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TRAVEL STORY: NETHY BRIDGE

Published: The Scotsman (TSMag) 2 June 2012

IN MANY ways, Aviemore makes an excellent gateway to the Cairngorms National Park. It’s easily accessible by car and by train, some of the highest peaks in the country are right on the doorstep and the town’s main drag has more outdoor gear shops than pubs. Every year, hikers, climbers, skiers and nature-lovers flock here in their thousands – if you’re looking for a quick, hassle-free blast of Cairngorms magic, Aviemore’s hard to beat.

In contrast to Aviemore, Nethy Bridge, about 20 minutes to the north-east along the A9, feels completely off the beaten track; at times it almost seems to occupy its own little timewarp. Whereas Aviemore’s high street is dominated by a giant Tesco, Nethy Bridge boasts an excellent butcher, Mustard’s, and a tiny village shop-cum-post office; and whereas many of Aviemore’s hotels and watering holes are situated on either side of a busy main road, Nethy Bridge’s assorted B&Bs and self-catering cottages tend to be tucked away down leafy lanes – little oases of calm in a village time forgot.

One such gem is the Dell of Abernethy – a group of six self-catering cottages in the grounds of an elegant 200-year-old house, located on the edge of Abernethy Forest. The house was originally built for the head forester of the Seafield Estate, and it’s thanks to him that the large lawn that surrounds the cottages is now bordered by a row of enormous trees – beech, copper beech, horse chestnut, oak and lime.

During the Second World War, the Dell, in common with many attractive old buildings in the Cairngorms, was commandeered as an officers’ mess. Then in the 1960s, badly in need of repair, it was bought for a song by John and Elizabeth Fleming and turned into self-catering accommodation. The business has recently been taken over by the Flemings’ granddaughter Polly and her husband Ross Cameron – well-known in the area as co-organisers of the innovative Insider music festival – and already the couple are doing an inspired job of bringing the cottages up-to-date while maintaining their timeless feel.

The first recipient of the Camerons’ unique and very stylish brand of TLC has been the Little Dell, a cosy one-bedroom apartment housed in what used to be the Dell’s wooden-floored ballroom. Period features such as the 1950s wood-framed sofa and metal-finish Hotpoint heaters have been maintained, but there’s also a brand-new wood-burning stove and a modern, piping-hot shower.

In the bedroom there’s an old-fashioned counterpane on the bed, but also a decadent goose down mattress topper; in the lounge, a beautiful old record-player, complete with a small selection of vinyl, sits next to a subtle MP3 dock. A little library contains various contemporary guide books but also a copy of William Forsyth’s guide to the area, In the Shadow of Cairngorm, first published in 1900 when the author was in residence at the Dell.

The interior revamp of the Little Dell is hugely impressive, and similar refurbishments for the other cottages are already in the pipeline, but in truth the Camerons’ biggest asset is the pristine forest – hundreds of acres of it – sitting on their doorstep, and the extensive network of trails that leads into the heart of it, starting at the bottom of their garden.

When you arrive at the Dell by car, you may feel as if you’ve reached the end of the road, but grab an OS map to the area – or, indeed, one of the many hand-drawn maps available at the Dell – and you’ll see that, as a pedestrian, you could hardly be better connected. Head west, and you’ll end up at the Loch Garten Osprey Centre; head south and you’ll find yourself in the heart of the RSPB’s Abernethy Forest National Nature Reserve. The largest native Scots pinewood in Britain, it’s home to such twitchers’ delights as crossbills and capercaillie, not to mention red squirrels and greater spotted woodpeckers, who delight in playing peekaboo even before you’ve left the grounds of the Dell. If you’re looking to explore further afield, Backcountry Bikes of nearby Grantown-on-Spey do a handy drop-off and pick-up service, and it’s possible to cycle all the way from the Dell to Glenmore and Loch Morlich via Ryvoan Pass without hitting a road. Then again, it can get a bit touristy over there, so you may decide you prefer the peace and quiet of the woods.

THE FACTS A week of self-catering at Little Dell costs GBP375 during high season and GBP280 at other times, based on two guests sharing. The other cottages have capacities of five, six or seven. For more information and availability see www.holiday-cairngorm.co.uk

For information on BaseCamp Bikes bike hire, see www.basecampmtb.com; the Insider Festival runs from 15-17 June, see www.insiderfestival.com

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