Corsica

An obvious subject for the middle of December is Corsica in September…

marine-de-sant-ambrogio-1-jpg… seen onshore and offshore…

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Corsica is an island off the west coast of Italy. To the south lies Sardinia. Sardinia belongs to Italy. Corsica, in a spirit of balance, belongs to France.

This concept of belonging to France is not one that always appeals to Corsica. Around the beginning of the 19th Century it could be reasonably said that France belonged to Corsica – the Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte was born in Ajaccio on the island’s south-west coast. The first removal of Napoleon from power exiled him to Elba, which is located between Corsica and the Italian province of Tuscany (it is visible from ferries between the island and Livorno). When he was removed again, a trifle over a year later, he was sent rather further from home to the island of St Helena. Since then Corsica has had a few doubts about the precise benefits of the arrangement.

The island is oval in general shape, with a mountainous spine down the middle and an arm sticking out the top. It is about half the size of Sardinia. The eastern shore – the Plaine Orientale – is cut quite straight, mostly with a flattish bit along the seaside. The western shore is more rugged, with many inlets and rather more vertical landscape. The northern shore is a bit of a compromise, with a few flat bits scattered along the edge of the hills. Corsica has no southern shore worth speaking of.

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Corsica is too far off the Italian shore for a bridge, so access is by boat and plane. Above is a picture of a plane coming in to land on Corsica. Below are a couple of the boat option.

Bastia 1 JPG.jpgThe approach to Bastia, the island’s northern port, with the town scattered up the mountainous flanks above it.

MV Pascal Paoli @ Bastia 1 JPG.jpgThe large, red form of the MV Pascal Paoli, docked in Bastia.

MV Moby Vincent @ Bastia 1 JPG.jpgThe roll-on/ roll-off Moby Ferries vessel Moby Vincent, with her loud Bugs Bunny-themed square sides, rests by the Bastia quayside having arrived from Livorno. Moby and Corsica Ferries boats leave Livorno around the same time each morning and, after turnarounds taking about the same amount of time, work home shortly after lunch. Departure from Livorno is too early for hotel breakfasts or coming in from further afield (say Pisa). Not that a lack of breakfast will worry the paranoid mal de mer sufferer.

Place Saint Nicolas 1 JPG.jpgPalm trees provide welcome shade over the Place Saint Nicolas, above the seafront in the centre of Bastia.

Church Bastia 1 JPG.jpgThe Church of St Felicity and St Lucy, perched on the end of a ridge high above Bastia, as seen from the railway station.

Bastia Station 1 JPG.jpgYes, railway station. Much of Corsica can be explored by rail using the metre-gauge network. This is encouraged by the 7-day “Carte-Zoom” Rover tickets. Two of the modern AMG800 units operated by the island’s railway authority stand in Bastia’s rather basic station (815/ 816 on the left and 823/ 824 on the right; each car is numbered individually, but they operate in consecutive pairs). The basic livery is grey and white with red doors, but several units carry additional vinyls. (Not to mention the considerable variety on cab-front branding, which sometimes seems to double as a means of identifying units.) The section forward of the doors is largely laid out like an auditorium, with forward-facing seats stepping gently downwards for a panoramic view through the windscreen. This is obscured by full-height frosted glass panels around the back of the cab (a relatively recent development). The units have conventional central buffers (standard for narrow-gauge) and screw-link chain couplings. Since their arrival there has been the usual embarrassing increase in passenger numbers, making it feel like a third coach would be a good idea. Still, the loadings don’t detract much from the scenery and the journey is accordingly recommended by the Compilers of the European Rail Timetable. After a rapid trot down the coast to Casamozza, through Bastia’s suburbs and alongside the main road, the line abruptly leaves the east coast (and its long-abandoned mainline) and climbs up a delightful part-wooded, part-rocky valley into the heart of the island.

Corte 1 JPG.jpgThe railway having found its way with only minor difficulty into the centre of the island, the trains, if not already packed, fill up at Corte. This is the main town for the interior, guarded by a citadel on a rock at the head of the town (seen centre). In gloomy weather Corte is not an attractive place; it is a very urbanised small town that does good impressions of a much larger one. While Bastia is laid back and Riviera, Corte has a shabbier air reminiscent of the island’s Genoese backstory. Matters are not helped by the harsh landscape above the town. In good weather it seems to have more of a rugged glow, though how much the modern flats can ever be softened is debatable.

Corte 2 JPG.jpgThe centre of Corte, with its jumble of tall, shuttered, hard-used buildings around the main square. It was a warm evening, though had come cloudy mid-afternoon. The weather can be rather changeable in the centre of Corsica (and in Corsica generally, but particularly in the centre).

Corte 3 JPG.jpgCorte station, one of the main stations on the island in terms of layout and facilities. The loop is used as a matter of course because of the basic signalling system, but relatively few trains cross here. Most prefer to do so at Venaco. Car hire is available. The line makes an easy southwards departure and then rapidly becomes more difficult to push through the hills. Ignoring the struggles of the rumbling 800s, this makes the line scenically far more interesting. Unusually (for Corsica) the station has two wide platforms facing each other, rather than one “main” platform and a narrow island between the two running lines.

Corte 4 JPG.jpgIt also has two watertowers, seen here in the distance beyond 807/ 808 waiting with a train to Bastia (the nearer tank is blue, with a concrete one beyond). Sulky mountains gaze down on the station, which has the air of having undergone a budget overhaul and then been forgotten about.

Casanova 1 JPG.jpgThis is the main road as it sails into Casanova from the south, on its way north to Corte, leaving the village of Santo Pietro de Venaco in the process. Most of Casanova is just off the main road and slightly down the hill. It is a pleasant little village which, after a brief knot by the junction, scatters on down one of the lanes that heads to the Poggio-di-Venaco promontory. 

poggio-1-jpgPoggio-di-Venaco; Poggio for short, as it sounds much friendlier (and this is the name given on the end of the station building too). A tightly-packed village, it lies on the upper ridge of a rocky outcrop with its church perched on a knoll at the west (mountain) end. Scattered around the village are some helpful bilingual signs (French and Italian) explaining the history of civilisation on this rock and passing comment on its climate (“exposed to the winds, but benefitting from exceptional levels of sunshine”).

View from Poggio 1 JPG.jpgThe outcrop gives splendid views north, south and east across the Corsican interior. This is the view northwards towards Corte. The valley is used by the Avon Tavignano, which quietly flows far below down from Corte to its mouth on the east coast near Aleria.

View from Poggio 2 JPG.jpgAnother view from Poggio, this time looking south-eastwards off the church steps as a bird flies overhead. The steps, leading up to a church perched on a rock on top of a lump on top of a narrow outcrop, can create a certain feeling of vertigo. The Tavignano works its way off under the hazy blue sky into the distance.

Poggio 2 JPG.jpgPoggio-Riventosa station, now a request stop, seen from the church steps (not a hot air balloon). To the south of the village, it is a mere 100 metres below the community it purports to serve and reached by a kilometre walk down a back road. Vehicles come down occasionally, realise there is nothing much to see, and go away. Most stations on the Corsican rail network were laid out much the same way (excluding Corte and other large places) – a two-storey house provides booking office and staff accommodation, while a few yards a way a 1¾-storey warehouse looks after the goods traffic. Loops were provided for trains to pass with a siding or two running up to the goods shed. The goods sheds had an awning on each side provided by extending the roof down away from the building. More important stations also had a water tower or two – most of these towers remain standing. Time has been unkind to Poggio’s station. The station building is abandoned (and barely secured); the goods shed has lost its awnings on both sides; the sidings have gone and the loop has been removed (although, close up, its route can just be made out). A single plain line bustles past a vague attempt to maintain a platform; the platform is hidden from view here by a tree. Riventosa is another small Corsican community, 80 metres above Poggio and a half-kilometre to the south-west.

Poggio 3 JPG.jpgPoggio station road, as train 5 growls through without stopping (there were no passengers, a usual state of affairs). The church sits high above, burnt out in the lunchtime light contrast.

Santo-Pietro-di-Venaco 1 JPG.jpgSanto-Pietro-di-Venaco, south-west of Poggio. The village is located on a ridge of land two hundred metres above and a kilometre to the north of Venaco itself. It is seen here from the southern side, with the church tower sticking up a little on the right of the skyline.

Santo-Pietro-di-Venaco 2 JPG.jpgSanto-Pietro centres on a little square outside its church. One road leads east, sloping down the promontory to where the main road makes a slightly lower crossing on its way north. One leads west, into the mountains. To the south is Venaco. This is the road headed north, sloping down to join the main road at Sambuco, just south of Casanova.

Santo-Pietro-di-Venaco 4 JPG.jpgThe road to the west, scrambling on up the ridge. Woodland cloaks the lower slopes of the mountains as they rise, eventually exposed, rocky and barren, to form the flanks of Punta Lattiniccia (2,413 metres, and hidden behind its relative foothills).

Santo-Pietro-di-Venaco 3 JPG.jpgThe church, with its well in the right foreground, stands stark in the morning sun set against a clear sky. Behind is the peak of Pinzo Corbino, less than 300 metres above the village and about two-thirds of a kilometre away.

Venaco 3 JPG.jpgSunrise over the mountains to the east of Venaco, from a window of one of the village’s hotels. Venaco is located high up in the mountains of Corsica, roughly halfway along the railway and main road which link Bastia with Ajaccio. On the continent such a road would have been diverted at enormous expense to avoid passing through the middle of Venaco. In Corsica, it has had a couple of the nastier curves smoothed but otherwise works its way noisily up narrow streets and past the front doors of restaurants. Not that this is as bad as it sounds. There’s not that much traffic anyway. 

Venaco 6 JPG.jpgVenaco, seen from the south on a horrible morning. The area looks particularly lush; there is a passing air of the Darjeeling area of the Himalayas. A side road drops sharply down and swings below the town at lower right. The main road clambers round the hillside to the left and crosses the upper centre of the picture (below a large, prominent orange three-storey building). The railway slides through centre left. This is merely the southern flank of the southern promontory; the town continues in the dell on the other side. Santo Pietro is on the very distant ridge top right, lost in the mist.

Venaco viaduct 1 JPG.jpgThe railway has a rather awkward route into Venaco from Ajaccio and the south; after passing over a ridge of land and through the former halt at Piscine d’Venaco, it crosses a viaduct, goes through a tunnel, swings around the hillside between two roads, uses a second viaduct to pass over a gully (centre-left of previous picture), cuts into a second tunnel amongst back lanes and houses and then crosses a third viaduct before rising through a cutting to Venaco station. Such is the tight nature of the landscape that all this is over in a few seconds. Access from Bastia, Corte and the north is gained more simply by a pair of tunnels through relatively open country. Here an AMG800 pairing scuttles over the more southerly viaduct, with the site of Piscine d’Venaco just beyond the trees in the background. This viaduct crosses a small indentation in the hillside; the road goes around the inside of the indentation and passes under the railway. Behind the camera the two run briefly side-by-side; then the road climbs over the railway and the railway dives into its tunnel.

