• 2012


    2012 - THE AULD ALLIANCE REBORN


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    A new management team and a new look to this year's sleeper trip. For the first time two countries were visited, a new sleeper route traversed and, a bold move this, spouses were permitted, nay positively encouraged, to join in. It all started when Richard promoted the delights of the Garden of England as a venue for the discerning railway tourist. There were indeed a number of preserved lines in Kent worthy of a visit, and it was not too difficult a mental leap to propose a trip northwards to Scotland before venturing south-east, so as to incorporate the essential sleeper element. Jim then expressed a desire to visit not one, not two but all three routes between Edinburgh and Glasgow, and your webmaster modestly suggested that a trip to the county of his upbringing could be well rounded off with a trip under the Channel to foreign lands.

    And so we had our concept, and a small, energetic committee rapidly turned it into a fully-fledged Plan. The masterstroke was to include for the first time the option of inviting partners to join us in Paris, only partly to avoid the accusation of enjoying ourselves in foreign activities which we might not wish to share with said partners. In reality of course, their presence would rejuvenate a tired, travel-weary party and ensure the maximum benefit from the latter stages of the trip. And so indeed it turned out.

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    The six-strong party made their departure following the usual mid-morning route to Wigan and its Station Cafe and thence northwards to Preston. We then entrained for Edinburgh, which was reached on time but in the sort of weather that seems to be the hallmark of this somewhat damp summer. I blame the water companies for declaring a drought in the Spring - a temptation of fate which brought forth the inevitable response from the climate gnomes. Surprisingly, the Waverley station alterations noted during last year's trip were still in full swing, to the confusion of a fair slice of the travelling public. Fortunately Jim's built-in RPS (Real-ale Positioning System) took us unerringly to the nearby Halfway House for second lunch and a planning session for the afternoon. This involved seeing how many different ways we could get by train from Edinburgh to Glasgow, or vice-versa, until the supply of will-power, time or tickets ran out. We managed three trips before deciding our cup of pleasure was full, and somewhere along the line we surfaced briefly amongst all the scaffolding to survey the pig's ear that is the current state of Edinburgh's new tram system. One day it may all be sorted out and may even be magnificent, but for the time being I pity the poor city rate-payer.

    The Glasgow to Euston sleeper was a first for us, but after internal fortification at a convenient Wetherspoons we boarded successfully and were untroubled by border guards, passport controls or visa examinations as we crossed the border southwards. Whether such freedom of movement will remain come the independence vote is another matter, but at least the current economic crisis means that adoption of the euro north of the border seems increasingly unlikely. At Euston we breakfasted at a convenient, if somewhat incongruous, Ed's Easy Diner and progressed the short distance eastwards to that marvel of Victorian architecture, St Pancras station. After a good stare at all the lovely stone and glass we embarked on a Quite Fast Train for Gillingham. Unfortunately it only went quite fast for quite a short distance, but speed is not of the essence on these trips so there were no complaints. Following best practice from previous trips we secured our home base at the King Charles hotel via taxi, before venturing the short distance downhill to Chatham Dockyard.

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    Now a dockyard might not seem an obvious port of call for railway enthusiasts, but SMRS celebrates diversity, and in any case the displays included the remnants of a once-extensive rail system, not to mention a small but fully-functioning micro-brewery, complete with sales outlet. Admission was courtesy of Hilary's husband's credit card, carefully husbanded by Hilary for that very purpose, and good value it was too. The exhibits included a relatively modern frigate and submarine as well as sailing ships and a large collection of RNLI lifeboats. One highlight, apart from the brewpub, was the Ropery, where a remarkably well-preserved foreman from 1750 or thereabouts gave an informative and entertaining tour of the rope making house. This included audience participation in a re-enactment of the process, in which we modestly took the leading roles.

    By late afternoon, with the rain starting to fall, we had had our fill of things naval, and returned by taxi up the hill to the hotel and a local restaurant.

