Tuesday 9 April 2019

The West Highland Statesman

The Statesman crossing Glenfinnan Viaduct in the
care of 47593 Galloway Princess

Return to our first destination, this time in Pullman Class

I had long wanted to return, hopefully in better weather, and hopefully in better health, to Fort William where our rail adventures began. Each year Statesman Rail offers at least one excursion that serves my home town of Stamford and I was so pleased when the catalogue arrived and I discovered that this year it was a weekend visit to the West Highlands. Even better, this was just after my retirement so I was free to take a long weekend.

Booking was duly made (I was amazed that Statesman Rail didn’t ask for a deposit, and we paid in full on their invoice weeks later) and in due course we set off, on an April morning, departing from Stamford at 05:25 (yes, getting up at 04:15 to catch a train!) for an arrival at Fort William at 20:20. We travelled “Pullman Dining” Class with a window table for two, all meals included along with Buck’s Fizz, coffee, mints, etc etc, and Champagne before dinner. The fare included a bottle of wine between two on the outward journey and unlimited supplies of spring water. A case of “Never mind the destination, enjoy the catering!”

Leg-stretching during the layover at York
The train was interesting: 1970s vintage intercity coaches painted in Pullman livery and reupholstered, and we were hauled by a green Brush type 4 of 1960s vintage, with a blue one attached at the rear.

We boarded just a couple of minutes late at Stamford station: the train is far too long for the platform and we were ushered into one entrance of Pullman Car Helvellyn, shown to our seats and helped to put our luggage onto the overhead racks. Tea and coffee were soon served but the first sitting of breakfast was not served until after a few more stops when enough passengers had joined the train, beginning with Buck’s Fizz and working through porridge and the full English to croissants and coffee. During all this the train took a rather interesting route through the Midlands, towards Leicester but turning north at Syston to join the northbound Midland Main Line through Loughborough to Sheffield then across to Doncaster where we joined the East Coast Main Line to head towards Scotland.
Our vintage diesel locomotive had a top speed of 90 mph which was on the slow side in their seventies heyday when they hauled secondary express services on this route and now is very plodding beside the 125mph trains that normally work that line today, so there were occasional stops to allow “proper” trains to overtake us. There was a forty minute break at York where we were able to take a short walk while the train had its water tanks replenished, ensuring that we could still use the toilets and wash basins all the way to Fort William. 

We were treated to the usual scenery of the East Coast Main Line but at a lower speed than is normal today, so we were able to enjoy it better - when not distracted by the constant flow of food and drink, that is, and in spite of the fairly gloomy weather. There is a wine allocation of half a bottle each on the outward trip, and we had our bottle delivered in time for luncheon because it would go so well with the chicken pie that was served for luncheon, and with the supplied water as well, the wine would suffice for dinner also, on top of the champagne which was to precede it. This trip was all about food and drink! After dinner, miniatures of local single-malt whisky were distributed to each Pullman traveller and we kept ours for later.

We passed through Edinburgh and then west towards Glasgow and along the north bank of the Clyde then turned north onto the West Highland Line which took us eventually, past Faslane nuclear submarine base, along the “bonny, bonny” bank of Loch Lomond, and over Rannoch Moor to Fort William. Our train looked a bit out of place alongside the two Sprinters and four coaches of the Caledonian Sleeper with which it had to share this tiny station! The weather was varied but over this line was misty throughout, shrouding many of the mountain tops and bringing darkness forward an hour or two.

We walked the three minutes to our hotel and were the first to check in, a whole trainload of people behind us. Unpacked, we soon set off on an evening walk around the town, the only real exercise of the day since walking to Stamford station in the morning, other than the short toddle round York station. There is not a lot to see in Fort William at night be we did walk along the loch side (Loch Linnhe - information that came in handy for a general knowledge crossword puzzle in the Sunday Times the following day, as it happened).

After our very early start we retired to bed much earlier than usual, after a tot of the aforementioned local whisky, and were soon sleep, despite some noise from the room above.
Very little time seemed to have passed before our alarm sounded nearly ten hours later, but we were soon up and dressed and enjoying a buffet breakfast in the hotel, up to the usual standard we have come to expect.

