The Italian Chapel

Today we’ve been relaxing on Orkney – cycling from where we are staying in St Mary’s, at the southern end of Mainland, across the Churchill barriers which connect a number of small islands with South Ronaldsay. One of those islands is Lamb Holm, where the only structure of any significance is a chapel built out of two Nissen huts by Italian POW’s captured in North Africa and put to work on the construction of the barriers – sealing off a number of entrances to Scappa Flow. The barriers had been ordered by Winston Churchill, when he was First Sea Lord, following the sinking of HMS Royal Oak, with the loss of 834 lives, by a German U-boat in 1939. The interior of the chapel was painted by one of the POW’s, Domenico Chiocchetti, using a post-card his mother had given him of the Madonna and Child by Nicolo Barabino, as inspiration for his alter-piece. When the Camp Commander, Major Buckland, realised that Chiocchetti was indeed a very talented artist he allowed him to continue painting to make the basic building more attractive. So it is that the entire walls and ceiling are a complete trompe-l’œil, which give the chapel it’s unique character. I first saw this special place in 1974 when on a camping holiday in Shetland and Orkney with brother Rob and best friend Neil. Apart from more visitors, a visitors centre and a car park it has changed very little in the intervening half century!

Day 11 – Thurso to John O’Groats

Back in John O’Goats – this time on the completion of the NCN 1

Today we had only one thing on our mind, getting the job done – completing what we’d started back in Berwick in 2017 – cycling the length of the British mainland east coast on the NCN 1, from Dover to John O’Groats – 1250+ miles. The weather for this final stage was the best it’s been over the past week, with clear skies, warm sunshine and virtually no wind. Our route took us east to Castletown and past Dunnet Head (actually the most northerly point on the British mainland) before heading inland on quieter roads before rejoining the coast road at Canisbay and on into John O’Groats. As befitted the occasion, Bry led us down the final straight to the famous sign-post above the harbour. Photos, coffee and a moment to reflect on a job well done. Then it was time to get back on the bikes and cycle the 21 miles back again – which we did at an average speed of around 25 mph! The only addition to the bird list today was Black Guillemot – several around the harbour at JOG and again, this afternoon, around Scrabster – from where the ferry to Orkney sails tomorrow morning. I’m really looking forward to a weekend of relaxed birding and biking before heading south on the overnight ferry to Aberdeen and then, hopefully, catching the train back to Cromer. Bry and I have now cycled the length of Britain twice together. Not something either of us really planned to do, it just happened. You get to know someone pretty well in these circumstances – even when they’re your brother. Thanks Bry it’s been a blast. Our only regret is that Neil, who has been with us on most of our NCN 1 journey, wasn’t able to complete the final few days due to the rail strike – there’ll be another time mate!

Day 10 – Tongue to Thurso

The view from our Thurso cliff-top caravan – with the Orkney Isles in the background

This 40+ mile stage, east along the north coast through Betty Hill, retraced our steps on the End to End, a decade ago. A roll-a-coaster of a route through coastal villages before arriving at the ferry terminal of Thurso. A coffee stop at Betty Hill after a third of the way was followed by lunch – which consisted of coloured water and half a dozen energy beans – just outside Reay. Still we did make up for it once we arrived at Thurso with tea and brownies. The weather was mixed, with sunshine and showers and generally a side wind. The only additions to the bird list were a singing Redpoll in Borgie Glen – a gut-busting climb near Betty Hill – and a lone Great Skua harassing a Hooded Crow on the run-in to Thurso. Today we’re ‘getting the job done’ – a gentle 20 miler to John O’Groats and the end of our NCN 1 journey. Well not quite, we’ve then got to ride back, before catching the ferry to Orkney and our enforced route extension. But more of that in due course..

