Simmer Dim Rally
21st Simmer Dim Rally - Shetland, 12th-15th June 2003
BACKGROUND: In Shetland, around the Summer Solstice, (21st June), it doesn't get dark at night. 'Simmer Dim' is the name given to the twilight that occurs instead of darkness. There is a festival throughout the islands on the nearest weekend to the Solstice. The rally has been held over this weekend since 1982 (excluding 2001 - foot & mouth), but this year it was held a week before the festival. The organisers did not say why.
I remember, in 1982, our rally sec reading us the advert from one of the Motorcycle papers; "How do you fancy a rally in the Shetland Isles?" After we stopped throwing things at him, we considered it and three of us agreed with him that it would be a damn good idea!
We applied, as did loads of others from all over Britain, Ireland and abroad. I am told Steve Henry (the first rally secretary) got many phone calls and letters with wonderful questions like; "Is there a bridge - do we have to take the ferry?", "Is Shetland really not located in a box in the Moray Firth?" and similar things. There was then, as now, a limit of 200 people, due to fire regulations at the village hall we use. The tickets have usually sold out by April.
The first year the rally ticket cost £20; this year the ticket cost was £60, which still includes badge, food and drink. In the 1980s 'normal' mainland rallies cost around £4, compared with £10 today.
P&O Scottish Ferries gave a 50% discount on passengers and bikes, until they lost the franchise in 2002. This was a great help and continues with Northlink Ferries at 30%. If ended, it would probably kill the rally. Even with the discount, this year's crossing cost over £60 (bike and rider - pillions extra), compared with £40 in the early days.
Anyway, the rally got going and only three mainlanders have attended all rallies to date, (I managed the first fifteen). - I think this is the same number as the full attending locals.
Every year, on the Saturday, the 'Jarl Squad' turns up for the festivities (or maybe it's the free beer?). They are the main squad, dressed in Viking costumes, which lead the winter 'Up Helly Aa' (fire festival).
What keeps us going? The locals - genuinely friendly, warm and generous; the lack of bar licence; the scenery; the music; and the meeting of many friends.
The Shetland Ferry leaves Aberdeen on the Wednesday evening. I decided to do Aberdeen (from West London) in three stages as this arrangement had worked well for me in the past. So it was that I left home very early on Monday 9th June, 7am to be precise, to miss the Monday rush hour on the motorways. There was obviously still some traffic about even at that early hour, but nothing that I couldn't filter through at a respectable speed. I was amazed to see the number of bikes heading south, until I realised that TT week had just finished and people were probably heading home.
The miles were disappearing quite nicely and about 11:30 I pulled into Burton services - 260 miles from home. Soon after that fill-up, the A590 turn-off came into view and I shot off into the Lake District. As I neared Ambleside, I started to recognise the roads, even though the last time I was here was 10-15 years ago! I hardly needed to refer to my route notes, even managing to find the back roads that lead to the Low Wray campsite, my old club's favourite.
I arrived there around 12:30 with more than enough of the day left to go sightseeing and, after putting my tent up, went off 'hill-hopping'. Not too far away are my favourite roads - Blea Tarn Pass, Wrynose Pass and - the big one - Hardknott Pass. If you like 1-in-3 (30%) hills, with hairpins up and down, you should try them some time. Off the edge of the roads, it is almost vertical, with very jagged looking rocks all the way down. There are stretches with no fences, walls, hedges, or any other form of barrier in evidence - where the tarmac ends, the drop starts. Unfortunately, the rotary-powered Norton proved it was not as fond of the hills as my BMWs had been. There was a definite burning clutch smell up one stretch, but it DID make it. As I had turned off the motorway before Shap Summit, I missed the chance of being 'buzzed' by RAF jets, as was often the case. This was partly made up for over the hills as several planes made sorties in the sky only just above ground level while I was roaming around. I went back to the campsite 50 miles later, with a large grin on my face.
It seemed to rain quite a lot overnight, it was still coming down when I woke up, but it stopped after a while and the flysheet dried out enough for me to pack it. Then the bike decided not to start.
Possibly this was due to the overnight rain, but I suspect the strain of the hills may have had something to do with it, as spraying it with WD40 had little effect. Eventually the motor caught and stalled a couple of times, before running - unevenly, but enough to get the bike moving towards the exit. After paying for the night, I lurched onto the road and headed into town, where the petrol is 6p a litre cheaper than the motorway, then up to the Kirkstone Pass (A592). This pass is not as bad as the others and the road up to it is only described as 'steep', (although it is nick-named 'The Struggle'). This road eventually connects with the A66, which leads back to the M6.
The sky overhead was not nearly as bright as Monday - grey clouds were everywhere, but I didn't hit rain until the M74. Due to the clever positioning of the Norton's ignition coils, heavy rain causes one side of the engine to die, followed by the other side if it doesn't get any better.