    Next day we took the train again to Canterbury, where a short-ish walk across the city centre took us to our hotel, the characterful Millers Arms, complete with mill stream and weir. After a rapid baggage-drop we went into tourist mode and headed for the cathedral. Not a cheap option, but it dominates the city both physically and spiritually, and has to be seen. The gift shop, as all others of its type, sported not only a wide range of cathedral-themed knick-knacks but also some of a unusual railwayana, in particular canvas bags with assorted modelling motifs. At least two were admitted to be purchased.

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    After a mainly liquid lunch we turned our attention north, travelling by bus to Whitstable along the approximate line of the Canterbury and Whitstable Railway, closed sixty years ago. There we paraded along the sea-front, admired the eclectic collection of chalets, curio shops and seafood stalls, and partook of the local cuisine, some with more gusto than others. Back to Canterbury on the bus, followed by evening meal at the hotel.

    Overnight, after a chance discovery of a Hornby Visitor Centre leaflet we plotted another diversion to the Mother Ship, as it was rapidly christened, in Margate. In the clear light of Sunday morning it became clear that the train route was not an option, but our enthusiasm was undimmed and a local taxi driver was commissioned to take us forth. The Centre turned out to be well worth the visit, with a wide range of historical models of all types, a genuine nostalgia-fest for us modellers.

    By lunchtime we were back in Canterbury for the train to Shepherdswell and the East Kent Light Railway. This is a small railway on a limited budget, running diesel and electric multiple units on part of the line used for the now-defunct Kent coalfields. Added attractions included a pleasant cafe, a miniature railway and a model railway. This last is run by Walmer Model Railway Club, who occupy a restored Stanier LMS carriage in return for keeping the layout running during opening hours. After an enjoyable afternoon playing trains of various scales we entrained again for Folkestone for a two-night stay.

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    Wednesday morning saw us on a bus going a short way down the coast to Hythe for the Romney, Hythe and Dymchurch railway, one of the key objectives of the trip. This is an 18" gauge railway built by a member of that well-known endangered species, the eccentric millionaire, initially for his own pleasure but now doing a useful service for residents as well as visitors. The route runs for thirteen miles past many a back garden and some rustic Kent scenery, ending up at Dymchurch amidst an ocean of shingle beach. This outpost on the teetering edge of civilisation boasts a pair of nuclear power stations, a pair of lighthouses and an air of slightly decayed weirdness. The houses resemble holiday homes, but some at least seem to be occupied permanently. By whom we dared not ask.

    On our return to Folkestone we attempted to locate the Leas Cliff Railway, a water-driven funicular of some antiquity. Unfortunately we were in possession of faulty location data, and took a bus to the wrong type of cliff on the edge of town. By the time we had recalibrated the various mobile electronics of choice and found the item only a few minutes' walk from where we were staying, it had closed for the night. For once our reputation for creative diversionary routing had come unstuck - it just shows you can't have enough detailed (and accurate) pre-planning.

    Next day we entrained for Ashford and then found a bus to Tenterden, home of the Kent and East Sussex Railway. This took us, by DMU, to Bodiam and its famous castle. Assuming you have heard of it, of course. An interesting sideline at the station was a small museum dedicated to the hop-pickers who used to descend on the hop-farms of the area in days gone by. After a quick look at the famous castle's famous ruins we somehow gravitated to the nearby pub, to test the quality of the hops in their beer. Some of us were satisfied at the first pass, whilst others declared themselves unsure of the quality and needful of more testing, even if it meant returning on a later train. Such dedication.

    The early leavers did the decent thing and met up with the two wives who had travelled from home base that day to check up on us and hold us in check on the Parisian jaunt. But that's another story.

