EX­PLORE THE UN­SEEN UK

In­stead of head­ing off to Europe why not dis­cover the hid­den trea­sures of our own Is­lands?

MCN - - GREAT EXPERIENCES -

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

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