The Restaurants at the End of The Universe, Part 2

Corrour nameboardWondering where Part 1 is? It’s over on my personal blog.

It was Wednesday afternoon, and Ian and I were on the train to Corrour. This is one of those stations. When trainspotters gather, they speak of Corrour in hushed tones. In lists of superlatives, Corrour features heavily: the highest, the most remote, and so on…

Corrour was opened with the line in 1894, giving access to the Corrour Estate. The landed gentry would arrive for fun-packed holidays of deer stalking and grouse shooting – to this day, the Caledonian Sleeper makes special provision for people travelling with firearms.

More recently, it has become a popular station with walkers, who start and end their long rambles in the countryside here. In the 1990s it became famous for another reason. In Danny Boyle’s seminal film Trainspotting, the station was the starting point for the junkie protagonists’ day out in the country.

Disclaimer: I am not a heroin addict, and I’m fairly sure Ian isn’t either. I have also never seen Trainspotting, although visiting the station has persuaded me to finally watch it. The DVD hasn’t arrived from Amazon yet, but I have a feeling I will be impatiently sitting through grimy misery, waiting for the 60 seconds of railway footage. Sorry, Danny Boyle – good job on the Olympics thing, though.

On the train ride (and for a couple of days before, on and off) Ian and I had discussed how to pronounce the name. Michael Portillo (yes, him again) pronounced it “Cor-OOR” (to rhyme with “poor”) on his Smarmy Man Rides Trains (sorry, Great British Railway Journeys) programme, but that didn’t sound quite right to my ears. The argument was finally settled by ScotRail’s automatic announcer: the second syllable is pronounced to rhyme with “hour”. So there.

Corrour has a short platform, so only one door of the train was opened. A few others got off and quickly went off their own separate ways. The train waited for a straggler to dash over the barrow crossing and hop aboard, before continuing on its way, leaving us utterly alone.

Corrour Station

Corrour has no public road access, just a private track leading to the station. If you want to reach the station, you either use one of the eight trains a day that stop here, or walk. Apart from the station house (of which more in a moment) the only building anywhere nearby is Loch Ossian Hostel, a 15 minute walk away. Apart from that, you are very much on your own.

Corrour Onward Travel

A poster gave details of the limited onward travel options. I didn’t get a photo of it, but there was also a poster suggesting that passengers use ScotRail’s mobile phone app to check train times. Yeah, good luck doing that here.

Corrour Tracks

The remoteness of the location is emphasised by an incident which took place last year, a couple of miles down the line. A freight train hit a boulder and derailed, sending the locomotive tumbling down the embankment near Loch Trieg. Removing the loco would need specialist lifting equipment, but with no way for it to reach the derailment site, the engine is still there, slowly being cut up. Until it is finally gone, however, it has become another tourist attraction, as the passenger trains slow down to allow us all to have a good rubberneck.

In every direction, all that was visible was bleak, neverending scenery. At least Rannoch had a bus stop to provide some semblance of civilisation. Here, there was almost nothing. The signpost at the station exit gave some indication of the distance to civilisation – the nearest settlement (Spean Bridge) is 15 miles away.

Distance sign

An engineering works poster in the shelter informed intending passengers that the line would be closed on 9th and 10th November. “No alternative road transport is possible during this time,” it warned solemnly. No kidding.

Engineering Poster

At least the weather was fairly good on the day we visited. In the depths of winter, the station must surely be one of the most inhospitable places in the country. By way of example, here’s a video from YouTube, recorded during the particularly harsh winter of 2011:

Yes, we are in mountain territory here: at 408 metres above sea level, Corrour is the highest station on the National Rail network. A short distance away, Corrour Summit is the overall highest point on Network Rail metals. The location is suitably marked with a sign on both sides of the track, just to make sure no-one can miss it.

Corrour Summit

We walked back from the summit, taking care on the boggy ground. We passed walkers wearing enormous boots, carrying huge rucksacks. I had £20 Reebok trainers and a bright blue manbag with Space Invaders characters printed on it. I have to be honest, I felt like a bit of a tit.

I was even more worried about my camera, which was on its last legs, battery-wise. This was entirely my fault. Despite obsessively packing and repacking my bag (checking 11 or 12 times on the day of my departure that I had everything) I managed to completely forget my camera charger. Two solid days of snapping pictures had drained the battery, and sure enough, immediately after Ian took the sign photo, it died. For the rest of the trip, I had to rely on my iPhone camera.

Robert at Corrour

I am dubious about that CCTV warning sign.

We had a couple of hours to kill before our train back to Fort William. Fortunately, Corrour has an excellent place to spend time – the Corrour Station House Restaurant.

Corrour Station House

The former station buildings here, like many of the stations on this line, have been taken over by private occupiers. Corrour’s has seen various uses over the years, but the current owners have turned it into a restaurant, and it is wonderful.

The restaurant is owned and run by a young couple, and one half of the pair (from the web site, I think her name is Lizzie) greeted us warmly at the door. “Did you enjoy your walk?” she asked. We had to sheepishly explain that we had come in by train. I skipped over the part where we had wandered around the station for half an hour, taking pictures like big nerds.

