Thursday, 16 September 2021

Back Home for Now

 Back to the model railway!

With travel over for a little while I am finally picking up the threads of my Swiss-themed model railway again while I plan the next couple of trips. Progress will be posted over on for those who are interested.

Thursday, 2 September 2021

The Royal Scotsman Classic Tour 2: Scotland's Classic Splendours

Aboard The Royal Scotsman

As we were piped aboard, everyone was offered a glass of Champagne and our coats were taken and hung away in the lobby: with so few passengers only one entrance and exit was needed for this train. We were shown through into the Observation Car which is fitted out like a lounge with armchairs and sofas with a small bar at one end and on open observation deck, like a small balcony, at the other. The observation deck was limited in usefulness for the first couple of days because the locomotive was coupled to it, but once the train was reversed it really came into its own in the scenic sections of the route. I did stand on it to cross the Forth Bridge a few minutes after departure, though, with a close view of our locomotive, Class 66 number 743, a GB RailFreight engine painted and lettered in Royal Scotsman livery to match the train.

Meanwhile our luggage had been taken to our cabins (cruise terminology is used on this train - sometimes even "staterooms" appears) and as the train left Edinburgh we were taken one cabin at a time to our accommodation. We had gained by someone else's misfortune and were changed from the twin cabin originally booked to a double one, having asked from the start if we could have a double cabin if there should happen to be a cancellation which left one free, and someone had cancelled just the night before, just as we were celebrating our negative Covid test. We were now in the very farthest cabin from the Observation Car, with just the service coach and staff quarters beyond us: we should have more exercise than any other passenger! After unpacking our clothes and hanging them in the ample wardrobe we made our way back to the other end of the train where there were drinks and canapés before an "informal" dinner as the train made its way along the east coast through Arbroath and Aberdeen to Keith, where it stabled overnight in a siding. Although a sleeper train, The Royal Scotsman does not travel at night, so no scenery is missed and no sleep is disturbed by movement. The informal dinners on this train are still fairly formal: jackets and collared shirts are recommended and the waiting staff are just as attentive as at the formal dinners. By now, three glasses of Champagne in, I began declining top-ups of wine during the meal.

Like some of the other travellers we went for a stroll around Keith as darkness fell, and we discovered Keith Town station on the "Whisky Line," a heritage railway from there to Dufftown. There was also a distillery. We were to see a lot of distilleries and could be sure that most of them would be pointed out by Les and we passed them on the train ... And so to bed at the end of the beginning.

On Tuesday morning the train reversed out of the siding in which it had spend the night and made its way during breakfast to Elgin where we were met by the Royal Scotsman road coach and our driver for the week, Andrew. We were taken by coach to visit Cawdor Castle which has been in the same family for many generations and is still home to Lady Cawdor as well as an interesting castle in a beautiful garden. Lady Cawdor greeted us over a glass of sparkling wine before we had lunch in reserved area of the public restaurant. It was a warm and sunny day and we had a great time exploring the garden before Andrew drove us to Inverness where the train had been taken to wait for us. Again there was a refreshing drink as we rejoined the train and we sat with others in the Observation Car as we departed towards the north, turning west at Dingwall onto the line to the Kyle of Lochalsh. This route is reputed to be one of the most scenic in Europe and was the reason why this particular tour was chosen from those offered by Belmond on The Royal Scotsman. We had already travelled on all the other routes out of Inverness as well as the West Highland Line to Fort William and Mallaig, so a tour that included Kyle of Lochalsh would take us on a scenic line we had yet to travel as well as taking us to places we had never been.

