Our Icelandic Saga Part 2

I put my finger on the top of my phone screen and pulled it down. A new email popped up in my inbox entitled ‘Iceland Calling’. It was the beginning of April this year and two days previously I had updated our profile on the Workaway website to say we were travelling to Iceland. Alla, Ragnar and their family, from Eskifjörður, were quick off the mark, inviting us to come and live with them in June and help them with their garden. Knowing only two places in Iceland, neither of which was Eskifjörður, I quickly got my map app going to find its location. It lay on the east side of Iceland in the fjords, about as far away from Reykjavik in the west as it is possible to get which ever way one travels around the Hringvegur (Iceland’s ring road). “Why not?”, we said. Their profile sounded interesting and we love staying with locals as we find out so much more about the country. A few emails later we were fixed up to arrive at theirs around the end of June.

Now we were standing at the bottom of their road feeling nervous and excited, wondering what they were like, how we would get on and what work we would be doing.

Alla and Ragnar’s house in Eskifjörður

We needn’t of worried. We got off to a great start with a large caramel cake. Always a winner in my book. Alla and Ragnar have six children between them. Siggi (15), Sólveig(13) and Guðbrandur(9) were away from home for the summer with family in the west. That left Vilhjálmur(14), Kristrún(11-almost 12) and Jóhanna(1) at home. Jóhanna immediately decided that Jerry was a new ‘afi’ (grandad) in her life, pointing at him and repeating the word. I was left nameless. Vilhjálmur and Kristrún were far more interested in teaching us how to say ‘Eyjafjallajökull’ (the name of the volcano that erupted in 2010 bringing European airspace to a standstill) and persuading us to try the Icelandic delicacy of fermented shark. Thankfully, Alla and Ragnar took us out for an evening walk straight after dinner to show us around their home town so the shark tasting was delayed until 9pm. The meat comes in 1cm size cubes, and Ragnar keeps it in a sealed jar in the fridge. Alla warned us not to touch it with our fingers as the smell would last for days. Each wielding a cocktail stick, we jabbed in the jar and found a cube. They are white and a little chewy. The initial flavour was strongly fishy, but not too unpleasant. The lingering after taste was of foul, rotting fish. And, boy, did it linger. I reckoned I could still taste it in my mouth three days later. As a reward for our courage, we were each given a schnapps glass of Brennivín, a clear, unsweetened schnapps that is considered to be Iceland’s signature distilled beverage. Made from fermented grain or potato mash and flavoured with caraway, it is traditionally drunk with the fermented shark at the mid-winter feast of Þorrablót. It’s about 40% proof and cleaned our mouths out a treat. Another slice of caramel cake also helped.

Visiting the fermented shark drying shed

Our days at Eskifjörður were filled with a mixture of work, touring, conversation, cooking and a lot of fun. Workaway is based on a fair exchange of labour for food and accommodation with a good amount of cultural exchange thrown in. We scraped, sanded and painted their sixteen windows and three doors, as well as weeding around two sides of their house. We were fascinated to learn that the paint here can be used at temperatures below zero, but at that temperature it takes about four days to dry. We were basking in some balmy east coast weather of around 15-18°C so the primer took a mere two days and the top coat just 24 hours. For the doors, we found a product very familiar to us, Ronseal woodstain and had them all sorted in just 36 hours.

Before and after of our work on the front door

Ragnar took us out on regular tours to explore the Icelandic landscapes near and far. One of our first was a trip over to Akureryri, the second largest town in Iceland with a population of 20,000. He was driving his son, Vilhjálmur, over to a summer camp working on a farm in the west and asked if we would like to go along. Pétur, his good mate, also came to share the driving, well, do most of it as Ragnar dislikes driving. It was a fun road trip. We played games with Vilhjálmur on the five hour trip over and listened to Icelandic folk music and Ragnar and Pétur chatting on the way home. Outside the car, open landscapes whizzed past, knotty birch woodlands, flower filled meadows, vast tracks of barren lava fields, racing, grey, glacial rivers and distant views of mist covered mountains. Our tour guides filled us interesting facts and information about the places we passed and what we were seeing. We stopped off at Goðafoss, the Waterfall of the Gods, on the way out and the volcanic area of Mývatn on the return trip. Goðafoss got its name back in AD1000 when Iceland decided to adopt Christianity. Thorgeir, the lawmaker at the time who made the decision after 24 hours of solitary deliberation, was baptised and threw his all this pagan idols over this waterfall in a show of his change to the new religion.

Goðafoss – Waterfall of the Gods

Mývatn translates as midge water. The lake here was formed about 2300 years ago along a volcanic fissure and has a fearsome reputation for being the birthing place of millions of small black flies – thankfully not the biting kind. It is also a bright oasis in the middle of large black lava fields, full of bird life and amazing rock formations. Our quick pit stop was at some sulphurous steam vents when the mud bubbles and burbs as it boils to the surface heated by hot magma beneath the surface. Iceland is geological rock formation in action.

