Starting mileage: 22652
Day started: 08:00
Day ended: 20:00
We are having a day of rest in Stromness – doing nothing except strolling its quaint little streets. Excuse me if I may be gushing a little in the description of this town, which had become our second favourite place in Britain ever since we first saw it five years ago – and remained in this position upon second viewing. If anything, it’s improved with age.
Unusually for a harbour town, the main street of Stromness is not a seaside promenade, but a narrow avenue hemmed between two rows of uniform houses paved with greyish flagstones – an arrangement similar to that of Peel on Isle of Man, another Norse-Celtic settlement. This makes the town much more cozy, compact and rational in use of space; all the tourists pouring from the ferry terminal are funneled down these streets, directed along the windows of galleries and local shops. The sense of community here is strong – even a small Co-op shop is barely tolerated, relocated to the outskirts of the town, in a bid to prevent it from taking too much trade from the local butcher, baker and greengrocer on the high street.
It is a cliche to say some place looks like a painting, but in Stromness the impression is so strong it’s almost creepy; the irregular, yellow sandstone with which the town is built, joined by pale-grey mortar, makes the street look like a crude impressionist water-colour by day. At night, with the yellow windows hazily illuminated from inside, it turns into Van Gogh’s Arles. No wonder every other person here seems to be a painter, sculptor, or at the very least a poet (like the town’s most famous son, George Mackay Brown). Stromness has a strong connection with another artists’ colony, St Ives in Cornwall. A newly built art centre (splendid, thoroughly modern building, perfectly blending with its surroundings) boasts a grand collection of works by Barbara Hepworth and others, gathered by a friend of theirs who moved back to Stromness in the later years of her life.
Despite being so remote, both Stromness and the entirety of Orkney islands had always been at the centre of history. Orkneys share some similarities with Anglesey in Wales: a fertile, densely populated island at the edge of sparse, inhospitable mainland, rich with history stretching from Stone Age to modern times. The Neolithic and Bronze Age people had built here a set of monuments unmatched anywhere on the mainland outside Salisbury Plain. In the age of sagas, Orkney, ruled by Norse earls whose dominion stretched as far as Inverness, was regarded as the land of milk and honey by the descendants of Vikings huddled around their hearth fires in cold Iceland. In the age of discovery, Stromness was the last and first stop for those going to and returning from North America and Greenland (as the result, the inhabitants of Nova Scotia are mostly descendants of the people of Orkney, and vice versa – many a Stromness family can boast a Cree Indian ancestor in their genealogical tree). During the two World Wars, here was the main base of the Royal Navy, with all the historical importance that entails.
And in recent decades, Orkney became the centre of Scottish oil industry, with constructing the massive terminal-island on Flotta. Nowadays, Stromness is once again at the forefront of world events, as it has become a leading European hub for research into alternative energy sources. The harbour is bustling with activity, as the new tidal and wave power plants are being built in the nearby straits. A combination of oil money and EU subsidies makes Stromness a wealthy place; luckily, the local council makes better use of all that affluence than most oil states: a new development in the harbour is being built around a large public library, rather than a shopping mall of amusement park.
A former RNLI boat station in the middle of the high street is now the headquarters of the Scapa Scuba Diving Centre, advertising “Try A Dive” experience. At an impulse, we come inside and ask for free slots; they have two tomorrow morning. £70 per head. We sign up. The next day, early in the morning, we drive across to the other side of Orkney Mainland, towards the Churchill Barriers. These four massive causeways were built during WWII by Italian POWs (a baroque-style chapel near the first causeway is the reminder of their presence) to protect Scapa Flow bay from the German U-boats. During the previous war, their predecessors were formed from old sunken ships, and it’s on one of those wrecks that the Try A Dive happens.
Despite the awful weather and early hour, a small crowd of people gathers around the divers’ van, waiting their turn. The experience is just that – a short dive in full scuba suit, good for anyone who has never tried anything of the sort before.
M. is very keen, me – not so much, and by the time it’s my turn – by chance, I’m the last one, after a long wait – I chicken out after a while, never a fan of anything involving lots of breathing. M., however, enjoys herself greatly; the dive, even if short, is a real treat: you get to descend down to the actual wreck site and explore it a bit. There’s life aplenty underneath the murky waters of Scapa Flow: giant crabs, lobsters, jellyfish, sea urchins and starfish crawl or nestle at the sandy bottom, small and big fish weave about among the reefs. The wreck in question is a fairly minor one, at least compared to what a more experienced diver can see in the middle of the bay (an entire sunken German fleet from WWI, no less – hailed as “the best diving site in Europe”), but it’s an actual ship, not some training platform, with funnels, propeller and crankshaft in plain view.
We returned to Stromness for the night, but not far from the Churchill Barriers there’s another good campsite, where we used to stay before (we made sure it’s still there today) – Wheems Organic Farm. The campsite is perched upon a cliff overlooking the mainland, and is part of a large working farm which, apart from selling some of its organic produce, also boasts a gallery of local craftsmanship.