Posts Tagged ‘travel’

Remembering Hafnarfjörður


Clouds swallow the moon,
A moon I last saw in Iceland
One chill morning as I waited for the bus.
It set behind Hamarinn –
Which I’d climbed on the first day –
So I had just a few stars and
A flickering streetlight for company;
Beyond, the velvet water of the harbour,
A trawler and the breakwater light.
The blossoms will be out at home,
I thought, but I’d rather be here
Though my feet were numbing,
And I still would, I think
As I set off for work
Under the now moonless sky.


The Border


An autobiographical piece about my visit to Prague when Inter-Railing in 1991

Maudlin-drunk in a hotel in a strange town, he dreamt of her thighs that night. Why her thighs, as opposed to any other part of her anatomy? Who knows. It was a dream, and unless you’re Freud, unknowable (though who’s to say the Freuds of the world have a monopoly?) Her thighs, white and plump (not fat), thighs he had never seen, except in some photo of her in shorts years ago. Plump and pale, unmarked, fleshy, lightly covered in downy hair. Nice to feel? The dream thought so. The thighs next to his on the strange bed, the warmth of her, and the feel of her breasts against him were a comfort. In the anaemic light of morning, he felt mildly sick. Maybe hungover; not that her thighs sickened him, just the way they had appeared, unbidden, and how he had called out to her in the darkness, and she’d ignored him. The thighs ensured that he woke with an erection, but he didn’t do anything about it. He swung his legs out of bed, and stood slowly, blinking at the mild dizziness. He splashed cold water on his face, and looked out at the sunless, grey Bratislava morning. The icy slap of the water revived him a little, and he dressed. There was a westbound train at eleven and he thought he might as well get it, though how far he hadn’t decided.

As he breathed in the coffee fumes and greedily drank down the bitter black liquid, he began to feel more awake. The dream faded from nauseating immediacy and became a bad memory, not yet quite forgotten. He thought about it as he chewed his toast. He hadn’t seen her for a few weeks, and seldom thought of her anymore. That made it more surprising. Or did it? He had felt a creeping loneliness in the travels of the last few days, and it seemed to come to a point yesterday. Alighting from the train, he was soon helplessly lost in the city streets. Several local people had tried to help, but their scanty English, and his non-existent knowledge of their language had rendered it useless. He had finally found his way to the accommodation office, then he bravely (or stupidly?) opted to walk to the hotel they had arranged. It was at least two miles, and needless to say, he was soon lost again. Eventually, he got there, thanks to a rather matronly woman at a bus stop who had pointed him in the right direction, over three hours after he had got off the train.

After a meal, he drank several bottles of beer, but instead of lightening his mood as he’d hoped, it had the opposite effect. So perhaps it wasn’t that surprising: she was something familiar, reassuring to think of, and the flight into lust had provided an escape. Not that he had ever seen her body in reality, though now he didn’t see her any longer, he didn’t feel as guilty about it. He’d been curious about her body when they were friends, and had enjoyed any chance glimpses of it: down her cleavage, or up her skirt, but he always felt bad about it. When they had parted on such unpleasant terms – he hadn’t taken the news that she was getting married very well, and a lot of hurtful things were said – he found that sexual fantasies were a way of erasing the hurt, though he still felt residual guilt. Even so, it had been a while since he had last thought about her, even as an object of lust, and he regretted his lapse, his weakness in calling out. He thought he’d been granted an exit visa from that state some time ago.

His spirits lifted a little as he shouldered his pack and set off down the long hill towards the railway station. Could this really be the same town as yesterday? His hangover had withered to a faint, occasional throb in his head, and the cool breeze was pleasant on his face. He had over an hour to wait, but it didn’t seem to matter. He sat and read the Kerouac paperback he’d brought. Very soon, he was absorbed in its story of hitching and hoboing across America, or living in a hut on top of a mountain for months as a fire warden. Every now and again, he looked up, but the station was quiet, and there weren’t many people about. After a couple of chapters, it was near eleven, so he put the book away, and stood expectantly. Shortly, the train snaked its way slowly into the station. He found an empty compartment near the front, and settled himself down for the five hour trip to Prague. One thing he had enjoyed about the past days travels was the consistent punctuality of the trains: it made a change from home.

The train set off, and he was content to merely sit back and stare out of the window. For the first couple of hours, the landscape was mainly rolling and agricultural, with plenty of trees. The train was an express, but ambled along at under 60mph most of the time, and ignored the numerous small stations. Gradually, it became more wooded and hilly, and the speed fell to a leisurely 40-45mph as the train crossed into Bohemia. Time was passing quickly, and he was enjoying the scenery and the solitude of the compartment. He seemed to become more anonymous; just sitting on a train somewhere, it didn’t matter where, and forgetful of everything else.

Along the more level ground of Bohemia, it began to rain. Perversely, this cheered him, and reminded him of home. During a station stop, he watched it flood out of the sky, pouring down the glass, and hammering onto a line of coaches parked in an adjacent siding. It bounced off the roofs with such violence it formed a cloud of mist above them. He wound down the window slightly, enjoying the crisp smell of the damp air. It was a relief after the heat of the previous days.

