Monday, May 03, 2021

Riding injured through the Vendée to the Ocean - The Route IX (part 1)


Not the best start to the latest leg of our cross-Europe cycle tour. Dingo and I arrived in Nantes two hours late. By the time we high fived Uwe in Arrivals it was past Midday and nearly 1 pm before we had assembled our bikes, chucked the bike boxes and Dingo had completed his pre-ride faff (to be fair he was quicker than usual).

We had at least 100 km ahead of us that day and late October offered cold, rain and limited time before sunset. Adding to that, neither Dingo nor I were sure we were in shape to ride. Dingo had a dodgy Achilles and I had the combo of a crooked knee (a yet to be diagnosed ACL rupture) and more complicated issues I won’t bore you with here. We had discussed it on the plane and agreed WTF, we would give it a go and cycle to the nearest train station if I bodies failed.

On the bright side, the gang was back together and I pushed off from the airport excited, if tentative, at the hundreds of kilometres of open road ahead of us to Bordeaux.


There is not much to report from the first few hours of cycling.  A steady pace, stuck in behind Uwe for much of the time (to conserve the energy and the injuries), past suburbia, then fairly non-descript villages and fields. So short on time, we stuck to the straight, semi-major roads and did not even stop for our usual village café pit-stop (not yet at least). Making do with a service station baguette, we pushed on and on through mercifully unhilly terrain.

While I cycled two things ran through my mind. My knee and a bit of history. Only two weeks after ditching the crutches, I was not confident it would hold out, but slowly but surely gained a little confidence as the kilometres past. This allowed some mental room to mull over the dark suppression of this region during the French Revolution. I would have been ignorant of it had I not just finished a study of the revolution, but now could not help but view the countryside in the shadow of the more than 100,000 local lives that were lost as the revolutionary government crushed a rebellion. A sombering thought in the rain.

The day took an upswing about 70 km in as the sun broke through and we gave ourselves the luxury of a brief café vin rouge. This left a final pleasant, if leggy, couple of hours. The highlight was passing through the beautiful village of Mareuil-sur-Lay-Dissais, complete with remarkable round church overlooking a tranquil river.

I for one was pretty relieved when we rolled into Luçon. It was our bare minimum destination for  the day, 100 km and change from Nantes. That was not far by our historical standards, but this was not a standard year. We were lead in from miles out by the magnificent, dominating spire of the Cathedral of Notre Dame (all 85 meters of it), restored by Richelieu himself.

We parked up in a café right outside the edifice and sipped some very satisfying red wine as the sun went down. After the shaky start, all seemed momentarily ordained to goodness, as we stumbled across the aptly named Hotel de Bordeaux and found available rooms to rent. Big pizza, ice-packs on the injuries and lights out.


I woke up feeling better than expected, which was for the best given the ground we had to make up after our squeezed first day. Breakfasts on these trips are a particularly enjoyable part of the day, washing down course after course with lashings of coffee. I can’t help but think that a little competition comes in on both the quantity (Uwe wins), quality of choice (Dingo wins) and what extra fuel we can legitimately carry out (score draw). At least on French trips, this is then often topped up by a swift stop to the local boulangerie in anticipation of second breakfasts.

Having followed just that pattern, we headed south and into a flat coastal territory of cattle and egrets. In the morning sunshine we took a detour across a nature reserve and through some age old looking hamlets, before taking a sharp left and then right to avoid the encroaching sea. All in all, it was a lovely 40 km ride into the outskirts of La Rochelle. After the inevitable, roundabout, slightly lost route through the outskirts, we emerged into the simply stunning old port.

Mighty walls and guard towers gave way to harbour side and a plethora of sailing boats in the azure blue waters. We had reached the historic opening to the Bay of Biscay and the Atlantic Ocean. I will struggle to convey how perfect the next hour or so was. We parked ourselves and our bikes in a front row harbour café, sipped ice cold beer, ate glorious food and kicked back in our sweaty lycra in the late Autumn sun.

Before I left, I got chatting to a Brit who ran the local pub. He had come one day, fell in love with the place and never left. In that moment I completely got it. La Rochelle is special.

