could have carried the tent and spent the night there, but I didn’t quite understand what I would find at the time. Even the bit I did see was one of the highlights of this trip.
There were 10 times as many walkers on this little stretch then ever I saw during the entirety of the past days. Probably because it was an unusually sunny, Sunday afternoon. The scenic loveliness probably also had something to do with it.
The long, windy return walk was equally enjoyable under trees which met above my head, a flood of bluebells beneath. Hoardes of almost-golden gorse branchlets reached out, so crowded with mouths bursting open I could almost hear them, ‘me first, me first’; while the individual kingcups opened simple faces imploringly sunwards. The feathered petals of the only-slightly-paler dandelions on their juicy stalks were any moment ready to transform into translucent orbs of parachutes. I didn’t need to look where I was treading, so birdwatching was easy: jet crows picking in fields of alabaster daisies; the now-familiar voices of mew and maow and peep; and the gull-gliding, goose-flapping and sparrow-fluttering were all present and accounted for.
Walking when hungry at the end of the day can lead to morosity, but after a while it’s only walking – finding ways to release hip pains, just one foot in front of another.
And then I got to order my food at The Noust Bar and Restaurant – what a shame British restaurants don’t bring bread while you wait these days – but I did enjoy the beer (the second from the Orkney brewery) which unsurprisingly went straight to my head. The service was good. The food would have been delicious whether or not it was, if you see what I mean. The monster, beer-battered fish, well-cooked chips and frozen peas hit the spot, as did the blackcurrant crumble and ice cream (£20 with a cup of tea to round it all off). At last I could charge my phone somewhat and as I had wifi access I took care to write notes ahead of the next day’s hike.
I am walking the St Magnus Way on Orkney, and this is one of the blog series – 24th May 2018. Below, you can find links to all the others (introduction, transport, accommodation, resources etc). The overall walk is 55 miles over 5 days plus a visit to the island of Egilsay where St Magnus was said to have been murdered and, initially, buried.
Day 2 – on shame, fear, and foolhardiness
Scenery: simply stunning
Burns crossed: too many to count
Whales seen: Nil. Dolphins? Also nil. (Another northern Scottish trip without a single sighting. Sigh)
People encountered between start and finish: 3 (at the end)
20 kms / 12.5 miles
Time: 8.5 hours
Falls to death: thankfully zero, but it was a close thing once or twice. Sound extreme? It was
Moral of the story: follow the signs
Theme established by the St Magnus Way group, to be found on their website: Loss
‘All pilgrimages share certain characteristics, features which define them as holy walks. A vow or promise at the journey’s beginning; and at the end a ritual prayer for enlightenment, forgiveness or miracle.’ p. 104, Spanish Steps, by Tim Moore.
I stayed the night with Meg and Frank and enjoyed their company, conversation and beautiful woodland garden in the evening sunshine (photos above and below).
The next morning I gave a Shiatsu session and then stepped across their threshold for my first full day’s walk. Five geese honked in formation. As I tripped down past their lovely wood, a smell of earth was in my nostrils. A dry stone wall swept around the Sands of Evie in the Eynhallow Sound. Note that the recommended path begins at the Broch of Gurness.
On my right, barbed wire; on my left an expanse of green. Peep peep peep and twitter twitter regaled me. I was off. The haar was clearing. Cock-a-doodle-doo he crowed in celebration.
The St. Magnus Way website suggests using stones for various reasons: focus, something that ‘weighs heavily’, to remind you of something, or as a companion, to keep or to discard. So, I selected three stanes that the beach offered up: one for the fear that I won’t manage the walk – that was lobbed into the sea straight away! One was for worries about the future, and that I laid with all the monumental ones further along the coast. I kept the third until the end of the day. I had discussed the way with locals before leaving. I knew that sections of this first day had been closed due to unsafe conditions, although I did not know any details. My friend said she would not take a détour, and that matched my own spirit. So, I had already established that I would try to stay near the coast rather than being redirected onto the road.
