As we all know, 2020 was the year where we all learnt to deal with the spectacularly unexpected. On Christmas Eve 2019, following another year of what I then thought had been very hard work I decided to make some significant changes to my life in 2020.
This included taking a month off in August 2020 to start writing a book (based around an extraordinary family event). I chose to start writing the book on the furthest and most remote island in the British Isles – Unst in Shetland – where my late mother’s family date back to 1767. I had always wanted to visit distant cousins there, so it seemed like a good place to start.
I decided to drive the 867 miles from my home in East Sussex as I needed quite a bit of kit for a month. I also thought it would be an excellent opportunity to really put my Land Rover Discovery Sport 2.0 TD4 to the test. It has had quite a tame life to date.
I rented a newly refurbished croft on a headland above a small bay, where seals frequented and with the most glorious of views. I had a very clear vision of walking, sea swimming, cooking fresh fish on the beach and enjoying the odd dram of whisky with neighbours, and hopefully new found friends. Catching up on much needed sleep and creating the head space to start remembering and writing.
Fast forward to March 2020 and the shock arrival of the global pandemic in the UK. A week before lockdown, we took the decision to move our entire MDHUB business model online in order to support our MDHUB members and that is where we stayed, day in day out for the best part of 2020.
I had no time at all to give any thought to the month off, other than have the odd exchange with the holiday company to see what their cancellation policies were. I also had the conundrum of not yet being able to book onto the three ferries required from Aberdeen to get to Unst. Quite rightly, the island communities were desperately worried about the impact of Covid as their limited medical infrastructure could not cope with even a small outbreak.
And so I vacillated between – do I go, don’t I go ? Will it be irresponsible to visit an island community which was Covid-free but badly needed tourism income? Should I really be taking time out of the business? Yes – was the over riding feedback from my amazing business partner and friends.
It all went to the wire and when North Link Ferries opened up their bookings in mid July – I immediately booked my passage, just two weeks before I was due to go. There ensued a military-like operation to plan my exit from work and life as I knew it.
On July 29th, my spacious Land Rover boot was finally packed with everything including the kitchen sink, I was off on an adventure and it felt great.
In addition, I also had two last-minute travel companions for the journey up – my step mum Doreen (from Leith) and step-nephew James (aged 13 going on 35) – both great and entertaining company. The plan was to drop them in Aberdeen and then they were off on their own adventures .
Rest was taken en route at the remote Anchor Inn at Whittonstall where we were made very welcome with fantastic home made pies washed down with a few glasses of Merlot.
Day two involved leaving the rolling, beautiful hills of Northumberland where you could see miles ahead on very straight Roman roads. We then pressed on to Scotland via the Kielder Forest, crossing the border into a characteristically misty Scotland which James almost missed but thanks to Nanny Doreen pointing it out, the moment was not lost. We then hit the A68 to Edinburgh, Perth and onto Aberdeen, where the Sat Nav got a wee bit confused and after a hurried goodbye to my travel companions, I only just made the 5pm ferry for the 12.5 hr overnight crossing via Orkney to Lerwick (capital of mainland Shetland)
I always love going up on deck and watching the land recede on any boat crossing and Aberdeen harbour is particularly impressive to depart from. Due to the pandemic, all passengers had to stay in their cabins, which was fine up until the point I heard a car alarm go off and hoped it was not mine ... only it was. In my rush to board, I had also forgotten to put the boarding card on the dash board, so the crew had additional hassle in finding out who the owner was. How not to be popular with the handsome Norwegian Purser at 2am who had to come and knock on my door to get my car keys. I now know how to immobilise my car alarm.
I arrived in a gloriously warm Lerwick and then, after stocking up for the month to come, headed 30 mins across the island to get a small ferry from Toft to Yell (20 min crossing), driving across Yell (30 min drive), to get a final car ferry from Gutcher to Belmont on Unst (15 min crossing).
My first impressions of Shetland was of the vastness and clarity of the incredible blue skies with a lunar like landscape, few or no trees and an awful lot of sheep. It reminded me of Iceland and Patagonia. It felt remote and off-grid, which is exactly what I wanted, I could feel my heart rising with a real happiness as I drove over the islands. It felt like coming home.
Unst is known as ‘the island above all others’ due its remoteness. It is incredibly wild, windswept, beautiful and a little bit ghostly. The Land Rover absolutely came into its own when exploring the steep cliffs and the tracks down to deserted beaches of Lund, Skaw and Norwick, where my ancestors had forged very tough lives as fishermen. The island community is not much bigger than the village I live in and the main source of employment is salmon farming for the US and Chinese markets, and tourism. Ironically, this is likely to change with the arrival of the Shetland Space Centre in 2021 and the site of a new £23.4m Satellite launch site, which will provide much needed employment and curious tourists.
My time on Unst was cut spectacularly short by the arrival of two very stormy nights not long after I arrived and part of the roof of the croft literally blew away, resulting in a lot of water getting into both the interiors and the electrics. Hardy and practical as I am but with no other accommodation available (as either booked up or closed) – I had to take the very sad decision to leave after just a week. Options on neighbouring Orkney were non-existent, so I decided to cut my losses and head home but not without finding and meeting my distant cousins Joan and Charlie (who was beyond excited about the satellite launch being behind his “hoose” – think ‘Local Hero’ film and you will get the picture) adding some more research to my book.
Aberdeen went into lockdown 30 minutes after I had brought my return ferry booking forward so there was a rush to get back across the islands in case they too went into lockdown.
I decided to return via an alternative route once I arrived in Aberdeen. I took the wonderful coastal route to Edinburgh via Montrose, Dundee and St Andrews– the gloriously green and lush landscape with dashes of purple heather meeting the sparkling sea.
Arriving in Edinburgh to have my first post lockdown (No 1) lunch (and a chilled bottle of Ridgeview I had brought with me) with good pal Heidi Carroll, MD of Meerkats, who had rather brilliantly found me some exceptional accommodation for the night at 10 Clarendon Crescent Apartments, life began to feel a little bit more normal. After the best nights sleep for about 10 days, I then headed down to Carlisle on more amazingly empty roads, watching the peaks of the Lake District majestically appear the further south I went. The final night of my trip was to be spent in Derbyshire at The Maynard – a refurbished pub that I had visited 25 years ago. I was joined by my lovely sister Deryn and family for supper. They had to come to me as I could not go to them due to lockdown restrictions in Manchester. I was beginning to feel that I was outrunning a pandemic. Leaving Derbyshire in 14 degrees and watching as the temperature gauge steadily rose to 34 degrees by the time I got home, I felt like I had been time travelling.
So, 2000 miles in 12 days from one end of the country to the other – not quite the holiday I had anticipated but it was most definitely an adventure and a reminder of just how glorious this set of islands of ours really is and why we really don’t need to keep decanting all of our toiletries into plastic bags in security queues, jumping on planes and running away.
My Land Rover Discovery was the unexpected star of the show. It had only taken me two years to find out that it’s spacious, comfortable, straightforward, easy to drive, safe and able to cope with all manner of environments.
A really great car for a family road trip or a solo adventure off the beaten track.