We undoubtedly stayed longer than was sensible, but were all smiles as we put bums back on saddles and headed out due south on a coastal path along the ocean. After a day and a half of roads, it was great to spend the best part of an afternoon on small mixed terrain paths. A bit of a headwind slowed us even further, but that was fine as we had the beach and ocean to our flank. Having been as far away as Stockholm on the route, it felt exhilarating to be on the Atlantic.

After a while the path noticeably narrowed and grew wilder as we wound our way along vegetation covered dunes. We persevered, but eventually ran out of path not far from Fouras, needing to take a left to avoid heading straight into the Charente river that cut in from the coast.


Via some bigger roads we made it into the city of Rochefort. Clearly a grand, if not large, place, our road took us straight to the even grander central square. A fitting spot for a lengthy ice-cream crepe and vin pit stop.

Much as we would like to end the day in Rochefort on a high, we had at least another 40 km to go to our much reach destination, Royan. Already late in the afternoon, we headed to the novelty of the vertical lift bridge across the Charente. While worth the trip for its peculiar spectacle, we were disappointed to find it closed and the need to double back a good way to get to the only other bridge across the river that bound in the city on three sides.

Unfortunately for us that was a motorway type bridge complete with speeding trucks. After a sharp word or two between us, we jumped across the reservation and grimaced as we pumped up and over the steep incline, gripping the handles tight in  anticipation of being knocked sideways by a speeding lorry. A very sketchy bit of riding.

From there it was pedals to the floor to beat the dark. I had largely forgotten the dodgy knee during the joys of the day, but an deep ache now came to the fore. This was made worse by us being forced onto a busy commuter road as the light failed. A difficult end to the day and it was a relief to wheel into the distinctly odd seaside town of Royan at night (think of Margate meets Milton Keynes). After the special places of the day, we hardly cared that Royan was a bit shit and were just happy to find a bed for the night and some late night chow.

Behind us were 230 km cycled against the odds (and the advice of my physio). Before us was the wide mouth of the Gironde river and then mile upon mile of Medoc vineyard. Could be worse.

Sunday, December 13, 2020

Our Orcadian Saga (Part 2) – Seabirds, Sea Creatures and South to the Caledonian Forest

Somewhat to my surprise, Orkney looked nothing like the highlands or the Western Isles I have visited. Gone are the barren moors, bens and glens, replaced by gentle rises and sweeping grassland. Cows instead of deer.

One massive exception we saw was the west coast of the Mainland (the main Orkney isle). The sloping grass gives way to sheer cliffs and raging waves. While not as high as the cliffs off Hoy, they are still thrilling and simply teeming with seabird life. Each day on Orkney we would choose a spot by the coast and go for a trek.  Across wide, arching beaches, then up headlands and along paths astride the cliffs, holding the kids hands tight.
The coast was full of features I recall from geography at school. Stacks, arches and blowholes. From semi-safe spots, we would sit and pass the binoculars around, spotting birds on cliffs stained white by their excrement, swirling on the wind and perched on the waves. Guillemots, kittiwakes, razorbills, shags, skuas, gannets, you name it. Not to be forgotten were the birds of the low shoreline and backing marshes – oystercatchers, redshanks, turnstones and more. These were great, but what we really wanted to see were puffins…


Try as we might, we could not sight these evocative little birds. Cliff after cliff showed up many wonderful things, but no puffins. My daughter was equally excited by the semi-tame rabbits on a cliff top, but for the rest of us puffins was the main aim.
Puffins play a special role in British culture, being one of the more extravagant animals left on our dilapidated islands, and featuring in as diverse mediums as book publishers, cartoons and confectionary. I had therefore wanted to see one since I was a kid. It seemed our best opportunity was passing us by, until… on our final afternoon a passer-by on a cliff walk half way down the west coast of the Mainland, tipped us off that they had seen puffins on the Brough of Bursay.

The Brough of Bursay is a small island off the north-west tip of the Mainland, accessible by foot only at low tide. I checked the tide times and, as luck would have it, the tide was going out. I rang the rest of the family and arranged to meet them there asap.
Having transversed the narrow path to the Brough through the rock pools, we passed through the remains of a Viking settlement, over a fence and up a steep hill. 

