30 September 2007

Simmer Dim

I've been avoiding posting this for some time, because our trip to Shetland in June 2007 was amazing and there's so much I could write about it. Indeed, I did write a fair bit, but not half as much as Grav did. I suggest you go and read Grav's writeup, because it is superb, and I didn't know that the old fart could be so eloquent. His photos aren't half bad either. Mine are here.

Anyway, here's a bit of text I knocked up a while back, concentrating on the rally itself:

It all started when Grav said he wanted to go and see a bus shelter. Naturally, we all thought he was nuts, after all, you can see bus shelters everywhere. However, this is no ordinary bus shelter. Unst, one of the Shetland Islands, doesn’t hav
e much of a tourist trade, so one enterprising youngster decided to do something about it, and decorated the bus shelter at Baltasound, and it has now become something of a tradition. There’s not many bus shelters sporting curtains, a sofa, a coffee table and a TV, microwave, stocked bookshelf and a print of Van Gogh’s ‘Sunflowers’. Anyway, when a friend told us about Shetland’s Simmer Dim rally, we thought it would be a good idea to use it as an excuse to ride up there and have a party, and see the bus shelter at the same time. Of course, being a long way, we just had to go up there for a few extra days and make a proper holiday of it. So, six intrepid travellers set off on the Sunday before the rally, and rode through the lake that was the M6 and off into the Trossachs, where Santa had booked us into a beautiful campsite at Killin. It had proper bogs and showers, and a really nice restaurant too! That night, we dined on roasted pheasant and red wine (cos we’re posh, us), and then stumbled off in a tipsy haze through the woods in search of Loch Tay. In hindsight, this may not have been a good idea, given that we hadn’t taken a torch, and Kerrie slipped in the mud and fell on her bum.

The following morning, we set off to Aberdeen, but we were a bit over-enthusiastic and arrived at the ferry terminal more than two hours early, so we did the decent thing and went to the pub, like you do. We’d been warned to fill up with petrol before getting on the ferry because fuel is dearer on the islands. They weren’t kidding! The price ranged from £1.06 to £1.15 per litre, depending on how far away the petrol stations were from Lerwick.

We arrived in Lerwick early on Tuesday and were met by our friend Sheltie, who took us straight to the local Co-op café for breakfast and then showed us to the municipal campsite at Clickimin (a whole half mile from the ferry terminal). We booked in for a few nights before setting off for the local supermarket and bought loads of food for a relatively organised tea of steak, onions, mushrooms and spuds. Considering that it was cooked on a selection of Trangias and gas rings, it was a damn fine meal. After a damn good night’s sleep, Grav decided that we should go and explore the island, so we headed north on some nice smooth roads, until we came to the wet bit. Then we rode onto the ferry, and headed for the next dry bit - the Island of Yell. As the ferry docked, Pete on the Ducati lost his balance and ended up at a 45 degree angle, leaning against a car. He couldn’t get himself back up again, nor did he have anywhere to fall, and had to wait like that until someone went to rescue him, by which time his arm had gone dead. Then we continued our ride north on even better roads, until we got to another wet bit, and got another ferry to the next dry bit - the island of Unst. We went right to the top of Unst, to the northern-most inhabited settlement in the UK, a little place called Skaw, which consists of about three buildings. As we neared the end of the road, we realised we’d been beaten to it, by a bloke on a Velocette. We pottered around on the beach for a while and dipped our boots in the Atlantic and then set off on the journey back to the campsite. Of course, we did visit the famous bus shelter on the way back, and were greeted by some locals who were really pleased that we'd stopped by.

When we got on the ferry back to Yell, we were rather peeved that a lorry had been allowed to get off before us, given that all the roads on Yell are single-track most of the way. However, this lorry driver knew his stuff and threw the waggon down those roads with some amazing skill. He didn’t bat an eyelid when Grav passed him at, erm, slightly more than the prescribed speed limit, with me hot on his tail. We rode like demons and got to the next ferry just as it arrived and managed to get on it before the waggon, and zoomed back to the campsite.

On Thursday morning, Freak and I got up early and went to meet Shep & Baglady off the ferry. We were quite surprised to see that the local television company had turned up to film all the bikes disembarking. Quite a few folks were obviously excited to be back on dry land, and did a few burnouts. One bloke was unlucky though, and managed to dump his bike on the quay, but accepted the laughter with good grace.

Back at the campsite, we bumped into Otto. Honestly, you ride hundreds of miles and spend 12 hours on a ferry, only to bump into someone you know. Bloody typical! Otto gave us the sad news that a local lad, Mark Leask, had died in a bike accident on the main road up to the rally site, and warned us that the road might be closed. Our spirits somewhat dampened, we set off for the rally site at Vidlin, or so we thought. However, Grav had a different idea, and led us on a mystery tour, ending up at Twatt, just so that he could take a photo of the road sign. We then followed some very narrow, very twisty and very gravelly single-track roads over to Voe, taking in some stunning scenery on the way.

