EXPLORE THE UNSEEN UK
Instead of heading off to Europe why not discover the hidden treasures of our own Islands?
I’m unsure if it’s the quell of the North Sea or the gin that’s making me sway as I walk. My travelling buddy, Tony, a connoisseur of real ale, and I are three hours into our overnight crossing and so far haven’t moved from the bar. We’re on an adventure and after 12 hours at sea, we’ll dock 130 miles off the coast of John O’Groats; and, amazingly, still be on UK soil. Our destination is Shetland. When you look at a weather map, it’s the tiny dot at the top right of the screen that Michael Fish (for those old enough to remember) would no doubt ignore on his daily report, and we’d not noticed in the past. You can see why the archipelago was under Norwegian rule in centuries past; it’s as close to Bergen as it is Aberdeen, where we’d boarded.
Over a few beverages, months before, Tony and I had scribbled plans on the back of a beer mat. A big trip appealed, and after much debate I’d been swayed from my usual desire for sunshine and fine wines in France and agreed to head north for a windswept and interesting few days on Shetland.
There’s a welcome in the hillside
It’s 7.30am as we dock and ride on to dry land to be met by Steve, a Goldwing-riding local. He’s offered to be our guide for the first part of our trip and we get a glimpse of Shetland hospitality. Steve invites us to his for breakfast, and over bacon butties and a brew our map is marked with must-see places.
As we chat, Scandinavian influences soon become apparent: place names have a hint of Norse about them, as does Steve’s soft burr.
We head out of the island’s capital, Lerwick, as Steve guides us on near-deserted roads, their condition superb. Other than a few pelican crossings, there’s no traffic lights and only a handful of roundabouts to slow progress. There’s barely a pothole in sight and the nearest thing to a motorway is a three-lane stretch with a suicide lane for overtakes. Narrow and twisty single-track roads course through mountains, kiss the edges of lochs and have the feel of a race track. With every twist and turn, the breathtaking scenery continues. The islands cover the same amount of land as London, but with a population a smidge over 22,000, there are vast areas of beautiful open countryside to enjoy.
Steve is proud of the island’s heritage, steeped in history with buildings dating back to the Iron Age, and relics from where Vikings once roamed the shores. He stops and points out landmarks; at Mavis Grind, he explains the North Sea and Atlantic Ocean are separated by the road’s width. We imagine the Vikings who would have dragged their boats over the narrow stretch of land to avoid the long sail round the island.
The highlight of Steve’s tour is our coffee stop at Sumburgh Head. On the windy cliff top we park to watch puffins playing on the breeze. Listed as the best place in the UK to see these beautiful little birds and as they dance around our heads, we can see why. We watch them for an age, their beautiful orange beaks a cheerful contrast against the grey, rocky cliffs.
Going it alone
Left to our own devices, Tony and I go in search of something less wholesome. It’s time to set sail
‘Bobble hats replace crash hats as we yomp through a peat bog’
again, inter-island ferries play a huge part of Shetland life and it’s unnerving to stand with bikes untethered as we make the short hop to Yell. We sprint across the eerie island to catch our second boat, to Unst.
With the former RAF base of Saxa Vord at the northernmost tip of Unst now a gin distillery, I set myself a challenge to see how many bottles my panniers will hold (four fit comfortably). With gin-packed luggage, our exploration continues, the steepest hill rises before us and the wind knocks us sideways. We’re exploring every inch of Unst and want to see the most northerly lighthouse in the UK, Muckle Flugga. Crash hat swapped for bobble hat, a must for all summer holidays on Shetland, we park and yomp through a peat bog. Our view distorted by a layer of fog, we get a glimpse of the gleaming white tower that rises out of the sea before us.
All too soon, our 60-hour road trip is at an end, and we both want to stay longer, it’s been a blast with many happy memories made. We’ve ridden 400 miles, with only sheep and free-roaming ponies for company. It’s easy to forget we’re on public roads. Other than wildlife with suicidal tendencies, the main thing to contend with has been the weather. With all four seasons in a day; torrential rain, 50mph winds and bright sunshine, all have been a challenge but added to the fun. If you fancy somewhere different, get yourself on a boat, head north and explore these beautiful islands. While it might not be everyone’s cup of tea, it’s definitely mine and I’ve vowed to return. Maybe once the gin’s run out.
BY ALISON SILCOX MCN office manager, lover of big miles
Alison and Tony point out the UK’s nortnernmost tip
Tour guide Steve tutors Ali in the ways of the wind
Road surfaces are cracking; sunsets are even better