Thursday 20 September 2012

West Highland Adventure

The Caledonian Sleeper and other trains

The coincidence of a gift of the Time Out book, "Great Train Journeys of the World," with the broadcast of Michael Portillo's TV series of Great British Railway Journeys started the planning of our recent holidays by train, and now that we have made a few trips I thought it might be nice to share the experience with Parish News readers. Stamford is a good place to live for the rail-borne tourist, with direct access to Birmingham, from where much of the country can be reached, and quick access to Peterborough with connections to London and the north.

We began with a simple day trip which I shall describe next month, and then when visiting friends to the south of London took the opportunity to make a "dry run" for our planned holiday a little while later. They dry run was to ensure that we were OK with our new wheeled cases and could manage well enough with changing trains etc  with all we needed for a few days away. No problem: all went perfectly smoothly. The discipline involved in packing no more than you can carry makes many aspects of travelling much simpler! Booking in advance on-line can make rail travel very reasonably-priced with the proviso that one travels on a specific train, so planning the itinerary is important. This often makes first-class travel perfectly affordable and a trip therefore so much more enjoyable.

So early spring 2011 saw us setting off on our first adventure, one of the most exciting railway trips Great Britain has to offer. We were heading for the West Highlands of Scotland but with the journey as part of the adventure we were taking the Caledonian Sleeper from Euston, so on a Monday afternoon we trundled our cases to Stamford for the two o'clock train to Peterborough and on to London. We had a little time in London meeting our son and daughter-in-law after work and then strolled down to Euston station in good time to check into the train when it was ready for boarding at half past eight. Boarding the Caledonian Sleeper is like stepping back to the days of luxury trains that we thought were long gone: find the right section because this hugely long train splits into three parts at Edinburgh, then speak to the attendant who takes us to our compartments and looks after us on the journey. We were travelling first class with an interconnecting door open between our compartments and so we had plenty of space and yet were still together. The merged compartment is then locked whenever we are not "at home" and the attendant lets us back in on request, so our luggage is always safe.

After settling into our accommodation we made our way to the lounge car and ordered the haggis, neeps and tatties with a half-bottle of wine we'd promised ourselves as the start of our Scottish holiday, even though we were still in Euston station when we started enjoying it! It was already dark as we travelled through North London and on through the Midlands. We ordered our breakfast in the lounge car (ones own compartment is an option, but it seems a pity to waste the scenic views from the lounge car) and turned in for the night.

Waking in the morning and opening the blind to see running deer and snow-capped mountains was amazing, as was breakfasting while lochs and hills slipped by, well north of Glasgow now but still with a couple of hours to go. Arrival at Fort William is over twelve hours after departure from London and every daytime mile is stunningly scenic to an English midlander. But the best scenery is still to come! After checking into our bed & breakfast home of the next two nights we had time for coffee and a quick look around the town before catching our next train: the West Higland Line does not end at Fort William even though the Sleeper goes no further, and we travelled on for another eighty minutes or so to the terminus at Mallaig. As Michael Portillo has said, this line was built mainly for the fish traffic; there is no more fish traffic on the railway now, but this stretch has been described by some as the most scenic railway line in the world, so it was good to start our railway adventures with this one!

A couple of hours watching the boats and exploring Mallaig, with an excellent fish and chip lunch with heather ale and we were on the train back to Fort William, seeing the scenery from the opposite direction. One outstanding feature is the curved viaduct at Glenfinnan, from which the monument to the Jacobean uprising is seen and which has been seen in the Harry Potter films with the Hogwarts Express crossing it! During the summer season it is possible to ride this line behind a steam locomotive on The Jacobite train, but we were too early in the year for this experience. Good views are nevertheless available from the comfortable Sprinter units.

All this, and we are still on our first day! By the time we've sought out a restaurant and finished our dinner it is still less than 24 hours since we left London! The second day was spent in Fort William with a country walk to the foot of Ben Nevis. It is possible, in better weather, to walk to the summit of Ben Nevis, but it does take all day to get there and back. Perhaps some other time ... Our B&B had a bar well-stocked with single-malt whiskies so it was important to sample of few of these on our two evenings there, and we had haggis in one form or another ("freshly shot," according to one restaurant evidently targetting the gullible foreign tourist!) each day.

Train home via Glasgow

After two nights in the Highlands it was time to board our train for Glasgow, seeing the scenery through which we had slept, dressed and breakfasted on our way north. Almost four hours of woods, lochs, moors and tiny stations in small towns, with a swift approach to Glasgow along the north bank of the Clyde. Our hotel was immediately next to Queen Street station and we had the evening in Glasgow and most of the next day to see something of this tremendously rich and exciting city, including a visit to a preserved tenement house. A longer stay in Glasgow is on the "to do" list for a future trip.

Finally, the train home via Edinburgh and Peterborough. The first change, at Edinburgh, went smoothly and we settled into the restaurant car for our dinner overlooking the North Sea. Restaurant cars have since been abolished (a future article will describe their replacement by at-seat catering), so this was a last-gasp full dinner on a linen table-cloth on a service train. The last leg of this trip proved to be more of an adventure than we had bargained for, though. A fatality on the line much further south and cable theft somewhere around Newark had combined to cause a severe delay, but we were looked after extremely well by the staff on our train, especially the relief crew brought in at the last moment to take us forward from Newcastle (the scheduled crew being marooned in Stevenage by the line closure). Having missed our connection to Stamford we were provided with a taxi free of charge and refunded our fares for the entire trip from Glasgow to Stamford! It was almost worth being delayed to have a free first-class ride on the East Coast main line.

So ended our first car-free tour, taking in one of the longest trips available in the UK (not the very longest, for it is possible to travel from Aberdeen to Penzance on one train!) and some of the most comfortable trains on the British railway network and seeing some of the most spectacular scenery the British Isles has to offer, including the highest mountain. More trips have since been taken and more are planned. I cannot promise to describe one every month (I do not get that much holiday!) but I shall do so occasionally. Next month's instalment is the shortest trip taken so far, the day out that started the whole series.