Touring Around The Far North Line
On Wednesday 2nd August 2011, after 30 years of waiting, I finally made a trip along the length of the Far North Line from Dingwall to Wick (and back!).
30 years may seem like a long time but when I first looked in the British Rail timetable in my local library and wondered what it was like at these remote stations like Altnabreac and Forsinard, I was too young to have the means to make the journey myself. In the intervening years there just never seemed to be the opportunity to fulfil this particular longing. Living right on the South Coast in Hampshire probably had something to do with this!
Since that time we have regularly holidayed in Scotland and now try to get there every year. However, this was the first time that we had ventured north of Inverness (other than for a day trip to Kyle of Lochalsh) and we were not disappointed.
On the day in question we (myself, my wife and 3 children) were up earlier at our holiday cottage and on the platform at Dingwall to catch the 07:43 to Wick. There were a surprising number of people on the platform and it was clear that some of these were regular commuters travelling northwards.
The train was quite well loaded and, I noted, very clean. The only thing missing was a buffet trolley but we had anticipated this and brought our own refreshments. I think ScotRail are missing a trick, though, in not having a trolley on this early service. A lot of passengers would have been making an early start and I am sure would have been pleased to part with some money had refreshments been available.
Anyway, back to the journey. A few people alighted at Alness and Invergordon. The last of what appeared to be commuters alighted at Tain before we headed inland towards Lairg. It has to be said that, apart from the various rig-like structures around Invergordon, the journey up to Tain whilst interesting is not outstanding from a scenery point of view. However, that all changed as we headed inland as things got progressively wilder.
At Lairg we swapped crews with the southbound service (I think this would have been the 06:20 from Wick, which looked very well loaded) and off we went to Rogart. The run down to Rogart is fabulous and I envy some of the people who have houses on the hills to the north which look down upon the line. There was plenty of activity at Rogart and it is surprising that this is still a request stop based on what we saw.
As we left Rogart and headed towards the coast the weather closed in (although it did not rain all day) and as we got to the coast the mountains on the left were shrouded in low cloud. Although we did not spot any on the way to Wick, on the way back we did spot several groups of seals on the beach near Brora.
The main buildings at both Brora and Helmsdale station looked very sad and I hope that the attempts to renovate the buildings at the latter prove successful.
Now we reached the part of the journey I had been looking forward to most, the trip up through the Strath of Kildonan and on to Forsinard and Georgemas Junction. I have to say that I have travelled several times on the Oban, West Highland and Kyle lines, but for me the stretch of line from Helmsdale to Scotscalder for sheer wild beauty is the best. Miles and miles of moor, mountain and lake with hardly a house in site. If you have never travelled on this section then do make the effort to do it. You won't be disappointed. We spotted red deer, and several birds of prey, including an osprey, which took off from a fence right by the track as we passed. You can easily imagine how this area must look after a heavy winter snowfall.
All too soon we reached Georgemas and headed on to Thurso where we quickly nipped out to take some photos before heading on to Wick. Once we were in Wick the sun shone and it got pleasantly warm. Wick may not be the prettiest town but it does have a charm of its own. We spent a very interesting couple of hours in the Wick Heritage Centre, which I can recommend for the whole family.
We had about 4 and half hours in Wick before we had to head back to the station for the journey back to Dingwall. Again the train was well loaded.
Incidentally later in the week we did a day-long car tour around Sutherland and ended up driving down the A897 from Melvich to Helmsdale. This gave us to the opportunity to have tea at the Forsinard Hotel (recommended) and then stop and take photos at that station and those at Kinbrace and Kildonan.
If you have neglected the Far North Line in favour of the Kyle and West Highland, then I urge you to think again, you won't be disappointed. We have already booked to come back in the summer of 2012 and will be trying the delights of Thurso for the day.