Venaco 4 JPG.jpgVenaco station. A small, agreeable place perched high on the mountainside, gazed upon by rocky summits. 824 is leading 823 in with train 4, the 08:12 from Ajaccio which reaches Venaco at 10:02 and Bastia at 11:56. An old goods van from the days when freight went by rail hides by the goods shed. Venaco’s goods shed has had its awning pruned on the platform side, though the stubs of the timbers remain. The main line, running between the side and island platforms, has been allowed to become grassy despite this being the main crossing loop. The station building doubles as the station house and is still used as a booking office.

Vivario 1 JPG.jpgAt Venaco, train 4 crosses train 3 (the 07:54 from Bastia); the latter is seen here pulling out of Vivario on its way to Ajaccio, which it will reach at 11:45. 811/ 812 were doing the honours – and very popular they were too, with the train being full and standing to extremes as it growled away from Vivario. The train helps to emphasise the multi-cultural wonders of tourism and the homogenising effect that it ultimately has on humanity. When a German tourist and a young Corsican sharing a vestibule on a Corsican train wish to discuss their favourite football team they do so in their common language which is (of course) English (as indeed was the football team). Vivario has recently been refurbished and the goods shed smartened up, with both awnings tidily removed. From Venaco the line has to climb hard to its summit at Vizzavona – Venaco is 566 metres above sea level, while Vizzavona, 13km as the crow flies, is 910. En route, it has to cross the River Vecchio at Pont du Vecchio, which obliges the line to drop from Venaco to 520m to cross Gustav Eiffel’s viaduct. This gives a little over 7km for a climb of 400m, so the line circles around Vivario to gain height. Combined with local geography, this makes for some interesting photos…

Vivario 2 JPG.jpg40 seconds after leaving Vivario station, the pair of 800s glint in the sun as they scramble up the hill opposite the station. Below is the road, which is climbing the hill in the opposite direction and passes beneath the railway by Vivario station. On the peak of the hill can just be seen the ruined castle at Pasciolo.

Vivario 3 JPG.jpgThis is Vivario station, seen from a northbound train, with the road scrambling up below (note modern platform awning and water tower)…

Vivario 4 JPG.jpgAnd this is the railway below the railway, seen through a slightly grubby window, pressing northwards into one of the route’s many tunnels on its way to Venaco. (Unlike certain Swiss railways, the Darjeeling Himalayan  and the Ffestiniog at Dduallt, the Corsican line does not do a full spiral and cross itself. The climb makes do with a 270-degree bend at its south-eastern extremity.)

Vivario 5 JPG.jpgThis is Vivario proper, not too far from the station – albeit up a busy road. A variation to the Mare Nord long-distance footpath (there are several such paths on Corsica) passes through the community. The road snakes through it eastward, rising steadily, hairpins round at the east end and comes back above it. The railway can be swinging round a curve bottom left as it heads southwards on its northerly journey towards Venaco. This twirling section of route is called the “Vivario Boucle” and takes 8 kilometres to cover a few hundred metres.

Vivario Tortoise 1 JPG.jpgThis is a tortoise, pottering through the long grass by a footpath above Vivario with its house in a tortoise-like manner. Upon finding itself observed it began to retreat inside.

Fortin de Pasciolo 1 JPG.jpgAnother view of the hill hosting the “Fortin de Pasciolo”, a now rather unimpressive square stone block not quite far enough along its promontory to offer views of Eiffel’s viaduct. To the left is the Punta Corsica (820m). Straight ahead is the Pointe de Cervello (1075m). Between us and them is the gorge of the Vecchio, finding its rocky way up to the head of the valley at Vizzavona.

Vizzavona Forest 1 JPG.jpgAnd then, after a bit of rumbling along the side of a cliff, the view disappears from the train as it rumbles into the peace of the Forest of Vizzavona. This is a large expanse of larchwood around the head of the Vecchio. The railway wanders amongst the rocks and the sweet smell of larchneedles.

Tattone 1 JPG.jpgIn the middle of this wood is the well-preserved station at Tattone. The loop is out of use, but remains in place. The siding is used for storing metre-gauge permanent way vehicles – sundry-kit-carrying wagons, ballast wagons, sleeper wagons and a diminutive metre-gauge tamper. For the railway historian, it demonstrates what the goods sheds were supposed to look like – tall thin buildings with well-balanced roofs. The station provides access to campsites and an array of footpaths amongst the mountains. There is also a “Hopital” nearby. Tattone itself is a few houses scattered on the main road, which crosses the line at the south end of the station.

Vizzavona 1 JPG.jpg Vizzavona station sits at the summit of the line and the north end of the line’s main tunnel. Maps show it as dead straight; the fact that the south portal isn’t visible from the north end likely reflects the gradient within the tunnel. 805 brings up the rear of the afternoon train to Ajaccio. Several bits of trackwork remain intact here, including a wagon turntable (left centre – too short for modern wagons to use). This is where the mainline crosses the primary Corsican long-distance path – the famous GR20. Specifically the main route of the path goes over the line a couple of hundred metres beyond the tunnel portal. Accordingly the station has something of an air of a major station on a UK heritage railway – a constant supply of people wandering around, using the restaurants and generally maintaining an air of life even when a train isn’t due for a couple of hours. Other Corsican stations have a more conventional air involving people turning up shortly before it appears. Two conventional restaurants on the building side of the line are augmented by a cheaper camping supplies shop by the campsite on the other side of the tracks. Note the ruins of the Grand Hotel de la Foret at top left.

Vizzavona Hotel 1 JPG.jpgFenced off, although not exactly inaccessible, the Grand Hotel of the Forest at Vizzavona has been derelict for a very long time now. One can only gaze on and wonder when it will fall down. Not a window frame survives; it is a mere shell perched on a little plateau, built back into the hillside, above the little bustle of the station. It was intended for British tourists who took a liking to Vizzavona and the nearby Falls. The market for luxury Mediterranean destinations for British people slid away in the ’50s and for whatever reason nobody has decided to try to revive it. Not that this building would offer much scope for modern comforts without about as much work as needed to build a new one anyway. 

Corsica Interior 1 JPG.jpg Once through the mountain at Vizzavona, the railway has a simpler descent down the valley side to sea level at Ajaccio. Along the way, it offers views out of the trees across wooded valleys and terracotta-red roofs to the high rugged peaks across the way – all with their hats on.

Corsica Interior 2 JPG.jpgAnd on into deeper wilds – the forested hills sail by as the train sweeps over embankments, across viaducts and through tunnels.

Ajaccio 2 JPG.jpgAjaccio station, at the end of the line; 824 has worked Train 3’s 3hr 51m journey across from Bastia (a little longer, journey-time-wise, than London to Berwick-upon-Tweed). The large station building, set across the platform ends, has been refurbished with a standard modern interior that could be almost any booking office on any corporate railway. The station is nicely-situated for the town centre, with easy access down the high street or a couple of back roads to the central squares and the stalls, shops and museums. Ajaccio is about two-thirds of the way down the west coast of the island; the railway goes no further. The old eastern line briefly got down to Porto Vecchio, much further down the island and almost within view of Sardinia, but this was destroyed in the fierce fighting for the island in the Second World War.

Ajaccio Petit Train 1 JPG.jpgSome Corsican towns are not wholly content with having a real railway and also have road trains, or “Petit Trains”, which drive around the backstreets carrying passengers for moderate sums. As none of the towns are that big it is nonetheless tempting to take the view that after several hours stuck in a real train (quite a busy one) it is nice to enjoy a leg stretch instead – with pauses to browse the stalls, buy lunch and try to work out if the Napoleon exhibition is open on Tuesdays.

Ajaccio Cactus 1 JPG.jpgAnd, of course, doing your own walk provides an opportunity to study things that the Petit Train will sail past or not climb up to at all, like this very happy roadside cactus plant at the top of Ajaccio.

Ajaccio 1 JPG.jpgSo Bastia is Riviera, Corte is Genoese, Vizzavona is fallen grandeur and Ajaccio…? Ajaccio has an air of a modern Med town, proud and fresh, with blocks of flats and hotels scattered along the waterfront around two-storey retaining walls or swept behind the main road across the head of the bay. The main road out of town has the relatively unusual feature of being worked around a railway. We are beyond the end of the railway here, amongst a seaside park on the west side of Ajaccio, looking through the palms at one of the modernist blocks that make up this part of town.

Venaco 7 JPG.jpgBack at Venaco at ten past 5 and fleet doyenne 801 is leading 802 out on Train 7, which will be in Ajaccio at 18:55. As well as the watertower Venaco has a subsidiary watercrane (which 801 is just passing). There also used to be an inspection pit under where 801 is passing; this has been filled in. The stationmistress/ booking clerk/ dispatcher can now turn her attention to sending 823/ 824 away northwards. 

venaco-2-jpg One of the heavily-branded units trots out of Venaco over the first viaduct south of the station, heading for Ajaccio in the early evening, with the many-channelled form of the mountains above Noceta in the background.

Venaco 5 JPG.jpgVenaco from high above, seen at dusk.

Ponte Leccia 1 JPG.jpgPonte Leccia. There is not too much in the way of large-scale community here, at the top of the valley from Casamozza, but the station is nonetheless important – for this is the start of the Calvi branch. Generally a quiet spot, it provides much opportunity for complex railway working. The branch has its own dedicated bay platform from which two trains leave daily for intermediate stations to PK79+800, Ile Rousse, Algajola and Calvi. On weekdays, one of these trains is a through service from Bastia; the other starts here. Both trains to Calvi provide connections from Bastia and Ajaccio, meaning that at 18:00 three trains can be seen lined up here (specifically trains 8 and 9 on the mainline, and the set which has come up on 102 and is returning to Calvi as 103 on the branch). The station is seen looking quiet and peaceful shortly after 09:00 one Monday morning following departure of trains to and from Ajaccio (train 2 northbound, 3 southbound). The Calvi – Bastia through service (train 100) is in residence out of view to the left, waiting for the section to Ponte Novu to clear. Train 2 was late that morning, which at least emptied out of the Calvi train all the people who decided to make the unplanned connection (into a train which then borrowed the ex-Calvi train’s path to get to Bastia). It also meant that trains 2 and 3 had met here instead of doing their booked crossing at Ponte Novu. The timetable allows train 2 to get clear of train 100 and train 3 to make a nice connection out of 100. For whatever reason the designer of the paper timetables has chosen to show Calvi and Ajaccio trains in separate tables so train 100 doesn’t show amongst the main block of services into Bastia.

