Wild & Ancient Britain

Published on Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Saturday, July 2, 2011
London, England

Our exploration of Wild and Ancient Britain started this evening at our welcome reception and dinner. The tables were set, food laid out, and introductions were given. After a jovial evening, everyone retired to their rooms as the next day was going to be a busy one! 

Sunday, July 3
London / Plymouth / Embark Clipper Odyssey

After breakfast in the hotel, we traveled by train through the English countryside and along the coast to Plymouth. On arrival, the birders were on their way to Dartmoor National Park for bird watching and nature walks. The rest of us had lunch at a local restaurant before heading to Saltram House, a 300-year-old Georgian mansion, and a tour of the grounds. After a quick tour of Plymouth we boarded the Clipper Odyssey for our journey around the British Isles.

Once onboard and settled into our staterooms, there was time to explore the ship before the mandatory safety drill, followed by a welcome aboard orientation and Zodiac briefing. After all the ship formalities and a briefing on the next day’s activities, it was time for dinner…and bed!

Monday, July 4
Isles of Scilly
Today was our first landing by Zodiac. We arrived off the island of Tresco…we think. The fog was so thick, we couldn’t see the shoreline until we were about 50 feet away! Once on shore the birders set off in search of the islands’ avian population, while others strolled over to the 40-acre botanical gardens where we could see flora from all over Britain and the European continent. After several hours of exploring, we returned to the ship for lunch and the first of two lectures. Mark Brazil discussed Birds Britannica: A Celebration of Birds in British Culture, and Tom Sharpe told us about Building Blocks of Britain.

After freshening up it was time for the captain’s welcome reception and dinner before retiring for the evening, as more adventures awaited us tomorrow.

Tuesday, July 5
Skellig Islands, Ireland
With the ship rolling to and fro, we boarded the Zodiacs for a wild ride to Skellig Michael. Once on land, we had the option to climb up to the site of St. Finian’s Abbey built in 560 AD. In order to reach the top, however, you had to scale narrow ledges and climb 670 uneven stone steps. Those who made the journery were rewarded with a virtually intact 1400-year-old monastery and magnificent views.  After a few hours on the island we cruised back to the ship for lunch and a lecture by Sam Berry on Evolution on Islands followed by Ian Stone’s presentation, Why Does the Cat Have No Tail? An Introduction to the Isle of Man.

After our first recap and dinner, we were treated to Olga Stone’s piano recital, Invitation to a Victorian Music Salon.

Wednesday, July 6
Dunmore East / Waterford / Saltee Islands
Today we arrived off the coast of Ireland and Dunmore East. One group set off for Waterford for a tour of the factory, while the other group headed out to the Mount Congreve Estate for nature and wildlife. The first stop in Waterford was the Bishop’s Palace, a beautiful home detailing the history of the city through the home’s artifacts. The next stop was a favorite for many—a local pub for a glass of Irish coffee—just in time as rain started to fall. After warming our hearts with Irish spirits, we walked across the street to the Waterford Crystal factory where we were introduced to the design and production of the world famous crystal.

The group that visited Mount Congreve wandered the estate’s gardens and trails. The garden collection includes hundreds of varieties of rhododendrons, magnolias, camellias, and other flora from around the world.

The skies opened up as we prepared for the Zodiac ride back to the ship, which repositioned to Saltee Island. Great Saltee is a private island and a famous Irish bird sanctuary. Once on shore we hiked up to the stone throne of Michael the First, the first “owner” of the island who in 1920 told his mother he would buy the island and crown himself prince—and in 1943 he did just that. In addition to the throne, the island is known for its birds. From gannets and razorbills to puffins and Manx shearwaters, all can be found swooping over the high cliffs leading down to the crashing waves where gray seals were seen bobbing in the surf.

Thursday, July 7
Isle of Man
This morning we anchored off the town of Port Erin on the Isle of Man, with the sun shining as we landed on the quay in our Zodiacs. We drove out to Castletown for a visit to the Nautical Museum where we learned about the 18th-century sailor George Quayle and his yacht, Peggy. Built in 1789, Peggy was locked away in a boathouse untouched for 120 years until being discovered in 1935; she is one of the oldest surviving complete 18th-century schooners. The next stop was Castle Rushen, built around 1265. The castle is a massive fortress that has gone through many incarnations in its life. A fortress for several centuries, it has also been an Administrative Center and a prison. Next we continued to the Castletown rail station for our scenic four-mile ride on a vintage narrow-gauge steam train with its gleaming red engine and wooden passenger cars. The route took us through the countryside; through pastures of cows, horses, and small villages; and finally back to Port Erin. After a lunch of roast beef and Yorkshire pudding at the Falcon’s Nest restaurant, there was time to wander around the town before heading back to the ship. Following a recap and dinner, we returned to the main lounge for Cherries Jubilee FlambĂ© and an evening lecture on Northern Ireland…What is Going On? given by Ian Stone.

