Having taken the bikes apart and stuck them in the car and driven them six hours, I thought we should put them to good use. Therefore I suggested we get up at the crack of dawn on a Sunday, drive them over to Tingwall, take the ferry to Rousay and have a leisurely cycle round the island, gawking at the prehistoric chambered cairns. Fifteen miles, said the internet. I mean, that’s a long way to walk, but not so much on a bike, right? You could do that in a few hours, surely. ‘And it’s not like we’re going over a hill’, the G Monster pointed out. ‘We’re just going round the edge, and that should be quite flat’.
I had second thoughts about the whole thing when I found a site including the phrase ‘despite the long and gruelling climb’, but the G Monster assured me he had had a look at the topographical maps and there was nothing of that sort there at all.
We got there horribly early. Like, two hours early. There was a cold, cold wind coming in from the east, there was no cafe or office or anything open (though they had kept the door open to the loos, which was decent of them) and I realised that ‘suitable clothes for cycling’ did not so much match up with ‘suitable clothes for standing stock still in the frigid breeze’. Also, my bike had a puncture, but that was okay because we had two hours to fix it. As we did so, two women swam merrily through the harbour, chattering away to each other and laughing, and then stood in their swimsuits by their car, getting changed and chattering away to each other and laughing. The only thing chattering between me and the G Monster was my teeth. I have no idea how those two weren’t human icicles.
I warmed up a bit on the ferry, but not nearly enough. There were lots of other cyclists there too, by that time, all of them looking rather more professionally decked out than me (I looked like a top-heavy woman in a miniskirt, if you insist on having a mental image of it, said miniskirt being there mainly to keep people from having to see my arse in leggings, and with a skull and crossbones cycle helmet topping it all off. I looked Ridiculous.) Also, the weather forecast had suddenly crashed from ‘10% chance of precipitation all morning, even-stevens thereafter’ to ‘80% all day’. Still, there we were, having paid the return fare and everything, and it was too late to back out now.
My first problem was remembering how to get onto a bike. My second problem was remembering where the gear changey things were (I am not used to a bike with four of them. I had one, when I was a kid, and it got stuck in the top gear and that was just how I had to get around). This one got stuck in the top gear, too. I made it out of the ‘port’, up the hill, round the corner, halfway up the next hill and then had to climb off and wonder if I was going to puke or just faint. The other, skinnier, more professional-looking cyclists all sailed past me at that exact point, because of course they did.
It then started raining, because of course it did. Meanwhile, my arse was already remembering how truly uncomfortable it finds bike seats, because it turns out some things you do forget.
Mercifully, Taversoë Tuick chambered cairn was only a short way off. The other cyclists clearly had other things on their minds because they kept going, leaving me and my lack of fitness with a merciful lack of observers, if you didn’t count the taxi full of people who were also going to look at the chambered cairn.
I am pretty impressed with Rousay’s treatment of its chambered cairns. They’ve concreted over the tops and provided helpful ladders etc, as well as fencing them off and having a little information sign. So you can go inside, which was quite a novelty, and also climb down into the lower bit, because this one’s a double-decker chambered cairn. Also, the bike helmet came in useful all day, stopping me cracking my head on the doorways.
Unfortunately, we then had to get back on the bikes.
By the time we got to Blackhammer chambered cairn, I was doubting my ability to get round the whole island. By the time we got to the Knowe of Yarso chambered cairn, I was doubting my ability to get round all four of the cairns in one piece, let alone back again. To make things worse, we kept catching up with the damn taxi tour for some reason, so everywhere they went there was this stout, middle aged woman in a pink cagoule, a miniskirt and a skull-and-crossbones helmet staggering after them like some sort of albatross (a tired, ageing-Goth albatross, I suppose, as much ‘Nevermore’ as The Ancient Mariner).
The taxi tour went for a slap up meal in the Tavisoe restaurant nearby, which has excellent ratings. The G Monster and I went round a corner to find shelter from the wind by a ruined farmhouse and eat sarnies we’d bought in Tescos. I fell off backwards on the dismount and rolled around in a horribly ungainly fashion, but fortunately there were no witnesses. Well, except the G Monster (but we’ve been together eight years now, it’s not like he was expecting grace and agility, right?)