Just after four in the afternoon, the train reached the city. The grey sky and lingering drizzle gave it an unwelcoming look. After he had got an address from the accommodation office, he took a tram out into the suburbs. The room was only a few minutes walk from a tram stop, and after he’d settled in, he bought some food and beer. He lounged on the bed and watched some local TV, where he was amused to see an episode of Taggart overdubbed in Czech! Tonight, at least, he felt more cheerful, and the beer had a more positive effect.

He spent the next few days exploring the city, taking a tram from the post-war suburbs into the centre, with its miles of narrow eighteenth century streets and baroque architecture for which it is famous. A lot of the buildings were covered in scaffolding, and a number closed for restoration. Were it not for the noise and fumes of traffic, this place could almost be timeless. He found a path that wound its way to the top of Petr¡n hill, then he climbed the imitation Eiffel Tower that graced the summit. As he reached the observation platform at the top, briefly disorientated by the spiral staircase, he gasped at the view. There, several hundred feet below the city lay, basking in the sun under a blue sky, the river Vltava snaking its way lazily through the middle. The red tile roofs of the older buildings positively gleamed in the sunlight, and the breeze was pleasantly cool. He took a number of photos, then simply stood and stared in awe, scarcely believing that he was really here, in Prague. A city he’d read of, and seen in numerous documentary programmes and archive films. Here was a place where great historical events had happened: people had been flung from windows in the castle, sparking off wars, great composers had stayed here, the Nazi, Heydrich was assassinated here, revolutions had been declared, Russian tanks had gone onto the streets. Doubtless, great events had happened at home too, but he had never felt so close to them before.

There was so much to see, that even after three days he felt he had hardly started: he had seen the Little Quarter, the Old Town Square, the Jewish Quarter, and Wenceslas Square. The sense of history had continually assailed him, despite the mass of tourists, and new trappings of capitalism, the burger joints and adverts for Coke. But he couldn’t stay any longer, to his disappointment: his ticket expired in a few days, and he didn’t want to get caught out. As he packed that night, he felt sad: the prospect of returning home wasn’t an appealing one: his poky little room in a depressing grey town where it seemed to rain nine days out of ten. A town that reminded him of her. It all seemed so banal and ordinary after all the places he had seen. There was a through train to Paris every lunchtime, taking eighteen hours, from where it was a straightforward run to the Channel ports, a ferry, then a series of rattletrap trains to his home town.

He drank a few bottles of the excellent local beer – that’s one thing he’d miss, and it was so cheap – and fell tipsily onto the bed. He didn’t feel too bad, though he was aware of the darkness of the other night drifting somewhere close. In an attempt to keep it away, he deliberately called her plump, white body to mind. She was wearing a thin summer dress, and her legs were bare. He drifted into sleep with her undressed and getting into bed, his moving over her, and making love to her almost desperately, as if he wouldn’t see her again.

He woke, hungover, at about nine in the morning. He’d slept soundly, and no dreams had troubled him. Even so, he again woke with an erection, thought this time he satisfied it to try and get the lingering thought of her out of mind. He breakfasted on coffee and the stale remains of a loaf he had bought the day he’d arrived. The tram was near full, so he sat with his pack on his lap and savoured the journey, even though the seats were only slightly more comfortable than concrete. On the short walk from the Main Square to the station, he had a last glimpse down Wenceslas Square, and he briefly recalled a newspaper photograph of a crowd of demonstrators facing a phalanx of helmeted riot police. He passed into the cool shade of the station by a side gate, pleased to find the Paris train standing at the nearest platform. He found an empty compartment, and waited. There was about half-an-hour before departure, so he resumed reading the paperback.

Eventually, the train set off. It, too, was an express, but like the others he’d been on, it also maintained a leisurely pace through the woods and fields of Bohemia. The passing scene made him regret he was leaving, he felt he’d like to walk through some of the woods and beside the streams. He’d read that a lot of the country’s rivers were so badly polluted they were sterile, and the forests were suffering from the effects of acid rain, though looking at them, it seemed hard to believe.

He had lunch in the restaurant car, which was a novel experience for him: at home, they had become the exclusive preserve of first class passengers. It was very pleasant to sit there eating his Prague ham, and sipping beer, watching the passing scenery. The low speed of the train added to the effect. Three hours after the train had set off, the customs passed through the train, even though the border was still forty minutes away. The Iron Curtain was supposed to have fallen, yet it seemed no-one had told them yet. They strutted about arrogantly, pistols strapped to their waists, peering suspiciously at everyone’s passports. There were three in all, and each demanded his passport. And it wasn’t just the quick glance it got in Western Europe, it was closely scrutinised, looking at the photograph, then at him, then at the photograph, then at him again, before returning the passport with what seemed to him to be thinly disguised reluctance. Are they doing it deliberately, he wondered, to make people nervous? He stepped out into the corridor to go to the lavatory. Immediately, one of the customs demanded his passport again. He sighed.

