Tuesday, 24 May 2011

Diary of a Caledonian Sleeper


Today’s news about the closure of Scottish airports because of Icelandic volcanic dust reminds me that there are other ways to get North of the Border. A couple of years ago, at roughly this time of year, I did a 36-hour round-trip on the Caledonian Sleeper to Fort William. This is one of only two remaining sleeper services in the UK and clings tenaciously to its fragile existence. Here’s my indulgent (and, yes, lengthy) account of this equally indulgent (and lengthy) trip in 2009.

Friday 26th June
Today I am taking the first indelible step towards realising a long conceived plan. I’m buying tickets for the Caledonian Sleeper leaving Euston next Tuesday and returning on the very next evening’s Fort William departure.

For years I’ve been aiming to do this trip. Finding the right time in the right space has been the challenge. The journey simply has to be in early Summer when the light is purest and days the longest in northern Britain. That gives me the opportunity to luxuriate from my sleeper berth in the full early morning majesty and evening scenic splendour of the West Highland Line. It also has to be before the schools break up and before the midges hit top gear. It is, frankly, a half-baked romantic and sentimental notion inspired by Great Railway Journeys of the World (GWJofW) and fuelled by the buried urge of an explorer seeking release from a shrink-wrapped, pre-packaged environment.

And now I’m set. The weather looks OK; the convoluted ScotRail timetable appears to provide a train that meets my exacting requirements; there’s a gap in the work diary; and miraculously, it fits with the home diary.

I check the seven bits of cardboard spat out by the auto-ticket teller at the station: Depart 9.15pm Tuesday evening from Euston; arrive 10.00am Fort William on Wednesday morning. Depart 7.50pm on Wednesday evening from Fort William; arrive 7.57am Thursday morning at Euston. 1st class single berth tickets. First class. That’s decadent isn’t it? The truth is that I don’t want to risk sharing my berth with anyone on my special journey. If I want to point my long range lens up against the window to snap a passing glacial corrie then I will, without feeling self conscious because of a bloke in the top bunk. Same goes for mooning up against the glass as we zip through Warrington Bank Quay. Only joking, obviously.  Anyway, because I’ve left it late, two first class singles end up being only a smidge dearer than the standard class return.  Ha!  

flowery
Next stop, the library. I pick up a map of Fort William and Ben Nevis: an essential accessory. I feel naked without a map of anywhere I visit. I also borrow rather flowery guide to the West Highland Line to provide the appropriate light weight, sentimental guff needed to reinforce my reasons for going.  

 The journey itself is the real motivation. The vision I hold on to is of the train, known as The Deerstalker (not just a hat, apparently), winding across bottomless sheep-populated bogs, through wide valleys with vertiginous craggy aspects and skirting deep lochs fringed with pine and alder. My own GRJotW moment.

So I haven’t yet given much thought to what I’ll do with my day in the highland honeypot of Fort William. Highlandwalks.com comes to my rescue. I print off a healthy range of high and low altitude, short and medium range walks in and around Glen Nevis that should give me enough to do, depending on weather, fitness, and availability of pubs.

Tuesday 30th June

Morning
Weather not looking good on the BBC forecast. Light showers all day in the vicinity of Fort William. They’ve been wrong all month. I’m not worried about that. Not at all. Better pack the rainmac.

Afternoon
Check the web for a train update. Bad news. It is Delay City. A points failure at Harrow is causing a service meltdown that Bob Crowe can only dream of. Should be clear by tonight, apparently, but I decide to take an earlier train into town anyway.

Evening
Scene of grief
Pitak, the customer assistant at Berko station, won’t even sell me a ticket. Such is the mayhem following this afternoon’s points failure that trains are simply not calling at Berko. Instead, they are all being whistled down the line to get commuters back from London. Of course normally that would be me and I would be grudgingly applauding London Midlands default policy. But today I’m not Mr commuter. I’m Mr Head Spinningly Angry instead. And a bit of Mr Uncertain too.

First I book a cab to take me to Watford. My saving grace is that the Caledonian Sleeper calls there after leaving the big city. But I really begrudge forking out an additional twenty notes on top of everything else. Pitak is a good lad and he tries his best. He calls me over to his window from where I’m stood quietly fuming by the train indicator. He tells me that he’s spotted a service that should call at Berko, en route to Euston in about 20 minutes.