Just as we were leaving Akureyri for the return trip to Eskifjörður, Pétur asked if we minded if we popped in to see his aunt. Bryndís met us at the door of her house that has a splendid view down over Eyjafjörður, the wide valley and sea loch on which Akureyri stands, and welcomed us. As we sat chatting over a mug of ‘kaffi’ we discovered her link with Scotland. A few years back, she was studying the Orkney sagas with a local group and they all decided to visit the Orkney Islands and see the landscape of the stories. Whilst there she bumped into Jenny Bruce, the Coordinator of the Scottish Diaspora Tapestry, a millennium project that supported stitchers around the globe with a link to Scotland to design and embroider tapestry panels to tell the story of Scots in their land. Bryndís discovered that the Scots who had voyaged to Iceland over 1000 years ago and whose stories are told in some of the Icelandic sagas were not included. It didn’t take her long to decide to do something about it. She has spent the last few years raising funds, commissioning a designer and coordinating Icelandic stitchers to produce five panels. She also supported the exhibition of the Scottish Diaspora Tapestry Panels in Iceland on their way back to Britain from Quebec.

Bryndís Símonardóttir with her dogs and the Scottish Diaspora Tapestry book

The five Icelandic panels will be completed by this autumn and will join the other three hundred panels in their permanent exhibition home in Prestonpans. I wish I could remember the stories the Icelandic panels tell, as Bryndís related them to us but my memory is not that good. I do however, remember that they involve two strong women who beat the odds to make their homes and build their families here in Iceland.

Food plays a large rôle in every culture and Iceland is no exception. We were keen to try local dishes and Alla and Ragnar pulled out all the stops to accomplish this. Sheep’s head is a favourite meal here with some. Ragnar’s dad is particularly partial to it and so he was invited to supper the day Alla cooked it. These days it has the brains removed at the abbattoir and the wool burnt off. The whole head is boiled and served with neeps (swede). Ragnar suggested we just start with half the lower jaw and we followed his advice. The meat was very tender and came easily off the bone. It was tasty and, other than the texture of the gum, was very pleasant. Ragnar’s dad took a whole half head and made a big thing of showing us he was eating the eyeball. He loves it and says it is very tasty, but trying it was a step too far for me.

Johanna’s face on seeing Ragnar’s dad eat the sheep’s eyeball

Meat is a big thing in the Icelanders diet and we ate a lot of it over the two weeks. Most Icelanders have a gas barbecue and make full use of it everytime the sun comes out. Lamb is most common, but also pork and beef. The supermarket sells it in vacuum packs ready marinated. Hot dogs are another of Ragnar’s favourite’s. They are called pylsur here and are sold at almost every petrol station.

Barbecue action

They love their sauces and seem to have one for every dish. Special to Iceland is skyr, a very thick yoghurt and we had it for lunch mixed with cream and eggs. It also comes in fruit flavours. Alla cooked us traditional pönnukökur, thin pancakes served with rhubarb jam and whipped cream. And another day made Skyrkaka, a yoghurt cake similar to a British cheese cake. It was all very delicious and there is no doubt we put on some fat during our stay.

In return we produced a couple of British meals: Shepherd’s pie and shortbread with raspberries and cream; and, Beef stew with dumplings and Lemon Meringue Pie. We also served afternoon tea with scones, jam and cream.
There were so many highlights to our stay. Here are a few in pictures:

Visiting the old calcite mine

Cod fishing trip

Visiting the remote Mjóifjörður

Colourful Icelandic stones at Petra’s Rock collection

Kittiwake nests at Bakkagerði

Yummy Icelandic Ice Cream

Pönnukökur – Icelandic pancakes

Our two week stay turned out to be an amazingly rich, cultural and culinary exchange, full of fun, touring and a little bit of work on the side. Thank you Alla, Ragnar, Vilhjálmur, Krístrun, Jóhanna, Pétur and Eik.

Our Wonderful Hosts – Ragnar and Alla

Advertisements

Our Icelandic saga part 1

Just as we were beginning this tour, a friend asked me whether we had ever chosen to spend a day stationary in the tent because the weather was so bad. My answer then was no, we had always got out and ridden somewhere, even if only for a few hours. All that changed in Iceland.

Our arrival into the country had gone smoothly. We collected our bikes in their giant boxes from the oversized luggage dump and wheeled them out in their boxes on two trolleys to the purpose built Bike Pit just out side the terminal building at Keflavik airport.