As we approached the rally site, we all slowed down and you could almost see a collective thought-bubble above our heads, containing just one word. “Wow!”. We went into the village hall, registered, and picked up our beer tokens. After pitching the tents, we heard a rumour that food was being served in the hall, so we stampeded back over the road and were amazed to find that the food was included in the ticket price. Later on, we headed into the beer tent and I was chuffed to see that there was a choice of local real ales from the Valhalla Brewery on tap. I’d already sampled the ‘Simmer Dim Ale’ on the ferry, so I opted for a pint of ‘Auld Rock’, a lovely dark ale with a smoky flavour. I was to have several more of the same over the weekend. Just to make sure it was still nice, you understand.

There’s something about the air up on Shetland, I’m sure, because we were all completely knackered by midnight and fell into our doss bags. I woke up at stupid o’clock, absolutely frozen to the bone. So much for my -15 sleeping bag then.

Friday morning brought another pleasant surprise in the form of free tea and coffee in the hall. I was served with so much breakfast that I couldn’t finish it, so I took the rest back to the tent and fed it to Spike, and then wandered off with my camera. Just before 11:00, we assembled outside the site for the organised ride-out.

We had an evenly-paced run through Brae, and stopped at a café at Eshaness, where soup and sandwiches were laid on by the rally organisers, and then we set off again to Eshaness lighthouse and a stroll on the magnificent cliffs.

After admiring the view for a while, we set off again, to view a private collection of vintage British motorcycles, all of which are in full working order and displayed in a garage that was better fitted out than my house.

We spent Friday evening drinking more of the real ale and listening to the bands. Mid-evening, the Jarl Squad joined in the fun, only to be challenged at the door of the beer tent by a couple of Irish lads armed with a plastic sword and a kid’s bow and arrow set. They were easily defeated and retreated into the bar where they proceeded to stick arrows all over their mate’s head instead.

Friday night’s headline band was superb, playing everything from heavy rock to diddly-diddly music but, sadly I have absolutely no idea what they were called. They must have been good, cos they even got Grav up dancing - something he regretted the day after when the numbing effect of the alcohol wore off and his spine reminded him about that nasty bike smash a few years ago.

One of the weird things about Shetland is the ‘Simmer Dim’ itself; the haunting twilight that lasts from about 10pm to 3am, when it starts getting light again. It never actually goes dark, and it really screws with your head. Your body tells you it’s knackered and wants to sleep. Your eyes tell you it’s daytime and you should be away. Your ears can hear the bands and tell you it’s party time, and all your stomach wants to do is eat.

Saturday morning we awoke to drizzle, and we decided it was Shep’s turn to lead our ride out. We headed south to Sumburgh Head RSPB reserve and watched the puffins (now also known as gay penguins), kittiwakes, gulls and cormorants for over an hour before heading back to the rally site just in time to get the bus to Lerwick carnival, where we had a drink or three and a kebab before getting the bus back to the site and listening to the bands.

Sunday morning, the last day of the rally, started very bright. The sun was beating down and my tent felt like the inside of an oven, so I escaped into the coolness of the village hall, where the disco was still going, with one lone lass dancing away to her heart’s content. After a nice Sunday roast in the hall, and packing up the tents, we headed off up to Mavis Grind, a piece of land only 35 yards wide at its narrowest point, where the vikings used to haul their boats across from the North Sea to the Atlantic because it was quicker than sailing round. We’d been told that the North Sea/Atlantic Challenge was taking place that afternoon, where a replica longboat was to be hauled across, but we got there too late and missed it, so we had a wander round the stalls, and Spike had a go at making a horseshoe, combining two of his favourite activities - playing with fire, and hitting things. I think he missed his calling in life. He kept going on about wanting to be a llama farmer, until we threatened to beat him up, so he said he’d alpaca it in then.

On the ferry back to Aberdeen, we saw the news on the TV about the flooding in England, and before long, the bar was packed full of people, all standing in front of the telly, silent and shocked. The weather on Shetland had been great, and we had no idea what had been happening elsewhere. It was a rather sombre end to a fantastic trip. The Shetland Islands are beautiful. There’s a distinct lack of trees, and there’s certainly a lot of sheep. Every twist and turn of the narrow roads bring you another wonderful vista. The people are really friendly and we couldn’t have asked for a better welcome. The Simmer Dim is a damn fine rally, well organised, great fun, and well worth the trip.

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