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Issue 18 - Travelling North? Sleep on it!

Scotland Magazine Issue 18
January 2005


This article is 13 years old and some information provided may be time sensitive. Please check all details of events, tours, opening times and other information before travelling or making arrangements.

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Travelling North? Sleep on it!

Mark Nicholls overcomes the urge to fly and takes the night train to Scotland

The train arches its back along the full length of the terminus platform: 16 night coaches in archbishop’s livery of purple and white and a velvet sheen for carriages that exude an air of mystery and superiority.

This is the night sleeper.

In a bygone age it would have been the Night Scot, a steam-drawn roaring chariot of slumber. Now the quiet whine of a considerate electric locomotive whispers along tracks, fearful of disturbing those asleep within.

These are the coaches of the secret night travellers, gliding through the dark hours behind blacked-out windows.

Not for the night sleepers are there broad, dirty panes, smeared with mud and rain, painted by squalls of sleet through which passing countryside is filtered.

For them it is the high porthole of privacy, a canvas of dreamy imagination and unmentioned, unspoken, unseen luxury within.

Dormant on Platform 15 at London Euston: a strip of white station light reflects off the carriages and red signals flare along windows. Cases are loaded aboard as passengers find a berth and the misty breath of farewells are said on a platform that declines to offer intimacy. The traditional shrill of a whistle brings a fleeting kiss and a vigourous wave as the night sleeper walks again.

Who are these people, where are they going, what do they go home to?

These are questions that always intrigue me of fellow passengers, lives briefly brought together on a train and then dispersed with secrets held safe.

I'm going to Aberdeen in search of haggis and old acquaintance. And then another question: why spend the night on a train when you can fly north?

I am of the mindset that there’s nothing to compare with the experience of travel, the art of getting there rather than merely arriving. It is the journey that is the other half of destination.

In Britain distances are so relatively short that the journey rarely becomes more than a means to an end.

For me I revel in the Bolam Mail from Quetta to Karachi, the Grand Trunk Express from New Delhi to Madras, or The Baikal, arrow straight and precisely on time across Siberia from Irkutsk to Moscow.

The night sleeper from London to Scotland is virtually all we have that remotely comes near.

We slipped quietly away from Platform 15 on a drizzly winter night, the clerical mauve of the sleeper hounded by a bevy of red virgins as it went. This is Branson territory.

I had spent a comfortable hour in the first class lounge above the concourse at Euston before making my way along the train to my berth. It was compact and comfortable, practical and private, with a sink, somewhere to hang my coat and it was cosy and warm.

A coach or two along was the lounge car, which accompanied my sector of the train. At some point in the night, at Edinburgh, the train would split three ways, me heading to Aberdeen, another portion to Fort William, and a third on to Inverness.

I am aboard the Highland Sleeper, leaving Euston soon after 9pm. The Lowland Sleeper, to Glasgow and Edinburgh, leaves closer to midnight. The lounge car was already full serving light meals, snacks, beers and with a selection of whisky for a nightcap.

We had taken our time in easing free of London “there is no hurry, there is no hurry” muttered coaches that “have all night, have all night” to reach Scottish destinations.

But patience is anathema to the solid forceful metal of a train built as an express and we are soon racing north at high speed, swiftly and smoothly over open tracks.

And then seemingly ahead of schedule, we ride inexplicably slow as a snail.

This is the routine of the night sleeper. We are neither express nor commuter, hanging in a mysterious passenger no-man’s land as we pass through the domain of freight and mail.

Around me are my fellow passengers, eating, drinking and conversing before retiring to their compartments: four women day trippers on a shopping trip from Stirling to London; a businessman and his wife sharing a bottle of wine; a young man smiling into his mobile as a stream of text messages appear.

But there are no late-stayers, after all the convention on the sleeper appears to be to sleep and by 11p.m that’s what most are doing, heading to berths or the first class reclining seats that are available in a saloon car.

I follow suit and meander through the next coach to my compartment.

Time passes, perhaps I sleep too well in my cosy cabin on the move. A sudden jerk, a squeal of brakes and we draw to a halt at a time and place unknown.

We may be in Preston, Carnforth, Carlisle or Carnoustie. What is certain is the driver has changed, or instead his mood, as we leave midnight behind.

If you are not used to sleeping on the train, proper sleeping as opposed to dozing in your commuter seat, it can be a strange experience. You feel all the rocks and rolls, the jolts and jerks. Some never get used to the movement.

Personally, I find it surprisingly easy to sleep on the train as it flies through the Midlands and the north-west, and even the train splitting in three passes unnoticed.

The sleeper is, in fact, the slow train north. Not tearing through the night, it does – after all – have all night to reach its destination and sleeping passengers to consider.

Rarely topping 80mph, this is a supper to breakfast service rather than the super fast express.

Yet the Scottish sleepers are the last of a line. At one stage 70 sleeper trains nightly ran across Britain. Now, apart from the night service from London to Cornwall, there are only the Scottish services and even part of that – the run to Fort William - was under threat until quite recently.

Increased speeds and a greater air network has meant the sleepers are overlooked as a mode of transport. But for many it is an opportunity missed – to sleep on the move and awake refreshed ready for the day ahead at the other end of the country.

As we near Aberdeen we drop off regularly, at Arbroath, Carnoustie – for the golf courses – Montrose and Stonehaven.

The conductor on duty all night tapped on my door at 6.40am with a light breakfast - a blueberry muffin, coffee, fruit juice, an apple and a snack bar and a Scottish morning paper collected en route as we crossed the border.

There was time to freshen up before we drew into Aberdeen on time a shade after 7.30am.

We settle alongside a GNER service bound for London the first of a number each day to leave direct for the English capital. Aberdeen may be north and isolated but it is well connected by rail. Mr Branson even calls here taking passengers all the way to Bristol and Cardiff if they desire on his Virgin trains.

The sleepers have their admirers, among regular travellers and newcomers. A businesswoman at a table nearby in the platform refreshment room enthuses into a mobile phone to a friend about her night on the train, of comfort, well-rested sleep, and a pleasant wake up call.

It is efficient, you get your sleep and are ready to move on first thing next morning. Late risers have half an hour to clear their cabins but even then this far north, it is still dark outside in winter.

Aberdeen stands lonely on Scotland’s east coast spur. Since Scottish devolution and the creation of the Scottish Parliament in 1999, its place as Scotland’s third city has been emphasised by the ever-increasing dominance of Glasgow and Edinburgh.

But it is worth a visit – the harbour, Union Street, shops, museums and galleries. And it is a gateway to Braemar and Balmoral, and Inverness and the northern lochs are not too far away either.

Well-rested and wide awake, huge swathes of Scotland stand before me. But first I have a reunion with old friends and a haggis.

Mark Nicholls travelled to Aberdeen aboard the Caledonian sleeper. For more details tel: +44 (0)8457 550 033 Scotrail or visit

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