2014 - Knoydart and Barra

When the SMRS sleeper trip first started back in 1995, no-one thought it might still be going strong twenty years later. But so it has proved, and just to show that it was not only alive but prospering, an ambitious itinerary was planned for 2014. Very much back to our old haunts in the Scottish highlands, combining some of the best places previously visited with one or two new ones. We also continued the policy of two years ago, when wives/girlfriends/significant others were encouraged to participate in the later stages.

It turned out to be one of the most enjoyable trips we have had, the only disappointment being that Tony had to pull out at short notice. Rather unfair considering the amount of work he had put in to sorting out the train routes, timings and tickets, for our maximum convenience and minimum price.

The bottle of Tobermory single malt was the least we could do by way of consolation, although I have to admit it was purchased from a Largs supermarket rather than from the distillery itself. Short of highjacking the Calmac ferry as it sailed round the east coast of Mull and directing it into Tobermory harbour, it was probably the best we could do.

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The first stage to London was somewhat unusual by being via Bradford, for the simple reason that we could, and that it would make a change from the West Coast main line. Four of us departed by bus from Southport to Preston, where we diverted for the inevitable visit to the local Wetherspoons for second breakfast. A Grand Central train took us to Bradford, where we changed for the train to Kings Cross. A short walk to Euston produced the first (and fortunately only) hospitality failure - no food at the Doric Arch! However Jim’s encyclopaedic knowledge of real-ale watering holes was up to the task, and an effective substitute was soon located, the Bree Louise in nearby Cobourg St. There Malcolm joined us in time for an evening meal before we returned to the station to board the sleeper.

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As we squeezed into the minimalist space in our cabins we reminded ourselves that soon all this would change, and over the next three or four years Serco would be spending a cool £100million (and not all of it from taxpayers) to upgrade the service. Ensuite facilities will certainly be welcome, also the brasserie-style club bar, whatever that is, but we will reserve judgement on the pod flatbeds.

However in the meantime the charm of the existing service was undiminished, and we availed ourselves of more hospitality in the lounge car as we progressed northwards.

As all experienced sleeper customers know, one of the crucial waypoints on the journey is the moment of waking up and peering around the window blind to establish a) if we are in the right section of the train after it split at Edinburgh, b) where precisely we are, c) whether we are on time and d) what the weather is like. The answers on this occasion were a) yes, b) approaching Ardlui, c) no, by a good half-hour, and d) cloudy but dry. Two-and-a-half out of four, but the crucial issue was the lack of punctuality, as we had a steam train to catch. Twice before we have had this problem, both cured by Scotrail’s provision of taxis to go train-chasing.

Fortunately our steward had been on the customer service course and volunteered to phone ahead if necessary to book a vehicle to take us from Fort William to the Jacobite’s one and only stop at Glenfinnan. As it turned out, it was necessary, he did phone ahead and we did get to Glenfinnan in good time to claim our seats on the steam train, pulled by one of a pair of Black Fives rostered for the summer excursions along the West Highland Line.

At Mallaig we decided the priority was to call at that night’s B&B to deposit excess luggage. That done we explored the town in the relatively short time left, failing completely to find any cask beer, before boarding the Jacobite for the return journey. At Fort William one of Mr Riley’s Class 37s was spotted, going by the name of ’An Gearasden’, which according to a search engine beginning with G means ‘The Garrison’. Photos were taken for growler-gricers back home. We then changed trains for the final leg back to Mallaig on the service train. Even in mid-summer the town is not a hive of frenzied social activity in the evening, but we did find an excellent seafood restaurant, setting a trend which peaked later in the holiday. But more of that later.

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Next morning (calm and sunny) we had spaces booked on the Knoydart ferry, which compensated for its small size by its high speed, taking us around the corner from Mallaig to the Knoydart peninsula in barely forty minutes. We failed spectacularly to convince the ticket-collector that we were locals, and thereby qualifying for a cheap rate, but the cost was fairly minimal anyway. Apparently she knew all the inhabitants of the village by sight, so we were on a loser from the start. The scenery was also spectacular, and remained so for the duration of our stay, aided by summer weather worthy of the name.