Odd jobs that needed doing had to be completed on the first part of this stage because we needed to be in the Observation Car through the mountains and lochs of the west. The scenery was stunning but I took few photographs because the low evening sun made effective landscape photography very difficult and I though that in the morning, with the sun from the east, I would be able to take much better pictures. As you'll see, that did not quite work out. Once arrived at the terminus and former ferry interchange at Kyle of Lochalsh we returned to our cabin to shower and change for dinner, and the locomotive was uncoupled from the Observation Car and run round to the other end of the train, giving us a splendid view of fishing vessels in the port as we enjoyed pre-dinner drinks. Dinner on the second evening was formal and I put on the requested dinner suit and bow tie along with most other men on the tour, while the ladies wore suitable cocktail dresses. It was all rather splendid, and the food and drinks were up to the standard we were beginning by now to expect. We went for a brief stroll after dinner but could not go far because it was dark. It would have been nice to walk to, or even over, the Skye Bridge which has supplanted the ferry to the Isle of Skye, but we did not have enough time for that and would not have seen much anyway. However, this may not be our last visit to this part of Scotland, so a visit to the island is still a possibility one day.

The Royal Scotsman departed from the Kyle of Lochalsh very early on the Wednesday morning, retracing our route back to Inverness. I spent much of the most scenic sections of the route standing on the open observation deck, now unencumbered by the locomotive, but photography was now hampered by the mist and low cloud that hung over land, sea and loch alike. It looked wonderful as it was, but the mountains were invisible much of the time. This was quite a long trip in one go and breakfast was served later than usual to give those who wanted a lazy start the opportunity to have one - although it was unfortunate that lunch had to be served early that day in order to fit in the afternoon's activities.

During the morning (at what would normally be coffee time in my world), Les, assisted by Sylwia, the train's own whisky-specialist, invited us to a whisky tasting in the Observation Car and introduced passengers to the world of Scotch malt whisky. Some already knew more than others, but I think we all learnt something - I know I did. The biggest lesson was the enormous difference it makes to drink whiskies from a glass that holds in the aroma rather than the conventional tumbler. So much so that we bought a pair of whisky tasting glasses from the on-board shop before we came home! The train continued through Inverness while we had lunch and then south towards the Cairngorm mountains.

After lunch we left the train at Aviemore to visit Ballindalloch Castle, shown round by Guy Macpherson-Grant the current owner of the castle which, again, had been in the same family for many centuries. The castle is still at heart a farmhouse and the centre of thriving business interests, as it has to be in order to keep going: the present owner's parents did a lot to make it the place it is now, with beautiful gardens for the public to visit. We were also shown around the interior and although some places were closed off owing to work being done to improve the heating system (important in that part of the UK!) we were given a glimpse into the life of the family as well as the history of the aristocracy in Scotland. Fortified dwellings are no longer needed to defend land holdings against enemies and are simply beautiful buildings which are great to see. Quite different from castles in England, the appearance of Scottish castles resembles those in Germany and Austria, with projecting round corner turrets with conical roofs, for example. Just in case we were too hungry to wait for dinner we were treated to tea in the castle's visitors' tea room and then we tried to walk off some of that around the grounds before it was time to move on.

The Royal Scotsman coach took us back to the train which had moved on to the station at Boat of Garten on the preserved Strathspey Railway, our own locomotive having been replaced by a restored Class 31 diesel, one of my favourite locomotives which I can remember from childhood and some of which are still going strong sixty years later. As usual we were welcomed back to the train with drinks on the platform and then before dinner we went for a short stroll around the village, and then canapés in the Observation Car were followed by an informal, but still excellent, dinner in the two Dining Cars at the platform at Boat of Garten. After dinner we were entertained with songs by Davy Holt, who also gave us a brief history of Highland life and was amusing as well as informative and quite moving even for those of us who had heard much of the story already.

