By the Caledonian Sleeper Train to Scotland

The Caledonian Sleeper, as it leaves London Euston Station, must be physically the longest passenger train in the UK. Actually its three trains joined together. Somewhere north of the border in the middle of the night, the train will split into its three parts. The front portion will be heading for Dundee and Aberdeen. The other two portions will be going to Inverness and Fort William. It can’t go wrong, can it?

I’m reminded of a journey taken by friends who were travelling a slightly more exotic rail journey from Lincolnshire to Istanbul. They had planned a number of stopovers along the way. Hotels had been booked and maps printed to show them how to get from the stations to the hotels. Arriving at one station in the Balkans they got out their map and tried to figure out the route to the hotel. Nothing seemed to match the details on the map. So they asked a local for help. He looked puzzled, then explained that the map was for another city in another country. It seemed that the train had divided in two at some point along the journey and they were in the wrong section. I hoped this wasn’t going to happen to me. I really needed to be in Dundee in the morning.

We left London Euston at the civilised time of 9.15 in the evening but, I was only too well aware that the train was scheduled to arrive in Dundee just after 6 in the morning. This was reinforced by the steward on the platform who suggests I might like to woken at 5.15 with coffee and a bacon roll. The coffee and bacon roll sounded fine but the idea of 5.15 did not appeal. I even toyed with the thought of staying on the train to Aberdeen, maybe giving me an extra hour’s sleep, then catching a train back to Dundee. That would have been an indulgence too far. There was nothing else to do but head for the lounge car and get a little anaesthetic.

First though, I had to have a look at my bed for the night. The sleeping compartments have two berths but, for an affordable supplement, you can have the cabin to yourself. The bed is rather narrow but looked, and turned out to be, perfectly adequate. There’s plenty of hanging space for clothes and a decent sized sink. A bag of toiletries was provided which seemed quite fit for purpose. It owed a lot to airline toiletry bags with an eye mask, earplugs and socks. There was also shower gel and body cream but, of course, no shower. In the sheaf of tickets was a voucher for a station shower. I’d have been pleasantly surprised if Dundee station had a shower room but, from my limited experience of the station, I was not holding my breath.

The train made a short stop at Watford Junction, then headed at a good speed northwards. At the rate we were going we’d be in Dundee around 3am. Hopefully we would slow down to a more leisurely speed else my sleeping time would be even more limited.

The lounge car was reasonably well appointed. Down one side there were five two seater tables and on the other side a long leather-effect bench interspersed with small tables. There was a reasonably extensive menu of hot and cold food including, of course, haggis. And an adequate selection of beers and soft drinks. More importantly, there was a wine list and, being the CALEDONIAN Sleeper, a separate whisky menu.  I’d had a meal before leaving home so my choice was the cheese plate and a Chilean Cabernet Sauvignon. Both were very good and the cheese portions were generous.

I’d just finished consuming the cheese when the train slowed down to a pedestrian pace. We were at Rugby, birthplace of the sport that had dominated our lives in Richmond over the last few weeks whilst many of the Rugby World Cup matches were held in nearby Twickenham. Rugby was not a stop for the sleeper but, having passed through the station, the train continued at a crawl for some time. A chance to look round the car and observe my fellow passengers.

There were a mixture of couples and singles with the singles outnumbering the couples. Two of the single men, not travelling together, were having problems with their tickets. They were both from abroad (“foreigners”) and the on-board ticket machine would not accept their credit cards for whatever moneys they were due to pay. The solution, devised by the steward, was for them to get off the train at Crewe, the first stop, and find a cash machine. I hope this worked. It sounded a bit precarious.

From the odd conversations overheard, a few of the passengers were going to Mallaig (via Fort William) to catch boats out to the Inner and Outer Hebrides. One man was going on a first visit and was given loads of advice from his fellow passengers. A rather large man turned out to come from Corrour. This is a very isolated place in the middle of the desolate Rannoch Moor and with a station serving a very small community that has no road to the outside world. He explained that as a child he used to catch the sleeper every morning to Roy Bridge, a couple of stations along the line, where there was a primary school. Beats the school bus any day.

Then there was the one of those “co-incidence” moments that I’ve blogged about before. A couple and a single lady started up a conversation. Trying to establish common ground, they quickly got round to asking each other where they went to school. Would you believe two of them had gone, many years previously, to the same primary school in the East End of Glasgow where my mum, whom I was on my way to visit, had also been a pupil. It’s a small world.

