We left Appletree Cottage at 0820 and drove to Helensburgh Upper station to catch the 0907 train north. The journey to the railway station took just over thirty five minutes but we had allowed a bit of extra time for road works.
The route to the station was very easy. We took the A811 to Balloch, drove through Balloch and joined the A82 north. About a mile after the Cameron House and Duck Bay Marina turnoff we turned right at a roundabout and took the A818 to Helensburgh.
Shortly after we entered Helensburgh town and could see the river Clyde ahead in the distance, we found Helensburgh Upper station on the right hand side of the road with free parking immediately outside the entrance.
(Note: Helensburgh Upper station should not be confused with Helensburgh Central Station, trains from which go to Glasgow)
Soon the train arrived and we quickly located our carriage and climbed aboard to find our seats. We had booked our tickets on the internet a couple of days before (www.scotrail.co.uk) and had been lucky enough to reserve seats with a table. This meant that we could open out our Ordinance Survey maps and follow our route as we made our journey to Oban.
Our carriage was only about half full for although this was a Saturday it was still out of season. The first sign of real business for the line would not be for a couple of weeks when at Easter visitor numbers would noticeably increase.
Having taken our seats the doors slid shut, the engine revved and we were off and gently glided out of the station.
We had had a light breakfast before leaving Appletree Cottage but none the less found the comestibles availed by the onboard catering trolley enticing with its teas, coffees and large choice of snacks.
With our hot drinks in front of us we settled back to enjoy the journey.
The first section was high along the shores of the Gare Loch. Below we could see the Kilcreggan Peninsula and the village of Clynder on the far side of the water.
This was an ideal time of year to travel this route as the leaves were not yet on the lineside trees meaning that views were not obstructed by greenery. Our day was made even more special as the previous night there had been a light fall of snow which was still lying on all the high ground providing spectacular and unforgettable views.
The West Highland Railway has repeatedly been voted amongst the most scenic in the world and today we were seeing it at its very best. Excellent!
Soon we arrived at our first station – Garelochhead. Like many stations on the line the station was built as an island platform with access provided by a subway and stairs from the road. This design was a cost preference at the time of construction as only one set of station buildings are required on an island platform. (With a platform either side of the tracks buildings required duplication – waiting rooms, toilets etc.
After a short stop we are on our way again. We leave Gareloch and head over an inland summit to descend high above another body of water – this time Loch Long. We can easily make out the entrance to Loch Goil on the far shore. The mountains are all higher than the ones in Gairloch and look tremendous with their snowy summits.
We travel high above the shores of Loch Long the famous Ben Arthur slowly glides into view. More commonly known as The Cobbler the rocky crags on the peak have been supposed by our ancestors to resemble a cobbler bending over his last (a last is a mount onto which a cobbler puts a shoe on when making and repairing)
The Cobbler is the southern most of a range of Munros known locally as the Arrochar Alps. A Munro is a hill over 300ft in Scotland and the hills of the Arrochar Alps provide some of the best climbing and are only 40 minutes drive from Appletree Cottage Holiday Home.
On the shore opposite the Cobbler, immediately below us we can see the roof tops of the village of Arrochar.
Soon we were at our next station – Arrochar and Tarbet. This station, as the name suggests is half way between and shared by Arrochar and Tarbet villages. Whilst Arrochar is on Loch Long, Tarbert is on Loch Lomond. Tarbet from the Gaelic means isthmus or narrow pass o land. There are several Tarbets or Tarberts in Scotland (spelling varies) and they are all situated on narrow strips of land between two bodies of water.
Soon we are on our way again and within a couple of minutes we are above the shores of Loch Lomond with the mighty Ben Lomond (3196ft or 974m)
The views to the south looking down Loch Lomond are quite amazing in the ever changing light.
We continue our journey now heading due north along the western shore of Loch Lomond and over the only stone built viaduct on the West Highland section of the line. The story has it that the viaduct had to be built of stone at the land owner’s stipulation as he was concerned that the railway should blend into the landscape.
The next station is Ardlui. Ardlui (Àird Laoigh in Gaelic meaning the high ground of the calves) is a small hamlet on the banks of the loch. It boasts a hotel, a small marina, a railway station and a few houses. This is a popular stop for hill walkers at the beginning and end of the day as the hills rise directly up from the station and provide spectacular views from their peaks.
After Ardlui we travel through the wild and lonely Glen Falloch which virtually no habitation visible. On the hills however glimpses can be seen of the remains of the ancient Caledonian forest which originally covered swathes of Scotland.
we The train snakes around the tortuous curves climbing all the way to our next destination Crianlarich at the northern end of Glen Falloch.
Crianlarich is a neatly laid out station some imagine to be Swiss in appearance is complete with original North British Railway engine shed which houses the snow plough and the famous platform tea room. Often trains will stop long enough for passengers to pay a quick visit to the tearoom to purchase home made cakes etc.
Although we had eaten at Appletree Cottage we found that there is always room for cake!
Crianlarich is the point at which the train divides and after a bit of jiggling to and fro the Oban section (which on our day of travel comprised the front two coaches) was released.
