Sunday, 10 July 2016

Destination Perth

It was all a bit mad really: A day trip Perth races. An idea conceived one morning with Tim on the shuttle from Clapham Junction to Esher for the Tingle Creek meeting. I had always fancied a trip to Britain’s most northerly racetrack. Tim was a regular visitor to the June meeting when he and his other half visited her in-laws in nearby Dundee. ‘I’ll join you!” I boldly declared.

By the time Spring arrived, I was still committed to the trip. I had some half-hearted squints at B&Bs and timetables, but I was already fondly recalling my sleeper journey of a few years previously to Fort William. Eager to recapture something of the earlier experience, I duly booked up the sleeper either side of the Perth meeting, arriving Edinburgh early in the morning and heading back down south late the same evening.

The Yorkshireman in me couldn’t sanction the outlay on a cabin for what would be a much shorter journey than the Fort William epic; and with much less in the way of attractive countryside upon which to feast my reddening eyes. So I plumped for a seat instead. My decision to slum it almost backfired.

The Caledonian Sleeper web portal has a handy carriage plan so that you can book your preferred seat (and at no extra cost, please note EasyJet). I'd paid particular attention to booking a single seat next to the window in airline configuration, with the double seats on the other side of the aisle. I didn't want to disturb anyone, nor them to disturb me.

Well I messed that one up. Maybe the seat directions were wrong on the plan. Or more likely I just wasn't looking properly. I matched up my ticket reservation with the badge on the baggage rack and my shoulders drooped. I was wedged at the end of a car where a thin bloke with legs like beanpoles and an array of bags at his feet was looking back at me from his seat. "Cosy isn't it?" he observed.

I returned a thin smile and shuftied my feet around until he moved one of his holdalls to the rack above. After we left Euston (bang on time), I found an empty seat behind him in my preferred airline set up and settled in for the journey.


The sleeper car had a strange atmosphere. Most people were solo travellers and once the lights were dimmed, there was a sense of intrusion on other people’s habits. The old chap across the way from me said he’d been sent in error to King’s Cross to pick up the train. He had two seats to himself, but even this luxury was insufficient, judging by his twitching and restlessness. At various intervals, I’d catch glimpses of his deep red cords in a new angle in, around and over the reclined seat.

Before we departed, a young businessman in an expensive open necked shirt with glinty cufflinks and sporting eye-catching brogues in two tones of brown was talking on his mobile phone just loud enough for us to hear about his day. This had involved meetings at which Richard Branson had talked about trade options in Brexit fallout-World, before he was whisked off to meet Theresa May. I did wonder what such a high-flying executive was doing in the sleeper cheap seats. Anyway, after Watford, the guard tapped him on the shoulder and off he went. A spare cabin had presumably been found.

A middle-aged American lady, travelling slowly around Europe, was going back to Edinburgh to hook up with friends she’d met on a previous journey. She fell in to intriguing conversation with a Polish woman with whom there was a shared interest in whisky and face creams. The latter was heading up to Islay to start a new job in a distillery.

For my part, I had something in common with King’s Cross Man. Others around me were fast asleep in exactly the same position as they were sitting. Feet neatly tucked away, arms folded, head back. Me? Fidgetting and squirming. I accidentally kicked my M&S bag, full of discarded plastic food wrappers. In the muted sleeper carriage it sounded like a cat in a waste bin. A few people glanced over, even lifting up their blindfolds (thoughtfully provided by Caledonian Sleeper, together with yellow earplugs) to check what was the noise. Then I snapped down the little metal footrest with too much vigour. It clicked into position with a resonant clang. More looks.

Eventually I nodded off for a couple of hours, stirring as the first fingers of morning light were spreading from behind dark clouds. The last time I took the sleeper, soft early sunshine played delightfully in the mist rising from Loch Lomand. Here, a few tentative rays illuminated a deserted and bleak Preston station where a train of car transporters was rumbling though on the adjacent freight line. I hate Preston. Always have.

We rolled into Edinburgh Waverley bang on time. I took the chance to wash and brush up in the loos, once the concourse geography had been navigated: this is the only station I've ever been to with more roads than platforms and more vehicles than trains.

Edinburgh is a handsome, stately place; known as the English City to the independence- & EU Remain-seeking Scots. Although a while since my last visit, I wanted to explore a new district and so caught the No 22 fuel-hybrid, wifi-enabled Lothian Transport bus out to Leith. Breakfast was next on the itinerary.

Leith used to have a seedy, crime-ridden reputation based on its declining ship building and dock-related activities. Like many British ports, since the 1980’s Leith has seen significant renewal, regeneration and repurposing of maritime infrastructure. The fine granite warehouses that lined Leith Water now house gastro-pubs, galleries and gift shops. At the end of the bus route, Ocean Terminal has a top-end shopping centre with the Royal Yacht Britannia moored alongside.


I ambled around the handsome buildings and over bridges that criss-crossed the Water, before settling on the Clock Café, a former pub, for a top quality fry up. The exact level of that quality had to be established in real time via facebook photos and commentary before a tough jury comprising Colin, Bryn and Bacchy over 400 miles away.

The docks are connected to the city centre via the mile-long Leith Walk. If ever a street told the story of recent waves of immigration, this was it. Many of the Victorian edifices that form the backbone of the walk remain – converted factories and workshops, protestant churches, gin palaces and the Central Railway Station, saved from demolition and given a new lease of life. However, building signage gave away a more recent history. Early 20th century Asian cultural centres, money shops and food stores have made their mark. Then Turkish community’s late 20th century stamp is seen in a few places, notably to my eye, one take-away sign declaring ‘The Best Kebab Shop’. No geographical or temporal delineation necessary. Simply the best. Except that, rather confusingly, three doors up stood ‘The Original Best kebab shop’. I was picking up mixed messages. A little further down the road, the story was brought up to date where the most recent settlers had opened a collection of Polish shops – a large deli called ‘Polonia’ and a few other a groceries and newsagents.  

