Sunday 5th September
Destination: Spean Bridge
Our Sunday morning sees us wake up around 8am, and after our normal morning routine we begin to plan out the day’s journey. Our next destination is Spean Bridge via Fort William and looking at our trusty road map, we can tell this is going to be a scenic route depicted by a shaded green line next to the road. Our old-school paper map is also very useful because it shows many of the local visitor attractions such as castles, historic monuments, waterfalls, preserved railways and general points of interest.
On our route, we learn that there is a twice daily steam train service from Fort William train station to Mallaig and the second train departs at 12.45pm. So, we leave the campsite around 10am, in hope that there will be enough time to see the steamer leaving the station.
As we hit the road, it begins to live up to its scenic beauty. With glorious steep sided valleys and ever increasing hills appearing close by, it becomes more and more breathtaking.
We travel through Tyndrum and pass by a very large hill that looks more like a small, green, gullied, extinct volcano! More scenic spots come into view and we decide to stop in a few well positioned lay-bys – you simply can’t look at the majestic splendour of Scotland safely, whilst driving at 45/50 mph!
We pass a sign saying ‘Welcome to the Highlands’ and come across another glorious spot just as the sun begins to light up a craggy and mountainous area. Then unbelievably, we see a Highland Piper! He was dressed in full Scottish uniform with kilt and all, and he stood against this magnificent backdrop. The reason he’s here is that he’s on a photoshoot. We ask if we can take some photos and start to crouch down like professional photographers, taking lots of shots in various positions. Then he fires up his bagpipes and gives a 30 second tuneful burst, which we capture on video. You couldn’t wish for anything more Scottish!
Time is now ticking and we need to get a move on if we want to see the steam train leave Fort William station. We have to make a 14 mile journey in 20 minutes to ensure we have 15 minutes to spare. So, we hit the road.
When we arrive at the station, sure enough there is the ‘Black 5’ – no. 45212, introduced by the London Midland & Scottish Railway in 1934, sitting at the head of the 7-coach ‘Jacobite’ steam excursion to Mallaig. Simmering away confidently on Platform 2, a fireman can be seen shovelling on the coal, a cleaner is polishing the tender and shortly the guard gives the ‘all clear’ whistle. The regulator is gently eased and a shroud of hissing steam is produced for the onlookers. Slowly, the 6ft driving wheels begin to turn, carrying a load of happy passengers.
The ‘Jacobite’ runs twice daily, from 26th April to 1st October, with the afternoon service continuing until 29th October. Prices are surprisingly reasonable for a standard return ticket. This gives a pleasurable experience of around 4.5 hours of pure, nostalgic steam haulage with no diesel engine on the back, which sometimes happens on the big main lines. Plus, passengers get the added bonus of the incredible, Scottish scenery.
We decide to head down to the sea front and park up for a pork pie and salad lunch. Whilst eating, we watch a chap called Christian from Romania – who’s parked in the bay next to us with a motorhome – catch a crab using a worm on his fishing line.
It’s now about 3pm, so we check our map for nearby attractions. There’s ‘Neptune’s Staircase’ and ‘Treasures of The Earth’ and we decide to head down the road to the former first. It turns out to be a series of locks (not Lochs!) on the Caledonian Canal that take it up 65ft and we are lucky to see a boat passing through. Just before it enters one of the ‘pounds’, extra water is let in by the lock keeper, creating a gorgeous cascading waterfall over the gates.
Then in the distance, we hear the unmistakable sound of an approaching steam train, blowing its deep whistle on the approach to Banavie Railway Swing Bridge. We realise it’s the returning 14.10 service from Mallaig and we catch a glimpse of the engine and maroon coaches as it rumbles over the canal bridge. The driver then opens up the regulator, applying 25,000lbs of tractive effort and we hear the thudding exhaust, in gradual increasing beats, as the train gathers speed towards Fort William. All of this under the towering, watchful eye of Ben Nevis, the UK’s highest mountain, standing at a whopping 4,412 ft!
With some time left to spare, we take a quick look at the nearby ‘Treasures of The Earth’ museum. This includes many examples of precious rocks, fossils and a fascinating sabre tooth tiger skull.
Our campsite for the night is Gairlochy Holiday Park. 10 minutes after pitching up, three exhausted men arrive on foot, each carrying enormous backpacks. They have just walked 10 miles and cannot walk another inch! We immediately offer them a hot drink and a snack. Luckily, we brought our electric kettle and as we were hooked up to 240 volts, we made the drinks in less than 5 minutes, to which they were all very grateful as they slowly recovered. We start chatting with them and discover that they have come by plane from Kent to Inverness, then taken the bus south to Fort William, and are now walking the whole 62 miles back to Inverness and camping at various points en route! It made us feel exhausted just listening to their plan!
After socialising, we cook our evening meal which consisted of tinned chicken curry with potatoes, lettuce and tomatoes. It was surprisingly delicious for a tinned curry! Tomorrow’s plan of action is to travel to Inverness and Ullapool, so we get some much needed shut eye.