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Archipelago days

Archipelago days

An ‘archipelago’ is a group of islands, or a collection of bits of land in a sea, ocean, or stretch of water. Sometimes it’s a cluster of islands, sometimes a chain, sometimes a random sprinkling of tiny specks of land in a large expanse of watery nothingness. There are archipelagos with lots of land mass e.g. Indonesia, and lots of islands e.g. off the southwest coastline of mainland Finland, and archipelagos within archipelagos e.g. the Western Isles (Outer Hebrides) off the northwest coast of the main island in the British Isles.

But there’s another way to think of an archipelago: as a collection of ferry routes to be enjoyed.

Ferries are great. Some I’ve been on are tiny and precarious. Some smell of sheep. Some are just for tourists now. But it’s those that ply their trade between the islands of an archipelago, with their own nuances and quirks, that endure in the mind.

Sure, regular scheduled ferry services aren’t the only way to travel between islands, and there are often smoother modes of hopping from one to another. Norway have their road and subsea tunnels. Planes are much quicker, often hilariously so and usually more thrilling; Barra island beach airport is never dull to land in or take off from. Or live on an archipelago? You may have a neighbor, friend or relative with a boat who says he’s just going to pop over to that island over there while pointing at a small lump of rock some miles distant, and a few minutes later you find yourself in his boat, safety gear on, surrounded by nothing but increasingly deep sea. So outside of the five month Hebridean winter this kind of thing would happen:

Out tae sea

Or I’d spend a birthday on an island inhabited by just a herd of deer, courtesy of Donald and his blue boat:

Deer

There’s always something to look at on a boat or ferry trip. The scientific; how the boat moves, how the sails fill, distances and speed. The romantic; the moving land or lights on the horizon, the rhythm of the waves, spray, feel and smell of the water and air, dolphins, whales, the sense and thrill that you’re doing something that mankind has done for thousands of years but is still not quite natural for us land-evolved animals.

Though, not all ferry trips were thrilling experiences. In the summer of 1998 I spent a month in the (English) Channel Islands because … ah, why not. It’s a small archipelago whose main industries seemed to be tourism, agriculture and being the home of many extremely rich people and their bank accounts; an awkward blend of rural England, rural France, and the Cayman Islands. One day I had a ticket to go from Jersey to Guernsey by ferry, the boat being delayed by bad weather. Most of my stupid decisions are taken in the morning before three cups of coffee and todays was deciding, as I watched the boat pitch and roll around and struggle to dock, that I had time for a fry-up breakfast before boarding.

You can guess the rest. The only time in hundreds of boat trips that I’ve been seasick, though this was more uncontrollable projectile vomiting. In a tiny bathroom seemingly designed that no matter where you vomited, the vomit would rebound and hit you. Little comfort that many other passengers and crew were involved in the same elsewhere on the ferry. Finally, arriving at the island, we were given complimentary food vouchers as compensation, the thought of which triggered secondary vomiting in some. The ride took three times longer than scheduled, I couldn’t face the trip back in any weather and purchased an expensive but quick and vomit-free plane ride back a few days later.

Ferries in the Caribbean were far more leisurely. Though, with the islands being more spread out, planes were the default method of island hopping. Side-point: Air Jamaica is still the most relaxed and friendliest airline I’ve ever flown on, and the only time I’ve been offered a spliff by a fellow passenger – during a flight. Despite much of that month being a blur of astonishing heat, cricket, really severe sunburn and rum to quell the pain of the really severe sunburn, the beauty of the islands, warmth of the sea and the laid-back friendliness sticks with you. Maybe it was the rum and heck I drank so much, constantly, on that adventure but the ferry rides between St Kitts and Nevis, in particular, were lovely in every regard. The smell of railings being painted as the boat sailed; the running commentary as some reluctant farm animals were eventually brought on board; the way people would nonchalantly indicate a whale swimming parallel to us while I was “OMG WHALE”; the random dispensing of food from total strangers. Good times, and good journeys, despite the searing sunburn.

In a rather different climate, a few years later found me on a ferry to the Gothenburg archipelago. Living in west (mainland) Scotland had the advantage of being between two airports with cheap flights to various European cities, which we used to full effect. “Nothing happening locally this weekend oh just found £9.95 tickets to Sweden and booked accidentally oh well”. One New Year (2002 or 03) we tried Sweden’s second city, as the capital was a bit pricey. Gothenburg itself was a strange mix of culture, port, industry, eateries, pretty coastline and second city inferiority complex; a kind of Swedish Birmingham-by-the-sea. Side-point: the New Years firework display was shockingly good, still the best of any display I’ve seen (sorry, 4th of July in the USA), with bonus participation by locals letting off fireworks at angles of madness degrees from the gaps between pavement slabs.

