Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Last minute holiday in Scotland: Mallaig the long way

May/June 2014:

Our time on Skye had come to an end. I would certainly recommend it, it is a great place to visit. Although next time I would like to do some cycling and walking. The area has some stunning coastline and countryside. There are plenty of walks and climbs of differing degrees of difficulty.

Because of the last-minute nature of our holiday we just selected a bunch of places to visit without really thinking about the distances between them, or the best routing.  We now had just under 90 miles to drive down to Fort William, which is where we had planned to stay the night. We had booked to ride on the Jacobite Train from Fort William to Mallaig and back, so we had a deadline.

If you look at the map, the road route from the Duisdale House Hotel to Fort William is 88.3 miles, whereas the route using the Armadale-Mallaig Ferry is only 56.8 miles and we would have had another sea voyage. As we had already driven up from near Fort William to Skye we had seen the scenery as well, so it would have made sense to take the ferry, ah well next time.

We had our last delicious breakfast (well at that hotel) and then waited what seemed like forever to settle up.  The problem was that they were training a new receptionist in how to use their billing system. However things were further complicated because another group were in the process of moving rooms/hotels or something and needed to partially settle up.  (The Duisdale House Hotel has a sister hotel – Toravaig House just down road).

We eventually left somewhat later than planned, but still with plenty of time. There was also time for a last picture of the Mainland. (Yes I know that we were actually heading to the mainland but this picture was from across the sea.)

Misty Mountains of the Mainland from the Duisdale House Hotel Garden

Despite the fact the Scottish roads tend to wiggle around the lochs and mountains, we made pretty reasonable progress. Generally Scottish motorists are more courteous than English motorists and the roads are not quite as congested.

We also stopped on the way, to stretch our legs and admire the Highland Countryside. For some reason I liked Loch Garry so much I took quite a few pictures of the loch (well loads actually). In fact, at first, there were so many I assumed that they were of different locations along the way to Fort William, but no.

We stopped at what Wikipedia calls the lookout on the A87, their picture looks pretty similar to mine. On the road it is marked as the Glengarry Viewpoint and is here.

Loch Garry from the Glengarry Viewpoint

Loch Garry and Glen Garry

Apparently Torr na Carraidh is classified as a P30 Tump and is 123m in height.

Loch Garry – Bridge over the Loch Leading to Torr na Carraidh

We arrived in Fort William somewhat earlier than we thought we might.  We were really only staying in Fort William so we could have a trip to Mallaig and back on the Jacobite train.  We had booked a ride on the afternoon train which departs Fort William at 2.30pm and gets back to Fort William at 8.24pm.  (Well according to Wikipedia anyway.)

Because we were early we decided to see whether we could check in and leave our bags at the hotel we were staying in that night.  Fort William is the second largest settlement in the Highlands with Ben Nevis (Beinn Nibheis) just down the way and with both Winter sports (skiing) and Summer Sports (MTB, walking) you’d imagine a more prosperous sort of place. Apparently The Ben attracts 125,000 ascents and a further 100,000 partial ascents a year.

Fort William seems a little grotty to me and it is a reasonably large settlement which contrasts strongly with much of the rest of the Highlands which is relatively sparsely populated.  Apparently in October 2007 the unemployment rate in Fort William was 1.2% compared with that of the Highlands and Islands at 1.6%.  It is not a place I would visit in a hurry, apart from the train journey.  (Although there is The Ben and Mountain Biking…)

We ended staying at the Cruachan Hotel along Loch Linnhe in the town (here). (There will be pictures in the next instalment.)  Although if you can’t wait – this is a picture of a typical bedroom – “unfussy”.  I guess that Fort William gets a lot of the Coach trade and so hotels are set up to service that trade.  When we pulled up into the car park the front didn’t look too bad (if you squinted) – although there was a “modern” bit at the back.  There were also building works taking place – a lift was being constructed.  Although we couldn’t check in we were allowed to leave our bags behind, so we did.  The last time we’d visited Fort William the hotel had been similar – with thin walls and a postage stamp old-style TV.

