Saturday, April 14, 2012

Sumburgh Head

I've not long finished Kathleen Jamie's 'Sightlines', it's excellent and thought provoking as was its predecessor 'Findings' and needs altogether more attention than I feel I have in me on a Friday night but one of the places mentioned in passing was Sumburgh head in Shetland. It's become something of a tradition over the last few years to start a visit home by going to see the puffins at Sumburgh (puffin cam went live tonight). 

The puffins arrive in April and stick around for a few months of summer before heading back to sea, May is probably the best time to see them but there should still be a few hanging around in July when I'll be looking for them. There are other places to see puffins close up but Sumburgh is my favourite, it's the southern most tip of Shetland and very handy for the airport which is a couple of miles below. You don't have to be feeling fit or able to get there, you don't have to think about ferries or time, and a few minutes up there is enough to blow away the generally mucky feeling travel of any sort leaves you with.

The first time the Scottish one came north with me he was grumpy and tense on the flight (as if being dragged up to his girlfriends fathers house in the middle of nowhere wasn't bad enough there was the threat of unruly teenage siblings, and I think my mother might have been teasing him about the possibility of packs of dogs and shotguns...) so instead of taking him straight home we took a slight detour and went up the hill - it was a wise move. Car parked next to a field of exuberant sea pinks, a face full of very fresh air (and quite a bit of rain) and a puffin was enough to start the holiday on the right footing. (He's been back a few times now.) Last year when I was in Shetland whilst he was stuck at work, again the first thing we did was go and look for Puffins (even my sister who I was with, and who is highly hill averse was reasonably willing). Sumburgh has a good mobile phone signal (which isn't true of everywhere in the islands and certainly not true of my dad's house) so it seemed timely to call and rub it in a bit - to do this I found a specific square of concrete and waved like mad at a webcam (god knows what any other viewer hoping to see puffins made of it). I could have made a fool of myself in town but it wouldn't have been the same. In the end we all waved whilst talking on the phone, I dare say there are all sorts of conclusions about the modern world to be made from that, but at the time it was fun.

Apparently there are frequent whale sightings from up there too, though I'm not a frequent visitor and have never hit it lucky. There is a stone shaped a bit like Darth Vader which you can't miss (it's just by the road and looks better in life than in the pictures but do Google it). There are other birds to see as well, plenty of rabbits, a Stevenson lighthouse (where I think I was taken as a child to see the lamp when it was still manned) but the big thing for me is the view.

If you look north you can see Shetland spreading out in front of you looking surprisingly like it does on the map. The only other time I've had that sensation is flying over Bordeaux and seeing the Gironde below me - familiar but new at the same time. Look south and there's a lot of sea and sky (a lot), on a clear day there's Fair isle on the horizon and that's about it which is incredibly invigorating. Turn away from the miles and miles of bugger all ocean and it's back to contemplating the airport and a few yards beyond the runway some serious archaeology. After Leicester I prefer the sea and all that space, Leicester doesn't lack good archaeology and we do okay for industrial buildings too, but it's not easy to get a lot of sky or horizon in your view.

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