Sunday 28 October 2018

Scotland by Rail - Helmsdale, Far North Line - a week staying in a station

** This is the first of five or six Scotland by Rail blog posts in which I'll write about a week based in Helmsdale on the beautiful Far North Line  from Inverness to Wick and Thurso. **

Helmsdale Station accommodation:

In August 2018 we spent a week staying in Helmsdale Station self-catering accommodation on the Far North Line. The building is nearly 150 years old and was originally ticket office, first and second class waiting rooms, toilets, house. Now it's available to rent by the week.

It's a big house, more than enough space for five of us adults plus baby. The cosy lounge has games and books and jigsaws in an old travel trunk and dresser. It has windows on three sides looking along the platform, across to the opposite platform and onto the station house garden. 

from the sitting room, Helmsdale station, watercolour, 21x15cm 

The garden, think English cottage, filled with flowers for pollinators, pebble path past two young-middleish sycamores (with bird feeders) and horizontal holly to secret bench. I bought seed and peanuts from the village shop and sparrows and blue tit quickly appeared. A song thrush was in the undergrowth most mornings and at dusk the small stand of trees next door was alive with jackdaws, crows and rooks settling for the night. When dusk passed tawny owls and barn owls started calling. Also in the garden is a picnic table where I often breakfasted and finished the day's watercolours. 

 pollinator (hoverfly, a large one)

(old) Helmsdale Free Church, watercolour,15x21cm

Around the side of the house is plenty parking space shared with station users. You'd be better to take the train though, holidaymakers arriving at Helmsdale Station by rail or other non-private-car transport receive a 10% discount. If you elect to spend half a day of your week maintaining the station grounds / waiting room / garden you receive another 10%. We did both.

In a week there's far more than enough along the line for you to get the train to a different station each day and enjoy a village or town or castle or museum or distillery or country walk. In fact there are 23 station stops between Inverness and Wick & Thurso so you could make your stay three weeks and still not get to every station.

What we/I did:
- Helmsdale wanderings - riverside walk, museum, harbour, cafe, coastal walk.
- Dunrobin Castle station for Dunrobin Castle and gardens plus shore and wood walks.
- Forsinard for RSPB Forsinard Flows reserve.
- train to Wick, bus to John o' Groats, bus to Thurso, train back to Helmsdale.
- daytrip to Perth (!)
- cycle up the valley, climb the hillside to Kilphedir broch with one of the best views from any broch I've visited. 

** NB - cycle hire **
If you're staying at the station you can hire bikes from Sam's Bike Hire at a roughly 20% discount. We phoned from the train and four lovely folding bikes were dropped off at the house soon after we arrived then picked up at the end of our week. We chose folders so we could easily take them on trips on the train without having to book spaces. Four folders for the week cost us only £110.

I'm going to write blog posts about each of these trips so keep checking back for the next one or add your email address to the box at top left to have posts delivered automatically to your inbox.

Helmsdale town:

It's a really very nice village, coast on one side, hills on two, a valley (the Strath) curving gently away on the fourth. It has a shop for all your groceries, a riverside walk, coastal walk, harbour, several pubs, fish & chip shop and at least two cafes. One of the cafes is in the town's heritage and arts centre, Timespan, an excellent resource for the area with a beautiful riverside garden. In Timespan you can read about the area's long history of vikings, crofting, gold panning, Clearances, fishing. You walk into a recreated village street with a blacksmith's smiddy, a shop and a croft house. 

lunchtime sketch, Timespan cafe

Upstairs art and community projects are displayed, workshops take place and local archives are available for research. We excitedly came across an intricate hand-painted globe made by my friend Robert Powell (are you brothers?) during his time as a Helmsdale artist in residence in 2015. Out around the town I later found more of his work - a large scale mural on a decaying traditional warehouse building and a Viking shield and oars in the village Icehouse. An aside - soon after the Second World War part of the ice house was used as a fish and chip shop. Anyway, on top of Robert's oars a pair of birds had nested, leaving their markings and nest materials on the ground below.

The short riverside walk takes you from edge of village through trees, past the cemetery on the opposite bank, up into the centre past shop, Timespan, public toilets and interesting information panels, back down to the river and soon to the river mouth and the chilly North Sea - looking south-east so the furthest possible piece of land might be Fraserburgh.

And you can walk the coast north ish or south ish. I'll write a separate short post about our coast circle north.

Lots of Helmsdale info here -

How to get there:

Trains to Helmsdale take just over two and a half hours from Inverness and an hour and a quarter from Thurso. There are currently four trains a day on weekdays and Saturdays and one a day on Sundays.

Click 'The Highlands then North Highlands Timetable and 'Buy Tickets' on ScotRail website.

Many thanks to ScotRail for enabling and supporting my ongoing Scotland by Rail work. 

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