  • 2011

    2011 - A SECONDARY SLEEPER

    All change this year, and I don't mean just at the numerous railway terminii visited during the course of the trip. The previous Proposer of the itinerary and Organiser of the accommodation (the posts being held jointly and concurrently for reasons of economy) had decided to retire at the peak of his powers and before he could be found out. And so a new P&O sleeper trip executive was voted in, and almost before he knew it, was being given numerous requests and requirements on what the 2011 excursion should consist of.

    It was of course a test - there was only one way the apparently conflicting proposals could be fitted into seven days and one night of travel, no matter how many sequences were attempted, rather like Mr Rubik's famous cube. Much to our surprise (and in at least one alleged case, disappointment) Frank deduced the solution in only 193 tries, a Southport MRS all comers' record. And so the franchise for running the next ten years' worth of sleeper trips was promptly awarded to the winning (and sole) bidder. The bottle of Glenfiddich 15-year old which somehow found its way into the new man's hands came cheap at the price.

    The euphoria of a successful planning exercise was short-lived. All too quickly the acid test of its provenance came on a Monday morning in late June as five of us assembled at Southport station, Richard deciding that true Ormskirkians do not enter Southport more than absolutely necessary and opting to join the train at the neutral venue of Burscough. At Wigan there was some doubt as to whether the schedule would permit second breakfast at the Station Cafe, but fortunately the strength of tradition was not to be denied, although for some members a take-away was considered the wiser option rather than the full sit-down three-course menu. A departure from said tradition was a change of train at Crewe, thoughtfully arranged by the Rail Travel Planning Executive (not to be confused with the P&O Executive, see above) to allow a stretch of the legs and a mooch around one of our more historic railway stations.

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    The mid-morning Pendolino to London was surprisingly busy and unsurprisingly mediocre, but at least on time. To make up for the slightly truncated refreshment stop at Wigan a full two hours was allocated to lunch at the Doric Arch, neé Head of Steam, located mercifully close to the entrance of Euston station. Here James initiated his signature contribution to the trip - a careful scrutiny of the The Good Beer Guide (photographic extracts of which contributed not insignificantly to the mass of his rucsac) to confirm or otherwise the worthiness of the establishment for his custom. Fortunately the Arch passed this most severe of examinations, with hand pumps not only present but also correct and functional, unlike some discovered later on in the tour.

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    last year's trip included a clockwise tour around the eastern section of London's Overground Railway. For symmetry therefore, it was necessary this time to proceed in an anticlockwise direction to cover as much as possible of the western half of Boris's Train Set. Such was the success of this manoeuvre that the number of lines travelled on, not to mention stations briefly visited, rapidly became too numerous to count. Richmond was an objective achieved early, and Clapham Junction very shortly afterwards, such that before the internal compass could be properly reset we found ourselves heading east again to the Docklands Light Railway and the Olympic stadium. Learning from past experience we decided to delay stopping for an evening meal until only a couple of stops away from Euston, to facilitate a timely arrival for boarding the sleeper.

    As it happened we had time enough to partake of Virgin's First Class lounge, where apparently our standard class sleeper tickets carried sufficient authority to allow admission. The departure was uneventful, with the barest minimum of discussion on who was sharing a cabin with whom, and who was going to be whose nominal carer. The buffet car was found to be serving not only haggis but also beer of acceptable quality, although regrettably the concept of alcohol served from the cask, rather than from the can, is still beyond the scope of such dispensaries.
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    Morning found us not as far north in the Scottish highlands as we should have been, due to signalling and other problems in the Scottish lowlands. For a while it was touch and go as to whether we would make our connection at Inverness, particularly as the line is single track and we would have to wait at crossing points for southbound trains to pass us. In the event we reached Inverness in time, but as at Wigan second breakfast was cut back, this time from the Victoria Market cafe to the station carry-out. However it did mean we got to Rogart on the Wick/Thurso line at the expected lunchtime. This destination was new to the club, and not one we would normally consider as a stop-off point, but for the fact that it included sleeping accommodation of that increasingly rare variety, the camping coach. Run as light relief from the day job of looking after Railtrack's northern freight interests, the proprietor had provided not just one but three Mark II first class coaches kitted out as stationary sleepers alongside Rogart station. The range of accommodation included a showman's wagon and, somewhat incongruously, a Bedford bus, all set in a mixed environment of garden and industrial heritage. The signal box was a greenhouse, and overlooked a Ruston diesel on its own short length of track, complete with a possibly pointless point.