The Oban line from Crianlarich is reached via a spur curve descending off to the west of the station. The West Highland Line continues straight on via a bridge over Strathfillan.
As we leave Crianlarich we begin to pick up speed. The line is fairly level and much straighter than that on which we have travelled up until now. As we hurry down Strathfillan we can see the line to Fort William and Mallaig rise up the contours on the other side of the valley.
After a few minutes we arrived at the village of Tyndrum (Gaelic spelling Tigh an Druim meaning house on the ridge. Although a tiny village Tyndrum boasts two railway stations – Tyndrum Upper on the north side for trains to Fort William and Mallaig and Tyndrum Lower for trains to Oban.
Tyndrum Lower was for a number of years in the 1870s the terminus of the Callander – Oban line whilst the promoters tried to raise funding for the continuation towards Oban. In that period travel the journey further west had to be completed by horse and coach.
Tyndrum does not do things by halves and in addition to its two railway stations the village boasts a gold mine. The mine at time of writing is being re-opened having lain dormant for a number of years. Originally opened in the 1800s and producing Gold and Lead the mine fell into disuse. The relatively recent rise in the gold price has once again made the profitability of the mine seem possible and although situated within the Loch Lomond and Trossachs National Park permission has been given to redevelop the mine.
The journey from Tyndrum to our next stop Dalmally is achieved at relative speed. The jointed rails provide the traditional railway beat of da da da dum, da da da dum as the wheels cross the rail joints. This sound has now vanished from trunk routes as the rail sections have been replaced with continuous rail. On the road running parallel to the railway the cars appear to be racing the train as we thunder down Glen Lochy.
From Dalmally it is a short journey down hill to the shore of Loch Awe. Looking westward out to the loch we see the dramatic outline of the ruin of Kilchurn Castle. This castle is well worth a visit since the access to the building has been substantially improved in recent years with internal wooden walkways and guide plaques providing a great visitor experience.
Soon we arrive at Loch Awe Station right down on the loch side. From this station small steam boats would ferry visitors around the loch. A hotel directly above the station has commanding views across the loch. Now largely a stop for hikers and walkers the station was also a destination for workers tending the large pumped storage dam (only one of four in the UK) on Ben Cruachan above the station. The idea of this dam is that in off peak times surplus electricity is used to pump water from Loch Awe to the reservoir dam 1299ft/396m up on the hill. In times of peak electricity demand the water in the dam can be released through the generating turbines and full generating capacity of 440MW achieved within 5 minutes.
The guided trip inside Ben Cruachan power station is well worth a visit. A bus takes you deep into the heart of the mountain where massive turbine generators lie within the cavernous depths - very like a James Bond set!
From Loch Awe station we travel along the shore of the Loch and through the Pass of Brander.
This is a narrow pass with steep valley walls festooned with huge boulders. As we travel through the pass we see the pairs of semaphore signals on the water side of the track. These signals set at clear (upwards) position are connected to a series of wires strung between posts on the hill side of the track. The idea of this is that should a boulder dislodge and come bouncing down the hill the boulder would come into contact with the wires and trigger the signals to danger. The system was installed in the late nineteenth century when the line was built and is still in use today. It is known colloquially as Anderson’s Piano because it was devised by the lines main backer and activist John Anderson and also because when the wind catches the wires they can sometimes vibrate to create a humming sound.
After the Pass of Brander we start to see the shores of Loch Etive and across the water the massive cliff face of Bonawe Quarries – reputedly one of the highest quarry faces in the uk.
The train began to slow as we entered the village of Taynuilt.
The countryside has become a patchwork of small farms and green rolling hills with mountains as a distant backdrop.
Taynuilt is perhaps the largest settlement we have visited since leaving Helensburgh – and it is still just village.
On the north side of the village are the well preserved remains of an iron furnace which was founded in 1753 by Cumbrian iron masters attracted by the abundant trees in the area for making charcoal. At its height the furnace produced 700 tonnes of pig iron some of which was used as cannon balls in the Napoleonic Wars.
From Taynuilt we head westwards along the shore of Loch Etive. On the far side we saw the ancient buildings of Ardchattan Priory where the last gaelic speaking parliament held court. Ruins and gravestones survive from these days and beyond.
Connel Station is a shadow of what it used to be. Still known as Connel Ferry this station was the junction for the line which ran over the massive cantilevered Connel Bridge up the coast to Ballachullish. The line closed in 1966 but much of its remains still survive – most notably the bridges crossing Loch Etive and Loch Creran.
Connel Station at one time had four platforms, two signal boxes, a footbridge and station buildings. Now it has one platform and a bus shelter type of protection against the wind and rain.
Connel Ferry is the last station before Oban which is only five miles distant. First of all we climb, away from the water and up into the hills to the top of Glen Cruitten. On crossing the summit we make a steep winding descent into Oban finally arriving at the station on the railway pier two hours and twenty minutes after leaving Helensburgh Upper and three hours after departing Appletree Cottage, Loch Lomond.