We then set off to the railway station, although we were a bit early. There is quite a bit of car-parking around the area along with a Morrisons. So to pass the time we popped in to Morrisons for lunch and to watch the world go by.  For some reason I got the feeling that a few of the older generation were regular customers of the Café – popping in for a cooked meal and more importantly  perhaps a bit of social contact. The food was reasonable.

As has happened quite a lot the current modern Fort William railway station was not the original

As it got closer to the appointed hour, well 2.30pm we went in search of a train – there wasn’t one.  I assumed that it would “hang” around Fort William with nothing better to do.  During the peak season which had only just started (2nd June) two services run each day and cross in the middle.  Certainly there were queues of people and the train turned up with plenty of time. When we booked we did try to get first-class seats (but they were fully booked) so we ended up in second-class.  The last time we took the trip we ended up in a cold carriage right at the end of the train with graffiti and windows that wouldn’t open.

This time we had a decent carriage and the weather wasn’t frosty either.Coming to think about it I don’t think this train was quite as full as the last time either.

Now that is a real engine – it has got plumbing!

Cab of our Engine

The Lancashire Fusilier (this locomotive engine) is an LMS Stanier Class 5 4-6-0 5407. It was built in 1937 and is one of eighteen surviving “Black 5s”. It has been upgraded and overhauled a few times and apparently is good to run on mainlines until 2020

The Lancashire Fusilier

It was up this way before in the late 1980s when it did three seasons on the Jacobite run.

The Railway Line at Fort William – the open track

The Lancashire Fusilier

Our Driver – doing a bit of last minute texting. He has mastery of both old and new technology! Although perhaps he ought to consider bi-focals?

Engine Driver

This is an image harking back to a time when trains weren’t that good – but it was easier to get around the system.  Nowadays the trains are still not that good (reliability, over-crowding…) and it can be pretty difficult dealing with the myriad different train companies and their separate websites and rules and regulations. (Well if you travel with a bicycle.)

British Railways

Almost as soon as we set of the views were tremendous – which is to be expected travelling in the Highlands I suppose. This is the view looking back towards Fort William. As you can see there is a fair bit of snow on those mountains.

This isn’t Ben Nevis but is in the general direction of Ben Nevis.

Mountains overlooking Fort William

The train doesn’t go that quickly, especially on through Banavie Station and Corpach. Just after passing over a level-crossing and through Banavie Station the train rumbles past Neptune’s Staircase, the longest staircase lock in Britain. It has eight locks and takes 90 minutes to get through (by boat).

Neptune’s Staircase

Looking back at Fort William you can see the snowy mountains and also two pipelines in the mid-distance. They are part of the Lochaber hydroelectric scheme, a scheme developed after the First World War to generate power for aluminium production. Those pipes are on the edge of Ben Nevis.

Lochaber Hydro-Electric Power Scheme – pipes on the edge of Ben Nevis

This boat is one of two former Western Ferries Boats sold to Fort William Underwater Centre for use as dive boats. It was renamed Loch Sunart. I find it a little confusing to refer to the boats with Loch names – that link points to an article about the boat and not the loch – simples.

Dive Training Vessel - Loch Sunart

The View across Loch Eil

Fort William across Loch Linnhe

Scottish Mountains

This is Glenfinnan Viaduct – also known as the “Harry Potter Bridge” it appears in Some Harry Potter films. (Here is a YouTube video of a Steam train puffing its way around the viaduct.)

Now depending upon how busy the train is and how many people are interested in taking pictures carriage door windows can get quite busy. Especially when there is something interesting coming up.  When I choose a picture for inclusion I try  to avoid those showing all of the people hanging out of the train taking pictures. It is almost impossible to do that when traversing the Glenfinnan Viaduct. It seems to be the star-turn of the trip. 