Thanks Uncle Phil

We headed straight for the high cliffs on the north side. Only half hoping, we approached a vertical corrugation on the cliff wall and peered out to a jutting out portion of cliff. I could not believe my eyes. 

There was a puffin, and another. So much smaller than I had expected (barely bigger than my hand), but intensely charismatic. A pair were perched on a narrow ledge. One flew off, and as I followed its path, I saw another puffin flying in.

All in all, I think we saw at least 6. We lay there with the kids and cousins, giggling with excitement.

The seabirds were marvellous, but do not hog all the rights to cool wildlife on these isles. Driving around the island, we were fortunate to see seals on multiple occasions. Both grey and harbour seals fish of the coast and lounge around on beaches. The best place we found to spot them was just off the “main” Stromness to Kirkwall road, at the southern edge of the Loch of Stenness. Mildly inquisitive, they would roll over, or pop their heads out the water on seeing us.
Perhaps the most remarkable wildlife we saw was not even alive. Walking by a beach on the west coast, I spotted a large log type shape on the shore that did not look quite right. As we walked closer, I could not work out what it was, until a bad smell and closer inspection gave it away. It was a carcass of small whale. It looked most peculiar and, after doing some research, I found out that it was the mysterious Cuvier’s beaked whale. Living in the deeps of the far north and rarely ever seen, one washed up here was a stark reminder that leave these isles on the wrong heading and all you get is wild ocean for league upon league.


Being a keen diver, I wanted to explore Orkney’s waters, as well as its shores, and I was lucky enough to do just that. The simply fantastic Scapa Scuba (who incidentally have the coolest dive shop I have ever seen –  a 100 year old bright red lifeboat station), took me to experience my fist ever dry-suit dives on the blockships that guard the eastern approaches to Scapa Flow.
An array of ships were sunk to prevent the Germans from attacking this key Royal Navy base in the two world wars. Sadly, they did not fully do their job, with U47 slipping through in October 1939, and sinking the HMS Royal Oak, with the loss of over 800 hands.

The blockships lie in shallow water between the small islands that run between the Mainland and South Ronaldsay. They have broken up over the years and been enveloped in wildlife. This make an excellent place to dive.
Spotting another seal as we pulled up in the van by a bridge and small inlet, we took our time prepping for the dive. I received great instruction in how to put on the cumbersome dry-suit and what to expect when in the water. We slipped into the shallows, I put my head under and received an immediate ice-cream headache for my sins. The water was all of 7 degrees C and made me grimace. I though got used to it soon enough and opened my eyes to a new world.

Thick sea weed and kelp, giant crabs, fish I had never seen before and huge numbers of starfish. The water clarity was good. I got used to the buoyancy of the dry-suit sooner than expected and followed the bottom as it descended towards great lumps of seaweed strewn metal. It was a thrilling sight.
In all I spent over an hour exploring the wrecks spread over two dives. While heavily broken up, many parts of the structure were still evident. There were great swim-throughs and many a sea creature surprise. A large lobster beneath the wreckage and, strangely most exciting for me, a sizeable cod scared off.

It was a brilliant experience. I got on really well with the dive school guys. They were happy enough with my intro to dry-suit diving for me to join them on the deep dives to what remains of the scuttled Imperial High Seas Fleet (see here), one of the top dive sights in the world. I could hardly contain my excitement. The only problem was weather and a lack of availability. Each day I waited with my fingers crossed. The latter freed up, but not the former. The sea gods were not with me, throwing up prohibitive wind and waves. Yet another reason to return to these wonderful islands.

All over the Orkney were reminders of our ancestral link. The name Sinclair is everywhere. What best bought it home though, was finding the small farm house where my great-grandparents lived before departing for Australia. Thanks to my Uncle Peter’s research and careful instructions, we found the place on the eastern side of Scapa bay, round a sharp bend on the Old Scapa Road. After a week on Orkney, it no longer felt strange that my forebears had lived here for centuries, but seeing the house brought with it some sadness for what is gone.
As the mists rolled in, I thought of what a difficult life it must have been through the long, cold, dark winters. We found hints of how they may have survived. Alongside the old pubs, there is more than the Orcadians fair share of alcohol production. Adding to the old whisky distilleries and brewery, are  newer gin distilleries. I cannot recommend highly enough Orkney Gin Company’s Old Tom. Never since has our house been without it.


