North Cape or bust

Flying is more about intentions than realisations: too much depends on weather and never more so than when you want to go north - in our case as far north as you can go in Europe - the North Cape of Norway. The problem is that the maritime climate we live in sends seemingly endless depressions across the Atlantic that make life in Scotland much wetter than Kent and the coast of Norway one of the wettest anywhere. Every now and again a high pressure system builds up over the whole of Britain and the depressions dissipate over Iceland. This was what we were hoping for in the second half of August. 

The aircharts of Norway laid out at home. Bergen is bottom left and the same latitude as the Shetlands

The plan is to head north to the Shetlands and strike directly over the North Sea to Bergen and then head, via Trondheim and Tromso around the North Cape to Kirkenes (sounds like it should be in Scotland) which is on the Russian border and about a hundred miles north of Murmansk (destination of the Arctic Convoys in WW2). The North Cape is about  500 miles north of the Arctic Circle. Lots of 'north' in all this; that's because any further is the Ultima Thule, the North Pole. What could possibly go wrong? 

Weather mainly. The plan A is to return down the Norwegian fjords in a leisurely fashion, taking in fishing, sailing and hiking and return to the UK via Denmark and the North Sea coast of Germany and the Netherlands by the end of August. The whole trip depends on a fat high pressure zone to get us there - and if that holds for the return it will be a major result. The plan B is to go 'over the top' and return via the Baltic where the weather is more 'continental' and less affected by the Atlantic weather systems. We did this last year so would rather do the Norwegian option.

The means of transport? Our little plane 'the gallant little plane' as my father used to call it, is a microlight. The key is the 'light' bit. It's not a hang glider with a lawn mower engine but a sleek, composite, fully enclosed with electronic instruments. It has the great advantages of a cruise speed of 100 knots but a stall speed of only 36 knots and a range of 400 miles using only 16 litres of unleaded petrol an hour. This translates as 'you can go a long way quickly and cheaply and when you get there you can land in any sort of airfield and and indeed in most sorts of field.' What's not to like? Well you certainly can't take the kitchen sink and if you do decide to take a wash basin you have to make sure it's in the right place to keep the centre of gravity in a flyable state. We always take a tent and sleeping bags - with no intention of using them but as an insurance policy: booking.com and Airbnb have not failed us yet in getting us last minute accommodation. Oh, and the plane has a ballistic parachute system which means that if all goes quiet up front and you find yourself over mountains, a city, the sea, a forest or a bog (and where we are going there is a lot of everything except cities) then you pull a lever and a parachute will lower the whole plane to the ground/water/rooftop/tree. That is the theory. For obvious reasons we haven't practiced this.

Plane, trolley dolly and the kitchen sink

We left last Friday with the initial intention of flying directly to Barra in the outer Hebrides where friends had kindly said they would bed us down. Barra is a fun airport as it is a beach: neap tides are a good plan if you are staying overnight. I had flown in there a few years ago and had gone into the tower to sign in and returned to the beach to put something back into the plane. This is a real beach and my little plane was the only thing on it. I found myself being pursued by an irate jobsworth demanding to know why I wasn't wearing a high viz jacket 'airside'. The bureaucratic idiocy of airports has to be experienced to be believed.  Sadly the promised high pressure system had not yet formed fully and the west coast was a place of low cloud and rain. The east coast looked a better bet and it was other friends' turn to be the object of our sponge's tour in North Yorkshire where it wasn't exactly Mediterranean but only 'breezy'. We landed in a stubble field next to their house which turned out to be about the only field in sight that they didn't own. The owners, however, were charming and we did some sightseeing flights over the North York Moors the next day in lieu of a landing fee. Still with the objective of Barra, we set off intending to follow Hadrians Wall to Carlisle and then on to the Hebrides with a marginal weather forecast. Over Hexham all we could see to the west was rain and low cloud - not a great combination with high ground. To the east the sun was shining on the Northumberland coast so we headed that way. From London to Edinburgh, with the exception of Teeside and Tyneside, it is a beautiful and under-appreciated coast of beaches, seaside towns and little fishing harbours - and almost completely unspoilt. When you get north of Newcastle add in castles and churches (and ruins of both). Flying up that coast at a couple of hundred feet, past Holy Island is one of the great flying experiences.


As we approached the Firth of the Forth we overflew the Bass Rock which is white - literally - with gannets. 

