Monday 15 August 2011

Sleep Your Way To The Top

It's gone midnight.  The sodium glare of the lights on the station are bursting through the glass ceiling, giving the roof its own halo.  There's the rattling of diesel engines coming to an end for the day.  They idle up and down, the occasional burst of energy giving the impression it's about to start again before falling back.

Sometimes, there's a high pitched beep, and a man walks past with an powered cart.  He's pushing a pile of boxes somewhere - chocolate bars and crisps and boxes of coffee. Late night restocking.

I'm on my own in a waiting room.  It's brightly painted, which makes it feel even more incongruous in the dark station: it reminds me of the bathroom in The Shining, where Jack Nicholson is told to go and kill his family.  Red and white walls and a vaguely disquieting air.  I'm surprised I haven't been challenged by a member of staff - it's dry and warm; surely they must get homeless people bedding up here all the time?  Or dodgy perverts hoping for a late night tryst?

A cargo train rattles through.  Container after container after container, all blue, all emblazoned with that completely meaningless word "logistics".  It seems to go on forever, much longer than a Pendolino, boxes and boxes filled with who knows what being ferried who knows where.

I was here to catch a train, you'll be glad to hear; I haven't taken up late night trainspotting.  I was here at Preston to get the famous Caledonian Sleeper - one of the few services in the country that still gives off a glamorous, exciting mystique.  I'd wanted to travel on this mythical route for years.  Years of indoctrination by books and films had taught me that sleeper trains were the most exciting form of transport known to man.  It's a train where you can love, and kill, and fight; where you can have a slap up meal before slipping on your silk pyjamas and sliding between ice white sheets.  When you wake up next morning you step off onto the platform of a beautiful town somewhere, miles from civilisation, glamorous and refreshed.  You don't get that on First Capital Connect.

The sleeper trains travel to five destinations in Scotland; one service to Glasgow and Edinburgh, and one which splits to head for Inverness, Aberdeen and Fort William.  That was the one I was getting, the famous "Deerstalker Express", once used by the landed gentry to go shooting.  I had no plans to decimate the local wildlife - I didn't even have a hat.  I just wanted to experience the sleeper train.  I got myself all geed up by listening to the Murder on the Orient Express score on my iPod while I waited:

I wasn't a complete fool.  I didn't expect my train to be as glamorous and thrilling as that.  And then the train swept into the platform, and I found myself grinning as it approached.

There was - something about it.  Some strange mythical power to it as it came into the station.  It seemed to be proud and dignified in a way that regular trains aren't.  It was like the Queen had wandered in.

I was a bit let down when the door swung open and the steward barked, "You eleven?" at me.  Yes, I was in berth eleven, but where was the obsequious welcome?  Where was the proud uniform (he was wearing a shirt and trousers - not even a jacket)?  I didn't want a red carpet, but how could I fulfil my Jacqueline Bisset fantasies if my steward didn't treat me like I was a Duke?  He wasn't even Scottish.  He grudgingly showed me to my berth, unlocking it with a massively long key, and then leaving me to it.

I put this aside and allowed myself to be enchanted all over again.  It's hard not to be.  It's so tiny!  Tiny mirrors!  Tiny sink!  Tiny little beds, stacked one above one another!  Videos speak louder than words, so I made a little video to show the room off.  Sorry about the sound, but it was seven thirty in the morning, and I didn't want to be too loud:

I undressed - no mean feat in that tiny space - and had a slightly disquieting moment where I realised I was naked on a train.  That was a first.  It felt a bit obscene, but in a good way, like your first time on a nudist beach.  I considered the top bunk, but I am the clumsiest person in the Western Hemisphere; I celebrate when I manage to drink a whole pint without chucking any down my front.  I had visions of smashing straight through those straps and hurtling to the ground.  Plus, if I'm completely honest, I remembered what happened to Jane Seymour in Live and Let Die.  I didn't want to risk being folded into the wall by a one-armed gangster.

I turned on the night light - not for any practical reason, but just because I liked having the cabin bathed in the blue light like in From Russia With Love - and settled down.