The customised bike pit at Keflavik airport

There we spent a couple of hours reconstructing them and checking they had survived the flight undamaged. Just as we were completing the task Jill, from the US turned up to deconstruct her bike. She was leaving Iceland a week early after two weeks cycling around the south and west feeling cold, being rained on everyday and blasted from every direction by the wind. Outside the warm Bike Pit the sky was overcast, the wind was whistling along and occasional light showers were passing by. We had started our tour in Scotland in the hope of acclimatising ourselves to the type of weather that we expected in Iceland but had ended up cycling in one of the warmest Mays for a long time. This Icelandic weather was going to be a bit of a shock to the system.

Day one was not too bad. After a few introductory chores, such as getting cash, food and visiting a garage to get a frayed cable end cut off, we set off across the flat, lava covered Reykanes peninsular with a tail wind and no rain. We were sailing along at 17 mph (28kph) enjoying spotting birds really close up that we would normally only see at a distance after having climbed 2500ft up a Scottish mountain. Golden plover wandered around in the rough, roadside fields. Redshank flew up from the verges as we passed and flew, pipping a warning call, just in front of us for 10 metres or so,until they decided that we were no longer a threat and returned to their original location. This was a pleasant introduction, which we appreciated as we were still coming to terms with having arrived in a new country for the first time on our bike tours by plane. Our border crossings are usually a gradual change of climate and vegetation completed over a number of days, not just a few hours. The landscape here was starkly different to Glasgow, where we left the UK. There were no trees, or shrubs and so the buildings and houses stood harshly on the ground. Most of the houses are roofed and covered in painted, wrinkly tin. The modern industrial buildings are cubic and rendered in cement.
What we had not appreciated before arriving is that we had landed on the american continent. Yes, that is correct. Iceland was created on the Mid-Atlantic ridge and the western half is on the american continent and the eastern half the european. It is less than 200 miles from Greenland and over 600 from their nearest european neighbour, Norway. Culturally, though it is european, the Vikings having settled here just over 1000 years ago, though perhaps this is changing with the modern influence of American television. There is one place in Iceland where the Mid Atlantic Ridge can be seen on dry land as a major fissure. The American and Eurasian tectonic plates are pulling apart by about 2cm every year. A bridge has been built across the small, lava dust filled canyon and so it is possible to walk between the two continents in a matter of seconds. We took our bikes across and sat in its shelter, out of the wind, for some lunch.

The Mid-Atlantic ridge

That afternoon, we quickly appreciated that our daily distances on Iceland would be hugely dictated by the wind. We turned a corner on the road to start heading eastwards and found ourselves with a headwind. Our speed dropped to just 7 mph (11kph). The difference in distance covered over, say, five hours would be great. Into even a mild head wind we might only cover 30 miles (50km) but downwind in the same wind we would cover nearer 90 miles(140km). Estimating when we would arrive with our Workaway hosts in the East Fjords, over 450 miles (700km) away was going to be difficult. It might take us four days or a fortnight!
The next morning the rain was hammering on the tent roof and was forecast to last until the early afternoon. The idea of cycling into a head wind filled with rain and being cold and wet for hours was unappealing. The campsite at Grindavik, where we were staying had a lovely, warm indoor camp kitchen – far more appealing. We decided to wait there and see what the weather did in the afternoon and maybe leave later. In the event, it did not dry up until after 3pm and after an hour of debating whether to leave or not we left the tent where it was and went for an explore of the village.

Grindavík Flag house

Overall, after a month so far in Iceland, we have been very lucky with the weather. We have had only one day of cycling continuously into head winds. It has not rained very much, the sun has shone and we have even been in our shorts several days. I understand from emails from friends and family that Iceland has had its worst summer for 100 years. But I think for “Iceland”, read “Reykjavik” because where we have been and, certainly, where we are now in the East Fjords the weather has been mostly warm and dry. We have been barbecuing and applying suntan lotion. Our only serious brush with the elements here took place about a week in. We had been following the Icelandic weather forecasting that shows wind speed, precipitation and temperature and noticed a few days ahead that the colours used for the wind speed were showing very bright and vivid for a couple of days ahead. After converting metres per second into miles per hour we realised that the winds predicted were gale force and stronger.