“You’ve just seen it,” he said in English, but to no avail. The man held out his hand with obvious impatience, and he handed the passport over once again. Oh, he thought, I obviously haven’t been granted a Toilet Visa, now be sure to stamp it correctly now, and when I come back, to make sure I don’t overstay. Unless there’s a shortage of loo paper, and they think I’m going to illegally take some out of the country, or use some of their currency notes. I mean, you’re not allowed to take them out of the country either, so you might as well put them to some use.

After examining the passport with the same suspiciousness, he handed it back with equal reluctance. Thank you, perhaps I can go now. At length, the border was reached at Cheb, where the train sat for thirty minutes doing nothing. It finally set off again and passed into Germany, where it stopped again for a further half-hour. An unsmiling German policeman in mirror sunglasses, hand resting on his pistol, breezed through the train, checking, yes, you guessed it, passports. He had the same suspicious demeanour as the Czechs had, though it was nothing compared to the Hungarians he’d seen a few days ago. They had the same Cold War attitudes, but they went further, armed with machine guns and sniffer dogs. They even opened the roof cavities of the train and peered in with torches, as if they were searching for any potential defectors. Frontiers seem to be more than a mere demarcation between this and that country, they’re places of barriers and seemingly mindless bureaucratic procedures, suspicious men with guns and sunglasses. They give small time officials their own little empires, the power over someone else, whether to let them in or out, or to refuse and turn them back. He remembered the old phrase about giving someone a uniform…

When the train finally did set off again, it went on a lot faster than before, though there were still over twelve hours before it reached Paris. He used the last of his Czech money in the restaurant car, and settled down for the boring part of the journey. He suddenly felt weary of it, and wanted the journey to be over, though there was still a long way to go yet. As the train headed north from Nuremberg, he watched a spectacular sunset fade into darkness. The prospect of seeing his home town again was not a particularly inviting one, yet it was familiar, and he had friends there. He’d probably feel relieved, maybe even faintly glad, when he finally reached home, though how long that feeling would last was uncertain. Once the old routine had reasserted itself, he’d doubtless hate it once again. There’d be reminders of her too, though he felt strangely confident that he could excise them. It suddenly didn’t seem too difficult, and he could see himself finally escaping, the border guard handing back his papers, opening the barrier, and him walking on down the road into the new country.

Twenty-four hours or so later, he finally reached home. He knew he was home, really home: all the trains were late and overcrowded, and the town greeted him with a downpour. He walked wearily through the ticket barrier and grinned at the weather. I could have gone to Mars and back, he thought, but the trains would still be late and it would still be raining. He sighed, relieved, and started the mile-and-a-half walk to the house.

The Joy of Maps


Ever since childhood, I’ve loved maps. From my first world atlas to the road maps I’d look in wonder at to help pass long car journeys, I found them fascinating. My favourites have to be the Ordnance Survey (OS). What started as the one inch to the mile series, have now morphed into the pink covered Landrangers. From the broad sweep of a road atlas, that gives tantalising hints of the landscape, in the OS you swim in a lush, warm ocean of detail. Roads whose importance is denoted by their colour: blue, green, red, brown, yellow or uncoloured; place names, sometimes with a Latin annotation to denote a Roman settlement, that show the range of influences over the centuries (Celtic, Roman, Saxon, Norse); rivers and other watercourses; battle sites; contour lines, densely packed or none; remote settlements and farmsteads with weird names (Dog-in-a-Doublet Farm near Thorney, Cambs has to be my favourite, and the strangest, Sodom in Denbighshire).

From my local sheet, number 118 for Stoke-on-Trent and Macclesfield, (which I’ve now had four of, the first of which is now very battered), which still holds much interest, to a growing number of other sheets I’ve acquired when I travel somewhere new. All can help pass a weary winter evening, poring over the Croesian richness of their detail.

Sometimes, just looking at how some places appear on the map makes me want to go there. On sheet 134 (Norwich and the Broads), a narrow swathe of white runs from Norwich for several miles south-east, with not a contour line to be seen and crossed only by numerous rivers and streams, picked out a thin blue. Either side of this, the contours pick up again, so this white and blue area leaps off the paper at you. In complete contrast, on sheet 9 (Cape Wrath), dense contours are punctuated by thousands of small lochs and only the very occasional road, where even the “A” roads are single track, and all the names are Gaelic. Seeing this, I just had to go there, had to see it. (Writing this, I had to pause to look at the map again, for the first time in years, and I want to go there, now). Maps like these can create adventures without ever having to set foot outside your door. Even so, I always like to take the map to the place it describes, take it home almost.

Fascinating though this wealth of detail is, sometimes you need the bigger sweep of a larger map. Then you see the long straights of Roman roads, scarce a bend for mile after mile (look at the A5 in the Midlands for instance). The A15 north of Lincoln follows the old Roman road of Ermine Street for several miles, and is, I believe, the longest piece of straight road in England. The effect is rather spoiled by a kink near Scampton, as if a giant was drawing the road along a ruler and accidentally drew round a finger. (The real reason is rather more prosaic, an extension to the runway at RAF Scampton). This reminds me of a story I read about when the Moscow – St Petersburg railway was being planned, Tsar Nicholas I used a ruler on the map and drew round a finger. He was so widely feared the curve was apparently included on the finished line just in case!

