Trails from the Rails 1: Romsey to Mottisfont

  • Area: Hampshire
  • Local Train Operators: Great Western Railway/ South West Trains
  • Length: About 6 miles
  • Points of Note: Mottisfont Abbey and Norman Thelwell’s House
  • OS maps – Explorer 131 (1:25,000); Landranger 185 (1:50,000)

Walks between railway stations can be dictated by various elements, including the prevailing gradient, where the sun is likely to be all day, the opening hours of pubs en route and whether paths can be more easily picked up in one direction than the other. In the case of this little walk, the main thing dictating walk direction is the balance of train services. Romsey has a half-hourly service to Southampton on one hand and Salisbury on the other all week; Mottisfont & Dunbridge has a train every hour Mondays to Saturdays and a train every two hours on Sundays.

This guide is therefore the wrong way round. Turn your screen upside down to do the walk in reverse.

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Romsey is a pleasant station to start from. It has platform awnings on both sides for piling off the train in the rain and discussing whether to cancel the walk under; it also retains its listed Classical station building in apparently good condition, although a brief examination will reveal that it is in fact discretely boarded-up using black plywood with white stripes painted across it.

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Exits are available on both sides. From platform 1, head straight down the exit ramp at the back of the station to a lane emerging from a cattle creep under the railway north of the buildings. Those arriving on platform 2 need to get under the railway, either using the official subway or via the cattle creep. Having got to the east end of this cattle creep, follow the lane away from it to the Romsey Canal and turn North.

This has an air of the back end of Romsey’s more comfortable suburbs (actually most of Romsey is on this side of the railway and the canal goes through the middle). For a little way it is a tarmaced towpath besides a lightly overgrown non-navigable canal, populated by runners and dog walkers. It then strikes out of town, losing tarmac and houses. Water meadows abound on one side; woods feature on the other. The path slowly dwindles in quality. All is very restful.

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After working through the woods, the canal comes out into open country and swings across a couple of fields, where someone has made sporadic attempts to upgrade the surface. On a nice day it is rather pleasant that these have not been wholly completed. The canal has, like the path, become progressively less passable.

It abruptly and inconsiderately dies, along with the path, on hitting the A3057. This is not exceptionally busy by the standards of single-carriageway “A” roads, but it still has a fair bit of traffic, no pavement and a need to be followed for 200 yards or so to the right before taking another right turn through a discreet kissing gate. Follow the remains of the hedge across the field to the next road, reflecting on how very “Thelwell Country” the landscape hereabouts is.

Turn left on reaching the lane (which has a pavement – mostly) and follow it back to the A3057 (which also now has a pavement). Turn right and enter Timsbury. Follow the road to the large lay-by with a bus stop at the north end adjacent to the village hall; then cross the road (admittedly easier said than done for a fairly minor deviation; turning right here up the hill and left at the top avoids two road crossings, a church and more of the A3057) and drop down the lane towards Timsbury Manor and the church. Turn right at the end for the church and follow this lane to the church itself, which is a neat little structure in stone with a wooden bell turret. The surroundings (particularly the car park) do not quite set it to best advantage. It is 13th Century in origin, but much rebuilt.

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Beyond is a proud set of gates protecting “Herons Mead”, which house (and lake) is carefully hidden by several trees. Its development is described in Thelwell’s A Plank Bridge by a Pool (which is strikingly tender compared to Thelwell’s cartoons). The owners have quite enough Thelwell lovers leaning over for photos, so there is no need to add to the number. Instead follow the footpath around to the right, along the back and then diagonally across a field back to the road.

Continue along the main road to the next road on the right, which leads neatly up through a varied array of houses to Michelmersh. The rectory at the top of the hill is a splendidly grand brick structure. Turn left, rejoining the Timsbury Church-avoiding diversion, and continue climbing, following Haccups Lane and discretely admiring the architecture of the modern mansions on the right. At the T-junction at the end turn right.

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The lane then swings round a leftward curve to end at a fork. Mottisfont is to the left, down the hill, but a short diversion to the right will take in Michelmersh’s 12th Century church. It is an ordinary enough church in floorplan, but the flint-walled church body combined with a weatherboard tower is less common. It is also much better situated than Timsbury’s, being on top of the hill with views of the Test Valley.

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Return to the previous junction and fork down the hill, enjoying the quiet of the road, its easy, swinging route and the views across the Test towards Mottisfont.

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At the bottom of the hill, recross the A3057, drop down the path through the hedge and turn left along the cyclepath to the road junction. Here turn right and follow the lane towards Mottisfont past the old “Sprat & Winkle Line” Mottisfont station. (The Sprat & Winkle was an informal nickname after the fish and the water mollusc. It went up the Test Valley to Andover.)