One surprise on this trip was the hundred or so tightly-packed islands just off the coast, connected by a Swedishly-efficient network of small ferries, one offering welcome but exhorbitant coffee in the subzero temperatures. We spent a day wandering the islands, walking on some, watching the residents motor around in their adapted Swedish island versions of quad bikes, looking at others from the deck of our often surprisingly close-by boat. Our last ferry back arrived ten minutes late, triggering profuse Swedish apologies and the insistence of a refund; got to love Scandinavian efficiency. From those pre-Flickr days I wish I had kept photographs, so here’s a nice one from someone else:

Stensholmen

And then there were the Outer Hebrides, home for half a decade and the destination of many trips (several for househunting) for a few years before those. The archipelago is long, as tourists who think they can “do” the place in a day gradually discover; from end to end it’s further than from Glasgow to Newcastle. Despite this, there are only two internal ferry services. A tiny boat makes the short hop from Barra (for me the perfect island if only it had genuine broadband) to Eriskay. Then it’s a collection of long roads and causeways up to my previous home island of Berneray, and then the crazy hour of zigzaging between the rocks in the shallow waters of the Sound of Harris before disembarking on Leverburgh.

Zig-zag

Time it right, have a decent car and no fear of single track roads, and with no weather or tidal delays you *can* do the Outer Hebrides in a day, but you’ll end up well over a hundred miles from where you started, and you’ll have zoomed past some of the most perfect beaches in Europe. But getting to the Outer Hebrides; that involves more leisurely ferry rides whether out of Oban, Uig or Ullapool. The Oban to Barra run, a good five hour sail, was a particular favorite, with much Scottish mainland and island scenery, the surprisingly good meals that Calmac can dish up, the airplane-like “Where you are right now” digital maps, the announcements that cheerily say “Caledonian MacBrayne” in that accent, and plenty of places outside and in to sit, write, ponder and watch the scenery slide past. Seriously top tip: Calmac ferries to the Outer Hebrides are usually busy, an increasingly problematic issue for residents in particular, and it’s a seriously good idea to book your place in advance.

There are many other archipelagos to consider visiting. The Faroe islands look interesting, as do the Åland islands. And for years, firmly number one on my personal list are the Lofoten Islands, off the coast of Norway and a little bit above the Arctic Circle. Because Scandinavia. And also because, well, these pictures by other folks who have been there:

Welcome to my world

Arctic Blue | Lofoten, Norway

p e r s i s t | lofoten, norway

But there’s one archipelago ferry service I’ve done before that am keen to repeat, which is the point of this ramble.

+ + + + +

Six years ago this month, I was at the end of a short break, and trip #19, in Scandinavia. Stockholm, my favorite capital city with its cafes, odd hipster culture, architecture, funky subway system, hotel lift signs, biggest Ikea, cheese markets, outside exhibitions, and its cafes. Did I mention those twice? Yeah; sitting outside with a coffee and some Swedish cake in a seafront, or old, part of the city? Bliss.

Stockholm itself is built on a bunch of islands. It’s easy to forget this when you’re busy or traveling on the subway; less so when you encounter the waterfront and the huge oceanic ferries that tour the world. But tucked away in their shadows are the local passenger ferries and, on a whim this day, I got myself a round trip ticket and boarded one.

Best travel decision ever.

The Stockholm archipelago is complex. Many of the islands are inhabited all year round, with communities or more individual buildings. Some are uninhabited, or have winter homes. Most are accessible, due to Sweden’s law that you can land in most places so long as you don’t hassle nearby residents. And some are even on part of Stockholm’s central integrated transport network.

The ferry I boarded had a mixture of tourists, commuters, and locals out for a day on the water. We zipped around a variety of islands at speed. At one small but particularly inviting island, I got off, wandered to the other side (which took less than two minutes), and came across a small beach with a barbeque in full operation. Offered cooked offerings, I stayed there until another ferry arrived. This one sailed a little slower, ambling through cold and clear and blue waters, past small islands of single and expensive houses, and larger islands of woods and little settlements, and bare rocks of no inhabitants but visitors, sunbathers, swimmers and picnickers. Ferry number two offered a variety of drinks, but only cake as food.

I stayed on the cake-ferry for a couple of hours, as tannoy messages announced additional stops at ports for mysterious reasons (at one, most of the crew disembarked, bought ice creams, and reboarded, so that was possibly one). As we chugged further eastwards, towards over-the-horizon Finland, there was a sense of moving into more open sea and leaving the shelter of fragmented Stockholm land gradually behind. I relented, bought cake, and watched a pair of fellow voyagers do things online, and wondered with envy how this was possible when my own island-based broadband didn’t even work at low tide (true story: another time).