Mention of railways brings me to that fascinating, romantic mark on the OS “Cse of Old Rly”, or these days as “dismantled railway”. The faint dotted lines which also showed cuttings, embankments, and bridges, which often abruptly end where the old alignment has been lost to plough, new roads or building. Sometimes you can pick it up again nearby, but not always: the old Midland and Great Northern route around Caistor has vanished. If I come across such a route when I’m travelling, I will usually go and investigate it, see how much remains. The answer is usually not much, or nothing at all. You need an old map to see where stations were. Thankfully there are many resources online now to make this industrial archeology easy. There is also a company called Cassini that reprints old OS 1 inch maps realigned to the current Landranger sheet, and I have a few of these.

I wouldn’t describe myself as a collector, but whenever I come across a second hand bookshop, I will usually pick up an old one inch OS. Indeed, the first time I visited Holyhead, I used such a map from 1955 to navigate as I did not have anything newer. The first thing I look for will be former railways, seeing them marked in a black as open with stations and all the features intact, not the faint dots of the closed. Those maps even distinguish between open and closed stations and single and multiple track lines.

Many times, my mental journeys round the paper of the map has been to follow the “Cse of Old Rly”, and to wonder about the line, when it closed and what it would have been like to travel over. The internet has made this easier too, with satellite images showing the long abandoned earthworks. Much as I appreciate these technologies, they can never hope to surpass the thrill of expectation that comes from opening or unfolding a proper paper map.


My first copy of the Stoke-on-Trent and Macclesfield OS map

Riding Up To Woodhead, or Did I Really Do That?


Another piece previously published in “Direct Current”. Wrote this in Málaga at Christmas 2004.

A warm, sunny day in September, the last flowering of another British summer. Stuck as I was in a sweltering office all I could do was look outside enviously. Then I had a crazy idea. A few months earlier, after leaving it to gather dust in a storeroom for years, I had put my bike back on the road. Also, earlier in the summer, I had passed near Woodhead for the first time in twelve years. I had always been fascinated by the railway that used to run there, though had never seen it in operation: a combination of stunning landscapes, unique locomotives and a controversial closure. It was one of the main routes between Manchester and Yorkshire and carried huge amounts of freight. For this reason it was electrified after the war, with a new three mile tunnel being built at Woodhead. Despite this investment, passenger services ended in 1970 and the line was closed completely in 1981.

And so my crazy idea was born. Wouldn’t it be nice, I thought, to go back up there on my bike? I could now ride all the way from Hadfield to Penistone, mostly traffic free as this section of line had been converted to a cycle path. I doubted I would ever do it, but it was a nice idea. And so, to that lovely warm spell in September. The more I looked outside, the more I wished I was outside, cycling down the canal or some quiet lane. Then that great weather oracle, Mr Fish, said the warm weather would be gone by the weekend. Yes, I thought, let’s go, now. So I booked a day off work and checked on the net for train times. Friday morning saw me at Stoke station, helmeted and raring to go (as far as I’m ever raring to do anything first thing in the morning!) I thought back fourteen years to the first time I had taken my bike up there. It was far easier when trains had a guards van. For today, I had been obliged to book spaces on the Virgin trains in advance, and for the other trains it was first come, first served, so there was the real possibility of being left behind.

All went well and I reached Hadfield just after ten am. There was some cloud, but it was sunny and warm. Instead of the broad swathe of trackbed, there were now two tracks, one for horses one for walkers and cyclists, and it was very overgrown. There was a headwind, but nothing too bad and I was able to hold about 9-10 mph up the rising gradient. A marked contrast to 1990 when I was riding along the “B” road from Hadfield: the wind then kept me below 5mph even downhill!

Although it’s only for a few miles, the ascent of Longdendale has to be one of the scenic highlights of England. The flight of reservoirs rising towards the hills, glittering in the sunlight and the moors themselves seemed aglow. There were frequent information boards by the path, mainly about local wildlife but with some snippets about the railway too. I wasn’t convinced some of these were entirely accurate: I thought Crowden station, for instance, had a single island platform, not two. Perhaps I’m being too pedantic…

After two-and-a-half miles, there was a level crossing at Torside. On my first visit, the road signs and some track were left, but now it was unrecognisable: some trees, a gate, the road, then another gate. Indeed, for virtually all the path, there is little to suggest this was ever a railway at all. Beyond here was new territory for me, as I had never walked the entire line on previous visits. And this was the best part. At Crowden, the line runs right along the reservoir. Despite the roar from the A628 on the other side of the valley, it was a peaceful spot, with the gently lapping water. I paused for a few minutes, pleased I was here, not quite believing it. Even as I felt the solid metal of my bike, it seemed unreal, a dream.