    After an all-too-brief period exploring our novel surroundings, hunger drove us up to the village shop to gather the components of a self-catered lunch in our very own saloon compartment. Shortly afterwards we returned to the shop to catch the local bus a few miles up the road to Dunrobin castle, an enormous stone edifice set in, or rather looming above, large formal gardens. A pleasant couple of hours was spent being impressed by the scale and grandeur of the building and its setting before we returned by train to Rogart from the castle's very own station, constructed in what appeared to be 19th century African style.
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    After a pre-booked evening meal at the village's one and only hotel, we passed an uneventful second night in sleeper berths, after only a short delay while Richard got to grips with the sheet sleeping bags supplied. Obviously never been a YHA member. Next morning saw us with plenty of time for a first, if not second, breakfast, before catching the train back to Inverness and southwards to Aviemore for the Strathspey Railway. There 'EV Cooper Engineer' took us to the terminus at Broomhill by way of our first cream tea of the trip. Strict instructions had been issued in advance of the expedition on the correct sequence of scone - butter - jam - cream handling, but anecdotal evidence suggests that some Devonshire practice crept in despite the precautions. We returned by Scotrail to Inverness, checked in with our two B&Bs and ventured out to taste the Inverness nightlife, or its real ale at least. The selected venue was the Hootananny, which modestly advertised itself as having been voted the best pub in Inverness for the last five years. It looked suspiciously tourist-orientated, particularly with the word 'Ceilidh' emblazoned in large letters over the door. The presence of bouncers however swung the argument, and inside we discovered not only decent food and drink but also half-decent music supplied by a three-person band, which to judge by its reception was well considered by the large and disturbingly young audience.
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    Next morning we took the mid-morning train for a day excursion to the Kyle of Lochalsh, for no other reason than we could, and it would be nice. And so it was, particularly for the pair who decided to forgo a detailed exploration of the Kyle area for an early return on the train, to permit a stop-off at the small village of Plockton, home of fine scenery, food and beer. The rest of the party experienced a potentially alarming development when a trip across the bridge to Skye nearly resulted in an extended stay on the island, when the advertised bus from Kyleaken to Kyle failed to appear, causing them to miss the train to Inverness. Tony promptly phoned the bus office at Portree and politely informed them of their failure to perform, quoting extracts from the timetable posted up at the bus stop in support of his claim. The evidence of wrongdoing was overwhelming, and to their credit Citylink did not argue the point but indulged in a little creative timetabling of their own, diverting a convenient Portree to Inverness bus to collect the stranded four and restore them to the waiting real ale at Wetherspoons, not to mention to the Plockton Two, fearlessly testing the quality of said ale.

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    Another day, another train ride, this time eastwards to Keith, for the Keith and Dufftown railway. Very regular readers may recall we visited the Dufftown end of this preserved line in 2003, albeit on a non-running day. This time it was very much operational, and we enjoyed a nostalgic trip in a railbus which almost made us pine for our very own vintage stock, masquerading as the Southport - Manchester service. At Dufftown the magnetic pull of the distillery was not to be denied, and we spent a pleasant hour or so touring the Glenfiddich enterprise, complete with a triple-whisky tasting test afterwards, For the record, the 15-year old was the preferred vintage. Before returning on the last scheduled train of the day three of us paid a quick visit to the nearby Balvenie castle, where James made his other contribution to the trip (apart from wearing a succession of T-shirts of increasing Hawaiian-ness) by blagging free entry for both of his care staff.

