Bucket List: Sleeper Train to the Scottish Highlands

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It’s 1.30 in the morning, and we’re heading north on the night train.  W.H. Auden had it right:

This is the night mail crossing the Border,

Bringing the cheque and the postal order,

Letters for the rich, letters for the poor,

The shop at the corner, the girl next door. 

We pick up the train at Crewe.  It’s Valentine’s night, and we’ve been waiting in the hotel next to the station.  There was a Valentine dinner, and all around the room, bored couples are toying with empty glasses.  Balloons hang limply in the corners, and a few drooping roses are laid on the tables.   But there’s an excited little gathering of people waiting for a train: not just any train, but the sleeper to Inverness and Fort William.

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In good time, we all make our way to the platform.  Then she appears out of the mist, sadly neither chuffing nor steaming, but rather a throwback to the 1970s diesels that spanned the UK back in the days before we started messing up our railway system.  We find our compartment via a welcoming guard and squeeze our bags into the tiny spaces.  It’s not exactly a room for huntin’, shootin’ and fishin’ types, as you’d struggle to fit even a modest carp net under the bunks.

We head off to the buffet car, where all but the most hardy passengers have long since called it a night.  Perhaps it’s just as well we’re too late for haggis, neeps and tatties.   It seems to be a night of parties we’ve just missed.  Back in our tiny compartment, we try and work out how (and indeed how much) to undress in the wildly swaying confined space.  We’re standing in a place probably about half the size of a four person dining table, and trying not to flail our arms too much.  We raise the blind, and end up sitting on the bottom bunk, watching lights flashing past and hearing the chattering of the rails.

I make my way down the corridor and catch a sudden glimpse of a vision in peach satin.  I stand amazed as a passenger in a beautiful nightgown and wrap works her way down to the toilets.  I glance down at the floor and wince as I see her beautiful peach satin slippers make contact with the damp patches by the carriage doors.  She’s misplaced the Orient Express, and yet I am so charmed by her sense of occasion that I can’t think she’s being silly.  This really is the stuff of which dreams are made.

Back in the compartment, it’s difficult to sleep.  The bunks run across the width of the train, and every time we take a curve or some points I slide either to my head or my toes, as though I am in some hurtling version of Willy Wonka’s nut sorting machine.  Yet the very motion and sense of speed is so exciting that I really don’t want to sleep and miss any part of the journey.  Early in the morning, the steward knocks with a bag of breakfast goodies.  We sit on the bottom bunk, marveling at the silhouettes of the Grampians and their big stark shadows.  And as we eat, daylight fills in the contours and the hills come to life.   By the time we reach Inverness, we are stunned at the sight of a troupe of hikers wandering the glens.  In t shirts.  In February.  We really have entered a different universe.

The Caledonian Sleeper now has Bargain Berths available from £19 if you can book 12 weeks in advance and have plenty of flexibility on dates.   What better way to reach Aberdeen, Inverness or Fort William?  The sleeper runs every night except Saturday and can be booked via ScotRail.

For more information about the journey, check out the legendary Man in Seat 61 here: http://www.seat61.com/CaledonianSleepers.htm#.US0zLzBqyuI.

You can also see his YouTube take of the journey here, although his train had a smoother ride than ours!