A beer from the Orkney Islands, located off the north coast of Scotland. From the first taste I adored it. The hops and fruit taste are well balanced. Definitely one for after a bike ride on a summer evening. The bottle labeling evokes the romance of island life with a cottage facing a sunset.
Swannay Brewery opened in 2005 on the mainland of Orkney. The small scale of the operation and the story of the father and son brewing team is appealing to travellers who seek out locally sourced food and drink.
The name of the beer is a play on the taste of hops and the 70 islands of Orkney.
From the very first taste I thought 'mmm! I like this.' Some beers take several sips or more to get a taste for them, but not this one. It was delicious straight away. I reckon this is because there is no single taste that dominates, the fruit and hop taste are equally balanced. On the front of the bottle they call it a "session beer" meaning that it is ideal for drinking one after another on a night out.
I really enjoyed this beer and I will definitely be having it again.
Dream cycling country- this is what the island of Stronsay is. Flat, lush farmland and uninterrupted views of the sea. There is not much in the way of roads and they are almost traffic-free. The island is 6 miles long and has a population of around 350.
It is somewhat of an adventure to reach Stronsay. First you must get to Orkney which is located off the north-coast of Scotland. This means travelling the length of Scotland to take a boat from Scrabster.
When we rolled off the ferry and started cycling we found roads with nobody. The horizon was mostly light blue sky with a band of deep blue sea underneath. White sandy beaches and green fields added to Stronsay's palette.
Paul (my cycling buddy) and I are not birdwatchers, but we booked a night at a bed and breakfast called Stronsay Bird Reserve. The owner John Holloway was surprised that we were staying with him because usually his guests love birds and watching them. I think it took him a little time to get used to the fact that we would not be able to chat with him about yellow-breasted buntings, but he quickly warmed to us.
We did not do that much cycling on Stronsay, which was okay because there are not that many roads. We were too busy chatting with John and his wife Sue. I can’t remember the specifics of the conversations, but it was one of those occasions where a group of people hit it off with no effort. John had a relaxed and laid back demeanor. He was easy to talk to and conversation flowed naturally.
To Fair Isle and Back
John had moved from Kent to Orkney with a dream of living on a remote island and setting up his own bird reserve. He wrote a book about Stronsay and his reserve called “To Fair Isle and Back”.
The reason that Fair Isle is mentioned in the title of a book about Stronsay is that John also ran the shop on Fair Isle for six years.
“Life on Fair Isle was always interesting- winds up to 150mph, so violent that large fish were literally thrown out of the raging sea and onto the beach; beautiful aurora lighting the whole sky, including one of the best in living memory which could be heard “hissing” its pulsating rhythm as we watched the magnificent display of colours in total awe; huge arrivals of autumn migrants when the whole isle seemed alive with birds…”
The Vat of Kirbister
There is something on Stronsay with a name that I loved so much that I tried to find a way of including it in every conversation just so that I could say it out loud- the Vat of Kirbister. It is a rock arch, carved naturally from the sea. John offered to drive us to it, which was another reason that we did not do much cycling.
Scotland’s coastline is littered with dramatic rock formations, but when it is shaped like something we associate with a manmade structure it induces even more wonder. A stone arch requires planning, an architect and team of builders and masons, so when we see one that has been perfectly sculpted from the random movements of waves it is even more impressive. The Vat of Kirbister looks too precarious to walk across and is best seen from far enough back that you can look through the arch to the sea beyond. I wondered how long it had taken for the waves and tides to create this structure.
That evening John’s wife served us homemade lasagne for dinner. It was so good I had three helpings! We had a few glasses of red wine and chatted until it got dark. John and Sue were really suited to the bed and breakfast business as they were very natural and had a knack of making us feel like we had known them for years. Good company, special location and delicious food make for the best travel memories. Sleep always comes easily in such places where there is no chance of traffic or noisy neighbours.
In the morning John seemed distracted. He kept looking past us to the window, trying his best to continue the conversation. He apologized, but there were interesting birds fluttering around and he could not stand to miss anything. He talked away to us about something non-bird, but would suddenly say the name of a bird he had just seen out of the window. Paul and I shared a giggle about this later on- we had never come across someone who was this focused on feathery creatures.
I must confess that I never read “To Fair Isle and Back” until I started to write this post. It has been on my book shelf for years. At the time Paul read the book on the train journey home, but I did not look at it. I am glad that I have now finally read it as it has brought back very happy travelling memories. As I turned the pages I recalled the yellow fields, endless blue skies and empty roads. Most of all I pictured the cosy evening with homemade lasagna, red wine and good conversation.
One of the greatest cycling crimes known to mankind was committed on the Orkney isles- the theft of my friend Paul’s saddle.
