It’s Day Four of my attempt to walk the entire coast of Westray in a week. That’s not that great an achievement, though, is it? It’s less than 50 miles and other people have done it in a day before. It was quite a long day. I’m carrying a huge telephoto lens on my camera so I can photograph all the nature I see. I don’t feel like carrying it today but the fear of seeing a Hen Harrier and not being able to get a photograph of it drives me to carry it everywhere I go.
I’m also limping quite badly from a septic and bleeding toe. That’s nothing to do with the walking, it was like that before I even started. I get an appointment at the Westray Surgery for the afternoon. (For anyone South, please pick your chin up off the floor, you did hear me right, I got a GP appointment on the same day I asked for it.) I’ll just have to start my walk after my appointment.
The doctor sees me, takes one look at my toe and decides it’s something the nurse can help her with. I hear her in the corridor outside, telling the nurse “I’ve had a manky toe come in”. As they both come in the room I tell them, with a smile, “I heard you out there saying you’d had a manky toe come in. It’s Mr Manky Toe to you.” She explains the treatment I might need and tells me quite seriously, “If it doesn’t calm down you’ll have to have your toe off.” What she meant to say was a sentence with included the word ‘nail’ between the words toe and off. I’m feeling glad I realised that early on. It could have led to a worrying misunderstanding.
She burns my big toe with silver nitrate. “Tell me if it hurts too much,” she says.
“It’s not childbirth, is it?” I reply. It really hurts.
As I get my £10 out to pay for the antibiotic prescription I’ve probably needed for the last month, I realise Scotland is a proper country and prescriptions for medicines you need are free. (Everyone South take note).
Today’s walk starts from the Mill at Rack Wick bay, where last night’s walk ended, and ends at Twiness Road, on the opposite coast. Rack Wick is on the North Sea, Twiness is on the Atlantic Ocean, and they are less than a mile apart. It’s just a long way between them if you stick to the coast.
My starting point, The Mill, is home to hundreds of roosting Starlings. The noise and the smell are intense. Flocks come and go, perch outside and on the ridge of the roof, and look stunning in this afternoon’s sunshine.
The juveniles still have soft brown head feathers.
All I’ve done so far is photograph the wildlife and I haven’t even started walking yet.
There are Rock Doves here too, flapping wildly and showing their paranoia for any human they see.
They are so much more elegant than the feral pigeons, which human interference turned them into, elsewhere.
The cereal crops are being harvested in this sunshine-one-day-and-rain-the-next weather. The stubble looks like a giant coir doormat:
I set off on my walk. I know this bit well. It’s the bit all the tourists do, to the Castle o’ Burrian, to see the Puffins.
There are no Puffins here now though. They are all in the Atlantic Ocean. In July they were here with beaks full of Sandeels for their Pufflings:
They are long gone and their ancestral burrows lie empty. A friendly sign still directs you to where they were:
We shouldn’t ever take them for granted. In Sumburgh Head in Shetland there were 33,000 Puffins on the Island in 2000. There were just 570 last year.
This summer we camped out for long hours here and set up a Puffin portrait studio to capture their faces. It was a thrill to work with them as we lay, quiet and camouflaged, on the hillside:
It’s a well-trodden path.
The North Sea is blue today.
On the North Sea cliffs I hear a melodious screeching. It’s the Wrens again. I saw a beautiful family of Wrens here in the summer and photographed them. Those images are some of my favourites of the photographs I’ve taken. It was such a privilege to spend time with their family of chicks as the parents worked the cliffs for insects. I spot one making a noise and creep closer:
It’s looking a little ragged. Either it’s a juvenile or it’s all that effort to bring up three children. I know how that feels. Here are my earlier photographs of the Wren on the same piece of cliff:
I can see Stanger Head ahead. The layers of twisted ancient rocks tip up here and lean heavily towards the sea. In the summer this place is full of nesting Shags and Razorbills.
The cliffs are relatively quiet now, apart from the occasional Fulmar chick, still fat, fluffy and nowhere near flying yet.
