Day trip to Orkney

Memento Mori
Originally uploaded by fred pipes
Did you think I'd finished with coach trips after my Welsh experience? Well, I'm not against coach trips per se, just ones that start in Brighton and involve long boring bum-numbing periods on congested motorways. I figured that the way to go was to get there by train, and then have the coach trip, and that's what I did here. After travelling to Inverness by sleeper, having a rail trip to Kyle of Lochalsh (and a quick dash to the Isle of Skye and back) and staying the night in a B&B (more in the next blog item), I dragged myself out of bed on 19 August 2009, missed breakfast and headed to the bus station for 7.30 to get a coach north. The day trip was organised by John O'Groats Ferries and cost a hefty £55 but packs a lot into the day. Over the next three hours we crossed bridges over firths and skirted the scenic east coast, passing through Helmsdale and Wick. No motorways here, just roller-coaster roads and stunning views. According to our tour guide this is the best place in the UK to take a driving test - not many roundabouts and few traffic lights (we were also told this about Orkney!).

I'd been warned that John o'Groats was grim, and it was - wet, windy and with no shelter apart from a couple of tiny gift shops and a tea van. It's not even the most northerly point in the UK, just one end of the longest road. The ferry was nowhere to be seen and I was wishing I'd packed more warm clothes, then suddenly out of the mist it was heading for the jetty. The facilities on-board the Pentland Venture were rudimentary, rows of cheap seating below deck and a 'shop' selling water, coke and tickets for Skara Brae (£5.50 for seniors). But it did have a proper porcelain toilet! The 40 minute passage was a bit choppy and soon we arrived at Burwick on the southern tip of the islands to join another coach. We then drove over the 'Churchill Barriers' - concrete causeways to keep German submarines out of Scapa Flow in the war. Apparently we'd sunk old ships to block the passage but in 1939 U-47 had snuck in and torpedoed HMS Royal Oak. Before these four barriers, it must have been difficult to get from island to island.

We had a couple of hours in Kirkwall, so I made for the cathedral of St Magnus, where I took pictiures of the memorial tablets all around the walls, each with a carved skull and crossbones. The cathedral cafe had a huge queue so I had a wander around, spotting the Wireless Museum (but you had to pay to get in so I didn't bother). The cheese and onion sandwiches made by the B&B were a god-send! Back on the coach we headed for Skara Brae, where I made a beeline for the cafe and a cappuccino before trekking down to the coast. The path there contained a timeline of historic events to show how very very old the Neolithic village was. From a distance it looked like a crazy golf course, with neat undulating patches of grass between the excavations. We saw Fred Flintstone's stone bed and stone dresser in the sunken ruins. Then it was onwards to the Ring of Brodgar, a large Neolithic stone circle around a patch of purple heather. After passing the Standing Stones of Stenness and the tomb of Maeshowe, we headed back through Kirkwall and on to the ornate Italian Chapel on Lamb Holm island, built by POWs from two Nissan huts and whatever materials they could lay their hands on. Most of the decoration was done by Domenico Chiocchetti, who remained after the war to finish it off. Apparently there was a narrow-gauge railway in the POW camp.

By now the weather and visibility had improved, but the voyage back to the mainline was so rough I had to go up on deck. The boat was rolling around madly and I had to hang on for dear life, but we saw seals and various interesting birds (don't ask!). Just as we approached Jo'G, the choppy 'white horses' gave way to strange long waves. After the long road journey back to Inverness, I popped in to the Castle Tavern for a pint of Flora MacDonald. An excellent day out- highly recommended!

Top tip: a bloke I was chatting to in the Skara Brae cafe said he'd bought his ticket online through a US travel agent, paying in dollars and thus saving a few bob on the exchange rate!

Inside the Italian Chapel

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