Monday, 2 August 2010
I’m leant against the side of a large marquee, looking out over a beautiful, bleak, treeless vista, it’s now well past 1am and there is a purple blue haze to the landscape, in no way could it be described as dark. In the background the beat of a ‘Levellers’ song sets my foot tapping and I drink it all in in more ways than one!
So this is Simmer Dim, the name comes from the Shetland dialect words for that time of year around midsummer when the sun sets, only to rise again a few minutes later. It’s now just three days short of the solstice and it is one of those moments in life when you realise it doesn’t get much better than this.
In honour of this special time of year the Valhalla Brewery in Unst has brewed a rather fantastic golden beer that I feel it is only right to consume, in huge quantities, to celebrate the occasion.
I love Scotland, especially the west coast and Hebridian Isles but I’d never had the opportunity to travel further north to either the Orkneys or Shetland till now. Pete Wheeler had suggested we make the trip to the ‘Simmer Dim’ Rally twelve months ago, whilst we were having a few beers at ‘The Farmyard Party’, his idea was that we should do something a bit special as part of his 40th birthday year celebrations. At the time there had been around ten people showing interest in the trip but as often happens as the time to book grew nearer, work commitments, family or funds got in the way for many. Come January 2010 we were down to just four, Martyn and Pete Wheeler, Jan, Martyn’s partner and myself. Rally tickets were hastily booked to avoid disappointment and a cabin reserved on the Northlink ferry service for the sailing on Wednesday 16th June and returning on the evening of Sunday 20th June. (Just over £100 for bike and rider return with shared cabin)
My alarm goes off at 5.30 am and for once I spring out of bed leaving Kathryn, who has to teach all week, to sleep on. I wake Lou from her slumber in the spare room.
‘How did Lou get involved?’ I hear you ask; well she’s my new pillion for the trip. Jan got an invitation in mid April to return to Poland for his brother’s wedding, feeling under slight family pressure he passed his ticket to Buckles who, only a week before the trip secured a new work contract down south and given the current economic climate felt he really couldn’t delay the start. With seven days to go and tickets booked and paid for Martyn Wheeler hurriedly tried to fill the empty slot. His landlady, Lou, took up the option. Now Lou normally rides a Suzuki Savage but with only my bike booked on the ferry she takes Buckles vacated seat on the pillion of Bertha, my BMW R1150GS.
It’s a beautiful summer morning and the A1 to Scotch Corner is covered before 8am, then great views open up across Bog Moss and Sleightholme Moor to reveal the Tan Hill pub standing high to our left. Breakfast is taken at a café in Brough, I lovely little place minutes from the A66, the proprietor likes motorcycles and there is always a selection of bike magazines to peruse.
From there we push on north picking up the M6 then the M74 to our second rest stop at Abington services. I need a break from the monotony of the motorway, which whilst being great for speed and distance is bad on motorcycle tyres and mental health, so from here we take the A702, through Bigger and up to Edinburgh. We cross the Forth Road Bridge (in the middle lane, I hate heights!!!!)
following the A90 to the services at Kinross, between Dunfermline and Perth. It’s here we make our third stop of the day and as we pull into the car park I see there are six or seven fully loaded bikes dotted around. Looks like the party’s starting!
Dundee and Forfar are despatched and sitting around 90mph we begin to regularly pass groups of bikes heading to Aberdeen. We’d been warned that petrol prices are high on the Shetland Islands so after passing Stonehaven we pull in for fuel on the outskirts of Aberdeen and brim the 31 litre tank. It’s now 2.15 pm, 370 miles in a little less than 8 hours, I feel we’ve made reasonable time.
We pull into the docks and quickly book in, at 3pm all the bikes begin to load and this is a very painless and well organised process. In 10 minutes I emerge from the hold with my overnight kit in my tank back and walk the 20 metres across the road to rejoin Lou, in the pub!!! And await the arrival of Pete and Martyn Wheeler.
About an hour later the two Wheeler brothers arrive,nice parking!.
They have spent the previous week travelling the west coast of Scotland and have today travelled over from Applecross to meet us. I hand over a spare mirror I have brought up for Pete, apparently his BMW gets tired easily on long journeys and likes to take regular naps, on it’s side !!.
Lou and I have already fallen for the friendly spirit of the ‘Simmer Dim’ everyone outside the pub chats with us, we starting talking with a group up from Alnwick, then some Geordies, a group from Glasgow and a guy from Lancashire.
