Stay The Night: Sleeperzzz Hostel, Pittentrail, Sutherland
Train carriages, a Bedford bus and a travelling showman's wagon make for cheap yet cheerful lodgings. Mark Rowe reports
Sunday 26 June 2011
Now here's a lovely idea. Take some discarded train carriages, spruce them up, and offer a bed for a night to weary travellers. Throw in a converted vintage Bedford bus and travelling showman's wagon and you have the makings for one of the jolliest nights north of Hadrian's Wall.
You'll find this slightly bizarre but enchanting set-up 50 miles north of Inverness, in the wilds of Sutherland. The owners rescued the carriages and vehicles and somehow transported them to their new home, which abuts tiny Rogart station, on a hardy branch line that continues to serve the north-east of Scotland. One complete refit and a lick of paint later and the result is a hostel (not a hotel) of real charm.
The target market is clearly backpackers, families and cyclists. But anyone with imagination will enjoy a heart-warming night here before heading off to that luxury highland retreat. When you return from a day's exploring, you'll find the kitchen has been given a clean, something not traditionally associated with hostels. All in all, this is loving, well-executed work that belies a quirky ambition.
If you want Molton Brown smellies and your bed turned down, look away now. What you do get here is spotless converted bunkbeds with bedding and soap. The carriages, which were in service with Network South East from the 1960s up to the 1990s, are named after regional whiskies, such as Dalmore and Glenmorangie. Two of them sleep eight people in four separate compartments; the third is divided to sleep four and two. The claret-coloured showman's wagon sleeps three and the Bedford bus two.
Oddly enough, the bedrooms were converted from commuter compartments because they are wider than traditional sleeping carriages. Shower cubicles with constant hot water and separate toilets stand at either end of each carriage. Every compartment has a heater and, in some cases, it's the original under-seat heating. You'll need them: wooden British Rail train doors never shut properly even when brand new.
The food and drink
There'll be teabags, coffee and a pint of milk in the fridge of the converted kitchens. The well-stocked shop just up the lane sells more than basics, and the carriage kitchens have electric hobs, a microwave oven and all utensils, but no oven.
Settle back in your original mottled blue-green railway seat and raise a glass to the ghosts of those many thousands who stood, sweated and fumed on these trains as they travelled in and out of London.
If you don't fancy cooking, the Pittentrail Inn is just a two-minute walk away. It's a friendly and warm place, and serves hearty meals, including whisky and haggis starters, pies, curries or fish and chips for about £9.
Sleeperzzz is a young child's dream. Set them loose on the 30m stretch of obsolete track and sleepers that runs from the carriages to the signal box: they'll be puffing up and down from dawn to dusk.
Venture further afield and you will discover that Pittentrail is the perfect base for an exploration of Scotland's overlooked north-east. Wild, fragmented cliffs crumble into a succession of firths, banked-up fjords and dreamy inlets to make a staggeringly beautiful coastline. At Loch Fleet, a national nature reserve set on the most northerly estuary in mainland Britain, you are likely to see seals as well as swooping birds of prey.
The nearby town of Golspie has an unexpected charm and vibrancy, while Dornoch adds a handsome splendour with its graceful architecture and lovely beaches. Historically, the area is fascinating: the clearances were at their most brutal in Sutherland and abandoned croft houses add a melancholic touch to the sweeping landscape views. And, an important point, the midges are less of a hassle here than in the central and western Highlands.
The carriages were designed in the Sixties and it has proved impossible to modify them for wheelchair users. Dogs are not allowed.
Prices start at £15 per person per night; children 12 years and under are charged £10 each per night.
Sleeperzzz at Rogart Station, Pittentrail, Sutherland, Highlands, Scotland IV28 3XA (01408 641343; sleeperzzz.com or independenthostelguide.co.uk).
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