Camping Inspiration: West Highlands and Ben Nevis by train
What’s the best way to reach the north of Scotland for a camping or glamping trip with kids? Hanna Lindon hops aboard the iconic Caledonian Sleeper train.
When early British travellers booked their tickets on the Orient Express, they were advised to take two essential items along in their luggage: a revolver and a teapot. As I lug two adult-sized rucksacks and an excitable toddler through Euston’s Friday night crowds, I reflect that these are probably the only things I haven’t packed.
You need strong back muscles to embark on a week-long family camping trip by night train, but that’s about the only disadvantage to this romantic and brilliantly convenient mode of travel. Normally, the journey from south-east England to Fort William in the heart of the Scottish Highlands involves either a 12-hour slog in the car or a 1.5-hour flight to Glasgow followed by an extra three hours of driving. Take the Caledonian Sleeper, though, and you can hop aboard just a whisker after the kids’ bedtime, spend the morning scenery-spotting while you tuck into a five-star breakfast, and trundle into Fort William station in time to enjoy a full day of exploring.
Those are the practical advantages – but the real allure of travelling by night train lies quite simply in the thrill of the journey. In the words of Ursula Le Guin: “It is good to have an end to journey toward; but it is the journey that matters, in the end.”
It’s the journey that has my two-year-old daughter Lauris jiggling with excitement as we watch the flickering departure boards in Euston. She’s just about old enough to understand that we’re going to be sleeping on a train, and she’s so thrilled by the idea that it seems unlikely any of us will be sleeping at all. Still, by the time we’ve been shown into our cosy cabin, balanced her travel cot as best we can beside our bunk beds and barricaded her in with the baby monitor, she’s exhausted enough to nod off instantly.
“Night cap?” suggests Guy, my husband.
The Caledonian Sleeper might not have quite the romantic associations of its Oriental equivalent, but the lounge car comes straight out of a James Bond movie. In one dimly-lit corner, a group of soft-voiced politicians nurse whisky macs and engage in serious conversation. I catch the words, “If we can just manage to convince him,” and “the European situation” before they hunch their shoulders and turn away. At the bar, a Bond dead ringer with an exceptionally sharp suit gives us the kind of piercing, side-long glance that can only have come from a spy. A group of glamorous blondes in deerstalker hats are discussing their upcoming stay with a minor member of the Royal Family on his Scottish hunting estate. I’m completely entranced.
With stop-and-starts, door slamming and a permanent rocking motion to enliven the night, sleeping on the Caledonian Sleeper isn’t quite the peaceful experience you’d get in a hotel. The only one who has a completely unbroken night is Lauris, who snoozes soundlessly until the attentive guard knocks on our door with breakfast. She promptly turns her nose up at the porridge we’d thoughtfully ordered for her the night before and decimates most of my eggs benedict, stopping occasionally to comment on the increasingly spectacular countryside racing past the windows.
“Cow,” turns into ‘river’ and then into ‘deer’. Soon she’s learned a completely new word: ‘mountain’.
The view of those forbidding peaks rising above Rannoch Moor never fails to give me a frisson of excitement. This is the same landscape loved by Scottish legends such as William Wallace and Rob Roy MacGregor – a dramatic mish-mash of moor and mountain that remains a wild stalwart in the face of marching modernity. We roll into Fort William’s charming station with the feeling that we’ve already completed an epic adventure, but the real excitement is still to come.
Glen Nevis Caravan and Camping Park is a scenic two-mile drive from central Fort William. After collecting a vehicle from Fort William Car Hire, we whizz down the Glen and install ourselves in one of the site’s cosy pods.
“Is this cheating?” asked Guy, as he puts the kettle on and fiddles with the pod’s state-of-the-art heating system while rain falls on the soggy campers outside.
It is a bit – but pod camping was the logical answer to our packing space conundrum. With sleeping bags, roll mats, toddler paraphernalia and a travel cot to lug up on the train, adding a family-sized tent to the mix would have tipped us over the edge. The fact that our pod is coincidentally rather luxurious had nothing to do with the decision whatsoever.
The weather blows hot and cold over the next few days, making us glad to have the extra shelter of the pod, but it doesn’t stop us exploring. We link three lochs on a spectacular road trip up to Glenfinnan, where the glorious viaduct arcing through a forested valley has garnered fame through its appearance in the Harry Potter movies.
