British Isles 2022
by Marion Chessell
This trip is 12 days going up and down the west coast of the UK and stopping off at various points. It isn’t a cruise in the traditional sense of the word. The company is Hurtigruten and they have scientists and naturalists on board as well as guests (about 500) We liked the idea of cruising but got a bit fed up with the other trappings of traditional cruising e.g. Formal dinner nights, buying diamonds, and that sort of thing !!!
Getting to Dover
We had a time slot to get to the port as we had to have a COVID test before boarding. Despite giving ourselves an extra hour originally, of course we were late arriving. According to the driver who took us from the car park to the ship there were twenty more cars that had not arrived so we wonder whether some of them may have been further back in the queue on the A12. I only hope the drivers of the lorries were not badly injured.
The COVID tests, forms and general checking in took a while but eventually we had our passes for our cabin and went to find or new home for the next 12 days. After that it was all systems go with Safety Briefings, saying hello to the crew and finding something to eat.
We also went to be fitted out with a weather proof Hurtigruten jacket. (Bright red) we also had a look at the excursions available which you will hear about in due course. Some of the nature walks with the ornithologist are short notice as it depends on the weather.
We found we were short of an adapter for charging so went to the shop to see if they had one. They hadn’t got one but the lady behind the counter had one she wasn’t using so she leant us hers. Just a glimpse here of how lovely the crew on this ship are. Roger also bought a cable that he needed and a puffin for me !
We are hoping to see puffins somewhere along the route but having a cuddly one was nice too !!! I decided to call him McTavish. He has pride of place sat in the porthole window of our cabin.
Day at sea
A day like this is useful as it gives you chance to get acclimatised to the ship and to plan the week ahead. We were originally planning to go into Fishguard, Wales our first port of call the next day. However, we attended an introduction to the science centre which changed our plans. They were taking a couple of boats out to get some plankton for analysing under the microscope. We were invited to join the boat, so decided to do that instead. As it was going at 1.30pm we would not have time to go to Fishguard.
There was a briefing about safety in the small rib boats we will be in for the science trips and to get us ashore from the ship itself. Most of the harbours that we are stopping off at cannot take the large ship so we have to anchor out to sea and be shuttled to land and back. The briefing duly done we are now ok to use the rib boats. We also had to try on the life jackets to make sure they were ok, which was like doing origami on yourself not a piece of paper !!
We also had a bit of information about Fishguard itself. Even though we were not actually visiting it was interesting. In the library is a tapestry of the last invasion of the UK in 1797. Napoleon landed on the Pembrokeshire coast and the tapestry tells the story of how he was driven away. The tapestry was designed professionally but had seventy seven volunteers actually doing the embroidery. It was commenced in 1993 and went on display 1997
Science boat Day ((Fishguard)
A slow start today as we decided to avoid breakfast until most of the people who were going to Fishguard had eaten. We then went to watch the rib boats being boarded. It is a very efficient operation when you consider how many people they are moving from boat to shore. Then back to the cabin to get ready for the off and have a snack and a drink. We also needed our waterproof trousers and a couple of layers of clothing. It was a little windy and cloudy but otherwise quite a nice day.
On the science boat we collected Plankton to be able to look at them under the microscope and analyse what was there. We measured the salinity and temperature of the water, using d different pieces of equipment. We had done nothing like this before and really enjoyed it. It was quite a small group of us too. We got quite wet and the sea was a bit choppy but who cares.. it was a lot of fun.
Trout for evening meal which was good and then a lecture on recognising dolphins and whales. So although a quiet day , quite a good one.
One of the expeditions today was to the giants causeway on Northern Ireland mainland which was fully booked so we didn’t do that one. On Rathlin island itself there were hikes and a visit t o the RSPB reserve there. I opted for going to another mainland trip to the Glenarrif Country park.
It was a 3.5 k walk but was steep in places so Roger decided not to go. He opted to stay on the ship and in the afternoon go on one of the rib boats along the coast to seek out birds on the cliffs.
The journey to the country park was a ferry to Ballycastle and then a coach to the country park. There are nine glens in the Antrim area of Northern Ireland . We did the waterfall trail at Glenariff.As it had been raining quite a lot previously the waterfalls were quite full. The climb on the walk at times was very steep and I must say I haven’t done a tremendous amount of exercise for a while. However I managed it and saw some wild fuchsias, loads of bluebells and some butterflies. They are reintroducing red squirrels into the area but they successfully hid from us.
The waterfalls were from two different rivers, the Glenariff river and the inver. Well marked trails and fabulous scenery. The cafe also had some scones and tea. They also had a gluten free option which made me a happy bunny ! The coastal road up to the park was also well worth doing. Farming communities with mostly livestock so plenty of lambs.