The lane runs straight through a wood and then crosses the Test into the water meadows around Mottisfont Abbey. Several signs around the river crossing inform passers-by that they are being Watched. Beyond the unbreaking surveillance protecting against theft of this bridge is a slightly wider section of road running a little above the plain between iron fences. The Abbey and associated gardens are owned by the National Trust; more Northanger than Tintern, they present a few delightful sightings through the hedge from the passing road and are also responsible for a fair chunk of the traffic that negotiates this lane.

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Pass the Abbey entrance (unless wishing to stop off here) and head into Mottisfont proper. At the top of a slight hill the road turns right. Continue straight on and follow round to the left, past a Millenium Orchard, and then back round to the right through a gate. Follow this lane gently up the hill for a few hundred yards and then turn left down the footpath.

The usual process for crossing arable fields is to wade through the crop, using rights as a person in the successor lands to the Kingdom of Mercia to follow the assumed route of rights of way until the actual one is found again, or (failing that) walk round the edge. At Mottisfont the farmer decries the practice of walking round the edge and has (wonder of wonders) kept the Public Right of Way clear across the field. This is to be much praised, allowing walkers to navigate the oilseed rape unencumbered by its enthusiastic attitude for overpopulation. At the other end of the field, pass through the kissing gate, note the buildings of Mottisfont & Dunbridge station off to the left and strike down through the cow field towards the road. On reaching the road, turn left to reach the station.

Access between platforms here is provided by the half-barrier level crossing at the northern end of the station. The station building, which is typical London & South Western in design, survives in private ownership. A pub on the northbound (platform 2) side provides a form of waiting room. Other shelter is utilitarian, consisting of the old building’s diminutive awning on platform 1 and a verdigris-covered plastic shelter on platform 2. The station is operated by Great Western Railway, but none of their trains stop here nowadays so the timetable is branded with “South West Trains” and waits are interspersed by (largely 3-car) green units shooting past amidst crossing sirens. Dunbridge, which is barely larger than its station, is not the most attractive of places. Still, this means that peaceful summer afternoon waits for a train home are unlikely to be disturbed by other passengers.

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Upcoming: “Trails from the Rails”

Back in 2015, with an Interesting Election upcoming, I did several blogposts on policies, polls and likely outcomes.

This time the British election looks set to be rather more boring – there’s only so much fun to be had in watching a party react to predictions that it’s going to be reduced to 200 seats that would mostly vote for a baboon if it was wearing a red rosette – and the French one is frankly not much better. (Le Pen is not going to win unless a) Macron implodes and leaves everyone with the exciting question of the semi-fascist or the man you’ve just decided is going to destroy the country, b) someone manages to whip up a campaign that you have to vote for Le Pen if you’re inclusive because she’s a woman or c) everyone who gets polled is worried the pollster will think they’re a racist if they say Le Pen and they’re all saving their actual opinions for the ballot box.)

So this year I’m going to distract from it and write some posts about walks that should be possible to do from the train instead.

Railway-based walks are much more interesting than car-based ones because of the lack of obligation to return to where you started.

The aim will be to provide some ideas for routes with a mix of landscapes, gradients, lengths and areas, largely avoiding dusty roadsides and miles of flat muddy fields.

I was going to call it “Trails from the Track” and then remembered where I found that term in the first place. (Okay, I didn’t remember per se. I remembered it might be out there somewhere and Googled it. Turns out it’s a publication from the Devon & Cornwall Rail Partnership which I don’t own a copy of because, perhaps oddly for someone writing a series of walk guides, I prefer to eschew walk guides and design my own walks.)

“Trails from Rails” is a search term for putting multi-use non-car routes on old railway lines. This series is an attempt to reclaim the term for a more positive approach. Readers of certain webpages on the Wye Valley Railway will already know my editorial line on such schemes – I am, after all, a rail lobbyist – and will be unsurprised at the absence of such routes from the ensuing series of walks.

Along the way there may be a sudden interruption with a post about why the rail network should be privatised. To avoid this lessening your enjoyment of this politics-free zone, please feel free to ignore it until after the election. (Unless you were planning to vote for a baboon with a red rosette, in which case it will explain why retaining UK Rail under the control of public organisations may cause long-term fare increases, rising costs and poorer service. Owing to a degree of laziness and procrastination, the appearance of this post – ever – is not guaranteed.)

Here is a nice picture to get us started:

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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

Windows

Not the computer sort, but a slightly more personal post than usual.

I live in a house and the house has windows. So far, so uneventful.

