More cycling! I wanted to go as far north in the UK I could possibly get for my birthday on 21 June. And without flying. So, Barry and I took our bikes on the train from Edinburgh to Aberdeen and rolled onto the overnight ferry to Shetland.
Shetland feels like a cross between Scotland and Iceland. There are no trees, and lots of rolling hills. Shetland ponies look a bit like Icelandic ponies, only smaller. Apparently there were (are?) also Shetland sheep and cows and pigs, also small in stature so they’d need less nutrients to stay alive during a harsh winter (which is every winter, right?). Clever.
It was dry when we arrived in Lerwick after 13 hours of cruising. The ferry journey was comfortable and served an excellent breakfast of porridge and pastries so we set off up the hill out of town, heading north. Then it started to rain a bit. The kind of rain that hurts, but it didn’t last long. Soon, we picked up the Sustrans Route 1 (who knew it went further than John O’Groats?) and got off the busy A road.
The rain stopped and we pedaled to Whiteness.
We stopped at Shetland Jewelry for a look around but left the chains and brooches in the workshop. Despite the crosswind, the next climb didn’t feel anywhere near as bad as it looked from the bottom. All the touring and even training I’d been doing must have paid off.
We passed signs for otters but didn’t see a single one. Did see some googly eyes on a road sign though. Not really the same.
We had a cross wind most of the way up the west coast of Shetland mainland but it was manageable. So were the hills. I was expecting it to be tough but most of the hills we encountered were neither high nor steep. But there were a lot of them. I found the wind more of a negative factor but even then it wasn’t too bad, just brought in a chill from the north sea.
We congratulated ourselves on our good cycling.
At Aith we stopped at the most amazing tea rooms. When it’s closed there’s an honesty cake fridge so you never have to miss out on a tiffin. Now that’s my kind of bakery.
Luckily for us, the cafe was open so we got soup and cake, a warm dry rest and use of a toilet. All good things.
Eventually, we had to get back on the road. The vehicle traffic was nice to us on the single track roads. Some of the roads were newly paved so the rolling hills that were mostly downhill were a smooth, easy, roller coaster ride.
It was hot as we switched to the East coast Route 1 going north. The hills hid us from most of the breeze and the sun shone on us for the long, gradual climb. We eventually come to Toft and the ferry to Yell in the early afternoon, earlier than expected and feeling pretty good. We’d just missed a ferry by two minutes so got a rest while we waited for the next one.
Once on board, the ferry man with his fun Shetland accent made me a cup of tea and told us how lucky we were not to have been cycling the day before when the cyclists got so soaked in the torrential downpour they left a swimming pool on deck. He also gave us some camping tips for Unst. With only 17 miles to cross Yell and plenty of daylight (yea midsummer!), we decided to go for it.
There’s always a hill going up out of a ferry terminal and always a hill going down into them. The one from Ulsta, Yell wasn’t that long so we were soon cruising along the heights of Yell, with a picnic stop at West Sandwich (seemed like a good place to eat a sandwich). The sun kept shining with just a few clouds in the sky and we were soon at Windhouse bod, said to be the most haunted building in Shetland. We had actually considered leaving the tent behind and staying in the camping bods but glad we had given ourselves the freedom of camping as we still had some energy in the legs (and lots of that daylight).
We continued along the Route 1 through North Yell and before long we were cycling down into the ferry terminal of Gutcher, just missing the ferry by two minutes. Seemed to be a pattern. It’s a short crossing to Belmont on Unst so we didn’t have to wait long for the ferry to come back and get us. I was starting to feel the cold in the air (maybe I was tired?) so we stayed below decks.
A nice sign welcomed us to Unst and so began two miles of ups and downs to Uyeasound where the Gardiesfault youth hostel allows camping on the grounds.
It was a lovely spot with views of the harbour and out to Fetla Island. Being Midsummer, and being so far north, we got the views all night. No need for the torches.
Barry slept heavily but I was too excited by the ‘simmer dim.’ I kept getting up in the night to check if it was dark yet. It wasn’t.
The original plan had been to visit the most Northerly castle at Muness, a short trip along from the campground, then head back south. However, we were swayed by the signs in the hostel of the most northerly tea rooms and brewery in the UK, about 18 miles further north. And a viking ship reconstruction! How could we resist?
So, despite the clouds and the increase of wind, we were up early the next morning to visit the castle and then turned north for Haroldswick.