The first marker is attached to a wooden post – a simple, classy image of a black cross standing on a single wave-y line. Here was lush greenery but there was no path. Quite quickly I heard the phrase in my head ‘shame on such a path’. Now that is a phrase straight out of my childhood and the Church of England in the 1960s and 70s – one which I do not expect to have in my vocabulary. There are reasons I have continued to walk long distances, and one is the vital opportunity it offers for me to hear my internal prejudices and judgments. Away from the constant noise of the city and interactions with others, and with the quieter natural environment around me, I was giving myself the chance to choose to change. Well, to try to, at least – to notice. After all, old habits do die hard!
Shame on you. – it is a turn of phrase, right enough, but it carries a world of significance with it. What I meant was, how could ‘they’ let this pathway become so overgrown with nettles? My legs are very short and what with the heavy rucksack weighing me down, I was knee deep in them. Thank goodness I had the bottoms of my walking trousers still attached!
Anyone will tell you, I am a great supporter of self-reflection. Taking the time to review one’s actions, trying to honestly recognise what I say and do is an important part of self-development, and that is necessary at least for being a Shiatsu Practitioner, but also for learning about myself and how I am in relationship. I do not want to instill shame in others or suggest they should feel it, just because I think they should have done something different. It is, anyway, not a useful way to bring about change, if indeed that is needed.
‘It is not intended to be a manicured track, but a route of great variety, stunning scenery, historical significance and space to breathe’ From The Orkney Islander magazine.
This is essentially a Christian pilgrimage I am on, set up by a Church of Scotland minister, the Reverend David McNeish, and a group of people from different churches. McNeish stresses, in the above mentioned article, that the walk is for anyone, an essentially spiritual experience for those who believe in God and also for those who do not.
‘The St Magnus Way is rooted in the Christian faith, as was Magnus, but welcomes all people and faith perspectives‘.
Interestingly the St Magnus Cathedral in Kirkwall, the pilgrimge’s final destination, ‘is unique in Europe in that it belongs to no particular denomination… since it has been owned by the people of Orkney since 1486’ (taken from The Society of the Friends of St Magnus Cathedral leaflet). It turned out that this walk, for me, was already becoming a golden opportunity to face up to some of my outdated beliefs around religion.
As I made my way eastwards, I clambered over chunks of beach where the course was hard to follow on the headlands but perfect for the sheer and simple joy of being so close to the sea. I waded thigh-high through more nettles, and these were interspersed with periods of striding forth when the way was clear. Then I could stare out, and out there was the glittering ocean while underneath me were the brooding, cracked rocks.
Mostly the going was oh-so-slow, and I had to remind myself not to try and make up for that by moving more quickly when I could. ‘Just don’t be in a hurry’, I told myself. Planting one foot in front of the other, and focusing on each step is a meditation in itself. Engage with it mindfully and it will automatically slow down the pace of your life. These types of long treks, like the contrast between going away for a fortnight’s holiday rather than for only a few days, allow for the gradual slowing of the system, a calming of the autonomic nervous system in fact. Almost all of us need that: mentally, emotionally and physically. So there I was, walking, when…oh, oh, a ghostly sound and I looked in the direction the sound came from, and the land out there on the point seemed to be writhing. On closer inspection, it was a shoal of seals flopping in and out of the sea. I know you do not talk about a shoal, but they really were like glistening fish newly caught in a net, with the water all sparkling around them.
They were jumping off their bellies, backs arched tautly. What cooing and barking noises they made. Even the occasional snort (or old-man-eating sound, one I had not heard before) made its way across to me high up on the cliff. Black and dappled grey, with sleek snouts bobbing up and down in the waves along the coast, they made eerie, windy noises. Slug-like they were, until their ends (tails and heads) curved up making them look like kids’ wobbly toys.
Suddenly my foot slipped on a loose stone. Then they all spotted me, and before I realised it, more of them than I knew were there, so well camouflaged were they, leapt off their rock. What a delightful treat! Being a rebel, and because I was not going to miss the possibility of seeing a cetacean, I soldiered on when the signs signalled to turn left. Here were great slabs of the past, immense layers of time immemorial. Glorious it was.
Words like strata and striated popped into my mind from O’ Level geography as I picked my way between the blocks of rock on the lower parts of the beach to avoid the dodgy path above. I crept up on more seals unawares as they were sunbathing. A second later, they were gone, highly sensitive to extraneous sound. There was not a sight of a human unless you count the aluminium yacht which caught my eye because it was glinting in the rays. A slight movement and again on the water like ever so many periscopes, there were the tops of seal heads checking to see if I had gone.
