1999 - Fort William, Oban and Mull
The 1999 escape plan targeted the West Highlands, on the basis that it was three years since the last visit, and the region would have had time to nearly recover. Five members set out in mid-June, a sixth having withdrawn on the basis that life was one long holiday, and he needed some time just to live and do his laundry, like the rest of us more ordinary folk.
The first excitement was an unscheduled stop at the Springburn triangle, just north of Glasgow, when the locomotive abandoned its coaches and vanished into the dawn sunshine. As a peaceful hush descended, and remained, we started to wonder if we were being set up for a repeat of the surrender of France to Mr Hitler. Fortunately after half an hour the loco returned from the other direction, connected to our rear end and set off again northwards.
Apparently the Edinburgh carriage shuffle had succeeded in detaching not only the coaches for Fort William but also the jumper cables on the assigned locomotive, effectively depriving us of all electrical power. Not even coffee for breakfast, let alone eggs and bacon.
The railway authorities' first thought was to abandon the sleeper cars and decant the now-awake and very irritable occupants into the day coaches put on at Waverley. Fortunately they had a second thought to turn first the train and then the locomotive round at Springburn and use the jumpers at its front end. As a result we had our full quota of sleep, but arrived in Fort William just in time to miss the Jacobite steam special to Mallaig.
The station manager generously provided taxis for us to chase the train to its scheduled stop at Glenfinnan Viaduct, whilst leaving us in no doubt that he considered the Special's organisers should be responsible for such largesse.
We thought it better not to remind him that it was probably a Scotrail employee who had sheared off the loco cables in a frenzy of efficiency in the early hours. Scotrail would however no doubt blame EWS, the locomotive operator, for having used cheap bolts to hold the jumpers on in the first place, and anyway didn't the coaches belong to Virgin and run on Railtrack's rails?
The journey to Mallaig behind a steam locomotive (a big green LNER B1) was a highlight of the trip, with the sights, sounds and smells all one might expect from steam travel in its heyday. At Mallaig there was time for lunch at a hotel and a quick look round the harbour before the return trip, with the loco running tender-first. This time we were in the first compartment of the leading coach, only feet away from the B1's chimney, so it was atmospheric in more ways than one, particularly in the many tunnels and cuttings.
Back in Fort William we took the opportunity to research the availability and price of certain single malts. Regrettably there were those who were unable to resist impulse purchases, despite being of an age when they might be expected to know better. By late afternoon we were back on the train, bound this time for Oban.
This required either a change of train at Crianlarich or a change of both train and station at Tyndrum. We opted for the latter, as a village of such size with two stations must surely be worth a visit. The two are separated by a fairly steep hillside, fortunately from Upper Tyndrum to Tyndrum Lower the way we were going. Nevertheless, complaints of excessive exertion from one member of our 1996 expedition (the permanent holidaymaker) has caused the phrase ‘a Tyndrum mile’ to pass into club folklore.
Fortunately a hotel at the base of the descent allowed an opportunity for recuperation before the final stage of the day's journey. Tyndrum Lower is little more than a halt next to some caravan homes, but it does hold the record of being the furthest point north to display a poster advertising the Southport exhibition, both in 1996 and again in 1999. Such fame does not seemed to have changed it much.
After 30 or so miles of fine scenery, we arrived at Mrs Campbell's B&B for a well-earned rest. She remembered us from the last time, especially the incident with her husband and the bottle of whisky. The club chairman claimed the right to the single room, on the basis that keeping a certain distance from the troops was essential to maintain discipline, even on holiday.
Next morning after a large and leisurely breakfast we wandered down to the harbour to book passage on the ferry to Mull. We discovered a joint ticket was available, consisting of ferry trip, admissions to Duart Castle and Torosay House, a ride on the Isle of Mull railway and coach travel in-between.
The ferry was punctual and well-organised - at four or five crossings a day, you got the feeling that they had done it all before. The crossing was short (40 minutes), smooth and scenic, and we soon disembarked at Craignure jetty, having shaken off a squadron of naval patrol boats on cadet-training exercises.