At Inverie pier we were met by the proprietor of our B&B, who took some of our party and all of our luggage by car, the rest of us yomping the mile or so along the one and only road, past the one and only bar and the one and only shop. As we learned later, Knoydart had been bought out a few years ago by the residents and has since prospered, with a significant increase in the number of those choosing to live in a remote part of Scotland accessible only by boat or by a rather long and rather arduous walk.

There were quite a few cars in evidence, despite the lack of roads to drive them on, but being private land there was clearly no nonsense about road tax, MOTs or, in some cases at least, regular maintenance. The downside apparently was having to own your own bowser to store fuel delivered by boat, at a significant mark-up. Not to mention the need to buy (or mix your own) midge repellent in industrial quantities.

The B&B was a large purpose-built house owned by a couple who were on the point of retiring, and were therefore looking for a buyer for both home and business. For a fleeting moment we considered the possibilities of forming a consortium to make a bid, but regrettably reality kicked in almost immediately, and the idea faded as quickly as it had appeared. We consoled ourselves with a stroll around the extensive garden, which according to a sign at the entrance was for the benefit of the community rather than just house residents. Symptomatic of the way things were done here, perhaps.

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After a reviving cup of tea we set off for a walk down to the beach and along the river, guided by Jim, who had been that way a couple of years before, and was the prime mover in getting the location onto our itinerary. The beach was typical of the Western Highlands, white sand, a scenic location and hardly any other people.

This one for some reason also sported a picnic table and an environmentally-friendly loo, complete with detailed instructions on its operation. We resisted the temptation and continued along the river, pausing to visit two local cemeteries on an estate previously owned by a notorious Nazi sympathiser and evicter of the Seven men of Knyodart, who tried to settle on his land after WWII.

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That evening, after rest and recuperation at the B&B we dined at the Old Forge, famed for both food and beer. There Jim demonstrated his culinary prowess by demolishing a two-storey cake stand of assorted seafood, with nothing but the most simple of hand tools.

One would happily have stayed longer at such a peaceful and scenic location, but sleeper trips have their own discipline, and it was time to move on. Back to Mallaig on the ferry, this time with cloudier skies and slightly less smooth water, and then train to Oban.

As is traditional, we confused our onboard train manager by alighting at Upper Tyndrum for the downhill walk to Tyndrum Lower, instead of the more sensible option of walking five yards across the platform at Crianlarich. On the way we stopped off for lunch at convenient roadside cafe. By the time we arrived in Oban the rain had set in, and it was a rather damp arrival at the next B&B.

And there was no resting in a warm dry lounge, as a pair of significantly better other halves were due to arrive on the evening train from Glasgow. So it was back to the station to await their arrival, with entertainment provided by a local school pipe band, doing their bit for social cohesion in the square outside. Once all were reunited we again made use of an adjacent Wetherspoons before retiring for the night.

Next day we were up early for the ferry to Barra, a six-hour crossing via Coll and Tiree. Initially all was smooth and serene as we sailed around Mull, but in the open water beyond the swell increased and the passenger lounges went quiet as their occupants concentrated on keeping well. Some entertainment was provided at the island stop-offs, particularly by those not used to reversing down a long and not particularly wide pier to get their vehicle onboard.

By mid-afternoon we were in the shelter of Castlebay harbour, with a pair of fine-looking schooners for company. The scenery, which we knew from past experience was of considerable quality, had gone shy on us, and remained hidden behind copious cloud formations.

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Nothing daunted we split into three groups to search out our accommodations for the next two nights, and then reunited at the Castlebay Bar for pre-dinner aperitifs. We were not surprised to find a dearth of cask ale, but there were a number of bottles with ‘Drink Me’ writ large on the label, in a number of different scripts.

What was surprising was the identity of the Keeper of the Darts, a trained-to-the-edge-of-canine-reason collie, who insisted we all took a turn at her dartboard, with no taking no for an answer. Indeed there were several of us who were convinced of her ability not only to marshall a continuous stream of arrow-wielders, but also to tap out their score with a graceful blink-and-you’ll-miss-it flick of the left paw. But perhaps it was just the effect of the beer.

