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Day 3

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 Craigiellachie to Ballindalloch 12m

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Well preserved Aberlour station and visitors centre

Firstly, let me say that staying at the Highlander was an experience – a very enjoyable one.  The owner is Japanese and, for want of a better description, is a whisky nut.  Almost every square inch of wall in the bar was covered by whisky bottles, mostly Scotch, but also some award winning Japanese whisky – apparently their distillers are some of the finest in the world.

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Anyway, when in Rome and all that.  As I was nursing my beer a bottle of Craigellachie 29 year old caught my eye.  I’m not really a whisky drinker, but this was sublime – I could be converted yet.  The highlight of the evening was an American couple appearing in the bar and asking (bearing in mind that we were in the heart of whisky country) if they had any Irish Whiskey.

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Small station for a distillery

There were also comprehensive whisky tasting menus, with around six different types to sample per “flight”, ranging from common malts to unusual rare (and rather expensive) examples.  A good excuse to head back there at some point!

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Best view of the day when crossing the bridge at Carron

We started out under a murderous sky, fearing the worst after seeing the terrible weather forecast that morning.  There were one or two drops of rain early on, but nothing serious as we headed for Aberlour.  We were close to the river here and would be criss crossing it all day on the old track bed.  We were gently climbing all the time, and the path was pleasant enough without being particularly exciting.  There were lots of nice little old railway details from time to time, including the remarkably well preserved station at Aberlour.  The station also doubled as the Speyside Way visitors centre – shut for the winter unfortunately.

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A rare glimpse through the trees

The path passed into a heavily wooded area as we left Aberlour and began a long steady climb which seemed to go on forever.  I’m not a great fan of railway paths, and this one was not much different.  Distilleries would appear thick and fast close by and occasionally the trees would give way to a view or two to break the monotony.

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Another well preserved station

One of the best views was where the path crossed the Spey, an unusual set up where the railway and road shared the same bridge close to Carron distillery, one that looked as if it had recently reopened.

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Preserved signal box

Having crossed the river we were now high above it.  There were occasionally tantalising glimpses through the trees that promised much.  Ironically, these views were probably better at this time of year due to the lack of foliage.  Dare I say that a bit of thinning along the path might improve things greatly.  Once again though the woodland floors were carpeted with bluebells – a springtime walk might just be a little more rewarding.

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Soggy path stretching into the distance

The shining light of the day were the lovingly preserved stations along the route, giving rise to bags of nostalgia, especially the well preserved station building (now a visitor centre for the distillery) and signal box at Tamdhu.

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A little less well preserved station

The poor weather that had been predicted hadn’t materialised which helped greatly.  There were a couple of soul destroying moments where the line just stretched away into the distance.  At times the track was quite muddy, a stamina sapping gloop which made finding traction somewhat difficult.

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An impressive girder bridge, recrossing the river at Cragganmore marked the wind down point for the day.  There was a walkers campsite here, with basic facilities, although the former bunkhouse in the station building had closed to become a private residence.

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This was also the point at which the longer spur route to Tomintoul split from the main route which we were missing out on this occasion.  From here it was a short walk to our B&B for the evening, a lovely victorian house which was a real time capsule.

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Day Rating 7/10

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A very generous score for the day, it just scrapes it for the old railway interest which added a lot to the day.  A section of walk that promises much but is a very frustrating experience, so many places that had obscured views.  There were quite a few interpretation boards along the route as well adding to the interest.  A bit of thinning of the “trackside” vegetation would improve things markedly.  Overall a bit of a trudge which we were glad to see the back of.

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Day 2

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Rainbow

Fochabers to Craigiellachie 13.2m

A very pleasant evening had been spent in Fochabers, at the Gordon Arms Hotel.  A comfortable room, was complimented by a bar with a roaring fire and some good beer – all that a walker could possibly want.  The place was quiet, again understandably so, but there was a spattering of reps and workmen staying there, giving the bar a pleasant buzz.

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Spectacular but moody morning

The forecast for the day was somewhat mixed, although a spectacular red sky greeted us as we set off from the hotel back to the route.  From the early planning stage, I’d been dreading this section, as the first half of the day was a relatively long road walk along a country lane, pretty much right from the start.

The route meandered its way through the town eventually reaching the road after following a number of green lanes round the local school (note: it looks as if the route has changes slightly here – possibly a section that had suffered bad erosion reinstated, reducing the road walk by 1km or so).

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Double rainbow

Once on the road we began a steady climb and soon there were some fabulous views to be had over the Spey Valley.  The wind was up and rain in the air also, with broken cloud.  This provided us with a quite phenomenal double rainbow at one point.

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The road was quiet and ran high above the river, for once a road walk was becoming an enjoyable experience.  A viewpoint was marked on the map, slightly (but not too far) off route, the Earth Pillars.  We made the short diversion through some more attractive woodland (although in the wind some of the trees were making rather alarming creaking noises) to the view point, high above the Spey.  I’m still not exactly sure what the Earth Pillars were supposed to be, but the view was certainly worth the extra effort.