A few minutes later, I reached Woodhead, and the top of the valley. It had clouded over by now, but was still warm. I was pleased to see the station platforms still in situ. At last a tangible reminder of the railway. I leaned the bike on a fence and took a well-earned swig of lucozade, content to stand there and just listen to the rushing river Etherow nearby. It seems hard to believe such a little river could be the source of all the reservoirs down the valley. About a hundred yards away was the tunnel with its rather austere concrete portal and simple date above: “BR 1954”. I looked back down the valley, feeling rather pleased with myself.

The tunnel soon reminded me of its presence. Every now and again, a terrific blast of icy air erupted from it. This was so powerful even from a hundred yards away, that the temperature around me plummeted: I could see my breath, and shivered in its cold concrete flavoured breath. It would die as quickly, and the air would be warm again. I walked right up to the entrance and peered through the fence. It was freezing. The ballast had been removed though the steelwork was still secured to the roof. This was a forbidding place. I almost expected to see Moorlocks crouching in the shadows, waiting to pounce should I come any closer.

I was glad to escape its icy breath. The fence blocked my way forward so I had to haul my bike up the steep hill to the main road. This seemed to take ages, and I had to wait several minutes for a break in the traffic before I could get over. This was the hardest part of the day. The climb isn’t that steep, but it just goes on and on. I would ride some and push some, dodging an endless procession of trucks as they thundered past. It was grey now, the sun but a memory, but I didn’t mind. I was pleased just to be there. As on my first visit, the moment I crossed into Yorkshire, down came the mist. After the quiet of the path (I had hardly seen anyone since leaving Hadfield), the traffic was a shock. I was relieved to see the Dunford Bridge turning and get away from it. One last push up the hill, then a real pleasure: a long descent as I coasted at about 27mph for several minutes. This culminated in a mad whizz at 32mph on the steepest part just before the village, the cold air roaring past me. I had forgotten just how exhilarating this is, even though it made my eyes water! It was as well I knew where to brake as some idiot had stopped a truck on the bridge just round the last bend!

I parked by the pub and went in for a swift half. Another change: instead of the cosy place with its huge open fire that I remembered, it had been considerably “poshified”, with prices to match. I made it an even swifter half and went and sat near the station site to eat my lunch. I felt a little cheated.

Here too, little reminder of what was. The tunnel gate was open and there seemed a lot of work going on inside, with sounds of drilling. Thankfully no blasts from the icy depths disturbed me here and I enjoyed my lunch in peace. The only sounds an occasional bird, the rustle of unseen water and a jet fading high above. Yes, I thought, I am definitely here. Good isn’t it?

After the drama of Longdendale, the descent to Penistone was something of an anti-climax. At least it was all downhill! The path, however, was of far poorer quality. On the west side, the large grade of gravel used meant a firm, if sometimes bumpy, ride. Here, it was far muddier and even more overgrown. It was especially poor between Hazlehead and Bullhouse, less then a foot wide in places, and I forever had to dodge overhanging branches. Still, at least the demolished bridge that hindered me when I walked this way had been replaced.

There was one more reminder. At Thurlstone crossing, there was still a rail still embedded in the road. Was it genuine, I thought, had the unique class 76 locos really run along it? Then a rather surreal experience. Two chaps on bikes approached from Penistone and asked where they were.

“About three miles from Dunford Bridge,” I said. They looked at me blankly.

“Where’s that?” said one.

“Yorkshire!” said I. This didn’t seem to mean much to them either, and they rode off.

About half a mile from Penistone, the path changed to tarmac and it started to rain. All too soon, I reached the station and wheeled my bike along the platform. I had arrived, I had actually done it. I had even beaten the weather. I felt really pleased with myself, and after a dull trip home, slept very well that night.

A Day Of Heat and Flirting


Late evening, with the last vestiges of daylight a rapidly deepening blue away in the distance. Not far enough north for it to remain in blue twilight all night. I sit and listen to the soft rain falling through the trees and remember standing out in the yard during a thunderstorm twenty years ago letting the downpour cool me. This is softer rain, pattering past leaves as it falls. At the end of another day of heat, of driving with all the windows open, getting chatted up on a petrol station, of walking beside a canal full of yellow lilies, damsel flies and fish, the sun hot on my pasty white skin. Of going home and dozing in the muggy afternoon, thinking of the woman from the petrol station. Not often (never more like) that things like that happen to me. How often do dreams become flesh? They don’t and it didn’t here. “What’s your number?” she said, but I smiled and drove away with a wave. And if I had given her my number, what then? Who knows, but I’m sure she was just flirting. Still, it may have meant nothing, but it was flattering all the same. And she’ll be in my mind as I drift off to sleep to the soft rustle of rain.

Islands in the Clouds


This is another piece that I wrote for “Direct Current”, published in 1992. Of all the rail journeys I’ve made over the years, this is the one that I look back to with the most fondness.

I don’t believe this is happening. Someone tell me it is. Brief flash of lights in the dark on the other side of the window. Must be Winsford. This is really happening. After having the idea only a week ago, here I am. It was David Craig reading his poems at College that had done it: talking about the Highland Clearances; the scenery of Caithness and the islands; how it’s the playground of the rich and their tax-free trees. Yes, I said, I’ll go. And here I am, still in disbelief. I opened my wallet to look at the ticket. Yes, it was there: Alsager to Thurso, out and return. More lights flash by. Hartford. I adjusted my headphones and leant back.

