There’s a price to be paid for the over-indulgences of the festive season: those calories have a habit of hanging around long after the last of the mince pies are demolished.
Luckily, here in Orkney we have the perfect way to shake ourselves out of that mid-winter stupor.
A bracing coastal walk is guaranteed to blow away some cobwebs (and a calorie or two.) It can even restore our faith that spring may not be all that far around the corner.
The west coast of the Orkney mainland is rightly famed for its elegant headlands and dramatic seascapes, but the eastern coast can be equally rewarding, with a subtly different quality of light, land and seascape. From Mull Head in Deerness all the way down to Roseness in Holm you’ll find a varied coast, ranging from sandy bays to rugged cliffs, stacks and geos. But it’s early in the year, let’s ease ourselves in gently.
Park your vehicle at (or take the bus to) the car-park at Dingieshowe, the sandy isthmus that only just secures the parish of Deerness to the Mainland. The beach at Dingieshowe is one of our real gems – a particularly bracing spot in the wake of a south-easterly gale.
Once you’ve soaked in a bit of its atmosphere make your way east and along the slightly more bouldery beach of the neighbouring Taracliff Bay. For slightly easier going you may wish to keep to the top of the beach, where a vehicle track leads along the edge of the dunes. This narrows to a fairly well-defined, grassy footpath for a short distance, before dropping to the shore to avoid a section of eroded coast.
There’s ample compensation for the slight detour though, with the stripped soil exposing a huge shell midden – a reminder of Orkney’s human habitation stretching back through millennia.
A series of wooded platforms steps and ramps (slippery when wet) lead you quickly up to the clifftop. There is a bench halfway up - you may have only just started your walk, but it would seem rude not to sit a moment and take in the view back across the bay. See if you can spot the broch mound - from which Dingieshowe takes its name - at the far end of the beach.
Particular care should be taken along the following section. The narrow path runs tight between the fence and the rather brittle cliff edge. There are wooden barriers to keep you on-track at the narrowest sections, but you certainly wouldn’t want to lean against them!
After a short way there’s a distinct change in the ground beneath your feet; coastal heath replaces tussocky grass for a spell. The focal point for much of the walk now becomes the uninhabited island of Copinsay. The mile or so of water between that shallow hump of green and the Orkney mainland must at times have seemed like a vast ocean to the few inhabitants who once scraped a living from land and sea.
At the apex of the walk you come across Muckle Castle – a plug of volcanic rock which has been left to stand as the softer sandstones round about have been eroded by the waves. Keep your eyes peeled for a fine little sea arch around 20 metres before you reach the castle - though once again keeping well back from the cliff tops which are liable to frequent subsidence.
The beach around the castle looks inviting, but there is no easy – or safe – way down, so best admire the view from on high. The path deteriorates for a short section to come, and great care is needed at points. Things soon even out though, and after a short while you’ll pass the Peedie Castle – the rather more modest cousin of the larger outcrop. Then, before you know it, your route is complete. The Deerness slipway is a fine point to enjoy that well deserved hot flask – and perhaps even a slice of leftover Christmas cake – before taking a leisurely meander along the sands of Newark Bay.
From here you can either walk back to Dingieshowe along the public road or retrace your steps back along the coast (you’ll have entirely different vistas all the way.) Two vehicles would also be an option of course, but a good suggestions is to drop off a bike at the slipway in advance.
First foot, and back in the saddle – an appropriate start to the New Year.
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