In fact even getting next to the door can be tricky.  You end up taking a few pictures and then letting the person loitering behind you have a go.  All the while hoping that they won’t hang around for too long so that you can then get back to taking pictures. Whilst waiting you occasionally look out of the carriage door window on the opposite side. Generally though there are few places where the views of equally good on both sides at the same time.  So then you start trying to bluff and pretend to admire a non-existent view hoping to lure the person hogging the good window to your side and then swapping your dud views for their good views.

clip_image002Sometimes it goes wrong and just as you swap sides then the views close down on your side and open up on the other side.  Even when it goes right you find yourself taking a picture of a spectacular view only to find that you are passing a tree.  Which then results in a blurred dark mass rather than a stunning view of the coast.

Like this one I prepared earlier.  If you think that I have a lot of pictures in this post, then you ought to see the ones that didn’t make it. I took over a thousand pictures on our train trip to Mallaig and back.

At least on the Viaduct the sides are clear of vegetation, you also have to be careful not to get whipped when taking pictures out of the window as the train passes the trees and bushes growing by the track.

Glenfinnan Viaduct

Shortly after passing over the Viaduct you reach Glenfinnan Station where the train stops for a wee while (bit more Scottish there – did you notice). It is quite a nice place to stop – but you can’t see the Viaduct you have to go for a little walk. The train actually stops to allow a train to pass. The Mallaig – Ft William line is a single track, but with dual tracks into the stations.

Waiting at Glenfinnan Station whilst a train passes though

Glenfinnan Station Signal Box

This would be a great journey on a train with glass-topped viewing carriages. Half the time I find myself thinking – that would be have been a nice picture as it flashes by. Sometimes the problem is a window-hogger, sometimes last-minute vegetation along the trackside and sometimes I was just not quick enough.

The railway line runs along the Southern edge of Loch Eilt, whilst the road runs along the Northern edge.

Loch Eilt

The views from the train are wonderful, but I wouldn’t want to give you the impression that they are non-stop views. You do spend a bit of time going through cuttings or whizzing by trackside trees and bushes and I have taken pictures of most of that as well.

Now I know we are not in the Lake District – but that scene, with an island (Eilean Mòr) in the middle of the loch reminds me of Swallows and Amazons.

Loch Eilt

After the lochs came the rivers – well this river – River Ailort and a weir.

Weir on River Ailort

The construction of the track was quite a feat of engineering, at the Mallaig end it passes through a few tunnels and over quite a few bridges as it follows the contours of the mountains.  Lochailort was where almost 2,000 labourers lived during the construction of the railway line.

As we got closer to the coast the views opened out to the west. This is Loch Nan Uamh, a sea loch.

Loch na Uamh

We then stopped at Arisaig, Britain’s most westerly mainland railway station.

Arisaig Railway Station

Even when the weather is bad it seems that the Armadale-Mallaig area has it better, and when the weather is quite good it is gorgeous.  When we reached Mallaig we went for a stroll around. We wanted to stretch our legs after sitting on the train. (Although I also did a lot of hanging around in corridors as well).

The views across the sea were wonderful – The Isles or Eigg and Rùm (or Rhum) were silhouetted on the horizon. (Your starter for ten, which is which?)

The view from Mallaig across the water

As you might expect, since a ferry runs between Mallaig and Skye (Armadale), on a fine day (which it was) you can also see Skye.

The Black Cuillins stood out well.

Skye across the Sound of Sleat

If you hadn’t worked out which Isle was which then here is an explanation of the geology/geography – A Necklace of Volcanoes.

A Necklace of Volcanoes

Alright perhaps the picture of the Isles was quite small, here they are again, separately.  The lump on the left is An Sgurr, as mass of black, natural glass called pitchstone.

The Isle of Eigg

The Isle of Rùm is a little more crinkly, it is the largest of the small isles and the 15th largest Scottish Isle. Apparently there are around 30 or so inhabitants in the village of Kinloch on the east coast.

The Isle of Rùm

The Isle of Skye

The Isle of Skye and the Black Cuillins

The CalMac Ferry heading from Mallaig to Armadale across the Sound of Sleat.