The viking heritage in Unst is prominent with signs pointing out archeological sites at just about every turn. The wind picked up so we didn’t take the side routes. We sped down a couple of big hills (I was already regretting the return journey), and arrived in Haroldswick, with a replica of a viking long house and ship. We sheltered from a rain shower and checked out the woolen weaving looms.
We then found the Victorian Tea Rooms and had a couple of enormous slices of fresh sponge cake and tea to fortify ourselves for the hills back over the island.
Note: The tea rooms open a 11am so don’t get up too early, and they only serve cake until 12 noon and then they’ll do savoury food. We are okay with cake at any time of the day.
The brewery postcard at the hostel said the Valhalla beers would be in Haroldswick but we saw no traces – no signs, or buildings. Our map showed it back near Beltasound so we searched there but not luck. I was cursing the lack of signs. We ditched the plan and headed south.
I later learned that it was either a few kilometers further along, but in the process of moving to Voe. Maybe that’s why there were no signs. Even if we’d found them, they probably wouldn’t have given me any Viking beers.
The beer probably wouldn’t have helped the next cycle stage. We basically had a head wind across the length of Unst. It was strong. But so were we so we battled on. It was hard work but we made it back to Belmont for the ferry to Gutcher with seconds to spare and rolled straight on (instead of missing it by two minutes). The wind felt even stronger on the short crossing back to Yell.
Cycling again, we were travelling at barely walking pace, around 5km an hour and so we had to revise our plan and set a new goal of just getting to the mainland by the end of the day.
At the Shetland Gallery at Sellafirth we decided we had no time to stop and needed to continue our war with the wind (it was winning). My shoulders started hurting from trying to keep my bike on an even course in the 39km per hour gusts (that just felt like gale force in my face). But every turn of the pedals, no matter how slow, got me closer to our goal.
The switchbacks downhill were nice and I think the sun shone a little brighter. We took shelter from the wind by a rock for a picnic. I was so tired I almost didn’t get back up again. But Barry made me get back in the saddle. Apparently living on the side of road in Shetland wasn’t my best idea.
At Mid Yell we hid from the rain (the sun didn’t last long) in the bus shelter and confirmed the plan to continue along the same road we traveled the day before, instead of cutting across to the other coast, thereby saving ourselves 4km and about an hour in the current conditions. We weren’t going to make it to Burrovoe and the museum until after it had closed anyway. Not at this speed.
Pedaling along. I have to say, I wasn’t have fun all the time. Every time we climbed a hill I was disappointed not to see the ferry at Ulsta just around the corner. The kilometres didn’t roll away as quickly as the day before.
It was a great relief when we finally did get the downhill into the terminal. Unfortunately, we’d just missed a ferry and had to wait an hour (Sundays). So we bought cake at the shop and shivered in the bus shelter. Not my happiest moment. Except for the cake bit. At least we knew we’d get to the mainland and still be within shooting distance of Lerwick the next day for the evening ferry not matter the wind conditions in the morning.
We rested in the terminal shelter room on the mainland (much better than a bus stop) where it was dry, warm and windless. Also running water and toilets. Sleeping on the benches appealed but apparently that wasn’t my best idea either so we eventually headed off (with dry, warm clothes) in search of a flat-ish bit of field.
I basically fell asleep as soon as the tent was pitched and my sleeping bag unrolled.
The next morning, I woke to feel the sun on my face and no rustling of the tent. I smiled as I realised the wind was gone. Completely. When I opened my eyes, I could see the sun, but I could also see that the tent was covered in midges. Sometimes you just can’t win.
A quick pack up and savaging from the midges and we were on the road, much faster than we usually move in the mornings.
The midges didn’t chase us and the cycling was glorious, making it a super last day on Shetland. Even the sight of the oil and gas terminal didn’t upset me too much (actually, it as kind of pretty?).
The rest of the day passed with rolling green hills, deep blue lochs and inlets. We even ‘raced’ a pirate ship back to Lerwick.
We arrived in the capital with plenty of time to spare before the ferry sailed and lots of time to explore. So, of course, we chilled out at the water front eating fish and chips and sleeping.
An extra day for our trip to Shetland would have been ideal but in our short time we covered a lot of ground, met some friendly people, saw beautiful sights.
We’ll be back to check out the beer some other time.