Great, I think. That will do. Loads of time. Pitak shuts up shop. Its 8pm. He’s off duty now after a taxing day dealing with the grief and angst of frustrated passengers. “You’ll be alright, it’s coming”, he says, before adding as he departs, “Good luck!” Hmm. Not sure I wanted to hear that. I cancel the taxi anyway. Mistake. 20.20 and still no sign of any southbound train. The automatic announcements are all grim irony. “The 17.15 to Euston is cancelled due to an earlier signal problem. London Midland apologises for the inconvenience this may cause.” 17.15? It would be three hours late if it did turn up! Farce.

So back to the taxi office, resigned to the cost and needing to rescue my carefully planned trip. Finally, a break. Linda has a car arriving in 5 minutes. I pounce on it, clamber in and am away. The taxi driver likes a chat. There’s a surprise.

Watford Junction is predictably chaotic. The Cally Sleeper is showing on the departure board. That’s something. I wait at platform 6, and text Mrs A the evening’s developments. It’s like a soap opera.

No-one knows what’s going on. The station announcer is telling a different story to the departure boards. At one point he announces a train to Birmingham from Platform 6 which is not shown on the board.  He stops mid sentence as the train he’s calling out picks up speed, roars past the platform and out of the station. “I’ll just get on to the signal box about that one. We apologise for the….”. He’s sounds forlorn.

My train is now showing a delay of twenty minutes and will be the third arrival at Platform 6. Two minutes later it rolls up only five minutes late and before either of the other two advertised departures. Luckily, I’m alive to all this and I’m ready. Years of bitter experience come into play at such crucial times.

The poor station announcer catches up and introduces his customers to the latest arrival just in time for it to leave.

9.45pm
I’m on. I’m in. I’m met by Barry. I’m on his list, but he’s surprised to see me at Watford and not at Euston. I explain. Carnage. He sympathises.

Nice welcome though. I order breakfast for the morning, he gives me brief introduction to the facilities and apologises for the broken air conditioning. That will be a problem. It is like a Turkish bath in here. No power point for my laptop either. Provide Mrs A with latest status update.

Bijou!
toiletries!
I have a nose around the berth. It’s really tiny. Where’s the telly? Where’s the Corby trouser press? No Gideon’s bible in the bedside cabinet? No bedside cabinet? There’s a door in the wall that I half think will lead in to the bathroom. It’s locked. And with good reason. It leads into the next compartment. Oops. But let’s not be churlish: the complimentary toilet bag is an absolute joy. It comes in a little draw-string duffel bag, and contains an intriguing array of creams and ointments, a fold up toothbrush with the tiniest tube of paste I’ve ever seen, a blindfold (for kinky games I imagine) and…bed socks! (That’s way too kinky for me!).

Empty lounge car. Something I said?
So time to check out the lounge car. This is better. My first beer is free. And I’ve found a power point. I’m settled in now and observing the other passengers. There are maybe 15 of them in here. Some obvious couples, but many travelling alone – some of whom are chatting to others and some not. Two blokes on the table opposite are debating recently departed Michael Jackson’s true contribution to music. The girl opposite me is quite attractive and is focussing intently on her book, desperate not to catch anyone’s eye. Particularly one belonging to a lecherous old git like me. The older bloke on my right is reservedly friendly. We exchange a few pleasantries about the weather and such like, before he’s back to jotting in his notebook which is held at such an angle as to deny me a look at what he’s writing. Crafty bugger.

I’m desperate for this to be like Murder on the Orient Express. The set up of the carriage would put one in mind of it, with a couple of settees under the windows and the sipping of civilised evening drinks. All we need is some floral print dresses, shifty behaviour and a power cut! I’d make a great Miss Marple.

But pretty soon people melt away and by half-eleven there are only four or five left. There’s a bit of amiable banter across the car, but that’s about it.

By the time we’ve left Crewe I head for my bunk. A toilet door opens in front of me and a larger lady in pink and white jim-jams furtively pops out…of the loo that is…. I avert my eyes, but she doesn’t make it easy. In her haste to join her husband (I recognise her from the lounge car) she bumps and scrapes her oversize frame down the narrow corridor, catching herself on the door handles and narrowly avoiding really popping out her PJs. 

I turn off the lights and look out the window, thinking the clear night will reveal a lovely view after dark. It’s very dark. That will be the tunnel then.

Wednesday 1st July

3.00am
Christ it is really hot and sticky. Quite noisy too. And a bit rocky. In fact it’s like trying to sleep in a blast-furnace rollercoaster ride car with a steel-plate press in the car behind. I’m not one to moan, but my feet are thumping into the side of the carriage every time I twist round. Anyone over 5’6” would have to sleep in the foetal position to squeeze in to this bed.