Friday, July 8
Portrush, Northern Ireland / Giant’s Causeway / Isle of Islay, Scotland
Our first stop today was the UNESCO World Heritage Site of Giant’s Causeway, located in Portrush, Northern Ireland. We divided into separate groups for long, medium, or short walks, and a birding walk. The Causeway is a large grouping of polygonal columns, formed by the heating and cooling of fluid basalt in an extensive lava plateau some 50 to 60 million years ago. The name came from an Irish legend of two Giants, one in Ireland and one in Scotland. Legend has it the Irish giant Finn McCool built the Causeway to reach Scotland in order to fight Scottish giant Benandonner. Finn was disguised as a baby and when Benandonner saw the size of him he ran back over the Causeway to Scotland throwing rocks into the water in hopes the other giant could not follow him.

After exploring the Causeway, we stopped at the ruins of Dunluce Castle. Started in the 13th century, the structure has been added to over time, as it stayed in use until the 1690s. The castle now serves as a picturesque stop, and was used on the Led Zeppelin album cover Houses of the Holy in 1973.

After lunch on board, Colleen Batey presented St. Kilda: Life and Death on the Edge of the World. Later we found ourselves at the Lagavulin Distillery on the Isle of Islay, Scotland. The factory dates officially from 1816 (unofficially from 1742). We learned how the whisky is made and even got to taste the results of all the hard work that goes into making this Scottish spirit. After the tour and tasting, we were back to the ship for a briefing on the next day’s activities, dinner, and some rest.

Saturday, July 9
Isles of Iona & Staffa, Inner Hebrides
Once ashore on the Isle of Iona, some were on their way for a birding walk while others headed off with the local guides who explained the history of the island. The first stop on the island tour was the ruins of the old Nunnery, built in 1200. A walk along the road brought us to Maclean’s Cross, said to have been erected in the 15th century, followed by the cemetery and St. Oran’s Chapel built in the 12th century and one of the islands’ oldest surviving buildings. We continued to Iona Abbey which has been standing on the island for 800 years. After the tours, we were able to explore the town on our own, admiring all the flowers in bloom and the lush vegetable gardens. A highlight for the birders was the sighting of the elusive corncrake!

Back on board, we sailed to the Isle of Staffa. On shore we were greeted with wonderful views of the basalt columns similar to those at Giant’s Causeway. Up away from the landing site, we were able to wander around and view a colony of puffins, as well as explore Fingal’s Cave “from land.” Those who chose not to come ashore were offered a Zodiac cruise along the coastline and were able to actually cruise into Fingal’s Cave. As the ship sailed past the island, Mendelssohn’s Hebrides Overture, inspired by this very cave, was played over the ships loudspeakers.

Sunday, July 10
St. Kilda & Flannan Islands, Outer Hebrides
Upon arrival in St. Kilda, we landed via Zodiac on the causeway that led up to the village on the island of Hirta, the largest in the archipelago. The island has been inhabited for two millennia, with the first known record of habitation dating from 1202, based on the writings of an Icelandic cleric. Different walks were offered, with the birders in search of the St. Kilda wren.

After lunch we joined Rich Pagen in the main lounge for his presentation on Wildcats to Sea Eagles: Modern Wildlife Conservation in an Ancient Landscape. The previous night Mike Messick had given us an idea of what to expect when we got to Flannan Island, and his description was dead on! The landing was on a small jetty; the first step was half gone, the next two were completely gone and it didn’t get much better!  The landing party had rigged a rope to aid our ascent up the cliff side—then it was a slow walk up the 79 stairs to the top. But once at the top, the views were spectacular, and the puffin sightings amazing!  The walk continued up the curving path to the lighthouse, with some looking for the ghosts of the three lighthouse keepers who mysteriously disappeared in December of 1900.  Before we knew it, it was time to return to the landing to head back to the ship.

Monday, July 11
Kirkwall, Orkney Islands
Maes Howe, the Ring of Brodgar, Skara Brae, and St. Magnus Cathedral were all on our agenda today. Maes Howe is a Neolithic, earth-mounded, chambered cairn. The tomb is a masterpiece of ancient architecture built with stones, some weighing 30 tons. Modern excavations started in 1861 when archeologists found runic inscriptions on the walls, indicating that the site may have been looted some six centuries earlier. The runic inscriptions are the largest grouping in the world located in one space.