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Viewpoint

Returning to the road there was an immediate steep drop and climb to cross a small valley, leaving both of us breathless and panting on the way up.  On reaching the top a light drizzle started.  Occasional superb and moody views would appear as the road meandered through and along side plantations, high above the river valley.

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Steeper than it looks

The spectacular light and rainbow display had given way to a grey day, the light drizzle gradually getting heavier – the kind of rain that permeates everything – enforcing the donning of the waterproofs.  Despite this, it was turning into a remarkably enjoyable walk.

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View from the road

Eventually the road starting descending via a series of tight hairpins into Boat o’ Brig which marked the halfway point of the day.  We stopped a while to shelter under the impressive railway bridge that we had crossed on our journey to Buckie, the large arch providing a few minutes respite from the rain.

There was a change in character here as the route left the road and we climbed up some steps to a farm track where we were promptly passed by several land rovers, before turning up a green lane along with a sign warning that stock was being herded if the gate was closed.  Fortunately it was open.  The lane climbed steadily, emerging at a remote hamlet at Bridgeton.  The path skirted a shooting range, complete with flag poles which would warn if firing was in progress.  It was very tempting to hoist a pair of used shred dies up the pole and leave them there!

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The muddy track was skirting the edge of a large forest, and the gradual climb was proffering up some fine, if rather misty and damp, views.  Eventually the forest closed in both sides as we climbed, the path turned into a grassy track chock full of bluebells.  Even in mid winter it was lovely, in spring it would be spectacular.  The incline was getting steeper and eventually emerged on a wide forest track which us up to a quite fantastic view point, the high point both literally and metaphorically of the day.  Unfortunately the rain had turned to sleet here and more importantly it was (as we say in Scotland) absolutely chankin.

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The weather closing in

The view, however, was stunning.  Looking north right up the Spey Valley over the river and in the distance just visible through the murk was Spey Bay.

Even with gloves on my hands were like blocks of ice, not helped by the biting wind that had gradually picked up as we gained height.  Fortunately it was downhill virtually all the way to Craigellachie.  With the rather inhospitable weather we weren’t hanging around.  The trees at times helped buffer us from the wind, and it wasn’t too long before I regained some semblance of feeling in my fingers.  Even better, after a while the rain stopped allowing us to dry out a little.

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Much of the forest was again Scots Pine, and where extensive thinning had taken place the woodland was a very attractive.  Open spaces and light makes such a difference from the regiments of trees crammed in in straight lines.  Pine forest really can be very attractive!  As we neared the river again the constantly descending forest track gave way to road, a pleasant enough, but not particularly memorable trudge all the way to Craigellachie.  Being rather soggy we were keen on getting to the end of the day!

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Bluebell lined path

Eventually a bridge over the River Fiddich (a small tributary of the Spey) marked our arrival in Craigellachie, along with a fabulous wooden sculpture of a salmon.  Here there was another change to the path character as we emerged in a carpark that sat on the location of the old town station.  The next day was to be a walk along the old Speyside Railway.

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View from the high point

From here it was a short (and rather muddy) walk along the old track bed to our accommodation for the night, the Highlander Inn, which had access right on to the path.

A warm welcome and a pint were most gratefully received before heading up to a quite superb comfortable (and spacey) room.

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Close to Craigellachie

Day Rating 8/10

A very soggy and at certain points cold day which took nothing away from what was a very enjoyable walk.  The anticipation of a long road walk at the start of the day had me dreading this one, but it was very enjoyable with superb views over the Spey.  A picnic bench marked the high point of the day – in summer this would be a lovely spot to sit and savour the view – in late November with it blowing a hoolie, not so much.  Still, thoroughly enjoyable and expectations exceeded.

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Day 1

 

Buckie to Fochabers 10.5m

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At the start

So…it seems I have a bit of a backlog to update, the first being the Speyside Way walked in December 2015.

It may seem a bit of an odd choice for that time of year, but this was a relatively easy low level walk.  My father had had open heart surgery earlier in the year to replace a valve, and this was his first attempt at getting back in the saddle.

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The Moray Coast

We were walking North to South, starting in Buckie and walking to Aviemore, missing out the new extension from Aviemore which had been opened a couple of months earlier.  We would also be missing out the two spur routes, concentrating on the main line, so to speak.

I’d booked all the accommodation myself after researching hotels and B&B’s on the net, the main requirement being that they were actually open in December!  Our first stop was the Marine Hotel in Buckie after an epic journey from Glasgow.  First the train to Elgin, changing at Stirling and Aberdeen, then a bus ride to Buckie, finishing (unsurprisingly) in the dark.

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Deceptively calm in Portgordon

We disembarked from the bus a little early into a relatively balmy December evening  In the end we didn’t have too far to walk to the hotel, nestled in amongst a number of seafood processing plants which were right on the water.  The room was comfortable enough, but there was a real “Blackpool” feel to the Hotel (if you have ever stayed at a Blackpool Hotel you’ll know what I mean).  We were the only ones in residence, adding to the odd atmosphere, although one or two people did filter in for a meal as we sat and ate in the restaurant, already decorated for Christmas.

