Monthly Archives: August 2012

17/08/12 – The Caledonian Sleeper to Fort William

Euston station, platform 15, coach G – right at the front

Last night I travelled to Fort William in Scotland on the Caledonian Sleeper. The service receives high praise from the Man in Seat 61, and in 2009 the West Highland Line from Glasgow to Fort William and Mallaig was named the world’s best rail journey by reader of Wanderlust magazine. However, according to reports last year, such as this one  in the Independent, the service may be under threat from cuts.

Here’s how it was for me.

I finished work at Victoria, London, around 7.30pm, went for a quick drink with colleagues and arrived at Euston in good time for the 9.15pm departure.

I’d booked only a fortnight ago, and in the absence of an available lie-down berth in standard class (it’s a 12.5hr journey), I’d bought a berth in first, over the phone with a very helpful Scotrail assistant, for about £50 more than it would have cost to have a reclining seat in standard (the same goes for my return next week; the total cost for the first-class sleeper return was £373).

Bed, blind, basin (under my case) – and carpet-clad walls

My private compartment – the same configuration as standard class but with the top bunk folded away – had a single bunk, made with good-ish bed linen on a duvet and two pillows, four coat hangers, a bin, carpet (on the walls as well as floor), a sideboard that doubled as a basin with hot and cold running water, a window and a lambswool tartan blanket.

There were two bottles of water and an airliner-style “comfort pack”, with socks, razor, soap and teeth-cleaning gear. So far so good – and much plusher than the other sleeper carriages I’ve occupied, in India and Ghana (though way less sociable). The door was lockable and the ladies’ and gents’ loos were a couple of doors down (in the morning a man came out of the ladies’ having left it unflushed, with the seat up. Huh!).

About 11pm and all quiet on the Caledonian Sleeper

I’d abandoned my usual practice of packing a picnic, or buying something at the station, thinking I’d go for the full rail experience by eating in the dining car. On the menu, which was in an info-pack in my compartment, were things like chicken curry, Cumbrian lamb hotpot, Fellside beef casserole, Aberdeen Angus burger, haggis, various sandwiches, chicken fajita wrap and ham and Emmental melt, mostly around the £3 to £5 mark.

The dining car – about five carriages away – was jam-packed with people fiddling with their smartphones and drinking Coke – not a single seat free, and the place smelt of school dinners. Might it be less busy later? “Not sure,” admitted the smiley Scottish server/cook/barman as he swiftly emptied something brown and lumpy from a sealed packet onto a plate, ready, I supposed, for the microwave. “Maybe in two or three hours it’ll quieten down.”

En route back to my berth I passed contented regulars eating picnics and wished I’d come prepared. Next best thing to waiting for the dining car was to exercise one of my privileges as a first-classer – room service. When summoned by the call-button in my compartment, the carriage attendant looked thoroughly reluctant and sent over a more cheerful and proactive colleague, whom I paid £4 for tomato soup and a bag of dry roasted peanuts. It tasted and looked way nicer than the offerings I’d seen in the dining car, though it arrived at first without the bread that was meant to come with it.

I finished off the Evening Standard, left my food containers and metal cutlery outside the room in its paper bag (where it remained till early morning – as did other containers someone else had left on the floor outside the loo) and fell asleep easily in a bed that was narrow but comfy, waking now and then, usually when the train was at a standstill.

8am – breakfast in bed, one of the best bits

Breakfast arrived at 8am on a tray; Continental, as requested, consisted of a dish of excellent ripe fruit, a strawberry yoghurt, a croissant (which I was able to warm by putting it on top of the metal teapot) with sachets of butter and jam, and a bottle of orange juice. I struggled to raise the roller blind fully but flipped it over the shelf above so I could watch the rain tipping down outside and fog drifting around the green, mossy, craggy landscape.

When we arrived in Fort William at 9.50am, four minutes early (we’d set off 45 minutes late) in tipping rain, I felt well fed and rested – a relaxing way to start a long weekend in the Highlands and certainly preferable to faffing about at airports.

