Leg 28 – a day off in Orkney

Time to fix the bike (fingers crossed), and for some sightseeing.

28 May 2013

Post a bit of a late night chatting with fellow campers I was still up relatively early to get to the bike shop as soon as possible. It looked like it was going to be a brighter day, and the wind had dropped a bit which would make cycling easier. I had breakfast and a shower, before following Allan, one of be campsite wardens, to the bike shop – Orkney Cycles. I followed him in his smart car, cycling with my rear brake disconnected to stop the wheel from rubbing; it was pretty bucked now.

Orkney Cycles turned out to be a great bike shop, probably better than any within a 100 miles or so, including the mainland, so I’d struck lucky. It’s also one of the only bike shops on the island so was quite busy, and I was glad I’d got there early. I left the bike with them for half an hour whilst they worked out what they could do to help, and grabbed a cup of tea in town, opposite St.Magnus’ Cathedral.

St Magnus' Cathedral 1

St Magnus’ Cathedral 1

St Magnus' Cathedral 2

St Magnus’ Cathedral 2

Thankfully the bike shop were able to find a new wheel, albeit a racing wheel really, with 32 spokes instead of the 36 I’d had previously. It’s still double rimmed and strong, so should be as good as the previous being a good spec. At the very least it will get me further south where there are more bike shops, but hopefully will last for the whole trip otherwise this is going to get expensive. Didn’t really have a choice anyway given my whereabouts. I’m writing this whilst on the ferry back to the mainland, with my bike 3 decks below me, so can’t tell you the make presently! (Mavic CXP 22) I also got my chain replaced as it was getting worn and had stretched, which would mean it might start slipping or break; not something I wanted to happen on the next leg along he north coast. £130 all done.

Orkney Cycles

It was nice spending a relaxing morning chatting to the staff and other customers, without worrying about how many miles I needed to get done today. It seems there is quite a lot of cycling activity on the island, mostly road biking and time trials rather than mountain biking. There was a constant stream of customers coming in and out, either to hire bikes, or get repairs or advice. The shop also doubled up as a Games Workshop, selling figures; a slightly odd combination but works, will have to dig my old figures out at some point.

Orkney Cycles 2

Cycle Orkney 2

Recommend any tourers passing through Kirkwall drop in and say hello and get your bike checked by the friendly and helpful staff, who no doubt can give you a few tips on where to visit on the islands too.

Post bike fixing I pedalled out of Kirkwall, wanting to visit the Churchill Barriers around Scapa Flow, as well as the Italian Chapel. I’d already decided to spend one more night on Orkney, so had booked in at the same campsite in Kirkwall again and would head back to the mainland on Wednesday – think Wednesday anyway, losing track of what day it is slightly. Just a short ride today would give my legs, and body in general, a bit of a break. I very nearly stopped in at the leisure centre for a massage, but the weather was really too good to not get out. Nice not to have to pack up my tent, and to ride without panniers. Of course I did have to contend with the wobbles for a bit, until I got used to the much lighter bike again! It feels really weird for a bit, and the front wheel wobbles all over the place.

Looking back and down to Kirkwall

Looking back and down to Kirkwall

I did have to stop to adjust my back brake, which with the thinner rear rim wasn’t gripping enough, easy and quick job though. All done I rode up the hill and past the Highland Park distillery, where I stopped to look in the shop. They do tours but decided to save my money for a pub dinner later. Smelt pretty good as I rode up to the distillery and was tempted to get a whee dram! They had some expensive whiskys in the shop. I liked the look of their Loki and Thor bottles, but they’re well over £100. I also thought that Loki being a bit of a trickster might mean the whisky isn’t quite what you’d expect, and Thor might just give you a hammering hangover!

Highland Park distillery

Highland Park distillery


Highland Park distillery - steaming chimney

Highland Park distillery – steaming chimney

I pedalled on to St. Mary’s, over some moderate but exposed hills, into the lessened but still mildly irritating south easterly. It didn’t matter as much today as I wasn’t in a rush, the sun was out, and the scenery amazing.

Road to St. Mary's

Road to St. Mary’s


St Mary's - Lobster Pots

St Mary’s – lobster pots. Lobster wanted to sabotage these but the fisherman was around so he decided discretion was the better part of valour and hid.


Churchill Barrier number 1

Churchill Barrier number 1

From St. Mary’s I rode over the first of 4 Churchill Barriers, built in the Second World War, to stop German U-boats and warships from attacking the British fleet, which were based out of Scapa Flow. As well as the Churchill Barriers a host of anti-aircraft defences were also erected pretty swiftly after the outbreak of war. Unfortunately the defences hadn’t been maintained or improved upon since the First World War, and were a little shoddy to start off with as a result. The German U-boat U47 managed to sneak through one of the narrow sounds (Kirkwall Sound I think) and torpedo the British warship HMS Royal Oak, with the loss of over 800 lives. The U-boat got in and out without being caught, so despite the tragic loss of life a pretty gutsy move from its commander. This was before the Churchill Barriers had been built, and whilst a lot of the main fleet were still out at sea; if they’d been in Scapa Flow it could have meant an even worse toll. The defences were much improved by the end of the war, with at least one U-boat being destroyed in the anti submarine nets and minefields.