Day 9 – Lairg to Tongue

Fabulous, freshly emerged Golden-ringed Dragonfly – wildlife event of the day for me

An excellent stage for wildlife! True, the weather was still shite at times – in fact we got soaked at one point – the wind gave little assistance and there were some long and steep drags, but all of this was cancelled out by the scenery and nature along the ride. We left Lairg heading north-west, following the shores of Loch Shin, eventually arriving at the Crask Inn (literally in the middle of nowhere and now run by the Episcopalian Church) for coffee. This had been a memorable early refreshment stop on our End to End route, back in 2012. From there, looking out across the miles of nothing that is Sutherland, I spotted the first of our ‘ticks’ – a summer plumage Golden Plover, quickly followed by another new species – Snipe. A lone Raven flew overhead as we steadily made our way through Altnaharra and on towards our lunch stop. Passing a small loch I saw three birds at the waters edge – clearly divers. Through the binoculars they turned into a family party of Black-throated – Mum, Dad and a youngster! We were sitting at the road bridge at the head of Loch Loyal when I spotted a shape moving in the water. It was a newly emerging dragonfly which just managed to cling on to a rock in the middle of the river. Through the bins I could see it was black and yellow – I had to get a closer view! Off with the socks and shoes and in I went. Fortunately it was still drowsy, so it sat on my hand as I returned to dry land to show Bry. Wide-spread but thinly distributed in western Britain, though absent from East Anglia, this Golden-ringed Dragonfly was a ‘first’ for me! We finished our ride at The Ben Loyal Hotel in Tongue – 40+ miles since departing from Lairg. In the evening I rode down to the causeway looking for waders – mostly Ringed Plover, Oystercatcher and Curlew, with a lone Dunlin – new for the list. I did also see a nice Wheater – our sixth new bird for the day – bringing our overall trip list to 106.

The NCN 1 sign opposite The Crask Inn
Cold, but boy was it worth it!

Day 8 – Tain to Lairg

Along the Dornoch Firth

What a difference a day makes! Admittedly this was our ‘rest day’ or, at the very least at just over 40 k, a short stage. But the sun came out, there was no head-wind and the scenery gently transitioned from arable to highland. The stage began with a short section along the A9 but once clear of that we headed north-west along the shores of the Dornoch Firth as far as Ardgay, where we had a welcome roadside coffee. Through Bonar Bridge – familiar territory from our End to End ride in 2012 – and then along a delightful road following the River Shin. Lunch – a roll from Tain Tesco – was taken at the view-point overlooking Shin Falls. It was here that Bry spotted our first Dipper of the trip, which turned out to be two adults visiting their nest right opposite where we were sat! Our ride finished early at the Lairg Highland Hotel our comfortable, if a little overpriced, overnight stop. A walk in the early evening to a nearby local nature reserve produced our last ‘tick’ of the day, Red Grouse, which together with Osprey, Hooded Crow (the real deal this time) and Whinchat brings our trip total to 100! At supper we sat next to an interesting and engaging American family, Mum, Dad & daughter, who had bought their bikes over from the States to tackle the JOGTLE (John o’Groats to Land’s End), they are just a couple of days away from completing their holiday mission – hats off to them! Todays stage also brings us within spitting distance of the north coast.

The delightful River Shin
A hand-held digibin shot of Dipper at it’s nest

Day 7 – Inverness to Tain

Bry just boarding the Cromarty – Nigg ferry

A stage of two halves – we left Inverness YHA hostel and crossed the North Kessock bridge before cycling east along the spine of the Black Isle – some long and steep climbs involved. Cromarty was our lunch stop before taking the ferry to Nigg back on the ‘mainland’. From there it was a hard slog north-west to our overnight stop at the well appointed and hospitable Shandwick Hotel in Tain. The weather remained cold – we reckon with wind-chill around 8 deg. – and showery. Strictly speaking, no new additions to the bird list, but a couple of hybrid Carrion x Hooded Crow provided interest on route and a taste of things to come. Tain was home to a joint RAF /FAA base during WW11 and in the final years of the conflict hosted the USAF 66th squadron of B-24D Liberator bombers – the flat desolate landscape is still punctuated with war-time buildings. Today we head north west along the shores of the Dornoch Firth and deeper into the highlands.

