Completing a travel goal by heading to Lerwick...
Going up to the Shetland Islands off the north coast of Scotland has always been a travel goal of mine. When I saw that Lonely Planet had shortlisted the archipelago as one of Europe's must-see destinations for 2019, I knew that this was the year to go.
My connection to the island oddly stems from growing up on Zetland Road, a street that shares the former name of the islands as a child in Gosport on the South Coast; a town that is almost as geographically as far away from the Shetland Islands in a straight line on the map as possible. The islands are a 12-hour ferry crossing away from Aberdeen and over 600 miles away from London. Lerwick is almost closer to Bergen in Norway than mainland Britain and many of the island's cultural references are Scandinavian in origin.
Shetland is also known in popular culture as the setting for the successful fictional BBC One drama series based on the novels by Ann Cleeves that follows Detective Inspector Jimmy Perez’s Police investigations in a moody, ‘Nordic Noir’ light.
A 24 hour journey from Rochdale had begun...
Having been to many of Britain’s islands and remote spots on my bike, Shetland has always proved elusive. Scott, good friend and fellow geographical box-ticker who like me has always wanted to head to Britain's most northerly point had the same feeling, so we decided to do something about it.
Scott would stay on in Shetland to visit Unst for the week. I would head back to Rochdale after a long weekend in mid-June. Going up to Lerwick is not a spur of the moment decision and the journey takes nearly 24 hours in-total from Manchester via land and sea. We left on Thursday morning under a heavy rain cloud that seemed to follow our train up to Aberdeen from Preston.
Rough seas on the way to the UK's most northerly point...
The Granite City was definitely not sparkling and we were given an ominous warning card from NorthLink Ferries warning us of heavy seas and a rough crossing ahead. The MV Hrossay left Aberdeen Harbour at 1700 and was immediately bouncing around in the 3-metre North Sea swell. We cycled off the ship in Lerwick at 0700 under grey skies feeling dazed and confused by the turbulent crossing. I've been on several long journeys by ship and whilst it's always exciting riding through the mouth of the ferry via the car deck, I was glad to be off the boat. Lerwick is only a small town with a population of 7,000, but acts as the capital of the island and main gateway.
The arrival of a large cruise ship on a tour of the British Isles brought ashore several hundred Dutch and German tourists who proceeded to follow us around the island during the day. Before setting off towards Sumburgh at the south of the island, our tender stomachs handled breakfast and we left our excess luggage at the excellent council-run Isleburgh House Hostel that was our base for the weekend. We brought along our own bikes and I took the excellent Raleigh Pioneer bike equipped with a saddlebag full of cycling essentials. Scott borrowed my other hybrid bike and we soon climbed out of Lerwick along the A970 for the 25-mile ride.
Cycling along the National Cycle Route 1...
Despite only seeing a handful of other cyclists out on the road all weekend, Shetland is a bit of an undiscovered gem of a cycling location. With an end-to-end distance from Unst to Sumburgh of approximately 109 miles, the Sustrans funded National Cycle Route 1 in Shetland forms part of the 1695-mile-long UK section of the North Sea Cycle Route from Unst to Dover.
The signage is excellent and road surfaces are smooth making for easy cycling. Drivers also slowed down when passing and gave us plenty of room on the main road. Wind and unpredictable weather are the main cycling hurdles to overcome in Shetland.
Like a scene from the Caribbean...
We had planned to visit the island of Mousa that is the location of one of Europe's best-preserved Iron Age-era Broches, but poor weather and sea swells cancelled the morning sailing on the small ferry. Ironically the sun came out for the first time in days just as we left the Mousa Museum and we cycled towards St. Ninian's Isle. Connected by a large expanse of white sand called a tombolo, I propped my bike up and was amazed at the views in front. The beach looked like a scene from the Caribbean. The sea was an azure blue whilst a brisk wind cleared the clouds and unveiled bright, clear skies.
One of the cruise ship excursion coaches caught us up on a quiet country lane and everyone started taking photos of a pod of seals resting on the sandy beach below. After a brief lunch stop, we quickly re-joined the main road and headed south towards Sumburgh lighthouse and the end of the route. The great views from the top and the opportunity to see the famous puffins resting on the rocks below negated the cost of a £45 taxi ride to Lerwick after receiving conflicting messages about bikes being allowed on local bus services.
Scott - Winner of the Bressay Parkrun...
One of the main reasons for visiting the island was to run in the now famous Bressay Parkrun. Bressay is a small island located ten minutes away by boat from Lerwick. Scott is a winner of several of the weekly 5km runs around the country and Shetland is the mostly northerly such course in Britain. This would soon become his 147th Saturday morning run and would complete a hat-trick of consecutive victories. His name is now part of Parkrun folklore.
After a short cycle ride around Bressay and a walk up the 233m high Ward of Bressay in thick mist, we caught the ferry back to the Mainland and watched the Summer Carnival floats and displays. This is one of the highlights of the Lerwick social calendar and the town was out in force. The squads of Vikings parading through the town’s streets were a great sight and a nod to the island's Scandinavian past.
We asked Stacy, our unofficial guide about growing up on Shetland, how everyone seems to know each other and local identity. Out of all of the places Scott and I have visited around Europe, Lerwick is certainly one of the most welcoming and strangers became interested in our reasons for visiting Shetland and why we had decided to travel up from England's North West.
Singing 'Shine Jesus Shine' to avoid the fog...
Further questions were to be explored further on Sunday morning when dense fog on higher ground made riding treacherous and we had to seek refuge in a small church on the way to Scalloway. The sight of two cyclists suddenly walking into a Sunday service and singing ‘Shine Jesus Shine’ was not something the small congregation expected. However, we were made to feel very welcome and as the cake, coffee and conversation flowed, the fog lifted enough for us to proceed onwards to Scalloway, the ancient capital of Shetland.
After a short conversation next to the memorial to the ‘Shetland Bus’ Norwegian supply line during World War II, it turned out that one of the ladies had her father’s name inscribed on the plaque. Amazed by this revelation, we left Scalloway and cycled for around 8 miles through the tree-less landscape to the point where our two journeys split. Scott left to pedal northwards up to Brae and I rode over the tops back down to sunny Lerwick.
Leaving Shetland and back to Aberdeen on calmer seas...
The ferry was scheduled to leave Lerwick at 1900 and I had time to tick-off some of the settings of the BBC drama series including the Lodberries in Lerwick Harbour on my bike.
Unlike the outbound sailing, the sea was calm and my faith in ferry travel was restored. The Captain even diverted the ship around the island of Noss to see the thousands of migrating gannets resting on the cliff-face. The overnight sailing was calm and the sight of the midnight sun disappearing behind Fair Isle was one of the weekend’s memorable moments.
As I arrived back into Aberdeen the following morning, I felt sad to have left Shetland behind and there is something endearing about the islands. We saw so much on our bikes, met some lovely people along the way and an obligatory puffin souvenir now resides proudly on my desk.
Notes about the article
This article appeared in the Tameside Reporter (06/07/2019) and forms part of the Freewheel Holidays 'Travel Geek' series.