We landed in Fife to take a rain check for Barra but the west/east divide was still in force so we declared defeat and struck out for (hopefully) Kirkwall in the Orkneys or at least Wick on the mainland. The wind was brisk and our route took us over the Grampians - which are serious mountains. One of the most dangerous things for small planes is mountain waves. The best way to visualize this is a river flowing over boulders; the whole air mass hits a mountain and the rolls over the top and down the other side. This can be a terrifying (and fatal) experience as you find yourself descending at over a 1000 ft a minute with your engine in a flat out climb. The answer is to fly as high as possible, ideally twice the height of the mountains. We climbed through a hole in the cloud to 7000ft and meandered along in still air and sunshine....

....until Inverness when we descended into a beautiful evening. 

This got grayer over Caithness - which is country that reminded us both of Lapland

- so gray that we decided to head for Wick; which turned out to be closed for repairs. It didn't look like we were missing much.....so we trudged back to Inverness which is a serious airport  (with all the attendant aviation bullshit).

Inverness on a Saturday night is busy. Our extremely expensive hotel (market forces in August) was next to the 'For Your Eyes Only' gentleman's club which was doing good trade - though we didn't see many gentlemen.... The shock in the morning was thinking that I had woken up married to Donald Trump.

It turned out to be a beautiful day and in sunshine we headed once again for Orkney but via a trip down memory lane for Amanda with a flyover of Gordonstoun, where she spent two years as one of the first girls. It sounded more like St Trinians as tales of sex in that wood, drugs in this barn and rock n' roll in that disused chapel were recounted. With my hair standing on end I appreciated its wonderful position on the Moray Firth at the very end of Lossimouth's runway. I'm sure some plane spotting went on too.

The Orkneys are close to the mainland and we flew straight into Scapa Flow which was home to the fleet in both world wars and also where the German Fleet was interned in 1918 and where it scuttled itself in June 1919 - something I have studied a bit as it forms a chapter in the current novel on which I'm working. It is a perfect natural harbour for a fleet as all the entrances could be blocked either with sunken ships or submarine nets. It didn't stop Gunther Prien in U68 in October 1939 making his way in (on the surface, where he was caught in a taxi's headlights but not reported) to torpedo and sink the old battleship Royal Oak with the loss of over 800 men within sight of Kirkwall which is the biggest city (it has a fine 11th century cathedral). The daring and bravery, given everything ranged against them, was extraordinary. The Orkneys have been well populated since ancient times. They are low (with the exception of Hoy) and fertile with ripening crops and cattle everywhere. There are also ruins of former crofts and military archeology from both world wars all around the Flow which give these islands a melancholic quality of their own. I love them.

We flew around the Old Man of Hoy - a sandstone pillar that is supported by a hard base of volcanic rock that renders it impervious to the gales and rip tides of the Pentland Firth - which is not a place to find yourself at sea in a gale.

The Orkneys are aviation heaven as nearly every island has a well maintained gravel airstrip. We alighted on Stronsay (for no particular reason) and walked for three miles through hay and barley fields and along the foreshore accompanied by huge flocks of Greylag geese, with much honking and V flights overhead, to Whitehall village which is now a much reduced place.

 All that's left of RBS after Fred Goodwin's hard work....

In its day, during the herring boom of the 19th century, it had a population of 4000 and you could walk across the harbour over the boats on a Sunday. The men were employed in fishing and the women in fish gutting ashore. It was such a wild town that they bought in prohibition to get it back under control - but it's  a long way from that now. 

Stronsay airport. No Duty Free

The next day was beautiful and we set off from Kirkwell ultimately bound for Fair Isle - but with a few stops on the way. We flew over Sanday which is famous for its beaches.

Our first destination was North Ronaldsay which is the northernmost of the Orkneys and quite small - about 2 miles by 3. It is famous (to me anyway) for its lighthouses     and its sheep. The first lighthouse was commissioned in 1789 and is fine and elegant structure. 