It was our first ever cycling trip and we had chosen to visit Orkney, a chain of 70 islands located 10km from the north coast of Scotland. These lands of green fields, heather moors, lochs, coastal scenery and archaeological sites promised great cycling country.
We arrived into Stromness, the second most populated town in Orkney, by ferry. I had expected a quiet and peaceful town, but the place was packed with people celebrating, laughing and having fun. We had to push our bikes very slowly through the crowds to reach our room for the night. We had unwittingly walked into Stromness Shopping Week, an annual gala with parades, music and dancing.
The town has one main street with lots of narrow alleyways. We had to store our bikes in one of these alleyways because our bed and breakfast did not have a garden or garage to keep them in. “They’ll be fine there,” the sweet and laidback owner told us.
We spent the evening enjoying local seafood and one of the most delicious desserts I have ever come across, Orkney fudge cheesecake. This was followed by some Orkney Ales, including one named Skull Splitter!
In the morning we were looking forward to our very first day of cycling which was going to include a visit to Skara Brae, a Neolithic settlement that is older than Stonehenge and the Pyramids. However, you can’t do much cycling if one of you doesn’t have a saddle! Paul and I looked in shock at the metal stump on his bike.
“Someone’s nicked my saddle! I don’t believe it!”
Was this the end of our first ever cycling trip before it had even started?
We discovered that Paul’s saddle was on a quick-release system which means it is very easy to remove it without the need for tools. Perhaps too tempting for a passer-by who had consumed one too many Skull Splitters?
We felt silly because we should really have removed the saddle at night and kept it in the room. But this was our first ever trip and there was a lot we did not know about bikes, like quick-release saddles. What a stupid invention anyway! I mean, you are unlikely to want to adjust your saddle so often that this system is worth the risk of someone being able to easily remove the saddle.
Adjacent to the alley there was an abandoned garden and we thought it was worth checking in there in case the saddle had been unceremoniously discarded over the wall. When we entered the garden we could not believe our eyes. It was thick with the tallest, stingy nettles I had ever seen! How on earth were we supposed to look through this? We tried anyway and fought our way through the jungle. This disturbed a squadron of stinging insects. We were defeated and retreated to the safety of the saddle-less bicycle in the alley.
We decided to check other alleys and peaked over garden walls as if we were searching for a lost cat, but there was no sign of our poor missing saddle.
“I could put a jumper on the stump and try to cycle,” Paul suggested.
There was no way a jumper would cushion the blow and he ended up doing standing up cycling as we tried in vain to find a bike shop. Everything was closed and it seemed the town was still fast asleep from the partying the night before. The tourist office was about the only thing that was open.
We went inside and asked if there was a cycling shop in town, but there was not and when they asked what was wrong we dreaded telling them. Inevitably they laughed and we all laughed together. It was funny, but then the realisation dawned on us that without a saddle this trip was over.
“Would you like us to call the police?” one of the women offered. Her name badge said Isabel.
I imagined sirens, sniffer dogs and door-to-door enquiries. “Police! Open up! We know the saddle is in there! We can do this the hard way or the easy way!” We both agreed that it would be crazy to involve the police. All that we wanted was to be able to buy a new saddle.
“Mac could probably help out. He fixes cars n’ stuff,” Isabel offered. “Only thing is that he was oot last night and is probably still in bed.”
We took up the kind offer and could not help smiling as she explained the situation to Mac on the telephone, “I’ve got these two lads here. Their saddle was stolen,” there was a pause and then,”Yeah, that’s right, saddle. It got stolen.”
Mac said something and Isabel replied, “No, they don’t want to bother the police. Just want a new saddle.”
After the conversation Isabel turned to us and smiled, “Good news! Mac can help. He is still in bed and has a wee hangover, so he asked if you could give him half an hour. I’ll write down the address.”
Paul and I were overjoyed. If Mac could put a new saddle on Paul’s bike then our trip would be saved. We waited long enough for Mac to get out of bed and then found his place, a garage for fixing cars. It was filled with tools and odds and ends, including some old bicycle saddles. Mac looked a little worse for wear, “Are you the boys that had the saddle nicked?”
He examined the metal stump on Paul’s bike and tried matching up some of the saddles to it. “This one will do. Not perfect, but it will do.” He hammered it in place using a mallet and it stuck perfectly. There was going to be no possibility of adjusting it, but Paul was delighted. He could ride again!
When Paul asked Mac how much we owed for the job he shrugged, “You’re all right.”
We cycled off in the direction of Skara Brae. The replacement saddle was great and did Paul proud for Orkney and many other cycling trips. We laughed about the entire incident and that it would probably get talked about all over the island. “Did you hear about these lads who had their saddle stolen?”