As the tape played, I stared into the back of the seat in front. There’s something about travelling at night that sets it apart. The succession of towns blur into uniformity: lines of neons, white glare of factories, and the shimmering light of distant places. In remoter areas, just the odd light here and there; a farmhouse, perhaps. The titanic shapes of hills brooding in the darkness; the night sky a lighter shade of black above them.

The tape had finished, but I didn’t change it straight away. I closed my eyes and listened to the roar of the tracks below, and the clatter of the odd point, muffled by the air conditioning. The only sensation of speed was a slight swaying, which was more startling if you looked down the gangway into the next coach as it rocked from side to side and bounced up and down alarmingly. I looked up, and decided on something to eat. I resumed my thoughts a little later as I munched a donut and sipped coffee from a paper cup. I listened again to the voice of the tracks; their usual steady, comforting hum. It was alright, they were saying, just relax and enjoy the next thirty hours. It was good advice. I finished the coffee, wiped my hands and changed the tape. We were at Carlisle. Soon be in Scotland.

Glasgow Central, just after quarter past nine. I had plenty of time to cross to Queen Street, so I looked around before descending to the low level platforms. I cast my mind back a couple of months to when I’d been here last. I’d planned to spend a week travelling on various Scottish lines while they were still loco-hauled. It wasn’t to be, however, for I was compelled by illness to return. And that seemed to be the end of my hopes. That is until I heard David Craig…

I reached Queen Street by ten, and had just under two hours to wait. I stood at the platform ends and watched anonymous headlamps appear from the Cowlairs tunnel, and listened to locomotives as they roared up the gradient; the sound reverberated back even after the red tail lamp had disappeared. I saw the distinctive push-pull sets arrive and depart, various locals to and from Dunblane or Cumbernauld. After a class 37, Loch Rannoch, had taken out the Fort William – London sleeper, I boarded my train, the overnight to Inverness. I soon came to the conclusion that I would sleep very little, so I decided to stay awake. Curling up on the seat proved too uncomfortable in any case. I must have snatched some sleep, however. After the Perth stop, where the Edinburgh portion of the train was attached, I remember little until four am.

The train had stopped at a signal in the middle of nowhere. I later found out it was probably Tomatin loop. I went to the door and looked out. A strong smell of pine greeted me, and the sharp morning air woke me with a start. Not far away, I could hear a stream rustling, invisible in the darkness. Above, the sky was cloudless, the crescent moon impassively grey, while nearby Venus glittered a dazzling blue. After ten minutes, a freight passed the other way, and we were off again. The long descent from over 1000 feet to sea level at Inverness and a two hour wait for the next stage of the adventure.

I was glad to find that the stock for the train was already in the platform. Adjacent were two others: one for Aberdeen, and the three coach train for Kyle. Snug in my thick jacket, wedged into a corner, headphones on, the time passed more quickly than I thought. About quarter past six, the Kyle loco arrived, followed closely by the Wick/Thurso: a local class 37 diesel named Highland Region.

At 06.35 the four hour trek up to the railway John ‘O’ Groats began. The train was still cold, and despite being on the move took some time to warm up. It was early November, and wouldn’t be light until about eight; so for the first ninety minutes or so, I was travelling blind. I saw the lights on the new A9 bridge, and recall the 10mph restriction over the swing bridge at Clachnaharry. A brief glimpse of the lights in the cosy box and it was on into the darkness. Dawn was beginning to show herself; overhead, the sky was still dark blue, tinted orange by the sleeping city.

Drizzle at Dingwall had subsided by Invergordon, where I was surprised to see several oil platforms standing together in the estuary; strange giant machines waiting patiently for some command. Mist had enveloped us after Ardgay, and by Invershin, the scenery was hinting at what was to come. The open fields and distant hills of Alness had closed in. The hilltops stood above the mist, floating islands, with their lower slopes hidden. After a rock cutting, we reached Lairg and a fifteen minute stop to cross the 06.00 from Wick/Thurso. I stepped on to the frosty platform to photograph it as it came to a stop, glad to let the cold air revive me. Sleep was catching up.

The sun showed itself for the first time at Brora, followed by a run alongside the North Sea for several miles. At Helmsdale the line swings inland into a great loop to reach Wick via Forsinard and Altnabreac. I felt wistful, sad almost, as I looked out. Helmsdale was one of the places I’d planned to stop on my earlier abortive trip: the vast expanse of the sea on the one hand, and the mountains on the other…Between here and Georgemas the scenery is at its best. The line winds between mountains, for the most part bare, bleak, almost. I much prefer this, though I saw signs of change in several fir plantations. The trees were still small, but in ten years, the place will look totally different. Forsinard. There were about two houses and a building that looked like a hotel or pub; a scattering of leafless trees behind. The disused signal box on the platform was still in good condition, albeit without its lever frame.

