War and peace

You can cycle every road on Hoy, Orkney, in a day – and take in a couple ferry crossings too.

033 Path from Rackwick bothy

Path from Rackwick bothy

Hoy comes from the Old Norse ‘haey’ meaning high island and it’s the relief that makes this one of the Orkney Islands the odd man out and by far the most scenic and dramatic. The northern end is characterised by bare, towering Howgill-like fells with cliffs to match. The good news is that the high points largely surround the route rather than cross it so you’re mostly looking up at them rather than cycling over them.

The journey actually starts on Orkney Mainland at Stromness. Reminiscent of Whitby and Staithes in North Yorkshire, Stromness is a traditional, down-to-earth fishing and harbour town with narrow, flag-stoned streets. It’s also the terminus for the ferry from Scrabster in northern Scotland but you are looking for a much smaller vessel for the short crossing to Hoy.

027 Disembarking at Moaness Pier, Hoy

Disembarking at Moaness Pier, Hoy

Disembarking at Moaness pier you’re as much in a different world as on a different island. Having been sat still for a while it’s no problem straining the legs a little up the incline from the pier. The road soon levels out and starts to follow the bottom of a beautiful glacial valley lined by pairs of telegraph poles like giant matchsticks. They brought power to the island for the first time as recently as 1980.

037 Old Man of Hoy

Old Man of Hoy

Once the last of the cars from the ferry has past you (and there won’t be many) you will be alone and all you’ll hear is endless birdsong and the swish-swish of bike tyres on Tarmac. Either side of the road among the heather are numerous sunken squares where peat has been dug out over the years. The road has just one destination, the former crofting and fishing village of Rackwick. Orcadian poet George Mackay Brown described Rackwick as “Orkney’s last enchantment” and it’s easy to see why. A glorious sandy beach with red sandstone boulders lies below the cliffs. A handful of houses are scattered around the bay but there’s no shop, pub or café which – along with its inaccessibility – is probably the reason that the place has retained its charm. You may want just to find a spot to sit and enjoy the silence but, if you have itchy legs, leave the bike for the three-mile walk (six in total) to the Old Man of Hoy, the tallest sea stack in Europe (137m) and the most famous sight on the island if not all Orkney. Quite why people – including, famously, Chris Bonnington in 1966 – want to climb it is beyond me. You’d almost think that the weight of a climber on the Old Man would cause it to topple over. I did the return walk in a comfortable two hours but signs recommend you allow for three. The path is very simple to follow and has recently been surfaced so is easy to do in cycling footwear.

Retrace your route to Hoy village and turn right up the road that runs all the way and high along the east coast of the island. It starts with a long, slow haul but most cyclists will be able to manage it – and subsequent lesser ascents – without dismounting. The rewards are extensive views across to Orkney Mainland, Stromness, the oil terminal island of Flotta (easily distinguishable by its orange flare) and South Ronaldsay. In between and all around lies Scapa Flow, the base of the British naval fleet during the two world wars. Today it’s hard to image such a tranquil scene being dominated by war ships. The harbour is best known for the scuttling of the German High Seas Fleet at the end of the first world war which saw the deliberate sinking of five battle-cruisers, 10 battleships, five cruisers and 32 destroyers. Earlier in the war and also in Scapa Flow over 800 men died as the result of an explosion on HMS Vanguard and a similar number perished when a German torpedo sank HMS Royal Oak in the second world war. You can find out more about these incidents and others at the Scapa Flow Visitor Centre & Museum at Lyness and visit the last resting place of many sailors at the nearby naval cemetary which is every bit as pristine and moving as those in Normandy.