The Statesman left bang on time at 09:00 to take us forward on the reminder of the West Highland Line to its terminus at Mallaig. This is possibly the most scenic line in the uK, and although we have been there before it most certainly bears a revisit, especially on our excursion train which paused for a few minutes on Glenfinnan Viaduct to allow us to to photographs. Many lochs, Islands, deer and mountains later we had short time at Mallaig (and on a cold Sunday a short time is more than sufficient) before boarding for the trip back to Fort William - we were taking this trip just for the scenery, although it also included coffee and lavender shortbread on the way out and a light luncheon (salmon steak!) on the way back.

The Sunday afternoon was free in Fort William, and the volunteer-run West Highland Museum, normally closed on Sunday, kindly opened on this Sunday so that Statesman Rail customers could visit. If you’re confused by all the Jameses and Charleses and what a Jacobean is, then this is the place to sort out your mind. You may wish to take notes, though ... It was interesting to learn that the sort of tartan worn is more to do with location that with clan membership, though, for it depended on what dyestuffs could be produced from local plants. A stroll up a hill for a view over the loch and we returned to our room for a cup of tea and then dressed for the only dinner we would have at the hotel, five courses with wine, all included in the cost of the trip. We met some very nice people at our table and were the last to leave, straight to bed!

The last morning was Monday and the best weather was forecast, so after our breakfast we started a spectacular scenic trip back towards Glasgow, Edinburgh and home to England. Words struggle to describe the landscape with its rocky rivers, green hills and snow-covered mountains caught by the sunlight. All the mist had gone and we saw a whole series of views that would grace a few hundred calendars and chocolate boxes, as the coffee and Danish pastries were served. The Statesman paused for half an hour at Rannoch station for a little stroll and an opportunity to photograph both the scenery and the train.

Rejoining the train we were served with water and asked for our choice of wine for luncheon, choosing a Merlot to go with the Aberdeen Angus beef on the seven-course “Taste of Scotland” menu. The spectacular scenery continued for some time, including a horse-shoe curve and many a snow-capped peak. During a pause at Crianlarich the pre-lunch Champagne was served which was eventually followed, one course at a time over a long period, by an amuse bouche, an Arbroath smokie fishcake, highland broth and Aberdeen Angus beef by which time we were speeding along the north bank of the River Clyde towards Glasgow. Just the cheeseboard and pudding to go, with coffee and petit fours ...

We seemed to crawl very slowly through the Glasgow suburbs and then sped to Edinburgh, enjoying the urban splendour of Princes Street Gardens with the famous Castle towering over us before following the Northumberland coast down to Newcastle and Durham. With better weather than on the northbound trip we were able to see Holy Island from our train. We were early into York where there was once more a layover for topping up the coaches' water tanks and we were able to go for a short stroll: there was one of LNER's new "Azuma" trains which we were able to peer inside, so new that its smart livery had not yet been applied and the tables inside were still wrapped in paper!

Back on the train there were hot sausage rolls for supper and then the end-of-term feeling as passengers started leaving from Doncaster onwards, down through the Midlands via Sheffield, Chesterfield, Loughborough, Melton Mowbray until we left the train at Stamford at one-o'clock on Tuesday morning. Straight home to bed ... a fantastic weekend. We had little more than sit on a train for three days, but did take the opportunity to walk whenever we could. The Statesman Rail staff were amazing and we were really well looked-after. Pullman Dining Class is not cheap, but the experience was wonderful. There are two other classes which make the weekend affordable for those who do not want to spend so much, but we paid for no extras (half a bottle of wine each was perfectly sufficient for us!) and there were actually more benefits than mentioned in the advertising: a tin of points, a whisky miniature, a tin of shortbread and, on the way home, the usual Statesman Rail gift of a little box of chocolates. People had come from all over the south of England stay overnight in Peterborough and get up early to catch this train! I'd recommend the experience to anyone (although regrettably not wheelchair users), worth saving for.

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