Aware that I was on the equivalent of a stopper-train, I got off at an island – or chunk of mainland, it was sometimes difficult to tell which was which – and waited for a faster ferry. Which turned out to be the original ferry, possibly on its second or third run of the day. I boarded, was reunited with the hat I’d left behind earlier, and we were off again. Past more rich owner islands, and little tufts and rock, and a small island used by unabashed naturists – they waved, I awkwardly waved back – and larger islands, and clumps of land that grew larger as we headed towards Stockholm.

As the afternoon drew on, I looked out of the back of the boat, watched the spray fly behind us as we sped to home, and contemplated home. And realized that home probably wasn’t where I thought it was, and that emigration to … somewhere was not only possible, but inevitable in a way I couldn’t articulate, and personal change was coming.

Sweden

We passed larger cruise ships heading to lands distant, and yachts and smaller boats, and boats of an indeterminate nature. And other ferries, as we approached the port and I got off to go and find a cafe and scribble some notes and thoughts, that have ended up as this post. So, in life, boat trips, and exploring the Stockholm archipelago, there’s a lot of choice. And much of it is good.

And to finish off that boat ride, a lovely sunset:

Sunset

All who you can’t leave behind

All who you can’t leave behind

It’s early February.

I wake up in a different place, these days. South Birmingham, as opposed to the tiny part of Balsall Heath that became a base for a gradually lengthening period of time, as months collapsed into seasons, gave way to years.

It’s quiet here. My room looks out onto the bowling alley shaped back garden attached to terraced houses such as these. From the wobbly window there are views of many other gardens; trees; no roads; houses of differing interest; sheds; the occasional distant sounds of gleeful rabbit enthusiasts; an upper working class suburbia that the English made, tinker with, and continue to cling to.

Abridged

This house itself is … unconventional. There are trapdoors, hidden cupboards, windows in peculiar places, and an unusually large bathroom that can only have been designed by a retired, sex-addicted pirate. It’s somewhat different, floating in a bathtub and surrounded by pebbles and candles and dimmed lighting, with eyes wandering across paintings of Naiads in various stages of undress and amorous desire. This is not Birmingham. Not staid suburban stereotypical Birmingham, or minimalist, cheap and functional Ikea-England, but something else. You suspect, or hope, that this bathroom has previously been enjoyed for salacious purposes involving many people at the same time, and if you found out it wasn’t, then you’d be disappointed.

That long and narrow garden invites exploration. It’s not eternally, horseback ridingly long, but just lengthy enough to get a small fragment of a sense of wilderness, albeit only three miles from the centre of England’s second city. Three cats patrol this hidden country; none live in the house. There are trees, a variety of trees, blossom starting to push outwards on one, but maddeningly no fruit trees. I stare with some envy, and more than a little disgust, at the splendid apple tree in the neighbour’s garden, where a full crop of hundreds of apples lies on the ground; unused, uncollected, uncherished, uneaten, rotting, a banquet for crows and squirrels but not for the ignorant people who shout and slam their way in and out of their house. I look back, to here, this place, follow the converging parallel lines to the end fence. A shed, a gate under an arch of ivy, a pathway, seats and benches, stepping places fashioned from tree stumps and placed in a pool of mud, a second garden with a second shed, a secluded area with signs of previous things created, things burnt, memories forged.

Gate

And things burnt inside the house. A fireplace that functions; metal, tile, grate, a clear chimney. Joy, and the recall and reminder of years and lives past, of peat fires in a Hebridean cottage for half of one decade, and coal fires in a rural Worcestershire cottage for two. A few memories amongst the many that this place, and the time it occupies, stirs. This fireplace has become my domain (perhaps a good thing, as the kitchen bemuses and baffles me); experimentation with wood and log and smokeless coal (hot, but aesthetically dull) and other inflammable materials. The flames and the colors and the glows and the embers to stare at, in late evenings, and remember some things and forget other things.

There are other aspects of this house and quirks within. The set-up for working is the best I’ve had since Hebridean years; an antique writing desk that perfectly suits the MacBook. There’s a downstairs toilet with a transparent glass door. The built-in bookcase occupies a corridor. Paintings of a paganistic and fantastical nature jostle with candlestick holders. So many different wooden surfaces, furniture, with grain and color and texture to distract and follow, and tactile hardwood floorboards that invite barefoot walking when the fire is lit. A quiet place, illuminated sometimes by just the light and crackle of fire flame and candle flame. And in the daytime, the sunlight. The way it creeps and peeps through the gaps between the wooden slats over my window. The red and the green and the blue beamed through the stained glass windows. The dust and soot and particles caught, embarrassed, when clouds scatter and that sunlight pours through the kitchen windows.

