I’m spending this week walking the coast of Westray.
My friend Ailsa’s divided the 50 or so miles into five exhausting and exhilarating chunks and I’m setting out to circumnavigate the entire Island. It’s a dream I’ve had ever since the chance opening of a book, Westray Walkabout by Peter MacIntyre, a year ago, exactly 50 years to the day after he had walked the entire Island.
Day One was beautiful. Just look:
Today’s section of the complete coast is from Noup Farm to Gill Pier, following a clockwise route round the beaches and headlands, over cliffs, past caves and over shattered rocks. I almost said ‘path’ then instead of route. It’s not for the fainthearted. When Peter MacIntyre walked the coast he did it in a day. I’m doing just 10 of the 50 miles a day from Monday to Friday.
When Peter walked the Island in 1967 in a day he started at 6am. I’m only just ready to start today’s section at 2pm. Maybe I’m not a morning person. I once did a biorhythms chart as part of a course at work to find out when I was at my physical, emotional and intellectual peak. It turned out I was at my peak anytime I wasn’t actually at work.
I drive to Gill Pier in the village of Pierowall and take my bike out of the boot, abandon my car on the waterfront, and cycle the 4 miles to the ruin of North House on the hill above Noup Farm. It’s where I finished yesterday’s walk. I start at sea level and have to cycle up a couple of decent hills to get there. Already, I wish I wasn’t doing it. Yesterday I was energetic, the weather was sunny, with beautiful blue skies and a light breeze moving white clouds across an endless horizon. Today is different. My legs are stiff, my toe is still septic and the day is grey and the light is flat. It’s crushingly uphill in sections and my legs feel tired already; and that’s before I’ve even started the walk.
I don’t want to come over all Thomas Hardy on you but there’s definitely some sympathetic weather going on here today. The skies reflect my grey mood as I start off across the grass towards the sea. There are Gannets fishing just off the coast, diving like avian harpoons into the grey seas just off the Point of Glemmar. They are spectacular. By the time I get down there with my heavy camera they have moved and I can see them patrolling for better fishing. By the Bay of Noup a line of Shags are portraying perfect pecking distance with an etiquette developed over generations.
Shags have a written Debrett’s Etiquette just like humans do, but theirs is inherited in their genes. I’m amused by the Great Black Backed Gull interloper; they really do have no fear. Shags fly easily when disturbed, so I’m running in a ridiculously crouched way towards them and then crawling on my belly to photograph them. There’s no excuse for making them fly unnecessarily. Past the rocks is a wonderful shell sand beach I’ve never set foot on. It’s the beach at the Bay of Noup. Noup Farm itself is currently for sale for £1.7m. It probably includes this beach. I’m currently enjoying it for free.
Ownership isn’t important. Life is a sequence of experiences, after all.
I watch the waves break and feel a sense of overwhelming calm. I may have had worries but now I don’t. The sheer force of the water is washing all trace of my concerns away:
Waders skit along the waveline on the beach. Their dedication to feeding is remarkable:
Here’s what it looks like from the air, from a wonderful trip we took in a light aircraft, where I sat across the back seats with my seatbelt off and a camera in each hand:
It’s idyllic here in this small, quiet spot.
The route now is a scramble over shattered rocks and I descend to the edge to avoid a large group of curious cattle. Underfoot it’s just like the disused coal mine I played on as a child.
Ahead is Grobust beach. It’s one of my favourites because of its beauty and simplicity:
Every time I visit Grobust I’m overwhelmed by the urge to take off my shoes and socks and get my feet deep in the wet white shell sand of the beach.
It’s all I can do to resist doing that today. I’ve got no towel with me, many miles to walk and a large dressing on my septic toe. I can feel the frustration bubble within me at denying myself that primal experience of a connection with nature.
We all need to get sand between our toes more, both literally and metaphorically. A large number of society’s problems could be solved if people could recover some of their shared humanity and get a closer connection to nature. When was the last time you had sand between your toes and abandoned yourself to nature?
Just a note: Peter MacIntyre may have set off 50 years ago wearing just a pair of plimsolls, but a stout pair of boots is essential to walk, scramble and adventure on the coast of Westray. If you don’t have some form of ankle support you’re highly likely to get some form of ankle injury. If the rocks are black and wet, they are slippery. If the rocks are grey and dry, they are slippery. Grass is slippery. Seaweed is slippery. Stiles are slippery. Everything, yes, everything, is slippery and all rabbit holes are as deep as your inside leg measurement.
I’m at Kelp Green, where low walls were used to dry seaweed before it was exported or burnt in kelp pits.
The bay of Rack Wick has stunning rock formations, like cracks in a tray of Orkney tablet, the local toffee loved by every local with a sweet tooth, which is basically every local:
I sit in the rain in a Viking house, the 1,000 year old Quoygrew, and have my picnic lunch. I’ve never been so pleased to see a banana. I’m sitting by the hearth, built in 1200 AD as it rains. It’s a shame that the roof finally went in the 1930s.
I haul myself to my feet. The walk around The Nev, the Scaun natural arch, Watery Geo and The Taing up to the northernmost tip is hard and spectacular. It’s wild, dramatic, exposed and barren here. The rest of Westray is green and fertile and often a kind and gentle experience. Not here. If there was fire I would be in a scene from Milton’s Paradise Lost:
When I walked here in the summer it was a very different experience. I was attacked by Arctic Terns and a Great Skua:
Their nesting time is over, so the skies are clear of sharp beaks and I don’t need my hat on.
