Getting Familiar With the Far North
Roger Piercy told me I had five hundred words to describe `work in progress' on the Far North Line. My Iron Road to the Far North guide book will pan out at thirty thousand words plus, even my brief encounter with the route featured in my new book Railway Holiday in Scotland gave me seven thousand words to play with. So how do I fit it all into five hundred? Four hundred and twenty four, now, actually ...
Well, I first travelled over the Far North in 2000 whilst spending a hugely enjoyable week in one of the Roach's camping coaches at Rogart. What struck me most was its variety. Where other writers have dubbed it austere and over-long, I was attracted to its unfolding sense of purpose: the way it begins with an estuarial escape from Inverness, followed by a plunge into the hills about Lairg, an interlude with the crofting countryside of Strath Fleet, then the spellbinding coastal run up from Golspie to Helmsdale, climaxing with the remote fastness of Flow Country, before the gentle, post Georgemas codas which decant you down into Wick or Thurso.
I had no idea then, that a year later I would be returning to write about it as part of my big Scottish railway adventure, or that, subsequently, in collaboration with the Highland Rail Partnership, I would be setting off more diligently to research its background history, document its tourist attractions, photograph it, map it and make it into a guide book.
Usually it takes me about six months of fairly solid work to produce a guide book in the 'Iron Road' mould. It will help that I have already got to know the Far North quite well, but there is still much to be done. Often I like to walk beside, or at least bicycle as near as possible the most significant sections of a line I am working on. This is time consuming, but it gives one a real `feel' for the railway in the context of the landscape, and learn at first hand what obstacles the railway builders had to overcome all those years ago.
An important part of the guide will lie in its tourist content. Each town and village with a station will need to be visited, some local history devoured, and a list of places to eat and drink, shop and visit compiled. While this goes on I'll be drawing the maps - working from old Ordnance Survey material which often reveals interesting aspects of industrial archaeology, the forgotten commercial undertakings - like Brora and its coal mine - that the railway brought prosperity to, for a time at least.
One of the most enjoyable - yet equally frustrating - parts of my work is the photography: enjoyable because it'll take me out on to hillsides and riverbanks and beaches I would otherwise never have found myself visiting; frustrating because I will be at the mercy of unpredictable lighting conditions on a line where trains are few and far between. blow one chance and there's a long wait until the next.
I've overstayed Roger's welcome: five hundred and counting. Perhaps he'll give me another opportunity to bring you up to date in a forthcoming issue. Meanwhile if you see a weary cyclist, festooned with cameras and notebooks, give him the time of day...
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