Our first spring on Orkney

Spring arrives a little later up here than in Sussex, but it is here now and lots of things are happening in and around Bendigo.

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We are enjoying the visits of many of you, intrepidly heading north to see what has lured us to our new home, and I must say that our guests all seem to understand why we have found Orkney to be our personal paradise. When the sun shines warmly and the bay is blue it really does take some beating! My cousin Tina took this picture on her phone from the plane as she left us: that’s our beach and we are just to the left of it. The village to the right of the barrier/beach is Burray.

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Our new Keder, a cross between a greenhouse and a polytunnel, is up and filling with plants. Our friends Sarah and Jim, the Gardeners at West Dean, have just been with us and ‘officially opened’ it (any excuse for a party). Now they are on their way home and we are busy planting up every conceivable container that we have or can purloin. We will get the ground ready over the winter so that we can plant directly next year but we need to eradicate some of the unplanned ‘plants’ first... The selection of bags and tubs etc is reminiscent of the first year in the polytunnel at Tangmere Community Garden.

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With the spring here on Orkney comes an abundance of wild flowers and we are trying very hard to learn more about them all. We found the rare Primula Scotica when Jim and Sarah were here - a plant they had never seen before! We have also found the oysterplant on a beach near us (see pic in the gallery below): it is meant to be on our beach too but we are still hunting for it.

The birds in the bay have also changed and we have swallows and starlings nesting in our eaves and garden walls. There are swallows in the gun emplacements too and so it is pretty noisy at times! Having oystercatchers flying over us when we are gardening, doubtless calling out to tell us what we are doing wrong, is wonderful. A major hazard on the Islands is starlings nesting under car bonnets and they have taken to our old Citroen! Nick clears out nesting materials two or three times a day and once when the car was moved, the starlings, beaks laden with twigs and moss, were positively stamping their feet in anger and bewilderment as to where the car had gone! We have seen a short-eared owl and a hen harrier around Bendigo - the sales details for the house said they were about and so they are! This is now peak Orca spotting time and a few pods have been around Orkney for the last few weeks, but we keep missing the black fins sticking out of the water!

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We have joined a local informal photography group in Burray village. We meet every fortnight and go somewhere to exercise our creativity! It’s always fascinating to see how the same site inspires a huge range of pictures. Although I do take quite a few food pictures myself of my dishes we are expecting a professional along to photograph my first recipe blog for the VisitOrkney website, in conjunction with Orkney Food & Drink. The recipe is a Rhubarb gin and tonic tart - rhubarb and gin are both big things up here and there are now three gin distilleries, that’s one more than there are whisky distilleries! It’s great to be involved with our new local food group and the partnership will be for the next two years. I mention it here because somehow, after our last photography group, Nick, a friend and I found ourselves at the Deerness Gin Distillery as our location was just a few hundred metres from there...

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We have enjoyed our first Orkney Folk Festival as residents and managed four concerts in three days: it was fabulous! The folk music tradition is vibrant and each concert had at least one local group performing. How the organisers succeeded in securing as many raffle prizes as they needed is beyond comprehension: you cannot go to anything on Orkney without there being a raffle - and very often there are homebakes as well! The next big music festival is the more ‘serious’ St Magnus International Music Festival and we are in the community Festival Chorus, our first foray into real choral singing. We are performing Rossini’s Petite Messe Solonelle, a truly fabulous piece but very difficult for novices like us! Our houseguests over the Festival have all been bought a ticket and we will perform in Kirkwall’s magnificent cathedral.

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Although I now worship at St Magnus Cathedral I do enjoy the Mass at the Italian Chapel on the first Sunday afternoon of the month during the summer. The chapel has around 100,000 visitors a year but it is wonderful to experience it still being used for it’s original purpose. It is a remarkable building.

I shall be heading south to see Mum for a few days at the beginning of July, leaving Nick in charge of the polytunnel. We manage to FaceTime with her quite regularly when our friend Sue visits and, to all of you who do pop in to see her or keep in touch, thank you. FaceTime is a wonderful way of staying close to all of you.

Finally, below are a few photos we have taken recently, starting with some of the seedlings in the new polytunnel. Now, back to the gardening!

We’ve had our first overseas visitors - in February!