In the teeth of a gale – the Icelandic weather forecast on my phone

At the time we were camping at Skaftafell, just below Vatnajökull, the largest icecap in Europe. We had one day’s food left and the next day was Sunday. Our choice was to stay put for three days, visiting a shop that was about 6 miles (10km) away for some more supplies; cycle part way to the next ‘big’ settlement of Höfn, sit out the storm and make our one day’s rations last for two days; or cycle 90 miles (140km) to Höfn in one day. The wind was expected to be much stronger at Skaftafell so we decided we would set off early when the winds had been generally lighter and see whether we could make the whole distance in one day and take the middle option if we hit head winds that slowed our progress too much. We set out at 7am and were treated to a clear view of the icecap and its many outflow glaciers, something we hadn’t seen as we had approached on our way to the National Park. Much to our surprise, the first 20km were not into a head wind and we made such good progress that by 10am we had covered over a third of the distance. By lunch, and with a tail wind we were just 40km away. We sat on the flower filled verge and enjoyed a short break in some warm sunshine. It was difficult to believe that such high winds were on the way. The last 20km were hard work as we turned south and had a steady head wind. Jerry led most of the way, and I did my best to keep up with his blistering pace, reassuring myself that the wind would still be too strong the next day and we would be having a day off. We reached the campsite at Höfn by 3pm and after a visit to the supermarket for supplies, we went in search of shelter at the campsite. Strangely, there were hedges around the campervan parking places but little shelter for the tents. We pitched behind a small fence and hoped for the best. Other people seemed to be taking less care in their choice for tent spot and we wondered whether they had seen the forecast. It was still calm and sunny and no sign of the storm to come. Even when I went to the loo at 11pm there was still only a breeze blowing. By 2am the tent was rattling and I was awoken by a loud flapping. After a bit of careful listening, I decided it was not our tent though ours was swinging around above us. We heard voices from the next door tent and the sounds of rapid packing up. We had a nervous and tense couple of hours lying watching our tent move around above us and occasionally zipping up the outer doors that had blown open. By 4.30am the wind had eased slightly and both Jerry and I dropped off to sleep again. Awake again at 6am, I heard what sounded like a peg hitting the tent. For a moment, I thought it was one of ours but then I heard our other neighbour packing up so I assumed it was one of theirs and went back to sleep. At 8.30am we decided to get up and see what the world looked like outside. The wind was still whistling across the campsite and only our and one other tent were still pitched. I sat on the loo and cried a few tears of relief. I find it stunning that a couple of pieces of fabric, three poles and twelve pegs can stand up in 40mph winds. And on returning to the tent, I discovered that the peg hitting the tent had been ours and so our tent had survived for over two hours with a tent peg missing. Luckily, I think most of the car campers had taken their tents down and retired to their vehicles when the wind got strong. Only one tent was left in its torn up state on the campsite. This event has given us a huge respect for the Icelandic weather and the speed at which it can change.

An Icelandic view out of our tent

When we decided to cycle tour in Iceland this summer, I received an email from my eldest sister saying that her daughter had taken a job at a trekking stable there for the summer. We arranged to call in and see her in Vik, the most southerly point on Iceland. It´s the turn around point for many tourists on a week’s stopover between mainland Europe and the States. Hilary was thoroughly enjoying her work with the Icelandic horses. They have no ponies here, as there is only a word for horse – hester. The horses have an extra gait here called Tölt. It is a bit slower than a trot and the riders are able to hold a very steady seat. This was the first time Hilary had worked specifically with Icelandic horses and she was being shown the ropes by Sanna, an experienced Finnish horsewoman.

Hester women, Hilary and Sanna

It seems that much of the tourist industry here is staffed by foreign workers. Even on the minimum wage, they earn more here than they can in more skilled jobs elsewhere in Europe. We were lucky enough to be offered the chance to go on an hour long trek along the black sand beach. Jerry decided to stick to his own two feet, mindful of not over stretching his scar. I donned bright orange rain gear as it was drizzling and joined an American family, under the capable instruction and guidance of Sanna and Hilary, for a delightful ride.

The scenery here in Iceland is breathtaking. The horizons are huge, steep cliffs, high snow capped mountains and cascading waterfalls. Every turn in the road brought another vista and photo opportunity. Tourists tend to herd together, so if we stopped at a quiet layby, we would be quickly joined by a car or campervan with the occupants looking to see what we had stopped to view. We have been known to call in where others have stopped for the same reasons. Some stops are incredibly popular, particularly when they are on the coach stops. Here are some pictures of some of the amazing places we visited in our first two weeks as we cycled west to east around the south side of the island:

Vistas around Vik

Waterfalls galore

Fjaðrárgljúfur canyon

Skaftafell outflow glacier

Jökulsárlón glacier lake

Cycling in the East Fjords

One additional place that we visited and thoroughly recommend is Vestmannaeyar (West man Islands), named after the Irish slaves that lived here in the medieval period. I was particularly interested to visit as the archipelago includes the new island of Surtsey that appeared out of the Atlantic ocean back in 1963 and is therefore about the same age as me.

Vestmannaeyjar

The main inhabited island is Heimay and it has a population of over 2000 people as well as thousands of puffins, kittiwakes, guillemots, fulmars and other sea birds. Its steep sea cliffs reminded us of St Kilda, where we were the nature reserve wardens thirty years ago. Its harbour entrance is dramatic and narrow, made even more so after a volcanic eruption in 1973, the lava flows of which threatened to close it completely.

