The Sleeper Train from London to Inverness
Trip Start Jun 26, 2009
1Trip End Jul 05, 2009
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Around the clumps of travellers with their luggage flowed a stream of commuters, blank faced and oblivious to everything, with an unswayable determination to get home one minute quicker than they did the day before.
Even when on my daily commute I see the clumps of travellers, and I’m jealous of all of them, from the single mother with a frivolous number of children simultaneously fighting, running, screaming and playing around her podgy track-suited legs, to the awkward teenage travellers, unwashed and unkempt, pinned under improbable sized backpacks (usually bearing a badge saying something like "500L Vertebrae Crusher Deluxe"), giddy and giggly with the excitement that only vast quantities of drugs, urgent sex and museum queues can bring
I thirstily gulped at my pint, because I had certainly earned it. Despite working only a 15 minute stroll from Euston Station, I had decided it would be wise not to take my rucksack to work that morning, and instead to travel home to Wimbledon in the afternoon, freshen up, collect my belonging and head back to Euston. It seemed reasonable to want to start my journey fresh, and besides, my train didn't leave until 9 in the evening.
As usual,and after 32 years I’m quite used to this, the whole world conspired against me. It was a hot and humid summer’s day, and the train home was delayed, but Ike pt my composure – I had many hours at my disposal and barring getting stuck on the underground for 10 hours (a possibility in London), I was going to have plenty of time. I made it home, albeit 5 minutes later than expected, but still cool and calm. I was determined to be happy, because I was technically already on holiday, and there are few better feelings I know of. OK, I’m sure intimate relations with a pair of 18 y.o. Czech twins is up there, but this was pretty good.
I showered off the day’s grime, collected my rucksack and began the trek back into the city on a hot, sticky and uncharacteristically overcrowded train
So there I sat with a now almost empty pint, already exhausted and covered in the sticky sweat and grime of London underground, and I hadn’t even left London.
Sure,Euston Station’s not Heathrow or JFK, or even Gatwick for that matter, but I like that. The pretentiousness is gone, and lets face it, flying is hardly an enjoyable experience in this day and age, unless you like queuing, being frisked by a humourless strategically shaven gorilla, and paying extortionate amounts for mediocre food (Why? Because, dickhead, where else are you going to get a soggy sandwich and a cup of tea?)
The boards weren’t illuminated with the world’s exotica, but instead Birmingham, Leeds and York and the like. And Inverness. I was going to Scotland, and I couldn’t wait.I wasn’t necessarily excited singularly by the fact I was going to Inverness that night, but more by how I was getting there – the sleeper train. For reasons I can’t quite put my finger on, I’ve always wanted to travel somewhere on a train and have my own little world, where I can lock myself away from the unwashed backpackers and the anarchic children, and silently be whisked off into the night. When the time suits me, I can curl under a duvet and gently be rocked to sleep, and then wake, hundreds of miles away, and watch a wonderfully foreign mountain landscape drift by in the dawn light.
Before I moved to the UK, before I had even considered it, I had read about the sleeper train from London to Scotland, and I knew that if the opportunity ever arose, I was going to make a journey on the Caledonian Sleeper.
I don’t know where this hopelessly romantic fascination came from, but I suspect it must have been a scene from a movie I saw as a child, or a collection of scenes from such movies. I can even picture it, the hourglass women in the red dress and wide brimmed red hat, worn at an angle, with a black net veil covering big dreamy brown eyes, heavy with tears. Thick tongues of steam lick around her legs as she looks with lips parted, her face a mixture of anticipation and fear, at the man further down the platform. He is dressed in a dark three-piece suit, a hat – there are always hats in my dream – and he cooly squints, draws on a cigarette, and gazes back with a smouldering stare. I just realized my dream didn’t even contain a sleeper carriage. Oh well. A good dream, none the less.
My fantasy is of course an impossible one. It’s not 1950, I’m not Humphrey Boggart,smoking is banned on railway stations and, in general, women hate me. So, in this situation, a courteous hello and a few directions from Helga the conductress suited me fine.
My cabin was cosy, to say the least, but perfectly and adequate. I soon made myself comfortable with a book and a few tins of lager I had traded a kidney for back at Euston (train station prices are trying of compete with those at airports).I was reading Paul Theroux’s ‘Ghost Train to the Eastern Star’, which was making my journey all the more luxurious due to its descriptions of the decrepit trains of Eastern Europe. Additionally, it made me very glad to have a cabin to myself, and so there was no chance of coming across Mr. Theroux. He seemed to interrogate every poor soul he sat beside during his journey (which took him halfway around the world – that’s a great deal of interrogation, and a great many souls), somehow extracting from them all the grotty details of their homes, jobs, family and lives in general (I half expected him to publish their bank details). The Nazis could have got a few tips from him.
After I had finished off a few too many pints, and made the decision to order some Paul Theroux custom thumbscrews on my return, I decided to go for a wander (stumble)around the train.
The alleyways on the sleeper carriages were amazingly narrow, and I have no idea why I didn’t notice this when embarking. I guess I was too lost in my 1950smovie scene fantasy. I’m a big guy (read: fat), and found myself crabbing sideways down each carriage. I eventually came to the seated section of the train, where those less eager to part with their money (the Scottish have to travel too) were going to sit upright for the next 12 hours or so. When the door to the carriage opened the smell nearly knock me over. It wasn’t so much a bad smell, but the thick, sweet aroma of too many people jammed for a long period in a room that was just a bit too hot. I quickly crossed to the other end, where, much to my delight, I found the buffet car, and immediately bought another two pints of lager that I didn’t really need. It’s a reflex action, I guess.
After making my way back to my cabin, and drinking and reading some more, I finally turned in for the evening. My bed was not huge, but perfectly comfortable for my large 6’ 2” frame, and I was soon asleep.
Next –Inverness to Tain…