The Romance of Steam
During the mid-19th Century Britain was in the grip of railway fever. Investment shifted from property development to the myriad of railway companies that were springing up, each offering the opportunity to get rich quick. Imagine the excitement as mile by mile, up steep gradients and over deep ravines, the track crept north, until eventually in 1863 the Highland Railway Company opened the line from Perth to Inverness.
Because of the ferry, Boat of Garten was already a transport hub and so it became the obvious choice for the location of a railway station. With the opening of a second line east to Forres and Elgin by the Great North of Scotland Railway it became an important junction with three platforms and two signal boxes - one for each company!
In 1900 an iron footbridge, cast in the Rose Street Foundry in Inverness, was manoeuvred into position across the tracks. Then in 1904 a state-of-the art wooden ticket office and adjoining Station Master's house, both in the style of the Highland Railway Company, were built to replace the previous buildings destroyed by fire - a constant hazard of steam locomotion!
By 1900 the station and track were employing around 30 workers and so houses, a church and associated services were built to accommodate them - the origins of the village that we see today. The line thrived and for the first time the Highlands became accessible. The remote whisky distilleries built private branch lines to access barley from the south and a market across the world. Edwardian tourists alighted from their carriages with all the luggage necessary for a season of hunting, shooting and fishing.
Yet just 60 years later it was a different picture. The small railway companies had been merged and nationalised to form British Rail. Road transport was becoming the preferred option for both passengers and freight and by the 1960's BR was bleeding millions of pounds each year. The Government commissioned a report and a successful businessman called Dr Beeching was invited to inform them how the railways could be made profitable again. His solution was simple - close all parts of the railway network that weren't making a profit and so Dr Beeching has become notorious in British history as the man who axed thousands of stations and hundreds of branch lines from the railway network.
Boat of Garten was among them and in 1965 the doors closed to passengers for the last time, followed by freight in 1968. This line would no doubt have gone the way of so many others, with buildings crumbling into disrepair and the track converted to a cycle path, had it not been for the energy, enthusiasm and vision of a group of volunteers and enthusiasts with a passion to bring the romance of steam to future generations.
The Strathspey Railway Company was established and thanks to their hard work and perseverance, the first section of the line from Aviemore to Boat of Garten, a distance of 5 miles, opened in 1971. In 2002 they succeeded in opening a second stretch from Boat of Garten to Broomhill Station, a further five miles. Viewers of the BBC series Monarch of the Glen may recognise it as Glenbogle!
Passengers board their locomotive from Platform 3 at Aviemore Station - a bit like Platform 9 3/4 at King's Cross Station for the Hogwarts Express but no brick walls! For those of us who predate Harry Potter and were actually around in the age of steam, nostalgia is palpable. Like an old movie, carriage doors slam, the whistle shrieks and passengers hang out of windows waving madly as the wheels begin to turn and the locomotive picks up steam and begins to crawl slowly out of the station. Before long the familiar clickety-clack of the wheels on the track and the smell of steam, engine oil and smoke accompany you as you travel across heather moor and woodland to your destination fifteen minutes down the line.
On arrival at Boat of Garden you opt to continue your journey to Broomhill or step down to explore the station, just as it would have looked when it opened in 1904. You can watch the locomotive taking on water, chat with the volunteers and take the obligatory photographs before continuing your journey. A particularly nice touch is Station Square - another of the village's community projects - where a disused patch of ground adjacent to the station provides an information hub and uses artwork as symbols of a bygone era.
An old piece of railway track has been bent into the shape of an osprey feather - a nod to the bird with which the village is so closely associated.
A sculpture of the horse and cart that would have met each train, collecting the luggage, provisions for the local store and of course - the mail. If you look closely you can see that the mailbag has opened and the letters and postcards have blown up the road and are now attached to the picnic tables and benches.
The Strathspey Railway is a not-for-profit organisation and makes its income through sales and donations. To generate funds they offer a catering service on board the train - what better way to enjoy your journey than to incorporate a Sunday lunch or afternoon tea as you travel! They also offer specials such as the Santa Express and wildlife specials and with the income generated they have exciting plans to extend the line beyond Broomhill to Grantown on Spey. However, like most tourism businesses they have been hard-hit by Covid and are currently running an emergency campaign to generate sufficient funds to survive. Fingers crossed that they'll be able to open to passengers soon and that you can come with me as I video the journey and allow you to experience the trip for yourself.
Better still - come visit!