Without doubt, this is the best title I have ever had on my blog.
When I read it on the application form for my grant, I knew I had to support it.
In fact, it’s such a good title that I don’t think I really need to offer any more explanation (even if I were able to). I’ll just hand over to Kate to tell her story…
The Next Challenge Grant
Kate’s trip was supported by The Next Challenge Grant, an annual bursary for aspiring adventurers.
It’s funded by me – Tim Moss – several other adventurers and crowdfunded public donations.
Since 2015 it has supported 40 different expeditions with awards from £50 to £800.
A One Woman Opera in a Lighthouse
by Kate Symonds-Joy
Huddling in my sleeping bag by a peat fire in a totally deserted sail loft, whilst whittling a spoon, listening to an album of my friend Tom singing sea shanties, resting my tired thighs, drying my soggy kit and contemplating the evening’s curry pot noodle, I think I was perhaps the happiest I’ve ever been.
My phone didn’t hold a bar’s worth of signal and I had finished the one book I’d had space for in my bike paniers. After days and days on the road, in total isolation, the pace of my thinking had slowed down to an incredible clarity and I felt more able than ever to take in the subtleties of the emerging sunset and the lap of fishing boats outside. I was definitely indulging in all the cliches of a tough personal solo adventure, but without caring at all – this place was glorious.
The idea I concocted for my Next Challenge was a solo cycle adventure up to The Shetland Islands’ remote Muckle Flugga Lighthouse at the very top of the inhabited UK, to sing Judith Weir’s King Harald’s Saga, a one-woman unaccompanied opera about the Vikings.
The idea was that I would use the long journey from Hertfordshire to learn the piece (mostly sat on deserted beaches, unable to sleep in ferry lounges and huddling from the rain in bus shelters learning complicated intervals, armed with a tiny mobile phone keyboard or when my phone had died, a fistful of tuning forks). Then I’d perform the opera in the Shetland lighthouse looking out over the sea, and record the results, thanks to Tony the wonderful artist who lives alone up there.
My idea started off as another of my whimsical imaginings, but as I turned left out of the Lerwick ferry terminal onto King Harald’s Street towards the Viking Museum, the first of my Shetlands road directions, I realised the extent of how relevant the project was to the place I was eventually heading. I also stumbled upon a rebuilt Viking ship at the side of my cycle route north through Unst (getting an unsuspecting couple to video me reciting sections of the Saga on deck) and astonished a crowd in the local vintage tearoom at the eponymous Haraldswick by breaking full voice into the opera’s monologue of King Harald just outside.
Listening to the gentle lap of the waves as I sat on the beach memorising a section of the Epilogue, I was looking out exactly in the direction of Norway from which the Vikings would have arrived on these shores. It was such a wonderful experience to feel this place totally soaked in the drama I was trying to communicate.
On a more practical level, the cycling allowed me time for reflection and to memorise the piece. I particularly enjoyed the undulation of the Shetland landscape where you can often see the sea on both sides. I regularly found myself whizzing down a hill trying to memorise a section, endlessly reciting a tricky passage of words.
Until this trip, I really hadn’t done any cycling. Of course I had to train in the lead up to it, doing short one and two-day trips through Hertfordshire and Suffolk and lots of sitting on my exercise bike in the back garden. Strangely the thing I found was that it wasn’t the physical strain that was difficult (after all, I could go absolutely at my own pace and didn’t have to keep up with anyone) but the mental challenge of being totally alone with no one to chivvy you along.
My mum definitely had a mild heart attack when I, novice cyclist, somehow went out of total signal range for about three days. I also had to concoct an overly chipper smile to convince everyone I was OK, as lorries overtake you going up steep hills on remote roads and always look like they are just about to stop and offer you help/pity… But one of the great joys of travelling as a lone woman is that it really brings out the kindness of people. Stopped at the most northerly shop on Unst, struggling with a slightly flat tyre just in the last stretch, a smiling local Shetlander came out with a cup of coffee and the offer of a puncture repair kit…
The physical challenge of cycling was made bearable by the fact that I can apparently pack incredibly, perhaps worryingly, lightly. I wore a bobble hat the entire time that ended up almost matted to my head and enjoyed the simplicity of the choice between my wash-one-wear-one padded cycling shorts. I whittled a spoon, always judging activities on the time-to-weight-in-luggage ratio. And while I did encounter lots of rain, sideways wind and midges, there were also steak pies and the promise of an unmarked door in a really small handful of houses which a local, Clive, helped me discover was actually a bakery that would sell me fluffy pancakes straight from the oven.
Having already known much of Scotland’s romance, I returned totally in love with the Shetlands. There were rewards at every turn. Killing time in Aberdeen library I found myself in a sea of 90 year old men, seemingly some kind of aged speed dating event.
En route, I stopped by Bobby’s Bus Shelter, which is given a themed makeover each year, this season being that of gardening – complete with a wardrobe of floral cardigans to try on and sit in. Arriving at deserted Norwick beach by bike, it felt special that I had earned the privilege of seeing these places by cycling there.
The final turn as the shore station came into view brought some welcome sunshine. Then there was the final two hour walk to the lighthouse as the Herma Ness head is inaccessible apart from by foot. It is honestly one of the most beautiful places in the world.
Tony showed me a private cove in which to swim before my singing. I had to compete with the rain hurtling on the roof whilst recording, but I feel it was a super achievement to learn this piece that I’ve wanted to sing for such a long time. I’m in conversation with a few artistic organisations about whether I can return and do a series of live performances in the Viking longhouses and tiny bus shelters that are scattered through the Shetlands.
Thank you to all the supporters of the Next Challenge Grant, not only for the financial grant, but more importantly for spurring me on to get off my backside and do what I had been dreaming about.
Post-script: After returning from her trip, Kate’s laptop failed leaving her audio recording irrecoverably lost. Should she return to the Shetlands and attempt the performance again then I will share it on my blog. Tim.
The Next Challenge Grant
Kate won a £200 award from The Next Challenge Grant.
The money came from me, other adventurers and members of the public.
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