You soon become accustomed to the shifting and pitching.  The room seems to be rotating around you. It's like being in a gently moving crib, with the rattle of the tracks becoming your lullaby.  Soon the clunk of the tracks becomes the beat for your mind, and you settle into its steady rhythm, like a metronome.  The diesel strums underneath with a more relentless growl.

The only time I woke up was around four a.m., when the noises stopped.  I opened the blind to see a rain-sodden Edinburgh Waverley outside.  This is where the train splits into three, for Fort William, Inverness and Aberdeen.  I was a bit nervous that we were pausing for so long; it was, after all, Festival time.  If a train is stationary for too long it becomes a venue, and next thing you know it's full of a dozen avant garde clowns doing a mime about socialism in Peru.  I slid the blind back down and listened to the metallic clunks of the moving engines, the jerk as we got our new locomotive at the front.  Soon I was asleep again.

I've travelled in planes with beds on board.  You settle down in a pod and sleep your way across the Atlantic.  Underneath all you can hear is the hum of the engines.  It's nice - certainly better than sitting bolt upright in cattle class for eight hours - but it doesn't feel like you're really travelling.  It's so smooth and effortless you may as well have been transported by Chief O'Brien.  The Caledonian Sleeper is different - you can feel the throb of the engine beneath you, the steady pulse of the wheels.  You feel the movement and the drive around you as you rest.  It's a much more immersive experience.  All your senses take in the journey and wrap you up in it.

I woke up early next morning.  I could have slept for hours more, but I didn't want to miss the travelling.  I have to admit, part of me was a bit disappointed that I'd slept soundly and I hadn't once been accosted by Robert Shaw, or opened my door to a mysterious and frightened blonde beauty begging for sanctuary.  Mind you, even 007 would have had problems making love in that narrow bunk: it would have had to be strictly missionary, and he'd have to be careful not to fall off at the end (the bed, not the girl).

I whipped up the blind and there was a view to take your breath away.

Toto, I don't think we're in Preston any more.  Faslane Bay under grey skies, cold water and trees, and yet incredibly inviting.  I just stood at the window, watching it pass, forests and water whipping past us as we turned north.  There was a pause for a signal at Faslane itself, giving us all a good look at the MOD PROPERTY and MILITARY DOGS ON PATROL signs at the trackside.  Sort of kills the buzz, that does.  

The skies turn darker as we carry on - there's some rain heading our way which is, let's be honest, what you want from the Scottish countryside.  You don't come here for the blazing sun and beaches.  You want moody grey clouds and miserable looking Highland cattle.

The steward turns up with a paper bag with my breakfast in it: a cup of tea and a shortbread biscuit.  (If I was in first class, I'd have got a croissant).  I don't like shortbread much.  It's a weird mix of sweet and butter that tastes weird to me, like putting pepper on a digestive.  I'm in Scotland though, and I'm afraid that rejecting a shortbread slice might get me locked up in Holyrood or forced to listen to Andy Stewart or something, so I dunk it in the tea and make the best of it.

There are still a couple of hours until we hit Fort William, so I lie back on my bunk and read some more From Russia With Love.  Spookily, it turns out that I'm reading it on exactly the same day it is set - the 12th of August.  I take that as a blessing from His Holiness Ian Fleming.

At Crianlarich, my neighbour noisily disembarks, shouting to the steward that she has lots of luggage so the train will have to wait for her to get it all off.  She's English, of course.  No wonder the Scots hate us.  There were white pebble dashed buildings and a blue neon sign saying Cafe Open.

To my Sassenach eyes, we're in the Highlands now; the forests sweep up into grey mist covered mountain tops.  There are probably people snorting down their noses at me though, saying "you call THAT a mountain?".  It looked tall to me.  I craned my neck as we passed at the foot of mountain after mountain, each one getting higher than the one before.  The landscape became thinner and more bare.  Lush green grass gave way to heather and gorse scattered with boulders, looking like the world's least excitable cattle.  The occasional river roars beneath us, flecked with white.

I ventured out into the corridor to use the toilet, which was very 1970s; you have to pump the water for the basin with your foot, like something out of the Crystal Maze.  On my way back I had to push past an old man who's on his way to the loo in just a shirt and boxer shorts.  I specifically paid for a berth to myself so I wouldn't have to rub up against strange men.

