The southbound train shuddered to a halt just one minute south of Aviemore in the Scottish Highlands. It was the first day of real winter and it was only the 19th November. Had we hit a snowdrift? The snow didn’t look that deep.
We had woken up to a covering of snow, below freezing temperatures and brilliant sunshine. Today I was travelling, mostly by train, back to London after a long weekend with my mother. The bus from Grantown-on-Spey, some thirty miles south of Inverness in the north of Scotland, was due at 9.39am but by 9.50 no bus was in sight. And then, as often happens in cities, but not in remote rural areas, two buses came at once. A normal single-decker and an 80-seater double-decker. As the only passenger waiting I felt this was a little bit of overkill.
There was no one else on the double-decker as it set off on the 15 or so mile journey to Aviemore. The fields were covered in snow but the roads were virtually snow-free so the bus made good progress. A lady was waiting for the bus in Nethy Bridge, obviously a regular, she knew the driver. She didn’t seem to be disturbed by the late-running of the service or the fact that the bus was, to say the least, a little bit large for the number of passengers, so maybe this was the norm.
In Boat of Garten another two people were waiting. And that turned out to be the full complement for this morning. Soon we were stopping at Aviemore Interchange South, the grand name for the bus stop outside Aviemore railway station.
The train wasn’t leaving for an hour but it seemed a good idea to check that it was running on time. The next train due into the station was coming up from the south. On the information board were the dreaded word “Cancelled due to emergency engineering works”. As the line between Inverness and Perth is essentially a single track with passing places, this did not bode well. However the information screen showed the 11.23 to Edinburgh as being “on-time”. All might be well. Only time would tell.
With an hour to wait so there was time to get a paper, The Guardian of course, and time to go to a coffee shop for a coffee and a bacon roll. Back at the station, the train was still marked as being on schedule, and bang on time, it pulled up beside platform 1.
Aviemore station has the luxury of three platforms all in regular use at busy times. It’s a passing place for North-South trains so two platforms are needed a few times a day. The third platform is for the Strathspey Steam Railway, a privately operated train that has proved to be very popular and has helped tourism develop in the area. An article this week in a local paper said that the new head of rail travel in Scotland envisages that this line will be extended at least as far as Grantown-on-Spey. He talked about the revival in rail usage and his intention of reversing many of the cuts made under the Beeching programme in the 1950’s. That would be great for us railway enthusiasts.
Back to today. The train, a six-carriage diesel, started to pick up speed and then, as mentioned at the start of this blog, it shuddered to a halt. Thoughts of snowdrifts or more emergency engineering works came to mind. Then the driver came on the tannoy to announce “The train has just hit a couple of sheep” and they would have to check that the train was undamaged. No mention of the state of the sheep but, presumably, they did not put up much of a fight against hundreds of tonnes of metal. A few minutes later the driver announced that all was well – at least with the train – and we set off southwards again.
The rail journey from Aviemore to Edinburgh is one of the most scenic in the UK and the scenery is enhanced by snow and winter light. The first 20 miles or so are in the wide glen of Strathspey. The combination of the River Spey and Loch Insh with, some say, the finest stretch of wetland in Scotland, attracts many birds all year round. Today we saw many flocks of geese. To the east there is a panorama of the Cairngorms with its four peaks that exceed 4,000 feet in height. Today they were surprisingly free of deep snow in all but the highest corries. To the west are the Monadhliath Mountains a less frequently visited area possibly due to the lack of major summits and with only four, very low hills to attract the Munro Bagger (enthusiasts who set out to climb all of Scotland’s mountains over 3,000 feet in height).
After Dalwhinnie the route starts to climb steeply to Drummochter Summit. At 452 m (1480 ft) this is the highest point on the UK National rail network. Today there was a dusting of snow everywhere. Over the top and it’s all downhill through steep-sided glens. The rivers, all fast flowing, are tributaries of the River Tay which we join south of Pitlochry. Just beyond the steep rock face of Craig A Barns where I used to climb in student days, the train passes through Dunkeld & Birnam. This is the Birnam of Birnam Woods fame in Macbeth.
After Perth the train begins another long climb with a great view down the Tay to Dundee. Then the scenery, mostly agricultural land, can best be described as “pleasant” until, just before Kirkcaldy, the Firth of Forth comes into view. To the east, guarding the entrance to the Firth, is the Bass Rock, a dramatic volcanic plug standing some 100m (350 feet) high. Directly opposite is the unmistakeable Edinburgh skyline dominated by the castle. And to the west are the two bridges, the original Forth Bridge that carries the railway and further on the Forth Road Bridge. Both, in their own ways, amazing feats of engineering.
As the train crosses the famous bridge you can’t help looking out for Richard Hannay clinging to the ironwork in The 39 Steps. And so it is into Edinburgh Waverly, the terminus of this leg of my journey. The connecting train to the South does not depart for a bit more than one hour and it’s lunchtime. So where better to go than to one of the two best bars in Edinburgh, The Guildford Arms and the Café Royal. They are next door to each other and just a stone’s throw, even for me the world’s worst thrower, from the station.
Today I decided to go to the Café Royal with its spectacular Victorian interior design. The Circle Bar, to be pedantic a straight-sided oval, fills the centre of the room with open seating cubicles round the outer walls. On one side the walls are dominated by large picture windows whilst the other side has the most impressive ceramic murals, made for the 1886 International Exhibition of Industry, Science and Art in Edinburgh.
The menu is extensive with a “fishy” flavour. I had to have the Cullen Skink. For the uninitiated, this is a creamy fish soup made with chunks of smoked haddock, potato and onion and served with coarse bread or even oatcakes. Absolutely delicious. Washed down with a glass of Malbec and all was well with the world.