The coach waiting for us was not the most modern, but had a certain period charm about it. The same could be said of the driver, who delivered a continuous running commentary with one hand grasping a giant-sized microphone and the other rotating, with a dexterity that belied his years, an equally over-scale steering wheel.
The first stop was Duart Castle, a small but beautifully-formed edifice overlooking the Sound of Mull, the 13-Century home of the chief of the Macleans. Among the more imaginative exhibits was a very realistic dungeon, complete with life-like, groaning models of prisoners from a Spanish galleon that long ago failed its seaworthiness test in spectacular fashion off Tobermory (the town, not the womble).
The clan Maclean had obviously been advised of our visit, as they had laid on entertainment, in the form of a squad of REME engineers trying to excavate their excavator. This had managed to get water up its exhaust pipe whilst dredging a nearby jetty mooring, unfortunately at low tide. The amount of heavy-lift hardware being applied to the task was impressive, as no doubt was the bill landing on the desk of some apoplectic colonel in Inverness or similar. The invoice for separating the vehicle from two day's worth of salt-water corrosion would be even larger.
A ten-minute journey along windy single-track-with-passing-places roads brought us to Torosay. This was more of a gentleman's residence than the castle on the foreshore, with furnishings that a true Maclean would no doubt despise as being far to soft and un-Highland like. They probably also put sugar on their porridge instead of salt.
The gardens were spacious and attractive, although one of our number, who back home is the Mr Big of the begonia world, was heard to mutter that it was all lawns, with totally inadequate thought given to the vital matter of perennials. He did however permit himself to be included in the team photo. This was taken after really only a short delay whilst we worked out how to operate the self-timers on the selected cameras.
Whilst recovering from this mental exertion we were engaged in conversation by a certain elderly gentleman, towing a small dog and looking sufficiently impoverished and down-at-heel to be the owner. He denied the charge, but his knowledge of the house's history meant he had to be at least a close relative.
Hidden away in the extensive grounds were a couple of retail outlets, one a small home-made jewellery shop and one a slightly larger weaver's. The latter was run rather incongruously by a Yorkshire couple of broad and distinctly un-Celtic accent. Both enterprises were carefully pointed out to us by our coach driver on the approach run, and who then pressed into each of our eager hands a newly-minted discount voucher for our personal use. It was somehow comforting to see that raw capitalism had not completely passed by this remote corner of the Scottish shires.
Onward then to the steam railway, a 2-mile 10-1/4" gauge line from Torosay back to Craignure, through woodland and along the open shoreline. Halfway along the driver of the smart royal blue Sheffield-built locomotive stopped in a loop, not to let another train pass but to collect the tickets, as if we were less likely to abscond in the middle of nowhere than at either terminus.
The Craignure end had a small station, with souvenir shop, engine shed and turntable, and a great view of the West Highland coastline. A short walk around the bay brought us back to the jetty, where with impeccable timing and only a moderate impact the ferry sailed in to collect us and the couple of hundred tourists and locals gathered there.
Morning came with Mrs C. wondering if everyone was all right, as she had been awakened at approx. 0430 hours by a large crash from the general direction of the bathroom. We blamed it on the oldest member of our company, who conveniently could not recall anything after midnight. Just another incident to remember us by. A gentle start to the day was clearly called for, although for some reason this again involved strong spirits, this time in the form of a tour of Oban distillery, followed by more sampling and more purchasing.
By lunchtime we were on our way back to Glasgow and the deep south (Lancashire), already scheming a bigger and better escape for the millennium year. Plenty of time for such plans you might think, but the more domesticated reader will know the importance of preparing the ground early, to avoid that sudden request for a tourist visa which results in stony looks from one's spouse and far too much having to be given away in hurried negotiations. The talk was of more buses and of visits to Skye and Iona, on a four-day excursion this time, making full use of a well-integrated public transport network. The deputy PM would surely approve.