There was even a racecourse here until it moved to Musselburgh in 1816. It’s been there ever since. Talking of racecourses, it was time to make my way to Perth to meet Tim and Sarah.

The train journey took me across the Firth of Forth, a stretch of water that is to bridge building what the M42 is to junction remodeling, only much more attractive. My four-car unit felt like a pawn in a giant game of Sim City. The line then took in an oversized arc from south-east to north-east around the coast, through Kirkaldy, Markinch and Ladybank, whilst Google Maps showed a much more direct route north along the line of the M90…


Anyway, I arrived eventually and Tim and Sarah were waiting in the garden bar of the rambling Victorian Station Hotel. It was full of ladies in strappy shoes and stringy tops ready for the races. I tried to photo bomb their selfie in the loo corridor, but was too slow. Someone should tell them that this is Perth, the most northerly racecourse in Britain. Not Ascot.  We saw them later, staggering out of the dining marquee towards the rails bookies, high heels sinking into the grass like knives into butter. Highly amusing.

We boarded a London routemaster bus, chartered by the track for the shuttle from the town centre, and enjoyed some expansive views of the Tay whilst trapped in a line of traffic heading up to the track. It was highly tempting to ring the phone number on London Transport sign left over from the vehicle’s last days in active service to complain about the delay.



Perth racecourse had been on my radar for some time. I enjoy the three-day Spring festival that comes hard on the quality meetings of Aintree and Ayr. The track doesn’t offer up anything like the same level of prize money as those, but the races are always supported by some good trainers. Last season Willie Mullins dispatched Up For Review to land the decent novice hurdle on the same card. At the time he was in hot pursuit of Paul Nicholls in the British Trainers Championship. That April Festival is the first of its season of Summer jumps fixtures. It had been a while since I last went Summer jumping. Probably Newton Abbot in 1982 on a Torbay family holiday before I was old enough to gamble. So it doesn’t really count.

The track didn’t disappoint. Set in the stunning parkland grounds of Scone (that’s ‘Skyooon’ - I learned quick) Palace, the racecourse sits above the city and grand has views to encircling hills. The racecourse buildings suit the landscape and help to create the welcoming atmosphere: modest, characterful stands with the accessible parade ring at the back.


The beer tent was a little gem. Real ales from a few different local brewers served up by a knowledgeable and enthusiastic patron. Ossian from the Inveralmond Brewery was amber and sharp; whilst Head East from the Strathbraan Brewery a couple of stops further up the line at Pitlochry was smooth, fruity and dry in the finish.

The finishes of each of the seven races on the card were drier still. For me anyway. I barely troubled the frame all afternoon. Meanwhile Tim was hoovering up, and not just with his customary 25p each way online bets either. Folding stuff came out of his wallet at the rails bookies on more than one occasion. I was left regretting the missed opportunity of some serious form study that a broken night’s sleep on the train should have presented me. I did not even take advantage of some basic facts. Such as Gordon Elliott and Richard Johnson being top trainer and top jockey at the track. Together they took the opener with Faraway Mountain at a perfectly respectable 4/1 and then landed another one each.

"Arrested for shit tipping" said Sarah. Ho.Ho.
The racecourse is good for viewing. It’s configuration is a little like Doncaster’s teardrop shape, except that the narrow end was close to the stands, affording some fine sights when the fields navigated the tight bends. Taking photos on the rail was literally as near as I got to a winner all day.



Back in the Fair City after the races, we stumbled seamlessly off the shuttle bus and into Dickens on South Street. Perth’s premier malt whisky bar was a top place: a sustainable mix of back street local and welcoming tourist joint. Like much of Perth, low on pretension but high on impact.  

My eyes goggled at the choices. The top rail of the bar was lined with whisky bottles of all shapes and sizes fighting for attention. Thoughtfully, the handy A4 menu on the table detailed alphabetically each of the staggering 100-plus malts on offer. We all began carefully with sensible choices of medium-proof shots. I was even allowed a couple of begrudged chunks of ice with my Highland Park. We were unable to stay on an even keel for long. Last thing before we bailed for the curry house across the road, we were supping some fearsome concoction of peat, heather, bog water and naked flame from Islay known as Bunnahabhain 18-year-old. Wow.

A curry really was the only option by that stage of the evening. Tim and I were rolling and I don’t think Sarah was far behind, though she was sharp enough to keep taking photos for the running social media commentary of our day.  Another nice venue. The main room was a high ceilinged, elaborately mullioned and moulded affair that may once have been a chapel. Not that architectural badinage overwhelmed enjoyment of the fare laid before us. Not at all. I was also full of appreciation for the rogani naan that accompanied my karahi: flatbread made with egg yolk. A day full of new experiences.


I was done in by then. We parted at Perth station and I headed back to Edinburgh drifting in and out of sleep. That became the template for the rest of my night. After a head clearing stroll along the beautifully lit Princes Street and Royal Mile, fitful probably best describes the journey back to Berko. I wasn’t so lucky in my seat alignment for the return trip and there was a little footsie with the young man opposite me before we fell into a mutually agreed but unspoken personal space arrangement. To be fair, he was always going to be on the wrong side of the argument. Apart from my involuntarily twitching feet emanating 98%-proof bromodosis, I was also giving off a proper acrid whisky-sweat and a fine blend of garlic and lime pickle fragrance oozing from most of my visible pores.

I jumped off at Watford in the early morning drizzle and was home in bed for some proper shut-eye by about 7am.

Quite the day trip.