I was genuinely sad to leave. We had had a wonderful time. Adding to all the fantastic sites, adventures and wildlife, was quality time with my family. Seventeen of us had made the mini pilgrimage to Orkney on the beckoning of my Uncle Peter. Without him I am not sure I would have ever have made it, which would have being a crying shame.
On the boat back to Scrabster and the Scottish mainland, we once again passed the intimidating heights of the cliffs of Hoy, simply teeming with wildlife. Alas, we did not see the orcas. 
The road back south was a beautiful as before, but our stop over was a bit extra special – Glen Affric. Nestled to the west of Loch Ness, in the middle of the highlands, it is one of the last strongholds of the ancient Caledonian forest, giving it a very different feel to the barren lands elsewhere. 

This did not happen by accident. It is a wonderful example of rewilding and the potential it holds. Starting a quarter of a century ago, Trees for Life started installing fencing to keep out deer (who eat the saplings) and then augmented this with planting. Scots Pine have made a comeback. Instead of bare rock and gorse, there are glorious forests (find out more here). We stayed a night by the glen, trekking either side of the dark. 
One trek was deep into a dark, mature forest. We spotted pine marten scat (it is sad how excited I was) and came upon a waterfall through the trees. It was magnificent.
The other was into the heart of the glen. We followed paths down through wooded hills, across banks of ragged granite and down to the rushing water. 
At a high point, the whole glen opened up before us. It was spectacular. It felt like that so rare thing in the UK, wilderness. I was so glad to be able to take my children to such a place. So glad in fact, that it deserves a montage...
All too soon, we were driving south again and then along Loch Ness to Inverness and our flight home. As the flight took off I took with me a stronger affiliation with the country of both my grandfathers.

Sunday, October 25, 2020

Our Orcadian Saga (Part 1) – A Layer Cake of Historical Riches

I have deep Orcadian roots, yet before this trip I had never so much as stepped foot on the Orkney isles. Why, you may ask? Well, the location is part of it...
Looking at a globe, you have to trace your finger to the furthest north-western reaches of Eurasia, jump across the Channel to Britain, keep going north until England gives way to Scotland and Scotland gives way to the ocean. There, across one of the most treacherous stretches of water on the planet, you find the tiny Orkney archipelago.
The inspiration for this trip lay with my Uncle Peter. A great man, now sorely missed, who convinced and cajoled his close family up to the land of our forebears in May 2018. All in all, 17 of us made the pilgrimage under his instruction and I can’t thank him enough for it. Quite unexpectantly, I found one of my favourite places on earth.


We took a flight to Inverness, jumped in a car, passed the sadness of Culloden Moor, crossed the Moray Firth and then headed up the map.
It was a beautiful road, taking us in and out from lochs to villages, forests and then back out to the  north-east drag of the coast. Passed places with names like Glen Morangie, Golspie, Helmsdale and Ramscraigs, before jutting due north and across the wind-swept moors. They were so desolate and overbearing, it took me quite by surprise.
Eventually we reached the small port of Scabster and boarded a ferry to Stromness and the “Mainland”, the largest of the islands where the majority of Orkadians reside.  
Our journey was relatively calm, but foggy. I scoured the sea around us for the resident orcas, but to no avail. I could see from the map that our ferry was to pass the island of Hoy, but I did not see it until we were up close, the fog cleared and the giant cliffs emerged. Orangey-brown, topped with green, these were the highest sea-cliffs in the UK, rising sheer out of the waves to well over a 1,000 feet. Seabirds abounded, skimming the water in flocks, swirling on the winds and then disappearing into the vastness of the cliffs.
The Old Man of Hoy did not disappoint. A nearly 500 foot sea-stack, still standing proud against the wind and waves that will eventually swallow it.

The sun set as we spotted the Mainland, cleared Hoy and then turned to port and then to starboard into the small port town of Stromness, our home for a week.

Pretty knackered, we wound our way down the small streets to our harbourside house. Kids straight to bed and then a quick peer out the window to the say goodnight to the sea before we also hit the hay. In the gloom, something caught my eye  Would you believe it, a harbour seal peaking out the water right at me, not 10 meters away. He dipped back down, then emerged a few meters further back. A final glance and he way gone. What an introduction to Orkney!


