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Friday, 25 October 2019

Accessible hiking in the Cairngorms - Strathspey Railway

Continuing my series about the Cairngorm National Park, I'm going to combine a couple of days into one. We had intended to hike from Aviemore to Boat of Garten and get the steam train back. That's not quite how it worked out but we still enjoyed a couple of nice days out.

Strathspey Steam Railway

The stream trains run from Aviemore's main railway station and go to Boat of Garten and Broomhill. You can travel standard or first class and there are various dining options available. If you need wheelchair assistance, they prefer you to book in advance but we just arrived early on the day we wanted to travel and we were able to buy tickets for the next train. 

Pricing seemed very fair to us. Wheelchair users get a third off and a carer can travel for free (standard class). If you need to travel in your wheelchair, the only option is to travel in the guard's van, and they don't charge then for either you or a carer. We planned ahead, took my crutches and travelled in a standard coach. They put my chair in the guard's van so I could get off at the other end and have a look around. 

Assistance dogs

They allow dogs to travel on the train, and assistance dogs are no problem either. We would have liked to treat ourselves to first class but they don't allow assistance dogs in first class. When I asked about this, first they said it was because of food hygiene but when I asked more and explained that assistance dogs can go in restaurants, then they said it was because of space in the compartments. We had a look later and I'm not sure I buy that, as there is more space in first class than the standard coaches, but we were still able to travel and neither of us wanted a fight.

It was Liggy's first trip with me on any kind of train. She laid under the table and was very well behaved indeed. Getting on and off was a little tricky as the floor was slippery and she was excited and trying to negotiate my crutches through a narrow doorway with steps. 

Photo of Liggy sitting under the table on the train


Toilets

There are no accessible toilets on the train or at Boat of Garten but there is a good one in Aviemore and a half measure in Broomhill. The one in Aviemore is small but there was room for my chair and there are rails and stuff and level entry. At Broomhill, you have to wheelie up a small step to get into the ticket office/shop. Then entrance to the toilet is very tight - another passenger helped me move a table out of the way. Inside the toilet, there are no rails, so getting off the loo was a little tricky! The sink is just about within reach, though I'm sure they wouldn't want it pulling off the wall, so if I was them, I'd at least invest in a free standing toilet frame.

The stations

At Broomhill, it is worth getting off and having a potter around. Some of the platform is gravel though, so getting a close look at the engine requires a bit of determination! 

Steam engine

Broomhill Station and ticket office

Parking and getting to the platform

There is parking at all stations. In Aviemore, to access the right platform, you have to go round the back to the main car park, as access from the town centre is only via a footbridge with steps. There is blue badge parking and then you have to cross the railway line and go up a ramp onto the platform. I found this easy enough to do independently. 

If, like us, you go and park up, buy tickets and then discover that you can't travel in first class where you would get food, you can go and get lunch to take on the train. It's a fair walk round into the town centre, back down the entrance road, under a subway and back into town. Tesco and M&S both do decent meal deals. We had plenty of time on our side so it wasn't a problem doing this.

Hiking between stations

There is a lovely wide track which allows walking and cycle access between Aviemore and Boat of Garten. Technically, it is wheelchair accessible, but I would want to qualify that. The early section of the walk goes through a residential estate, which lacks dropped curbs, so I ended up wheeling on the road a lot. It wasn't busy and I was comfortable doing this as Neil walked behind me and let me know when to stop and wait for passing cars. 

Signage

At the beginning, there is a sign showing that Boat of Garten is both left and right as you come under the railway subway. That is because one way is for road users and one is off-road. We went for the off-road option. It shows 6 (miles, I presume). We set off and although a little hilly, it was a nice enough path. After the initial sign, it assumes you know to follow 'route 7' cycle track. 

As you come out of the residential area (Silverglades), you go through a golf course. There is a new sign, showing 4 miles to Boat of Garten, which is really encouraging, as you think you're a third of the way there already. 

At the golf course, the path turns into a forest area with a lovely wide dirt path but some evil hills! Neil had to help me with some of the steepest parts. You go for what feels like miles because of all the ups and downs and about half an hour later come to a new sign... which shows it is still 4 miles to Boat of Garten. WHAT?!! My arms and shoulders were exhausted by then, and we had passed a sign to the golf club house which is open to the public. There are no toilets on route, and I was getting to the point where I needed one, so we turned back and went for coffee and a wee instead.

Later, we noticed another sign, about a mile before the first sign (6 miles) which also stated 6 miles to Boat of Garten. We can only presume there is something psychological going on here or they have some significant rounding errors!

Asking about paths

When we set off on this walk, we did stop a couple of people who were coming the other way, and asked what the path was like. We were told that it was wide, smooth (concrete) and pretty level all the way. This theme came back later in the week. My advice is not to believe anything people tell you. Walkers have no idea whether they are on the flat or hills. They are utterly oblivious!

Our original plan

So our original plan was to hike one way and take the train the other. Would this have been possible? Firstly, I believe Boat of Garten is higher than Aviemore, so if we were to attempt this, we would get the train there and hike back. It would still be hilly but hopefully more down than up. 

We would also need a toilet plan. I have a she-wee but I don't like using it. Just because I technically could stand up and have a wee like a man, doesn't mean I want to. So then I'm tempted not to drink anything, so that I don't need to go, but on energetic hikes like this, I would need to drink. There is no accessible toilet at Boat of Garten either, so I couldn't go before beginning the walk section. 

If we had an answer to the toilet issue, in theory, I reckon we could take our time and hike it back. It might be more doable if we had a group of us - say if our sons were coming too - as then there would be more help available on the steep hills. It would also be easier, later in the winter or early spring, when my muscles have built up again. I barely do any exercise between June and October, because it is too hot and then there are too many wasps flying around, and nettles blocking my way. That means that in October, I am probably at my weakest, physically. 

On the plus side, if I did attempt this, I would need my mountain trike and we wouldn't be able to carry my crutches, so I would have to travel in the guard's van, which would be free. So we would effectively get a day out for just the cost of lunch. Bargain!

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