I’ve been thinking about the fantastic trip I made to the Shetland isles a few years ago. The journey didn’t go at all according to plan but turned out to be more fun than I could ever have hoped for.
I traveled, as I prefer to, by surface transport – train to Aberdeen then over-night boat to Lerwick. I took my new bicycle (Cuddy) with me since I was planning to tour the islands. The crossing was pretty rough – I suffered seasickness for the first time in my life… although I continue to blame the red wine I had with dinner.
In the grey light of Sunday morning we arrived at Lerwick harbour. As Cuddy and I rolled off the ferry I discovered she had a flat tire. Slightly later I found this was due to a broken valve and that neither of my spare inner tubes would fit. It turned out that my shiny new Cuddy used fancy, long valves due to the fancy, deep touring rims on her wheels. I hadn’t been aware of this until that moment. I took up residence in Lerwick’s SYHA hostel since the local bike shop wouldn’t open until lunchtime.
You may imagine the joy I felt that afternoon, on learning that fancy, long-valved inner tubes could not be found in Lerwick for love nor money. How was I to embark upon a cycle tour without wheels?
That evening in the hostel I met an Indian guy named Jaise. He was, most interestingly to me, employed at the Centre for Alternative Technology in Wales. We had much scintillating chat on the subjects of science and greeniness. He told me he was planning to head up to the northern islands to visit an eco-house he’d heard of up there.
I stayed in Lerwick for a few days wondering what to do now that my intended cycle tour had been scuppered. During this time I took the bus to the southern tip of the main island to visit the ancient settlement of Jarlshof. This is a fantastic site. Excavations have been left in such a way as to present the remains of buildings from various points in the 4,000 year life of the settlement. The best part is that I was able to get right in amongst the ruins, walk the paths and sit in the houses that were used by our Bronze Age ancestors. It is a beautiful and atmospheric location.
As well as being a great experience in itself, this little side trip showed me that it would be quite possible to make my tour of the islands by bus instead of bike. I wouldn’t have the same freedom of movement but I would be able to travel much further and faster. I headed north.
Late one afternoon I arrived on Unst – the most northerly island in the Shetland group and the tipity-top point in Britain. The friendly bus driver had dropped me off right at the white picket gate of the local hostel. I found myself a bed, had a bite to eat, then headed out to explore the settlement of Uyeasound. It was Midsummer so, this far north, the sun was hardly going to set at all. It was, however, low in the sky and Uyeasound bay was bathed in golden light. It was beautiful.
Returning to the hostel later, I passed a pretty, timber built house I’d noticed on my outward journey. It was clearly newly built and was quite striking. From his porch the proud owner waved and wished me good evening. I stopped to chat and after a while found myself invited in for a cup of tea. I wouldn’t usually accept such invitations from strangers but I had a good feeling about this man. It soon became apparent that this was the zero carbon house I had heard about in Lerwick. At some point in the evening there was a knock at the front door. It was none other than Jaise, the very chap who’d told me about this house in the first place. Quel coïncidence!
What followed was one of the most entertaining and exhilarating evenings of conversation I’ve ever had. The owner, Michael Rea is a fascinating man. As well as building this cutting edge and entirely carbon-neutral house all by himself, Michael had lived such an interesting life. Among other things he had once worked as an assistant to the wonderful sculptor Barbara Hepworth! Also, he plied with me with so many cups of tea I believe it slightly altered my body chemistry… it took me several days to recover. I have very warm memories of his hospitality.
Jaise was staying at the same hostel as myself. We sat talking with Michael Rea until the early morning. So early in fact that it was still dark when we left. After a few hours sleep it was time to get up in order to catch the bus that would take me to the morning ferry. Jaise was leaving too. We just caught the bus but only because the driver waited while I went back for something I’d forgotten. At the little ferry port who should turn up but the lovely Mr Rea. He was making his monthly journey down to Lerwick and offered Jaise and me a lift.
So, I got to have several more hours of chat with this lovely, lovely man. A perfect end to an interesting and unexpectedly joyful trip.