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The road to Orkney is a long one. It doesn’t look far on a map but it’s a 12 hour drive and far more than the 500 miles that The Proclaimers would walk. There is also a pretty hefty swim involved if you don’t get the ferry across to the Orkney Islands as well. That’s just one way for our 3 night stay on our adventures in Orkney.Sunset at the Ring of Brodgar

We’ve decided to go somewhere a little bit off the beaten path, somewhere a bit more remote to get away from it all and get away from people. So, a bit like Brexit, we decided to drive off the edge of a cliff and then just keep going regardless eventually hoping to hit something. We said that last time we visited Scotland that we’d be back and do an extreme Scottish road trip, driving to Orkney is defiantly that.

Orkney is not one island but a collection of seventy low-lying islands populated by Orcadians, more Scandinavian than Scottish. Orkney has its fair share of sites to see from the neolithic, norse, nature, wildlife and weather. Now they’re all on our doorstep for us to discover and explore with our adventures in Orkney. Considering the amount of questions we’ve had, I’ve decided to list these in the style of a Q and A session on Orkney – what you need to know.

Orkney, it’s a bit remote isn’t it?

Yes, that’s the idea. Don’t worry though, it’s got Tesco. You don’t have to drive far to get away from anybody and it’s also close enough for civilisation. Mainland Orkney is not massive and you can drive round in a day if you wanted but you’d be cheating yourself. Yes, there’s WiFi. Yes there’s accommodation, yes there’s Airbnb. And yes, Italian prisoners of war were held here during WWII although not in Airbnb and they didn’t have WiFi. They were put to good use though constructing causeways to get between some of the islands.

Block ships at Scapa Flow
Block ships at Scapa Flow

But it’s miles away isn’t it?

Yeah…. not wanting to drive 12 hours in one go from Nottinghamshire, never mind the 30 wee stops for the dog, we’ve split our trip up with an overnight stop on the way up at Blair Atholl. We did consider camping but our tent was so mouldy that even after disinfecting it, it was still creating new cultures of unbelievable toxicity that it could spawn a chemical catastrophe that a third world dictator would die for and give us some awful lung condition in the next few years. So we opted for a cheap Airbnb caravan instead.

John o' Groats Orkney sign

The Proclaimers would walk 500 miles but we drove nearly 600 miles, and considering diesel prices for a guzzly 4×4….. Driving north on the eastern part of the North Coast 500, we drive just past John o’ Groats to catch the ferry from Gills Bay for the one hour trip to the Orkney Islands. No you don’t have to book the ferry but you might be taking a chance. Yes, it’s not cheap (£140 return).

Surely there’s nothing to see?

Are you kidding? Considering that neolithic Orkney is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, the sheer amount of neolithic stones and tombs, some older than the Pyramids and Stonehenge, give the long-suffering Mrs Cook déjà vu of our megalithic monument tour from a few years back. I’m a sucker for big erect stones, I wish Mrs Cook was as well.  People have been here for 10,000 years, they’ve left a few bits behind. Have you not heard about Maeshowe, the Ring of Brodgar, Skara Brae? There’s even a current archaeological excavation going off at the Ness of Brodgar.Broch of Gurness towards Rousay

Did we tell you about the wildlife? Plenty. We see seals swimming in the sea and swear they waved at us. Sea stacks at Yesnaby and stunning coastal scenery, clear blue waters and lovely sandy shores at Skail Beach at Skara Brae. Drive right through the quaint fishing village of Stromness or explore the many cairns. You don’t have to pay to go into most cairns, there’s an element of trust that the people who visit Orkney are not complete scumbags who will come in to a tomb and daub graffiti of sexual innuendo or steal the torch that’s provided. Unless you are a viking boasting about a sexual conquest at Maeshowe. We spent 3 nights in Orkney and still had so much more to see.

What about the weather?

