Robert Hampton

Another visitor! Stay a while… stay forever!

18th September 2013

The Restaurants at the End of The Universe (Part 1)
Posted by at 10.15pm | 4 responses | Out and About

The next morning Ian and I found ourselves on yet another train. ScotRail (bless their thermal socks) offer a Highland Rover ticket, providing unlimited travel on the lines around Fort William and Inverness for 4 days in any consecutive 8, and it’s a bargain at just ¬£81.50. You can even buy it online. We weren’t actually going to get 4 days’ worth of use out of it, but we managed to get great value from the ticket regardless.

Head north from Fort William and you will eventually reach Mallaig. It isn’t a long journey (about 1 hour 20 minutes) and there’s plenty of views to be seen from the window:

View from the train

Ah, right. On Wednesday the weather took a turn for the inclement, a shame as the scenery on this section is perhaps even more spectacular than that south of Fort William. Ian and I were, in any event, distracted by a man sitting near us, who spent a significant chunk of the journey with his right hand firmly inside the waistband of his tracksuit bottoms. Never quite understood why men feel the need to do that – actually, I can well understand the need, but in public?

Mallaig station

The terminus at Mallaig is fairly perfunctory – an island platform with a couple of bus shelters, which must come as a disappointment to the tourists who turn up for the steam train expecting something out of the Island of Sodor or Hogsmeade. A redeeming feature is that the station has a small ticket office with toilets and a sheltered place to sit. On this rainy day, passengers were making full use of it.

We couldn’t hang around for too long, though – we had to get to Mallaig Harbour for the ferry to Inverie.

Well, perhaps “ferry” is overselling it just a little bit, but I don’t know the nautical term for “minibus”:

Knoydart Seabridge

This is the Knoydart Seabridge, a ferry which runs several times a day to connect Mallaig with the tiny village of Inverie on the Knoydart Peninsula. The ferry is the only transport in and out of the village – it is not connected to the UK road network.

Longtime readers of this blog will notice that I’ve been here before. I visited Knoydart and Inverie in 2010. Back then, the village was linked to the mainland via a different, bigger ferry, which took nearly an hour to make the crossing. That service still runs, but the Seabridge runs more frequently and also takes just 30 minutes, which makes it more conducive to a day trip.

On my last visit, I stayed in the village for a few days with my friend Nuno – we walked through wilderness, climbed mountains and generally had a good time. It was a fun time and I would consider doing it again in the future. This time round, however, it would just be a day trip. I wanted to revisit some of the special places I had discovered, and show them to Ian in the process.

We paid the captain and his not-unattractive first mate for the return journey, and set off across Loch Nevis. The ferry is a 12-seater, but it was very cramped inside, even with only six of us on board – the two crew, me, Ian and a couple who said they were on their honeymoon (awww). Still, it’s only a short trip and before too long we were heading into Inverie harbour.

Inverie is located on the shore of Loch Nevis. All around, the mountains rise steeply. On this day they were shrouded in mist, creating a scene which was really rather lovely, in spite of the dampness. I half-expected King Arthur to dash up and ask for help removing a sword from a stone.

Knoydart

Inverie has a permanent population of roughly 70 people. There are plenty of visitors to the village all year round, who are well catered for via a range of accommodation, including the Knoydart Bunkhouse, a few small B&Bs, and a luxury holiday home, complete with outdoor hot-tub.

Inverie, Knoydart, Scotland

If you come here, you have to prepare yourself for isolation. There is no mobile phone or TV reception, and internet access is via satellite broadband. However, you can communicate the old-fashioned way, by sending a letter from the Knoydart Post Office (open Monday, Wednesday and Friday, 10am-noon).

Inverie Post Office

Ian is a fan of the traditional English relaxation method, namely “A Nice Cup Of Tea And A Sit Down”. We headed for the Knoydart Pottery & Tea Room, where we enjoyed a welcome cup of tea and a breakfast roll. The honeymooning couple also came in, and ended up sharing a table with us. I felt slightly awkward. Should we try to make conversation with them? In the event, they engrossed themselves in a set of maps. Clearly he was going to celebrate their nuptials by taking her up the Munro.

Robert in Tea Room Knoydart Tea Room

We did a bit more exploring, walking along the footpath towards the Foundation Bunkhouse (where I had stayed on my previous visit). The walk took us along the beach with stunning views out into the bay. We ventured down onto the beach itself but didn’t stay long – it’s quite rocky and the wet weather had made the stones slippery and treacherous to walk on. Still, at least I maintained my dignity at all times:

Robert & Ian on Knoydart beach Knoydart

A little further on we reached the Bunkhouse itself. We didn’t venture in – it felt a little cheeky since we weren’t staying – but I waxed lyrical about the place and its lovely lounge where you can sit in front of a wood-burning stove and read books all day, if you so desire.