The summit of the line is at County March, 708 feet above sea level and marked by a blue and white board. Just before it, I noticed a crumbling stone cottage whose roof timbers had collapsed into the shell. We were passing through open moorlands covered in heather. A few yards from the line, was a long fence that appeared to be made of old sleepers, some rotten; we followed it for a several miles.

At Georgemas Junction, the train divided. Highland Region took the front two coaches on to Wick, while Scottish Hosteller the rest to Thurso. Then, at 10.43 on a Wedenesday morning, four minutes early, I finally arrived. Some eighteen hours and 600 miles after I’d set out the afternoon before. And I still had to get back.

Not a particularly good photo technically, but one I love as it strongly evokes that whole journey. Taken on the return journey, near Kildonan.


The Road to Cape Wrath


While doing some housekeeping on the computer recently, I came across this piece. It was originally published in the EM2 Locomotive Society journal “Direct Current” in February 1995, and is one of a number I wrote for it over the years. The journey described is one I always look back on with some fondness.

It’s a dramatic way to wake up. Especially after, (or inspite of), the sleepless night on the upper bunk, kept awake by the muted roar of the tracks, swaying over junctions and round curves in the mountainous bits. I drew up the blind with heavy eyes to a bleak mountainous wilderness, miles from the darkened neon lit townscape I didn’t go to sleep with. I went out into the corridor, looked out of the open window and gasped at the cold air of the thin misty morning, letting it revive me. The train was crawling up the slope, ever higher, to a summit of almost 1500 feet, the “Highest Point on BR” as the large blue sign says.

The steward brought coffee which I gratefully sipped, black, drawing in the caffeine fumes, the bitter taste on my tongue a confirmation that I am actually here, not still at home, dreaming of journeys away. And this is only the start, there’s still a few hundred miles to go yet. Over the top, a gallop down the other side, another climb then a long drop towards the sea at Inverness.

I had a wait of two-and-a-half hours. A “hot bacon roll” had to pass for breakfast (why is it station buffets don’t do proper breakfasts anymore?) after which I sat on one of the circular benches and opened my paper. In between paragraphs, I’d look up as people and trains came and went; people in suits with briefcases, families, and others with huge rucksacks, lots of those.

“Would you mind keeping an eye on my bag for a minute?” said a voice.

I looked up and saw a woman divesting herself of a huge backpack. I’d bemoaned the weight of my own, yet this was several sizes larger, with numerous items strapped top and bottom, and at the sides. You’d almost need a fork-lift truck to take it on and off!

“Of course,” I smiled.

“I won’t be long,” she added.

She told me she was over from California, and had been travelling for several weeks through Ireland and the rest of Britain. She was en route for the Orkney Islands to see some of the prehistoric sights. I’d been there myself the year before, and could well understand her enthusiasm.

I hadn’t been relishing the long wait, but with someone to talk to, it passed pleasantly quickly. I told her I was heading for Cape Wrath, the most north-westerly point in Britain, something I’d wanted to do ever since reading Paul Theroux’ A Kingdom by the Sea a few years before. The chapter dealing with the run to the Cape, using the Lairg – Durness postbus was one of the most memorable of the whole book. The train was one of the ubiquitous two-car class 156 diesel units which soon filled up, and I was impatient to get going again. I felt nostalgic as the train set off, the memory of my first trip five years earlier a constant companion. This time, though, it was a warm, sunny June morning, rather than a freezing November dawn.

I said goodbye to my new friend at Lairg where I caught the postbus for the three hour, fifty-six mile run to Durness. It had clouded over, but was still warm, and there was a heady perfume of gorse in the air: the roadside verges were awash with their golden blooms. Clear of the village, the road was single track with passing places for most of its length, the bus stopping frequently as the driver delivered the mail to the remote houses and farms. For the first fifteen miles or so, the road follows Loch Shin, with the mountains growing gradually closer, though it soon clouded over and began to rain. Despite the narrow road, the driver didn’t hang around, and seemed reluctant to slow down, never mind stop: swerving into a passing place and powering out again as soon as possible! Not quite burning rubber, but not that far away. . .

At Laxford Bridge, we parted company from the Durness road for a while, and deviated a few miles along the Ullapool road to Scourie. “Lax” is apparently old Norse for “salmon”. The road had been following the river Laxford for several miles, and the there were low, rocky hills and numerous small lochs all around. I was glad to finally see it: a glance at the Ordnance Survey map for the area was enough to kindle an interest by itself, and I wasn’t disappointed. Apart from the weather, as the rain had become a torrential downpour. With the map open on my knee, I tried to pick out the features, and I wondered what all the Gaelic names actually meant, and how you pronounced them!

Back on the A838, another deviation came at Rhiconich, a few miles along Loch Inchard to the small fishing village of Kinlochbervie. After a few minutes unloading mail bags, the driver pulled in a few miles back down the road at Badcall, and disappeared for about ten minutes into one of the houses; for a not-so-quick cup of tea we passengers thought. I’d been sitting on the hard seat for almost three hours, so I got out to stretch my legs. It was still pouring with rain, so I didn’t stretch very much!