MV Coruisk – heading to Armadale (Another boat with the name of a Loch)

We headed back into Mallaig, as the train driver enjoyed the views across the water his two lads got busy moving coal around to get steam up for the journey back to Fort William. That is the beauty of being in management.

Apparently before Harry Potter, Mallaig was a bit of a backwater – but since Harry Potter and the role the Glenfinnan Viaduct played in the films it has provided a boost for Mallaig.

Moving Coal around on the Train

Sometimes it feels as if you have gone back in time when you are in some of the more remote parts of Scotland.  Even the cars look somewhat outdated. The car is a 1925 Bentley 3 Litre.

The driver doesnae look awful happy though.

1925 Bentley in Mallaig

He struggled to get out of the garage such is the long length and poor turning circle of the car.  He was followed by this car – but I have drawn a blank on identifying it.

Happier Vintage Car Occupants

The mural on this wall was created as part of the Mallaig Millennium Celebrations. The building is an old smokehouse and the theme a representation the village’s fishing heritage.

Mallaig Millennium Mural – Fishing Heritage

By this point we had worked up an appetite, the question was where we should eat.  We’d already decided that it should be something fishy. The last time we were up here we’d eaten at one of the restaurants and had some excellent food.

This time the decision was made to go for fish and chips – we’d originally decided to get them from the Chippy in the Railway Station Building.  But it was such a nice day that we decided to visit the Tea Room and sit outside (and have fish and chips).  (If you follow the link the place seems to also bear the name Tea Garden!) A quick Google Search and the answer is… The Tea Garden.

We sat down and heard a Harp being played – interesting muzak maybe, no, on the pavement opposite a real harp was being played.

A Harpist Busking in Mallaig

You certainly get some delicious fish in the Highlands and Islands, the chips aren’t bad either.  We now needed another stroll to aid our digestion before getting back on the train to Fort William. Mallaig isnae big, in fact it is a wee place around a harbour. I would imagine that there has been benefit from both the Jacobite Train and the Ferry to the local economy. It seemed a much livelier place than the Kyle of Lochalsh.

Mallaig Harbour

It is not surprising that the place has a lifeboat station being a fishing village - the Lifeboat is the RNLB Henry Alston Hewat. It is a Severn-class lifeboat, the largest type of lifeboat operated by the RNLI. Apparently they are stationed at 35 locations around the coasts of the UK and Ireland.  Which makes me wonder why they have named the class after a river, even if it is the longest river in Great Britain.

RNLB Henry Alston Hewat – Mallaig

As the afternoon wore on the weather got better and better and soon it was time to board the train.  Modern trains have a cab at each end and don’t need to be able to turn the engine around unlike the days of the steam locomotives. So the Lancashire Fusilier was going to have to pull the train back to Fort William backwards as there was no way of turning it. They need a turntable.

The Lancashire Fusilier coupled and ready the haul the train to Fort William

As the train made its way there were some beautiful views of the Islands across the sea. So could you identify them now? (Without looking back!)

Isle of 1?

Isle of 2?

As was passed along the coast and though Mora there were glorious views of Mora Bay and the Isles: with the Isle of Rùm (1) to the right and the Isle of Eigg (2) to the left

Mora Bay

A Silhouette of the Isle of Rùm

I wonder if the driver gets a bit of a crick in his neck having to reverse all the way back to Fort William? Actually he avoids it buy getting one of the firelads to do it.

Reversing back to Fort William

The Jacobite Train puffing away

Just as you approach Glenfinnan Viaduct there is also the Glenfinnan Monument. It is an 18m high tower at the head of Loch Shiel to mark the place where Bonnie Prince Charlie raised his standard at the beginning of the Jacobite Rising in 1745.

When I take pictures, although I could check them on the camera I tend not to. So what I hadn’t appreciated was that as the evening was falling my camera was opening the shutter for longer and longer. So with the movement of the train things got rather blurred. I took quite a few pictures of the monument, only one was half-way decent and not too blurry.

Glenfinnan Monument

Oh, alright if you insist another picture of the Glenfinnan Viaduct. No sign of Harry Potter though. I had to fly alongside the train to take this one, impressive eh. I usually keep my super powers secret.