Some gentle interrogation of local residents confirmed our suspicions that the curry-and-seafood (separate plates) restaurant on the quayside was the best place to eat, and so it proved. The scenery gradually relented and formed a fine backdrop to the gastronomic experience, such that we came back the next night and did it all again.

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The weather continued to improve overnight, and Friday dawned fine and clear. The intention was to start with a short boat trip across the bay to the castle, but for reasons which the guilty will carry to their graves only five actually embarked, the other two doing a fine job of pretending they didn’t really want to go anyway. During coffee and souvenirs at a small cafe overlooking the harbour, a yacht departed its moorings to the sound of a lone piper on board. A lady watching from the shore advised that this was one of the finest pipers in Scotland (we wouldn’t have known) on his way to a festival on a nearby island. Apparently her husband was going with him, which seemed to be quite in order as far as she was concerned.

The Parkinsons then decided to explore the island with the help of the local buses, the island tour company being fully booked that day. The rest of us, after a diversion to buy lunch materials, took the bus in the opposite direction, across a causeway to the small but beautifully-sculpted island of Vatersay. At the island’s one and only village we alighted, noted carefully the time of the return service, and set off on a circular walk to a hillock which the map described as an iron-age hill fort. No evidence of habitation remained, but the scenery more than compensated for its absence, with more white beaches, bays, headlands and a fine view back across the water to Castlebay.

We also passed the ruin of the local headman’s house, a victim along with many others of Highland clearances. The return leg required some careful navigation to avoid some rather squelchy vegetation but we returned safely and only slightly muddy to await the bus, which was almost on time.

Then back to the seafood-and-curry house, where the proprietor rewarded us for our repeat custom with a fine rainbow, not to mention the stately arrival of the ferry from Oban, in calmer waters this time.

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Next morning saw the Fords break away from the main pack to continue their stay on Barra, moving upmarket to the Isle of Barra Beach Hotel, allegedly the most westerly of its type in Britain. The rest of us took a taxi to Barra International Airport to await the arrival of the Glasgow plane. This duly arrived, and landed on the beach with a lack of fuss which suggested that at least one of the pilots had done it a fair few times before.

Apparently the time and tide were a little against us, so we were gently encouraged not to dally whilst boarding, and we took off with the wheels wet with the incoming water. The flight took us over not only Coll and Tiree again but also Skye, and several sea-lochs sparkling in the sunshine, looking for all the world as if they didn’t contain nuclear-armed submarines.

All too soon we were flying over the built-up areas around the Clyde, aiming for a point just north of Paisley, which fortunately coincided with Glasgow airport. With very little delay we disembarked, retrieved our luggage and caught a bus for Gilmour St station, one of four serving Paisley. A train then took us along the scenic Ayrshire Coast Line to Largs, our destination for the night.

Here the summer holidays were in full swing, with weather to match, and the town was doing what it was clearly set up to do, namely entertain large numbers of Glaswegians intent on having a (fairly genteel) good time. The ferry to Cumbrae was in much demand, to the extent that what appeared to be a reserve ship had been pressed into service to cope with the crowds. What the particular attractions were of the island we were not sure, and our taxi-driver professed some bemusement likewise.

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Ice-creams were clearly called for, and were duly purchased from an Italian establishment with a length of queue which suggested the quality of either their produce or their publicity was above average. Our stringent testing confirmed that it was certainly not lacking in at least the first of these, so much so that we returned that evening for a pizza dinner. The B&B that night was also of high quality, overseen by well-organised and experienced proprietors.

Our last day dawned, and we returned by train to Glasgow, where Malcolm left us to follow his own altered route home, following exhaustive and exhausting negotiations with the customer services person at Largs station, who clearly knew just whose service they were working for. For the rest of us it was a busy but speedy train to Preston, just in time to miss the Southport bus. However there’s always another one behind, for he who cares to wait half an hour.

An itinerary is here.

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