In many respects the Thursday was the most exciting day of the tour with activity from the start. After breakfast we left the train at Boat of Garten and were driven by coach to the Rothemurchus Estate where a variety of country pursuits had been lined up for us. Some went for a country walk (which I gather was more of a saunter than a hike), some for a drive around the countryside, some fishing and some, including me, clay pigeon shooting. I had never fired a shotgun, although I had grown up in the countryside where many members of my family had them - fairly essential in agriculture - and I thought this would be a great thing to try. We were divided into two parties between two instructors and taken to the firing range where we were given a selection of moving targets to try to hit. I found the least difficult to be the one that was coming towards me; concentration on the job in hand, as ever, was key to doing a good job, and that was quite hard with a lot of new stuff to remember. I can imagine that this sport could easily take over ones life - I am sure that if I tried again I'd hit the target a bit more often and then keep trying to improve, and then maybe try air rifle target shooting and before you know where you are I'd never be at home ... so it is as well that I live hundreds of miles away and am unaware of anything more local (although I am sure there must be lots but don't tell me about them!).

Back at the house we reconvened with those who'd undertaken the other pursuits and by log fires (! in August) we met our host family and enjoyed some coffee and their home-made cakes (mercifully small pieces, for one is not exactly ravenous after a Royal Scotsman breakfast) and the coach returned us to the train now waiting for us at Kingussie station on the Highland Main Line. 

Lunch was served on the train as we made our way south through Blair Atholl and Pitlochry to Dunkeld. At Dunkeld we left the train again and Andrew picked us up in the coach for one last time to take us to by far the largest castle of the week, Glamis Castle, childhood home of the late Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother and probably the most beautiful castle I have ever seen. The way the visit was arranged for us was particularly good: we drove up the main driveway with the castle ahead of us, looking like a fairy-tale; the coach took us to the front door, not the usual tourist entrance, where we were met by a piper who piped us into the castle where we all stood with a glass of whisky to toast the piper with the traditional Scots toast, "Slàinte Mhath" (pronounced "slanje-va"), we each took a sip, the piper took a gulp! During the tour of the interior we heard a lot about the supposed haunting of the castle be several ghosts but saw and heard nothing of any of them ... There was some free time to explore the grounds after we said farewell to our guide (this time we did not meet the current owner of the castle for he was away), and then the coach took us to the ancient capital city of Perth where our train was waiting for us by a side entrance. 

The finale of the final day was the formal dinner followed by more musical entertainment as the train moved on to Dundee. As ever, drinks and canapés were served before dinner and this time I swapped the endless round of Champagne and whisky for a vodka martini - I sometimes make these at home and wanted to see how a professional version compared - and could not believe it when I was asked if I wanted is shaken or stirred! I asked for shaken, of course ... I am not sure I believe in the "bruising" theory of shaken vodka and anyway when you're standing there in evening wear it just sort of seems to fit!

We woke in Dundee on the Friday morning and moved off at breakfast on the short final leg of our tour, the highlights this morning being the crossing of the Tay and Forth bridges.

From the outside platform of the Observation Car the crossing of the Forth Bridge was a whole new experience, and soon after this we were passing through Princes Street Gardens and rolling into Edinburgh. Some people stayed with the train for the next tour, some headed to hotels in Edinburgh for a few more days and some, like us, caught trains home. We had our luggage taken to the Balmoral and had a coffee break at the Scottish Royal Academy café overlooking the Gardens and then collected our luggage and waited in the First Class Lounge at Waverley for our train home to be prepared. The journey back by LNER was up to the usual standard, comfortable and on time with a light lunch from the Deli menu being served, and we made a connection to Stamford which I had not dared to hope we might make. The train to Stamford was amazingly busy; we had no seat reservations for I had reserved them on the next train thinking we wouldn't get this one, and space for holiday luggage was tight, so we stood in vestibule for the short ride to Stamford.

Having heavier luggage than usual we tried the system for crossing the line at Stamford using the barrow crossing instead of the footbridge and it worked very well: we lifted the telephone handset and spoke to a signaller who let us through the gate and across the track as soon as it was safe, and then we called back as soon as we were over to let him know that we were safely across. It had been a brilliant holiday and no other train will ever be quite the same as The Royal Scotsman. It was definitely not fast and it didn't take many passengers so the fare was definitely not low budget, but it was the opposite of "no frills"! Frills was what it was all about, ideal for the celebration of last year's ruby wedding anniversary.


