Tuesday 29 October 2013

Time to start planning

I now have enough East Coast reward points for four more first class East Coast tickets! So it is time to start thinking about Scotland again ...

Monday 7 October 2013

The Far North!

For many years than I care to remember I have wanted to travel the scenic lines of Scotland which are so very different from anything else in the UK. Having finally begun a couple of years ago, as I have reported here, with the West Highland Line to Fort William (by the Caledonian Sleeper) and Mallaig, I was left with a couple of lines radiating from Inverness. I had also long wanted to see Aberdeen, the "granite city" and to take a ride on the one through train per day from Aberdeen to Peterborough. The opportunity presented itself when our East Coast loyalty points added up to enough for four First Class singles, and so a four-day, two-centred tour was thus devised: one day travelling to Inverness by the Highland Chieftain, as we had done once before, one day tripping out to Thurso on the Far North Line, one day in Aberdeen and a day travelling home from there.

Two nights were booked at the Royal Highland Hotel in Inverness and one at the Aberdeen Douglas Hotel, carefully chosen for proximity to the stations, through booking.com, and the tickets were ordered from East Coast (of course!). I had never booked free tickets with loyalty points before but it proved very straightforward: having exchanged my points for tickets, I found that £0.00 tickets appeared when I looked up the trains for the journey and I just ordered them for the journeys we wanted. I then added the tickets we were buying, to Thurso and back (Standard Class) on the second day and First Class singles to Aberdeen on the third morning (as well as each way between Stamford and Peterborough, of course), and paid for those, collecting all the tickets from the machine at the station when I was next over that side of town.

It was on a Tuesday morning that we took the train from Stamford to Peterborough to make the connection there for Edinburgh where we would board the Highland Chieftain once again. Both Peterborough and Edinburgh stations are in the midst of substantial improvement works: it seems that everywhere we travel we encounter builders, for Birmingham New Street and London Kings Cross are just the same! Still, with a little care it does not make any real difference to the journey and both connections were easily made. Just as before the catering was entirely free of charge, beginning with the coffee as the Edinburgh train made its way through the northern outskirts of Peterborough. Lunch and an afternoon snack were served further north. I decided to have the beer with my lunch, canned Old Speckled Hen: cans are not the best way to store beer but Hen is always good, even served this way, and some compromises are needed to cope with the complexity of catering for lots of people in a confined space at high speed.

We were changing trains at Edinburgh when a slight disaster occurred: as I slid the telescopic handle out of Alison's case for her to trail it to the right platform for the next train, the handle came out completely, leaving the case standing. So for the rest of the holiday her case had to be carried - I would try to repair it when we were at home - but with having booked hotels close to the stations there would be mercifully little carrying to be done. The wheeled cases are an important part of modern travel, with porters being very few indeed these days and dedicated to helping those with special needs, such as the elderly and disabled. We have developed techniques for minimising the amount of luggage we take and it is generally one small wheeled case each plus a small backpack.

The ride on the Highland Chieftain from Edinburgh to Inverness is a further three and a half hours and another selection from the all day menu provided dinner, this time with wine. It was the second time we'd travelled on this service and we were beginning to feel like old hands … We look forward to trying it again when the builders have moved out of Edinburgh station!

Last time we were in Inverness we stayed at a little B&B a short walk away from the station, but as we were only using the town a a base for further exploration this time we opted for the station hotel, the Royal Highland, which is built alongside the station and could not have been more convenient. The entrance hall is every Englishman's idea of what a Highlands hotel should be, with tartan carpet and antlers on the walls. Our room overlooked the front door and the station forecourt, and provided a comfortable base camp for the following day. After the catering on East Coast, the vouchers for price-reductions in the hotel restaurant could wait for the following evening!

The usual big hotel breakfast set us up for the long ride to the far north. One may think that Inverness is a long way north, but the north coast is almost four hours further! The line is far from straight and at times is among the hills and at other times along the coast, weaving inland and coastwards around the estuaries and serving some very remote communities along the way. There is only basic catering on the trains and we stocked up with Marks and Spencer sandwiches before boarding the 10:37 departure for the Far North. (We had to go to M&S anyway because the shirts I had intended to take were still hanging on the wardrobe door at the Vicarage …) An interesting feature of this line is that just before the north coast it divides at a station called Georgemas Junction, but the train neither divides nor connects with another: it reverses to Thurso and then reverses again, returns to the junction station and then goes to Wick and the end of the line. Coming back from Wick it goes to Thurso before performing the same double-reverse in the other direction to head south to Inverness. We chose to get off at Thurso rather than do the shuffle through to Wick and back, partly because it was the farther north and partly to give ourselves more time before the last train back (which was, in fact, the next train back after than the one we'd just arrived on).