I can see a Meadow Pipit on the barbed wire fence. They have such extreme nails they look as if they’re trying to get into the Guinness Book of World Records. Quite how they manage to do their washing up with nails like that, I have no idea.
I’ve never had any luck taking photographs of Wheaters before. All I ever see of them is their original name: White Arse, as they disappear. This one is different though. Maybe it’s how slowly I’m moving, maybe it’s my top-to-toe camouflage, but finally I get close enough. There’s even a little catch-light in its eye. Lovely.
There’s one patch of ground which isn’t behind barbed wire. It’s an entire field which has just heather in it. Here I see more wildlife than where there is just grass. A Curlew takes flight ahead of me:
A fluffy Rabbit bounds away from me up the hill. It’s all ears and eyes and twitching whiskers.
When you’re a perfectly wrapped bundle of protein, you have to take care.
I scramble along the coast. This isn’t really a walk and it isn’t really a path. It’s an adventure in a drainage ditch perched over a cliff with barbed wire fences and gulleys and ravines full of agricultural waste-plastic and rolls of rusty barbed wire. I’m feeling glad I didn’t advertise this as a walk.
Ahead I can see the island of Eday across the intense blue water:
Directly ahead is the island of Faray with the smaller Holm of Faray in front:
This is the only part of the coast I don’t walk. I cheat and miss out the headland, cutting across Weather Ness. There’s a field full of cattle and I’m not going to go in with them. I’m told there’s a bull in there. I suspect I wouldn’t be able to out-hop it.
I’m limping quite badly now. I can see the Kirkwall to Westray ferry approaching. That means I can get a lift back to my bicycle at the Rack Wick Mill. Excellent. I’m giving up for today.
The Quarry is below. I march down it, determined to get to the Pier so I can get a lift or catch the bus back. My foot agrees that it’s a good idea to stop today’s walk and continue tomorrow. There’s no shame in that.
I walk across the Quarry. I can’t help but look closely at the dark line between the layers of rock which runs down and then up again in the twisted strata. It’s a layer of oil-bearing shale:
I see the ferry come in and dock at the Pier. I see the cars coming off it. They drive off and I’m still not close enough. I see the bus go past. I can’t get on that now either. Then I see the final car leave which has just collected a foot passenger. No chance. I’m just 100 yards away and I’ve missed everyone. I can’t get a lift, pay for the bus or even hitch.
I sit disconsolately at the side of the road, with the Sands of Woo behind me. I don’t want to walk any more and yet I have to. Then I see a huge lorry approaching. I get up only to see its two seats are occupied. I sit down again. Then a pickup truck goes past, with a couple in it, at such a speed I don’t have time to get up and ask for a lift. Later I see it reversing wildly down a lane in hot pursuit of an errant steer. Maybe they wouldn’t have been quite in the mood to give me a lift anyway. Then a car arrives. I wave my thumb and the driver stops and gets out. Yes! Finally, a lift. Then he says that he lives in the house he’s just stopped at, gets back in his car and parks it in his drive.
I’ll just have to walk back along the road.
I walk to my bicycle.
I’ve only been walking for an hour and twenty minutes today (excluding having to walk home along the road) but it’s been a lot longer than that with photographic stops. My pace has dropped, proving that limping is a lot slower form of walking than is walking normally.
I’ll do the rest of Day Four tomorrow, have Saturday off for the glories of the Westray Industrial Show, and then do Day Five on Sunday. Marvellous. I like it when a re-plan comes together.
I get back home and take the last of today’s antibiotics. I see there’s a large leaflet of side-effects in the box. I open a beer and put the leaflet away without reading it. I look at the label of the beer: ‘Island Hopping’ from the Swannay Brewery in Orkney. How very appropriate.
Here’s why I did it:
This chapter was brought to you thanks to Erythromycin and the greatest organisation on Earth, the United Kingdom’s National Health Service. Free at the point of use, the way we provide healthcare in this country is the best thing we have ever done for one another. Never let rich people who don’t need it persuade you otherwise. Today was made more bearable by a bottle of beer from the Swannay Brewery. Head brewer Rob Hill is a genius.