It didn't get better.
There I was, more than 300 miles from home, about 200 miles still to go, at the side of a motorway, getting wet, (the bridge I stopped under only giving limited protection). As it is only water from below that gets onto the coils, the rain itself is not a problem and the heat from the engine soon dries the coils out. Eventually I got ignition and off I went for another few miles - hopefully I would get to the next services.
Stopped again, no bridges in sight this time. Liberal amounts of WD40 didn't help for a while, but one side eventually fired up and I managed to limp a few more miles into Abington Services. I took advantage of the facilities and let as much as possible of the engine dry out before I carried on. By the time I left, the rain had passed and I didn't see any the rest of the day. Heading Northeast towards Edinburgh on the A702, the bike seemed to be recovering and both sides of the engine ran fairly evenly most of the time, although this didn't improve the starting problems at garages. I managed to navigate Edinburgh's ring road, found the A90 and headed across the Forth Road Bridge. (Toll bridge - but free for bikes!) The A90/M90 route north is very smooth - having been built long enough ago to sort out any problems, but not long enough to need major repairs - and the miles disappeared rapidly. Several times on the road there are amazing views to be had, usually where it is most inconvenient to stop. For example, the point just before M90 turns back into A90 is over an incredibly high viaduct. If this had not been a motorway I would have stopped to take a few pictures. My last fuel stop of the day was at the Stracathro Services, 137 miles later - from where it was only 25 miles to go! I arrived at the Stonehaven campsite after only 20 minutes! I was the fifth Rallyist to arrive, and more joined us later. Naturally, we spent the evening at a pub in town.
Still suffering with starting difficulties, I got to Aberdeen Harbour and parked next to a couple of bikes already waiting, some of which had been in Stonehaven the night before. One, which hadn't, was another Norton Rotary (belonging to Stuart Tod, from Caithness.)
There were many difficulties with the ferry this year, mostly due to the fact that Northlink Ferries seemed to have no idea what they were doing (a phrase including 'organise' and 'brewery' comes to mind.) At first, one of the desk staff refused to sell tickets to rallyists, because that would mean 'their load calculations would all be wrong' and 'there would not be room for you all'. (Less than half of the rallyists order tickets in advance.) Once the late-booking procedures were explained to her, things were almost back to normal. By 'normal' I mean we relaxed in the pub across the road from the Harbour gates for several hours until it was time to get on board the nice, clean, nearly-new boat. In this time, the loading area was filling up with 200 or so bikes from all over the country. One guy was trying to organise us into groups according to whether the bike had a side stand or centre stand. I annoyed him when I pointed out several had both and he went off muttering to himself. The side-standers had to go to a lower deck and I never saw how they were secured, but the centre-standers were secured with a single strap to the deck. Once on the boat several things were discovered; we would have to pay nearly £5 if we wanted to watch one of the films on the overgrown TV in the 'cinema' room (free with P&O) and there were no showers unless you paid for a cabin, which would almost double the cost of the crossing (with P&O there were loads of free showers throughout the boat).
At least the boats had been designed with the North Sea in mind, so the crossing itself was smoother than we had been used to. It was also a couple of hours quicker - before, the ferry left earlier and arrived later, taking 14 hours - now it takes twelve, even with the engines producing less than half power! Amazingly, possibly due to the calm crossing, none of the bikes appeared damaged - I wonder what would happen in rough weather?
Days Four to Seven - The Rally
The road between the ferry terminal in Lerwick and the rally site in Vidlin is around 30 miles. This doesn't take us long, as the speed limits on the islands are, at best, suggestions, without much of a police presence to enforce them AND NO CAMERAS! But we do have to watch out for the occasional kamikaze sheep!
The Boot Party: Contestants have to take a drink from glasses, the size and shape of... boots! 10p fines are incurred for many things, the most common of which is 'spillage'. Also fined are: not being in your seat when the next boot arrives (taking a leak or throwing up); talking while holding the boot; holding the boot sideways ('skewboot'); not taking a big enough swig and being the last person to take a drink before somebody empties the boot. Throwing up in the boot costs about £3. At the start there can be as many as ten of these boots in the system, with organisers standing ready with buckets of beer to refill them. This tends to go on for a few hours, until all but one contestant have passed out.
After the boot party, the onlookers and survivors can sample the barbecue, which consists of chicken, lamb, what appear to be loft-insulation burgers and even some salmon steak. While we are enjoying this, the boot party victims are dragged away and the first band starts up in the marquee.
Around midnight, just as the mist starts rolling over the campsite, the marquee shuts down and the hall disco starts up. This goes on until... well, actually, I have never been there to the end, but it is certainly still going on at 3am.