Ile Rousse 1 JPG.jpg823 trails 824 as they work train 105 into Ile Rousse from Ponte Leccia (Saturday trains do not run through to Bastia). The railway swings along the waterfront of Ile Rousse (Red Isle – usually given its full name of L’Ile Rousse, incorporating a definite article, but the railway is more informal). The road runs around the inside, between railway and shops. While traffic is relatively heavy along here, it is made to look particularly heavy by the presence of a level crossing behind the tree where the road strikes out towards Ile Rousse’s headland and causeway. In the background, docked at the Port de L’Ile Rousse, is the vehicle ferry Monte D’Ord, registered in Bastia.

Ile Rousse 6 JPG.jpgIle Rousse, the first station to actually be in somewhere since Porte Leccia, has the air of returning to civilisation at long last. The remaining leg of the line, the Tramway de Balagne, to Calvi has a more homely manner than the cross-country branch, which is aided by its local service. This is a historically summer-only operation (now generally operated in winter too) that runs in addition to the two trains from Ponte Leccia and avoids requiring capital expenditure on an extra trainset by using second-hand stock displaced by the last new-train order for the rest of the network. Currently this involves power-trailer pairs of 1980s vehicles in their classic white and blue livery. Although not much smaller than the AMG800s, they have a much more diminutive appearance (and a more angular one, and lack through gangways). They feature on the cover of the Tramway’s timetable. Ile Rousse station, the eastern extremity of this service, is seen here hiding away on the far side of a car park below the town’s ramparts. Freshly painted, it keeps a well-presented aspect and is convenient for the town.

Ile Rousse 2 JPG.jpgBoules – with an air, to this non-expert, of specifically being Petanque – in Ile Rousse. This warm September Saturday was given over to the clack of balls across the town, all in nicely marked out rectangles. Boules is very popular along the north coast (less seen in the interior) and L’Ile Rousse’s main square offers plenty of room for it. The aim is to throw heavy balls at a small previously-thrown target ball. The town also has a neat covered market just off the main square and the usual array of souvenir shops.

Ile Rousse 3 JPG.jpgA batch of not very red islands off the town of Ile Rousse are now linked to the mainland by causeway, forming the port on the sheltered (eastern) side. When the sea is enjoying the aftermath of a storm-tossed night, as on this particular morning, the waves splash onto the western side of the causeway and spray across road and ferry-waiting-area hardstanding. The high rock beyond plays host to a neat, low-lying white lighthouse, accessed by a narrow road that twists up the inland side of the rock. At the top is a fresh breeze. 

Ile Rousse 4 JPG.jpgThe twirling roadway heads down from the rock. Beyond, across the rolling blue Med, are the tumbling mountains of the Corsican north coast stretching away to Algajola and Calvi.

Ile Rousse 5 JPG.jpgThe view from the train as it heads west along the Tramway de Balagne – scrub-ground, rocky headlands, hidden coves and blue sea making foam-coated landings on the shore-line.

Algajola 4 JPG.jpgAlgajola is the main intermediate settlement between Ille Rousse and Calvi. Several hotels and cafes fill the small town centre; one of these hotels has been adapted from a castle. The railway cuts across the inside of the little knob of rock that hosts the old town. More recent development has expanded up the hill behind the railway, seen here in the early hours of the morning awaiting the arrival of train 100.  The moon still peers down out of the clear blue sky onto the quiet modern houses, with their pseudo-traditional designs, balconies and blue shutters.

Algajola 5 JPG.jpgThe castle, carefully restored with a balcony disguised as battlements, perches its ramparts on the rocks of Algajola’s little headland.

Algajola 3 JPG.jpgThe weather had been relatively fierce the previous night and the Mediterranean was still breaking hard on the shore at Algajola at 10 o’clock the next morning. Most of the north coast is beachless; the scrub simply ends in yellow rocks which fall into the tideless sea.  

Punta Spano 1 JPG.jpgBetween Algajola and the outskirts of Calvi the coastal line goes through some very wild country. With the rocky shores of the Punta Spano nature reserve in the foreground, powercar 97054 propels trailer 9701 around the distant hillside on their way from Calvi to Ile Rousse. Footpaths trickle though the scrub country, dipping onto gravelly beaches and clambering over headlands towards the hamlet at Ondari.

Punta Spano 2 JPG.jpgThe Punto Spano also hosts one of Corsica’s coastal towers, which stand on the clifftop gazing out across the waves. This one grows rather neatly out of the rubbley rock of the seashore.

Corsican Renault 1 JPG.jpgA lot of pictures of the Corsican Railways feature some marvellously imposingly fat railcars with a certain air of solidity, bulk, capacity and permanence (at time of writing, the support website still opens with a picture of one). They were built by Renault rather a long time ago to replace steam traction and some rather small Billard railcars. Renault built a lot of railcars through the 1930s for railways around France which all had the semi-streamlined styling so beloved of the era, even for lumbering railcars. Despite the longevity of their train productions, Renault seem to now prefer concentrating on cars. In their later years the Corsican Renault railcars fulfilled the role of the obsolete rolling stock deployed on the Tramway while the neater, angular 1970s/ 1980s cars worked the mainline services. After the arrival of the AMG800s the 1980s vehicles took over the Tramway. The Renaults are now out of use. This is the remains of railcar 204, dumped at Camp Raffalli.

Corsican Renault 2 JPG.jpgThe engine-room end of 204, with smashed cab window. The higher roof surrounds the exhaust pipes and radiator. Behind is the two-window engine compartment. Behind the cab at the far end is luggage space. The actual passenger saloon is the five intermediate windows. For all their bulk, they are not large vehicles internally. A utilitarian interior featured five bays of small leather armchairs on a linoleum floor (4 seats to a bay; 1 bay each side; capacity 40. It seems there were another four seats tucked away somewhere). The cab interior was seemingly designed to consider any possible creature comforts and remove them. Usually the Renaults hauled a disproportionately smaller trailer car.

Calvi 1 JPG.jpgThe citadel at Calvi, high on its rock at the end of the town conveniently sheltering the bay behind. It is a marvellous citadel, much bigger on the inside than it looks like it ought to be, with a maze of streets that feel like they offer opportunities for getting lost for hours (although the constant glimpses of the sea, even from the citadel’s heart, actually make this a very difficult exercise.) Calvi claims to be the birthplace of Christopher Columbus (with the consequence that a man funded by Spanish monarchs but of generally Italian background is now French). The pub quiz question for Calvi is its connection to London – the answer being that both use the Cross of St George as a coat of arms.

Tennis Club (Corsica) 1 JPG.jpgOne of the Tramway trains swings out of the woods onto the beach-head to offer its passengers the view above. This is the powercar, with bodyside radiator grills; the trailer is coupled behind. Both are fitted with cabs, so the trailer will be pushed back to Ile Rousse. It will shortly stop at Tennis Club station, the second of a line of four Calvi “suburban” stations which take being named after the places they serve very seriously. (They are Club Olympique, Tennis Club, Balagne Orizontenovu and Lido.) Some enterprising person has filled the woods hereabouts with aerial ropeways, walkways and climbing frames in the general style of one of the UK’s “Go Ape” sites. Campsites dot the remaining parts of this coastline, which provides a great draw for visiting tourists with its long sandy beach.

Calvi 2 JPG.jpgTwo generations of Corsican train at Calvi – the 1980s set to the right (trailer 9701 leading) and a 21st-century machine in the main platform to the left (823 nearest with 824 beyond). The main body of the station building is fairly standard Corsica, although with an extra window bay and an awning. The more recent extension houses ticket office and toilets. The original layout featured the standard island platform and loop, although this has always been the terminus. Various remodellings fixed the bufferstops at the platform end. Prior to remodelling in 2007 there were three platform roads, with the centre track ending by a stub platform. The furthest track has now been removed, leaving two tracks between two wide platforms. 

Calvi 3 JPG.jpgCalvi from the citadel, looking down on the town. The straight road ahead leads up from the station, serving the post office, newsagents and various shops. Down by the wall is the entrance to the old lanes – Calvi’s version of York’s Shambles. A brace of tight, twisting, crowded lanes work their way along the slope above the harbour back to the station. They are agreeable lanes in themselves, though mostly populated with more touristy/ souvenir shops with several cafes. Beyond that is the marina, which is populated by expensive yachts and overlooked by restaurants. Off to the right is the residential part of town, which is pleasant enough to amble through but not overly different in concept to any other European suburban destination. Housing scatters out into the countryside to the south and leads up the foothills of Capu Miglione.

Calvi Citadel 1 JPG.jpgInside Calvi’s citadel. Tall, interestingly-shaped buildings blend with awkward staircases, military installations and crazy paving. A procession has just emerged from the Church and is making its way down to the square to find another church. Leading are four priests, who were trying to read the words of their holy dirge from a sheet of paper that was being blown about in the breeze. The active military installation occupies the tower leaning in on the left (plus associated fort buildings and a couple more towers) and comes in the form of the Second Foreign Parachute Regiment of the French Foreign Legion.

Algajola 2 JPG.jpgSunset over the beach at Algajola.

Kyleakin

In view of this blog having taken a serious turn lately, and bearing in mind that it is likely to be serious for a bit, for post 100 here is something a little lighter…

Inverness 2 JPG.jpgInverness station, North Highland platform. A 4-car 158 sits in platform 5 – 158705 is nearest, looking grubby, with 158717 behind quietly gleaming. Between them they form the 17:54 Sundays-excepted “for Wick ‘n’ Thurso and Kyle o’ Lochalsh. Passengers for Wick ‘n’ Thurso should travel in the front two coaches and in the rear two coaches for Kyle o’ Lochalsh. Passengers travelling to Beauly this evening will need to alight from the front door of the second coach.” The Beauly part of the announcement, now augmented by Conon Bridge, almost adds to the interest of this train into the far distant wilds of Northern Scotland; both stations have platforms about 50ft long. The 17:54 used to divide at Dingwall, with the Wick portion striking on into the North and the Kyle portion then trundling Westwards. No more – Wick now has its own departure a full half-hour later and the 17:54 is for Kyle only.

Growing up brought me family holidays to various destinations and also a certain interest in distant parts of UK geography. A Midlands kid by birth, I have always been reasonably well-up on what the world around places like Peterborough, Kettering and Leicester looks like (rolling with fields) but a bit vague on places in the extremities, like Cornwall and Scotland. I had a vision of Scotland as a land of mountains coated in snow and pine trees.

Cornwall was resolved by going to university there. It provided a good opportunity to explore the place and I grabbed it, trundling around the rail network, walking patches of the coastal path and exploring rural lanes. Periodically I potter back over the Tamar again to look in on some old haunt.

Scotland had to wait until I left home, when an idle few minutes looking at National Rail Enquiries saw me make the not exactly staggering discovery that the Far North of Scotland is accessible from the Great Western Corridor in a day’s rail travel. A long day, but a day all the same.

The first bit of advice I received on this was to not take this as an excuse to go all the way up there one day and come back the next day. I took it. This was to be a proper holiday, for which I bought the relevant maps and studied things to do while pushing North of Edinburgh for the first time. It was not any proper holiday though. It was the cherry-popper – the first holiday to an unfamiliar area that I organised myself for my enjoyment.