Yeah, it’s wild and its windy, well it was for us. The weather is mix of sunshine and soaking showers with wild wind. The ability to look like a man who’s left his waterproof coat in the car and get completely drenched in 30 seconds from one moment of having glorious sunshine to stinging rain whipped up by the winds caught us out a few times. A walk on the Brough of Birsay or the coastal area of Mull Head past the collapsed sea cave called The Gloup and up to the Brough of Deerness made sure we regretted our clothing choices.

Should I visit the Orkney Islands?

Yes. It’s good enough for Vikings s it should be good enough for you. See the next post, Top Sites to See in Orkney. We loved it. Video coming soon.

OK, let’s get this out of the way. This holiday is not what it was supposed to be. We had hired a cameprvan, a classic VW to nomadically wander the Scottish highlands, islands and wild camp. Except the campervan company went bust 3 weeks before we were due to hire it, now Van Life and the North Coast 500 will have to wait. Instead we are now forced to take a holiday elsewhere. I don’t even know what to see in the Lake District.

I’ve taken Mrs C tomb raiding across Egypt inside the pyramids at Giza, I’ve taken her snowmobiling across a frozen lake in the Arctic Circle, so where does she choose when the campervan company goes bust? The Lake District; where old people come to die. I’m convinced it’s a place where 76 year olds go, not where 46 year olds should be going. I don’t care that 15 million people visited the Lake District last year, and I don’t care in the same way we have an ageing population.

In fact, the only thing that seems to have swung it is the lure of a hot tub that comes with the premium lodge. Creative advertising being what it is, I interpreted this as a static caravan with some decking and an outdoor bath. Turns out the premium lodge actually turned out to be premium, plusher and posher than our home, surrounded with the snowy summits of Blencathra in the distance. Looks like we’ll have to take it easy and have some lazy days in the Lake District

Lazy days in the Lake District with a hot tub holiday

What to see in the Lake District?

Having immediately dismissed the idea of a Wainwright walk, we didn’t want to be daft as daffodils or wander lonely as a cloud up the top of Hellvelyn, especially as we don’t any gear or any idea, the first thing to see in the Lake Distract is common sense – definitely a sign of old age.

We opted for a more gentler walk around Aria Force and Ullswater. Except we got the wrong car park and our gentle walk ended up as a 2 hour ramble stumbling over daffodils and wondering what our words would be worth be worth (Wordsworth – see what I did there!) shouting for help under the roar of Aria Force waterfall.

Next up, we arrive at Castlerigg Stone Circle. Castlerigg is on a small hill surrounded by great views of Blencathra and snow topped Helvellyn. There are 38 stones here, 30 metres in diameter built around 3000 BC during the Neolithic age where our friends in Egypt were drawing up rather more grand designs while we rolled some rocks up a hill. Still, I suppose they had better weather for it.

Castlerigg Stone Circle in the Lake District

Being a little bit of a misanthrope* (*huge), we head out away from the crowds for a smaller atmospheric lake at Buttermere. Taking the road from Keswick to Buttermere, a look on Google Maps suggests this is impossible as the single track road is festooned with 7 million parked cars parked up as those 15 million tourists I mentioned seem to have all visited on the same day. Luckily for us, we’ve come along when there’s been rain lashing and winds howling. A calm and serene view this is not, we don’t get to see a mirror glazed lake surface, we get to see Buttermere being battered and The Lone Tree awfully lonely. People told us we would be blown away by the Lake District, we didn’t think they’d mean it. We were forced to take shelter in the nearby pub.

Sam and Nelson being battered at Buttermere in the Lake District

We’ve got a new car to put through its paces and it just so happens that nearby we have Hardknott Pass. This is the steepest road in Britain with a 33% gradient and a heart-stopping series of steep sharp bends. It’s exactly the type of road that Jeremy Clarkson and his band of fuckwits would love to roar across except you can’t go fast unless you tumble off the side or unless you want Clarkson and his fuckwits to tumble off. If I thought the road from RAF Mount Pleasant to Stanley in the Falklands was bad (it is, its still got mines on both sides of the road) then its nothing compared to this road. It only involved one set of tears, a ruined make-up face and a frayed marriage.