Post the 1st of the barriers I cycled up to the Italian Chapel, built by Italian POWs during the Second World War, who worked on building the Churchill Barriers.  They felt in need of a spiritual retreat, deprived as they were of other things, and built the chapel with the blessing of the camp commander, out of two donated end to end Nissan shelters, and other material they had to hand. For example bullied beef cans to make the lanterns/candle stick holders on the altar.

Italian Chapel 1

Italian Chapel – built out of two end to end Nissan shelters

Italian Chapel 2

Italian Chapel 2

Italian Chapel 3

Italian Chapel 3


Italian Chapel 4

Italian Chapel 4

The Chapel is a pretty amazing place, with everything having been built by hand. The Islanders promised the Italian POWs to look after it when they left, and it’s become a bit of a place of pilgrimage, restored in the 1960’s when the original Italian responsible for its design and build returned for a visit.

The POWs were also responsible for much of the work on constructing the barriers. Construction began with the scuttling of of old merchant ships to provide a temporary barrier, followed by the laying of large concrete blocks. They provided a very effective barrier, and now join the Orkney east mainland to Burray and South Ronaldsay. It was great cycling across them all, especially in the nice weather, but I wouldn’t like to do it in the winter with a gale blowing, and waves crashing over. 

Skua I think

Skua I think

Old scuttled ship

Old scuttled ship

Sea and amazing colour

Sea and amazing colour, and great sandy beaches

Sandy beaches

Sandy beaches – bit cold still for a dip though

I saw lots of seabirds including Cormorants, Lapwings, Gulls, Oystercatchers, Plovers and I think a Great Skua. Also saw a seal fishing next to one of the barriers. You could see it swimming under the water it was so clear, but didn’t get my phone out in time for a pic.

I had lunch at a little cafe just before barrier 4, attached to the Fossil & Heritage centre. A bowl of butternut squash and ginger soup, plus a smoked salmon an scream cheese toasty for £6, bargain. Treated myself of chocolate cake too.

Lunch break on Burray

Lunch break on Burray

Post lunch I cycled over the last of the barriers and on to St Margaret’s Hope, a small fishing and tourist town, with a pier and ferry too, on South Ronaldsay. 

St. Margaret's Hope

St. Margaret’s Hope

St. Margaret's Hope 2

St. Margaret’s Hope 2

I cycled back to Kirkwall on the same route, but with a tailwind so zipped along at quite a pace, especially with the new wheel. The hills that had taken quite a bit of effort before took half the time this way round. I popped into the bike shop on the way through to let them know the bike was running well, before going to Helgi’s Bar in town for a couple of beers and dinner; it was my day off after all.

Over a fantastic lamb tangine, and a few pints of the Orkney brew Scapa, which is a really good ale, I chatted to a few people. Hamish is a local salesman and travels around the islands selling agricultural products to farmers. Great bloke and seemed to know everyone that came in who was a local, which included the owner of the brewery whose beer I was enjoying, as well as Cameron who apparently once won Big Brother. I also learned that there are quite a few Harveys on Orkney, and in Scotland in general. I’ve always wandered about the origin of my surname, so maybe I have ancestors from round these parts! Thanks for her beer and company Hamish, I’ll be in touch on my next visit! 

So I’d recommend Helgi’s for the beer, food and company; it seems to be the place it go in Kirkwall and is good value for money.

Post the end of a great day off, a 32 mile ride and lots of good food, I returned to the campsite and chatted to a few of the other visitors for a bit. Shane was on holiday for a family gathering on Orkney, with people travelling here from all over the place including America. They can trace their family tree back to around 1480 on Orkney, pretty amazing. Made me keener to try and trace my roots back further.

Tomorrow I planned to get back to the mainland, after a quick tour round the rest of the mainland. Orkney definitely worth the visit so far.

Misty Scapa Flow

Misty Scapa Flow

Sunset in Kirkwall

Sunset in Kirkwall

Sunset in Kirkwall 2

Sunset in Kirkwall 2

Kirkwall bay

Kirkwall bay

3 thoughts on “Leg 28 – a day off in Orkney

    1. Bike around Britain Post author

      Thanks Gary. Glad people are enjoying it. I’m a bit behind due to lack of Internet and some big cycling days, but will catch up. Encouragement I’m getting is ace! And really helps incidentally.

  1. Pingback: Self Propelled | Bike Around Britain

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