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.
Overnight sleeper services have been running between England and Scotland for more than 140 years. That’s a rich heritage, and it’s certainly a journey that deserves to be on anyone’s bucket list.
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.
In good time, we all make our way to the platform. Then she appears out of the mist, sadly neither chuffing nor steaming. Instead, she’s a throwback to the 1970s diesels that spanned the UK in my youth. 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. Or indeed down the tight corridors, so pack light.
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 your average toilet cubicle, 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.
A Sense Of Occasion
Making my way down the corridor, I 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.
Hurtling To Scotland
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. 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.
A misty Eilean Donan castle during our trip to the Highlands.
I’d love to tell you that the return was equally exciting. But in truth it involved hanging around a hotel next to Inverness station, with luggage ill suited to the shoulder width corridors of the train. Then there was the strange absence of a sheet on the top bunk, leaving a waterproof mattress like a hospital bed. That didn’t help with the sliding from head to toe on the points, and increased the speed of motion for each slithering moment. Friction burns were narrowly avoided, and it certainly made us laugh.
Then, on leaving the sleeper train on a bracing morning at Crewe (strangely so much colder than Inverness), finding our connection sitting at the platform. The driver was snug in his cab with the heating on, while we froze unhappily on the empty platform with a locked waiting room. I think I’d just thawed out when we got home.
Tips and Recommendations
For information on the journey, consult the ever reliable Man In Seat 61. In addition, I’d suggest:
- Consider joining the train at London Euston, rather than Crewe. You’ll get more of the sleeper experience, and you might even get to enjoy the haggis, neeps and tatties en route.
- Pack something comfortable to sleep in, preferably something in which you can nip along the corridor to the toilets without either embarrassing yourself or freezing. It’s no fun trying to dress or undress in those little compartments, so do it as few times as possible.
- Pack as light as you can for the trip. Those train corridors are really narrow, and dragging a big bag behind you is difficult. Something fairly squidgy is also going to be easier to wrangle within the compartment space. You can leave a really big bag with the guard.
- If you are staying over in Inverness or Fort William, see if the place where you are staying can hold your luggage until you board the sleeper. There are also luggage lockers at the station at Inverness.
- Cheaper berth prices still exist on the Sleeper. Journeys start from £70 each way, not at all shabby for the night’s accommodation AND the journey. However, a quick random search couldn’t find me a price that reasonable. If you’re happy to try a reclining seat for the night, prices can be as low as £45 each way. In fact, I’m way too tempted to book it again already!