Harbour entrance Heimay, Vestmannaeyjar

It was only kept open by seamen blasting cold seawater onto the end of the flow to cool it and prevent it from flowing further. The ferry twists and turns its way into the harbour past towering cliffs covered in nesting sea birds and moors up next to large trawlers off loading their catches of cod.

Ditching the bikes for the day, we headed out on foot to explore the island. Loafing on the beaches were crowds of Eider ducks. The males more visible in their cream and black plumage than the females in their mottled brown. The wind was blowing in from the west and anything loose was rolled across the beach. Caught on a piece of seaweed, we spotted some brown fluff – eider down. Jerry scooped it up and immediately felt his hand growing warm under its cover. No wonder it became the stuffing of choice for bed covers. We started collecting all the down we found. By the end of the day we had a large handful fully lofted, it packed down into about 1 centimetre cube. Our 12 mile walking tour took in the headland with the highest recorded windspeed in Iceland. Back in February 2015 the strongest ten minute average windspeed measured 46 metres per second (103mph) was recorded at the Stórhöfði lighthouse. It was a little lighter when we wandered past. Our other major excitement on the island was to climb a hill that did not exist when we were born. We stood on the top of the 221m high volcano and realised that we were finally ‘older than the hills, or at least the rocks’.

Older than the hills – that’s old!

The end of our first two weeks in Iceland found us entering the east fjords, the area, reminiscent of the fjords in Norway, was the first area to be settled by the Vikings back in the ninth century. Each day included head and tail winds as we cycled inland and back along the sides of the fjords. We completed our first two Icelandic tunnels.

Fáskrúðsfjörður tunnel

Well lit, and not so busy, they were a joy to ride and they cut out a steep climb and a long cycle around a headland. On a sunny afternoon we entered Eskifjorður, past a spectacular cascading waterfall and cycled up Botnabraut to meet our Workaway hosts Alla and Ragnar.

Our Icelandic home in Eskifjörður with Alla and Ragnar and family

Our Icelandic saga Part 2 coming shortly.

West coast wonders

When you look at a map of the west coast of Scotland, it quickly becomes apparent that the shortest road distance to Glasgow can be achieved by the canny use of a few ferries. It’s a good reminder that boats used to be the most effective means of travel between communities in these western, fjord-like, rugged landscapes. However, we arrived on the Isle of Skye not by boat but by the bridge that usurped the car ferry in 1995.

Its construction has been a mixed blessing for the islanders. First there were unpopular tolls to pay to the private venture company that had built the bridge. Many locals refused to pay and ended up in court before the Scottish parliament decided to purchase the bridge for a reported £27 million. One non-payer, Clodagh MacKenzie, an elderly woman whose land had been compulsorily purchased from her for the bridge construction site, found all the non-payment charges against her mysteriously dropped. The bridge brought a rapid increase in visitors to the island creating more tourism opportunities and increasing revenue for those that could capitalise on this. Those that came also started buying property and house prices skyrocketed leaving many locals unable to buy their own home. Now the Airbnb craze is reducing the stock of long term rental homes leaving hotels and restaurants short of staff.
We cycled over the bridge on another hot, sunny day – our tenth in a row – and headed first towards Broadford before taking a quieter road southwards down the islands east coast. Both Jerry and I have been professional sailors in the past and have been grateful, in a gale, of the shelter afforded by the Isle Ornsay, a small island almost linked to Skye at low tide. For old times sake, we headed there to camp and reminisce about windy nights swinging around in the anchorage and praying that the anchor would hold until day break. It always had. We actually found a wild campsite, a little further down the coast out on a flat, grassy headland looking across the Sound of Sleat to the ‘rough bounds’ of Knoydart, the most remote tract of land in Britain. It was a beautiful spot, but the moment the breeze dropped, the midges appeared. We had been remarkably lucky with the lack of midges on our trip. A long winter and late spring had kept them at bay for an additional three weeks. Now they were back with a vengence and we dug out our midge head nets from the depths of our panniers and kept the tent mesh doors firmly closed. Jerry is a hero when it comes to any biting fly and bravely goes out of the tent to cook supper and breakfast while I’ll happily cower away in the tent.

Jerry cooking in the midge zone

In the morning, when we strike camp, we keep covered up from head to toe except for our hands until everything is packed and loaded and we have walked back to the roadside and a bit of breeze. Only then do we risk returning to shorts and t-shirt. During the day, it was easy to forget the midges existed, especially as it was so sunny and breezy, but in the still evenings they were back clouding around our tent.