By now the wine was running low. It was time for a small snifter. The Macallan was my whisky of choice. A Speyside malt of some renown and one of my favourites. The whisky came in miniatures. The packaging said that this was Macallan Gold, distinguished by the age of the sherry cask used for the maturing process. It definitely lived up to the blurb.

It was time to retire to the cabin.  The Caledonian Sleeper rolling stock is showing its age. Everything is a little antiquated. I’d almost forgotten the old railway toilets where the flush and water supply for the sink are operated by pressing rubber pedals on the floor. I soon got the knack and thought they were more hygienic than the hand operated facilities on the newer trains.

The night passed reasonably well although far, far too quickly. I was woken by a change of noise from the rails. They sounded rather hollow. A quick look out of the window and all became clear. We were crossing the Forth Bridge, that icon of Scotland and featured in many films like the original Hitchcock “39 Steps”. It was still dark and there was a heavy mist over the water but there was no mistaking the red-painted iron girders at very close quarters. A few minutes later there was a knock at the door, my rather unnecessary wakeup call complete with orange juice, a bacon roll and very disappointing coffee. The latter came in the form of a small pot of hot water and a non-descript sachet of coffee granules.

One of the big challenges faced by railway engineers in the 19th century was how to link the two Scottish cities of Edinburgh and Dundee. In those days Edinburgh, like today, was the capital city of Scotland and the administrative centre of the country. Dundee was an industrial city with shipbuilding, jam making and the manufacture of jute products amongst its major enterprises. Both cities are on the east coast and are situated at the mouths of two great Scottish rivers, the River Forth and the River Tay. And these are no ordinary river mouths. They are both wide firths – tidal estuaries. In a straight line, the cities are about 50 miles apart but avoiding the firths adds at least 30 miles to the journey. The railway engineering solution was to build bridges, and what great bridges they turned out to be.

The Forth Bridge is a real tribute to Victorian railway engineer. It still meets the needs of 21st century. By way of contrast, alongside this magnificent structure stands not one but two road bridges. The first, built well within living memory, has proved to have design faults and capacity problems. The result is that a new bridge is having to be built. So much for 20th century design and engineering.

Having crossed the Forth Bridge and traversed the Kingdom of Fife through Kirkcaldy, Glenrothes and close to St Andrews, the journey into Dundee was across the older Tay Bridge.

The original mile long rail bridge was completed early in 1878 and was partially destroyed in a force 10 gale just over a year later. A train that was on the bridge at the time of the accident, fell off the bridge and into the Tay with the loss of at least 75 lives. Most Dundee families can recall an ancestor who died in the disaster. In my case, rather tenuously, it was the grandfather of an uncle by marriage.

The “Tay Bridge Disaster” as it came to be known, was immortalised by the Scottish doggerel poet William McGonagall. The poem starts

Beautiful Railway Bridge of the Silv’ry Tay
Alas! I am very sorry to say
That ninety lives have been taken away
On the last Sabbath day of 1879,
Which will be remember’d for a very long time.

And then when the a stronger replacement bridge was built, he wrote

Beautiful new railway bridge of the Silvery Tay,
With your strong brick piers and buttresses in so grand array,
And your thirteen central girders, which seem to my eye
Strong enough all windy storms to defy.
And as I gaze upon thee my heart feels gay,
Because thou are the greatest railway bridge of the present day,
And can be seen for miles away
From North, South, East or West of the Tay
On a beautiful and clear sunshiny day,
And ought to make the hearts of the “Mars” boys feel gay,
Because thine equal nowhere can be seen,
Only near by Dundee and the bonnie Magdalen Green.

The public enquiry identified flaws in the design and materials of the first bridge and the architect’s design for a rail bridge over the river Forth was not selected.

As we crossed the current bridge, which is well over 100 years old, there was no noticeable wind and the water was flowing slowly through the November mist. Nevertheless that train moved across the bridge at a very leisurely pace till we arrived on the north shore and into Dundee, the end of the line for me. The good news was that the train was now running a little late and it was 6.20, almost daybreak. Time to go and find some decent coffee.

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About Clashgour

With my wife Margaret I am spending a happy retirement divided between our flat in Richmond, London, our villa in Kalkan on the Turkish Mediterranean coast and travelling mostly in the UK, Turkey and the US. When travelling we use public transport where possible, resorting to a car when it is the only viable option. This blog is an occasional diary of our travels.
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