It is only three miles to the next cairn! the G Monster kept telling me. This was your idea! he also added. All these things were, sadly, true.
We saw a ruined broch by the sea, but no way to get near it. We also saw a very impressive standing stone, on a tiny island of grass on a corner between a farmhouse and the road. I did not stop to take photos of its majesty because it was on one of the few, precious downhill runs and I needed every bit of momentum I could scrape up for the next uphill slog. Which went on and on, forever and ever amen, and it was proper raining by this time and my arm was giving it proper laldy where I fell on it. (Do not dismount on the downhill side of your bike. Everyone knows that, even I know that, but by the time I realised there was a downhill side and I was on it, it was too late). The G Monster was, by this time, but a speck upon the horizon.
Who rolled up at the same time I finally staggered into the Midhowe carpark? The taxi tour again.
I was slightly heartened by their dismay at the steep descent to Midhowe Broch and Chambered Cairn. I was even more heartened when I didn’t slip and go all the way to the bottom on my arse, as I suspected I would. The G Monster pointed out a skua low overhead (probably an omen of doom, I thought) and we saw a lovely, fluffy little black and white and grey bird with a black bar across its eye perch on a post in the field. I think it’s a fly-catcher! I said. I shall look it up when we get back!
But first, the chambered cairn.
This bugger was inside a massive hangar, which was pretty impressive in itself (I’d seen it from the carpark and thought it was a very posh barn). It was gigantic, and is well worth a gander at if you happen to be in the area, even if you’re not really into this sort of thing. I did notice where the first two cairns were round, the last two were sort of barrow-shaped (long barrow, that is, not wheelbarrow) but why the difference, I have no idea. Also about a hundred yards from this is Midhowe Broch, which is also very impressive and worth a gander. As the information sign says, by the time the broch was built, the chambered cairn had been abandoned for a thousand years; and yet, to me, even when I’m trying, it all sort of falls under the heading of ‘extremely old stuff’. Oh to be around when future teachers have to explain that no, the Vikings did not use GPS, and while yes, the Romans had water mills, windmills and wind turbines were invented 600 years apart and the cutting edge of military technology during the former was the crossbow, whereas now it’s the drone-strike.
Anyway, then we had to somehow get back to the ferry; and before the last sailing, too, or be marooned overnight.
Despite being mostly uphill on the way out, it was still mostly uphill on the way back. This is, of course, physically impossible, and yet there it is. Worse, the wind was now against us, and though the G Monster sped down the downhill parts and off into the distance without touching the pedals, I was forced to pedal continually just to keep from slowing to a halt. Given that even I can’t be that un-aerodynamic, I concluded that it must be the ferocious grip of the mountain bike tyres; at least, I hope so.
A ferry started approaching as we went, leisurely cutting through the water with a promise of hot showers and being out of the wind and this by-our-lady miniskirt. I watched the G Monster speed up, disappear over the hill and wondered if he was going to wait for me and, if not, if he remembered he had both our return tickets in his pocket.
I made it to the jetty with half a minute to spare.
It was nice to warm up a bit on the ferry, even if it only served to accentuate how cold and drenched I was. Shame that half an hour later we had to pile out again, which was when becoming wet and cold a second time got really unbearable. Plus, I managed to break my bike getting it into the car. Was that a stab of pure joy when the G Monster told me I’d knacked it and it would have to be repaired when we got home? I swear, it was not.
Turns out he manage to fix it with his supertechy skills, though. Woe. I mean, woo!
Mercifully, there were indeed hot showers. And a warm apartment and clean clothes and cold gin and a hot meal, too. Also, I got to inspect my arm, where there is a small pink point as if I had bumped gently off the business end of a set-square. Well that’s… epic.
As an end-note, as well as divers and a hare and a skua, it turns out we saw a shrike today. An actual, fearsome shrike! The ‘Butcher Bird’, the one that impales mice and voles on thorns to eat later; the Shrike that Dan Simmons’ Hyperion series named the metal, invincible, time-travelling robot monster after. It was that fluffy little grey and white and black thing that would fit in your hand. Go figure. And indeed, perhaps that one was the omen of doom after all. For lo, I cycled ten miles and rued the day, and the ‘safe’ route I had looked at cycling to the new job and back is twelve…