At the time of writing it will be 5 months on Friday since Bendigo became our home and we absolutely love it here on Orkney. We are keen to share our new home with as many of our friends and family as possible.

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Nephew and niece Gordon and Sabrina from Germany have been our first residential and overseas visitors - in February! Although they landed in a bit of a blow the weather was then amazing for the rest of their stay. It was so good to show them around and to revisit many of the tourist sites: well, those that are open at this time of year! The photos we are sharing with you today are Sabrina’s and show Orkney through the eyes of a first time visitor. Photography is a new hobby for her and we thought some of Beeny’s shots were great. The photo above was taken from the Neolithic settlement of Skara Brae looking out across the Bay of Skaill.

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The fact that Gordon and Sabrina were here for the first ever Orkney Gin Festival added a certain panache to one of our evenings together out on the town in Kirkwall, with Nick discovering a real love for cocktails! Just as much fun, though, were the evenings in at Bendigo, trying haggis (which they loved) and playing cards as we have always done when we are together. The picture above is us on the Broch of Birsay, an island accessible across a (very slippery) causeway at low tide, and below is Nick (and me too!) striding across Hobbister Moor, where Highland Park cut their peat and the RSPB have a reserve.


After our visitors left us we made another new friend, Duncan, who also has moved to Orkney from Tangmere! Although his route took years longer than ours his parents, who still live in Tangmere, had sent him a cutting from the parish mag about us moving north and he got in touch! There are so many people here from the crowded south, looking for space and a slower, greener way of life, as we are. The picture below is a very different shot of ‘our’ beach taken on the path from Bendigo down onto the sand.

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 Here we are again, at the Ring of Brodgar.

Here we are again, at the Ring of Brodgar.

The winter has seemed short to us. The days are noticeably longer now and sunset is pretty much at the the same time as in Sussex. The ground is still very wet - we are told that it has been an exceptionally soggy winter - and attempts to put up a whirly washing line without cementing in the base have been abandoned because of soft ground. We are collecting barrowfuls of seaweed for our new veg bed, an exercise which surely will start to get us fit! Our polytunnel looks like being delayed until June or July which is disappointing, but it will give us time to see how the sun travels around Bendigo in the Simmer Dim, the long days of summer.

We have joined the St Magnus Festival Chorus - first rehearsal last night - a community choir that performs in the Festival in June. We are working on Rossini’s Petit Messe Solonelle, one of my favourite choral works, so we are very much looking forward to seeing how we get on as this will be much more ‘grown up’ singing than we have done before. We continue to enjoy a very informal traditional music group on Friday nights in The Hope (St Margaret’s Hope) and I am working hard to make my trumpet fit in with the fiddles and accordians - Nick’s guitar is a much easier match but they are all very kind! We have also joined the gardening club and went to a very interesting talk by one of the members about gardens in Singapore. The speaker, a member, gave us some astonishing facts: Orkney (total land mass for all 70 islands) is slightly larger than Singapore but has a population density of 20 per sq. km. compared to over 7,797 per sq. km. for the island of Singapore! A fascinating comparison.

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Of course we don’t mind how many times we go round Highland Park - or Scapa, when it opens for the main tourist season - and two of the three gin distilleries here will have visitor centres or cafes before the summer is out. The Orkney Brewery also has an excellent cafe and tasting room so, if you are planning to come and see us, prepare for a very convivial time! Our best availability for the rest of this year is July and August - but there will, hopefully, be many years for us to welcome visitors to Bendigo if you cannot come in 2018. (If we are going to be photographed together I would rather you are not tall and slim!)

Only Storm Caroline has, to date, cut us off from Mainland Orkney with the closure of the Churchill Barriers. We must wait to see if the snow that many of you will be experiencing to the south of us will actually reach here. I am hoping to go into Kirkwall on Wednesday evening to see the Royal Opera House screening of Winter’s Tale - it will be ironic if snow scuppers that plan!

Moving up, settling in

It is, unbelievably, four weeks since we left Sussex for our new life in Orkney. That's amazing  - and Bendigo already really does feel like home.

