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).
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!).
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.
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.
DO you enjoy this BLOG? Then SIGN UP to RECEIVE AN EMAIL each time I post a NEW ONE by clicking on ‘SIGN ME UP’ on the top right of THIS PAGE.