Roger saw Cormorants, gulls, Gillimot, Grey seals and a Shelduck. Photographing them from a rib boat is a bit of a challenge as there was a lot of movement. The puffins were a little too high to be seen from the boat.
Iona Day (Mull)
Arrangements were made for a number of walks and tours on the island of Iona. There is a small community living on this very exposed island, including some Benedictine monks.
The captain announced around breakfast time that the conditions around Iona were too dangerous for the rib boats so we could not anchor. Alternative arrangements had to be made
He took the ship around the island of Staffa so that we could see Fingal’s cave, which is owned by National Trust for Scotland. This is made of similar material to that of the Giants Causeway. It was made famous and known as Fingal’s Cave by the Scots poet James MacPherson and Felix Mendelsohn’s Hebrides Overture. We them went on to Mull.
Negotiations had taken place with the Harbour Master of Tobermory for us to anchor there in the sheltered harbour and use the rib boats to get us to land. The Tobermory Aquarium which isn’t normally open today (Sunday) opened for guests of the ship.
We went for a walk along the harbour area amongst the local shops and brightly coloured buildings. It is a delightful place even though it was a little wet. We indulged in some local handmade chocolates and then went back to the ship !!!
When the ship set sail to our next location we sat and watched the sea and were rewarded by seeing a Pod of 4 Dolphins.
This was quite a packed day. As St Kilda is a UNESCO world heritage site with minimal intervention in the natural development of the island. As a result we were restricted as to how long we could spend there. All the guests were divided into four groups and each group had two and a half hours on the island. We also had the opportunity to go out on a rib boat and have a look at the cliffs. It has some of the highest cliffs in Europe and is host to Millions of seabirds, including Atlantic Puffins and Gannets.
We went onto the Rib boats in the morning and saw loads of Puffins, Gannets, Fulmars and Cormorants and probably other birds that we had not idea what they were!! Oh yes… some razorbills. Really pleased to actually see some Puffins. They were sat on the water in large groups. Watching them take off from the water up the cliffs was quite entertaining. They only have small wings so there was a lot of flapping involved. Got some reasonable photographs too. It was a great trip and everyone was buzzing about it.
In the afternoon it was our turn to go onto the island. It is largely uninhabited. There is a small military presence there permanently and a small team of researchers and conservationists. We had to go through a disinfection pad for our boots so we don’t contaminate the island.
The small population of St Kilda asked to leave this harsh environment in 1930. The highland stone cottages are still present in various states of damage. The small church also still stands There are some Soray Sheep still on the island and they are wild. The researchers watch them and monitor the environment but they do not interfere. There were plenty of lambs and they do appear to be surviving very well. It was a fabulous place but I would imagine living there particularly in the winter months is really harsh. I bought a book written by a man who was a child on St Kilda so Iook forward to delving into a first hand account.
The island of Lewis and Harris is one of the largest in the Outer Hebrides. Lewis is the Northern part and Harris the southern. They are separated by a mountain range. Harris is the home of the Harris tweed. The material is still woven by local people in their own homes and after a dip in the market its is now enjoying an increase in demand.
We arrived in Stornaway and had to us the rib boats to get ashore as the tide was not high enough to use the dockside. The captain was expecting the gangway to be used after 12.30 as the tide is higher. That’s exactly what happened.
We were booked to go on a historical rampage through the Isle of Lewis. The first stop was the Calanaise Standing Stones. These stones are said to have been erected in the Neolithic age , which makes them older than Stonehenge. They are arranged in a cruciform shape with a circle in the middle . The exact reason for them being there is widely debated . The scenery around the stones is stunning which adds to the dramatic feel of the place.
Our guide who is a local person and has her own Croft just outside Stornaway was very informed and went into some of the details about the various theories about why they are there. I have to say we were more interested in the scenery!
On the drive up to the stones the guide was explaining about life on a Croft in modern day. They all come with a small piece of land and may crofters have a few sheep as well as growing a lot of their own vegetables. The practice of cutting peat for fuel is still done. It is labour intensive and it is often a family outing to do this. They will also help lone crofters and the elderly too and it turns into a community event.
The next stop was Gerannan Black house Village. These houses were stone built with a thatched roof and were the original Croft’s. The occupants were moved out of them and into more modern buildings (which they didn’t like) in the 1960s.
One of the houses was reconstructed into a typical 1950s Blackhouse. They were surprisingly large and quite cosy with the peat fire. The first Blackhouses had a central fire in which animals and people shared the same area. I n these particular one there was a proper fireplace and separate areas for people and animals.
In the village two men were trying to repair an old Harris loom that would have been used in the Croft at that time. Spare parts are getting a little difficult to find. We saw a young man playing the bagpipes on arrival and then wandered around the area looking at the houses.
