Trails from the Rails 7: Altnabreac to Forsinard

  • Area: Caithness
  • Local Train Operators: Scotrail
  • Length: About 15 miles
  • Points of Note: Flow of Caithness
  • OS maps – Explorer 449 (1:25,000); Landranger 10 & 11 (1:50,000) (spans both maps)

There is only one word to describe this walk and that word is “unique”. Altnabreac is the most isolated and desolate station in the United Kingdom and the walk away from it is exceptionally barren.

Doing it in the other direction is a possibility for those who fancy walking out into the wilderness instead, but Forsinard not being wilderness is purely relative to Altnabreac in that the former has a hotel, a surfaced road and shelter on the station. (This shelter is provided by the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, who use the old station building as an unstaffed visitor centre. It has been known to include a machine that provides drinks.) Forsinard also has road access for the replacement taxi should the train home chance to be cancelled.

People doing this walk should bear in mind that “isolated and desolate” does not mean Haywards Heath after ten o’clock at night. It means a station with no road access, dubious communications, two houses in ten miles (neither of which are necessarily inhabited) and an eleven mile unsurfaced track across a bleak, rolling landscape back to a lightly-used road. Take emergency food supplies, plenty of warm waterproof clothing, a working powerful torch, insect repellent, a compass, the 1:25,000 map (not a satnav and certainly not Google) and lots of water. Do not rely wholly on these instructions.

___…___

Welcome to Altnabreac.

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There are four stations in the UK with no road access. Berney Arms used to have a pub and, being in the Norfolk Broads not far from Yarmouth, has a homely air with civilisation (and wind turbines) on the horizon. Dovey Junction is not very far from a busy road and, being a junction, has a certain air of status and relevance, even when set in the middle of a marsh. Corrour has a restaurant.

Altnabreac, which most trains sail by without stopping (a request stop that nobody asks for), is the sort of place where people can get off a train, wander off onto the moor and do crazy things and nobody will notice. In fact it’s barely necessary to leave the station for this. In 2016 an “infrastructure summary” in the trade press reported the removal of the siding at Altnabreac. It had been missing a few years when these pictures were taken – in 2012.

Begin the walk by leaving the station, noting the amusing signs on the way out.

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Turn right and follow the forestry track alongside the railway and above the Sleach Water to the level crossing. Cross the railway and strike into the woods, still following the track up the flanks of Station Hill.

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The woods were planted as part of someone’s bright idea that the Flow of Caithness, also known as Europe’s largest freshwater bog, wasn’t doing much economically, commercially or in general (bogs generally don’t). Meanwhile woodland elsewhere in the world on more commercially-valuable land (which is, say, pretty much anywhere else on the planet) was being felled, thereby causing a shortage of trees. This was easily resolved by getting notable celebrities to invest in the coating of the Flow Country in conifers. The celebrities got the bonus of being eco-friendly while saving money on their tax bill until Nigel Lawson axed that particular revenue loophole.

In due course these trees were decided to be even more environmentally damaging than not having trees at all, and in any event the Flow Country is a highly interesting landscape, so the trees are being harvested early. This means the walk now benefits both from the presence of the forestry track and the absence of woods.

Patches remain however. Pass northwards through this one and swing round the left-hand hairpin bend at the top of the wood. Drop gently down the hill to the south-west, cross the two streams at the edge of the wood and rise gently back up the hill on the other side. (There is a lot of room up here, so there is no need for the geography to rush the hills.) Stop at the top and look back at the view, such as it is.

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The path then swings around the southern flanks of Cnoc Maol Donn. Another track forks away to the left, towards the railway (which is lost amongst the landscape). Ignore it and swing round to the north. The path then takes a sharp left itself and heads westwards, but soon begins a drifting route that works steadily north amongst isolated lochs. The ruins of the woodland are clearly apparent. It is very open landscape, lacking obvious reference points except the steady supply of junctions (straight on, left, fork left).

While passing through the area on the train it is quite usual to see a fair few deer along this stretch. They are shyer when it comes to walkers.

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A feature eventually appears in the form of Slethill Hill – a 70-metre-high hulk that rises unexpectedly out of the Flow Country (reaching a summit 280 metres above sea level, most of which the train has climbed). The track swings around its south-western corner, ignoring another turning heading off to the south, and then flicks westward down the hill into Strath Halladale. Ahead is the rolling, semi-Martian landscape heading for the north coast of Britain.

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The hill is completely trackless, as most hills round here are, but those adventurous walkers who have not already tired of scrambling through Scottish heather elsewhere may wish to climb it and see what the view consists of. (Miles of blanket bog mostly, interspersed with conifers planted for tax purposes.)

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The track continues its northwesterly twist down the hillside until it makes a slightly unexpected return to what feels, after eleven miles in the wilderness, like civilisation. This is the patch of inhabited soil around Forsinain Farm, just south of where the A897 crosses the Halladale River by means of Forsinain Bridge. This means the road is now on the other side of the river, but happily a bridge is provided here too for crossing the rippling blue waters. The electricity pylons help link the former Dounreay nuclear power station with the rest of the National Grid; now the power is going the other way to Thurso.

Forsinain 1 JPG.jpg

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Having crossed the river, turn left and follow the road southwards. This goes on for about five miles, or a little under two hours – steadily rising and winding up the side of the Strath, accompanied by the Halladale on one side and the pylons on the other (until the pylons, in a sign of passing the two-thirds point, sling across the road and work down the other side of the river to bypass Forsinard).

Forsinard is opened by the lodge, set amongst its pine trees. There then turns out to be nothing else of interest (or at all) for about quarter of a mile, until what looks like the old chapel is reached and the place begins in some sort of earnest.

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A road sign indicates 440 yards to the end of the walk, which comes into view about the same time. About another five minutes walking should see this long explore finish up on Forsinard station – Britain’s most northerly crossing loop. It has a car park, telephone box, level crossing, abandoned signal box and a station building designed with snug permanence in mind more than architectural features. For an idea of its remoteness, reflect that this side of OE449 has almost as many miles of railway as surfaced road.

Several “hut circles” are marked on the map hereabouts, showing that the place has always been a centre of population, but clearances and harsh living have left little evidence of substantial numbers of residents.

The yellow steps on the platform are to ease access from the low platforms into the high train. If the train does not stop in exactly the right place, tired passengers should note that they are designed to prevent high winds or amusingly-minded people walking off with them.

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