Edinburgh 2 JPG.jpgThe twinkling lights of Edinburgh from the Salisbury Crags during my first visit to the city. It was the farthest North I’d ever been at the time (my previous record was Carlisle). The excitement and interest was in some regards tamed by being there with friends for the Edinburgh Festival Fringe. Aside from the Fringe providing structure to proceedings, there is that little mite extra excitement for going somewhere miles off one’s beaten track for the first time with no company to anchor it to previous experience.

Druimuachdar Pass 1 JPG.jpgDruimuachdar Pass, highest point on the UK rail network. A key landmark on the run up to Inverness from Perth. Later the train clambers over Slochd summit and then coasts downhill into Inverness; sea level is reached at the beginning of Inverness station throat. My journey over here had the extra frisson that every yard the train pushed northwards was another yard further north on my personal map of the world.

Passing on from Druimuachdar, the train took me up to Inverness and then, after a 50-minute change via a shopping centre takeaway, handed me on to another for the journey wending across Scotland, down Strath Carron to Kyle of Lochalsh. My ultimate destination was a small village called Caol Acain, or Kyleakin – the gateway to Skye.

Music, maestro…

Speed, bonnie boat, like a bird on the wing,
Onward! the sailors cry;
Carry the lad that’s born to be King
Over the sea to Skye.

Loud the winds howl, loud the waves roar,
Thunderclaps rend the air;
Baffled, our foes stand by the shore,
Follow they will not dare.

Speed, bonnie boat, like a bird on the wing,
Onward! the sailors cry;
Carry the lad that’s born to be King
Over the sea to Skye.

Though the waves leap, soft shall ye sleep,
Ocean’s a royal bed.
Rocked in the deep, Flora will keep
Watch by your weary head.

Speed, bonnie boat, like a bird on the wing,
Onward! the sailors cry;
Carry the lad that’s born to be King
Over the sea to Skye.

Many’s the lad fought on that day,
Well the Claymore could wield,
When the night came, silently lay
Dead in Culloden’s field.

Speed, bonnie boat, like a bird on the wing,
Onward! the sailors cry;
Carry the lad that’s born to be King
Over the sea to Skye.

Burned are their homes, exile and death
Scatter the loyal men;
Yet ere the sword cool in the sheath
Charlie will come again.

Speed, bonnie boat, like a bird on the wing,
Onward! the sailors cry;
Carry the lad that’s born to be King
Over the sea…
To…

Skye…

 

Achnasheen 1 JPG.jpgUnfortunately I did the holiday in October.  Or perhaps not unfortunately, for as well as the excitement from having no company to anchor me to previous experiences there was also the interest from not having seen any of the last two hours of train journey to anchor me to the world I had come from. What little evidence of progress there was through the dark skies of Ross-shire in our rather lost little “158” came from the automated announcements as we passed the pools of light that marked intermediate stations only known to me from books and the slightly historical Driver’s Eye View Skye Train. “This is Achnasheen,” said the computerised Scottish lady, as we halted somewhere on a bit of moorland. “This train is for Kyle of Lochalsh. The next stop is Achnashellach.”

(But unlike the most recent time I did the run, at least we remembered to stop at Achnashellach. It is slightly embarrassing, even when representing the only train for forty miles, to have to back up into the 18-inch-high platform set beneath a mountainous escarpment in Glen Carron. Particularly in daylight.)

Kyleakin from Kyle of Lochalsh 1 JPG.jpgThis was therefore my first view of Kyleakin, when 158717 had brought the 17:54 safely to its remote destination. For the Kyleakin-bound traveller, the Skye Mainline train wends down the side of Loch Carron, cuts through a promontory and pushes out into Loch Alsh before announcing it’s going no further and you’re on your own. The crew then add emphasis to this by turning off the engines and locking the “158” up for the night. It is a pleasant 45-minute walk from Kyle of Lochalsh station to Kyleakin, which adds a further certain frisson of adventure when done in the dark. A pavement follows the road all the way over to Skye.

A87 Kyle of Lochalsh 1 JPG.jpg Journey’s end not yet reached, but Kyle of Lochalsh is the last place on the A87 on the British mainland. The road out of Kyle was built with the Skye Bridge in 1996, hence its relatively modern appearance. Until the bridge came, traffic was routed down the side of Kyle station to the ferry loading point for the crossing of the Kyle Akin, at the head of Loch Alsh, to Skye’s heather and mountains.

Kyleakin 2 JPG.jpgDaylight brings sight of Kyleakin properly after a chance to get enough sleep to appreciate it. I arrived in Morar in the same sort of conditions 18 months later; it’s my preferred way to begin a holiday when the last leg is fairly simple and the journey long. Between the main road and the kyle is a pleasing village green, overlooked by hostels, hotels and private housing. Beyond is the vast form of the arching Skye Bridge, carrying the A87 from mainland to island; occasionally views are expressed that Skye barely constitutes an island when you can drive onto it in a few seconds. For me, stepping onto the bridge was the first time I had been off the British mainland in three years; hardly an emotional moment, but a notable one all the same. The little island to the right, once an isolated scrap of rock carrying a small cottage only accessible by water, is now the support for a trunk road. It is notable for something; I forget precisely what.

Beinn na Caillich 1 JPG.jpgTo the North are the Red Cuillins, which make up the backbone of this part of Skye, and the insignificant low-lying islet of Pabay which measures perhaps one square mile. Between us and the glacier-ridden form of Beinn na Caillich is the township of Broadford, out of view behind a small promontory to the left – a ribbon development along the A87 as it heads deeper into Skye. Broadford is also the junction for the A851 to Armadale. While the ferry at Kyleakin has gone, the ferry at Armadale still runs across the water to Mallaig. Mallaig has direct road and rail access to Fort William and Glasgow, but the voyage across the Sound of Sleat is much longer than that across Loch Alsh. The air is very clear in this part of Scotland and to those used to the more polluted atmosphere of Southern England distances can be very deceptive. The mountain is about 10 miles away and rises in a sheer sort of way to 732 metres. Curiously, despite it being usual in this area for things that are several miles away to appear to be a nice short walk, the submarine HMS Astute got everything the other way about in misjudging distances and collided with Skye in this general vicinity shortly after launching in 2010. It conjured up pleasing images of masses of foreign spies realising they could get a look at a world-leading submarine in a comparatively accessible location and crowding on the pierhead at Kyle with binoculars. Kyle of Lochalsh was one proposed base for the UK nuclear deterrent, but what with one thing and another it went to Faslane instead.

Kyleakin 3 JPG.jpgKyleakin’s main road runs down a promontory into the loch, to the right of this picture. Behind this promontory is the mouth of a stream called the An t-Ob; the landmass to the left being called the South Obbe. A bridge crosses the An t-Ob (with impressive water flows beneath at low tide) and the lane leads on down the north edge of the South Obbe past another dozen houses. Looking upstream provides a lovely little dell, with the foothills of one of Skye’s mountains in the background – this foothill being the Cnoc a Mhadaidh-ruaidh.

Kyle of Lochalsh 1 JPG.jpgDaylight, and we return to the mainland to see Kyle of Lochalsh station from its unattractive end, looking north. Trips to Kyle while doing self-catering holidays in Kyleakin are fairly essential, as Kyle has the area’s Co-op (though Kyleakin has a corner shop that can fulfil some needs). At 5.72 degrees west and pointing almost due south, the station indicates towards a point just the slightest smidgen of a degree further west than Land’s End. The summer Sunday timetable gives Kyle two round trips, one starting at Kyle and the other at Inverness. The winter timetable simply withdraws the Kyle trip and the unit that arrived at Kyle on Saturday night remains there until Monday morning. The Inverness trip uses platform 2, to the right, with the peculiar consequence that the station appears at its busiest on Sundays out of season. 158717 is doing the honours on this particular Sunday morning after ferrying me in the night before. The station has an exposed feel in the middle of the loch, though is extensively sheltered by Skye. It is still interesting to ponder what the 158s make of this treatment, particularly in the depths of winter. The end of the running line represents one of the farthest extremes of the British rail network; being on the end of a pier in a loch gives it a finality lacked by land-based places like Mallaig, Penzance, Lowestoft (farthest east) or indeed Wick and Thurso. Stranraer is probably the nearest comparator. Kyle’s large station building is now a cafe, museum and ticket office. Beyond it a ramp leads up to the road bridge that carries the A87 over the platform. This ramp acts as access route, station car park, drop off area and anything else that it happens to be needed for. In the foreground is the remains of one of the pier’s sidings, accessed by wagon turntables, which allowed goods to be transshipped to onward ferries. As well as Skye, the station was also once the port for Stornaway on Lewis. This was regrettably transferred to Ullapool in the 1970s – shortening the crossing, but as a 1940s plan to build a branch from the Kyle line at Garve to Ullapool never came to fruition rail access is a trifle more difficult.

Kyleakin from Kyle of Lochalsh 2 JPG.jpgFrom the same point as above, looking the other way across the water. The headland of South Obbe squats to the left; Beinn na Caillich is off to the right behind the Skye Bridge. In between is the white strip of properties that make up Kyleakin, with the wooded headland hiding Kyle House and the landing point for the bridge.

Kyleakin 4 JPG.jpgAnother overall view of Kyleakin, this time from Caisteal Maol to the east of the village. The main road curves across the green and then sweeps around the front of the houses on the promontory, finishing on the pier to the right. Parked on it was a minibus calling for something about Libya. The bridge again dominates the background scene. It was built as a private finance initiative and tolled accordingly (£5 single for a bridge maybe half a mile long), with the result that one of the first acts of the Scottish Government on getting transport devolved was to buy out the concession holder. This cost a similar price to building the bridge in the first price. Running a new concrete bridge not being a very extravagant affair, most of the £33million taken in tolls during the intervening 9 years presumably went in someone’s profits. The station museum has up a list of excuses for refusing to pay the tolls, but my favourite story is that agricultural traffic went over free so someone established a nice sideline leasing sheep for people to carry over the bridge in their cars. By the time I reached the area all that remained of the toll booths was a widening in the road, but the tourist board and all accommodation providers remained very keen to emphasise that the tolls had gone.

Castle Moyle 1 JPG.jpgMoyle Castle/ Caistell Maol rises out of a summer mist on Loch Alsh, seem from the ferry slipway. The castle was never more than a single tower guarding the loch, more for the purposes of extorting passers-by than defending against enemies. A combination of dereliction and the local weather means that not a great deal is left, but it makes a suitably moody starring feature of this sort of picture.

Castle Moyle 2 JPGA rather cheerier autumnal day, with the birds flying around the ruined castle and its heather-covered hill reflected in the bright blue waters of Loch Alsh beneath a clear sky. Note the tide marks. This is a particularly restful scene and the photo is one of which I am particularly fond.