Friday - Run-out day
For anybody that got up in time, there was a run to a 'site of local interest', which means there is a pub nearby. This year's run was to 'Mousa Broch', which is an Iron Age structure on one of the islands in the south. I visited there last year, so I didn't go this time around.
The bar opened just as the riders returned and soon afterwards the buffet meal was served in the hall. This was mainly salad-type items, along with leftovers from the barbecue.
Again, while we were eating, the bands started up in the marquee and went on until midnight, when the action moved back to the hall.
Saturday - Games day
I had never seen a four-way tug-of-war before - interesting, but you need a lot of room. I don't think they should have tried it in the beer tent, but people wouldn't leave while the bar was open.
I am still puzzled as to how someone managed to trip over my tent's guy rope during the evening, as it didn't get dark while we were there and they would have had to negotiate my bike to get to it. The flysheet was ripped, but I just regard it as one of those expenses you allow for on rallies. Luckily, it didn't rain that night.
Packing up is never my favourite part of a rally; this is usually harder here, as the wind is always present. Not only do we have to pack out own tents, but also the organisers like us to help them bring down the marquee. Not usually as difficult as putting it up, but equally time-consuming.
At least they put on a nice lunch before we leave - the tickets are no longer required - after which the trophies are handed out, then we make our way down to Lerwick. The harbour workers don't like us to arrive too early for the ferry, so most of us do a spot of last-minute sightseeing. Being a Sunday, few shops are open, just the supermarket and newsagents, so not much in the way of last-minute souvenirs is obtainable.
Day Eight - Returning Home
Getting off the boat in Aberdeen just after 7am, the bike was rather noisy - so much so, several people asked me what was wrong with it. I put it down to cumulative effects of the previous seven days. At least the starting problems were gone now and the bike continued running better as the day went on. The home run was, as usual, completely dry and rather sunny, which is good, as I had 560 miles ahead of me. I planned to use much the same route home as I did on the way up, but bypassing Stonehaven and Ambleside. Heading south on the A90/M90 was a pleasure - no engine troubles this time. Around Edinburgh I had a touch of misdirection due to the ever-changing road signs, but that was soon corrected and I managed to find the A702 to do the southwest kick, onto the M74/A74 and rapidly onto the top of the M6.
My third fuel stop was at Tebay Services, I wasn't hungry yet - it was only around noon - so I just had a cup of coffee. It must have been a bit stronger than I was expecting, because I was about to have a touch of 'caffeine rage'. I came up behind a group of cars in lane three. The one at the back refused to move over, despite the other two lanes being empty, no matter how much I flashed my headlight at him. Suddenly, I got a touch of the red mist and dropped down into lane one, where I wound it up to full power and kept it there, weaving between all lanes for several miles. As the rage subsided I slowed down a bit, shortly before one of those nice cars with the flashing blue lights came up behind me. There was no point in pretending I didn't know who he was after, so I pulled onto the hard shoulder as soon as I was able, switched off the bike and dismounted. We had a little chat in his car, where he revealed he clocked me at 106mph which could be classed as 'dangerous driving' (goodbye licence) or, at the very least, 'driving without due care & attention' (loadsa points) but, as I was being nice and polite, (the coffee had worn off by now) and had all my documents, he only reported me for 94mph, which I was doing when he caught up with me.
We parted company and I went - slowly - on my way, (well, nearer the limit anyway). It was boring as hell, and felt like hours to get to my next stop, Stafford. I was not having fun any more, just driving to get home, instead of enjoying the trip. One later incident did cheer me up, though. I was coasting along the M42, which connects the M6 to the M40, when I came up behind a rather familiar model of bike. It was another Norton Rotary! I tagged along for a while, before pulling up alongside him. It was a classic double-take. He glanced over to see why someone was matching his speed - then a complete stare as he clocked what bike it was! (A few weeks later I parked right next to the same rider - although he was on a different bike - at the 'Beaulieu Bike World' event!)
I stopped at Oxford services on the M40 for the last time - only 40 miles to go - and I was totally knackered. It had been a long, hot day - ten hours so far - and I was having trouble raising the enthusiasm to get back on the bike. I shuffled across the car park and climbed on board. Once the engine was running, though, I was wide-awake and eager to get home. After filling up, I managed the last leg in 30 minutes. As soon as I got home I unloaded the bike, (I knew if I waited a few minutes, I wouldn't want to get out there again) then had a nice long bath. Home - you can't beat it!
If you want some figures, I did a total of 1310 miles, using 165 litres of petrol - about 36mpg, at a cost of £130. Thinking about next year's Simmer Dim, will I do it again? It's lost the original sense of wonder and it's much harder work than it was 22 years ago - but, isn't everything?
- Phil (the Spill) Drackley