The builder's stepson was the first of the Stevenson family (Robert Louis was part of the clan) who were responsible for the great lighthouses constructed all round Britain's coast during the 19th century and which are still doing sterling service. How they did this offshore when every stone or brick had to be winched ashore in between gales that must have taken way the previous month's work with monotonous regularity is one if the great tales of human ingenuity. A later Stevenson lighthouse is half a mile away and the tallest onshore in Britain. Every brick was imported onto an island with no port. The North Ronaldsay sheep is unique is it lives (or lived) entirely on seaweed and the whole island is surrounded by a wall to keep them on the beach and off the grass. Not surprisingly their meat has its own unique taste. We walked over seven miles in a fresh wind and sunshine past many houses with roofs of slab stone...

and round structures which were where they grew their vegetables out of the wind.

They used to put sheep in first to provide the fertility. Some other inhabitants are now are home there. Look at the corners 

Just when you thought you couldn't get much more isolated we flew on to Foula which lies about fifteen miles south west of Mainland Shetland (Mainland in both Orkney and Shetland is the biggest island and Scotland is a foreign country). Both have small communities - but the two or three children have to fly to Mainland for school where they board for three weeks in between visits home. We landed for brief stop with a mental note for a longer visit.

Foula. The airstrip is very visible

We overflow Papa Stour which looks wonderful (one more for the bucket list) but with very different topography - low but with an indented coastline of harbours and beaches that would be a boating paradise.

Sumburgh, right at the southern tip of Shetland is quite a contrast. It is the main centre, north of Aberdeen, for the oil industry and has a proper terminal with the usual bullshit (though charmingly provided). We went out to get fuel (ordinary unleaded, which is the fuel of choice for our plane is half the price of Avgas) and on my return I was searched and my (delightful) escort had to hand me my cans over a red line painted on the Tarmac which if he stepped over would mean that he would have to be searched too. Who makes this stuff up?

All this fuel would be needed as the next stop was Fair Isle from which we were going to launch ourselves for a two hour plus crossing of the North Sea. I had visited Fair Isle before and loved it. Amanda was a neophyte. It sits, on its own, in between, and normally out of sight of, both Orkney and Shetland and owned by the Scottish National Trust. It's population is about sixty and it has a thriving atmosphere and varied topography - unlike much of Orkney which I commented on earlier. All the houses are occupied and it is a twitcher magnet with its huge numbers of seabirds and migrants. Magnus in parva is the motto of Rutland - and applies to Fair Isle in equal measure.

There is a seal in the light patch ahead of the crocodile shaped rock.

Not all the natives were friendly. We went for long walks along the cliffs where Skuas were nesting and we got seen off in no uncertain terms.

We stayed in a bed and breakfast hosted by an American who had been there for ten years and his fifteen year old son who was one of a handful of children on the island. He is schooled on Mainland, charming, and seemed perfectly content with his rather unusual life - but wants to become a teacher in developing countries.

The next bit was more my thing than Amanda's who doesn't like flying over water. Bergen is the nearest bit of Noway and it is 212 nautical miles away. This translates into over two hours of flying and nearly 250 road miles - about the same as Somerset to Teeside. She wasn't much comforted by my assurance that the sea in question is thick with oil rigs (it wasn't) and my unwisely told tale of my fellow Air Squadron members who had a piston malfunction sixty miles short of Norwegian terra firma.

Anyway we robed up - dry suits, life jackets - tooled up - Epirb, flight plan and full fuel - and launched ourselves over a cliff, which is what it feels like taking off from Fair Isle, and headed east. It was a perfect flight over a North Sea that was as blue as the Med and flat calm.

The only oil rig...

Bergen was bathed in sunshine - the first that they had seen in months after the worst summer in a hundred and fifty years. And that is saying something as Bergen in notorious for its climate. Our arrival was not without event as rhe brakes seized up on landing - luckily on the taxiway not the main runway. I released them only to go from one extreme to another with no brakes at all.  
This is an ongoing saga which we are still trying to fix. After a Mediterranean dinner with Norwegian friends overlooking a sun drenched harbour, Bergen is now carpeted in fog....

....while the whole of the rest of Norway is blessed by sun -  so we couldn't have flown anyway. Always look on the bright side..... like the loo sign in the airport.

More later.



  1. Great journal, Biggles.
    And Mrs Trump.

    It looks bliss.

  2. Could you make me any more jealous? Sounds amazing and waiting with baited breath for more x

  3. Great photos, I really liked. I would love to visit such a journey. I was once in a similar journey https://poseidonexpeditions.com/arctic/, advise you to try. This is a good tour, I was left with good impressions for a long time. This is a good place should visit once in a lifetime.


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