Fire

And this house is quiet because of the people within. My housemate, her wont to never stray too far from the jar of tea bags, is one of the loveliest people you could ever meet. She busies with her work while I frown at mine, interrupting myself occasionally to poke at an unburnt log or lump of glowing eco-coal while I listen for the inevitable sound of a kettle. She counters the aesthetic background of Boards of Canada by cheerfully humming Rolling Stones tracks from a different time, in a different room. This works, and this place works.

But in three weeks, I have had a grand total of zero visitors. That suits me fine, having quietly “unfollowed” 72 out of the 81 Birmingham residents I’d ended up connected to on “social media”, ignored all local social events, and stopped answering emails and messages from many of those people. Transition through shades of isolation. Though, having said that, it seems almost comically ridiculous and shallow, when looking into the flames of the fire that has warmed my (and your) species for millennia, to give gravitas to the oft-fleeting nature of “online connections”. Whatever the heck they are.

And while not a complete hermit – I’m back up to following 11 Brummies, albeit four (and soon five) of them related – the slightly-trimmed beard and the long, occasionally ponytailed and greying hair are perhaps appropriate for the demeanor of a person who both wants and needs this silent time to finish considering what else and who else to leave behind; and to sorting out his head, his possessions, his gradually repairing body and the next “stage of life”, whatever the heck that is, as best he can.

It’s early February, 2014. It’s spring time. This, for a short while, is a quiet place and it is my place.

Office

The solstice walk

The solstice walk

The summer solstice is but a few hours away. To be precise, it happens at 00:09 BST, on Thursday June 21st, 2012.

Five years ago, I was living on a small island, some three miles by two, in the Outer Hebrides. With a population that hovered around 130 residents, it was a relaxed place. And also very pretty, with one of the best beaches you’ll find in Britain.

On the summer solstice, and around that time of the year, it remains surprisingly bright at night. The first year there, we discovered it was possible to read a newspaper or a book in the garden. At midnight. Without a torch.

We also discovered that it was a really good idea to invest in some serious wartime blackout curtains, as opposed to the translucent thin stuff that’s prevalent nowadays. When it’s bright, it’s seriously bright. And at 4am, that’s a bit strange. And annoying when you need to sleep.

Back in 2007, it had been a hot and sunny June. Rainfall had been minimal, and the ground was drying and cracking. The island had been, even at the height of this good weather summer, quiet, with the occasional tourist, celebrity and broadsheet newspaper journalist popping up and hanging around for a while. The rumour that Prince Charles was returning for another summers retreat on Berneray proved unfounded.

The good weather also invited long walks on the west and east beaches, and the occasional dip in the sea. Though, even after several weeks of sunshine, the water was still damned cold. (Also, the sphere in this next picture was solid and hurt when you kicked it)

Ball

I spent that summer taking every opportunity to do beach walks, when I wasn’t fiddling around with doing virtual world work for Andy Powell et al in Eduserv, finding and cooking mussels, and sailing on the open sea in a serious boat.

As the summer edged towards the solstice, the idea of a little walk between sunset and sunrise during the shortest night came about. With this time being only a few hours, it wouldn’t make for a long walk. But, the perimeter of Berneray, taking in several beaches, the slopes of various hills, and the single track road for the last part, would do just fine at the right pace.

I mentioned it to Ruth, who was up for it. We mentioned it to a few other people who we thought would be into it and good to come along. Unfortunately, they mentioned it to others, and within a few days, half the island wanted to do it. Doubly unfortunately – this involved the most talkative people; every community seems to have a few people who try and fill every quiet second with their own voices, and the appeal of a walk round the island faded. And people started talking, and phoning me up, about schedules, and supplies, and driving bits of it, and perhaps bringing a radio along(!), and whether it was right to bring alcohol or not, and all manner of other pointless complications.

Rather than having just a quiet walk. Looking at things. Listening to other things. Having the occasional word, and sharing the occasional drink.

I lost interest. Word got around that the walk had been postponed. No bad thing. It was tempting go out in the boat again instead, as we’d been doing that month.

Youth hostel and the north end of Berneray

Then come the day before the solstice, the weather forecast looked good and we thought “Heck, why not.” Leaving it as close to the time as possible, we roped back in a few of the quieter people, and the five of us were set. Ruth, Andrew, Chris, Shonnie and myself.