The stations we pass through are all remarkably well-kept, with strange Scottish names paired with their Gaelic equivalent.  After Corrour, the highest mainline station in Britain, we pass a chain of hikers, who wave at us.  There's a B&B there, which seems to be a popular use for abandoned station buildings; there are restaurants and cafes as well, and at Tulloch there's a hostel.  It seems weird to think that these isolated stations, surrounded by moors, have a better link to the capital than many large towns and cities.

I'm constantly surprised by how many people alight at these tiny wayside stations.  Sometimes they look like locals, but more often than not they're carrying enough luggage to keep a small army supplied with underwear.  These isolated stops must form hubs, moments of civilisation in the middle of the wilderness.  People might not be coming here to shoot any more, but the demand for a route into the Highlands still seems to be strong.

We were getting close to Fort William - another half an hour or so.  I decided to be brave and have a look at the lounge.  It had a sign saying it was for First Class passengers only, but with it being so near the end of the journey, I didn't think anyone would mind.  The bar and kitchen was closed, so I couldn't sample the World Famous Selection of Whiskies, but I thought I might be able to elegantly recline with a book.

No chance.  Cary Grant and Eva Marie Saint would have taken one look at this lounge and returned to their berth for more high-powered flirting.  It was basically a creche on wheels; every parent on the train had dragged their little darling up front to have room to play.  I stepped over kids crawling on the floor and almost kicked a toy car.  I felt people staring at me for daring to come here, childless, when I had a perfectly good bunk I could hide in.  I snapped a photo and skulked away.

Incidentally, that guy in the foreground is my steward.  As you can see, he was taking his responsibilities to my coach very seriously.

I packed up my belongings and got ready to disembark.  There was a small crisis happening outside my door as the planet's poshest parents attempted to corral their overexcited children for the end of the line.  I watched the landscape become that little bit less special, metre by metre; traffic started showing up on the parallel road, then a few miserable looking houses.  The homes all looked like they were huddled against the wind and the elements, boxes to stop their owners from getting cold.  Not really places to live.  There were petrol stations and off licences and phone boxes, and then the bright yellow of a Morrison's reared up ahead of us and the train was pulling into the terminus.  Fort William.

When I am the Grand Exalted Ruler of the Universe, I'll spend a load of money on the Caledonian Sleeper.  I'll rip out the slightly chipped formica and the plastic and the wood-effect doors, and I'll replace them with good quality, comfortable furnishings.  Proper oak panelling and brass.  I'll make the berths just a little bit bigger, a little bit comfier, a little bit more glamorous and exciting.

Because everyone I mentioned my journey to was, without exception, excited at the thought of a Sleeper train journey.  Everyone loves the idea.  If it was a bit less British Rail, a bit more Blue Train, it would become even more of a hit.  No-one really likes the idea of loading the kids into the back of the Astra for an eight hour drive.  How much more comfortable, more desirable, more civilised, to lounge around while the train takes the strain?  And it was reasonably cheap - ninety one quid from Birkenhead Park to Fort William, including a supplement for taking a cabin to myself.  Remember that's your travel and your first night's accommodation paid for.  Bargain.

I'd do the journey again in a heartbeat.  Next time, I'll do it with someone else, because I'd love to share the simple pleasure of the journey with another person, if only to make sure it's not just me being an over-romantic sod about the whole thing.  It was a wonderful, lovely ride, and I hope everyone gets to experience it at least once.  Go on.  Give it a try.


Ian Jones said...

Lovely stuff. I've never done it, I've always wanted to, and now I want to do it even more.

Robert said...

Seconded, looks amazing. I've done the Fort William line, but in a Super Sprinter rather than a sleeper train, and I am now really jealous.

I take it you didn't encounter former LibDem leader and celebrity alcoholic Charles Kennedy? He is reportedly a regular on the Caledonian Sleeper.

Anonymous said...

You should aim to do the Far North Line to Thurso/Wick

Scott Willison said...

Anonymous: I've only just got back!

Robert: No sign of Charles Kennedy, but as I said, the bar was closed when I got to the lounge.