‘How far have you come? How was the ride? Is this your first time?‘
When we reply
‘Yep this is our first one’, everyone without exception says
‘You’ll be back, once you’ve been then that’s it, you’ll do what ever it takes to get back every year’
Around 5.30pm we can board the boat and after showers, in our compact and bijou four berth cabin we hit the bar, just as the ship sets sail.
Situated approx. 110 miles north of John O’Groats the crossing to Shetland takes around 12 hours. Dinner of roast Orkadian beef is washed down with red wine before we have our first real introduction to the delights of the Valhalla brewery company.
Both the ships bars are filled with bikers and the atmosphere quickly becomes one of a floating bike rally. We have our first encounter with Jacko, Mark and Addi (?) Who have ridden up from Stoke for their second taste of Simmer Dim.
Around midnight we have all had enough and retire for a reasonably comfortable night’s sleep, once we had stopped the Wheeler brothers from enjoying their dormitory fun of pillow fighting and kicking the shit out of the bunk above.I did say this was Pete’s 40th birthday trip didn’t I?
We pass Fair Isle during the night and as we are all up and around by 5.30am we watch the Shetland Islands come into view. Sailing up past Sumburgh Head and past the lighthouse at Kirkabister on the island of Bressay,
we enter Lerwick harbour shrouded in mist and cloud.
The summer of the mainland has certainly been left behind as we disembark to light drizzle and a temperature reading on the terminal building of 7degrees centigrade.
Somehow the weather seems to suit this place adding to its mystical qualities. Not knowing where we are going we join the convoy of bikes heading north from Lerwick, I later find out that when the directions on the ticket had said Head Tae Vidlin, this is to be translated as head to Vidlin and could explain why I couldn’t find ‘Tae Vidlin’ on any maps or road signs. Only a mile from the port and we begin to climb, I immediately notice four things, the road surface is stunning, the side wind is extreme, vision is down to 20 metres and the guy on the Triumph in front is throwing stuff out of his rucksack at me! I accelerate past and bring him to a halt, whilst he is left searching the road side ditches and fences for his waterproofs that by now could be in Norway we continue the 20 or so miles to the rally site, all but the last few which are single track, are covered on wide sweeping roads, with fantastic views through each and every corner.
Tents are put up,
then the adjacent village shop is visited, where Martyn buys a packet of aptly named ‘puff’ biscuits and the rally check in is completed at the village hall before we decide to head back into Lerwick for a few hours sight seeing and to make some phone calls. The rally site has very limited mobile phone signals and the few who can get one are all huddled together round a lamp post, a quite amusing sight. Although I had promised to keep in regular contact with Kathryn the lack of modern technology intruding on this place seems fitting and adds to that feeling of other worldliness that these islands offer.
After a lunch of fish and chips taken at the harbour side,
Martyn sets off in search of thermals.
Our return to the rally site coincides with the start of the ‘Boot Game’, now I will do my best to explain the rules but I may have misinterpreted them.
All competitors sit along bench tables down the centre of the marquee,
a number of large glass boots filled with strong ale are then circulated among the contestants with judges placed at regular intervals who will order the payment of 20p fines for infringements such as drinking too little, drinking too much, talking while holding the boot, finishing the drink, not finishing the drink, etc, etc. As the boots are emptied they are refilled at first with more beer, then with vodka, whiskey and anything else that comes to hand, a random boot of sea food and sweet corn is then added to the mix. I can tell your getting the idea now! The winner is the last person standing and the only way to leave the table is by passing out or being sick, in one of the conveniently placed large blue barrels.
This game can take a good few hours so as spectators we thought we’d, at the very least, try and get into the same frame of mind as the competitors.
£60 may sound a lot of money for a three night rally in a small field in the middle of the North Sea, however when you sign in you’re given a book of 25 tickets which can be exchanged for food and beer throughout your stay. If you don’t have your own tankard or container the beer is dispensed into pint paper cups but it doesn’t take long for one of the locals to get chatting and explain that your ticket is not for any particular size of drinking vessel. Pete Wheeler quickly pops over the road and returns with the shops last two, two litre kitchen jugs! From here on in it gets messy.