The Romans built a fort here. Hardknott fort, or the more snappily named Mediobogdum fort must have been the shittest posting ever. Quite what the Romans were thinking when they decided to set up shop here, god only knows. It’s a different scale of bleakness from Housesteads but does have a great view of  Eskdale.  Imagine being told to up-sticks from the cushy Dalmation coast to the farthest corner of the Roman Empire on some god forsaken island at the top of a windy summit. You’ve then had to lug up a load of rocks to build the Roman Fort yourself while fighting off the native Britons.

Wanting to preserve the sanctity of our marriage, we decided  not to go the same way as we came in and headed off for the coast in the distance that you can see from the top of Hardknott Pass. A coastline blighted by the industrial complex of Sellafield. Walking along the beach at Seascale, I remind my wife that I still want to visit Chernobyl, even though I’m not a fan of nuclear power. You can’t see it, taste it or feel the radiation unless its the elephant’s foot standing on you or radiations burns which I am definitely suffering from though that may have been from the sun and not the nearby nuclear power station.

Our final day in the Lake District, so we did the most touristy thing that we could, we hired a boat at Windermere. She was called Jane, but that sounded a a bit plain Jane. So we renamed her. Observing the old maritime tradition of naming ships after women, I gave this a lot of thought. She was sleek with great lines and very sexy, therefore she was renamed the USS (Unsinkable Sailing Ship) Taylor Swift. A fine vessel indeed. Besides, this is probably the only chance I would get to enter Taylor Swift.

In command at the helm of the USS Taylor Swift. A fine vessel. Salty sea dog Lord Nelson looks out for pirates.

This is not quite Survive the Savage Sea that the Robertson family endured but we were quite nervous. The last time we were on a ship was in the Arctic Circle and that wasn’t exactly fun. Now equipped with a Captain’s hat, Captain Cook, the salty sea dog Lord Nelson and First Mate entered USS Taylor Swift. To convince ourselves we were in warmer climates like the Med and not the Lake District, we pushed the pedal to the metal (or pushed the lever to stern on the fibreglass hull) and played the theme tune to Miami Vice. Damn that rock and roll lifestyle. As if to mark the occasion, a Eurofighter gave us a flypast by former colleagues in the Air Force , so I gave it a fine naval salute.  In fact, anything sailing passed had a salute thrown at it (old RAF habits die hard).

We got a super cheap price due to booking last minute so at least I could have a sit in the hot tub and suffer a midlife and existential crisis in comfort while looking up towards a dark sky and lots of stars to wonder how many other beings on other worlds were sat in hot tubs having an existential crisis and ruing their holiday choices. Clearly, the hot tub was the first great lake we dipped our toes in, in The Lake District, but not the last. We’ve had torrential torrents and scorching sun in our few short days in the Lake District but we’ve also had some fun.

We’re on tour, a chance to take a trip in the new car and test it, test the sat-nav and ultimately test our patience when we won’t find anywhere.  So we’ve gone south towards Stonehenge in what we’re calling by the very catchy name of the nerdy neolithic Monster Megalithic Monument tour.  Checking the weather forecast before we go for the time we are due to arrive, it states light rain shower, 66% humidity and visibility as very good.  Which means that we will be able to see the rain perfectly.

Stonehenge 5 August 2015
Stonehenge 5th August 2015.

Now, the only reason to visit these stones on the Monster Megalithic Monument tour is because in some fit of middle-aged madness, at the grand age of 44, we decided to purchase membership for National Heritage.  Finding them is easy, the rubbernecker drivers gave us a clue.  On arrival, the queue is horrendous.  Merely glancing at it will suck the very soul from humanity and slaughter your sanity for nothing is sacred here.  For once, I’m quite happy to have paid a premium and only have my wallet sacrificed.  We booked online in advance and because we were members, ushered straight to the front, no queue, no hassle, no selfie sticks snapped in anger and the rain has held off.