Having arrived via the bridge, we left by the ferry from Armadale to Mallaig. We were on familiar territory now, having lived around this part of the world for several years back in the eighties and nineties. Mallaig has changed from a fishing port with a few tourists to a tourist port with a few fishing boats. Many Harry Potter fans find their way here on the railway track from Fort William that crosses the magnificent concrete Glenfinnan viaduct that features in the movies. Still sticky and hot, we treated ourselves to another tub of ice cream. I do like cycle touring as I don’t have to worry about how much food I am consuming – well, only if it is not enough!
Until this trip, we thought the most westerly point on mainland Britain was Ardnamurchan lighthouse. We weren’t so far wrong, it lies on the same peninsula but a mile further south in a headland called Corrachadhmór. We followed the rolling road westwards along the wooded north shore of Loch Sunart and were overtaken on an uphill section by a couple on electric bikes. They were cruising and looking cool. We were lathered in a potent mix of sweat and sun screen. They suggested we were on the wrong bikes, to which Jerry responded that their bikes were too heavy for us. As I plodded on, I was thinking that our fully loaded tourers would definitely win the weight challenge. This proved to be the case, when a few miles later, on a long, steep downhill, our extra kilogrammes took us speeding past them. I thought we would probably keep leap frogging each other, but we didn’t meet again.
A thick seafog rolled in up the loch from the cool seas out west obliterating views to the south and providing dramatic views out west. When we later arrived at Ardnamurchan light, it was shrouded in mist and we only knew the sea was close by the sounds of waves lapping somewhere nearby.

Sea mist surrounds Ardnamurchan light

Tobermory, on the Isle of Mull, is one of my favourite ports. Not only is it picturesque, with its brightly painted buildings nestling around the harbour, it is a sheltered anchorage, has good shops and a famous pub, at least amongst yachties, called the Mishnish. In more recent years, harbour facilities have been constructed for boat-based visitors and we headed to these for our first shower and clothes wash for a week. Delicious. A week is about our limit, after that we start to feel really skanky. Once, during the winter in Sardinia, we went for twelve days. Every time I went into the warmth of an Italian supermarket I could smell my odour increasing as I warmed up. I hoped I wouldn’t be stood in the checkout queue for very long.
We strung a washing line up between two posts of the covered harbourside picnic benches and chatted to coach tour visitors while our clothes dried. Oh, and ate another tub of ice cream – after all the heatwave was still in full force.

Drying our washing in Tobermory

That evening we found a flower filled meadow overlooking the harbour in which to camp.
The next day we cycled down the east coast to Craignure and took the ferry to Oban, a fishing port on the Scottish mainland. There we visited our favourite seafood shack right on the harbour front and treated ourselves to a meal en plein air.
Our fitness and stamina had grown massively since leaving home. Hill climbs, except in the heat, were becoming easier and we were able to keep on cycling for four or five days in a row rather than being desperate for a break after just three. With all the sunshine, we were back to a southern Europe tan colour, and we had lost some of our ‘rest year’ lardiness. We were starting to feel like we might be ready to take on Iceland in the summer.
Argyll and Bute was all that lay between us and Glasgow from where we had booked our flights. We know it better from the sea and have rarely ventured into by land. South of Oban, we stopped off at Kilmartin Glen. An area that has been inhabited by human beings for 5000 years and where Christianity was first brought to the Scottish mainland by Irish monks. Not surprisingly then, it has one of the richest concentrations of pehistoric monuments and historical sites in Scotland. We opted to do a self-guided walking tour that started at the village church. Here there is an extensive collection of early Christian and medieval carved stones. Many of them once graced the graves of local landowners or noblemen but none are named. The skilful celtic stone carving shows intricate knot work and human figures.

Stone carvings at Kilmartin

Nearby we discovered prehistoric stone circles where ancient people carried out their rites in pre-christian times. The place felt very spiritual and tranquil.
Negotiating our way through a field of cows and calves with a bull, we arrived at the small estate church of Poltalloch. Very little stood out about the church itself, it was much like any built in the nineteenth century, but on its rear wall was a list of all those from the estate who served in the first and second world wars. Not only did this strike me as unusual as mostly it is just the dead who are named, but this list also named the women too, something I had never seen previously. How enlightened.
We ferry hopped our way eastwards across the long fingers of sea that stretch northwards in the Clyde. We called into Tighnabruaich, a coastal village, and sat in the sunshine remembering the son of a friend who died recently and who had enjoyed many happy holidays here in his youth.
Yes, the sun was still shining! We enjoyed almost three weeks of gorgeous weather with not a drop of rain all the way from Durness to the outskirts of Glasgow. What a privilege and a joy to tour the west coast in such amazing conditions.
On our way into Glasgow we stopped off at two very different places: Faslane Peace Camp and the Rennie Mackintosh designed Hillhouse in Helensburgh. The former is a ramshackle collection of caravans and coaches that lies to the south of the nuclear submarine base on the Clyde. It has been occupied continuously since 1982 in opposition to the deployment of nuclear weapons. Occasional protests occur and a silent vigil is held outside the north gate of the naval base every Wednesday. The camp met a lot of our stereotypical expectations of such a site. It was dirty, there were quite a few dogs, some people using weed and alcohol and the caravans were painted in bright colours. However, we spent a very pleasant evening around their campfire chatting to some of the current residents and finding out about their lives.

