A cycling family's view of visiting the 'wiggling and squiggling' Far North Line
'Green Tourism' is a rather hackneyed phrase these days, but the bottom line is that large number of tourists almost always end up destroying the things they've come to gawp at. Fortunately, there are a few enjoyable, relaxing holidays that won't perforate the ozone layer (or your wallet), and we think this is a superb example.
Scotland is a great holiday destination, but if you drive there, you're committed to long tedious hours on the M6, with all the pollution and unpleasantness that entails, or fly north, and either wrestle with airport buses or hire a car to reach your destination. Neither option is particularly enjoyable, but there is another way - ScotRail's Caledonian Sleeper. To avoid awkward transfers, we took the train theme even further, hiring a holiday coach at Rogart station on the Far North railway line, reached by a simple cross-platform connection from the sleeper at Inverness station.
The golden era of the holiday carriage was more or less over by the 1950s, making the privately-owned examples at Rogart amongst the last in the country, but if you think sleeper trains are a thing of the past, think again. ScotRail runs trains from London Euston every night (except Saturdays). The company provides 800 berths, plus around 240 seats, six nights a week, removing some 500 cars and 250,000 car miles from the over-stressed motorway network nightly. That's more than 77 million car-miles each year.
If you're unfamiliar with sleeping on the move, the motion (including occasional jolts from the locomotive) can be unsettling at first, but we dropped off relatively quickly and slept quite well. Air-conditioning in the berths is very responsive, and the subtle lighting and efficient sound-proofing would help to get most people in the mood for a kip.
The Caledonian Sleepers include a reasonable-sized luggage area for skis, bags and/or up to six bicycles. We would have been pretty nervous about taking full-size bikes on a multi-train journey of this kind anyway, but the Inverness portion of the Sleeper carries containers of fresh shellfish to select London restaurants (yes, honestly) and thus offers space for only three bicycles. In any event, the Class 158 trains from Inverness northwards only carry two bikes on a good day, so we'd strongly recommend leaving the cumbersome at home.
Actually, a bicycle is very much an option for this holiday, because the pair of 8-berth holiday coaches at Rogart are situated in the station yard, less than 100 metres from the platform. Accommodation is fairly basic, but extremely good value. The coaches have retained their full-length corridor, with original toilet and additional shower at each end. Four of the former 1st-class compartments have been converted into two-berth sleepers, one into a sitting room, another into a dining room, and the last making a practical kitchen. The coaches also provide hostel accommodation at a reasonable £10 per night (under 12's £7.50), with a further 10% discount for cyclists and/or rail users.
In the south of England, Rogart would be considered a hamlet, but in Highland terms, it's quite a regional centre, with a good pub/restaurant and the sort of general store that stocks everything from bootlaces to smoked salmon. For walkers, the moors and peaks are just off the station platform, and we spent many happy hours dodging sleet showers to peer down at our tiny carriage from windblasted peaks with unpronounceable names. For cyclists, all roads except the A9 are quiet, back roads virtually car-free, and the local drivers courteous without exception. The easiest ride of all is to take the train ten miles up the valley to Lairg and cruise back; down hill all the way, with a prevailing tailwind.
For more serious on or off-road types, the Far North offers great opportunities for adventure. Our favourite was 60 miles up the line to Altnabreac, surely one of the loneliest railway stations in Britain, with no electricity, and some miles from the nearest tarmacadam road, followed by a swift ride north on well surfaced trails to the slightly less remote Scotscalder station, for the train home. As if this trip weren't surreal enough, Scotscalder has been restored to the way it might have looked in around 1930, although rather disappointingly, the stationmaster has been replaced by a track ganger from Jarvis with a Ford Escort and a mobile.
Altnabreac's lonely shelter has a phone, which is fortunate, because if you normally commute on the 5.11 pm, you'll be facing a 14 hour wait for the next train if you happen to miss it. The Far North line has only three trains a day, so trips must be planned around the scanty timetable. Fortunately, the timings from Rogart are perfect for leisure journeys - outward on the 8.36 (south) or 9.07 (north), and back for lunch or supper.
Against all the odds, the line also has a new (and very successful) commuter service into Inverness and occasional freight trains, including timber and a daily train for Safeway supermarkets. If you want to know more about such things (and anything relating to trains, tractors or bicycles in the Highlands) you'll need to talk to our hosts at Rogart, Kate and Frank Roach. When he's not helping with the sleeper carriage business, Frank Roach is Rail Development Manager for the Highland Rail Partnership.
More details of this organisation can be found at www.atob.org.uk
E-mail: a2b at onetel.net.uk (e-mail is disguised against spam)
Tel: 01963 351649