It has not traditionally been a very well maintained house, being the sort of house which is left to fend for itself by owners (often landlords rather than occupiers) who are looking at managing it as cheaply as possible and so don’t run to things like roof maintenance, carpet renewal or cleaning paint off internal glazed doors.

Or replacing the windows.

So, as a sundry list of things that one can find are wrong with ordinary double-glazed windows, here is a list of the problems I found with my house’s windows when I moved in.

  1. The securing beading was all on the outside, meaning that burglars not equipped with a handy brick for breaking the glass could gain entry more quietly and less destructively by levering the beading off with a paint scraper and then lifting the glazing panels out.
  2. General inclination amongst the window stock to let warm air out and noise in.
  3. No keys for the window locks.
  4. No key for the back door.
  5. Back door outside handle came off in my hand.
  6. Front door postbox had no outside flap.
  7. Front door was of a design fashionable in the mid-60s and inclined to feel that it had not been replaced since.
  8. Windows wouldn’t close easily and jammed on the catch.
  9. Failed hinges meaning windows hung at slight angles inclined to give an impression from a distance that they were on the catch when in fact they were shut.
  10. One (fortunately ground-floor – or unfortunately, depending on how you look at it) window needed pushing shut from outside after being opened.
  11. French windows lacked a piece of panelling at the bottom so there was a square-inch hole letting all the warm air out.
  12. Mismatching styles of obscured glazing for bathroom windows.
  13. Failed glazing panel on one window had completely misted up inside.
  14. Inside pane of one originally double-glazed unit was completely missing.

You may be pleased to hear that all of these problems have now been resolved (with the help of a glazier who got more depressed about the state of the property as he worked his way round) – unless of course you work in unanticipated unauthorised removals for a living, in which case you may be reassured to hear that I make a point of having nothing worth misappropriating anyway.

Unless you’re particularly desperate for a complete and rather battered set of Swallows & Amazons books.

Pedantry

Last year I was wandering around Hanborough (for Blenheim) admiring the grave of Sir Winston Churchill and puzzling at the lack of senior politicians also braving the chill to appear on television for the 50th anniversary of his death.

Anyway, some of these politicians eventually appeared and on Hanborough station this very discrete little plaque also duly appeared:

Hanborough 2 JPGA pleasing gesture, and it took me a couple of readings to start wondering where they got the number 613443 from – locomotives do not usually have six digit numbers. It probably belongs to a wagon of some description.

The question intrigued me slightly, since bungling the number of a large Bulleid “Light Pacific” involves as much effort as bothering to type “winston churchill loco” into a search engine. Researchers may be forgiven for then managing to get it into their heads that the Romney, Hythe and Dymchurch Railway used to run to Hanborough and bunging the number “9” onto their plaque. Other researchers who try really hard might stretch to “number 87019” (which wasn’t built for another nine years). However, along with a few pictures of an American-looking red engine and a big steel box with a slightly bemused expression, the typing course of action will produce several hundred pictures of a large, fat and not particularly light-looking creature like this:

Wadebridge at Bodmin 1 JPG(This Light Pacific prefers to go by the name of Wadebridge and is a “West Country” Light Pacific rather than a “Battle of Britain” Light Pacific. However, Wadebridge can also be found enjoying herself going chuff and blowing copious amounts of steam around in the open air, whereas Winston Churchill was robbed of some miscellaneous parts many years ago and hasn’t steamed since.)

Anyway, this post has been precipitated by the fact that someone who has not given up on railway pedantry yet (beyond periodic mutterings of “railway station”) appears to have pointed out the glitch to the “people of West Oxfordshire” and these people have in turn precipitated a fun game of “Spot the Difference” by replacing the plaque:

Hanborough 3 JPG.jpg

Yes – there is a second difference, but not alas involving correcting the comma usage…

(No doubt better-qualified pedants could point out that that last sentence, or indeed this sentence, shouldn’t have had a comma before the “but”, but I think we can all agree that “having departed from London Waterloo station” is what we might call a “bracketed phrase” rather than part of a list and should therefore feature a second comma between the “station” and the “and” in order to flow properly.)

This post is not in any way intended to cast any aspersions on the memory of Winston Churchill – merely upon those who put loco numbers on plaques without bothering to look them up first. If too unimportant to check, omit…

Light Maths

The next post on this blog will be rather heavy, so here’s something lighter in a similarly mathematical vein to get people in the mood:

(x+8)²+(x+7)²+(x+6)²=(x(x+5)²)+(x+4)²(x+3)²+(x+2)²(x+1)²-(x+1)(x-1)+x

Find “x”.

(Assuming that my maths is good enough for it to work…)