Just a note: Westray is home to over 100,000 breeding seabirds, many seals and a few otters. They are here because they can remain undisturbed and raise their families on isolated headlands, hidden coves and protective cliffs. Many are in steep decline because of man-made climate destruction, overfishing and marine pollution. Please don’t disturb them.
I hear a hissing and nearly jump out of my skin. A huge fluffy Fulmar chick is waving its tiny chicken wings at me and threatening me. It’s no empty threat. They can spit rancid fish oil with exceptional accuracy. I move far enough away and train my lens on it:
It’s starting to get adult plumage now and will soon be flying effortlessly over cliffs and waves, alive to every minute change in the air currents.
I watch my step on the rocks:
This is a shattered moonscape; an alien landscape of almost bare rock. The force of the winter storms, the crust of salt on everything, and the shattering of the rock make life very hard here at the northernmost tip of the Island. It’s desolation, squared.
The Scaun is the largest natural rock arch:
There’s a skill to walking on each type of terrain. There’s a certain style of walking needed for sand, for cobbles, for rocks. I’ve managed them all in a full Ministry of Silly Walks performance today. All the terrains would be easier to negotiate if I wan’t carrying a huge camera with telephoto lens around my neck. I’ve got to carry it, though, just in case. After all, what if there was a Hen Harrier passing nearby? I’d never forgive myself for missing it.
My friend Paulo says the secret to getting great photographs of wildlife is, “Taking your camera to the supermarket.” This isn’t a supermarket, but you’ve got to have the camera with you when the moment comes.
My footing gets worse as I make my way back around the headland. There’s a farm track but I can’t walk on it because there’s an energetic beef steer charging up and down it desperately trying to get to me. It’s up on the track and thankfully won’t make its way onto the rocks of the beach. Anytime I go near the track it comes galloping along, followed by its herd which are still behind a flimsy barbed wire fence. I’m trapped, slipping on treacherous rocks, unable to walk on the path, by a mountain of meat.
Here’s Westray airfield in the rain, followed by the Ayre of the Ouse:
Sadly, the Wheeling Steen Gallery is closed by now. I could really do with a reviving chat, some inspiration and whatever refreshment they’re selling. It’s one of my go-to places on the Island.
Walking further on I clamber up the bank and get to the narrow strip of grass running between the end of the fields and the beginning of the beaches which is meant to be a path. It’s armpit-high in thistles and nettles. I can feel the stings through my trousers. I have to walk as if I’m being led through a tropical jungle, my arms raised, being threatened at gunpoint, which, in a way, is exactly what it’s like. For the first time, this really isn’t enjoyable.
I’m revived by a fascinating load of rubbish. There are ancient whalebones, neolithic pot-boiling stones and Viking bone combs in the middens, or rubbish dumps to use their non-technical name, here:
I’m too tired to look today. I’m nearly there. It’s getting gloomy and highlights become shadows as I stride across the final few fields, past the waste of generations of farm vehicles.
That’s definitely a midden-in-the-making. It’s something which will fascinate future archaeologists.
It’s getting dark now.
Yesterday I saw some wonderful fairy rings with edible Agaricus mushrooms on the slopes of Fitty Hill. Today I’ve seen some too. Today’s walk has taken me so long that the shops are now all closed and I have little or no food in. I could really do with finding some more mushrooms. There’s been none recently.
Then, in the final field, I see three huge Horse Mushrooms. I pick them and grasp their stems, breathing in their feint horseradish smell in the gloom. Fabulous. I’m not someone who is taken-in by delusions of reference, but these mushrooms, looming at me in the gloom? These mushrooms are a gift.
It’s ten minutes after sunset and very nearly dark when I get back to my car.
I’ve been out well over six hours and walking for over four (the rest is two hours of solid photography – and lunch). The route was also much longer than the 8.9 miles I had expected and I’ve been walking much slower than yesterday. There’s not really a path and that was not really a walk – it was an adventure. Sometimes in life, cattle and nettles get in the way and sometimes you’ve got to go around and sometimes you’ve just got to get through it.
I exhale as I hold the car door. That was an incredible experience. I felt vibrantly, exuberantly alive and even the small amount of discomfort or embarrassment made the rest seem even better. Adventure is out there for anyone who chooses it.
Here is why I did it:
I put my mushrooms in pride of place on the passenger seat and drive directly home. They look so precious sitting there I almost want to put their seatbelt on. I leave my bicycle abandoned at Noup Farm. I can get it tomorrow.
Tonight it’s omelette night. Mushroom omelette.
I feel like a broken egg, in more ways than one.
This chapter was brought to you courtesy of Westray hens’ eggs from Peter Miller’s shop and fresh mushrooms growing in magic fairy rings in the fields of Westray. It was only possible due to a Traidcraft Cocoa & Beetroot Organic Geobar in a thousand year old house. It was accompanied by incessant and mildly annoying humming of Alain Tussaint’s song Hercules by Nine Below Zero from their wonderful ’13 Shades of Blue’ album. Back home a bottle of Orkney Brewery‘s Red MacGregor was waiting for me