Loch Alsh 1 JPG.jpgThe loch stretches inland from the castle, which frames it nicely. The little lighthouse visible on the jutting rock centre left is on the island of Eileanan Dubha. A few miles up the loch a narrow passage off to the right called Kyle Rhea separates Skye from the mainland by a few hundred yards; it is spanned by a seasonal ferry near the hamlet of Kylerhea and leads on out into the Sound of Sleat past Mallaig and towards the Small Isles. At the head of Loch Alsh, just hidden by the headland of Avernish, is the restored castle at Eilean Donan. I have a rather nice painting of this on my wall (picked up at Tintern a year or so ago) but have to quietly cough when visitors ask if I’ve ever actually been. Kyleakin is a good base for exploring, but on my visits I’ve tended to be more satisfied with having got there without trundling eight miles up the loch along the A87. One can argue at much length whether Eilean Donan or Caistell Maol is the more authentic structure; this one is in ruins, while Eilean Donan looks so good because it was rebuilt in the 20th century after being blown up in the 18th.

Eilean an t-Srathaidh 1 JPG.jpgOne does not have to get very far from Kyleakin to do quite a good deal of exploring. The varied array of views and multitudes of snug, hidden locations mean that clawing repeatedly over a few square miles is not actually that repetitive. This is a bay south-west of Plockton, between there and Duirinish. Plockton is the other notable centre of population on the Kyle line apart from Kyle of Lochalsh and about half a dozen miles up the coast at the entrance to Loch Carron. Scottish land law does not acknowledge public footpaths, instead declaring the entire country to be (within general good reason) open access. This allows for a great deal of tramping through heather before deciding that perhaps the concept is not necessarily as all-freeing as it might be. Still, it allows for a certain variety of views and a part of this one graces the cover of a notebook that I wander around with for jotting down thoughts and inspirations – or failing that email addresses for people I might want to get hold of again, rules for card games, locations of handy takeaways for the list and other such things.

Loch Carron 1 JPG.jpgWhen it’s not late at night in October (for example, when it’s mid-evening in mid-summer), the Kyle line is generally agreed to be worth the trip to Kyleakin in itself. Personally I advise against doing out-and-back runs of any of the rural Scottish lines in a day with intention of viewing the scenery, as it will start to wear after a while. Much better to spend a few days enjoying being at the end of the line, but the journey by train from Inverness is the sort of journey which makes it worth leaving the car at home and skipping the bus options.

Strome Ferry 1 JPG.jpgThe train also serves such wonderful places as Strome Ferry. Strome Ferry was largely created by the railway as the original terminus, the Kyle extension being stupendously expensive for reasons most readily explained by travelling on it. Strome Ferry thus got to be the centre of 19th-century campaigns to preserve the Sabbath from desecration by railway companies that wanted to take the Saturday fishing catch to London on a Sunday. Otherwise the attractions of Strome Ferry are largely summarised by this (faintly iconic) road sign.

Kyle of Lochalsh from Kyleakin 1 JPG.jpgThe Royal Navy on manoeuvres past Kyleakin, seen from South Obbe. The minibus on the pier is sat at left. This particular piece of Navy kit managed to navigate Caol Acain without wrecking itself on anything. Beyond is Kyle of Lochalsh, with the large form of the Lochalsh hotel above the ship’s bows.

Applecross 1 JPGKyleakin also has a twin-peaked mountain of its own, the higher bit of which is called Sgurr na Coinnich. It is a pathless mountain which rises squarely from sea level behind Kyleakin to a height of 739m in about 2 miles (3km – an average gradient of about 1 in 4). For those who can be bothered to clamber over the heather and patches of bog all the way to the top, the views are no doubt rather good. For those (like me) who get bored three-quarters of the way up, there are still some handsome views of the Red Cuillins, the rest of Skye stretching northwards, the Applecross Peninsular (pictured), the bridge, Kyle of Lochalsh town and station and, tucked against the south face of the Kyle of Loch Alsh, the village of Kyleakin itself. Clouds streak close overhead and helicopters chatter past below on their way down the loch. Looking down at the right time will provide very distant views of the little Class 158s bringing a few more people across from Inverness to the area – from shopping, for holidays, for walks or for a cup of tea at the Lochalsh hotel before heading east again.

Dingwall 2 JPG.jpgRather than strike straight back South, I took three nights in Thurso after doing Skye. This meant changing at Dingwall for a Far North train. 158713 is seen with the lunchtime train from Kyle, back in civilisation and preparing to do the Inverness metro run through Muir of Ord and Beauly to the Highland capital. A few moments later 158714 slid in alongside with the mid-afternoon Inverness – Kyle service. The junction is at the north end of the station beyond the bridge. Kyle to Thurso on this set of connections takes 5¾ hours, of which ½-hour is spent at Dingwall and the rest chattering along in 158s at up to 75mph. (The 75 is on the Far North route, which has been upgraded to broadly mainline status, albeit single track. The Kyle line has jointed track and a limit of 45. The investment in keeping the Far North Mainline fast is worth it, despite the minimal population; it is a sobering thought that Inverness is less than two-thirds of the way between Edinburgh and Thurso.)

A897 Forsinard.jpgThe Far North is not Skye, but it is really worth a visit. One of the least densely-populated regions in Europe, there is nowhere else quite like it in Britain. The main road from Forsinard (which consists of a railway station and a hotel) is seen heading for the next notable centre of population at Helmsdale, a trifle under 50 miles away to the south. The OS map of the area features about the same mileage of road as railway.

After this was over I spent a day and a bit heading from Thurso to Falmouth by rail. That’s another story. So we will finish with this instead:

Kyleakin sign 1 JPG.jpgEven fairly casual users of the British road network will be familiar with the “wayside pulpits” which preach valuable information like “don’t drink and drive” in neat LED block capitals and present warnings of queues ahead to the three-mile-tailback behind the latest motorway pile-up. There are also wayside pulpits around the A87, which lacking major traffic events to report upon are obliged to consider other points of note. Drivers coming out of the Port of Kyleakin onto the A87 are therefore confronted with this sign. As the Port of Kyleakin consists of the derelict slipway for a ferry remarked on above, exactly what traffic is expected to emanate from Kyleakin that is unfamiliar with basic British road usage is unclear. If this is all the pulpit has to say one wonders what the business case for it was. Anyway, this is what Skye wayside pulpits preach on.

(Almost as good as a pair of road signs I met in Morar, 30 miles or a day’s rail travelling away, which kindly reminded me that on zebra crossings pedestrians have priority.)

It is on this cheery note that I will move on, pondering when I will get round to tripping up to the North Highlands again. Or perhaps not quite on that note. I came across this poem in a magazine shortly after my first return from the Highlands and while I have always gone North from Kings Cross (excepting my Morar trip) it seemed to capture something.


At Euston

Stranger with the pile of luggage proudly labelled for Portree
How I wish this night of August I were you and you were me!
Think of all that lies before you when the train goes sliding forth,
And the lines athwart the sunset lead you swiftly to the North.

Think of breakfast at Kingussie, think of high Drumochter Pass,
Think of Highland breezes singing through the bracken and the grass.
Scabious blue and yellow daisy, tender fern beside the train,
Rowdy Tummel, falling, brawling, seen and lost, and glimpsed again.

You will pass my golden roadway of the days of long ago.
Will you realise the magic of the names I used to know,
Clachnaharry, Achnashellach, Achnasheen and Duirinish?
Every moor alive with coveys, every pool aboil with fish.

Every well-remembered vista, more exciting mile by mile,
Till the wheeling gulls screaming round the engine at the Kyle.
Think of cloud on Bheinn na Cailleach, jagged Cuchullins soaring high,
Scent of peat, and all the glamour of the misty Isle of Skye.

Rods and guncase in the carriage, wise retriever in the van;
Go; and good luck travel with you! (Wish I’d half your luck, my man!)

A. M. HarbordEuston 2 JPG.jpg

“Swallows” on celuloid

Some while ago I heard mention that there was a new film coming out of Swallows & Amazons. For those unfamiliar, this is a book by the journalist and author Arthur Ransome, who after reporting on the Russian Revolution came home to the Lake District, wrote comment articles for the Guardian and then met up with the family of a girl he once proposed to. With the encouragement of girl and her husband, he taught the children to sail. When they returned home to Syria (nice people, Syrians) he wrote a book of imaginary adventures for enthusiastic 1920s children with a boat, two tents and some form of access to an island in the Lakes. (What sort of access is never discussed, except in Secret Water. This is one of the bits of fantasy in the books.)

Swallows & Amazons was what might be called a sleeper hit, but the series became iconic after the sequel (Swallowdale) came out and Ransome was able to live comfortably on the proceeds of the (eventually 12) books for the rest of his life – along with his wife Evgenia, who before their marriage had been Leon Trotsky’s secretary.

The Swallows books are often accused of being rather quiet and slow these days. Obviously anyone who says such things hasn’t read:

  • several bits of Swallowdale;
  • the middle of Pigeon Post;
  • We Didn’t Mean to go to Sea;
  • the wet bit of Secret Water;
  • very much of The Big Six;
  • the key scene in The Picts and the Martyrs; or
  • any of Peter Duck or Missee Lee (but particularly the climaxes).

What they do offer is a remarkably egalitarian fantasy world. If you already happen to live in a fantasy world, you too may enjoy adventures out of Philip Pullman’s creations. If you have access to a large rambling house with empty rooms and wardrobes unvisited for years, it is quite possible that you might find yourself in a despotic dictatorship with a deeply entrenched class system where lions provide eternal distant government and beavers talk at you. If you get to dig in old gravel pits outside your house, there may prove to be a Psammead down there as delightfully promised by Edith Nesbit. J. K. Rowling offers a glorious world of more entrenched class systems for people who turn out to have magic powers, and then goes on television to complain about class.

These are all excellent bits of escapism that have entranced children (and adults) with imaginations of a world that they cannot really visit.

But Ransome’s landscape involves no magic. It is accessible to anyone who can get hold of a tent and a boat, and some of the more peaceful bits of the Lakes could still be borrowed for such adventures. Failing that there’s always a Scottish loch or four (Loch Morar is nicely out of the way, well-endowed with islands and apparently home to Morag, the Loch Morar Monster). It can remain believable as a possibility, and his characters are so real and human (especially the Swallows, being based on real people) that they almost walk out of the page. There is no need to abandon the family altogether and there is no class system.

___…___

This all meant that I was looking forward to this new film with interest. Here’s the trailer:

Oh gawd.

Aside from the curiosity that Ransome made Susan the sensible one and she seems to have been all but written out of the trailer…

Err…

Ransome of course never did expand on Captain Flint’s backstory, but the “retired pirate” is never really confirmed beyond Titty’s imagination (Nancy merely says that it is “quite a good thing for him to be”). By Pigeon Post he seems to be connected with mining in some way. What is certain is that the character in the books was not thin or built for clinging onto trains of 1950s suburban stock. He was also always rather polite to Mrs Walker, although as they didn’t meet until after he’d slandered her son this may be for more reasons than his amiable personality. All-in-all, there is an air of “from the stable of the films of The Chronicles of Narnia“. As with Narnia, the cast look alright and have a family-ish air which probably works better in the full thing.

