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Day 5

 

Cromdale to Boat of Garten 14.5m

Our accommodation

 

Interlude

The camping coach at Cromdale deserves a special mention.  This is a self catering…erm…railway coach that had once served the line that passed through Cromdale.  The coach itself had consisted of a guards van at the back, and three passenger compartments linked by a corridor.  The middle compartment had been turned into a shower/toilet room, and the outer ones, bedrooms.  One had a double bed and the other bunks, complete with old photos and lovingly restored (the overhead luggage racks were still in situ).  The guards van had been converted into a spacious kitchen and lounge, with the old cast iron stove having been converted for gas canister use.  There were still pencil markings on the wall made by the men who worked in the van before the demise of the railway.

Setting off!

The snow that had started to fall as we approached Cromdale gradually increased to blizzard status as the evening wore on, effectively trapping us in the accommodation.  A call to the local pub established that, no they were not doing food, and in fact were probably about to shut due to the weather.  It was a case of improvising, a large bag of instant mash (emergency supplies, and by ‘eck, this was an emergency) and a lucky find – a box of savoury flavoured rice that had been left by previous inhabitants – followed up with jelly babies!

With the stove going, the van was soon toasty and comfortable, doubling as a drying room for our sodden kit.  Outside was like Narnia.  I know I use that comparison a lot, but this was.  There was even a proper “Narnia” lamp on the platform!  The next day would be interesting.

Eventually we braved the elements to get to the sleeping quarters and went to bed under a mountain of duvets and an electric blanket.  Being cold was not going to be a problem.

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The walk

We set off in the dim morning light.  Sometime during the night the snow had stopped and the skies cleared, leaving a couple of inches of light crisp snow on the ground.  It was a short walk along the old railway bed in the snow to a road which would take us across the river, then by way of Anagach Wood to Grantown-on-Spey.  The road was completely covered in snow, deeply rutted where vehicles had passed overnight.  A small church stood next to the bridge, Christmas lights shining in the window and making the whole scene feel like a real life Christmas Card.  In short, the landscape was stunning.

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Bridge over the Spey

We crossed the river and turned off the road, into community woodlands.  We were now walking on virgin snow, apart from the many criss-crossing prints of rabbit, badger, fox and deer.  We had entered a veritable winter wonderland, and with the sun starting to shine it looked like we were to be in for a corker of a day.

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Entering the woods

The amount of snow that had fallen overnight was incredible, small pine trees next to the path had been cloaked in snow.  At times we would each be given an impromptu shower if we accidentally brushed an overhanging branch.  This was easy walking, though, and there was an added bonus when a stag stood still long enough to get a photo.

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A rather nonplussed Stag

As we reached Grantown there were quite a few dog walkers out and about and a few even came bounding up to say hello.  Leaving the woodland we re-crossed the river by way of the original Speybridge and joined up again with the old railway track bed, which would takes us all the way to Nethy Bridge.  It was along this section we tried our hand at a bit of inadvertent droving, a herd of sheep that had been sheltering in a cutting, deciding that they wanted to lead us along the path for over a mile.  It reminded me a bit of a few scenes from Wallace & Gromit!

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Mr Tumnus?

The track here was actually a joy to walk, with the sun out and the gentle crunch of snow underfoot.  It was gentle walking too and was mostly open with fine views to be had over the open countryside to the hills beyond the Spey, all this with the river flowing past lazily.  For once I was enjoying a railway walk!  Even this early on in the day the shadows were lengthening quickly, meaning we really were in a race against time.

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We reached Nethy Bridge, passing the old station building and bunkhouse, before heading to the very welcome sight of a Spar next to the path, (having established that the hotel was very shut), leaving the old track bed for the last time.  Lunch was duly bought and we rested a while in a bus shelter whilst enjoying our much needed sustenance.

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The route from Nethy Bridge to Boat of Garten was a complete contrast.  Leaving the village we passed through some lovely woodland for a short distance before entering Abernethy National Nature Reserve and what can only be described as a huge forest of Scots Pine.  The forest has a reputation for it’s bird life, including an Osprey Centre (off route) and Crested Tits.

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The view from the old Speybridge

This was wonderful walking, if somewhat more strenuous than the morning, through an ever changing landscape, all decked in white.  It was teeming with wildlife too, with numerous Deer and the odd Red Squirrel popping up from time to time.  The path dipped in and out of the trees, and at times was undulating, so much so that the walking poles became invaluable tools for getting up even the smallest hill in the snow.  Passing through trees, glades and woodland rides it was a constantly changing landscape.

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Back on track

There were magical moments with the sun shining through the Pines bringing out the pink hue of the bark.  Eventually a road appeared before us, marking the approach to Boat of Garten.  To the left was the Osprey Centre, around a half hour diversion each way apparently, and one that would have been pretty pointless anyway at the start of December.  In any event, the already long shadows were getting longer and we still had at least a mile and a half to walk.

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Stupid Sheep!

There was one last special moment as we crossed the Spey again into Boat of Garten.  The hills which had been hidden to us for the afternoon were now visible in all their snowy glory.  A couple of fantastically carved bears stood guard over the road as we entered the village.

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It was with some relief we made it to the B&B, right through the other side of the village.  Typical!

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One of the Highlights of the day

Day Rating 9/10

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So, so lucky with the weather.  Potentially had the snow kept up the day could have been a disaster.  It wasn’t, however and we were rewarded with quite possibly the best days walking so far.

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Some truly outstanding sections of path, and this could be a real joy during the summer, especially for wildlife enthusiasts.  Real variety in the walking too, which is always a bonus.  It would be remiss of me not to say it – the snow really made the day.  Brilliant.

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Sentinals

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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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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