    Back at Keith we entrained once more for Aberdeen, and on arrival wandered up Union St. to partake of Jimmy Chung's all-you-can-eat buffet before retiring to the B&B for the night. Extremely regular readers will recall us patronising a similar establishment in Edinburgh during the
    2003 sleeper trip. This one was a little larger and a lot quieter, so we felt obliged to make full use of the buffet to minimise wastage. Next day (Sunday if you're counting) saw us proceeding south by train again to Montrose, into uncharted territory for SMRS. The attraction was the Caledonian Railway, a preserved standard-gauge line between Bridge of Dun and Brechin. The eastern extremity of the line was reached by taxi, and we spent a pleasant half-hour or so exploring the range of preserved rolling stock before the train arrived from Brechin, pulled by a Thomas the Tank Engine lookalike. As a party piece before departing, the loco was manoeuvred to run over a series of pennies placed on the track, to create a flattened novelty for sale to boost the coffers of the railway.
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    The Brechin end of the track boasted a finely-preserved station, a number of equally well-preserved items of stock, and a shop containing more Thomas toys and memorabilia than even the hardened enthusiast, of any age, could wish for. Whilst exploring the town for lunch opportunities we came across a sign bearing the name of the home base, recording the position of one of three 16th century town gates. A local Brechonian offered some supplementary information to the extent that the area was now an assisted housing development. We resisted the temptation to put our collective names down on the waiting list, and returned to Montrose another way by Stagecoach bus, to minimise any potential taxi-finding problems at Bridge of Dun.

    Again we were split up in to two B&Bs, for commercial and security reasons, and one pair had some difficulty in gaining entrance, due to the landlady being absent at a barbecue designed as a cool-down after her hen-party the night before. Out of propriety we did not enquire further, but sought out our colleagues at a nearby restaurant, a Wetherspoon look-alike. Here the Good Beer Guide let us down, with hand pumps on display but connected to empty casks. The bigger sin, accordingly to the experts in the group, was not running out (could happen to any pub) but failing to turn round the pump labels to indicate the fact to potential customers peering round the door, only willing to enter if the beer was (a) real and (b) really present. For the true believers in our midst direct action was called for, by declining alcoholic drinks of any form, and somewhat pointedly requesting tap water. Whether the staff were suitably humbled was not clear, perhaps a memo to management might have been more effective.
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    All too soon our final day arrived, and with it the rain. We entrained to Edinburgh, met up with Ian, Tony's Scottish correspondent (whom incredibly regular readers might recall we last met in Bo'ness in 2004) and lunched in the small but cosy (and real-aled) Halfway House, hidden away in an alley just up from Waverley station. The station itself was in the middle of a very complex and confusing re-vamp, so it was no hardship to board our next train in the early afternoon bound for Preston. Again a full service, but again on time, so the last leg of the journey by bus to Southport was also per schedule (apart from the Ormskirk resident, who for some reason preferred to take his chances on another train).

    Yet another successful trip (there has been, so far at least, no other type).

    Some photos are here and the real, uncensored truth is here.
  • 2010
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    2010 is a busy year for SMRS, in particular for a certain chairman with the start of a fifth decade to celebrate. So no excuses for starting consideration of the sleeper trip even earlier than before. A return to the Fort William sleeper and the Jacobite steam excursion was a possibility, with options of either the Speyside and Keith and Dufftown railways, or a ferry trip to Barra via South Uist or Oban and Mull. The Barra options might include a flight to Glasgow on the homeward leg, with the added attraction of a beach take-off.

    Despite trying to limit the choices (no point in confusing the electorate with too many) in the end there were more options than could be easily reviewed all at once, even at a specially-convened subcommittee. This was attended by five interested parties, with the chairman absent in person but adding his not-inconsiderable persuasive authority courtesy of a mobile phone conference call.

