If you haven’t already, you may want to read my account of the Caledonian Sleeper over on my main blog, which marks the start of my Scottish trip.
Scotland, I think I’m in love with you. It was Tuesday morning, and I was enjoying the first of three days exploring the Highlands in the company of my friend Ian. We had arrived in Fort William a few hours earlier on the Caledonian Sleeper. After the overnight journey from London, any other journey seems rather ordinary, but as the ScotRail Super Sprinter chugged its way south – back the way we had come earlier that morning – I really couldn’t have been happier.
The railways came late to this part of Britain. It wasn’t until 1894 that fearless navvies completed a route through some of the most rugged and remote terrain in the country. Despite the best efforts of Beeching, over a century later there is still a substantial network of routes criss-crossing the Highlands. The West Highland Line, linking Glasgow, Fort William and Mallaig, regularly features on lists of the greatest train journeys in the world, and it’s not hard to see why. The scenery is truly spectacular. The line twists and turns, following the contours of the landscape as well as it can. In places the train hugs the side of cliff faces on narrow ledges, in other parts it traces a curve round the shores of lochs. Sometimes, where the engineers could find no other alternative, you find yourself flying across valleys on majestic viaducts.
Every station on this route deserves to be visited for this blog, and one day I will come back and do just that. For now though, I had to make do with Rannoch, an isolated station located in the heart of the moor from which it takes its name.
We had been lured to the station by the promise of a tea room. Unfortunately, we were out of luck. A sign in the window stated that it was only open until 12.30pm – in other words, missing all but three of the eight trains that call at the station. Our train conveniently arrived 11 minutes after the tea room closed for the day. Brilliant.
Fortunately there was enough elsewhere to keep us entertained. At the end of the platform is this sculpture of the line’s promoter, James H Renton, director of the North British Railway Company. That’s a curious name to use, isn’t it – “North Britain”? If you referred to Scotland by that name today, you would surely be pelted with haggis and get a caber shoved where the sun doesn’t shine.
The waiting room offered a series of displays explaining the history of the line and the area, all introduced by a cartoon character called Doug Moor, who (to my eyes at least) looked slightly scary. “A Unique and Special Place,” read the information board. They’re not wrong about that.
One particular display explained how the line’s mechanical signalling system had been swept away in the 1980s by Radio Electronic Token Block signalling. Effectively, all train movements on this lines are now controlled by radio from a signalling centre in Banavie, doing away with the need for manual signal boxes – a massive cost saving on this rural line.
Rannoch is a passing point so did have a signal box – it’s still here, lovingly preserved with its original levers available to inspect up close. Ian had a go at being a signalman. Here he is on the pull.
With several hours until our return train was due, we left the station in search of other delights. There is a National Rail sign in the car park, but it doesn’t have the station name on it, so I settled for the giant “Welcome to Rannoch” board nearby.
Adjacent to the station is the Moor of Rannoch Hotel, originally built to house the line’s construction workers, now a luxury place offering the chance to, literally, get away from it all. Michael Portillo stayed here on one of his Great British Railway Journeys jaunts, although this fact didn’t seem to impress Ian that much when I told him. I can enjoy Great British Railway Journeys in spite of Portillo, although I’m aware that for many other people the mere sight of his face can put them off their dinner.
The thought occurred to me that it would be nice to stay at this hotel for a night or two, but I subsequently discovered that it doesn’t have Wi-Fi, which is a dealbreaker for me. What’s the point of isolation if you can’t Tweet about it?
Beyond the station, a footpath led off, over a level crossing and into the open countryside. Ian, approaching Boy Scout levels of preparedness, had splurged on a load of Ordnance Survey maps, and had identified that the path led to Loch Laidon. It seemed a good place to while away an hour or so, so we set off. We had left Fort William in the drizzle, but now the clouds had dispersed and the sun was breaking through. The temperature increased to the point where I had to take off my jumper. Mother Nature seemed determined to make the most of this last gasp of summer. Birds chirped, and dragonflies flitted past us as we walked.
We veered off the main path onto a more grassy path, and found ourselves on a beautiful, unspoilt beach. We had company – an older man walking his dog, and a young couple for whom this seemed to be a secret hideaway. If they were local, I envied them, being able to enjoy this scenery day in, day out.
Before boarding our train in Fort William, Ian and I had gone to the supermarket to pick up some lunch. Unfortunately for Ian, who is a vegetarian, the Fort William branch of Tesco was undergoing a refit. Half the shelves were bereft of items, and the vegetarian sandwich options were meagre, consisting of Ploughman’s Lunch and… that was it. Despite this, our impromptu picnic in the sunshine was rather nice.
I then turned my attention to the loch itself. The water was crystal clear and I wanted to sample it. I subsequently discovered that Loch Laidon is a recommended spot for wild swimming and skinny dipping, although I limited myself to removing my shoes and socks and rolling my jeans up for a paddle. This may or may not come as a relief to my regular readers.
Eagle-eyed readers will note that this is the second time I have got my feet out on this blog, following my visit to Sandown earlier this year. This wasn’t deliberately planned on my part (and I definitely won’t be doing it when I get around to visiting Tees-side Airport) but I like the connection.
Down by the loch, sheltered from the wind by the nearby trees, it really did get quite warm. I wanted to appreciate the sunshine (and dry my feet off), so I fashioned my manbag into a pillow and allowed myself to lie back and soak up the rays. I did this for five minutes, which is the longest anyone with red hair and freckles ever dares to – at least, not without SPF 50 (and, ideally a full beekeeper’s outfit).
Ian didn’t seem to appreciate the sunshine as much. He was, in his words, “wrapped up like a maiden aunt”.
I would have liked to stay a bit longer and perhaps walk a bit further along the shore, but time was ticking away and we needed to return to the station. Missing a train – with the next one up to four hours away – was not a good idea.
We retraced our steps, passing a few other walkers on the way. Each and every one of them smiled and said hello to us. I love that sense of community that hikers and ramblers have – the unspoken understanding of the nature of the hobby: walking from one place to another for no reason other than the sheer enjoyment of it.
A butterfly fluttered past us and settled on some long grass, unperturbed by our presence. It stretched its wings out, seemingly basking in the sunshine as I had done a little earlier.
I was completely enchanted by the place by the time I returned to the station. Isolated, lonely, but stunningly beautiful – I loved it, even though I found myself shaking sand out of various places for the next two days.
As the train left, I already found myself longing for a return visit. Maybe the lack of Wi-Fi at that hotel wouldn’t be such a bad thing after all…