4.30am
I’m shunted nearly out of my bunk by an engine recoupling, followed by assorted clanking and clattering outside. I peak outside. We are leaving Edinburgh Waverly and the train trundles through eerily empty and handsome streets in the weak morning light.

6.00am
Misty Loch Lomond. Aah. 
The line is snaking up the side of Loch Lomond after leaving Edinburgh and coming cross-country just to the north of Glasgow. The last station was Helensburgh Upper, which is about where I wake up for the final time and stay awake. This is what I’ve been looking forward to. It’s beautiful outside. The mist is rising over the loch and drifting underneath the peaks of massed mountains. Early morning sun is casting thin shadows and dappled sunlight through mixed woodland. It is a soft, peachy landscape.

7.00am
I knew the engine had been changed. But when I go to find the lounge, it seems the whole bloody train had changed. Where last night there were 6 carriages of sleeping cars on my left before the lounge car, now there is only one. And the lounge carriages are different too. Gone are the cosy couches and chaises longues, replaced by standard BR restaurant car edition circa 1975. I’m having visions of the runaway brake van in Polar Express, only with a bank of sleeping cars cast adrift on a steep incline with guests waking up to find they are becalmed in a siding somewhere near Motherwell. Something similar actually happened way back when. My flowery guide book tells me that a guards van broke loose from a goods train known as The Ghost at Corrour and rolled all the way back to Bridge of Orchy at the bottom of the hill. The guard was still asleep when the signalman went to rescue him. 

Anyway, I soon realise that the missing carriages have been decoupled at Edinburgh Waverley Street. Brian the Glaswegian guard tells me that they take 12 carriages off, six head off to Aberdeen and six to Inverness. No wonder so much commotion and delay at Edinburgh. The train is a ¼ of a mile long when it leaves Euston.

Top brekkie! 
Barry, my gracious steward, spots me ambling back from the lounge car with a coffee in my hand. He says he will bring my breakfast. And its very nice too. Bacon and scrabbled egg panini, coffee, fruit, juice, yogurt, Daily Scotsman. I make short work of all except the newspaper, which is filled with infinite column inches, back, middle and front, about Andy Murray.

8.00am
I’m keen to track all the stations on the route. In the corridor, I ask, “Barry, what station is this?” I’m peering out into the morning mist. “It’s Crianlarich. Apparently. Middle of bloody no-where”. I guess for the staff the romance wears off after the first five years…..

And then we enter possibly the finest stretch of the line. I’m enraptured by a fantastic sweep of line cutting a semi-circle around the head of a valley north of Tynedrum. It’s called the Horseshoe Curve. It is jaw-dropping beautiful. The morning is a gorgeous blue and the grass and fescue covered hills reflect back a vibrant green. Early morning sun accentuates every gulley and rivulet with deep shadows. My pulse quickens a little. Magical.
Horsehoe Curve. Bloody marvellous. 
I’m taking photos like the view will go out of fashion. What’s that on my lens? Bloody pube left over from Warrington Bank Quay. Only joking…..

8.30am
I’m suitably abluted now and feeling fresher. The canny sink hidden under the window has proven useful.  (The ladies in the waiting room at Bridge of Orchy got a lovely view of me polishing my gnashers as the train came to rest at eye level in front of them.)

Corrour, the highest point on the line, is a seriously remote station. A signal box and, er, that seems to be it. It’s getting cloudier. And more sparse. Where have the trees gone? The mixed deciduous forest gave way to fir, spruce and pine somewhere near Bridge of Orchy. Now they have vanished, too. This is Rannoch Moor. I’m reading the flowery guide book again. Author Alan Hall describes this part of the West Highland Railway as “a swashbuckling journey that restores lost youth”. He is right on the money. Britain’s last great wilderness, maybe.

9.30am
Tulloch. The trees are back! Mixed deciduous and coniferous. Pleasant. In fact I can see a bloke hacking away at low hanging branches at the end of the platform. He’s wielding a vicious, long handled, big toothed saw with practised ease. Electrickery doesn’t seem to have yet reached the tree surgeons of these parts.   

10.00am
The train pulls in to Fort William station absolutely to-the-minute spot-on time. Now that’s quite impressive after an epic 560 mile, 12 hour and 45 minute journey; particularly given the track carnage and commuter chaos amidst which the train departed Euston. That all seems light years away. I step down onto the platform and wave goodbye to Barry through the glass. See you tonight, I mouth. He looks confused. Yes, can see how that might look a bit strange.

Another train
The platform is busy. A heritage steam train, The ‘Jacobite Express’, hauled by a 0-6-0 steam locomotive (...sad) is loading up with tourists ready for the trip along the coast on the picturesque Mallaig line. Another GWJotW. I’ll give this one a miss. Though I do go shoulder to shoulder with the train-spotter crowd to get a pic of the spitting and hissing engine at the head of the train.

