Saturday, 4 July 2015

Northwards to Shetland!

My first port of call when visiting Aberdeen was to check out road access to the Northlink ferry to Shetland, and make certain enquiries at their quayside offices. Driving there from Stonehaven was more straightforward than I'd thought. One of their ships was docked, ready for the afternoon (or evening) sailing, and I was struck by the powerful logo they used. First I saw a boldly pointing arm:


Then, sashaying leftward a bit, I saw the figure whose arm it was:


Ah! A viking! My Scandinavian blood sang. I heard the call of the North. I put a horned helmet on my list of must-buys, though not, of course, a windswept beard. I went into the ferry terminal - mostly empty in late morning - and had a word with the girl on reception. I wanted some information about booking (best done online) and turn-up times. I also wanted to see their facilities for waiting passengers, in case obliged to hang around for more than an hour. These were fine. I picked up a few leaflets to read at my leisure. Then I walked off into the city centre, intent on having a jolly good look around Aberdeen, which had already struck me as a busy, happening sort of place, with plenty of invigorating fresh air and not all that many obvious tourists. In that respect, the atmosphere was completely different from Edinburgh, which, so far as I could see, had welcomed half the population of Rome and Tokyo.

Of course, Shetland would be even less like Edinburgh. But that would make it  - for me - more likeable. This visit to the Aberdeen ferry terminal did nothing to blunt my enthusiasm for the trip to Shetland I was planning for 2017. This, in fact, was the first practical step in turning that intention into a real-life holiday.

As it then stood, the Shetland adventure would take this form. I'd leave the caravan behind, and instead rely on overnight accommodation - a Premier Inn room while in England, the generous offers of friends while in Scotland. An important part of the adventure would be the exciting dash northwards in Fiona, reaching the quayside at Aberdeen with only two overnight stops, a dash that would be a personal challenge, as well as a test of Fiona's capability as an indefatigable mile-eater. On Shetland it would be a week's posh bed-and-breakfast. The return journey didn't have to be at top speed - I was happy to linger a bit, satisfying the pressing wishes of people like Coline to show me what true hospitality could be like. But with that hospitality enjoyed, and rewarded, I wasn't going to tarry further. My recent four-week tour had taught me that three weeks away from home was quite enough. Over that, inconvenience and fatigue tended to crowd in.

Overriding all other considerations was what I wanted to do in Shetland. This holiday would probably be a one-off. I had certain plans and priorities that must be met first time. The chiefest involved a complicated journey to the top end of the island of Unst, parking Fiona in the northernmost car park in the UK, and if at all possible, tramping yet further north - on foot - in order to get a glimpse (and a shot) of the lighthouse on Muckle Flugga.

It was an absolute requirement, that day on Unst.

But it would involve a fast twenty-five or thirty mile drive north from wherever I was staying in central Shetland - somewhere within ten miles of Lerwick - then queueing for the car ferry at Toft, to take me over to Ulsta on the island of Yell. Then a fast eighteen mile drive to the other end of Yell, to Gutcher. Then a second car ferry from Gutcher to Belmont on Unst. Then a further twelve or thirteen miles to that Most Northerly Car Park, and only then Boots On for the final stage. I'd want to reach Unst in time for lunch (not a lot of choice for that, I'd say, and essential to arrive sooner rather than later), and, once Muckle Flugga was seen, I wanted a spare couple of hours to get a slower-paced 'feel' for Unst.

Looking at the ferry timetables, and the stated crossing times, and making some calculations on driving times, I thought it might take me three hours to get to Unst by 11.30am. This included time waiting around. It didn't include time waiting for the next ferry, because I couldn't get on the one I'd had in mind. Indeed it might take four hours to get up to Unst, not three. I'd better expect delays and all sorts of frustrating problems. And if it did (optimistically) turn out to be a three-hour journey, I'd still have to allow the same travelling back. That could mean only five hours actually on Unst.

Realising this, it was clear that I'd best set off from my Lerwick accommodation well before 8.00am, and not expect to return inside twelve hours. Which might make me unwelcome at a bed-and-breakfast establishment. It would be difficult not to disturb the other guests, and I would certainly not be served a very early breakfast.

But if no Unst, then no Shetland holiday.

I realised all these problems only yesterday. Was there a way around them?

I could in theory stay one night on Unst. A good-standard room, if available, might cost £50. And I'd waste one night of my Lerwick accommodation. In any case, it didn't look as if there was actually anything on Unst beyond entire cottages for let. Rooms for the night were not to be had.

I could stay for my week in the northern part of Shetland, within easy distance of the Yell and Unst ferries. That would make Muckle Flugga Day an easier proposition. But I wanted to be close to the bright lights and facilities of Lerwick, Shetland's capital, the only town of any size - and not miles away.

Then I noticed in the 2015 accommodation guide that there were some caravan sites, a couple of them only recently opened. And they were all asking a pretty reasonable £15 per night. I hadn't thought any existed. I would save £30 every night by using my caravan, instead of buying a room. Hmmm. It was worth looking into.

Well, you can see how this notion of taking the caravan to Shetland quickly took hold. I'd be denied my exciting dash northwards, and it would cost extra on the Aberdeen ferry. But I could suit myself, and come and go at strange hours without putting anyone out. I could catch the earliest morning ferries to Yell and Unst, and make a proper day of it. And not just that day. I could make the very fullest use of my week, see every corner of Shetland, indeed join any late-night party going, without being inhibited by house rules where I was staying.

So this is now the revised plan. It's to be Shetland by caravan. It's a longer holiday, because I will now need four nights to get up to Aberdeen - even if hurrying - not just three. The same thing returning, although actually I would of course linger in Fife to see my friends, and possibly stay a day or two elsewhere. The whole trip would now last three weeks: five days travelling up, seven on Shetland, eight or nine days getting home again.

And the cost, over and above what I'd spend anyway at home? At July 2015 prices it now works out like this:

Fuel: Towing there and back, and sightseeing on Shetland: £400.
Site fees: Let's say 20 nights, seven of them on Shetland: £300.
Aberdeen-Lerwick ferry, there and back: Midweek, with own cabin, and an evening meal both nights: £750.
Personal spending and meals out: say £250.

All that comes to £1,700 in today's money. All to be saved up for, over the next two years.

I'm sorry to miss out on that exciting northward dash in Fiona, and as sorry to forego the hard-to-turn-down domestic hospitality offered by friends. But I misjudged just how much flexibility and freedom I'd need on Shetland. It's not just about Unst. I might want to photograph the sunrise or sunset somewhere, and at those latitudes it'll be at a very odd hour of the night. I might even get persuaded to attend some kind of hearty midsummer festival in Lerwick, and then need to crawl back in an unseemly state, certainly at an unseemly hour. All these things are easily doable with my own caravan as the base of operations, but awkward if staying somewhere else.

So once more my hotel-room-on-wheels will be pressed into service. To think I once thought of selling it! What a mistake that would have been.

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