Friday 2 March 2012

A railway walk: Bridge of Orchy to Tyndrum

This 10-11km walk is a perfect introduction to the West Highland Lines. Travelling by ScotRail, get off at Bridge of Orchy Station and walk south to Tyndrum to encounter impressive railway architecture, stunning scenery and lots of opportunities for watching wildlife. You're on the West Highland Way the whole time so getting lost isn't likely to be an issue, but take a map anyway and enjoy learning the names of hills and rivers.

I recommend walking north to south so that you end in Tyndrum where there are several cafes and pubs to wait in until your train comes. The Real Food Cafe sounds particularly nice though I haven't yet been. If you do walk in the other direction you could try the Bridge of Orchy Hotel which also runs a bunkhouse.

Bridge of Orchy, from THE Bridge of Orchy

The West Highland Way runs directly upslope of Bridge of Orchy Station platform but it's worth having a stroll around the hamlet before you set off. Standing on the 1751 bridge over the River Orchy I looked down at a grey wagtail bobbing beside this typically rocky Highland river. Nearby were coal tits, great tits, a blackbird and siskins. Most exciting of all - crossbills - the orange red males and greenish mustard females.

watercolour sketch looking across the valley, 15x21cm
After less than twenty minutes I stopped to make a quick watercolour sketch looking south over the yellow and ochre valley. A gentle stream trickling beside me provided water for my paints. Rising steeply behind me was Beinn Dorain, 1076m high. 

sketching spot near Bridge of Orchy

Highland cow on the slopes of Beinn Dorain

At grid ref 327 358 I found a beautiful spot where I sat on moss among birches by the river Allt Kinglass. A great spotted woodpecker flew into the nearby trees and right beside me a treecreeper climbed. Goldcrests were in the branches above, five or six or more. A dipper chittered its song from a triangle rock a little upstream. A train came into sight, bound from west to east. I watched it negotiate the viaducts of the Horseshoe Curve.

watercolour sketch from river Allt Kinglass, 15x21cm

approaching the horseshoe curve, pencil, ink & watercolour on card, 25x35cm

The Horseshoe Curve - rather than building a prohibitively expensive viaduct engineers created a half-loop that sweeps neatly round the inner slopes of three great hills- Beinns Odhar, a' Chaisteil, and Dorain. Two substantial viaducts are still needed to carry the rails across the wide expanses between. I deviated slightly from the West Highland Way to stand under the more northerly of the two, where the river Allt Kinglass runs. I chatted here with a man from Cumbria who wore a bandana and a red jacket. He'd cycled in the morning from Tyndrum and left his bike here whilst he climbed the 886m of Beinn a' Chaisteil. The OS map shows a spot marked 'Burial Ground' in italics just a couple of kilometres to the north-east.

the horseshoe curve & Beinn Dorain, pencil, ink & watercolour on card, 25x35cm

Now, about 3km from Tyndrum, the path still follows the Old Military Road, as it has done the whole way. I passed a gate with a sign with black lettering on white that read "please close gate". There was no fence on either side, just this rusty old gate. The tinkling of little streams and burns keeps solo walkers company.

Finally, walking above a steep river gorge as I descended into Tyndrum. The smell of wood smoke was in the air as I passed tree stumps carved to form a perching owl, a fox and a squirrel, an eagle catching a fish. A sooty grey cat sat by the red door of a whitewashed slate-roofed cottage.

In Tyndrum you can take your pick of two stations - Upper Tyndrum or Tyndrum Lower. Less than a kilometre apart, trains from Fort William stop at Upper and trains from Oban at Lower. The coaches join together at Crianlarich, one stop down the line.

below one of the horseshoe curve viaducts, Beinn a' Chaisteil above, I chatted with a man from Cumbria...

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