I liked the Paddington update, bringing the concept into the present day, giving the children more vim and building a new adventure around the base idea of the original short stories. I’ve been enjoying the Professor Branestawm adaptations the BBC has been doing as well (again, building up short stories). When reading bits of Swallows books that I am too familiar with, I like to picture how to update them to a bunch of modern kids with mobile phones. (The “Better drowned than duffers” telegram is clearly an email written in a hurry; the lack of mobiles is simply because Wild Cat Island has no mains electricity so they all go flat by sundown; Mother thinks she can trust the children without life jackets – I’m fairly sure I’ve been rowing without a life jacket; candles can be replaced with battery lanterns; the boats haven’t changed much and Coniston is still not all that busy.) Actually, bringing the Swallows into the present day would be rather appealing.

Part of the concept is to bring in elements of Arthur Ransome’s life, which actually would warrant a film of their own. (Even with his “Ransome already left” embellishments to his autobiography.)

We’ll leave it there. It looks like something that might have been better under a different title (Blah & Witter, based on Swallows & Amazons). That doesn’t necessarily do you any harm (see the recent Lady Susan film adaptation, done as Love & Friendship but clearly the same story from one look at the trailer – Lady Susan might have no name recognition, but I’m never quite sure Swallows is that widely read these days). Under a different title I might be interested in seeing it, but as Swallows it feels like I’d be coming back in and picking up the book to make sure nobody’s changed it in my absence. I might, on reflection, go and see it, but then I might sit in and put this on – the trailer (in a way which suggests the 2016 Swallows may be better than it looks) fails to fully grasp its innate humour, humanity and liveliness:

But Susan looks happy in this older one, and I like the ’70s Titty. She has a blog, in case anyone’s interested; I picked up her book while holidaying in Coniston. Being in the area of course provides an opportunity to take way too many pictures of the Lakes, so here’re a few.

Peel Island 01 JPG My sunset picture of Peel Island on Coniston, which found its way onto here with a lengthy description back in October.

Lake Windermere 04 JPG.jpgWindermere, at Bowness, as I saw it on arriving late on a Saturday evening – astride an overladen bicycle, fresh off the train, looking for a chip stall and ready to sail to Ambleside.

Lake Windermere 05 JPG.jpgThe cross-Windermere ferry, mentioned in the previous post.

Old Man of Coniston 01 JPG.jpg The landscape – high above Coniston, on the quiet way across from Ambleside (with bike), looking across at the hulking form of the Old Man of Coniston. I should have cycled over earlier that day and gone up him that morning; the view would have been something. I saved it for the last day of the holiday, by which point the weather had broken and the Old Man was wearing hat and balaclava.

Stable Harvey Moss 1 JPG.jpg Swallowdale Country, in the form of Stable Harvey Moss near Torver. It is easy to picture the Swallows tramping across this towards Kanchenjunga or Titty and Roger getting horribly lost in the fog (who needs guns when you have fog on boggy moorland?). This is where the bike proved less handy; it is impossible to hunt out Swallowdale with a road bike and aside from trying to stretch the lock round a tree by the road there is (it being the sticks) nowhere to secure it.

October

As October 2015 draws to a close, it seems a good time to reflect on what a nice time of year October is for getting out on trips, adventures and holidays.

The nights are certainly drawing in – usually rather abruptly on the final full weekend of the month – but the weather is often still good and the sun still bright. This is combined with the end of the uniform green of summer and the brief interlude before the arrival of the greys and browns of winter.

This series of photos is a commemoration of this change of the hues.

Strath Halladale 1 JPGStrath Halladale, running northwards across the Flow of Caithness from Forsinard towards the north coast of Britain near Thurso. The expanse of conifers was one of the survivors of the plantations provided here because the Forsinard Bog is a large expanse of empty land that nobody had any use for, unlike the places further south where trees were being cut down for motorways, business estates and housing. Subsequently it has been realised that the trees were destroying the delicate ecosystem of the empty bog so they are being hurriedly harvested before maturity – whether this particular plantation is still there (the picture was taken three years ago) would require another visit to ascertain. 

Forsinard 2 JPGForsinard proper is one of the most isolated places in Britain to enjoy a rail service. The station is behind the camera in this picture taken in the early hours of an October morning, with the trees showing a faint yellow hint, the grass beginning to die back and the long shadows stretching across the tattered road surface. There is more than a passing feeling of some isolated place in the centre of the North American continent.

Dingwall 1 JPGDingwall is the junction between the railways from the Far North (Wick, Thurso and of course Forsinard) and the scattered communities on the West Coast of Scotland near the Isle of Skye (Plockton, Durinish and Kyle of Lochalsh). A small station in the local heavy architectural style, it is perhaps not the most interesting place to spend time. The northern end of the station is now encased in mature birch trees, hiding the view up to the junction proper. Come October every one of these birches comes out in a different shade, blending with the grubby ballast and rusted rails. The large white boards with red dots in the distance are “Stop” boards used for train control; there are no conventional railway signals north of the Great Glen.

Durinish 1 JPGThe dull green of the conifer plantations works well in October, since they blend well with the mix of yellows and oranges on the deciduous trees and the reddish-brown of the bracken. Patches of gorse maintain blobs of darker green, stretched around the ridges of exposed rock. A few trees give up particularly early and add a skeletal grey to proceedings. Red blossom throws in an extra tint to this view of the Allt Dhuirinish rising up from Loch Carron to the freshwater lochs and mountains beyond. 

Sgurr na Coinnich 1 JPGBeyond the end of the Kyle line, on the Isle of Skye, is the hulking form of Sgurr na Coinnich. The mountain dominates the background of photos of the attractive and well-located Kyle of Lochalsh station. Below its rugged summit and steep flanks are deep gorges carrying streams off the moss and bogs to the seawater of Loch Alsh. Crowds of trees, snuggling in the shelter from the harsher elements of Highland weather, make for a mass of hues crowded around this stream between the orange grass and purple-grey moorland flowers on one side and the dark green plantation on the other.

Keith Town 1 JPGFar across Scotland, the town of Keith has a heritage railway based on one of the many closed lines in this area, built as two opposing companies met and attempted to work around each other in difficult terrain. Now the green diesel unit with its silver roof and red bufferbeam contrasts with the white buildings, wild mix of trees and bright blue sky. A waft of steam in the distance indicates the steam locomotive that the Keith and Dufftown Railway had hired in to mark its railway’s 150th anniversary; the diesel units were acting as hauled stock for the day.

Goathland 1 JPGThe landscape of the North Yorkshire Moors is often as wild as the Highlands of Scotland, although it is relatively more rolling and the scenery in the valleys is softer and more wooded. The road is freshly wetted after overnight rain; the dark clouds are still wandering off to the north, although the sky overhead is bright blue. The bracken is dying by patches; the roadside short grass remains green; rocks poke out from amongst the heather. On the skyline, the trees are just changing hue.

Goathland 2 JPGThe reddish-brown of the North Eastern Railway is seen to good effect in autumn as the trees change their hues at Goathland station on the North Yorkshire Moors Railway. With the sun thrown away to the south at almost exactly midday the light is pouring down onto the faded wagons, the door to the goods shed and the end of the signal box – the windows of which are seen freshly taped up against bomb damage for the forthcoming October Railways in Wartime weekend. The signaller, wearing a modern high-visibility jacket, is exchanging single-line tokens for the sections from Levisham and on to Grosmont with the driver of Class 24 diesel No. 5081. The diesel’s fuel tank and bogies are stained from rust and muck thrown off wet rails and its roof is rusty through time spent outside since last overhaul (it is now out of traffic awaiting the next one). Its dark green livery, offset with a white solebar, is never especially bright and was notorious when new for blending into the background – resulting in the invention of yellow warning panels and high intensity headlights for the locos plus orange jackets with reflective strips for the staff. The coach, by contrast, is in vibrant blood and custard with a clean roof. Behind is a mix of tree shades and some more red blossom. The rust-covered rails with patches of moss in the yard in the foreground complete the picture.

Lake Windermere 03 JPGThe dark clouds that sometimes gather overhead in October do not necessarily make for comfortable walking, but from a photography point of view the partial blocking out of the sun creates some incredibly dramatic scenes. This one, looking across Lake Windermere in a south-westerly direction from halfway up Bowness, was taken in colour.

Loughrigg 01A particularly splendid piece, with every autumnal colour in one tree – seen below the flanks of Loughrigg, on the Ambleside flank, at the top end of Lake Windermere. Overhead the blue sky gives contrast to the fiery leaves.

Loughrigg 02A few minutes later, from high up on Loughrigg looking down on Rydal Water. Beyond are the fells above Grasmere. The sky is a softer blue; the clouds add variety to the shades on the distant mountain.

Orrest 1 JPGOf course, the clouds can be an attraction in their own right – as the sheep graze, the trees below begin their change and the afternoon sun picks out every detail in the old grey Lakeland stone wall, an example of Canis Cumulus brings fresh meaning to clouds chasing across the sky above the mountains north-east of Windermere.

Jenkin Crag 01 JPGThe fells over Langdale rise far away on a sunny Monday morning, seen across the northern end of Windermere from Jenkin Crag. The crag makes a particularly good viewpoint on the western slopes of Wansfell, looking out towards the Old Man of Coniston and the passes that carry the road across the mountains to Eskdale and the Cumbrian coast. Browning trees frame the scene.

Newby Bridge 01 JPGAt the south end of Windermere, another steam railway leads south to Haverthwaite; the original line continued to the Cumbrian Coast line at Ulverston, but parts of this have been superseded by a road. An “Austerity” saddletank, painted in British Railways black and named Repulse, brings a rake of blood and custard coaches through the attractive valley between lake and sea. While the sky overhead is grey, the sun beats down on the loco’s bright red bufferbeam and uses its steam to cast a shadow across the converted barn to the left. Beyond, a mix of sunlit trees contrast with the grey uplands in the background. The mixed weather conditions of October can in fact serve to show British landscape at its best.

Coniston 01 JPGThe late John Keats referred to autumn as the “Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness”; after a largely warm and sunny day, Coniston is seen bathed in sunset on an October evening. The Old Man rises behind, wrapped and hulking with his back to the sun. Below is Coniston Water, calm and unruffled in the still air. Bank Ground Farm is down the field below, with its boathouse to the right. The farm was adopted by the author Arthur Ransome for his 1929 book Swallows & Amazons, which made some minor changes to the surrounding geography involving a couple of extra headlands and the elimination of Coniston village. It now plays host to the Swallows & Amazons Tearoom.

