Its northerly position makes Unst militarily important: RAF Skaw was established during the war to monitor (potentially hostile) shipping traffic; and RAF Saxa Vord joined it and continued after the war as a radar tracking station, part of the cold war effort.
And cold it must have been. The tracking station itself is the top of the highest hill on the island; it is the site of the highest recorded wind speed in the UK – 197 mph. At which point the equipment was blown away. So it might have been even stronger. (Two people died in Hermaness in the storm when the hut in which they were sheltering was blown away.)
The radome apparently blew away with some frequency, turning up in different places down the hill. The station is now unmanned, the last personnel leaving in 2006. (Though many didn’t leave, staying on as civilians.) The hill on which the radome stands is called Saxa Vord, as is the base which housed the personnel, which is basically in Haroldswick. The staff quarters were sold off (several being bought the ex RAF people, apparently) and the offices have been turned into a business park and “resort” (with bar and restaurant! Which opened the weekend I left!). You go in through the medical wing; there is a good cafe (though serving Nescafe!) where they make good chocolates, and an interesting display of the history of the base. There is a brewery next door, too – called Valhalla. One for all you Wagner fans. “Britain’s most northerly…” etc. (Also, I would guess, Britain’s most remote!) I enjoyed several of their beers during my stay…
The thing about the military is that they have infrastructure. And lorries. Which need roads. The main road on Unst is a decent width double-track, probably because of the lorries. And the road up the hill is still in pristine condition, presumably because the RAF patch it up.
And so I walked to the end of the road.
The north end of every British road, that is. Marginally further north than the road at Skaw. (No more “most northerly” after this, I think. Though I won’t promise.)
The sign at the bottom of the road clearly states “No Entry”, but everyone seemed to ignore that: despite only going up the hill, it was surprisingly busy. I saw three vehicles in two hours.
There were great views of Muckle Flugga, Burra Firth (the stretch of water) and Hermaness. There were scores of bonxies, and larks singing above me as I climbed.
The hill is covered in peat, and piles of freshly cut peat lay beside the road.
The entrance to the radar station itself is secured, and I had no wish to set of any alarms (it being a very large observation post, it was hard to imagine that I wasn’t being watched – albeit remotely); and beside the road went past the main station down to a remote weather station near the edge of the cliffs. I followed the cliff top around to the Noup and above Brei Wick before heading back.
Another great walk, with great views.
But still no puffins.