With Lauris happily babbling away in the front carrier, we walk the 4km Glenfinnan Viaduct Trail - a family-length leg stretch with plenty of viewpoints over Loch Shiel for the grown-ups and a National Trust visitor centre at the end of the trail for the kids. Here, you can listen to the story of the Jacobites and see the loch-side monument that was built to commemorate Bonnie Prince Charlie unfurling his standard at the end of the Jacobite Rebellion.
Further historical interest awaits at the West Highland Museum in Fort William. Among the jumble of obscure Victoriana and military powder horns and are pieces that offer fascinating windows into Scotland’s turbulent past. My imagination is caught by the Appin Gun – a weapon that was probably used to commit one of the most sensationalised murders in the country’s history – and the ‘secret’ tray portrait of Bonnie Prince Charlie, which can only be seen in the reflection of a metal cylinder placed on the tray.
The best way to get a feel for the area’s romance-laden past, though, is to hear it from the locals. On a sunny afternoon towards the end of our trip, we book onto an outing with Crannog Cruises. As the Souters Lass slides smoothly past colonies of wary seals and great black backed gulls bobbing serenely on the water, the wind-worn skipper keeps up an atmospheric commentary.
“That there’s an old crofter’s cottage,” he said, pointing to a squat, lonely dwelling on the far bank of the loch. “A man would have needed to cut 18,000 blocks of peat every day to keep the fire going in that place – 80 man days of hard labour every year just to keep the family warm. Imagine, cattle in one half, men in the other and everything covered in soot. There’s a reason they were called black houses.”
As the boat full of people listens entranced, the skipper weaves a wondrous tale of the 1780 Highland Clearances, the destruction of the ancient Caledonian forests by billions of sheep and the dispersal of Highland communities. Then he moves onto the geology of the Great Glen, which traces Scotland’s oldest fault line and is so long it can be seen from space. As the clouds clear, Ben Nevis looms into sight.
“It may look big, but it’s just the imploded dome of a far larger volcano,” the skipper says, grinning. “You walk up there and you’ll see the old lava flows on the summit.”
No visitor should leave Fort William without walking up the Ben. This isn’t a family outing, but Guy manfully agrees to babysit while I attempt the climb on our final day. The path up the mountain can get crowded in good weather: the key to a sublime experience is to start at dawn and bag this famous summit while everyone else is still sipping on their breakfast coffee. It’s a gruelling climb, but seeing the surrounding peaks peeping through a cloud inversion as your feet touch the highest point in Britain more than makes up for the effort.
I’d usually feel a touch of depression at the end of such a magical trip, but this time there’s the anticipation of the journey back to eke out the holiday mood. As we lug our bags aboard the train and snaffle a window seat in the lounge bar beside the spies and politicians to watch Fort William receding into the distance, there’s no doubt in my mind that this is the way to travel.
GLEN NEVIS CARAVAN & CAMPING PARK
Glen Nevis, Fort William, PH33 6SX
NEED TO DO
The walking around Glen Nevis is among the best in Britain. Try a family-friendly amble up to stunning Steall Falls or test your mettle by tackling Ben Nevis itself. The romantic 13th Century ruins of Old Inverlochy Castle also make a superlatively scenic walking destinations.
Take a ride on the Jacobite Express which famously starred as the Hogwarts Express in the Harry Potter movies. You’ll travel over Glenfinnan Viaduct, which was also featured in the films.
Alternatively, try your hand at a huge range of outdoor activities. The nearby Nevis Range hosts everything from skiing to paragliding.
Film buffs will love exploring the various film sets scattered around Glen Nevis. Dozens of films and series have used the glen as a backdrop, including Braveheart, Highlander, and three of the Harry Potter movies.
There are scenic road trips in every direction. Try driving up to Mallaig and taking the ferry across to Knoydart – home to the UK’s most remote mainland pub – or taking in the glorious mountain scenery of nearby Glen Coe.
The Ben Nevis Inn (ben-nevis-inn.co.uk) is an Alpine hut-style pub serving decent food and real ales. The upstairs play area makes it a particular hit for families. The campsite has its own decent restaurant, while those in search of gourmet cuisine should head to The Lime Tree (limetreefortwilliam.co.uk) in Fort William.