Although there are no roads to or from Knoydart, it is possible to walk in. This is not for the faint-hearted: it is a long hike over rough terrain, with no marked paths, and will take at least two days. This warning sign at the very edge of the village does its best to dissuade Sunday ramblers from attempting the trip. It doesn’t quite say “Here There Be Dragons”, but it might as well.

Knoydart Warning Sign Knoydart Warning Sign

As tempting as getting lost in the middle of nowhere was, we decided against a walk in the mountains, and instead headed back to the throbbing heart of Inverie. On our way back into the village, we passed the honeymoon couple for a third time. Awkward.

We had a table booked for lunch at The Old Forge, which proudly declares itself to be Britain’s most remote pub.

The Old Forge

The remoteness doesn’t prevent the place from serving a great range of pub food. There’s a fantastic selection of seafood brought in daily from the fishing boats that tie up in Inverie harbour. There is also venison on the menu – locally sourced from the wild deer population.

Did I mention that Ian’s a vegetarian? Maybe a venison burger wasn’t the most tactful of meals for me to order. Oops. In my defence, the deer population has to be kept under control, so really I was just helping keep the ecosystem balanced. At least it was free range. Ahem. Sorry, but it was very tasty.

Venison Burger

Ian, luckily, couldn’t get too upset about my meal – he was distracted by the pub’s free wi-fi and was frantically refreshing his Twitter feed. He admitted that this length of time without Internet access had made him anxious, and I could see his point. Two hours is quite long enough without Instagram, thanks.

Ian on his iPhone

The meal was delicious, washed down as it was a pint of Thatcher’s Cider (probably the only decent thing with the name “Thatcher” on it, as Ian pointed out). I thought back to 2010 and the bustling, convivial atmosphere I had experienced in this pub each evening when I visited, and felt a tinge of sadness that we weren’t staying longer.

Lunch consumed, Ian and I headed off, passing the ferry terminal (a hut with a disabled access loo) as we went to the west of the village, a part that I hadn’t actually seen on my last visit. The narrow road continues round the coast for some distance, passing various tiny cottages en route. Yes, there are homes even more remote than the village itself.

Knoydart

There’s something rather appealing about this level of isolation. If I were a celebrity or high-flying business executive, I would make this my bolt-hole where, for a few weeks at least, I could escape. No worries about commuting or mobile phone contracts or Facebook statuses or Keith Lemon, or any of the other million things that make modern life rubbish. I suspect if nuclear war did break out and Britain’s major population centres were annihilated, life in Knoydart could pretty much go on as normal. They even have their own hydroelectric power station.

But then I thought on some more: is this the place to spend the depths of winter – with howling winds and driving snow? And what about Christmas, when I want to be in the metaphorical bosom of my family? If I’d grown up here and never known anything different, I’m sure I could cope. As a city dweller who likes central heating and Merseyrail, I don’t think it would work. Maybe I won’t start planning for a retirement home here just yet.

Knoydart

It was a different crew on the 3pm return boat. We didn’t have tickets; they simply took our word for it that we’d paid on the outward trip. This is a lovely side-effect of the village’s community spirit; a level of trust you simply wouldn’t get anywhere else. This place wouldn’t function if people tried to con each other.

This boat was larger and had some outside seating. The weather had improved a bit so we took a chance and sat outside. We were rewarded for that decision as we arrived in Mallaig – a seal paddled up to the side of the boat and stared inquisitively at the assembled humans for a good minute or more.

Seal

The boat crew were fairly blas√© about it – “oh, that seal comes up to us most days”. Apparently seals are quite common in this part of the world. For me – someone more accustomed to seeing nothing more exciting than the odd used condom in rivers – it was a great end to our Knoydart trip.

No time for seal-watching, however – we had to get back to Mallaig station for the 4pm train. Next stop: Corrour!

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4 Responses
  1. Comment by Ian
    19th September 2013 at 9:29 am

    What, no Logan?!

  2. Comment by Andrew
    20th September 2013 at 7:02 pm

    The no tickets thing (Not even an e-ticket or boarding pass) was the same for my flight back from Papa Westray in the Orkney Islands to Kirkwall, you just turn up at the shed (sorry airport) and jump on the plane when it arrives with 2 farmers working part time on the aircraft arrivals & departures! Another place else in Scotland totally isolated & again the population is about 70, I must do a blog post myself about the island of Papa Westray!

  3. Pingback by Page not found | The Station Master
    20th September 2013 at 9:38 pm

    […] The Restaurants at the End of The Universe (Part 1) […]

  4. Comment by Robert Hampton
    20th September 2013 at 9:43 pm

    Patience, Ian.