The Journey Part 1 – From Desktop Planning to Shetland
“Come on then, let’s get this show on the road.”
My audience failed to move, instead gazing out at the Atlantic Ocean, watching the cobalt sea morph into foaming white spray as it launched an assault on the rocks below.
“I hope you’re not too heavy today,” I said moving towards my Osprey backpack. It was. It always was. With enough food to feed an army plus all my gear, it weighed a tonne. I hauled it onto my shoulders and was thankful that it was comfy.
I had spent the past week talking to my bag about weight; my tent about wind, rain and condensation; fences about hurting my knees; and sheep about, well, being sheep.
“You must be mad!” I heard over and again from people I met.
If only they knew, I thought. “Yes, I think that would be an accurate description!”
However, they weren’t referring to my conversations with inanimate objects and farmyard animals, but the challenge I was on: a 2,500-mile hike through British history.
You get like this when hiking solo for days and weeks on end. It all becomes perfectly normal. By the time I finish my adventure, the men in white coats will no doubt be waiting for me in London.
My knees became a palette of brown, purple and black bruises
I had started this ambitious challenge a couple of years earlier in my flat. Maps were flanked on the walls, history books highlighted and scattered around. A plan of what I needed to do month by month meticulously written out, but never heeded to. I started walking 7.5 miles to work, and in summer months the return leg, too.
“So what is it you’re going to do?”
“Walk through time,” I cryptically replied, my friends probably conjuring up images of a female Doctor Who. The idea was to hike from the Stone Age in the top of Britain and work towards modern-day London, 2018, as I moved south.
Route planning was endless. I kept changing my mind and then getting stuck. My colourful spreadsheet was interspersed with blank tiles.
And then it was time to start.
“You do know that it’s been snowing and the temperature is below freezing in Scotland, don’t you?” anxious family members told me. I was well aware and not equipped for snow or freezing temperatures.
“Yeah, but it’ll have gone by the time I arrive,” I bashfully replied, overcompensating for my anxiety.
Thankfully, a week later on May 6, 2017, as I sailed into Lerwick harbour in Shetland, the snow was all but a distant whisper. The sun was bold, the wind gentle and the sky a brazen blue.
I met with archaeologist Val Turner who conjured up a route for me, mixing together my Ordnance Survey maps with her Neolithic knowledge. Like magic, the spreadsheet created in London with its colourful destinations was thrown to the Scottish wind. The route in Shetland went from my estimated 42 miles to 130. Val, and everyone I met, had just sold Shetland to me and I was keen to explore it.
The fences were the worst. I cursed every time I saw one. My knees became a palette of brown, purple and black bruises as I hurled myself over them in a bid to get off the body jerking tarmac. I used my right to roam (in Scotland it’s legal to walk across land except gardens, fields with crops growing or golf courses if you disrupt play, but OK if you don’t). This invariably involved fence pole jumping, a mouthful of curses and knees full of bruises.
I was whisked back to memories of Western Australia, with sapphire skies and Lilliput-sized heather. I wound along grassy coastal cliffs with a manicured beauty that belied its rugged location. I was stupefied by an abundance of natural arches and enthralled by my very first Neolithic burial chambers, settlements and a ‘temple’.
I was also stunned by the amount of bog which kept me on high alert as I bounded over hinterland and searched for the best places to wild camp. Peat cutting was in full swing and slabs of clay-like peat were heaved from the ground and left in Jenga positions to dry out. Grown-over areas that once were peat cutting territory were definitely to be avoided, unless I wanted to sink up to my knees.
A plethora of times I gasped in awe; at an archaeological dig on a wind-driven hill; being 33 metres between the North Sea and the Atlantic Ocean; and realising that volcanoes once stood in Eshaness millions of years ago. The generosity of locals with offers of rooms to sleep in, lifts (which I didn’t take), and water top-ups peppered with fun conversations made Shetland a winner in my eyes.
“I’ll be back one day,” I whispered to the heaving waves which separated me from the land as I left Shetland on the Orkney-bound ferry.
“What was that?” a stranger asked. I was talking to nature again, but this time I’d just been rumbled.
“Oh, um, just muttering to myself,” I sheepishly replied.
“So was I,” the stranger smiled, looking at a splash that he thought was a dolphin. He must be a solo hiker, too, I thought, as I continued with my monologue.
The Journey Part 2 – Orkney to Ullapool