(10th July) Kirkwall – Orkneys
It was a long overnight sail, by breakfast we were still progressing through the western group of the 70 or so islands that make up the Orkneys. The view from the deck was a vast change from that of the savage and barren coast of Greenland. Low, flat and green slivers of land slid by, punctuated at their extremities by tall white lighthouses and the occasional farmstead. It was overcast and windy.
We entered the waters around Kirkwall around 11 am, passing through Scapa Flow, once the home of the British Fleet and the scene of much history during WW1 and WW2. Today, a stiff breeze caused some delay to our berthing and securing of the gangplank.
Sue and I were due to be onshore by 12.30 am to join a party visiting the Neolithic sites of Skara Brae and the Ring of Brodga, but further delay ensued as we waited for paramedics to board and transport by ambulance a rather poorly lady and her husband to the local hospital.
Soon afterwards we were snug inside a very modern coach, enjoying the views, shielded from a bitingly cold wind and occasional light showers, whizzing along in comfort. It was a Sunday and most people seemed to be indoors, probably enjoying lunch after their morning pilgrimage to the church. There was little if any traffic sharing these surprisingly good roads.
On our way out of the town, we passed the very new hospital in which one of our fellow cruisers was now getting attention. Thoughtfully, planners had located the undertakers right next door and alongside that was a rather splendid old folk’s home. Close by was the cemetery. She was in good hands and every eventuality had been covered!
The centre of the island is a lot more undulating than first appears from the sea, we could see the Mountains of Hoy, round-topped and standing proud in the distance. There is nothing jagged and vicious here, the topography has been smoothed by the passage of time and man’s manipulation of the land. Twenty-three thousand people can live here in some comfort! Farming is the main industry, but fishing is important and so is the oil industry. In Scapa Flow, we passed three oil tankers waiting to fill their tanks with crude from a shoreline storage facility, its contents pumped directly from the North Sea.
The world-famous and much-filmed site of Skara Brae is on the opposite side of the island to its capital and took a half-hour drive to reach the small bay, overlooked by Skaill House in which it lies. There was an unpleasant blustery, offshore wind whipping across its sandy shore as we stood on a shelf of exposed turf next to the monument. Our guide was very knowledgeable, had a great sense of humour and explained the history of the monument well, but I have long since been fascinated by this 5000-year-old settlement and just wanted to get immersed into its physical history, and out of the wind too!
Through watching many documentaries about this place I had envisaged it to be much larger than it actually is. Nonetheless, it is still an awe-inspiring location and if over the millennia, coastal erosion hadn’t destroyed much of the site then it may certainly have been on a much larger scale. The shoreline is littered with regular-shaped rocks used in the construction of the buildings and hint at a very large settlement, but sadly the waves of time have washed away the truth. Yet, from the evidence before us, how they lived their lives here is clearly understood, but why it was abandoned, is not.
As is the nature of cruise tours we had just half an hour to wander, imagine and photograph before the timetable said otherwise.
This had been years in anticipation and I condensed it down to a couple of dozen photographs and a windswept memory.
Our group moved on to what I thought would be an uninteresting tramp around Skaill House. It was the family of the Laird who lived here who discovered Skara Brae when after one stormy night the covering dunes were blown away. However, the house is
not a grand affair, packed with elaborate furnishings and expensive decoration, it is very much a comfortable family home, containing displays and artefacts of its past residents. There are some lovely photographs of the children playing in Skara Brae before it became widely known as an important archaeological site.
Before mounting the steps of our coach, located next to a small dedicated museum by the car park we had an interesting walk through a reconstruction of one of the Skara Brae huts.
A short drive and a brief walk took us to the Ring of Brodga. This ring of once 60 large stones of which 37 remain, was erected around the same time as Skara Brae. It was obviously a very significant place, standing out in the landscape for miles around, with further stones marching out into the countryside, possibly indicating routes into the site. What its function was is unknown, but it probably was religious or maybe a meeting place or both. The sun had come out while we wandered around the outside of these huge stones taking our photographs, but the wind still had an arctic chill to it.
Returning to the ship we stopped at one more, a smaller ring of stones before passing the location of an annual archaeological dig regularly broadcast on TV, presently it is shut down and covered in tarpaulin and hundreds of car tyres to protect it.
The evening show was particularly special. It was titled, ‘The Enchanted Garden’ and featured the ship’s singers. The harmony this group of singers produce is quite magical, several times touching the soul. I could have listened to them all night.
(11th July) Sea Day
This is our last full day on board before disembarking in Tilbury. Heading down the east coast of the UK in a rising European heatwave, we are fortunate that a moving ship attracts a cooling breeze.
It was our last day of ship activities and food, how different the following days are going to be! After an afternoon lecture on fossils and mass extinction events (I hope that’s not an omen!), Sue and I retired to our cabin to begin the laborious and unwilling task of packing for home. Annoyingly the dress code for tonight’s meal is ‘smart’, which means they will have to be fitted into the suitcase last thing. It is more usual for it to be ‘casual’, permitting you to wear your ‘going home’ clothes. We noticed that an elderly couple had already packed and had placed eight cases outside their room for pick-up after midnight. What on earth have they brought to wear that requires so much baggage? I felt quite embarrassed to put out just two and there are three shirts I didn’t wear!
At dinner, we sat with two amiable couples and discussed the highlights of the cruise, agreeing that it had been a great experience and we could see why over the years, some have done this route several times. Prior to the evening show, the entire hotel staff assembled on the Palladium stage, waving flags of the 27 nations they came from to say goodbye.
Around 11 am we placed our suitcases outside of the cabin to be immediately spirited away to someplace where they can be stored and sorted in readiness for the following day’s disembarkation. Before retiring for the night, we took a last look on the aft deck of the twinkling lights now visible along a distant East Anglian shoreline and the lone illuminations of dozens of oil rigs out in the English Channel.
(12th July) Going Home
We woke at 6 am and were in breakfast half an hour later. Despite a very pleasant morning, there was a subdued atmosphere in the restaurant, like ourselves, I assumed our fellow cruisers were reflecting on the many chores waiting at home and were just a little sad.
Being accommodated on Deck 11, we were among the first to disembark and quickly found our cases among the dozens of others stacked in the terminal before boarding the shuttle bus to the car park. We arrived home at 11.30 am, emptied our cases and immediately began the first of many tasks to ease ourselves back into normality. All good things eventually come to an end, and this trip has made some wonderful memories that will be referred to, hopefully for years to come.
Stats: Nautical Miles
Tilbury – Reykjavik 1241.6
Reykjavik – Qaqortoq 806.7
Qaqortoq -Narsarsuaq 140.3
Sisimiut- Ilulissat 194.7
Ilulissat – Nuuk 386.7
Nuuk – Kirkwall 1677.2
Kirkwall – Tilbury 553.9