Peel Island 01 JPGFurther down the lake is Peel Island, with its hidden harbour and dense tree covering. Ransome borrowed the harbour and merged it with Blake Holme on Windermere for his “Wild Cat Island”. Many years later, the island is quiet and peaceful amongst the soft, creased waters of an October sunset. The sky takes on a Neptunian air with its deep cloud, streaked by white and blotched with darker hues. The rocks stand silhouetted against the sun and a jetty stretches out onto the water with a faintly rippled reflection. The water mirrors the island and the shoreline to provide a demonstration of Monet’s watercolour art in practice. In the distance a crack in the clouds illuminates the treeline across the south end of Coniston Water, from where the Crake flows southwards towards Ulverston. 

Mawddach 02 JPGLate sunrises and early sunsets just mean an excuse to watch them – a morning Cambrian Coast train provides a ringside seat of the sun coming up over the Mawddach estuary at Barmouth. The sun shines over the clouds to the southeast, which cover the peak of Cader Idris and shade the sky to the south; the fresh sky blue and the brightly-lit clouds to the north are reflected in the swirling water.

Portmeirion 02 JPGThe fairytale village at Portmeirion and its associated gardens on the north-west coast of Wales, designed by Sir Clough Williams-Ellis, could be said to not count as a demonstration of British landscape due to the array of imported plants, flowers and architecture. Freshly washed by rain, the Chinese Garden is very peaceful and scenic with its own mix of hues and textures.

Blue Rock 01 JPGOctobers mists also add to the atmosphere of the Forest of Dean, seen here on a warm and damp day shortly before the trees started to turn. The location is the south end of Blue Rock Tunnel, on the former Bullo Pill to Cinderford branch line. The footpath is following the old tramway around the outside of a rocky outcrop that the railway cut through in a short, shallow tunnel.

Today the sun is shining. Must be time to go out…

60 years

Usk is a pretty sort of place. It is situated on the river of the same name in the Welsh borderlands, a little north of Newport and a similar distance south of Monmouth. It is bypassed by most main roads nowadays, which has not exactly given it a tranquil air but means it bustles agreeably rather than lying under a smog of impatient traffic while the local children are taught not to cross the road.

Usk A472 Bridge 1 JPG

High above stands the ruined castle, still picturesque in an early Victorian way with ivy on its towers, gardens on its ramparts and chickens roaming the courtyard.

Usk Castle 1 JPGUsk Castle 2 JPG

Below the castle a low bridge of considerable bulk – originally a stone arch and widened later to the south with a girder on bricks – carries a bank of vegetation over a riverside road. Other than this it and the adjacent two-span girder bridge over the Usk have no visible function.Usk rail bridge 1 JPG

The Coleford, Monmouth, Usk and Pontypool Railway

This company was authorised by Act of Parliament in 1853 and reached Usk from Pontypool (or, more precisely, Little Mill) in 1855, the grand opening being on Wednesday 1st August of that year. It originally intended to go clear across the Forest of Dean to Awre, where it would join the South Wales Railway and provide an independent link from there to the Mid-Valleys. Competition concerns scuppered that; instead, once Usk Tunnel had stopped falling in the line opened to Monmouth in October 1857 and as far as passengers were concerned it went no further.

In 1861 a goods-only viaduct was opened to carry the line across the Wye at Monmouth to join a tramroad from Coleford. At the same time the railway did a rather neat performance in the game of railway politics and got its very moderately remunerative concern taken over – first by the short-lived West Midland Railway and later by the Great Western.

Other railways around Monmouth and Pontypool then took up the job of being interesting and the Coleford line that never reached Coleford itself merely provided a service of various trains from Pontypool Road running, as the mood took them, through to Ross-on-Wye, as far as Monmouth or only to Usk. Traffic took a battering in the 1930s, probably owing to the appearance of buses that went into Pontypool and Monmouth rather than forcing changes at or walking from Pontypool Road and Monmouth Troy; as trains were never extended through to the more convenient station at Pontypool Crane Street and preferred to avoid going around the corner to Monmouth May Hill usage never really recovered.

ASLEF

Nationalisation of the railways in 1948 was followed by a decline in industrial relations, rising wages elsewhere and slowly sliding rail traffic levels. New staff were unwilling to join the industry, existing staff wanted a payrise to persuade them to stay and British Railways couldn’t afford to do anything because they had barely enough revenue to cover existing costs.

A prune of lightly-used lines was a simple answer and the alignment of the CMU&PR was being eyed for the new motorway network – a key part of which was to be the M50 from Tewkesbury to probably Swansea and which would need a nice link road to Newport.

Unfortunately for the transport planners, the Usk line users that remained wanted their railway and mounted an enthusiastic defence. Instead of closure, from June 1954 the line had a quite unprecedented 11 trains each way per day.

Nowadays procedure is to conduct a 3-year trial of massive regional service enhancements and see how things are going (such as additional trains calling at Chepstow and Lydney, the extra trains to Fishguard or the provision of a usable service between Westbury (Wiltshire) and Swindon). The Usk service enhancements were withdrawn when after six months they were shown to have increased costs (and ridership) and closure was set for the 13th of June 1955.

Other lines got farewell tours, detonators, wreaths and hordes of people taking photos for posterity when they shut. The CMU&PR went out differently. The footplatemens’ union ASLEF was upset that the guards’ union had obtained a pay rise that narrowed the differential between the grades, so on the 28th June 1955 they went on strike.

By the time the strike came off vast quantities of traffic had gone for good, Trooping the Colour had been cancelled and the railway to Usk and Raglan was dead. There were no commemorations. The farewell railtour came in October 1957 to mark the line’s centenary, after which it was dismantled.

Now

The M50 was never a commercial success and was soon superseded by the M4. Journey planners will rarely offer the route these days. Service areas are paltry or have been demolished.

The first couple of miles of line from Pontypool were retained to serve an ornaments factory at Glascoed. Workmans’ trains ran via several interesting (also now dead) routes until 1961. Usk goods traffic survived a little longer and Glascoed provided business until early 1993.

Glascoed Factory 1 JPGGlascoed Royal Ordnance Factory. Its four daily passenger trains warranted the largest station on the Monmouth rail network. This may have been partly because they all turned up at once.

Most of the line between Usk and Monmouth is buried beneath the expressway, although the station building at Dingestow has survived and that at Raglan only recently departed for the Museum of Welsh Life at St Fagans, west of Cardiff. Monmouth Troy station has been tidied up and is now a flat overgrown space smelling of gas leaking from the adjacent distribution point, though its viaduct is looking better than it has done.

Usk Tunnel remains, as do the station platforms and, amazingly, the goods shed. The tracked from there to the junction is tantalisingly intact, with one bridge missing, no overbuilding and the red arm of the Home signal at Little Mill still in place on its post. The stub is used for parking track maintenance vehicles.

Usk Tunnel 2 JPGUsk Tunnel, east portal.Usk 3 JPGUsk Tunnel, west portal, feeding out into the remains of the station.Usk river bridge 1 JPGThe railway bridge over the Usk at Usk. It was the only river bridge on the Monmouth rail network to carry double track.

Usk goods shed 1 JPGUsk Goods shed, hiding behind an MoT centre. Currently one of three goods sheds on the Monmouth network, the others being at Coleford (a museum) and St Briavels (no roof).

Usk Goods 1 JPGThis survives too – a small stone hut by the entrance to Usk goods yard which probably used to be the weighbridge.Glascoed 2 JPGFoot crossing near Glascoed.Pontypool Road 4 JPGPontypool Road station, looking towards the Monmouth bay (filled in, surfaced over – unlike the Wye Valley bay at Severn Tunnel – and then pruned back) as a Holyhead train departs.

Pontypool Road 5 JPGOld Pontypool Road station – it was moved and expanded in 1908 – is in remarkably good condition compared with other stations seen above.

It would be interesting to compare the current usage of the road with the traffic figures for the railway that was sacrificed for it, based on loadings under the June 1954 timetable adjusted for recent inflation. However, as only 15,000 passengers were recorded in the first six months of the new timetable – a usage for the whole line roughly equivalent to that generated by such centres of population as Kirkby Stephen and Pwllheli nowadays, but particularly notable considering Usk used to manage such figures on its own with half the service in the 1920s – one might be forced to acknowledge that the road barons who went on about the demand for roads had a certain point.

Pontypool Road 3 JPGOr not, as the case may be.

Result: Con gain from NOC

Well, that was interesting.

There were people planning to camp outside Downing Street if Cameron didn’t win a majority and tell him to quit. There were articles about Cameron having to be dragged from No. 10. The SNP were planning their anti-Tory coalition. The polls had centred on a precise split of votes. Ed Miliband had carved his pledges in stone. Tory and ex-Tory commentators were betting on a maximum of 290 Tory seats.

Shortly before the polls closed there were rumours circulating that the Tory vote was not where it was expected to be – that people pledging to vote Labour weren’t going to turn out or people had lied about not voting Tory or whatever. The Labour communications machine to supporters got very keen for people to come out – I got two emails seeking urgent help to get the vote out in my constituency (as a result of my participation in Labour’s questionnaire, in case anyone’s wondering) in the final eight hours of the poll.

Then came the first exit poll, predicting 316 Tory seats, an SNP sweep and the Lib-Dems being reduced to merely scraping into two-figures of seat numbers. This was sniggered at. And it was quite wrong.

Around 13:00, after a bitter night of heavy losses for Labour and the Lib-Dems followed by a torrid morning of resignations, the Tories gained an overall majority – the first time they have held such a thing since February 1997. Cameron had no choice but to stay in Downing Street. Aside from the fact that only he could now form a majority Government, the other three leaders of Ofcom’s “major parties” had all fallen on their swords on the spot.

So what does this mean for everyone?

David Cameron

Is now a prime minister with a small majority, all of his own party. Ironically this may be harder to manage than the Coalition. The majority of 12 seats is less than Major secured in 1992 and is reliant on minimal trouble from by-elections. Unless anything goes badly wrong, he will oversee an EU referendum in 2017 and resign sometime in 2019/ 2020, by which point he will have led his party for as long as Margaret Thatcher.

Ed Miliband

Has stepped down, probably too quickly (written before reading a Guardian leader which agrees). His party is in no state for him to go and he was not that big a failure.

Consider – the party lost Scotland, yes, and lost nearly 50 seats in the process. But Scotland was gone moons before the election. Overall they only lost 26 MPs. Somewhere he picked up 22 seats and an additional 1.5% of the vote. The Government has a very much smaller majority than it had when he was elected leader and would do even if the remaining Lib-Dems had managed to resume a coalition with the Tories. He was popular with several sectors of the electorate, even if he was inclined to be bullied.

The party has just lost one of its major fighters – Ed Balls was turned out of Morley by a 3-figure Tory majority. The Tory candidate last time who reckoned he was removable was quite right. Arguably this time it’s more devastating for the party than it would have been last time. In 2010 Balls was immediately associated with Brown and his departure would have been a bit of a clean-out. Now he’s a – sorry, was a key part of the Labour economic team. He’s given the party weight and depth of feeling. He’s been presented as a man to be trusted. And he’s gone.

