David recently realised a dream rail tour through the Scottish Highlands.
Months before the event, all the women closest to me in life had been plotting and planning, even conspiring, to map out a trip to ‘celebrate’ one of the more significant birthdays in a bloke’s life. And since I’m an avowedly unreformed train fanatic, a sizeable part of our almost three weeks in the UK would need to be spent on the rails!
Our last day in London was jam-packed with indulgence, chiefly at the hands of elder daughter, SJ, but after farewelling her in South Kensington, the remaining three members headed by cab to Euston Station. Londoners were basking in the warm evening, which, as we heaved all our impedimenta from cab to station booking hall, became increasingly muggy, even oppressive.
There is nothing uplifting or historic about Euston, though I subsequently learned from the very man who once managed it that it too once had its glory days. So, don’t visualise a St Pancras or even a Paddington. It was crowded, noisy, shabby and dirty; however, we managed to ingratiate our way into the upstairs Virgin (think trains rather than planes) lounge for a not-inconsiderable wait.
The object of our desire was the Serco-operated Caledonian Sleeper which, as the name suggests, transports you from London to Scotland overnight. Shortly before the scheduled 0915 departure, we and our luggage struggled through a fair percentage of the station to reach the furthest platform, and then along the seemingly interminable 16-car length of our train. At each car, a suitably attired crew member greeted those about to board. Our first taste of Scotland!
Now for reasons that I still don’t fully understand, I was in a first-class compartment towards the front of the train, while Kaye and Lucy were some cars further back, sharing an economy class cabin. Perhaps reflecting the age of the rolling stock, my compartment was adequate for a single occupant of average dimensions. However, I couldn’t imagine how two would have managed, particularly when the top bunk was lowered.
In economy, the girls were discovering just how ‘intimate’ this could be. There were all the usual array of different lights, a hidden stainless steel sink which was revealed when you lifted the varnished timber table under the window. However, the shower and loo were shared and at the end of the carriage. Having been fortunate enough over the years to have made numerous journeys on The Ghan and Indian Pacific in Australia and even the old Overlander from Melbourne to Adelaide on one of its last overnight sleeper trips, comparisons readily came to mind.
Impressively, the Caledonian Sleeper pulled out of Euston on time and we were soon rattling through the seemingly endless, everlasting suburbs of Greater London. It was fortunate that we had agreed in advance to meet straight after departure in the lounge, as many other passengers had the same idea. The solitary female ‘barperson’ was doing a sterling job greeting, serving, handling payments and making everyone welcome.
We managed our drinks, starting with our complimentary glass of bubbly and including an excellent scotch recommended by our ‘hostess’, while perched at a wee round table. The ‘entertainment’ was supplied by the ever-increasing number of optimistic souls seeking somewhere horizontal on which to sit. And whenever we picked up speed, the occasional lurch of the train enhanced our ‘entertainment’ no end.
As we learned later, the crush in the lounge could be attributed to the fact that the Caledonian Sleeper is, in fact, three trains. The next morning, just before 0400, when we eased into Waverley Station, Edinburgh, there was about an hour of shunting when the one train became three: one to travel north up the east coast to Aberdeen; another much further north, terminating in Inverness; whilst we would head west to Glasgow en route to Fort William on the west coast. Quite a feat of railway logistics!
In less than an hour, our six remaining cars are in Glasgow Central and, a short time later, around 0600, with day breaking, we’re off to Fort William, almost four hours away. Having dressed, no mean feat when my large pull-along bag occupied almost all the floor of the compartment, I head for the bathroom but it’s occupied. I note that where previously I was behind the diesel loco, there’s now, miraculously, a dining car and it’s set up for breakfast. On closer inspection, there’s even a four-seater booth, reserved in our name.
The previous night, upon boarding at Euston, I’d been asked by our carriage hostess whether I wanted a full breakfast, and whether I would prefer to eat in my cabin or the dining car. Now, seated at our reserved table, awestruck by the spectacular scenery unfolding on both sides of the single track, I’m well pleased that I opted for the dining car. Not only does it afford views from both sides of the train, but the large and almost continuous windows of the car are infinitely preferable to the small square ones in the sleeping cars.
However, as I subsequently learned, economy passengers were not enjoying quite so pleasant a breakfast in their cramped compartments with a takeaway-type cardboard carton of uninspiring offerings. This, despite Kaye having advised the staff that she would be joining me in the half-full dining car. The contrast between the natural spectacle unfolding outside the steadily climbing train and breakfast offerings could not have been more stark! So we concentrated on lifting our minds and focus to a higher plain and were richly rewarded.
The relatively flat terrain and wide expanses of water north of Glasgow had been replaced with increasingly steep mountains, heavily wooded in places with pine plantations, splashes of autumnal colour from the deciduous species and dotted with isolated farmhouses. As the drizzle and mist were burned off by the rising sun, we could more fully appreciate the truly heart-aching beauty of the wild Highlands with broad expanses of brown heather and everywhere dissected by clear running streams.
At each of the last half dozen unmanned stations before our arrival in Fort William, we stopped briefly to allow professional-looking hikers in wet weather gear and huge backpacks to alight. These stations are architecturally gorgeous, red brick and white plastered walls, under exceedingly broad eaves and steeply pitched roofs (defences against heavy snow falls) and brick chimneys. Given the sparsely populated surrounding countryside, they all appeared
surprisingly well-maintained, perhaps due, at least in part, to the ‘assorted’ repurposing, including licensed cafés and B&Bs. Most imaginative and practical. At several of these stations, we also passed a ‘down’ train in the now familiar Scotrail livery.
So spectacular is the countryside that, as we pull into Fort Williams punctually at 0955, I fear my camera is in danger of running out of memory. But no, I’m in luck because on the other side of the single platform is the immaculate Jacobite Steam Rail morning service to Moraig on the west coast.
Leaving the girls to guard our pile of luggage in the waiting room, I join the throng of happy snappers at the ‘business end’ of this train.
There, gleaming and panting, enveloped in her own clouds of smoke and steam is 45407, The Lancashire Fusilier being readied with her seven red period coaches, all jam-packed with day trippers, for the 1030 departure. To my surprise, subsequently I learn that this train runs two such excursions every day.
Meanwhile, as if to welcome us to Fort William, the drizzle has become steady rain bringing back memories of an earlier visit some 33 years prior when we’d been greeted by a North Atlantic gale. So, it’s into the rental car and off to find the snuggest café, offering the best late ‘breakfast’ and a decent coffee.
In summary, the Caledonian Sleeper is a marvellous experience, provided you’re not expecting haute cuisine. If you’re as passionate about train travel as I am, do it at least once. Preferably after the rolling stock has been upgraded in April 2018 with modern new Japanese-designed, Spanish-built cars.
Let’s hope Serco can also upgrade the catering. And, next visit, I’ll reserve a seat on The Jacobite for a day trip to Moraig.
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