This was the turning point for the ship to go south.
This island in the inner Hebrides is most famous for its Whisky production. There were visits to the distillery which did not appeal to us !! Roger had a day off and I went onto Islay for a walk. I was planning to find a Geocache that I identified on the website but when getting closer to the area I realised I could not get to it. There was an archaeological dig happening on the island and I would have to tramp all over their test pits! They were looking at the remains of a medieval village apparently.
However, I continued the walk and found a small cove with some birds and flowers. It was a bit windy so photographs were really difficult. A local guide reminded me that Scotland is one place where you are “free to roam” so a footpath through to a cove that I found was perfectly ok to walk along even though it is private land. Overall I did about 3 km.
Late afternoon we attended a presentation by one of the photographers on board with tips on photographing wildlife. Not the easiest photographs to take as they don’t pose for you and they don’t hang around if you are not ready!
In the evening we attended a talk about identifying sea birds, delivered by the on board ornithologist. Hopefully our recognition of birds will improve.
Douglas.. Isle of Man
It also hosts the famous motorcycle TT races which have started up again this year after being cancelled due the pandemic. I understand the local hospitals clear their wards during this time to take casualties from the races. There is always a fatality, either a rider or spectator along the route.
The isle is also famous for its folklore and there are many tales of fairies, giants and goblins. They range from little fairies you have to say good morning to on the fairy bridge just outside Douglas to the Celtic sea God who outs a protective cloak of fog around the island !
I visited the Gregnash Village Folk Museum which had a small farm and Croft cottages . One Croft is still furnished as it was at the Turn of the last century. In the Croft was a four poster bed without the top attached. The crofters went to purchase a four poster bed and couldn’t get the whole thing through the doorway so cut off the top! So, the bed has still got the posts!!
We then caught the Victorian steam train back to Douglas. All the rolling stock on this line were from the Isle of Man and all stations were manned by volunteers. Pretty route through very green countryside and lots of cows!
We popped in to Europe ..Southern Ireland . Waterford is the home of Waterford Crystal and the oldest city in Ireland. The ship was able to dock here so we didn’t have to be tendered to shore.
We had a stroll around the city which has strong Viking history. The city also had a street art festival called “Waterford walls” where businesses are encouraged to have painting and murals on their buildings. We found a few of them and I also found a geocache here outside the Viking museum.
On return to the ship the science centre was putting the plankton we found earlier on in the week under a microscope. It was fascinating to see what tiny things are in the water. There were Jellyfish and crab embryo’s as well as different types of plankton.
It’s a subject we don’t know too much about which made it even more fascinating to look through the microscope and discover what all these little wriggly things were!
Isles of Scilly
It is likely that these lovely islands were once larger and more connected together but around 400 to 500 A.D. rising sea levels caused them to be separated. There are five inhabited islands and many more uninhabited. Some of the guests on the ship went on Nature walks to St Marys Island but I went to Tresco.
Some of the guests on the boat did a beach clean up here. I was planning to do it but the progress onto Tresco was very slow due to the tide being low to get on to the Jetty. The islanders also have a ferry service which runs from Penzance so the rib boat I was in waited for that to arrive and depart before descending on the jetty.
On Tresco there is an Abbey with spectacular gardens. The weather in the Scilly isles is considered to be subtropical and the flowers at the Abbey gardens certainly reflected this. There were flowers and trees from approx 55 different countries. On the walk along the coast were some beautiful succulents that I had never seen before.
The crowning glory however, of my photography toady was without a doubt, red squirrels. This is one of the few places in UK they can be seen and one was obligingly eating through some nuts and still enough to take some photographs.
This was our last port of call . It is home to the Britannia Naval college for Navy Officers. It is a popular tourist destination, built along the river Dart. Our ship got into the harbour but we had to be transferred to the Jetty by rib boats. Some very old unique buildings here and lovely gardens.
The river was very busy with Ferry’s across to Kingswear which is on the opposite bank. It also had people paddle boarding and private boats going backwards and forwards. It’s a good job by cruising standards our ship is quite small and could be wedged into the harbour area. We didn’t have too long here as the journey to Dover overnight was quite long
Back on the ship the expedition team did a half hour dramatic presentation of a Viking meeting a Nordic explorer. I really can’t remember the names. However, knowing the team members as we did it was very adhoc and very funny. The historian on board was a good storyteller and it was a fitting piece of hilarity to end our expedition.
We had a great time on this cruise and would recommend it wholeheartedly. The crew were fabulous, very considerate and friendly. Food was good and based mostly on a Norwegian diet ( so, plenty of fish)
The emphasis on nature, science and history was great and really interesting. We were able to get involved as much as we wanted to.
The journey back from Dover was much easier than getting there !!