We could have sat at the bar for a while, but instead we opted to sit straight down at our table. The interior is wonderfully decorated, with a real wood-burning stove providing some welcome warmth.

Corrour Restaurant InteriorCorrour Restaurant Interior

The restaurant prides itself on using locally sourced ingredients. Ian and I both had the wild mushroom soup to start. It was absolutely delicious, served with a generous amount of crusty bread.

To drink, I sampled the local beer: Nessie’s Monster Mash, from the Cairngorm Brewery, while Ian enjoyed a Fentiman’s Cola.

Nessie's Monster Mash

Then, the main course. Every option on the menu looked mouthwatering, but my eye was drawn to the Ballotine of chicken breast, Macsween haggis and Argyllshire bacon.

Yes, haggis, that famous concoction of minced sheep’s guts, oatmeal and spices. I had been pondering the famous Scots dish for my entire trip. I’d had the chance to sample it several times. It had been on the menu of the Caledonian Sleeper lounge car. On Tuesday evening in Fort William, the Indian Restaurant we found ourselves in was offering curried haggis. However, on each occasion I had backed away from ordering it.

Now, however, my curiosity had finally gotten the better of me. In any event, my luxurious surroundings had emboldened me. If I hated it, I could still eat the rest of the meat. I went for broke and ordered it.

Had I done the right thing? The dish arrived and I paused for a moment.

Robert considers his food

A tentative mouthful…

Mmm!

I think Scottish people have deliberately tried to keep haggis a secret. That’s understandable – it’s delicious! Obviously they don’t want the rest of the world to know how good it is, so they can have it all to themselves. Well, sorry Scotland, the cat is out of the bag – or, to be more accurate, the sheep’s pluck is out of the sausage casing.

At this point, I have to apologise to Ian. He had already watched me eat a venison burger earlier that day. Now he was watching me consume three different animals in one go. No wonder he felt like a #veggieundersiege. In my defence… it was very tasty. Om nom nom, and all that.

Lizzie came back to see if we were enjoying our meal, to which the answer was a definite yes. She chatted to us a bit, asking about our holiday and talking about the station’s Trainspotting connection. I felt completely at home.

Our meal was interrupted briefly by a dog wandering around looking for attention. Normally, I would have started drafting a letter to the environmental health officers there and then. Here however, it just added to the charm. I went for a tentative pat on the head.

Dessert was a Semi-freddo of whisky cream, raspberries, heather honey and Highland oatmeal. I will admit that the term “semi-freddo” confused me. Luckily we were able to use the restaurant’s wi-fi (OF COURSE it had wi-fi) to look up that it is a type of frozen dessert. Nothing to do with cheap Cadbury chocolate bars. Like everything else, it was lovely.

Outside, it was now dark. A brief flash of lights came as the sleeper train rattled past outside. It didn’t stop, but will do so on request (in fact, when Ian and I rode the sleeper on Monday, a large party of noisy students alighted here). That means that Corrour – bleak, lonely, isolated Corrour, has a direct connection to England’s capital.

The sleeper train was also the cue for us to settle our bill and prepare to leave, as our own train back to Fort William would be arriving in about 15 minutes’ time. We reluctantly bade farewell to the cosy restaurant and made our way out into the cool night air to catch our train.

I cannot praise the restaurant highly enough. Its location alone makes it an interesting novelty, but the owners have taken it a step further and made it into something truly special – an oasis of home comforts in a remote part of the Highlands. For the first (and probably only) time in my life, I felt compelled to write a review on TripAdvisor.

Here came the fun part: it was now very dark outside, and the lights at the station had completely failed. There is no mains electricity here, so the lights are powered by a wind turbine. For whatever reason, this hadn’t charged up the batteries, so we had to stumble to the platform in near total darkness, with only Ian’s mobile phone to light the way.

We saw the train a long way off; its headlamp growing from a tiny point of light to a welcome beacon in the night. Ian was worried that the driver wouldn’t be able to see the station in the dark and the train wouldn’t stop. I had more faith in Scotrail’s drivers, however, and in any event I wouldn’t have been too disappointed if we’d had to spend the night in one of the restaurant’s luxury rooms.

There was no need for alarm; the train stopped in exactly the right place. One brave soul got off. He had a helmet with a light on. Now why didn’t we think of that?

Ian, by his own admission, “had a touch of the dooms” over this incident. The unfortunate train conductor had to listen to his complaint, and as soon as we got a 3G signal back, an indignant tweet was sent to ScotRail.

I was more amused than anything else, although I was slightly annoyed that I didn’t get my planned atmospheric shot of the station lit up in the darkness. That minor hiccup aside, it was, overall, a fabulous experience – a great day of eating meals in the middle of nowhere.

Now, I just need to convince the Corrour Station House team to open a second branch in Liverpool.

Choose ScotRail. Choose Corrour. Choose Haggis. Choose a Semi-Freddo. Choose to end your blog post with a painfully clichéd parody of the Trainspotting trailer. Choose life.

Ian and Robert at Corrour

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