    Despite significant interest in the eastern option, to Aberdeen and the Keith and Dufftown, the call of the Isles was not to be denied. The sleeper trip programme development manager (create your own acronym) was given clear instruction to progress a North Uist/Barra itinerary. The relative merits of buses and boats were discussed at length, taking due account of the likelihood of stormy weather in the Little Minch, even in mid-June.

    The eventually-preferred route involved some of each, going overland across Skye to take the ferry from Uig to Lochmaddy. The return would be by plane, taking in the world's only scheduled flight using a beach as a runway, at Barra. A neat complement to our experience of the shortest scheduled flight in Orkney in 2008, assuming that global warming didn't cause too much of a rise in sea levels between planning and execution.

    After the trauma of route selection, I was hoping booking would be straightforward. However the fairly small amount of B&B accommodation on the Outer Islands, and the need to accommodate six men in six beds, made it less than simple. Visions of us being scattered far and wide across each island, or alternatively of being forced to stay in luxury hotels significantly above our normal means, looked to becoming a definite reality. And the price of the air tickets, once fees and taxes were added, suddenly looked less of a bargain that they did earlier.

    However, such problems were just there to be solved, and we seemed to be just about there. Some splitting up of the party was necessary, but at least it looked as if we would be able to reconvene for evening sustenance and entertainment at each location, and just about afford it too.

    And then there were five. Shock, horror the chairman failed the initiative test and bottled out of team selection. Some pretext about a sudden training course for some government-inspired savings scheme. A likely story, but being loyal servants we swallowed it without audible question, cancelled a selection of pre-bookings and reformulated the finances. Fortunately the deputy chairman was still on board, so a strong element of leadership remained to guide us through.
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    The departure was comfortably routine, with all five reporting for kit inspection at the appointed hour at Southport station, with barely a Hawaiian shirt in sight. We were spoilt for choice, with not one but two Pacers vying for our custom, with spoilt being the correct description. Wigan arrived not a moment too soon, and we made our usual bee-line for the Station Cafe, for either first or second breakfast, depending on time of getting out of bed. A quick station-change was slowed somewhat by the presence of a larger-than-normal quota of railway police and Virgin staff, or militia as they prefer to be called. Even dog handlers were in attendance. Wondering if this was a guard of honour or a security tip-off, we tip-toed past the serried ranks of officialdom, showed more tickets than was strictly necessary at the barrier, and climbed aboard the London train, which seemed surprisingly full for the time of day.

    Euston arrived on time, allowing us the luxury of several hours in the metropolis. Not of course to be frittered away in frivolous shopping or pointless sightseeing. The Mayor of London's Trainset beckoned, better known to some as the London Overground. In theory a more-or-less complete circumnavigation of middle London suburbia was possible, although this might require more dedication than we were capable of summoning up in advance of a sleeper journey. The left-luggage office was briefly visited, but just as briefly dismissed due to the £8 per item charge. It would stay with us, and we would learn the value of travelling light. First stop was Highbury and Islington via the Victoria line, then the LO itself to Dalston Kingsland (where?). Dalston Junction was but a short step away, albeit slightly damp and surrounded by a combination of construction activity and variable-ethnic market commercialism that some might describe as eclectic. More Overground, this time due south through somewhat miscellaneous city scenery to Crystal Palace.

    Here amongst impressive but not particularly user-friendly brickwork, a decision needed to be made on the next stage. Several routes westward were possible, but only one, or at the most two, had the magic word 'tram' in their itinerary. A quick check on the validity of our travelcards and we were off to Beckenham, the north-eastern extremity of Tram Link. From there we traversed the length of the line, carefully avoiding Croydon of course, and eventually arrived at Wimbledon. Fighting our way through a mix of urban commuters and early-evening pleasure-seekers, we found a likely-looking Italian restaurant and declared dinner to be served.