We meet up with some of the Orkadian contingent, a group up from Goole I had met at ‘Into the Valley’ and a few familiar rally faces are spotted. The evening degenerates into a blur. Back at the tent Lou turns up and offers me a Lamb Shank, no really titter ye not, she had wandered over to the rally control to find food was still being served and returns with a couple of plates of delicious lamb and potato. Martyn staggers back from the bar, straight over the top of my tent and with a crack it collapses. Luckily Martyn had a pole repair section and with twenty four hour daylight repairs are easily carried out.
Friday is windy but dry and after breakfast in the village hall we join the organised ride out to explore the western coast at Esha Ness, stopping to look at the vertiginous sea cliffs, explore the lighthouse and wonder at the power of the sea that during winter storms can lift boulders, that must weigh tonnes, and deposit them along the cliff top.
From here we head down to Hillswick where lunch is provided at the local hostelry, a selection of great home made soups and rolls followed by scones all for £4. I getting chatting to the two bike Bobbies I had seen boarding the boat at Aberdeen. It appears they are based in Dingle, on the mainland, and are sent over each year to police the rally. As one of them says ‘it’s a great holiday ‘.
After an hour or so out of the wind we remount and ride past the Sullom Voe oil/gas terminal and on to visit a private motorcycle collection.
Tritons, Triumphs, Norton’s, and BSA’s, rub shoulders with AJS and Nimbus.
One of the bikes that catches my eye is parked outside.
It actually belongs to Raif, one of the Goole lads, and is a 1975 Suzuki GT 750‘Kettle’, as we head back, via Brae, the ‘kettle’ comes past me with that whiff of 2 stroke oil, now all but disappeared from the motorcycling scene, I see the big Suzuki begin one of its renowned weaves as he rounds a sweeping bend ahead of me and it makes me wish I was riding my Commando.
We push on to Vidlin, fighting against a strong side wind, and after a quick ride out to find a phone signal Lou and myself return to the bar.Martyn and Pete continue down to the southern end of the island to make enquiries about booking a ferry to ‘Fair Isle’ for a few days and they return at around the same time as Jacko and the other lads from Stoke, we met on the ferry. Having spent the day travelling by some of the smaller ferries (£7.50 for a full day pass) to the furthest northerly point of Shetland at Muckle Fugga, north of Unst they are now on the search for gaffa tape to repair the broken mirror and fairing damaged on the crossings. Did I mention it was windy?
By 9.30 pm I need a little lie down but luckily Pete comes and wakes me around 11pm and I get back in the marquee as ‘The Revellers’ take to the stage, with a mix of, yes you guessed it, ‘Levellers’ covers interspersed with ‘Waterboys’ and various other post punk folk rock music. The hours pass all too quickly and it’s sometime just after 4am when we retire, it’s been daylight for hours!!!
In the morning Jacko wanders over,
‘Have you guys got any gaffa tape? ‘He enquires
‘I thought the mirror was o.k. now ‘I reply.
‘Oh yeh that one is, it’s just the bike fell over last night, on the other side!’
Many of the bikes we have seen at the rally sport the badge of the long distance adventure rider, a full sheepskin seat cover, whilst this may look like the remains of road kill I am assured of their comfort over long distance journeys, keeping ones posterior warm in winter and cool in summer. It appears from those ‘in the know’ that Shetland is THE place to get a cheap sheepskin and most of those we’ve seen fitted to the bikes were bought on previous visits here. Lou and I head out for a mornings sight seeing
and just past St Ninians Isle we find a little croft with a sheepskin pinned to a frame outside, this is the place we’d been advised to go and £20 buys us two!!
We stop for the ubiquitous photos of Shetland Ponies
and then travel down to Sumburgh Head, crossing the airports main runway on route. Just as we pass, barriers close and an aircraft lands on the spot where minutes earlier my bike had been! Sumburgh Head is the spot for puffins and all along the cliff edge are bird watchers armed with tripods carrying cameras, binoculars and telescopes.
From here we ride back north the 20 miles or so to Lerwick, where we take advantage of the local leisure centre to shower.On entering the attendant says that showers are free for campers, I think he mean’s those staying on their site to the rear of the building. I tell him we are definitely campers but omit to mention that our site is 20 miles away.
Clean and fed we head back to Vidlin for an afternoon of fun and frolics.