I am half Scottish and half of that Scottishness is Orcadian. My name is the giveaway. “Sinclair” is as Orcadian as it comes. Up until my grandfather, this had been the home of my ancestors for generation upon generation. The connection was evident from our first walk around the narrow streets of Stromness, with my surname hanging over more than one shop.
I took to the town immediately. A measure of affluence from its time as the supply stop for the Hudson Bay Company (look up Canadian history 101 if you want find out more), helped provide it with grander buildings than its size and location would forecast. Stretching across and right up to the sea, I particularly liked the selection of old pubs, the small charming museum and old bright red lifeboat station dive school.
One by one different parts of my family arrived, having made the journey by different routes, transports and paces. All was plane sailing, except for one of my sisters, whose flight refused to depart from Inverness due to bad weather. There were no such issues in Orkney, where the sun shined and the thermostat reached a shocking 20 plus degrees C on successive days (shocking as the highest ever recorded temperature is 25.6 – you have to remember the latitude is only just below the southern tip of Greenland).
This is the first time I can recall us all travelling en masse and it was rather strange, yet wonderful to all meet in a pub garden of my uncle’s choosing so far from home to plan our stay. For those new to the treasures of these isles, the real issue was how to squeeze just a portion of the highlights into our time together. There can be few such remote places in the world that cramp so much varied interest into such a small space. You have to see it to believe it, and that we did.


What, to my mind, makes Orkney so special, are the number of impressive layers of history piled on top of each other. While you can occasionally be found in a grand old city (think Palermo, Seville or, above all else, Rome), it is not what you expect on windswept, cold islands at the end of the earth (or at least Eurasia). To give you an idea, I will take a trot through time using a selection of the remarkable places we were lucky enough to visit.


Against all the odds, Orkney contains the best preserved Neolithic remains in the UK, and one of the best in Europe. There are multiple sites and more continue to be excavated every year.
I have to start with Skara Brae. Eroded and dug out of the sands of a beach on the west coast of the Mainland is a near complete Neolithic village, dating from 3100-2500 BC. It is absolutely unique in its age and remarkable state of preservation. You can literally walk around the 5,000 year old passages, looking down into the houses, complete with doors shelves and benches.
It took me by total surprise. If you are lucky, settlements of half this age leave behind base wall or foundation fragments which require serious imagination to transform in to places people actually lived, but Skara Brae required no such taxing of the mind. A 5,000 year old veil was removed.
From Skara Brae, we drove in land to the heart of the Neolithic remains. Strung along and around a narrow strip of land between the Loch of Harray and the Loch of Stenness are marvels. First we came to the Ring of Brodgar. A broad ring of standing stones some 100 m across, rising out of the gorse and surrounded by pre-historic ditch. It is a starkly beautiful place, slightly raised, separating the two lochs. The kids were more than happy, running around the track created by the feats of countless thousands of man-hours 4,000 years ago.
Passing the continued excavations at the Ness of Brodgar, we came upon Stones of Stenness. Five stones remain of an original twelve that formed one of the oldest surviving henges, a thousand years older than Stonehenge. The largest of the stones is 6 meters high, but looked even taller next to the sheep which grazed its base.
Barely a kilometre from these monoliths was perhaps the most impressive of the place we visited on the island, Maeshowe. Rising like a small, green pyramid from the flat land next to the Loch of Harray, is this 5,000 year chambered cairn.

As we approached with the guide, it became clear the scale was even bigger than it looked from afar. This was a good thing, as we had tickets to enter the burial mound and I admit I initially wondered how our whole group would fit in.
We entered through a long, low passage, flanked by large stones. It felt a bit like Indiana Jones, stooping through the tunnel to emerge into a hidden chamber at the heart of the mound. It was very exciting, expressed by wide-eye looks in the kids, illuminated by the electric light switched on within.

The chamber was large, with plenty of room to stand, constructed by concentric layers of long flat stones. As the walls raised to shoulder height, these stones edged inwards over one another to form the roof. It was a remarkable place. To think this place was built twice as far back as the Parthenon and the height of classical Greece.

