Little Chef receives hostile welcome at gateway to the Cairngorms

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The Independent Online

The Northern Highland peaks of the Sow of Atholl and the Boar of Badenoch guard the Drumochter Pass, through which climbs the highest railway line in Britain, rising to 1,484ft, and the main A9 trunk road. It isn't the most picturesque of landscapes, but the wide glens and bald rounded hills promote an austere emptiness that could soon be punctured by a red sign bearing that tubby symbol of roadside eating - a Little Chef.

The Northern Highland peaks of the Sow of Atholl and the Boar of Badenoch guard the Drumochter Pass, through which climbs the highest railway line in Britain, rising to 1,484ft, and the main A9 trunk road. It isn't the most picturesque of landscapes, but the wide glens and bald rounded hills promote an austere emptiness that could soon be punctured by a red sign bearing that tubby symbol of roadside eating - a Little Chef.

The highway caterers, part of the Granada group, want to build a restaurant four miles north of Drumochter where the A9 bypasses the distillery village of Dalwhinnie.

People in Badenoch and Strathspey fear for their village businesses and wild scenery, believing the café will be a blot on the landscape. And if, as planned, the Cairngorms become a national park, the Drumochter Pass will be its southern gateway. Scottish Natural Heritage, the government's adviser, is opposed to the restaurant, and building a roadside facility would breach a national policy to keep alive villages bypassed by the A9. The Edinburgh architects Hackland and Dore, who designed the 50-seater restaurant, say the farm-style building would be in sympathy with the landscape, not a stereotype Little Chef. They feel the hostility to the £500,000 scheme is caused because Little Chef is a national chain not a local trader.

This is Granada's second attempt to gain planning permission. If the council rejects the application in March, Granada is likely to appeal to ministers.

Ian Crichton,chairman of Dalwhinnie Community Council, said the restaurant would make a sparsely populated community "even sparser". Dalwhinnie has a hotel, café and filling-station all with the same owner, providing 14 jobs. If trade was drained away a dominoeffect could threaten the linked businesses.

Linda Whitty said a Little Chef would be "the final nail in the coffin" for her pottery and coffee shop at Laggan, eight miles north-west of Dalwhinnie. "Visitors come to the Highlands because of the the mountain landscape, craft work, traditions," she said. "They don't want service centres that line motorways. But if the A9 policy is broken only national chains can afford the prime sites - individuality will be driven out."

Little Chef has 430 restaurants in the UK. It believes the Dalwhinnie restaurant will provide 30 jobs. The architect, Graeme Dore, said: "People who use Little Chefs - reps, people on business, parents with young children - are not going to go searching in the villages." Mr Dore believes the A9 policy devised in the1960s no longer holds good, because more traffic and tiredness can cause accidents.

The site for the restaurant is by Wade Bridge, a reminder of past unwelcome intrusions. The bridge spans the Truim, a tributary of the Spey, on the line of the military road built by General George Wade to help his army suppress the Highlanders. When the work over Drumochter was finished in September 1729 there was a great feast by the roadside with four oxen roasted whole and four kegs of brandy. You won't get that in a Little Chef.

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