Glenfinnan Viaduct

The weather does change a fair bit and just before we reached Fort William there was a shower. If you look really closely you can see that there was a double rainbow. We didn’t really pass through the shower it had more of less gone.

Double Rainbow over Loch Eil

The Same Double Rainbow over the same Loch Eil – the train had moved a bit more though

It was rather pleasant to return to the hotel. We were all pretty tired after our journey from Skye by car and then almost back up to Mallaig and back by train.  Still it was easy finding our hotel, we’d been before and Fort William is not that big.

Of course there were some questions – like did they have our booking? Had they still got our bags? You know the little paranoid thoughts that sometimes cross your mind when travelling. In case you were wondering, although it doesn’t happen often, I have found myself not able to get a room at an over-booked hotel more than once, through no fault of mine.

They had got our booking and we had got rooms. They hadn’t got a lift though – they were in the process of putting one in. They did offer to carry our bags to our rooms. But frankly we just wanted to get to our rooms. My experience of having your bags brought up later is that your bags first go into another dimension and then just when you think they won’t turn up and pop into the bathroom there is a ping on the door. I reckon hotels have sensors to check out the worst time to deliver your bags.  Then when your bags do arrive you are left wondering, now what country am I in?, do I tip, how much? (I did travel a lot for my work at one point in my life.)  It is just easier to grab your bags and run stagger, we were on the third floor.

The room was certainly unfussy!  However it turned out that we had arrived back just in time to watch the last episode of Happy Valley, a drama we had been following on TV. It was on Series record at home, so we weren’t worried about missing it – but we were keen to find out what happened. So I turned on the Postage Stamp sized TV and my wife made a cup of tea and a cup of coffee.

Argh, for the second time on our holiday the TV didn’t work. So I called down to the front desk.  The chap who came up tried to be helpful, but probably knew less about TVs than I did. We were getting a weak signal, it might have been the cable coming out of the wall, or the socket or the cable run to the room. He was very apologetic and went off to find another cable. After a wee while he returned with a replacement cable– that didn’t fix the problem.

Although the hotel wasn’t the grandest of places, he was clearly concerned and offered us a better room, where the TV did work.  At this point we were too tired to care and turned down his kind offer. Although our room was “unfussy” we were too tired and didn’t think that the upgrade would be worth the hassle of repacking our bags and then dragging them up and down the stairs. Although if you follow this link to their website it turns out they do have a/some room(s) with four-posters in them.  (They do seem to be under new management so perhaps the whole place is getting a make-over.)

Now one of the great things about modern travel is that you can get access to the Internet pretty much everywhere. Maybe not always to your hotel, but even in back of beyond villages in India or Cambodia I have been able to find an Internet Café.  The other good thing is that most reasonable hotels offer free WiFi. In fact only a few hotels charge for Internet access nowadays, the hotels that think they are grander than they are.  (You aren’t, you are just ripping your guests off.)

The Cruachan had WiFi and I was soon able to connect my IPad to the BBC website – so we would be able to watch last episode of Happy Valley after all.  I was hoping that the Cruachan wouldn’t have too many other Internet users since up in Scotland there hasn’t been that much bandwidth available. The only other user was probably my daughter that night as apart from one or two interruptions we watched it through to the end.

Except for another interruption, about 15 minutes in there was a knock on the door. I humphed as I got up to answer it. It was a waiter with two small bottles of white wine and two glasses. Full marks to the guy who couldn’t fix our TV, he  had decided even if we didn’t want a better room then at least he would do something to make it up to us. Those two bottles of wine continued to travel around Scotland with us and ended up in the pantry at home – small bottles are excellent for cooking with – the contents not the bottles.

Oops, I almost forgot – just before we went into the hotel I took a picture of the view across Loch Linnhe – pretty good eh. (Not that we could see it from our room.)

Loch Linnhe from the Cruachan Hotel Car park

Next – Mountains and a Castle

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