My photographs are now available on Flickr for those who wish to see them!

Saturday, 28 August 2021

The Royal Scotsman Classic Tour 1: getting there

Weekend in Edinburgh by train, take 2

Last year we celebrated our Ruby Wedding Anniversary. Among other things we planned a tour of the Scottish Highlands on the Belmond Royal Scotsman but unfortunately that fell victim to the pandemic (specifically to the impossibility of the foreign tourists, who had taken all the other places on the tour, being able to get here), so that holiday was truncated to (a very splendid) weekend in Edinburgh and a similar highland tour booked for this August instead, again with a weekend in Edinburgh to start it off.

The Royal Scotsman check-in is done at The Balmoral Hotel and last year I booked a couple of nights there in a special room in order to begin our special celebratory holiday in style, but this year we thought we'd try somewhere else so that we were not trying to emulate the wonderful time we'd had at The Balmoral last year, so I booked a couple of nights at the Hilton Edinburgh Carlton, just round the corner: it would still be a great room in a great hotel but would not just be a repeat of what we had already done. 

Like so many other trips this summer, booking the train tickets was a bit protracted as I waited for Advance tickets for the various sections of the journey to become available, but in the end all was booked and we just had to wait for the time to come. Fortunately we had our south coast holiday and our short break in London to enjoy so that we were not just pacing the room waiting for Scotland. Nevertheless, there were preparations to be made! Two of the dinners on the Royal Scotsman were to be formal and required traditional evening wear, so I had to check that my dinner suits were clean and pressed, ditto the dress shirts, and for the informal dinners on the other two evenings a jacket ("with or without a tie") was still needed, so I had to ensure that something suitable was also available for those. Then in Scotland in August it is anyone'e guess what the weather will be doing so a wide selection of daywear would be required to cope with anything from hot sun to pouring rain and cold: while we'd had cold, wet weather in England this August, it was not so in parts of Scotland. Thus our usual size of suitcase would be inadequate, especially for Alison's evening dresses. Before we went to London for the short break we had our larger cases out on the spare bed, the cases usually reserved for long European tours, and prepared most of the outfits we'd need, because we would be home for just one complete day before leaving for Edinburgh, so there would be little time to prepare and pack between the trips.

Two days before our trip began a freight train had collided with a tractor on an occupation crossing near March (which had disrupted our journey home from London), and the recovery and track repairs were still going on, but fortunately Cross Country Trains had managed to get the timetable back to normal between Stamford and Peterborough so our outward journey was not affected. Connections between our local trains and services to Edinburgh are a bit too tight for comfort and we were not in a hurry so I built in some slack with an extra hour in Peterborough: LNER had resumed their offer of free coffee and cake at the Great Northern Hotel for passengers with First Class tickets so it was easy to while away the time there with The Times Quick Cryptic crossword puzzle before going to platform 4 to await the LNER Azuma train to Edinburgh, the first time we had headed north since last year's shortened trip.

As ever, the ride with LNER in First Class was comfortable and the staff were attentive and helpful. We did not have the coffee, having had that at the Great Northern Hotel, but had fruit juice and biscuits in the morning and then sandwiches and wine for lunch when the time came, north of York. By the time we came to the best scenery, in Northumberland, the weather was not great but the mist and rain did clear for us to have a good view of Lindisfarne and of Berwick-upon-Tweed. One more cup of tea and the Scottish capital was almost upon us, a very light drizzle awaiting us (this was August 2021, after all) as we left the train.

Leaving Waverley station on the south side was simple enough (using the lift to the footbridge because of our larger-than-usual suitcases), but the closure of the stairs up to North Bridge meant a bit of a detour with even more steps up, but even so we were very soon at our hotel and were checked in. I had booked a "King Executive Room" which sounded more comfortable than most, and it was. It also included, and I did not take this in until check-in, access to the "Executive Lounge", of which more later. I had asked for a street view and we got one, but it was not the main street, North Bridge, but Market Street, where we had just walked with our luggage, with the glass roof of Waverley station beyond.