From the station at Thurso we walked through the town centre to the beach, bought our postcards (yes, this is a seaside!) and visited the museum (where we also had a warming cup of coffee) and looked around the shops. There is a fascinating display about Pictish symbol stones at the museum, something I knew nothing about before. Funny there was no-one sitting on the beach in swimwear.

At one point on the way back south of Helmsdale the train runs right along the pebble beach of the east coast with the waves of the North Sea right outside the windows, far closer to the sea than the Great Western main line is at Dawlish. Among the mountains and the lochs we felt very small and insignificant in our little two-coach train on its winding single track. At Invergordon, on the Cromarty Firth, I took some video of the oil platform servicing facilities clearly visible from the line the. At this stage in the holiday I knew next-to-nothing about the oil industry, but all this was to change when we were in Aberdeen two days later. Meanwhile we could see quite a lot of mysterious gear at Invergordon and a few nearby places.

And so back to Inverness and our hotel. Time to sample the restaurant, which had a bargain meal offer for over-50s! We had the most avant-garde haggis, neeps and tatties, Alison as a starter and I as a main course: delivered as cylindrical stacks of the three dishes, one for the starter and two for the main, with a delicious mustard sauce. Thoroughly recommended.

On Thursday morning after breakfast we checked out of the Royal Highland and caught the 10:57 Scotrail train to Aberdeen. I don't know if rail fares really are cheaper outside the south-east, but I had bought First Class Anytime tickets without discount and they were quite affordable here.  These tickets would have allowed break-of-journey if we wanted to see anything else on the way, but we decided to stay on to Aberdeen and spend the rest of the day there. It is over two hours and hot drinks and snacks were included in our fare.

Neither of us had been to Aberdeen before and although we knew it was coastal and the main base for the UK oil industry we had not reckoned on it as a seaside town, complete with amusement park (a bit low-profile this early in the season, though) nor had we realised what a huge part of its life the oil industry had become. Our hotel was a stone's throw from the dock where the oil platform supply ships were docked and from where the Shetland ferries operated. In the other direction it was a short walk to the shops and other city-centre facilities including the university. Pubs selling cask ales were hard to find but we tracked one down in the end, in a student area, naturally! We had shopping to do and we had a stroll along the seafront (but on the actual beach today) and back through the city centre to a good night's sleep.

On Friday we checked out but had the hotel look after our luggage until we were ready to go. We spent all the morning at the Aberdeen Maritime Museum which is one of the best museums we have ever visited. Not very large but it taught us about oil exploration and production, the centre-piece being a four-storey scale model of a production platform in an atrium permitting views of the entire structure. Through the windows of the building we could see oil industry vessels in the docks and we were fortunate enough to meet a visitor to the museum who worked on an oil platform and who explained to us what all the different vessels were for: that made our experience better still.

The train back to England started at Aberdeen and was waiting for us at the station: it was due to stop at Peterborough, so that would be our only change on the way home. Brilliant: we would sit back and let the scenery slip by while the drinks, snacks and meals were brought to us. As far as Edinburgh this was all new to us and included bits of coastline and the famous bridges over the Firth of Tay and the Firth of Forth. Again, this was a diesel High Speed Train as used for the Highland Chieftain and in our opinion the most comfortable trains on the system. 

Soon we were speeding past the familiar sights of the Northumberland coast and on south through Newcastle-upon-Tyne, Durham and York and so into Peterborough dead on time. Across the bridge on Platform 5 our little East Midlands single-coach train was waiting: this is the one East Midlands Trains service from Peterborough to Stamford each day, a through train from Spalding to Nottingham which leaves Peterborough at 21:30 and makes a brilliant connection with our train from Aberdeen.

As we walked up through the familiar streets of Stamford on our way home it was hard to believe that just two days ago we had stood on the beach at far north of Scotland. The repair to the suitcase just about got us through our summer holiday in Devon (which will be reported fully in due course) and has since been tweaked in the hope that it will keep going for a bit longer: it will be tested on a trip to Paris before very long, but you'll have to wait a little while for that story!