Faslane Peace Camp

The Hillhouse lies high on the hill above Helensburgh with views down the Clyde. Walter Blackie, the Scottish publisher, commissioned Charles Rennie Mackintosh to design a home for him and his family at the beginning of the twentieth century. It is full of Mackintosh style and design. The building is suffering badly from water ingress as the supposedly watertight concrete render let’s water in but does not breathe it out again. Over the years, there have been several outbreaks of dry rot and now the current custodians, the National Trust for Scotland, have decided to cover the whole building in a transparent shelter. We were lucky enough to see the building in the last days before construction on the shelter begins.

Classic Mackintosh in Hill House living room

After a quick dash down a busy main road to Dumbarton, we followed the more peaceful, and traffic free Forth and Clyde canal to Bishopbriggs. This canal connects the west and east coasts from Glasgow across to Edinburgh. Nowadays it is most famous for the Kelpies statue and the Falkirk wheel at its eastern end, but it’s western end is a green wildlife corridor that is used for walks, cycles and picnics by locals. The yellow waterlilies were just coming into flower along its fringes and one hundred metres long section was full with a ride of wiggling tadpoles.
Our friends, Oge and Walter, at Bishopbriggs welcomed us with open arms and a giant colourful cake. We spent the weekend playing with their children, eating lots of delicious food and opening a toy repair workshop in the kitchen.

The Toy Repair Workshop

Three days before arriving in Glasgow one of Jerry’s molar tooth filings had fallen out. He headed off to Perth for an emergency dental appointment whilst I set about ordering a new sleeping bag as my twenty four year old was no longer keeping me warm on cooler nights. We moved nearer to the airport and stayed with more friends, Dianne and Billy. They had sourced some cardboard bike boxes for us and we spent a whole morning dismantling and wrapping our bikes up ready for our flight to Iceland. A new adventure was about to begin.

All wrapped up with somewhere to go

Iceland adventure begins

A quick update…..

We arrived in Glasgow a week ago after a spectacularly sunny ride down the equally spectacular west coast of Scotland. The midges started (three weeks later than usual due to the late spring) as we crossed Skye and Jerry got used to cooking in a midge head net.

Jerry cooking breakfast at Camus crois on Skye

In Glasgow we packed up our bags and bikes, mended toys for Matthieu and Arianna, and Jerry nipped back to Perth to have a filling replaced.

Yesterday, we and our equipment flew to Iceland and visited the specially provided ‘Bike Pit’ outside the airport to reconstruct our bikes before cycling to a pre-booked guesthouse.

At the guesthouse near Keflavik, Iceland

Today our Iceland adventure begins…

Northwest adventures

We thought we might still go to Orkney after our delayed departure but after much debate at the Crask Inn and lots of looking at mileages we decided what we needed to do was get some fitness back doing some longer days cycling before heading to Iceland in mid-June. So those of you checking out our Facebook page @twobikesandatent will have noticed that we have been heading across the north coast of Scotland over the last week.

(By the way, this is a public Facebook page so anyone can view it without being signed up to the behemoth.)
Back in January 1997, the coldest winter for a long time, Jerry and I camped at Dunnet Head whilst on a car road trip around the north of Scotland. It is the most northerly point in mainland Scotland, being over two miles further north than nearby John O’Groats. This time the sun shone and when we got out of the cold wind beside the old lighthouse keepers’ walled garden it was positively balmy. The entrance to the walled garden was blocked by a pile of old tyres, perhaps to prevent toilet use, but peering in we could see the rhubarb was growing strong. Risking stings from the copious nettles, I climbed over the tyres and picked my way gingerly over to the rhubarb patch and selected four tender stems to twist from the plant base. Chopped up and stewed gently on our petrol stove, they went down very well with our strawberry Greek yoghurt, so well in fact, we took some more stems with us the next day.

Lighthouse keepers’ rhubarb

Earlier in the day we had called in at Duncansby Head, the most northeasterly point, and hatched a new scheme to cycle across the north coast all the way to Cape Wrath, the most northwesterly point. Cape Wrath is a 100 square mile tract of moorland that is often closed to public access as the MOD like using it for target practice, particularly from frigates bobbing around off the coast. Luckily for us it reopened for public access in the second week of May, and the summer passenger ferry to cross the Kyles of Durness had started running. We set off from Dunnet head in high spirits to begin the roller coaster cycle along the northern A roads. Not far out of Thurso we ran into David Jones, a baritone on a JoGLE (John O’Groats to Lands End) with a difference. Besides cycling the whole way on a folding Brompton cycle, he is performing eighteen concerts en route to raise funds for Live Music Now, a charity bringing live music to care homes and youngsters with disabilities. On of them is in our home city of Perth on Friday 25th May 2018 at 11am in the Concert Hall. He is calling his trip Song Cycle. You can find out more on his website www.song-cycle.com . (Update – David is currently heading down northwest England)
A day off in Bettyhill provided a good opportunity to wash ourselves, our clothes, the bikes and carry out some essential repairs to our tent and my silk sheet sleeping bag that has been slowly ripping down the seam.

