Loch, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels; Hettie Harvey Revisits Her Childhood Haunt of Argyll, and Finds That Highland Life Is Even More Fun as a Grownup

Article excerpt

Byline: HETTIE HARVEY

There's a part of my childhood that I'd happily revisit permanently if I could. Every summer for years, my parents wedged my brothers and me, along with every fishing rod, wellington boot, waterproof and bottle of midge repellent that fitted, into the car and we made the pilgrimage to Argyll.

With the anticipation of landing prize-winning salmon (or, in my case, a tiddler of a brown trout), barbecues on distant lochside beaches and swimming in freezing cold river pools, it was simultaneously the best and worst journey imaginable. To this day, I can't think of a journey that holds a greater sense of anticipation and excitement for me, and the frustration at the interminable miles crawling past never lessens.

Luckily, there's an alternative for the impatient traveller. The Caledonian Sleeper is no quicker than driving but at least you can sleep properly and don't have the endless hanging around of flying. And despite a lifetime of experiencing the grim reality of our rail system, I continue to live in hope that one day I will climb on board something romantic and old-fashioned, and I really thought that the Sleeper might be it. But it wasn't. We did have running water and clean cotton sheets, but the fundamental British Rail-ness of it all was inescapable; breakfast from a plastic bag is more Midnight Express than Orient Express.

Inverlochy Castle, on the other hand, lacks nothing in terms of luxury and comfort. Built by the Abinger family in 1863 and converted into a hotel in 1969, the castle has welcomed many a crowned head over the years, including Queen Victoria, who wrote in her diary, 'I never saw a lovelier or more romantic spot.' The position of the castle is indeed lovely. Set in 500 acres of landscaped gardens at the foot of Ben Nevis, with views of the surrounding hills, a more picture-postcard Scottish hideaway is hard to imagine. We were lucky enough to arrive on a rare day of uninterrupted sunshine and so were able to take it all in without the low-sitting cloud that usually half-obscures the hills.

With the weather on our side, there was no time to waste lounging around the hotel, tempting as that prospect was. Within an hour of arriving, we were climbing into a worryingly well-equipped Land Rover (snow chains, saws, ropes, winches) for an off-road 4x4 driving experience, the Mud Factor. Keen to educate us in the skill of Land Rover driving, our guide Dave found us an especially muddy spot where he handed control over to me and my intrepid travelling companion Emma (who doesn't have a licence, incidentally) and had us driving up and down near-vertical inclines in no time.

Amazingly, we didn't end up upside down - in fact, Dave seemed to think that we were rather good. Maybe he was just being polite.

While we were keen to enjoy the great outdoors, we were equally eager for the great indoors. My personal favourites were the blazing fire in the Great Hall where we dried out with tea and biscuits; and our enormous bathtub where we took it in turns to wallow like hippos, just eyes and nostrils breaking the surface - what better way to relax after a hard day playing in the mud?

Then there was the very serious business of dinner. Guests are encouraged to 'enjoy the occasion of dressing for dinner', an extremely grownup, delicious affair. With five courses on offer, we began to regret all those teatime biscuits and wished we'd left more room for the petits fours. Thankfully, although clearly used to dealing with guests who actually know one end of a wine list from the other and who don't regard anything over [pounds sterling]10 as a bit pricey (there was nothing under [pounds sterling]35 on the list), the sommelier was unfazed by our ignorance. After a dinner like that, climbing the stairs to bed is no mean feat, I can tell you.

The next morning was devoted to fishing. I hadn't cast a fly in years and Emma had never

picked up a rod in her life, so we opted for a casting lesson on the hotel's loch. …