I was looking at my feet to find safe footing, when, meanwhile, I realised there was another set of wary eyes fixing me: Fresian ones! Cows were to be my almost constant companions throughout the days of this pilgrimage: clattering away down the fields as I approached even when I tiptoed, and then drawn almost immediately back to the fence between us. They were playing grandmother’s footsteps when my back was turned. One minute they were way away, and the next I heard a moo. There they were, right behind me with their penetrating stares!
Most of the path was terrifyingly narrow, a foot’s width perhaps, so that I had to cling to the barbed wire fences as I inched my way around. A lesson (re)learned
If it feels hard, and especially if you are honest and it feels too, too hard, there will always be an easier way. Stop, look up, breathe and reassess.
I reflect that I need to learn this over and over again. It must be a deeply ingrained habit, even a belief system, that makes me keep on going through hardship. Here was another theme that was to re-appear repeatedly.
It is not in my nature to admit defeat.
Alexandra David-Neel, ‘My Journey to Llasa’ p. xiii
I admired the deep cravasses full of rock pools. The weed, seen from above, gleamed wet and slimy, shiny green like new buds. If you were lucky enough to have roamed on the beach when you were younger, like I was at Kingsdown on the south coast of England, you will recognise these types of rock pools. You will be able to guess what might be in their shady corners even though you are too high up to see.
I was enjoying the round Neolithic corner of Eynhallow when a raven started up. A warning sound, it cra cra-ed over and over again, and I heard it. The going was precarious all along that stretch, and the bird looped me, taking off from one fence post, flying out and around my shoulders and then back. Back and round and back it went, for all the world as if it was weaving lines of protection around me, holding me in close to the land and discouraging falling. Perhaps I have read too many North American Indian stories about the traditions of totem animals, but I was duly warned and took extreme care.
There were other birds around: ones with bottoms the exact colour of the black and red stationery invoice books – you know those? Anywhere gannets build their nests is too dangerous for humans, I realised. I should not have been there.
It was all made much worse by the continuous barbed wire fences: on and off came my rucksack. I felt real fear. Clearly other fools had gone before me because there were places where the wire was stretched. My advice: Absolutely do not do it. I have got myself into some scrapes before, but this was properly dangerous. It was entirely my own decision and every time I looked down into the next sheer gully, I expected to spot a skeleton. By this time I knew I wanted to go an easier way, but it was equally difficult to go back.
After the next de-rucksacking amidst spears of irises with cabbage whites darting in and out, I headed finally inland for the road. I was close to the church ruin and I spotted Orkney vole holes in the dry grass. But, would you believe it, I was on the road for less than five minutes when the official signs directed me back to the coast. I will confess that I was feeling a trifle wabbit (exhausted) by this time.
An uncharacteristic stumble necessitated yet another stop. I have to be very careful not to let this happen with the backpack on because I can topple very easily if its weight tips over. This time I snacked to give me some energy: chocolate, cheese and lettuce.
I had confidently said I would manage 20 kilometres by early afternoon, but it was 1pm and I was nowhere near the end. Below my feet was a carpet of primroses, bluebells and king cups with teeny violets. There was often a sewage scent assailing my nostrils (ugh!) though with the odd whiff of warm grass. Now the nettles were up to my armpits so stings were sustained and still there were many fences to cross. I was becoming covered in scratches too. The tussocks were soft and uneven making the going even slower, my feet sinking unexpectedly deeper however carefully I placed them.
I startled a pheasant and it startled me. What was he up to at the edge of the West Mainland? He must have been admiring the view, he must have been. I also saw a rabbit – first I had ever seen on a beach. And a cat, easily managing the foot’s width of path that was available between fence and fall.
I was impersonating St Magnus now, wearing my beanie hat with feathers stuck in either side instead of horns and my baton instead of a staff which he would surely have used on his own pilgrimage.
I was once again very happily traipsing; fair bowling along I was after those revitalising calories. I even noticed my thoughts turning to old friends from my daughters’ primary school days. They used to go to Orkney with their children at every possible chance and now I understood why. Orkney, I was told by the woman from Elgin who I got to know on the return train, has the best quality of life of any rural area in the UK (1).