Not having much else to do, we went for a wander round the town to find the start, have a look at the christmas lights, and more importantly attempt to find a decent pint.  One out of three wasn’t bad – we saw the christmas lights (“Seasons Greetings from Buckie” being the absolute highlight)!  After a short wander, and a rather awkward pint in one of the pubs in the local square we retired back to the hotel.  Listening carefully you could almost hear the sound of “duelling banjo’s” in the background.  Almost…

I’m probably being a tad unfair to the place – nowhere is really going to be at its best on a late November evening!

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On track

With only ten and a half miles to walk we had late start after a leisurely breakfast in a morning that was more akin to an early autumn day than mid-winter.  It was only a short walk to the official start, easily missed, which we had wandered past in the dark the previous evening, completely oblivious to its existence.  The start itself was marked by a couple of information boards and a rather attractive stone “gate” in a small park, close to the “Seasons Greetings from Buckie” lights.

The first part of the day was a very enjoyable walk along the coast, firstly through what looked like an old fishing village, the cottages surrounding streets that led directly down to the water.  Here you could almost imagine the small fishing boats hauled up on the beach, and the nets layer out to dry in front of the cottages.  If not for the modern cars it could easily have been a scene from the 19th century.

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View from the railway path

As we reached the western edge of Buckie we stopped for a chat with a couple of locals, one of which pointed out a pod of dolphins that were just a short distance off the coast.  It took a moment to spot them, but once seen their grey bodies, around 6 or 7 of them, appeared with a regular rhythm from the water.  They were heading in our direction and seemingly keeping pace with us.  A very enjoyable way to start a new walk.

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Through the woods

The quaint cottages gave way to a stony shingle beach, a bit hard on the feet, until Portgordon, another pretty (although a bit gloomy in the grey morning) little village, this one with its own harbour.  The wind was up also and with the tide in, we were treated to a rather spectacular display of water crashing off the sea wall.  It wasn’t a place to hang around, mainly to avoid being drenched in salt water!

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The Ice House

Once through Portgordon the route took to the old railway line, a pleasant and grassy walk over typical “links” ground.  Old telegraph insulators were still visible under some of the old bridges, the wires and poles all long since gone.

Abruptly the railway path ended, the old line pressing straight on under a bridge clogged with gorse and other prickly shrubs.  We entered a conifer plantation, with plenty of wind blow.  There was also a smell here, coming from a landfill site, the constant drone of engines and irritating beeps of reversing vehicles entering our world for a while as the path skirted it.  The noise quickly abated, the smell lingered a while, but this became another pleasant meander through what was, in fact, some very pretty, if a little thick, forest.

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The Osprey

After what seemed like an age we burst out of the Pine Wood into Spey Bay.  There had been a hotel here, which was now apparently being redeveloped for residential use, which was a great disappointment (it would have been perfect for lunch), but a sign pointed us in the direction of the Golf Course Club House which was a very satisfactory alternative.  They are very welcoming to walkers and have a pretty good menu too.

At the mouth of the Bay, the Scottish Dolphin Centre was (unsurprisingly) shut, although we did get a few good photos of the huge ice houses, and a quite wonderful statue of an Osprey.

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Looking across the Bay

The Bay itself was stunning, a place to linger during the summer – not so much on a dull winters day though.  Here our westward march ended, and we turned south, following the river separated from us initially by scrubby (and very soggy looking) woodland.  On the other side were fields of long harvested wheat or corn, the stubble tall and bleached.  Deer were hiding in amongst the stubble, almost invisible with their coats blending in perfectly with their surroundings.

There were a few more folk around here too, runners and dog walkers out making the most of the weather on the grassy track.  The route would take to the river bank occasionally, but any views were prevented by the substantial flood bank, although at one point I did climb to the top just to get a photo!  Overhead there was interest too, large flocks of geese noisily passing on their way to (or from) feeding grounds.

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Sun starting to set in Warren Wood

We passed into Warren Wood, which provided us with one of those special moments.  Made up mostly of Scots Pine, it was lovely and open.  The sky had cleared and dusk was on its way, early in the afternoon.  With the sun low in the sky we were treated to a wonderful show of light, the rosy bark of the Pine almost glowing luminously.

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Lovely Scots Pine

It was here that a passing runner stopped and surprised us both by saying that she was a follower of the blog.  Apologies – firstly I don’t think we got your name – and secondly for taking so long in finally getting round to writing this.  Thanks for reading! (I’ve got a lot of catching up to do).

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Finally by the river

On reaching a road, a rather rude intrusion to what had been a very peaceful walk, the Scots Pine gave way to Beech and ground that was swathed in bluebells.  Come the spring the woodland must be an amazing sight.  With the sun setting we passed under the road bridges that marked the edge of Fochabers, for the first time actually walking along the bank of the river.  Sand Martin burrows marked the opposite bank and there were some fine views across the river before the path turned away and we made our way to the hotel.

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Reaching Fochabers

Day Rating 7/10

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A very enjoyable first day (especially the latter half), without being spectacular.  Highlights were the dolphins, Spey Bay and the Pine forest (something that would become a feature of the trail).  Loads of wildlife too.  A good start to the trail which exceeded expectations comfortably.

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