An explorer's guide to the islands of Britain

Day 5 of our virtual island bagging Britain journey

Today’s journey: high points of the islands of Orkney

Today’s step-up height achieved: 898 metres

After a night full of stars on Rackwick beach and Easter eggs for breakfast we walked down the west coast of Hoy, said good morning to the Old Man and walked over to South Walls (57m) to enjoy the gloops, sea arches and other coastal features. At the southern entrance to Scapa Flow, South Walls gives a great perspective of this vast body of water and is a great jump off point to explore its other islands.

The uninhabited Switha (28m), Fara (42m), the pirate island of Cava (38m) and Graemsay (62m) with its Hoy High lighthouse replete with gothic arches and keeper’s house built like an Assyrian temple were all bagged before the larger island of Flotta (59 m). Once home to the Fleet during both World Wars it is now an island of two parts. One dominated by the chemistry set of the oil terminal, the other pastural and stacked with military ruins of watchtowers, listening posts and barracks.

We stopped off at the Scapa Flow museum for hot soup and bacon rolls and a quick scoot around the exhibitions housed in a giant disused oil tank before returning to South Ronaldsay (118m) and a look around the Tomb of the Eagles, where 16,000 human and 725 white-tailed sea eagle bones have been found.

Moving north towards mainland Orkney we crossed the chain of islands via the Churchill Barriers, built by Italian prisoners of war on Churchill’s orders to prevent German submarine’s torpedoing the British Fleet. First up, Burray (80m) and Glimps Holm (32 m) then Lamb Holm (20 m) with its fabulous Italian Chapel built in a Nissan hut by the prisoners and decorated beautifully with the materials they had to hand at the time – a facade of concrete, light holders made of corned beef tins and a baptismal font made from the inside of a car exhaust.

Once back on Mainland Orkney we turned east to Skail to meet Sidney and his boat across to Copinsay (70 m) an RSPB reserve uninhabited except for the 20,000 kittiwake, 30,000 guillimot, 1000 razorbill and constant swoops by the skuas.

Back to Kirkwall, the hub of Orkney Ferries, and a trip out to Shapinsay (65 m) and its Victorian spectacular, Balfour castle, then onto Stronsay (47 m) which was carpeted with greylag geese (and poop). Once a thriving fish-curing centre, now a quaint harbour, it’s hard to imagine the days when there were over forty pubs on the island.

A quick skip over to the peat island of Eday (102 m) and the only place on Orkney where bog myrtle can be found (and we also noticed an extraordinary amount of rhubarb which Derek said he’d whip up into a crumble for tea). Then on to Sanday (66 m), for miles of white sand beaches and a high point called The Wart, this one was hard to drag ourselves away from but we knew we had a great favourite coming up next.

North Ronaldsay (23 m) with its famous seaweed-eating sheep that forage on the shore. Felt a bit guilty eating the mutton stew at the Bird Observatory but it tastes divine. Afterwards we enjoyed the catch up with the wardens on their latest bird ringing stats and an update on who did what at their last Sheep Festival, an annual event dedicated to rebuilding the wall that circumnavigates the whole island after its battering from the winter storms. Reluctantly we left but had another great island to bag.

Papa Westray (48m). Another firm favourite with the oldest standing house (circa 3700 BC) in Europe at the Knap of Hower to explore and a pilgrimage across the lilly-filled loch to the Chapel of St Tredwell for a quick eye check-up. Then to the north of the island, to one of my favourite island spots Fowl Crag and the energetic meeting point of two Oceans. Every time I pass the memorial to the last great auk on the way I wonder what ejit would have shot that!!

A night in the Youth Hostel of Beltane House, one of the best in Britain, with plenty of local food supplies from the island shop next door and Derek’s Eday rhubarb crumble. Tomorrow we finish Orkney and head to Shetland.

Cumulative total of island bagging height – Cumulative total of 3176m (target total = 47,000 metres)

Method of travel – climbing a ladder up the apple tree in the garden; step ups on a Belfast sink; indoor staircase; run from home on Wiltshire Downs

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