Day 6 – Forres to Inverness

Unfortunately, this was not our overnight stay – we were at the YHA!

It was a case of ‘rinse and repeat’ for the latest stage of our NCN 1 sojourn, from Forres to Inverness. More rolling countryside, bigger hills and strong headwinds, gusting to around 40 mph, as we rode further west. We’d left Neil at Forres station before taking the road to Nairn, then cutting inland to Croy and Cullodon. Lunch was taken at the Coop – curry pie and coffee. It took us most of the day before we finally arrived at our over-night stop at Inverness YHA. My first ‘dot day’ on the birding front – probably because I had my head down most of the way. Today we turn north across the Black Isle – hopefully with wind assistance not wind resistance.

Day 5 – Cullen Bay to Forres

Bryan and Neil in front of Gordonstoun – similar in many ways to Gt Baddow Comp!

We continued heading west along the Moray Firth, from our morning start at Cullen Bay, to Forres our overnight stop. Most of the early 65 kilometres of the ride were across cliff-top fields with stunning coastal views, then later through more rolling countryside, all into a stiff head wind – an exhausting day. . Our route took us close to Gordonstoun where my niece and three generations of British royalty were educated, and Bryan was the Chair of Governors. We’d been invited by the Principal to call in for a spot of lunch – so we did. Bry catching up with old friends and acquaintances – whilst Neil and I had a good gleg. After a gruelling afternoon session we finally arrived at The Carlton Hotel – sounds posher than it is – where Bry made arrangements for our supper with his friends John, Sue and family. A very pleasant occasion to mark the end of an interesting but physically demanding day.

Because of the impending national rail strike and commitments at home Neil has decided to leave us at this point. We’re all gutted that he won’t be finishing this historic ride – completed over five years – with us at John O’Groats. Meanwhile, to mitigate the effects of the strike and connect us back to the main rail network once it ends, Bry and I have decided to cycle on to Orkney, where the plan is to catch the overnight ferry back to Aberdeen. Should be interesting!

Lunch among friends

Day 4 – Turriff to Cullen Bay

Sheltering from the rain on our run in to Cullen Bay

It’s always a good idea to have an ‘easy’ stage after a hard one, so a modest 50 k from our over-night stop in Turriff, north to the coast at Banff and then west towards the Moray Firth, was ideal. A late start was inevitable as Neil attempted to re-book rail tickets from Forres, to beat the strike, Bry and I deciding to play it long and continue as planned – with a buffer of a few days at the end of the trip – when hopefully the trains can get back to normal. Lunch was at the delightful fishing village of Port Soy – well-known to birders for the wintering flock of White-billed Diver. The NCN 1 then heads inland, in a large loop, to rejoin the coast at Cullen Bay. The ride was demanding – more rolling Aberdeenshire hills to contend with and we did get caught in our first heavy downpour – but we arrived in late afternoon sunshine to enjoy a beer in the hotel garden before supper and bed. Only new bird for the trip was a much anticipated Stonechat. Today is a different story…

Day 3 – Aberdeen to Turriff

The housing estates of Aberdeen – brightened by a lovely show of wild flowers

Yesterdays 80+ kilometres stage – the longest of the current trip – was a relentless repechage across the rolling Aberdeenshire countryside. Several early sections were along a disused railway, affording long-distance views to the Cairngorms, way over to the west. Lunch was taken at Tarves before a tough afternoon – punctuated by tea at Maud – brought us to our over-night stop at Turriff. Amidst the ‘blood, sweat and tears’, we did manage to add a couple of birds to the list – a calling Curlew and, at one point, a little ‘hot-spot’ of Corn Bunting. Returning to our digs after super, on the banks of the local burn, a very obliging and unexpected Spotted Flycatcher.

We’ve spent much of yesterday evening and this morning considering the implications for the national rail strike, which looks ever more likely to go ahead now. Being stuck at ‘the top end’ without a means of getting back had us seriously considering aborting the whole thing but, every resourceful and resilient, we may have come up with a Plan B!