Washing day at Bettyhill

We were keen to climb the most northerly munro (Scottish mountain over 3000ft -914m) called Ben Hope as a small side trip, however we were in a mobile data blackhole and unable to get a weather forecast. Maybe it would be better at Tongue the next day. I tried on the Moors heading over, but to no avail. Tongue proved to be a complete mobile signal blackhole so we headed out across the causeway that cuts across the Kyles of Tongue and saves drivers a ten mile detour inland. At the other end, I had signal but no data. So while Jerry phoned his mum to wish her a Happy Birthday, I texted my sister to get a forecast. Her reply was rain all day and poor visibility. Mmm… that didn’t seem quite right, I could see the top of Ben Hope from sea level spot and it wasn’t raining. After further investigation, it turned out my sister was talking about the next day. We had better get a move on, cycle to the bottom of the hill and get up and down it that afternoon.

On the summit of Ben Hope

We awoke the next day to a noisy tent. Rain drops pattering on the outer, and outside misty murk up and down Glen Hope. A miscommunication between us, where we both thought the other wanted to pack up and ride, meant two hours later we were peddling our way west along the north coast in pouring rain, soaking wet and trying to avoid being hit by traffic on the single track roads. After several close shaves with cars squeezing past between passing places we adopted a strategy of riding in the middle of the road and offering vehicle drivers the option of hitting us directly or stopping and waiting. Luckily for us, they all chose the latter option. I think we annoyed a few drivers but at least we are alive to tell the tale.
After 30 miles of wet riding we were ready to stop and chose to stay on the Durness campsite next to a warm, dry pub with some very generous Dutch travellers who plied us with beer. (That’s my excuse for this blog being late.)
So to catch up to date, here are some photos and comments of what we’ve been up to for the last week. We’re now camped at Plockton on the Scottish west coast.

The cinema’s in town

An evening out at the cinema to watch a local film courtesy of the Screen Machine, a touring cinema that brings the movies to the Highlands and Islands of Scotland.

Cape Wrath lighthouse – the most NW point

We achieved a long held ambition to catch the foot ferry and cycle the 11 miles of rough track out to the most northwesterly point in mainland Britain, Cape Wrath. Day 1 of heatwave.

Waiting for the ferry

A birdwatching trip to Handa to see the huge colonies of nesting guillemots and Razorbills. We caught sight of a few puffins, lots of Bonxies (Great skuas), terns, arctic skuas and a pair of black throated divers.

Suilven standing proud

The hilly roads of Assynt with their plethora of arrows (steeper than 12%) kept us sweating on days three and four of the heatwave and also rewarded us with white sandy beaches, golden eagles and stunning mountain views. We ate a whole litre tub of Mackie’s honeycomb ice cream in a vain attempt to cool down.

Friends, sun and cake in Aultbea

Continuing our journey south past Ullapool we reconnected with Alan and Karen who we first met at the Crask Inn. They were renting a holiday apartment at Aultbea and we joined them for a couple of nights and lovely day out touring the area and visiting Inverewe gardens. Karen cooked amazing meals, we took them to a small café with delicious cake and Alan treated us to a meal at the local inn. So we are restocked for our continuing journey. We chatted loads and loved hearing all their tales of adventures and escapades on travels around the globe.

Wild camping in the Torridon hills

Day seven of the heatwave, and we were into prime midge country around Torridon. We camped on a very windy knoll to chase them away and enjoyed clear views of lochs and mountains. Next morning two Slavonian Grebes fished in the bay in front of the tent. We’re reminded of Portuguese heat and are now seeking the shade for our breaks.

Seeking shade at Attadale gardens

Pottering southwards, we enjoyed a smooth ride down Torridon to the sea at Shieldaig and a resupply at the village shop – Ardennes paté, juicy oranges and biscuits. That afternoon, seeking more shade, we called in to Attadale gardens and enjoyed their collection of Meconopsis (Himalayan Poppies) as well as a water garden, vegetable plot and a rhododendron glade. We left around 5pm to find a camping spot. We’d cycled another 14 hilly miles to Plockton before we found somewhere flat enough to pitch. Luckily, it also had hazy views of the Cuillins on Skye.