Where do you go if you want to get away from it all and escape the rat race? This was the question I asked myself recently and the answer wasn’t simple. The problem is that everywhere is so accessible now that you have to travel further and further to find somewhere unspoilt. By “unspoilt” what I really mean is somewhere without the homogeneous commercial trappings of every town and village nowadays – a place rich in natural beauty that attracts those who want to experience the simple life but still has a decent pub.
That’s an idea …googles “remotest pub in UK” … ah, up comes The Old Forge in Inverie on the Scottish Knoydart Peninsula. Knoydart is notoriously wild and beautiful, can only be accessed by ferry or by strenuous overland walk and there is no mobile phone coverage. Thus a plan was formed.
According to Google it is 439 miles from Derby to Inverie, including the foot-ferry connection – a journey that will take nigh on eight and a half hours. To put this into perspective I could travel to Paris via a shorter route or check in at the Hotel Africa in Tunisia in less time door to door. To save you a monologue I’m going to fast-forward to Mallaig, gateway to the Western Isles and beyond. Not for me the slick Caledonian MacBrayne departure terminal and car ferry docked at the pier…
The Bruce Watt booking office is essentially a garden shed containing cardboard boxes, a removals trolley and weathered boat paraphernalia strewn around a worn desk in the gloom beneath a strip light. Tariffs are scrawled in marker pen on a strip of torn cardboard hung from the wall and the bearded crew mate who makes out a ticket for me looks like he’s going to come down with land-sickness if we don’t cast off soon. I like it!
I also like the vessel that will shortly sail me out of the harbour and into the intriguingly named Sound Of Sleat – the body of water that lies between the mainland and Skye. I doubt I have ever seen a more honest boat than the perfectly proportioned Western Isles passenger ferry. There’s the fleeting moment of panic I always get upon seeing a nun on public transport but in the apparent absence of a guitar and a bed-ridden girl I board cautiously.
When I discovered that cars can’t be taken to Inverie I packed my old Karrimor rucksack for the foot crossing and as I lay it on the deck the chap next to me points out that it’s almost identical to his equally ancient and rare model.
Sure enough mine dates back to 1984 when it was bought to enable me to complete my Explorer Belt – an 11 day hike in the French alpine region. I subsequently took it on three month-long inter-rail outings in the early 90s since which it has for the most part been in my parent’s roof, while my travel mate’s version looks to have been in continuous use for the last 30 years. I explain the history of my Karrimor to this genial outdoorsy looking travel mate with the silent relief that this vintage model is not only acceptable but may even be slightly cool, and not some decrepit laughing stock for the modern walking set.
Having boldly ventured that I intend to do a little walking I ask my travel partner what he has lined up. He has come to walk/climb a couple of Corbetts (Scottish mountains between 2500 and 3000 feet) as he works towards chalking off all 221. My jaw drops a little at this point. He goes on to say that he is one of the 80 or so people who have climbed all 282 Munros (3000+ ft) twice and he is part way through his third round of climbs which would put him in an elite group of 20 people. This information is imparted with modesty as if it were no big deal.
My jaw is now on the floor and I’m rather wishing I hadn’t mentioned my own feeble walking plans. To cap it all he tells me that he is on his third dog, a slightly wary but sweet collie, but one of his previous dogs actually ascended all of the munros with him. If these feats weren’t enough he manages to indulge this passion in his spare time when he isn’t working on the Railways in and around Glasgow. I’m in awe of such dedication even though the exercise in itself doesn’t appeal to me.
I may feel less smug about my own outdoor credentials now but at least this episode has proven that Knoydart is going to be the place I had hoped it would be – a proper no-frills destination. While we have been chatting the diesel engine driven screw of the Western Isles ferry has propelled us into Loch Nevis which, on this overcast day, has taken on something of a broody air of menace. Silhouetted are the peaks of Ladhar Bheinn, Beinn Bhuidhe and Luinne Bheinn, mysterious and enticing but exuding an aura of danger as I wonder how to get them past my spell-checker.
As Inverie hoves into view it becomes possible to get a sense of scale. The dozen or so stone whitewashed loch-side buildings account for everything Inverie and Knoydart have to offer in terms of the high-street experience. It is almost surprising therefore to see so many people waiting on the jetty to catch the ferry back to Mallaig and I wonder whether this will leave Inverie deserted. I later realise there are a fair scattering of hostels and rental cottages beyond the high street (including my own hostel) while other departees may be day visitors who arrived from Mallaig or Skye on the morning ferry.
A short walk along the jetty leads to the loch-side road and within a minute I am at the “heart of the action” at The Old Forge – the remotest pub in the UK. Today the place is heaving with people outside – 2 sat on a bench by the door and another three seated at a picnic table across the road overlooking the Loch Nevis. The little white dog in the doorway lives here and he trots up to me, drops a much loved green ball at my feet and looks up expectantly.
Not wanting to disappoint this lovable mutt I throw the ball for him and he eagerly scampers off to fetch it and drop it again at my feet. Ten minutes later I give in, say farewell and feel very guilty as the little fellow gives that crestfallen look only a spurned dog can give.
The Old Forge is renown for fresh local seafood and venison and it also stocks real ale. I’ll be returning to the pub tonight as I have booked a table (advisable) but right now I need to check into my hostel and get this rucksack off my back. The rest of the village consists of private houses, a sweet little village hall, a visitor centre come shop and a café next to a slipway.
There are very few people to be seen, my phone has no signal, it’s quiet. A minutes pause to take in this pure untarnished tranquillity. An hour in these parts can pass without any incident whatsoever but as rain starts to fall from seemingly nowhere I realise the weather can change in an instant. Into the visitor information centre cum shop to take cover and immerse myself in things local. The centre consists of a room with some activity leaflets and folders crammed with press cuttings about Knoydart. The shop contains a freezer full of venison sourced from the peninsula and there is a basket containing one bulb of garlic and a large locally grown courgette. There is nobody here but a sign says to leave money and write down what you took if nobody is about.
The rain reaches a crescendo before easing off and I see a few locals sauntering by outside oblivious to the soaking. If you live here you don’t speed up when it rains and umbrella ownership is frowned upon. This is the remote Knoydart peninsula in the Highlands where the weather will not be allowed to dictate people’s lives.
Sheepishly I slip out of the building wearing head-to-toe waterproofs and head for my hostel a 20 minute walk away. The rain clears and I am left feeling silly and far too hot in non-breathable over-trousers. The shoreline is rocky but attractive in a stark way, peppered with countless muscle shells and carpeted with sea-weed.
To my left is a forested hillside and after a while the road snakes into the foliage, past a couple of houses and then re-emerges into an unmettled lane where I find my hostel, just past a few whitewashed rental cottages and before a working farm. If this is a satellite to Inverie then I really am staying at the back of beyond, even if the hostel provides more homely comforts than one might reasonably expect at such a remote location.
I lay claim to a bunk and converse with a couple of backpackers in my dorm. They are walking the entire 7000 mile length of the British coastline for charity and are approximately half way around after setting off from North Yorkshire last year. Needless to say these fascinating but unassuming travellers walked in the hard way and did not get the ferry. I decide to no longer mention my own miniscule walking intentions but focus on listening to the tales of others. There be stories in these hills.