Wandering through the streets of Glasgow the night before our David Urquhart coach tour, I’d come across a replica of Dr Who’s Tardis. Arriving at the little spa town of Strathpeffer late the following afternoon, I wondered if I’d accidentally stepped inside the iconic time machine and was now back in the Buxton of my youth.
Lying in Ross and Cromartie in the Northern Highlands of Scotland, four miles west of Dingwall, Strathpeffer is something of an enigma to the Highlands. The hamlet began life in the mid 18th century when the Reverend Colin McKenzie decided to fence off the sulpherous spring which came up on his land. Reputed to have strong curative powers, the spring attracted health-seeking Victorians in their droves and when a pump allowed for the water’s extraction and commercial availability, the spa town was born. Under the influence of the Countess of Cromartie, the town was built in the style of the European spa resorts with which she was familiar, a far cry from the crofters’ cottages and Laird’s castles of its peers.
The first Strathpeffer sight that stops me in my tracks is the beautiful Strathpeffer Spa Pavilion with its elegant green and white open verandah and its semi-circular gable window. The Pavilion is now a popular concert, conference and wedding venue (Kaiser Chiefs performed there in 2008). Alongside is the original Victorian pump house which now serves at the tourist office.
Wandering around the village, it’s clear that there was no shortage of money when Strathpeffer was growing up. Hidden behind brimming hedgerows entwined with honeysuckle and under planted with lupins, ferns and foxgloves; fine, grey stone Victorian houses with turrets and pointed windows stand proud in the midst of their lawns and rose beds. Looking up from the main road, the houses rise in stepped terraces, their neat chimneys and rounded turrets peeking from behind fir trees and giving the town a look of an alpine ski resort in summer.
Around the village square, more pavilion-style buildings with slate roofs offer a diversity of things you’re most likely to need on a holiday in the Scottish Highlands; bicycles for hire, a pharmacy, a gift shop selling fair trade goods and organic tea and hand made Belgian chocolates – okay that last one’s a bit bizarre but exceedingly welcome. The mini supermarket that doubles as the post office is doing brisk trade from the newly arrived guests at Mackay’s Hotel – me included. It’s the sort of place where Miss Marple would have felt completely at home.
I photograph picture postcard white cottages at whose gates, signs offering B&B hang on wrought iron frames. Then I cross the road to see if the Red Poppy Restaurant behind the Pavilion is open, lured by its promise of free wifi. The Red Poppy is closed but a path leads back into the woods and a series of life-sized wood carvings of characters from Scottish folklore by local wood carver Allister Brebner: the three Norns – Viking Goddesses, Garry – one of the Giants of Knockfarril, Brahan Seer and Sgathach – chief of an Amazonian-esque tribe of Celtic women.
Just when I think I’ve got Strathpeffer all sewn up, I spot a sign for the Victorian Railway Station and the Highland Museum of Childhood. Strolling past more country hotels, a leafy lane leads to the elegant and immaculately maintained timbered station with its glass portico. The former ticket office and waiting room now house a small café, a book shop and a museum of Scottish childhood memories, or at least, memories relevant to the average citizen of and visitor to Strathpeffer. Suffice to say they don’t include a Mega Drive or Thomas the Tank Engine books, instead you’ll find wooden desk, slate with chalk and china faced dolls.
Strathpeffer is a throw back to a time when life moved at a slower pace and somehow, it has managed to stave off the 21st century almost entirely, save for the occasional wifi connection, leaving you free to travel back to an era frozen in space, without the aid of a Tardis.
Andrea (Andy) Montgomery is a freelance travel writer and co-owner of Buzz Trips and The Real Tenerife series of travel websites. Published in The Telegraph, The Independent, Wexas Traveller, Thomas Cook Travel Magazine, EasyJet Traveller Magazine, you can read her latest content on Google+