043 Rackwick with plough (landscape)

Rackwick, Orney’s “last enchantment”

For an alternative war heritage experience, head up to the Wee Fea viewpoint and picnic spot, a short but very steep and stoney climb from Lyness. At the top what looks like a haunted castle was actually the naval communications centre during the second world war. Padding around the dark corridors, rooms and stairs is an eerie experience and not for the faint-hearted. All around the Lyness area you will come across mysterious, derelict military buildings giving an indication of the scale and scope of operations here 70 years ago. Most are as open to inquisitive passers-by as they are to the elements. I particularly enjoyed exploring the former camp including gunnery training room and pier at Rinnigill. Equally extraordinary is the front of a former Art-Deco garrison theatre which has been turned into a private house. Other unlikely accommodation includes hippy-style sixties coaches, grass growing over their tyres, while old Nissen huts are now barns, garages and greenhouses.

031 Rackwick Bay

Rackwick Bay

I proceeded as far as North Ness from which there are views across the narrow sound to Longhope, Hoy’s main settlement. If you’re really energetic and want to visit the village and its lifeboat museum continue on the flat road that hugs the shore all the way around North Bay and across The Ayre causeway. Be warned, though. The return distance of this optional extra is 12 miles and the ferry route marked on the map from Longhope to Houton on Orkney Mainland runs only once a day and very early in the morning!

The service from Lyness is much more frequent and provides a more obvious route back to Mainland. From Houton it’s a short sharp incline from the harbour then a straight-forward if unexciting eight-mile blast along the straight main road to Stromness. You can avoid most of the A965 by following a minor road through Cairston. After one last moderate ascent, Stromness comes into view.

030 En route from Rackwick to north Hoy

En route from Rackwick to north Hoy

Fact file

Distance: 31 miles.

Time: Full day – and well worth a stop-over if you want to include the Old Man of Hoy walk.
Stop!

Directions:

Take the ferry from Stromness to Moaness on Hoy. From the pier follow the only road inland and uphill. Take the first left and, at a crossroads, continue straight over signed to Rackwick. Follow this road for about four miles to Rackwick. For the hostel and footpath to the Old Man of Hoy fork right just as you enter the village. The footpath is well signed and begins to the left of the hostel. For the beach don’t fork but continue to the end of the road, past the car park and down a grassy track, through fieldgates and past a bothy. Leave your bike just before a bridge over the brook and complete the last few yards on foot.

Retrace your route to the crossroads at Hoy village. This time turn right and simply follow the B9047 all the way to Lyness. For the Wee Fea viewpoint turn right at the crossroads beside the Hoy Hotel. Ascend for ¾ of a mile up a steep track. Return the same way turning right at the road to continue travelling south on the B9047. Continue to North Ness – or all the way round to Longhope if you have time – then retrace your route to Lyness. Turn right at the Hoy Hotel crossroads to reach the Scapa Flow Visitor Centre & Museum and ferry terminal.

Disembark at Houton then turn right at the toilets to reach the A964. Turn left and keep going to the t-junction with the A965. Turn left and over a bridge then first left (unsigned) through Cairston to Stromness. Turn left at the roundabout to return to the harbour.

Map: here

Eating:

Beneth’ Hill Café, Moaness pier. Tel: 01856 791119.
The Hoy Hotel, Lyness. Tel: 01856 791377.
The Royal, Longhope. Tel: 01856 701276.
The Stromabank Hotel, Longhope. Tel: 01856 701611.
The Pump House Café (within the Scapa Flow Visitor Centre & Museum), Lyness. Tel: 01856 791300.

There are few facilities on Hoy especially in the north. One option is to stock-up in Stromness – where there are lots of shops, eating places and an open-all-hours Co-op – before you set off. Note also that the Hoy Inn (listed in some guidebooks) has closed down.

Overnight stays:

Hoy hostel. Modern, very spick and span and personally recommended. Tel: 0845 293 7373.
Rackwick hostel. Much more of a back to basics, traditional hostelling experience. Tel: 0845 293 7373.
Quoydale Farm B&B, Hoy. Run by the same lady who manages the hostels. Tel: 01856 791315
Hotels, as above.

Ferry:

Orkney Ferries. Crossing time on both services: 30-35 mins.

Bike hire:

Stromness Cycle Hire. Tel: 01856 850750.
Orkney Cycle Hire (also in Stromness). Tel: 01856 850255.

043 Rackwick with plough (landscape)

Rackwick Bay.

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