After checking in and unpacking enough for two nights (and our best clothes to reduce the creasing!) we strode off to The Balmoral: one thing I had booked the same as last year was our Afternoon Tea in the Palm Court at The Balmoral. This time we did not have the Champagne but we did drink quite a lot more tea. The meal is a fixed price and is for up to two hours - I booked 5pm, the latest time that allows the full two hours and late enough for it to count as our evening meal - and unlimited tea and/or coffee is included in the price. It is hard to imagine anyone requiring any more food than is provided, or needing another meal after it. It is simply wonderful, even without the Champagne, and highly recommended (advance booking recommended, too) if you find yourself in Edinburgh. The surroundings of the Palm Court and the attentive staff add to the experience - you may have seen them all on the TV series broadcast by Channel 5 earlier this year.

A little walk after tea and then it was time to write the start of this blog post and get ready for bed, catching up with such reading as had not been done on the train. 

After a good night's sleep in the king bed we went for the included breakfast in the hotel's dining room, a Marco Pierre White restaurant like one we'd visited for afternoon tea once in London (only more spacious) where the full buffet breakfast was on offer, the first we'd come across since the stat of the pandemic. It seemed really weird sharing serving spoons etc and we sanitised our hands before and after helping ourselves to our breakfast elements - we were very much aware of the necessity of keeping clear of infection, in spite of our vaccinations, because we had to have a negative Covid test to board the Royal Scotsman, and we had our test kit ready for use later in the day - it had to be within 24 hours of check-in for the train. It was a delicious breakfast and the staff were really helpful. Had to have haggis, of course, with the cooked course.

Last year we had been unable to visit the National Museum of Scotland but now advance booking was not only available but required and I had booked our admission long ago to ensure that the Sunday would be the museum day. We spent some time there and caught up on things we had not seen when we visited the city a few years earlier, plus the temporary gallery on the Galloway Hoard of Viking age treasure which was absolutely fascinating.

We returned briefly to our room and then set off again to the National Trust for Scotland's Georgian House which we'd seen before, many years ago, and had booked in advance to visit again this time. memories fade and exhibits are updated, so sometimes a revisit is worthwhile especially as National Trust members because we can visit as often as we wish at no cost. There was some commotion in the street outside because the official residence of the First Minister of the Scottish Government is next door and a couple of dozen people were holding some sort of anti-mask protest. I do not know whether she was at home but for her sake I hope she was able to get some peace on a Sunday afternoon in her own home. The Georgian House gives a wonderful glimpse into the world of Georgian society and the history of "new town" Edinburgh, "the Athens of the North", and was to us especially redolent of Georgian houses we have lived in at various times. Knowing that there was a gastronomic experience to come during the week, our "dinner" that evening consisted of the included refreshment offering at the Executive Lounge at the hotel. This was really rather good, the sort of thing that used to be on offer in First Class on East Coast trains a few years ago: a light hot meal with snacks and drinks (including wine), at no extra cost.

It was a relief to do the required Covid19 tests and get a negative result, but then there was still a difficulty sleeping because, two years after planning this trip and one year after we were supposed to have done it, we finally looked like we would be on our way in the morning! But we did sleep and after another good breakfast we made our way to the Royal Scotsman check-in at The Balmoral Hotel where our luggage was taken away and we met our tour manager Gerry and one or two other passengers including Les, an "ambassador" from the Scotch Malt Whisky Society who on the tour with two society members visiting distilleries while the rest of us were doing the classic Royal Scotsman tour and who would teach the rest of us all we wanted to know about whisky. In due course we were taken with the other passengers (about two dozen) to the platform at Waverley station where a piper was waiting to pipe us to the waiting train. At last, two years after first booking this trip it was about to begin!