Chris came to the gate of our house for sunset and we set off, picking up Andrew at his house, and Shonnie at the bottom of the road to his house. Mary, his kind wife, had loaded his pockets with sweets and a flask of something illicit smelling, and gave us a friendly but firm “make sure he comes back” parting.

Up to full strength, we walked past various ruins, up the east beach, and round the north headland.

The magnificent five

As you can see from that, and the next picture, it’s not easy to photograph at night on a cheap camera. The light is strange, and you can watch the bright area western sky slowly move clockwise, north then east, as dawn approaches.

Like hobbits, we stopped (increasingly) for meal breaks. It was a nice group to be in. Small. No-one spoke much, and no-one spoke loudly. All of us had some local and natural knowledge, so between us birds and animal sounds were identified through the night.

We carried on, anti-clockwise, and hit the west beach; three miles of unbroken white sand. Never monotonous, and never crowded; the most people I ever counted on it at the same time was eleven, a day that was acknowledged to be “freakishly crowded” and people talked of moving on as the “place is being over-run”.

The beach offers an uninterrupted view of the island of Pabbay, which I spent a heck of a lot of time over half a decade looking at, with its volcanic-like shape, green slope and beaches. We went there by fishing boat on my birthday two years before, wandering over the now-deserted island, posing for photos and watching herds of tame deer run uncomfortably close to us.

But tonight, on the summer solstice, Pabby brooded, darkly, watchfully, sentient, over us from across the few miles of placid north Atlantic.

Pabbay from the west beach

Despite being three miles of sand, we spent two hours on the beach. The sounds of the waves, bird noises, some kind of distant, deep, thudding far out to see, and the occasional startled otter, were pretty much it during that stretch of the walk. I’d gone ahead of the others who’d stopped to look at some unidentifiable dead … thing … washed up on the beach, and had an hour to myself. Recent adventures exploring Finland had given me a lot to think about and a deeper itch, troubling thoughts, to figure out various things (though at the time I wasn’t sure what) were pressing heavily in conscious and unconscious thoughts. That hour of solitude, 2 till 3 in the morning, on the west beach of Berneray, is still really vivid in the mind, staring at the unmovable, silent Pabbay.

The group reassembled and carried on. Rounding the south west corner of Berneray, we were starting to head for home. Or my home where I’d promised breakfast for any of us who completed the circuit. Crossing the cockle bay, at low tide, revealed many otter prints as they slept, hung out and ate their catch here in significant numbers at the time.

Despite some fatigue, the pace picked up. Mary would be waiting for Shonnie (he wasn’t allowed to linger for breakfast). We got back to the house before dawn, realising that we hadn’t passed or seen a single vehicle for the whole walk. I walked Shonnie back to his place, then doubled back to mine. Before tucking into what was left of breakfast (Chris having eaten most of the contents of our fridge), I took a pre-dawn snap of the view from my office:

Dawn

Deeply satisfying, the whole walk, the whole night, every part of it. And possibly the best thing I’ve organised, specifically because it was kept simple in the end. Let’s go for a walk; start after sunset, breakfast before sunrise. And that’s it.

People regularly ask me if I miss the place. Or how could I possibly move away from such a beautiful place to live in. And they’re right about how it looks; there are few places (and I’ve travelled a lot) that compare to the scenery of the Outer Hebrides, all the year round.

But there’s more – a heck of a lot more – to living in a place than just the scenery. And there’s more than a few grains of truth in Local Hero on this, and if you watch the whole film, on living in a rural place on the periphery of northern Europe (not just Scotland). Things to write and publish about, in much greater detail, another day.

Despite having “broadband” there that is unbelievably bad to sign up to, and unbelievably bad to actually try and use, I’m still in touch over the Interwebz with a fair few people on Berneray and the other islands that make up the Outer Hebrides. It’s interesting, the conflict some of them have, the yearn to get away for many and varied reasons, but the pull of the place they feel is home. Some stay. Some leave and eventually come back, need to come back to feel content again. Some leave and never come back. The way it’s always been on the periphery of Europe; the way it’ll probably always be.

But no, I don’t miss living on Berneray; there have been many adventures since (not all of them good, or desired), and I’ve a much better, possibly brutally simple and personal, concept of what ‘home’ is now than five very long years ago. Though, there is one thing I really do miss from those years; being on a boat with a sail in the open sea.

Shooting along

Yeah; my own boat (think I’d name her the Liberty Rose) on the open sea. Something to dream about, and sail, in future years.

Oh, and the solstice walk. It never got repeated. Well, that’s not strictly true. It was never publicly repeated, though I gather some Berneray residents have quietly, with few words and no announcements, done it on their own since {smiles}. Hoping more do it tonight, and in future years.