Room for improvement? Yes: in my case, a cheerier carriage attendant and more seats in the lounge car – I thought the space there was far from optimised. Also, not that I’d have used it, I’m amazed there’s no Wi-Fi on such a long-distance service. Lastly, it was a shame to miss the views that Seat 61 raves about, but good to know they’re there for mist-free days.

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Filed under Link to article by Yolanda Carslaw

16/8/12 – London 2012: the Alpine houses

Our very first stop was this maze, built of 250,000 books inside the Royal Festival Hall. Pretty cool

The Olympics are over. Everything I saw – the beach volleyball from the stands at Horseguards Parade; the athletics on television; the cycle road race in Surrey – I loved.

But one of the most memorable parts, for me, was a couple of hours spent in the early evening near Tower Bridge, at Austria House. Various countries set up bases in London and one afternoon a couple of friends and I took a walking tour of the ‘houses’ of three Alpine skiing countries by the Thames.

The Swiss House, where we watched Steve Guerdat win gold in show jumping

First stop, after getting waylaid at a maze made entirely of books that we came across while hunting down a loo in the Royal Festival Hall, was Switzerland, near London Bridge. There a big screen, a stage and picnic tables were set up in a shady square and a few minutes after our arrival, the Swiss show jumper Steve Guerdat won gold – to rather restrained applause, we thought. We toasted his success with the free extra half-pint of lager we’d landed due to a mix-up at the bar (where half-pints cost £3; pints £4.50 – dearer than Switzerland, we noted!).

My friend Rebecca contemplates Tom Stoddart’s pictures on the South Bank, between the Swiss and Austrian houses

En route to Tower Bridge, we stopped to see Tom Stoddart’s moving outdoor exhibition of black and white photographs, mostly taken in conflict zones over the past 30 years, printed large on a maze of boards near City hall. This runs till 12 September and is well worth a visit.

On the far side of Tower Bridge, Alpinbanda were warming up…

On the north side of Tower Bridge, Austria had its base at Trinity House, with tables crammed into a courtyard, a couple of small screens and a bar where dirndl- and lederhosen-clad bartenders served beer, wine and bratwurst.

Paul Heis on washboard, Leena Schoepf on accordion and Miss Amadea (is she really called that?) on double bass

We grabbed a seat next to a tiny stage, on which, promisingly, stood a double bass. Sure enough, within minutes, a three-part band materialised and launched straight into the Kufstein Lied (more easily recognised as the song that goes: “…bei uns in Tirol”) and then the Zillertaler Hochzeitsmarsch.

On double bass, yodelling in harmony and frequently belting out a yyeeeeeeeeaaahhoooaaaa was a musician known as Miss Amadea (I know this because I saw her play the violin at a reception at Austria House a few days earlier – though I can find pretty much nothing about her online).

Leena plants a Tirol transfer on Kirstie's arm

Leena plants a Tirol transfer on Kirstie’s arm

On the accordion, and singing and yodelling with gusto – as well as throwing in a few yipps of her own – was Leena, short for Karolina Schoepf, who comes from the Oetztal, according to her website. Singing and playing the clarinet or sax and the washboard (with a cymbal on its top) was Paul Heis, who leads Alpinbanda.

With a glass or two of Austrian Gruener Veltliner, a few sociable neighbours at the trestle table and much enthusiasm from the crowd it was a brilliant couple of hours. Needless to say we never made it to the French house, also on the north side of the Thames – though we were told it was a great place to go after pub hours.

By the time we left Trinity House, the yodelling had drawn enough people to create a queue

By the time we left Trinity House, the yodelling had drawn enough people to create a queue

My recordings are pretty ropey, and I should have filmed the complete Kufstein Lied, but you can see and hear them by following these links: Kufstein Lied, film one, film two, film three.

I’d travel to London any time to hear Austrian music like this – what a shame they’ve all gone home!

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Filed under Austria, Food and drink, France, Link to film, Music, Switzerland