OtH 2016 – LETTING THE TRAIN TAKE THE STRAIN 

LETTING THE TRAIN TAKE THE STRAIN 
By 
Iain Forbes 

Back in the 1970’s British Rail was urging us to ‘Let the Train Take the Strain’. In some more remote areas of the country the train did indeed and still might take the strain by providing easy access to the hills. 

In the early 1960’s, during my Air Radar fitter’s course at RAF Yatesbury (Wiltshire), I used to escape to South Wales at weekends to walk in the Brecon Beacons or Black Mountains, getting there by combination of bus, train or hitching lifts, and staying in youth hostels. One weekend, after a night in Crickhowell YH, I found my way to Pont-Y Rhiw, a tiny station on the old Brecon to Merthyr line above Talybont Reservoir. There I caught a train up to the line summit at Torpantau station, from which point I crossed the Beacons to Storey Arms YH.  

The warden there was a Brecon chap, Ken Davies, who had spent time in Kinloss MRT during National Service. As a lifelong railway fan (“anorak”, buff, geek or whatever), it was a bonus to travel on that line behind a hard working steam loco, before it fell to the ‘Beeching Axe’. Interestingly, it is again possible today to reach Torpantau by steam train on the narrow gauge Brecon Mountain Railway, which follows the old trackbed. 

After leaving the RAF, first when working in Dundee and later based in my native Easter Ross, I accessed the Rannoch Moor hills by driving to either Rannoch or Tulloch stations on the West Highland Line to catch the train to Corrour. This is still a popular starting point for a good day on the hill. At that time most of my weekends were spent on the hill with friends, local clubs and occasionally with Leuchars or later Kinloss MRT. 

One May weekend in the early 1970’s, I arranged a “Rannoch rail” trip with Michael (Dinger) Bell, Andy Breau, and Jackie (Tink) Shearer. Tink was “grounded” at the time due to a leg injury, and clearly suffering from cabin fever, as he insisted on coming along as “base camp guard.” As this role included that of cook, Tink had brought along an oven ready chicken! “Er, Jackie, we’ve only got a Camping Gaz stove !” “We’ll manage” he replied.  Clearly he’d got something up his sleeve, so off we set in my old Morris Traveller to put up base camp next to the railway sidings between Rannoch station and the adjacent hotel. 

This can be a chilly spot to pitch a tent but a sleeping draught from the bar next door generally ensures a decent night’s sleep! On this occasion however we were rudely awakened in the wee small hours by the uncomfortably close and loud throb of a Sulzer diesel engine, which was followed shortly after by yet another of the same. At that time the Corpach pulp mill was in full swing and train loads of timber traversed the line at all hours to feed the hungry mill. 

Next morning dawned fine and the hill party entrained for Corrour, leaving base camp in Tink’s capable hands. From Corrour we walked towards Loch Ossian before striking up to Beinn na Lap, our first of three Munros. There is a substantial dip between Beinn na Lap and the next Munro, Chno Dearg, but we were in good form and made good time in regaining height to bag Chno Dearg, and finally Stob Coire Sgriodan. It was all downhill then to Tulloch station to await the train back to base.   No “trolley dollys” patrolled the trains in those days, but there was a real buffet car with a friendly steward to serve a celebratory dram following a fine walk.  This was of course particularly welcome if the weather turned foul en route. 

Approaching Rannoch station, a lone figure was espied standing guard by the camp.  Before long and to our delight and surprise, we were tucking into a nicely-cooked chicken. Far from wasting his time, Tink had patronised the hotel bar and charmed the staff into cooking our tea.  Needless to say the already perfect day was rounded off in the comfort of Rannoch Moor Hotel bar. 

According to my old diary, Schiehallion was visited en route back the following day, a Sunday. I made no record of Tink’s activity while we were on the hill that day. What did he do with his time? A kip in the car or a drop off at a nearby hostelry?  Sadly, he is no longer here to tell us. 

Other great times we enjoyed involved train transport, as well as fine technique of improvisation. Back in Ross-shire, a popular hill base was “Jerry’s Hostel” at Achnashellach. It consisted of converted railwaymen’s cottages. The Dingwall – Kyle of Lochalsh railway line ran past the hostel’s front garden.  The nearest station, Achnashellach, lay some 2-3 miles further down the line. 

On one of our local hillwalking club trips two of us, a chap named Charlie and myself, decided to head up to the hostel early by train ahead of the main party who were driving up in the evening. At Dingwall station I met Charlie, who was carrying a large sleeping bag and a box of food, along with a small day bag.  He was clearly thinking of his home comforts, rather than the practicality of carrying this cumbersome burden down the long lonely road from the station to the hostel. 

Once aboard the train however a plan was formulated. The food and the sleeping bag was consolidated and tied up into a sizeable sausage like bundle. What followed could not be replicated in the safety-conscious, plastic-encapsulated trains of today. Watched closely by some stern Presbyterian ladies, we positioned ourselves at adjacent carriage doors, the windows of which were possible to open in those days.   

In the gathering dusk, watched by the glowering wifies of Kyle, I started the countdown as we approached the hostel garden and, bang on cue, Charlie launched his bundle, to land neatly in Jerry’s garden. 

On detraining at Achnashellach it started to drizzle.  Luckily there was a phone box at the station, which allowed Charlie to contact Jerry and request retrieval of his bundle. As I waited outside the phone box I could hear Jerry’s trademark loud guffaw. Assured of dry gear for Charlie, we set off in the drizzle, thumbs extended, and very soon a chap in his van stopped and took us to the hostel. 

Jerry was quite the personality, a “marmite” character I suppose. Like the famous paste, you either loved or hated him. We had built up a good rapport with him, particularly as we were always willing to give him a lift to the pub at Achnashellach station.  That particular watering hole, along with Jerry, sadly, is no longer with us.  The hostel however is still open and run by Jerry’s son Simon. 

Happy days. I’m not sure it’s possible to use today’s trains to access the hills quite as easily as we once did. 

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