The Scottish Labour party has been wiped from the map almost as effectively as the Scottish Tories (each have 1 seat). Any senior figures from Scottish Labour – former cabinet ministers, the election co-ordinator Douglas Alexander, the leader of Scottish Labour – have all gone, leaving a solitary junior MP in a marginal constituency with a 2,637 majority.

At this time the party needs someone to hold it together to oversee a regroup. With the Tories having a very small majority six good by-elections could reduce the five-year term to tatters. There is time to pull them apart then. Miliband, who has grown a bit while in office, might be a good person to do so. Until the Tory majority slides, having a leader would be a good idea – even if he’s not making the sort of proud, reaching-out speeches that supporters were hoping for. Instead he’s made a resignation speech attempting to divide between giving thanks, tub-thumping and taking applause (and showing a lack of grasp that it’s a railway station).

With Ed Balls out, Miliband and his long-standing deputy having both quit and no Scottish MPs for the leadership race, the party is looking more rudderless than the ’97 Tories.

Ed Miliband’s lump of rock

Keep an eye on eBay.

Russell Brand

Has concluded that he isn’t as important as he thought he was. It may be daring to suggest to his ego that perhaps he is as important as he thought he was. He may well have had a major impact on the swing of the election.

To the Tories.

Nick Clegg

Made a very noble resignation speech, just avoiding tears on stage, but is in a bit of a hole.

His party used to be the party of the West of England and the North of Scotland. They still have the Shetlands, though Thurso has lost Thurso. (Yes, the MP for Caithness was John Thurso.) The West of England has gone – remarkably including Labour’s urban heartlands in Plymouth. The most westerly non-Tory MP is now a rather isolated Labour Ben Bradshaw in Exeter.

The surviving total of 8 MPs does not offer much scope for leadership candidates. Simon Hughes, Vince Cable, Danny Alexander, Norman Baker, Jo Swinson and David Laws have all gone. Chris Huhne’s political career was destroyed by a six-month prison term for speeding some years ago. Even Charles Kennedy, elder statesman of the party, has seen his career as a politician on Skye terminated.

There is a case for saying that the party needs a complete refresh – probably around its president, Tim Farron, who has long been spoken of as a Clegg successor (though he may have envisaged having 30 or so more MPs). Another Shetland leader is also a possibility (Orkney & Shetland, all that remains of the Scottish Lib-Dems, was Jo Grimond’s seat). There is also a case for saying that Clegg still has some hatred to absorb and needs to make sure that the party knows what to do with itself before he goes.

But when a party loses 86% of its representation – 49 MPs – in one night it doesn’t really want its ex-leader sitting around trying to pull things together. The other 7 MPs probably won’t admit it, but right now they hate his guts. They know he was right to form a coalition with the Tories and that posterity will be kind to the party for trying what they said they always wanted to do – and for trying to change the constitution while they were there. And they will hate him all the more for it.

The Independent points out that the party can’t do a by-election just now (aside from anything else the confidence to face the electorate again won’t be there, particularly with rumours that he only got back because the local Tory voters wanted him for a now-unnecessary second coalition), so he can’t quit. He’ll have to be a constituency MP for a while. Lib-Dem and Liberal leaders have not always shown a rush to quit the Commons and he may well wish to remain on his party’s back benches as the elder statesman.

For now he can be the living embodiment of the old truism that “all political careers end in failure”.

Scottish Unionism generally

The Tories would probably be best advised to split off the Unionist party in Scotland again (John Buchan was a notable MP for them) and allow them to fight as a centre-right pro-union party with inclinations towards the Conservatives in a semi-permanent union – the sort of thing Sturgeon wanted to have with Miliband, but won’t get.

In the interim, the Unionist parties – who are now less popular in absolute numbers of seats than the Unionist parties in divided Ireland – may wish to follow some old Liberal ideas for saving money in terms of shared conference space:

Telephone Stromeferry 1

Stromeferry Conference Centre. Very convenient for the railway station and ferry terminal (no ferry).

Nigel Farage

Is being slippery, as usual. He promised to quit the UKIP leadership if he didn’t win South Thanet – and when at half 10 this morning the Tories held it he promptly quit.

He is of course still a prominent UKIP Member of the European Parliament and is considering standing in the ensuing leadership contest. Well, so much for that pledge.

But he’s made his impact. His fighting for an EU referendum has aided the election of a party committed to an EU referendum. Even if he never returns to front-line politics, this will make a remarkable place in the history books.

The Scottish National Party

May stay powerful, but may have overstretched itself.

Nicola Sturgeon was always onto a winner, with the pro-independence vote inevitably going to stick with the SNP for the far less dramatic policy of taking Gordon Brown’s old seat – the crown of forcing an ex-Prime Minister to give a speech of defeat being snatched away by Brown’s decision long ago to stand down anyway.

However, there appeared to be a lot of campaigning to vote SNP and essentially get a Labour Government with a Scottish heart. The Tories pointed out to English voters that this would mean giving a lot of “English” money to Scotland. This very successful approach also deprived Labour of almost all of its Scottish seats, its own ability to represent Scotland and much of its confidence.

It would not be a difficult sell to argue to Scottish voters that by voting SNP they got themselves a Tory government. Usually these “vote popular x, get hated y” campaigns are very hard to sell. Maybe not in Scotland in 2020. Sturgeon needs the Tories to do pro-Scottish policies so she can claim to be influencing the UK Government. At the moment, the Tories are threatening a boundary redraw and to make the Scottish Parliament responsible for setting its taxation levels. The former may be uncontroversial in Scotland, where the Tories will struggle to create more seats (in 1994 the late Guardian sketchwriter Simon Hoggart was already giggling at the difficulty of preserving the few remaining breeding grounds for Scottish Tories); the latter won’t do much for SNP popularity if they start funding their wonder policies with increased taxes, particularly as Cameron can respond to complaints by pointing out that the SNP spent last autumn fighting for the right to raise Scottish taxes as much as they want.

With the Labour wipe-out the Tories have as good an opportunity to make a come-back in Scotland as Labour – in fact better, as 56 Scottish constituencies now have the SNP as their incumbent left-wing party and may, if Sturgeon handles the next five years right, see no need for another one.

Wales

Another reason for suggesting that the Tories might start to do better in Scotland again is that they are doing rather well in Wales. No Valleys seats, but otherwise they’ve squeezed three seats out of Labour and the Lib-Dems. While Labour still have over half the seats in Wales, the Tories are not far short of half as many as Labour.

The loss of Gower was probably justification in itself for Miliband quitting.

Despite (or perhaps because of) their tenure in coalition in Wales, Plaid is showing no signs of a major Westminster breakthrough any time soon.

The Government

Will be remarkably stable, with all four Great Offices of State remaining as before. Three of them will be occupied by the people who held them after the 2010 election (Cameron as Prime Minister, Osborne as Chancellor and May at the Home Office; Hammond came to the Foreign Office more recently). This is practically unprecedented, but good to see in many ways.

Would be nice if the Transport team didn’t change too much, though McLoughlin, Perry or both may be considered overdue for promotions.

I am not sure I would bet on a 12-seat majority Government surviving the course, though it did take a lot of by-elections to almost topple John Major’s government. Several of Cameron’s team are familiar with that period and are aware they will have to be careful what they put before Parliament.

The European Union

Presuming it is still around in 2017, there will be a referendum. Cameron wants to stay in on revised terms.

There is not much that can really be said except for the fact that a man who has led his party from disliked semi-irrelevance to a majority government dividing opinion on and for its effectiveness in ten years should be able to pull off the small matter of reforming the EU in his image. “The impossible we do at once; miracles take a little longer.”

The EU top brass cannot afford to be seen to back down, but behind the scenes may be more amiable to an apparently hard-fought treaty revision. If Southern European economies don’t start picking up it may be desirable to stop their workforces walking out for work elsewhere. Meanwhile the UK is a growing economy with zero inflation just now and therefore too valuable to lose.

The pollsters

Seem to consider themselves the most hard done-by people today – after five years of telling Mr Miliband he might be able to pull things together and win, they have suddenly been confronted by the possibility that the people they have been polling since 2010 have been lying to them. With even the exit poll being outside the 3% margin of error (3% on 300 seats is 9 seats; the Tories are 15 seats up on that) and every other election poll being utter nonsense, a lot of voters seem to have persisted in being economical on stating their voting intentions in every circumstance except the ballot booth. Unfortunately for the pollsters, this is the right of the voter.

It may be that after over 300 years of Tory governments and policies, the voters are happy to vote Tory on minimal advertising on the basis that they must be standing and you know what you’re getting with a Tory Government.

This blog

Decided back in January that the Tories stood about a 15% chance of winning a majority (in a series of low-probability speculations). The party held its nerve, the economy did not collapse, UKIP lost one of their MPs and the Labour leader quit before his party could put him in the toaster.

Unfortunately the prediction was too vague to claim any credit and gave more backing to a Labour majority or “Confidence & Supply”. Now nobody will know what 5 years of confidence and supply means.

Next time I won’t come out hard for my quiet hunch of a Tory majority, which I remember very quietly discussing with a friend in February, since it’ll only invoke Sod’s Law and it was in any event a very optimistic and baseless quiet hunch.

You

Having got this far, why not visit the charming constituency of St Ives, last to declare in this election?

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Or, if St Ives is the wrong end of the country, how about a tour of the constituency of Ross, Skye and Lochaber to better understand the challenges faced by the rebuilders of the Lib-Dems?

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(Certain parts of this constituency are not accessible by road.)

Or perhaps Brighton, to see how the Greens are progressing?

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Meanwhile, if you’re completely depressed by the election result, the Guardian has reasons to be cheerful. There is no balancing Torygraph link, as the paper seems to consider the result speaks for itself – and has brought a certain election poster up again.

May Bank Holiday News Summary

In this weekend’s exciting news, Private Eye is preparing the headline “Woman Has Second Baby”.

Meanwhile, a politician has told people to vote for his party rather than a different party.

He appears to be concerned that people think they can have a Government involving his party without actually having to vote for him.

Support for the different party is expected to rocket on the news now that supporters of the different party know that their vote won’t actually be used to support the first party that they voted for last time and would vote for this time if they actually wanted to have them in Government.

Whether the woman successfully having a baby will have any impact on national feeling, Government popularity or the election result remains to be seen – we should know by this time next week.

In other news, the author of this website has visited Alton in Hampshire, taken some pictures and updated the takeaway list.

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Above – the view off London Kings Cross station footbridge of the scenery south of Ropley station.

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(This is the second May Bank Holiday Saturday in a row that I’ve spent time being towed around by a large green locomotive called Wadebridge. Last year she was in Cornwall, near Wadebridge. This year she was at Alton. The former home of the late novelist Jane Austen is in nearby Chawton, hence the business park.)

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Above – Wadebridge at Alresford. Below – the Austen family house in Chawton. Austen followers have to find their way to Winchester – which was a trifle easier before the Alton to Winchester railway was shut – to find where she is actually buried.

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