After many fabulous farewell parties, and despite the fact that we still had not exchanged contracts, we both felt an almost desperate need to get in the car and head north. All our farewells were memorable, from the village party in August which gave us a wonderful Orcadian flag 'run up' by the multi-talented Alison Coote, to the feast hosted by Sam and Janet Mahoney at their restaurant Field & Fork which was cited in an innane interview with Mary Berry in the Times mag last Saturday. Each and every farewell event was wonderful - but it was time for us to go!

Thursday to Monday were spent travelling and catching up with friends and then we shared the ferry across the Pentland Firth with Phil Vickery, an old ally and one of the really affable TV chefs. He was heading to Orkney for a couple of days fishing with some other chums including Graham, the son and now the maker of Mrs Kirkham's Lancashire cheese, and Peter Gott, a stalwart for many years of Borough Market. Orkney really is one of The Places to be for food - and fishing!

We headed from the ferry to Robertsons, the cafe-bar in the Hope (St Margaret's Hope) that became almost our second home for a couple of weeks thanks to excellent ambiance and wi-fi! Morag and her daughter Jenna kept us fed and caffeinated, and continue to be a great source of local information and insight. Our lunch arrived with a ping on our phones announcing that the exchange of contracts in Sussex had at last taken place with completion promised for Friday. Morag received our hugs of excitement with good grace as the nearest to family that we had here on South Ronaldsay! What a relief to know that at the end of our week in a holiday let we would indeed be moving into Bendigo and not turning the car around and heading back to Tangmere!

To all of you who asked if it is possible to buy furniture on Orkney, we can assure you that the answer is Yes! We spent much of our week in the holiday cottage shopping: for a 3-piece suite, dining chairs and occasional tables as well as a spare bed that we hope many of you will enjoy. We also had a memorable evening at The Orkney Food & Drink Amateur Masterchef competition where four competitors each cooked a 3-course meal featuring local produce on stage in the Orkney Theatre, part of the Grammar School and a fantastic facility at the disposal of the community. We'll be back there again this Thursday evening for the final concert in the annual WinterFest folk music workshop. We met the Orkney Fairtrade team at Masterchef and signed up with them, and also the couple who farm water buffalo for meat quite close to us - we've tried their slow-roasted buffalo topside and it is excellent, like gamey beef.

Our solicitors solicited well and we actually completed up here on the same day as we did in Sussex. That meant we had the keys to Bendigo and could unload the car over the weekend but our possessions did not actually arrive at the house until Monday 2nd October - about an hour before our first storm. Phew! Our Sunday lunch the day before moving in was a Lidl (yes, we have a Lidl) pizza and a mug of wine consumed on the stairs as we had no chairs. I'm pleased to say the dining table is now in use again!

We lost one gratin dish that had been a second and one cheap wine glass in the move - not bad! Amanda Loverseed, you will need to come to Orkney to retouch a little bit of the edge of our fabulous dining table that took a slight knock, but otherwise all is good - we think. I say that as we are still awaiting the wooden block for our coat stand (Alan and Jo) and our pecking chickens table....our furniture was just one third of a load so I guess it was inevitable that it would get a bit muddled as it had to be stored for a number of weeks. It all left Sussex about two weeks before us due to promised dates from the estate agent that were not realised, back in those nerve-jangling, pre-exchange days that we have almost forgotten about! 

Our daily life (now that all the boxes are emptied and most things are in roughly the right places) usually features a walk along 'our' beach. We are entertained by oystercatchers, a curlew or two, and flocks of what we at first thought were starlings. We have since found them to be ringed plovers, preparing to migrate by picking through the seaweed on the beach to find tasty morsels to build their strength. They are delightful birds and we love seeing them, as well as the occasional heron that wades and fishes at the water's edge. There are always seals further along in the cove and occasionally one comes along to entertain us as we watch from the kitchen balcony.

Bendigo could not be more different from The Old Cottage. We have moved from a house at least 400 years old to one that has been built for just a decade! It has central heating, something completely new to us (although I suppose we did have a warm air heating system in our flat) and we live upstairs and sleep downstairs. It is a generous house for the two of us so there is plenty of room for you too!

We will share more pictures and news with you as the weeks go by, but here are a few images to help you picture where we are. Click on any picture and scroll right or left using the arrows at the side to view the others.

We are so happy.