So what now? The journey has been the thing. Not the arriving. Weather looks set fine. Light cloud and high humidity. So I’ll do one of the walks I printed off t’interweb. First stop the Glen Nevis visitor centre then. No, second stop. Better pop in to Morrison’s for some provisions first. Can’t guarantee there will be a convenient Burger King at the end of the Glen.

Not overawed with Fort William so far. A busy road network and functional, unattractive houses greet me outside the station. The route out to the visitor centre passes enough ‘Ben Nevis’ guest houses to give copyright lawyers about twenty years of steady business. Beyond this, the route is much more pleasant, following the lower reaches of Nevis Water. All the back-packers are going in the opposite direction. Should I worry?

The bloke in the Visitor Centre is chatty. I tell him I want to walk up to the Steall Waterfalls near the head of the Glen. Now I’ve prepared for this moment, see. My flowery guide book says that this name is pronounced locally as stowel, not steel as phonetically it might appear. “How long does it take to walk up to the stowel falls?”. I let my emphasis hang a fraction on the …owel, just for good measure.  He looks at me quizzically. “Ah, you mean the steel waterfalls….!” Bastard guide book.

Anyway, he is helpful with advice about my route options this morning. And still more helpful with local history anecdotes. Helpful, verging on irritating. If he would shut up about the stone seat carved by redcoats into a cave on the other side of the valley, I might be catching that bus pulling out of the car park and got up to the Glen to walk up the Steall Falls. It’s gone. So I decide on the lower valley walk instead.  

11.30am
It’s a superb walk. I follow a well-defined path close to the river for a couple of miles alongside a few other walkers. An elderly couple with a dog move aside to let me pass. “Ach, here’s a man on a mission. Is it the top that’s calling you?” “ No”, I say decisively. “The bottom maybe!”

I pass the youth hostel soon – this explains why all the backpackers were passing me heading into town – and the path gets decidedly rougher after this point. The other walkers disappear too and I seem to have the Glen to myself all of a sudden. Fantastic. It won’t be like this in two weeks time when the schools break up.

The track to the summit of Ben Nevis breaks off to my left. I can spot one or two groups making the ascent. This path is disparagingly referred to by hardened walkers as ‘the tourist route’. Looks tough enough to me. Elitists. 

Mamores (don't be juvnile...)
Christ it’s hot. I’m sweating buckets. I’m under the trees and that seems to increase the humidity. Time for a rest. I make my way out in the centre of the river, accessible by stones as the flow is quite low. Still no breeze, but it’s really pleasant out here with spectacular views towards the grey slab peaks of the Mamores (my flowery guide book doesn’t offer view on how this is pronounced so I settle for mammaries….) (Juvenile.)

Not Steall Falls
Up towards the lower falls and the terrain is rougher still. And the weather is closing in a tad. By the time I reach the falls, my backpack feels heavy and I’m pretty tired. Eat my lunch on an overhanging rock by the cascading river. Marvellous. The mountains rise steeply from here and there is a wonderful view down the Glen. It’s a text book example of a glaciated u-shaped valley. One of the finest I’ve seen. My old geographer teacher would be in beside himself. 

1.30pm
The walk back is much easier going, through woodland on the other side of the valley, giving better views of Ben Nevis. This morning I was tucked under its foothills and could not take in the edifice. Now I can see the highest mountain in Britain in all its, er rotundness. I have to say, this is not the spectacular pile I was hoping for. It is big and brooding, in the same way that a Black Sabbath riff, circa Iron Man might be, not sharp and angular like The Clash, circa London Calling. I think I like my mountains to be spectacular in a pointy, spikey and Alpine way. This lump just seems a bit lifeless, tired and undistinguished.

That’s to take nothing away from the setting. The valley is truly magnificent and the sweep of each successive slope from Nevis’s brethren into the valley floor is breathtaking.

3.30pm
Back at the visitor centre I unleash my steaming feet from their boot encampment, thus guaranteeing a clear seat at the picnic table. Assuming, that is, you don’t count the spiral of flies feasting on my discarded socks. I pick up some souvenirs for the girls and then head back to Fort William, escaping with only a short memoir about Jacobite rebellion and blood soaked rocks from the centre manager. Living history!