To my shock there was graffiti on the walls. Not of the common, spray painted kind, but strange etchings carved into the stones. The guide explained that these were not from modern, but medieval tourists. Vikings had opened up the tombs a thousand odd years ago, no doubt took what they found in there, and left behind the largest collection of Viking runes outside of Scandinavia. The most famous is an intricate carving of a dragon, but the one that stuck to the brain was translated by the guide as “Thor and I fucked Helga”.

Orkney also has its fair share of Iron Age remains. We had the pleasure of visiting the Broch of Gurness, on the edge of a bay opposite the isle of Rousay. A broch is a stone tower and in front of us was one of the best preserved brochs in all of Scotland. Still nearly 4 meters high (it is estimated to have originally been twice that height) and surrounded by numerous nooks, crannies, remains of walls and ditches, it proved the kids favourite playground on the island.
The approach to the brock only added to the wonder. For once on our trip, the famed Orkney mist had descended, adding a surreal quality to the over 2,000 year old remains. We were the only visitors and, against my better judgement, we bought the kids matching toy Viking helmets, swords and axes at the entrance. This inevitably lead to a giant mock battle through the site. Being old and mature, I jumped straight in and together had as much fun as I can recently remember.
What made it even better were the two seals popping in and out of the misty waters as we departed.


Viking remnants are scattered throughout Orkney and the blood of Orcadians. The islands were ruled by Norway for some 700 hundred years, only becoming part of Scotland in 1468 as security against the payment of a dowry.
It was ruled by such awesomely named Earls as Sigurd the Mighty and Thorfinn Skull-splitter, before Christianity took hold and, latterly, the earldom passed to the Sinclair family in the late 14th century.
The height of Viking gifts to the future, is the quite unique St Magnus Cathedral in Kirkwall, the capital. Very distinctive, with its red and yellow alternating sandstone, it is a Romanesque wonder. While I hugely enjoyed touring around the inside, I found the circumnavigation of the outside rather less uplifting.
Looking to keep the kids entertained, I for some reason suggested they look round the graveyard for any namesakes, this being a deeply Sinclair isle and all. Finding one was fine. Two, three, four, five… twenty plus far less fun. Even worse, the kids found more than one inscription with my full name, middle name and all. That was a bit too much for me. The kids found my only semi-shock horror a little too amusing for my liking…


Situated between the isles of Hoy, Graemsay, Flotta, Buray, South Ronaldsay, Mainland and others, is one of the great deep sea harbours of the world – Scapa Flow.
We drove around much of its perimeter, findings remnants of what was the main fortified base of the Royal Navy in WWI and WWII. From massive gun emplacements at its westward entrance (yet another playground for the kids), via the buoy that marks the tragic resting place of HMS Royal Oak, to sunken block ships on the eastern approaches and the Italian chapel built by some of the thousands of Italian POWs that were imprisoned here in WWII. It was fascinating.

I found the trip down to the water’s edge near the Royal Oak really quite emotional. Some 833 sailors lost their lives when the aged battleship was sunk by a daring German U-boat mission at the start of WWII. Such a waste. I could see how much simply talking about it upset my father, an ex-naval man himself.
Wrong era canon, but the kids aren't picky
Looking further out, I imagined all the other ships sitting on the floor of Scapa Flow. Now largely empty, this body of water once harboured one of the largest collections of naval metal ever assembled. At the end of WWI, alongside the British ships, it became the final resting place of the Imperial German High Seas fleet. Not wanting to wait for Versailles to determine their fate, the commander ordered the fleet scuttled, sending 53 ships to the sandy depths. More on that in part two of this blog.


For the first time in a long time, the islands are again seeing masses of massive ships. No longer battleships or longboats, but rather cruise ships. A combination of world class sites and being convenient stop on the way to Iceland, have made it the most popular cruise ship destination in the UK. While bringing increased prosperity to the island, I do so hope it is not overwhelmed. There are only so many coach loads of cruise-ship passengers that can parade around before some of the charm is lost. For now it is though safe to say that Orkney is thoroughly charming and welcoming.
This brief trawl through history and historical sites we visited is but a selection of what Orkney has to offer.  The depth and extent of its wonders amazed me and, to be honest, I fell in love with the place.