In Helm's deep

I like Helmsdale a great deal. During my years at Aberdeen Uni I helped run three student fieldtrips there and they were a lot of fun. From eviscerating jelly babies on the beach to competing in the legendary Podgorny Cup, I have many fond memories. Oh yes, and the rocks were quite interesting.

Jurassic siltstones at Lothbeg, south of Helmsdale.

So it was nice to back there this week for the first time in 6 years. As usual, geology was the reason, a colleague and I on the hunt for Jurassic shales, but that didn't stop me having a nose around the village and reminiscing.

I was sorry to see that the Bridge Hotel was closed. It had only reopened in 2007 after refurbishment and we used it as a rather opulent base for two of our fieldtrips. The vast number of dead animal heads mounted on the walls was disconcerting, but the rooms and food were excellent. It had also been great chatting with a manager who'd lived such an interesting life.

Skulls, Bridge Hotel, Helmsdale.

Peering in through the windows this time, the skulls no longer adorn the walls, though there appeared to be a wolf patrolling the building. According to the proprietors of the B 'n' B we stayed in, the hotel had been on the market for about £1.5m, but now was available for less than £600k. Sadly I don't have access to such trivial sums of cash, so I can't take it over.

I once went seal clubbing in the Bridge Hotel.

Next door, though, La Mirage restaurant seems to sail on serenely. Though it boasts of being The North's Premier Restaurant, I'd never paid it a visit in previous years. There was no option but to give it a go this time.

The decor is remarkable, and the quantities of food even more so. My colleague and I ordered the fish special and were served up two battered haddock each, along with seas of peas, ships of chips and a bed of bread. No wonder the place was apparently beloved by one of the Two Fat Ladies.

La Mirage also seems to be beloved by most online reviewers, which I find curious. The food was perfectly decent (and inexpensive given the vast quantities of nosh we received), but I wouldn't exhort anyone to rush there. Perhaps all the reviewers really love monster fish 'n' chips.

Monster Fish and Ships.

The following night we ate in the Belgrave Arms Hotel. The bar food was unremarkable, but the woman who served us was very friendly, and it looks like the place has been given the thorough renovation it was crying out for. Maybe its fortunes are on a different trajectory to the Bridge's.

I do find myself wondering what the future holds for Helmsdale, though. The Bridge wasn't the only commercial property up for sale, and - marvellous geology* aside - there isn't much to keep people in the village for more than a single night. I'm planning to run a fieldtrip back to the area later this year and for dining and accommodation options I'd be more inclined to have the group stay in Brora or Golspie.

Perhaps Edwyn Collins can save the day? The musician has deep family roots in the village and is in the process of building a recording studio there. This has met with local opposition, but Collins hopes it will provide employment and business opportunities. It sounds like a great idea to me, and I hope he's successful. Helmsdale rocks, after all.


*just in case you were wondering, this is what Helmsdale looked like in the Jurassic:



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