5.00pm
I’m shattered now. The walk was about 10 miles all told, but tough enough going this morning.  AND NOW I NEED A PINT. I find a really decent pint of McEwen’s 70’ in a boozer called – what else – the Ben Nevis. The view over Loch Linnhe is lovely if you ignore the dual-carriageway in front of it. One pint quickly becomes three. I chat to a couple on the next table and we realize we are on the same sleeper service back. They’ve been touring round in a hire car for a few days. “Lovely isn’t it”, I say. “I came up from London this morning.” Pause. “This morning….?”, comes the polite rejoinder.

Hunger kicks in. I look for a restaurant. And then I see the kebab house. Well, you know what’s coming don’t you? It calls me seductively and conspiratorially from across the road. It says “Never mind the tourist trail, Dave, never mind those over-priced, restaurants aiming to serve American heritage-seekers some slop dressed as haggis and neeps. Come over here and try some real food….be one of the locals…..feel the credibility……you know you want to”. Tired of mind and limb, I succumb to the warm comfort of …mistake…….a fat, greasy doner, served up in a polystyrene tray with a spongey pitta on the side, insipid chilli sauce and….and coleslaw. Regrets? I’ve had a few. 3.5 out of 10 for that muck. And that’s generous because I am vulnerable.

7.30pm
The train is already in and it is but a few short moments before I am reacquainted with Barry, placing my breakfast order and settling over a Deuchars in the lounge car. We are away right on the button. Marginally busier on the way back than this morning, I note.

The line heads north out of Fort William and then arcs east round the Nevis range before, in leisurely time, swinging round to cross Rannoch Moor. I’m much more familiar with the geography than I was this morning and can appreciate the surroundings in proper context. I now see Ben Nevis in a new light from this north-westerly aspect. It is far more imposing and magnificent than I had given it credit for this afternoon. Gone are the convex curves and smooth scree of the glacier-polished southern slopes. Here instead are the craggy, angular and abrupt slopes celebrated in literature. The thing is still glowering to my tired eye, but from this view, the brooding has real malevolence (say Metallica, For WhomThe Bell Tolls) rather than a simple, stroppy bad mood (maybe Rainbow, Black Sheep of the Family).

We pick up some passengers at Tulloch and two of them join me. They’ve had a good day walking from the southern end of Loch Treig back towards Tulloch over the Stob a Choire peaks (I had to look it up!). They didn’t see a soul all day, but suffered the personal attentions of midges and horseflies. From the train window, we can see almost exactly the route they took. If I come back this way, I’ll have a much better idea of where to base myself for some even more spectacular walking than I’ve had today.

Rannoch Moor is simply extreme. Under this morning’s early sunshine the infamous bog appeared beautifully sparse and breathtakingly serene. Now, reflecting back a steely sky and fading light, this vast empty wasteland feels austere and grim. This area was once entirely covered in trees, until it was lopped down principally for shipbuilding and to fuel the industrial revolution (literally) up until the eighteenth century. There are stumps and petrified branches visible from some of the inky-black bogs that flash past the window. 
Rannoch Moor (nicked off the web)
My guide-book lauds the engineers who had to sink ton upon ton of sheepskin bales and reed matting to literally float the line across the moor. It was a thankless task and one almost doomed to failure until a particularly hot Summer dried out the underlying sponge enough to stop the ballast sinking. I dwell on the precariousness of this as the train inches and twists its way towards Upper Tyndrum…..

All three of us marvel at the Horseshoe Curve as a sight worth the trip alone. We call at neat, tidy, pretty stations with repeated motifs and styling. They are almost out of synch with the rugged, sweeping vistas that frame them. The line is mostly single track and the stations provide the only passing points. The approach to Bridge of Orchy is a treat as we roll down the valley, passing the famous old bridge itself built by General Wade, Cromwell’s top man in the Highlands. Here the line forks out to Oban.

10.30pm
The light is fading now and once past Crianlarich, I bid my guests good evening and head for my bunk. I pause for a few minutes and lean out of the door as the train skirts Loch Lomond. Despite the majesty of the West Highlands, this sliver of silver water and flash of smoky peaks remains amongst the most atmospheric of sights on the route. A personal favourite, particularly in this ambient half-light. Now I’m starting to jibber like a romantic, over-tired fool. Time for bed, Florence.

Thursday 2nd July

6.50am
Barry knocks on the door. “Oh hello, Sir. Here’s your breakfast. Hope you slept well”. I did. Brekkie is good. But where is the fruit? And there’s only enough coffee for one cup. Standards are slipping.

I wave in the general direction of our house as we rumble through Berko.
The train is like a metronome. It pulls into Euston platform 1 right on time. 7.57am. I’m impressed.

Epic journey over, I head in to the office in Camden and am at my desk at 8.10am. How’s that for a commute? 

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