Our next visit was the Ring of Brodgar, a Neolithic henge thought to have been erected sometime between 2500 B.C. and 2000 B.C. The ring consists of 60 stones set in a circle 1,250 feet in circumference. Of the 60 stones, only 27 still stand. We then visited Skara Brae.  These ruins of a Neolithic settlement were discovered in 1850 after a storm.  Subsequent excavations unearthed four ancient dwellings but then the site was abandoned in 1868. Work began again in 1928 and 1930 and uncovered what we see today. The site has been dated to before Stonehenge and the Pyramids with dwellings spanning 4000 years.  We were able to walk through a “life size” model of one of the structures before visiting the site where we could walk around the ruins peering down in to the different dwellings.

A drive through the countryside took us to the town of Kirkwall where we visited St. Magnus Cathedral. Construction of the building started in 1137 by the Viking Earl Rognvald, and over time has been added to and enlarged. The beautiful cathedral is one of the best preserved medieval churches in the British Isles.

Tuesday, July 12
Lerwick / Isle of Noss / Mousa, Shetland Islands
We landed on the beach in Sumburgh just off the end of the airport’s runway, then boarded buses for the day’s excursions. For puffin watching, we ventured out to Sumburgh Head lighthouse, the southernmost point of mainland Shetland. With the puffin colony just feet away from our cameras, great photography was possible of the little black, white, and orange birds. After a short drive, we arrived at the prehistoric site of Jarlshof, with its 3,000 year old ruins. Jarlshof Castle was virtually unknown until a storm in the late 19th century uncovered the ruins.

In the afternoon we headed into the town of Lerwick, the capital of the Shetland Islands. There we were able to visit the wonderful Shetland Museum and learn about the islands, from the beginning of time until the present day, through artifacts and interactive displays.

During our tours on shore, the Clipper Odyssey repositioned to Lerwick where we reboarded. We bade farewell and headed to the island of Mousa, passing by the Isle of Noss on the way. Noss is home to one of Europe’s largest and most diverse seabird colonies, with approximately 80,000 seabirds.

Arriving off the shores of Mousa, Zodiacs took us in to one of the area’s best preserved Iron Age brochs, dating from A.D. 200. We walked around the island and explored the intact broch inside and out. After returning to the ship for dinner, Zodiacs were launched again and a hearty group ventured back to shore to watch storm petrels return to their nests for the night. As many of us learned the next morning, it was a very late night for the birders, who didn’t return until 1 a.m.!

Wednesday, July 13
Fair Isle
The sun was shining as we made our landing on Fair Isle, one of the United Kingdom’s most remote, inhabited islands. The birders set off to see the local avian inhabitants, while others broke off into various walking groups to explore. The islanders opened up their community center and offered us tea and goodies to enjoy. Also on hand were items for purchase; the island is world-famous for its knitwear.

On the way to the community center we were invited to visit the local museum which displayed artifacts and stories about life in this remote area. The island has been inhabited since the Bronze Age with families continuing to farm the land, up to and beyond its acquisition by the National Trust of Scotland in 1954. Today, Fair Isle has approximately 70 residents. 

In the afternoon we gathered to hear Sam give his lecture entitled Viking Mice and after tea, we heard Colleen speak about The Southern and Northern Norse Earldoms of Scotland. The evening ended with the captain’s farewell cocktail party followed by a farewell dinner.

Thursday, July 14
Isle of May / Bass Rock / Leith
Our first stop of the day was the Isle of May. The island is home to a seabird colony (roughly 200,000 birds representing 12 species) and several naturalists who spend the summer conducting a census of the bird population. On one cliff was a colony of puffins, on another a colony of razorbills, and on yet another guillemots. Just up from the landing are the ruins of a priory dating from the 12th century. From there we wandered the island, exploring the trails that wound through the area. Available for closer inspection were several lighthouses, one being used as a bird observatory and one designed to resemble a Gothic castle.

After lunch on board, we joined our naturalist on deck as we sailed by Bass Rock, a huge chunk of basalt rising 350 feet out of the water and home to Scotland’s second largest gannet colony.

Today was our last lecture and we joined Tom in the lounge for his talk on Shaping Scotland’s Scenery before entering the locks that would bring us to our berth in Leith. Later in the afternoon we had our last recap of the trip before heading down to the dining room or out on the town.

Friday, July 15
Leith / Edinburgh / Home
Time to head home. Disembarkation started at 3:15 a.m. for some, with all others departing over the next several hours. As we stood in front of the cruise terminal saying goodbye, we were filled with wonderful memories of our days on the Clipper Odyssey sailing around the British Isles.