Colin Baird blogs about travelling in Scotland by bicycle on his cyclingscot.co.uk website. His aim is to explore the entire country on his bike. Caithness and Sutherland is one of his favourite areas - he loves the quiet, single-track roads and the magnificent scenery. Colin also likes to find the unusual, the hidden gems and the little details that make a place special. You can read all about his adventures on two wheels and single track at www.cyclingscot.co.uk.
Stop the train! Take a trip to one of Caithness and Sutherland's request stop stations.
Imagine taking a train to the middle of nowhere. You are the only person to get on or off at the station. The train leaves you behind and there is complete silence, perhaps some birdsong or a trickling burn. You have the station and the surroundings all to yourself.
There is nothing quite like the feeling of beginning a train journey at a busy station with hundreds of people, noise and stress and then getting off at a station where there is nobody but you. It is calming and freeing. It can also be an adventure if the station is a request stop. This is where the train will normally drive straight past the station unless a passenger has specifically asked to get on or off.
The railway through Caithness and Sutherland has eight request stops. These are shown on the timetable with an "x". The stations are in remote locations where passenger usage is low and so it is more economical for trains not to stop there unless a specific request is made.
I was recently in Switzerland where the process of stopping a train at request stations is more high-tec. You press a button on the train or on the platform that sends a signal to the driver. I much prefer the way it is done in Scotland because it adds a touch of old fashioned adventure to a train journey. A passenger on the platform must hold out their hand to stop the train and a passenger on the train must ask the guard to get off the train. The guard takes a written note of your request stop and will give this information to the driver. I also like that there are no instructions about this process. Nothing in timetables, on platforms or when you buy your ticket. It is just one of those quirky things that you manage to work out for yourself when you come across it.
Asking for the train to be stopped especially for you makes you feel like you are embarking upon an expedition. You are going somewhere that few others have trod before. It will make your fellow passengers wonder what you are up to and you will no doubt receive curious glances as you get off the train.
Taking a bicycle to these stations gives you the ultimate freedom to explore the surrounding area because there is little in the way of facilities or transportation. Take Altnabreac station as an example. It is 14 miles from the nearest village, mostly by a bumpy, dusty, pot-holed track. Each of the request stops on the line have their own charms. I am going to focus on one station for this blog, to hopefully share with you some of the magic of these places.
Kildonan station, about 10 miles from Helmsdale and taking around 3 hours to reach by train from Inverness, is in a stunning location next to a river with hills on the horizon and lush greenery all around. I always get a bit nervous on the approach to a request stop, worried that they will forget to stop the train and slightly concerned about going somewhere so remote on my own. I end up annoying the guard to double check that they are definitely going to stop, but there is really no need as they always do.
Kildonan is the 11th least used station in the whole of the UK and the least used on this line so it came as no surprise that I was the only person to get off the train.
That moment when the train leaves you behind and you can no longer hear its engine is one of the my favourite things. At Kildonan I was enveloped in near silence and an instant feeling of well-being.
A sign lists the facilities of the station. There isn't much to list, so most of the signboard is blank white space. I love that a "revolving gate to prevent access to sheep" is mentioned on the sign. Contrast this with a city station where a similar sign will list cafes, shops and newsagents. At Kildonan there is nothing and this is what makes it a special place.
I walked the length of the gravel platform, which has a single bus stop style of shelter. There is also a disused platform, overgrown with heather, that has an abandoned wooden shelter with a peeling creamy yellow paint. I peered through its window and found a stove the same colour as the shelter. The stove door was open, as if someone had recently stoked it up with wood.
The exit from the station is over a stone bridge that crosses the Helmsdale River. It is quite a rustic section of the river with rocky banks and chunks of rock that make the water go a bit choppy and wild in places. This is the only source of noise at the station.
This is a great place to spot deer. There was a huge herd on a nearby hillside. Never before have I seen this many deer. When I moved, they moved further off. When I stopped, they stopped and stared at me. I felt like this place belonged to the deer and I was merely a visitor, a stranger in their land.
My bicycle took me north, alongside the river. This is a quiet road with hardly any traffic, so it is perfect for a bicycle trip. It is also peaceful, full of nature and beauty. Who needs mindfulness when you can come to places like this? All you have to do is request the train to stop.