Its ages since I’ve been to a rally with a good Saturday afternoon silly games session, the health and safety risk assessments have put paid to many but here common sense and alcohol intake prevails. You can take a spin in the gyro
or ride out the belly mixer,
race round dizzy sticks and fight your way through bungee cord.
For those feeling less energetic you can simply relax on the trailer of a Honda C90 for helmetless trips round the local village.
At tea time the ‘Vikings’ arrive,
battle songs are sung in the marquee and many of the hoard stay for the evening. We on the other hand board a coach into Lerwick, joined by Erland, one of the Orkandian guys. The capital is packed, it’s the culmination of the ‘Hame Fest’ where islanders and their descendants from around the world make there way back to Shetland to celebrate the birthplace of there ancestors and yacht’s carrying flags of the USA, Netherlands, etc fill the small harbour. On the quay side the ‘Taste of Shetland’ food, beer and music festival is in full swing.
Martyn and Pete Wheeler have arranged to meet with their cousins, who live on the Shetland Islands, and thanks to their local knowledge we make our way round a few of the local backstreet pubs.
At 11pm the coach picks us up, minus Erland, who we abandon to the lure of the town!
It is only now I notice the many bonfires built in gardens along the road side, all to be lit at midsummer.
Saturday night drinking continues back at the marquee and being the last night we replace pints of beer for pints of whiskey and vodka.
‘That will be one ticket please' says the bar man.
Vikings by now litter the floor and I literally have to step over a few to reach the bar. This does look like a scene from an epic Norse saga.
Although some of the Vikings are scarier than others, with this one after you there’s no wonder the English monks were worried.Vikings the hard men of Europe !
As the alcohol consumption increases things just get stranger.
As always happens on the day we prepare to leave, the wind has dropped and I think even the temperature may have risen.
We begin the job of packing tents and sorting places for sheepskins before I wander over to thank the rally organisers for all their efforts.
By now the village hall is transformed into a large dining hall and a full Sunday lunch is being prepared. Unfortunately we can’t stay for this or the prize giving’s as we have other plans!
I do however hope the BSA M31 (I think) wins a prize, the rider was into his seventies, the bike in her sixties and they had travelled from Watford for this their 28th ‘Simmer Dim’ rally together!
We say our goodbyes and ride back down at Sumburgh harbour, where we are joined by the Stoke lads who have come to witness the destruction of two BMW GS motorcycles. Martyn and Pete have decided that for the next part of their Scottish odyssey they will visit their uncle, who is the meteorologist on ‘Fair Isle’, those of you who watch BBC’s ‘Coast’ programme may have seen him being interviewed whilst taking rain measurements and recording wind data. The island is only a couple of miles long with one road, suitable for tractors, but the Wheeler boys want to be the first to ride GS motorcycles over there. Now the only way on to the island is to fly or take the renowned ‘Good Shepherd IV’. For me any boat that has a greater numeric value than one gets me thinking about what happened to its predecessors.
Unfortunately the boys are to be disappointed, after half an hour of head scratching trying to find ways to strop the big BM’s and attach them to the loading crane they are forced to admit that the damage that may be caused outweighs the benefits. The Captain of the ‘Good Shepherd IV’ explains that even if we can hoist them into the hold because of the nature of the crossing where Atlantic and North Sea currents meet, the bikes would have to be securely tied to the cargo hold bulk head and would be damaged in some way. We say our goodbyes and leave the Wheelers pushing the bikes into a lock up container for a few days and quickly packing a few belongings into overnight bags to take the journey merely as foot passengers.
Lou, myself and the lads from Stoke head back to the Lerwick Terminal, load our bikes and walk the mile or so to the nearest pub before taking our leave of Shetland but knowing we would be back.
Monday, mid summer solstice, the longest day and we have all of it to enjoy the ride home. We travel along the great A92 coast road, through Montrose and Arbroath (Kathryn will be disappointed I didn’t stop and pick up a smokie, the Kippers the town is famous for) and on to the Tay Bridge at Dundee. Through Glenrothes we arrive at the Forth Road Bridge as the temperatures start to climb again.
Only a short while later I miss a turn and an hour long excursion round the historic buildings of Edinburgh city centre is the result. Eventually I find the A68 and head to Jedburgh and on to Corbridge before succumbing to the A1 at Scotch Corner for the last hour home. The milage reading on Bertha shows only 850 miles for the weekend trip but somehow Shetland makes me feel that I’ve been to the other side of the world !.