Sunday, January 30, 2011

Seconds from disaster?

Having been a yachtsman on the west coast of Scotland in the past, I'm a great admirer of the work of the RNLI. Hence I was a bit disappointed to see that their advertising agents appear to have been indulging in a bit of what I might call "tabloid" advertising techniques:-

Of course, the yacht is not sinking any more than the lifeboat is - it's just the swell obscuring parts of the respective craft. So unless there's a jagged reef of rock just yards out of view to the left of the yacht, it is manifestly not "seconds from disaster".

The blurb on the back of this flyer says:-

Twenty miles off the coast, in Force 9 gales, high waves and poor visibility, the sailing yacht Galasma's engine and electrics failed. Those on board could do nothing but hope for rescue. RNLI lifeboat crews battled the gale for a gruelling 10 hours, before bringing them safely home.

Let's analyse that.

Twenty miles off the coast, your engine and electrics fail. Well it's a yacht, could you not hoist your sails? Whatever, you're not "seconds from disaster" and it's not the case that you can do "nothing but hope for rescue". That's a criticism of the crew of the yacht of course, not the RNLI. But that photo doesn't look to me like a Force 9 gale - high waves and poor visibility, admittedly, but not Force 9. I really hesitate before accusing the RNLI of a direct lie, but the bit about "battling for 10 gruelling hours" to rendezvous with a sailing yacht, albeit with no engine or electrics but still floating upright and apparently with its mast and rigging all in place just doesn't ring true to me if that photo's anything to go by.

I'm going to give the RNLI - and its advertising agency - the benefit of the doubt and say they probably put the wrong story with the photo and the reality was something more like that the lifeboat was called out to take a casualty off a perfectly seaworthy craft.

Lifeboat at Castlebay, Barra - 2003

Sunday, January 23, 2011

Garvault Hotel - remotest in Britain?

The Garvault Hotel in Sutherland claims on its website to be the remotest hotel in Britain. It's rubbed shoulders with establishments in the Australian Outback and Alaska in a Forbes magazine remote places to stay survey but even if that seems hard to credit, it's pretty flipping remote.

Not content with being in the middle of nowhere, it's even half a mile down a side road off a road to the middle of nowhere.

And if you turn through 180 degrees from that view above, this is what you see:-

This is what it looks like close up:-

Photo credit - Colin Kinnear
And this is where it is:-

Before I acquired my first car in 1987 (an Alfa Romeo Alfasud reg. USX 9V), I used to pore over Ordnance Survey maps looking for impossibly remote and interesting places to go when I got a car and the Garvault Hotel was very much noted down for future reference. Although I did subsequently acquire a car, and a wife, and we did a lot of motoring round pretty remote country house hotels in the far wild reaches of the country, the Garvault always eluded me - perhaps because it was just too remote. Although when we acquired our first flat and had our first flat warming party, I recall being very intrigued to hear our new neighbour was a regular guest at the Garvault for the fishing: "Oh, at that very remote hotel in Sutherland - does it actually exist, then?" I asked. He was amazed I'd even heard of it.

I have to confess the Garvault Hotel has never crossed my radar since that evening in 1991 until today when I was doing one of my virtual tours round remote parts of Sutherland courtesy of Google Maps Streetview. I found myself virtually on the B971 approaching Garvault and I thought, surely the hotel won't exist any longer ...

But it does. There don't seem to be any TripAdvisor reviews but there's quite a funny article in the Telegraph you can see here - scroll about half way down. Here's a taster:-

I enter out of the blinding rain into a bar that for some reason immediately makes me think of the 1970s, in particular the 1970s of Party Seven cans, Double Diamond and New Faces on the TV. The Garvault is run by an English couple, but at first I meet only the husband, Graham. He is cheery in a manner that, were this a film, would presage some terrible event about to happen. 'We wanted to get out of the rat race,’ he explains, and their success seems beyond doubt.

That the Garvault Hotel is remote, we can all agree on, but is it the remotest in Britain? This is a challenge someone like me with too much time on his hands has to take up.

Now, of course, it depends on how you define "remote" but I'd like to offer as a definition the distance to the next permanently inhabited house. In that case the Garvault Hotel is 4 miles from the houses at Badanloch Lodge. And the nearest village is Kinbrace at 8 miles (admittedly just half a dozen houses but does have a railway station, a primary school and street lights).

I'd like to offer up as a challenger to remotest hotel in Britain, the Cluanie Inn on the A87 from Invergarry to Kyle Of Lochalsh at the head of Glen Shiel:-

Photo credit - Claypotts Productions
Assuming Cluanie Lodge 2 miles away is not permanently inhabited (unless there's a permanent housekeeper in which case I admit defeat), the nearest house to the Cluanie is Achnagart Farmhouse 8 miles west in the direction of Kyle down Glen Shiel. The nearest village is Shiel Bridge 10 miles in the same direction (no station or school but it does have a shop, petrol station and caravan park). Admittedly, there's two little cottages next to the Cluanie but I think they may be staff accommodation. But if they're permanently inhabited independent of the hotel, do leave a comment and I will admit my error.