Shipped off to the stones by shuttle bus, we arrive at Stonehenge to see a bunch of stones assembled together like a drunken giants jenga game. Somebody obviously got bored and knocked ’em down.  Sozzled stones would be a great alternative name for Stonehenge.  Actually, its pretty cool here and I’ve always harboured a suspicion that the allure of the stones owed their looks to the magic of photography.  They certainly look different as you walk around.  They’d look even better in the sun, except its August and the sun is yet to make an appearance.  How on earth our ancestors aligned these stones I’ll never know but I’m pretty sure the sun always aligns to something.  Maybe that’s why it took years to build Stonehenge.

Quite why they built Stonehenge, I may also never know, maybe those neolithic nincompoops just thought it would be a great talking point for years to come, you know let’s get some dead heavy bluestone from Wales, move them 160 miles, knock up some sarsen stones and voilà, instant tourist attraction.  People will be talking about it for years to come wondering why we built it.  I’m pretty sure that life 5000 years ago was hard enough as it was, so lugging 30 ton rocks must have some meaning. Being free from the shackles of religion, I didn’t feel the need to hug a hippy or practice any trumpery idolatry. Some people certainly did, most just felt the need for a photograph. I’m not sure that sacrificing virgins on the slaughter stone would appease any malevolent powers.  When you start looking at the landscape, there are barrows and burial mounds everywhere you turn.  This is one giant ceremonial graveyard.

 

Moving on with the next stop in the Monster Megalithic Monument tour is Silbury Hill.  You can’t miss it, it’s staggering at 40 metres high and half a million tons of chalk, it’s the tallest prehistoric human made mound in Europe.  Built around 2400 BC, its purpose remains unknown.

Silbury Hill
Silbury Hill

 

Next on the Monster Megalithic Monument tour is West Kennet Long Barrow.  This is a neolithic tomb over 100 metres in length and at least 400 years older (3600 BC) than Stonehenge.  It’s constructed from sarsen stone and limestone topped with chalked that today is covered in grass.  Inside there are 5 burial chambers where at least 46 people over 1000 years were buried.  It has some impressive sized stones at the entrance before you go inside.  It’s worth the trek up the hill to West Kennet Long Barrow from the A4 roadside where when you are at the top, you can also see Silbury Hill.  On the other side of the hill, we saw excavation work being completed at West Kennet Avenue by the National Trust archaeological team.

West Kennet Long Barrow.
West Kennet Long Barrow.

 

At this point I’m having to drag Sam away from the tomb, mainly because I’m in distinct danger of being buried myself so off we trot on the next step of our Monster Megalithic Monument tour to the Avebury stone circle for more monolithic madness.  What is complete madness is that there is a main road running right through Avebury stone circle.  While the stones themselves are pretty big, the henge itself, the circular bank and ditch is huge, over 28 acres.  Inside there is an outer circle of tall standing stones at 331 metres and a further two stone circles enclosed.  Constructed during the neolithic new stone age 2600 BC, its purpose and the rituals contained within remain unknown.  Its current purpose is to bring in lots of visitors to a very pretty village.

Avebury Stone Circle
Avebury Stone Circle

 

Continuing on to the penultimate step on our Monster Megalithic Monument tour is Wayland’s Smithy Long Barrow on Britain’s oldest road, The Ridgeway. Tucked out-of-the-way and hidden in a wooded area, its dead quiet here and certainly atmospheric.  Quite handy considering this is another neolithic burial chamber built around 3590 BC where the remains of 14 people were found in earlier excavations.  Wayland’s Smithy Long Barrow is actually two tombs, with excavations showing that the monument we see today covers an earlier barrow. At 56 metres long and 13 metres wide, that’s a pretty impressive resting place. The site is important as it illustrates a transition from a timber-chambered barrow to a stone-chamber over a short period of time, perhaps as little as 50 years.  The name is linked to the Germanic smith-god Wolund of Wayland given to the site by Saxons who settled here and with the first documented use of the the name in 955 AD.  Legend has it that a traveler whose horse has lost a shoe can leave the animal and silver coin on the capstone overnight and when he returns the next morning, will find the horse re-shod and the money gone.