Day one was certainly a ‘baptism by fire’, I thought. And there was another biblical phrase – how easily such words trip off my tongue! In the modern understanding of the phrase, I was being initiated to the pilgrimage with hardship and difficulty. Interestingly, that phrase is more likely to have been meant as ‘the conferring of the Holy Spirit’, which of course would relate well to a Christian pilgrimage. I understood that some of the adults around me when I was growing up still subscribed to the Victorian idea that hardship was a good thing for children. I suspect that many of my ideas come from novels which made an impression on me at an impressionable age – church-run orphanages which housed Oliver or Jane Eyre.
There were times when there was no point in complaining that something was hard because it was accepted as right and normal – in fact a cause for celebration. It was all in the hope that I would be strengthened by it, and not expect a life of Riley, a bed of roses. Well here I was, not on the sofa but spending my time on a challenging hike. Many of us do this sort of thing these days – conquering unconquerable mountains, running 43 marathons in 51 days (2) – mostly thought of as laudable and great achievements, particularly when done for charity. Hardship is popular. “Suffering is optional” (3).
‘Suffering is something you have to learn to figure out in your life; it’s nothing to be afraid of,’ Jennifer Fox, documentary writer in the Guardian Newspaper 23.5.18
Rebecca Nicholson interviewed Sheila Hancock in the Guardian newspaper about a new film role in Edie where she had to climb a mountain:
“‘I was so frightened,’ she gasps, but still she did it, ‘Honest to God, I don’t know how.’… ‘I would love to enjoy leisure, but I find it very difficult to sit down and do nothing,’ ..” (25.5.18)
So, in the 21st century we have an issue with personal choice and with hardship versus that life of Riley. And a pilgrimage, like mountain climbing or other dangerous pursuits (as opposed to a sedentary lifestyle with few thrills) will hep you understand your own approach to life and raise the very things you struggle with on a daily basis. As 3.30pm approached I could see the haar (misty fog) rolling in again and I could not see from whence I came. Up hill and down dale I went, still happy. I admit I kept thinking about beer. I mean all pilgrims drink ale don’t they? At 4.10pm I took the series of photos below. This is inspiration. This is one of the main reasons I do these walks. When I am back home giving Shiatsu, I call up these sorts of images in the hope that the energy of these places comes through my touch.
I thought: ‘You having a laugh?’ as I went along a line of flattened grass that didn’t resemble a path. The problem with being tired is that you focus on the end and when you then come over the next knoll it can be disappointing to see the way still stretching far ahead. I reminded myself of a lesson learned on my first Camino: one-step at a time – poco a poco as they say in Spain.
There are, in fact, midges on Orkney, contrary to what I read on the internet when I was wondering whether to take ointment or not! I didn’t see the Whalebone.
Luckily I got some help towards the very end when I was lost. First a woman in her garden came across and advised me over the garden fence to go between the two towers. But before I could do that, a most kind couple suggested I take the small road and they gave me a banana and a flapjack together with my filled water bottle. They even offered me a lift but see above – I was determined!
Seagulls were tucked into nooks and crannies, perhaps bedding down for the night when I arrived at 6pm at the Brough (say bruff) of Birsay car park. I went into the village where the Earls Palace looked amazing in the late sun. I deposited my last stone hurriedly at the Kirk (the end of the day’s route) – dedicated to the beautiful world. And then I took a bus. ‘Just take a seat’ said the driver when I asked him how much, and he let me off a few minutes later at the end of the campsite road.
The official wasn’t there yet, but a group of Italians were. I showed them how to book on-line and we took our places and pitched camp. Like the one at Stromness, the site was well equipped, clean and had a good energy about it. When she did come along at the allotted time, the woman in charge was wonderful and I took her suggestion and walked (yes, more walking but this time in sandals which made all the difference) to the Barony Hotel and enjoyed that ale and some well won victuals.
On my final car journey, when Christopher was giving me a lift to Stromness for the ferry, we discussed this Evie to Birsay day, and he told me a guide had stepped back from his group on another part of the island and fallen to his death. I would not have missed my walk ‘for the world’, but it was stupid of me to ignore the signs and I would not recommend anyone else did the same. Thank you everyone who helped me along the way today. Thank you.