Tuesday 20 November 2012

The Highland Chieftain, the bargain trip of a lifetime!

It is tempting when signing up for services on the world wide web always to tick the "Don't send me email" box, but sometimes it is worth letting compamies write to you. Recently I tried to invite two readers to subsibe to East Coast Trains' loyalty programme but I received the reply that they had refused to accept mailings from East Coast, so that was that. For myself, I receive email from East Coast Trains about once a month or so, and in the summer of 2011 one such message conveyed a startlingly good special offer ...

In 2011 East Coast had relaunched their First Class service, abolishing restaurant cars but including at-seat food and drink within the ticket price (which did not rise) for 1st class ticket holders. Less luxury, but better value. To promote this new service they offered those on their email list a one way 1st class ticket to anywhere on their line for £25. No limit to the number of tickets one could buy (within the number they had made available) but they had to be booked within the next few days and the trip taken within the next few months. I booked two first-class singles each way between Peterborough and Inverness because that is the longest trip we could take from here exclusively on East Coast trains! It is so long, infact, that the value of the food and drink consumed probably reaches the cost of the ticket, with the travel, in spacious reclining seats, effectively free! Two nights booked in a cheap B&B and we were off on another adventure!

Funny how it works out. We had never been, together, north of Edinburgh until 2011 and yet now we were to have visited the Higlands twice in that year. The overnight trip to Fort William I have already described two months ago; this time we were bound for the opposite end of the Great Glen at the mouth of the River Ness and the North Sea end of the Caledonian Canal. I had no idea what to expect of the town.

As usual we started at Stamford station and changed at Peterborough. The Highland Chieftain, the one through daytime train per day to Inverness, no longer calls at Peterborough so our train took us to Edinburgh where we changed again into the Highland Chieftain for the trip through the Highlands. The free coffee was served almost as soon as we boarded (but for some reason water was not available until the lunch came along north of Newark - the only blot on a fantastic trip). The lunch menu is small and light but absolutely delicious. The wine is free as well as the water, so consumption is moderated by prudence rather than cost! But at least we were not driving ...  Persuading us to try out this service by offering it at such a giveaway price was a pretty good move - we shall use East Coast First Class whenever we can book early enough to get affordable tickets.

Once north of York the scenery becomes much more interesting and attention wandered from the table in front of us to the view from the window. Our favourite bits are the arrival into Newcastle Central with the classic view of the famous Tyne bridges (apart from the one we were crossing, of course!), and the long run up the Northumberland coast with views of Lindisfarne Castle and Priory, Alnmouth and so many wonderful patches of rugged coast and the ships on the North Sea.

Arriving in Edinburgh always feels like you're arriving somewhere worthwhile. It is a very distinctive city with the station right in the heart of it, the Castle towering over the railway to the west of the station. The Highland Chieftain is formed of a diesel High Speed Train with much more spacious coaches than most trains in Britain these days and an even more comfortable ride than we had enjoyed so far. Another meal on this stretch of the trip with the scenery of central Scotland slipping by as we head north to Inverness through the Cairngorms, with Scotch whisky and shortbread also free of charge, and when north of the border, well, you have to fit in ...

Inverness is a small terminal station in a small city with the only long distance trains being ours and the overnight Caledonian Sleeper from Euston, another section of the train on which we had been to Fort William earlier in the year. We soon found our way up the steep steps of the pedestrian shortcut to our accomodation and settled in for our two nights and then went for a short walk around the city before turning in for the night.

After the usual hearty guest-house breakfast we set off to explore a bit more, and looking back it is hard to believe how much sightseeing we packed into one day! Along the south bank of the River Ness is a small linear park with some great views of this shallow river. We were still well within the built-up city but could see little of it, and there were anglers in waders, fly-fishing out in the water. One of my photographs looks like it was taken out in the wilds somewhere rather than in the heart of a (albeit small) city! Just as we'd had enough walking we came to a garden centre where we were able to have a drink and a snack and then walking back towards with city centre on the other bank of the river we visited the Cathedral which had the most amazing font - worth coming here just to see that.

I had always been fascinated by the concept of the Caledonian Canal, linking the North Sea and the Irish Sea by joining up the lochs of the Great Glen, and we walked out to the flight of locks near where the north-east end of the canal joins the estuary of the Ness. I thought this would be a quick look before heading off for a pub lunch, but it happened that there were two small yachts making their way down the flight of locks and we watched and photographed the process (they were already a couple of locks down by the time we arrived) until they finally passed through the swing bridge and into the final basin before the sea locks, out of sight around a bend. By this time lunch was foregone, but we were still running on the East Coast Trains food from the day before and the big breakfast from the morning, so beer and crisps sufficed!

For anyone staying longer in Inverness there is the possibility of a trip by coach and boat onto Loch Ness, but this was a short, simple and above all (as we had not budgetted for it!) cheap trip, so we did not take up this option on this visit. We found a suitable restaurant for the evening and recovered from several miles of walking.

The Higland Chieftain leaves early in the morning and breakfast is included in the First Class ticket, so we had warned our landlady that we would not need a breakfast but would be checking out at breakfast time. She insisted on packing something for us nevertheless, so we had something to keep us going if East Coast ever fell short!  This train dwarfs the little station at Inverness and we had a long walk to our coach - First Class is normally marshalled at the London end of these trains - and settled in. The people sitting next to us, students speaking French, boarded with take-away coffee and all sort of food - evidently did not know about the inclusive catering. The one blot on this trip was that there was no chef to provide the full breakfast which the brochure said "you can count on". It was a disappointment, but the hot bacon rolls provided as a substitute were excellent and when they came round with a second one I was ready to forgive the disappointment.

On the way back we changed at York and the electric train waiting for us there was clearly mainly for the use of passengers out of the Higland Chieftain who needed intermediate stops, as the main train was now going on non-stop to London. We had a coach to ourselves from York to Peterborough, so we also had a crew and a larder to ourselves and there was no shortage of food or drink, nor of someone to bring it! By the time we changed trains at Peteborough we had probably had enough Famous Grouse for the day, and arriving home at about 4.20pm we decided that after all the walking, the food and the drink we had probably just about had enough day, actually, and went straight to bed to recover from the shortest and most intensive holiday we have ever taken.

Further information on East Coast First Class at http://www.eastcoast.co.uk/welcome-landing/a-first-class-welcome/
My photographs at http://www.flickr.com/photos/frmark/sets/72157631618472832/

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