Wayland's Smithy Long Barrow
Wayland’s Smithy Long Barrow

 

As we are on the ancient road, we trot along to the Uffington White Horse, the final stop on our Monster Megalithic Monument tour.  This bronze age stylised hill figure of a horse is made from chalk and is best viewed from the air.  Our legs are tired and we can’t jump that high to see, it has after all been a mega tour.  Truth is, there are lots to see around here, the Avebury World Heritage site has plenty of walks to keep you entertained, as do Stonehenge and the Vale of White Horse.  Worth coming back for more.

Ground view of the Uffington White Horse
Ground view of the Uffington White Horse

Shrugging off Sunday morning hebetude for a rare scrap of sunshine, we’ve headed up higher than the current average height of the water table to the not quite nose bleeding heights of Robin Hood’s Stride and the Nine Stones Close stone circle.  Any chance to escape flooded and boggy ground has proved futile, each step is a slog through cloying mud, a 50/50 chance of your boot coming off with involuntary slips that could easily be mistaken for an avant-garde dance craze.  Eventually we looked like a cross between tramps and mud splattered yokels, finally understanding why all those hardcore walkers (not the zombie kind) wear gators.

Nine Stones Close stone circle and Robin Hood's Stride
Nine Stones Close stone circle and Robin Hood’s Stride

Nelson’s amazing ability to sniff out ancient monuments and wee on them is unparalleled.  It’s as though he looked it up on google maps.  Today he’s dragged us past Robin Hood’s Stride through farmers fields suitable enough for the world bog snorkelling championship to be contested, eventually arriving at Nine Stones Close stone circle.  Immediately apparent to anyone who can count up to 10, you only see 4 stones.  I didn’t need to use the fingers on my other hand after all.  This bronze age monument had more stones in the past, at least 7, and they stand against the backdrop of Robin Hood’s Stride as the tallest stones in the Peak District, some up to 2 metres high.  The stones, according to local tradition, are also known as the Grey Ladies, so called because they are supposed to represent ladies who dance at midnight.

Finally trudging our way up the limestone way to the knee jarring Robin Hood’s Stride.  A tor of gritstone rocks and boulders with tower like stones at each end that give a commanding and pretty view of the countryside.  Legend has it that Robin Hood could stride between these two ends despite them being 15 metres apart.  These formations also give rise to its other name of Mock Beggar’s Mansion.  From a distance its easy to see why as they look like tower fortifications.  Nowadays it’s chock-a-block with walkers, hikers, scramblers and crag-hopping rock climbers.  There was a 4 year old kid free climbing his way up like he was auditioning for the role of Jack in the Giant Beanstalk.  Mind you, I don’t think his parents liked it, he was embarrassing all the hardcore climbers who had all the gear and no idea.

Next time we’ll come back in the summer when it’s not so muddy.  Nice walk and climb, sit on the rocks with a picnic and take in the view, lots of bronze and iron age enclosures, barrows and other formations to see from the stride.

Nine Ladies Stone Circle
Nine Ladies Stone Circle

Stanton Moor overlooks the Derwent and Wye valley, lying 300 metres above sea level, has been used for thousands of years. In the Bronze age four thousand years ago, people settled here using this place for farming, funerals, ceremonies and other activities. Nowadays its filled dog walkers and hikers seeking a peaceful retreat from the crowds, to view bronze age relics, barrows, cairns and stone circles of which the most well-known and visible is the Nine Ladies Stone Circle which lies at the centre of Stanton Moor.

A 4000 year old stone circle of low grit stone blocks less than 1 metre high.  Legend has it that nine ladies were turned to stone for dancing on the Sabbath and that the King Stone was a fiddler.  The King Stone is isolated outside the circle 40 metres away, for which purpose we do not know.  All people do on it now is sit on it.

Links:

Nine Ladies Stone Circle at English Heritage

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