Freedom and Solitude by Train

I hatched a bucket list trip - an indulgent plan of dreams and desires. I pictured myself walking in remote places where the only chatter would come from birds; dreamed of doing it simply but comfortably: I'm allergic to camping. And I'm not a mad Munro basher; I just wanted to be in the mountains. And I didn't want to fly or drive to get there.

So I walked out into the Bristol commuter hour one Thursday afternoon in May with a rucksack on my back on my way to Scotland. I left the car, my passport and camping gear at home and began a five-day trip by public transport to find solitude, freedom and space. Too much to ask? Actually it was perfectly possible - and it turned out perfectly.

Loch Ossian in reflective mood, 102 kb
Loch Ossian in reflective mood
© Sarah Flint

It went like this: a forgettable coach journey to London followed by a quick but unforgettable Chinese meal with a friend to fill in time before the 23.50 train left Euston for Glasgow Central. (Number one on the bucket list: take a sleeper train to Scotland). As I approached the strident train lady on the platform she announced: 'You've won the watch', and promptly directed me to a first class berth instead of the standard shared cupboard that I'd booked.

The train clattered and mumbled through the night while I slept on a nice comfortable bed under a nice comfortable duvet. I awoke at 6.45 and drank a complimentary cup of tea while Glasgow unpeeled before me, then walked through a sleepy and drizzly city to Glasgow Queen Street Station to catch the 8am Mallaig train - which was oddly popular for a Thursday morning. I sat among the tourists and together we oohed and aahhed at the increasingly magnificent, and increasingly remote, landscape.

Almost three hours later I got off – at Corrour, in the Middle of Rannoch Moor- and I was glad to see that no one else got off with me. As soon as the train clunked its way down the glen I heard it … nothing. Twenty miles from the nearest public road: this was the remoteness I sought. Sauntering down to the Youth Hostel next to Loch Ossian (number two: return to Loch Ossian SYHA) I felt smug about my choice of travel: I hadn't driven all night and I hadn't been subjected to air travel stress. I spread the superfluous contents of my bag on the bunk and went to find Beinn na Lap (Number three: walk up a mountain by myself). As I walked blue bits pushed their way into the grey sky and at the top I could see my kingdom - miles of flat black cracked moor and an encircling horizon of scribbled summits including the fat rear of Ben Nevis. Nothing and no one in view except nature; no chatter except what was in my head. I slept well that night - tired from achieving so many dreams at once (and it helped that there was only one other occupant in the dorm).

Loch Ossian from Leum Uilleim, 74 kb
Loch Ossian from Leum Uilleim
© Sarah Flint

I won the watch again the next day. I woke to cloudless sky and a picture perfect millpond lake. Yesterday's chill wind had gone somewhere else and I sat outside in my pyjamas with a cup of tea in hand and declared to the other four hostellers that it was the most beautiful place I had ever had breakfast. And the most remarkable thing of all - there were no midges on this windless warm day.

Leaving my excess baggage casually stowed away in the station shelter I walked up the rather lovely Corbett Leum Uilleim in the embracing sunshine accompanied by moths and mayflies. At the top I again surveyed my empire (I made the two other people I saw on the hill turn invisible), before descending again to the solitary station in time to sit in the hot sun for a while before catching the 15.21 to Spean Bridge – chosen as my stop-over before I made my way to Aviemore.

I say 'made my way' because it wasn't going to be straightforward. In this culture of cars and cutbacks it has come about that there's no direct public transport between the major tourist centres of Fort William and Aviemore. For car owners it's a ride along the A82 and A86 of one and quarter hours. For the car-less it's a choice of a three-hour journey (Inverness by coach followed by a train ride out to Aviemore) …or hitching. I'd decided to do the adventurous thing and hitch. The bus option would involve either an early start or a mid-afternoon slog that would eat into the evening: not an attractive idea on a sunny day.

The next morning I opened the curtains in the snug bed and breakfast room outside Spean Bridge and looked at the crystal clear view of the Grey Corries. A good day for hitching. But it was not to be for I won the watch again - the accommodating owner (best sausages ever for breakfast - thanks Neil) had a haggis scarcity, had to visit the butcher at Kingussie, and so could drop me at the Aviemore line train station there.

So by lunchtime I'd dumped my bag at the Aviemore Youth Hostel, stocked up with lightweight but nutritious snacks for the following day, and walked to the viewpoint above the town. There I found a bunch of teenage Americans admiring the view and saying 'wow guys' a lot. 'Hey guys' I thought, 'you ain't seen nothing.'

I felt slightly uneasy about my next solitude and remoteness project - twenty miles through the Cairngorms: The Lairig Ghru pass. Three days earlier the forecast had included words I didn't want to see: 'heavy persistent rain'. I saw myself, a small person in a cloud-filled landscape pushing uphill against wind with rain running off my nose and down my neck for hours and hours. The uninspiring plan B would be getting to Aberdeen on thin Sunday public transport.

But I'd won the watch yet again the next day - The MWIS report stuck up in the hostel reception had the life- ffirming words: 'Good visibility. Possibility of light rain in the afternoon.' I got off the bus from Aviemore by the Sugar Bowl car park at 8.15am, stared at the cloud-free summit of Cairngorm and started my walk. Eight hours later I stopped - at the Linn of Dee.

Cairn Toul and the Lairig Ghru from Braeriach, 146 kb
Cairn Toul and the Lairig Ghru from Braeriach
© Dan Bailey -, Jun 2009

I took the Chalamain Gap start, mainly to enjoy the way the landscape dramatically changes from one side of the gap to the other, like a door into another universe. The route follows the river as it ducks and dives under boulder fields and passes the foot of the lofty Angel's Peak, the huge slab of The Devil's Point and the bulk of Ben Macdui. Views transformed and mutated every half hour and kept me entertained over the eight hours. I heard the gronk of Ptarmigan and saw huge waterfalls, including one that fell from a ridge through a thick left-over snow cornice. I saw only four other people and even enjoyed the little cooling shower that visited in the early afternoon.

The ascent was gentle and the path easy to follow, but after six hours my feet started to whinge and my reasonably packed 35L rucksack had made my shoulders ache. By the Linn of Dee car park I wasn't keen on the idea of a further 7km of road walking to get to Braemar where I'd booked a B&B, so I stuck out my thumb and 10 minutes later was chatting to father and daughter Munroists from the back of their 4WD. At the B&B I immediately replaced my boots for Crocs and went to find supper and a pint.

The final logistic was getting home. I'd accepted it would take a day. It was almost possible to have a lazy morning (which my feet wanted) and catch the 10am bus to Aberdeen to pick up the 13.05 train to Edinburgh to pick up the 16.30 train to Bristol. But that would only allow for a 30 minute margin of bus lateness, so continuing to take the stress free option I found myself waiting for the 7.50am bus with the local school kids. Aberdeen distracted me for a couple of hours quite efficiently before I safely boarded the Edinburgh train. I arrived home at 11pm, rested, not stressed… at all.

I had no regrets at leaving the car behind. It was probably slightly more expensive than a fly drive and but it was a richer experience: I enjoyed the journey as much as the destination - which was a first in the UK. I'd also met far more people than I would have if it had been just me and the car. After all, travel is also about connecting with people as well as the freedom and solitude it can bring. And I proved that you don't need a car to get to those remote places.

And thanks for the watch, strident train lady.

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