Photo credit Allan MacIver
It also has to be admitted that the Cluanie Inn is beside a double track trunk road to Kyle of Lochalsh and the Isle of Skye whereas the Garvault Hotel is half a mile off a single track road from nowhere to the back of beyond. Judge for yourself.

I stayed at the Cluanie a number of times in the early 90s. The main reason for stopping there was because we could - in other words it served its function of being a wayside inn on a journey which could not be accomplished that day. It was because we were leaving after work from Edinburgh to go to Skye before the bridge and couldn't reach Kyle before the ferry went off for the night. It was very good, the Cluanie in these days, nearly 20 years ago - I hope it still is ...

Photo credit Callum MacLellan
I seem to have digressed away a bit from whether the Garvault Hotel is Britain's remotest. Do leave a comment defending it or offering other challengers (the Kingshouse on Rannoch Moor perhaps? The house at Altnafeadh's only a couple of miles away ...)

Garvault - Photo credit MolloF

Saturday, January 15, 2011

Connel Ferry

Local roadsigns ...

... and the Ordnance Survey ...

... both refer to it simply as "Connel" so it's pleasing to note that Scotrail and Railtrack still stubbornly refer to the last stop on the line to Oban as "Connel Ferry".

This is because, when the railway to Oban was built in 1880, there was a ferry here across the narrows of Loch Etive and not much else except an inn where the present day Oyster Inn now stands.

Extract from the ordnance Survey 25 inch scale map - note that it shows no detail of the north side of the loch because it was in a different parish from the south side.
On the beach opposite the Oyster Inn, the remains of the ferry slipway shown on the map above can still be seen:-

The narrowness of the mouth of Loch Etive and sunken rocks combine to produce a strong tidal stream, today called the Falls of Lora (but interesting to note marked on the 1870s OS map as "Falls of Connell") and when the tide is flowing at its fastest, the narrows look more like a turbulent river than an arm of the sea.

Picture credit - James T M Towill
The falls are just upstream (to the right when looking from the south side) of the ferry but must nevertheless have produced a boisterous crossing at times. One traveller recorded in 1797:-

"Leaving Dunstaffage, we crossed the narrow mouth of Loch Etive by what is called the Connel ferry. The tide rushes through this channel with such rapidity, that it sometimes forms a cascade of six feet. The ferry, in consequence, is frequently dangerous and always requires the cautious management of an experienced boatman The old pilot who conducted us over, with our horses had attended the ferry upwards of sixty years, and the management of it has been in the same family, handed from father to son for three hundred years. The mode by which we crossed it, reminded me of the rivers in Piedmont, the passage over which is exactly the same. The boat is launched from one side of the river, and intrusted to the torrent which carries it with great rapidity down the stream, the men all the while tugging at the oars, till at last it reaches the opposite side a considerable way lower down. By constant practice, the ferrymen are dexterous enough to reach generally the same point, where there is a sort of quay for landing; but this is not always the case, nor was it so when we crossed over. Sometimes the eddies are violent enough to turn the boat round, by which they lose the command of her, for a few seconds, and you are then hurried somewhat lower down the stream. Notwithstanding the perilous nature of the stream itself, the uncertainty of the old crazy boat they use, frequently thronged with passengers and terrified horses, who betray great uneasiness in passing I heard of no instance in which an accident had been fatal to any one." 

Connel from the west before the bridge
Having been transformed once in 1880 by the arrival of the railway to Oban, the scene at Connel Ferry was transformed again in 1903 by the construction of a bridge over the Falls of Lora to carry a branch line north to Ballachulish.

Connel Bridge from the east - picture credit Wikipedia

At first, the bridge was exclusively for use by trains and the ferry survived alongside it as can be seen on the 1906 OS one inch map:-

In 1909, a special carriage was adapted to carry a single car across the bridge and then, in 1914, a roadway was added so that vehicles could cross the bridge on payment of a toll. This, I think, would have marked the end of the ferry. Marie Weir's book Ferries in Scotland suggests the ferry continued until the railway line across the bridge was closed and the vehicle toll lifted in 1966 but I'm pretty certain she's mistaking the Connel Ferry with the Bonawe Ferry across Loch Etive at Taynuilt which - it is my understanding - continued as a car ferry until finally put out of business by the lifting of the vehicle tolls on the Connel Bridge five miles west. This is corroborated by the fact that the 1927 OS one inch map no longer indicates a ferry at Connel:-

So now the ferry is only recalled in the name of the railway station and the aptly named Ferryman's Bar of the Oyster Inn.

OS six inch map, 1871 - before the railway and bridge.