The driver finally came back, and we started on the last stage to Durness. After a short climb, the road swept gradually down on a long straight, falling from 337 feet above sea level to a mere 26 feet at the foot of the Kyle of Durness, across the Drochaid Mh¢r, or Big Bridge, over the river Dionard. There were mountains on either side, principally the Cranstackie/Beinn Spionnaidh massif to the east and the less imposing Farrmheall to the west, and the ground in between looked soft and wet, with very black soil. The sight of the Atlantic, grey and uninviting under the heavy mass of rain clouds, really emphasised the remoteness of the place: Durness, from the old Norse Dyr-Nes, meaning Wolf’s Cape, where the road, unable to continue northwards having run out of land, turns east; while on the empty ocean, fading towards the northern horizon, there’s nothing until you reach the Arctic ice.

The rain had stopped, but it was very windy. Even so, after over three hours I was glad to get off the bus. Home, in the north-west of England now seemed so far away as to be mythical, but it didn’t bother me; I felt a quiet excitement that I had come so far. Even Lairg seemed further away than its fifty-six miles.

After buying some food, I walked the mile or so to the Youth Hostel at Smoo. The road dropped near level with the sea and passed the beach at Sango with its brilliant white sand, then swung sharply back up again at about 1:6.

The following day, the wind had blown up into a ferocious southerly gale, and there were frequent heavy showers. I had wanted to head on up to Cape Wrath, but the ferry over the Kyle of Durness wasn’t running because of the weather, so I had to amuse myself for the rest of the day. After walking down towards Balnakeil, where there was a large rainbow draped lazily across the bay, I abandoned it as a bad job and returned to the village. I found a reasonably sheltered spot amongst the rocks on Sango beach, and sat and watched the waves breaking. The pub opened at midday, just in time as it had suddenly clouded over and started to rain again. In the afternoon, I sheltered behind a wall near Loch Caladail for a while, where it was unexpectedly peaceful, before taking a look at Smoo cave. The vast arch of its entrance, about 100 feet across and about 50 high, is a mere prelude to the smaller, flooded secondary chamber, into which roars a 70 foot waterfall. You cross a short plank bridge to a sort of balcony, and the spray drenches you before you reach the end.

When I woke next morning, I felt apprehensive as I looked outside, hoping I wasn’t in for another wasted day. It was still blowy and overcast, but the ferocity of the gale had eased considerably. I reached the ferry landing full of anticipation: I looked along the grey Kyle at the mountains on the other side, aloof and impassive as ever, dipping in and out of the passing clouds. Shortly, a landrover pulled up and the man told me that there needed to be at least four passengers to make it worthwhile for the bus driver. So far, there was only me and two women in the car park. The man shook his head slowly and said I should come back at one ‘o’ clock, then he got back in his landrover and drove away. That was almost four hours away, and it was three miles back to the village. I sighed, wondering if I’d ever reach the Cape. . .

I walked back to the car park, and saw some more people had arrived, so I told them the score. Two middle-aged sisters were good enough to give me a lift back up to Durness, and surprised me by suggesting I tag along with them. They seemed to take to me and it was rather like being out with your favourite great aunts!

After a visit to Smoo cave, where the waterfall was considerably swelled with the recent rain, we got back to the ferry just before one. Eventually, the dour man in his landrover came back, donned waterproofs and waded out into the Kyle to bring the “ferry” in: only a small fibreglass thing with an outboard motor! On the other side, everyone piled onto the minibus, which only managed a few feet along the road before grinding to a halt: there was a full load and it couldn’t manage the 1:6 away from the slipway! The driver apologised and asked for six volunteers to walk up the worst of the hill!

The road was a rough, pitted track for the eleven miles. After the sharp climb at the start, it rose over 200 feet in the first mile to take it along the cliffs. There was a fine view of the Kyle sandbanks below, with several seals basking on them. After plunging down at about 1:7 to ford the Diall river, the road climbed back up as steeply and headed inland through the mountains. It was a bleak, rather desolate place of peaty moorland, a feeling only emphasised by the roughness of the road, and it being deserted. The MOD use the entire area as a bombing range, and the frequent warning signs and notices with odd symbols on them add a surreal touch.

The road ends at the Cape Wrath lighthouse, built by Robert Stevenson in 1828, and is apparently one the few left that are still manned. “Wrath” is another old Norse word, meaning Turning Point; on clear days, you can see the Western Isles and the Orkneys, as well as looking along the cliffs to the south and east, especially the spectacular range at Cl• M¢r, looming at over 600 feet. Even from a couple of miles away, it’s difficult to appreciate their size.

The Cape is the sort of place you could just sit, staring out into the vast greyness of the ocean, listening to the waves crashing way below you; somewhere to just sit and think, or not; a feeling only emphasised by its remote location, and the way you reach it.

After half-an-hour, the bus started back. The tide had turned, and was rapidly going out, so the ferry couldn’t tie up at the quay as before. The man pulled it as close to the shore as he could, then helped people in, using his booted foot as a step! The sisters gave me a lift again, and when I got back to the hostel, it was like reaching home when I went into the dorm and saw my rucksack by the bed.

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