    The final stage was another novelty, a First Capital Connect train aiming for Luton but going the pretty route through central London, across the Thames at Blackfriars to St Pancras International. A brisk walk westward along Euston Rd took us to our bed for the night.
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    The sleeper also seemed to be busy, and as is often the case we had to walk virtually the length of a long train to get to our cabins. In the lounge car appropriate refreshments were sought, and eventually obtained as we sped northward. Next morning the sun was up early, illuminating fine highland scenery as we headed into Fort William. The Jacobite was ready and waiting, also full to the brim and with kilted piper in full flow. The Black Five in charge behaved impeccably and we reached Mallaig on time. Lunch was taken on the hoof, to allow more time for exploring, in particular for identifying the sleeper accommodation for later than night. The steam train took us back to Fort William, in different seats, and the service train then returned us to Mallaig, where we split up for three different B&Bs. That evening we had a more than passable meal in the Marine Hotel, to the surprise of at least one of our landladies, who darkly hinted at a 'reputation'. A stroll around the harbour revealed some interesting wildlife, not only a seal in the water but an otter out of it, taking fish left on the deck of a fishing boat by an obliging crew member.

    Next morning we assembled for the third ferry of the day to Skye, the first two being discounted because a) the bus didn't meet either of them at Armadale and b) it would involve getting up earlier than strictly necessary. An uneventful crossing was noted only for presence of a bright red Morgan in pole position on the car deck, adding a touch of class to an otherwise rather ordinary collection of vehicles. The bus took us to Portree, where the afternoon was free for freelance adventures in the steadily-improving weather. By general agreement this would take the form of a boat trip to view the local aquatic wildlife. At first the cost quoted was a little daunting, but the salesperson recognised the significant age of most of the party and also that five in a boat were worth more than any number on the dockside. So a bargain was struck, and an al-fresco lunch consumed on the quay whilst we waited our turn afloat.
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    The boat looked a touch smaller than the brochure suggested, and the safety drill a little on the brief side, whilst covering all the main points, including the all-important one that the water was cold and not to be entered if at all possible. The skipper was clearly a man of knowledge and experience, and soon had us alongside a stretch of cliff on which perched an impressive-looking sea eagle. Attempts to entice it to fly by tossing fish in its direction resulted in complete indifference on the part of the eagle and a noisy fight on the part of two herring gulls, who knew a free lunch when they saw it. We then navigated at some speed south-eastwards into the Sound of Raasay on the strength of rumours of dolphins, and were eventually rewarded with a number of splashes in the distance that were clearly mammalian in origin. As we and two other boats approached schools of perhaps a dozen or so circled round us, timing their appearance to just miss the clicks of numerous camera shutters. Much photography of blank sea was achieved. On the way back had another look at the eagle, now perched by the nest higher up the cliff, and also passed a series of large circular fish farms. The technology apparently included food-firing pellet guns to deliver sustenance little and often, thus avoiding a pile of left-overs to accumulate on the sea-bed. A solution ripe for introduction into the child-rearing business.

    Back on dry land there was time to watch the world go by in the town square before the bus came to take us to Uig, driven by a lady with a strong sense of mission. The ferry to Lochmaddy was reached by a breakwater just long enough for us to be grateful for the minivan offered as courtesy transport. The weather started to mist over a little, giving added drama to both landscape and seascape, but fortunately not having any significant effect on wave heights. No Morgans this time, although one car did have a red canoe perched on top. Once cast adrift we went in search of the wardroom promised as far away as the ferry office in Mallaig, and as long ago as yesterday, and found it open and serving hot dinners.

    A pleasant two-hour cruise later North Uist grew on the bow horizon and we were manouvered alongside the modest jetty by a captain clearly well familiar with putting either left or right hand down a bit, as the situation demanded.
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    As the evening was well advanced the priority was to find the accommodation reserved for us. A walk up through what seemed to be Lochmaddy's one and only street found both establishments in fairly rapid succession. One seemed to be more self-catering than B&B, particularly at breakfast time, whilst the other was formerly the local courthouse, complete with walled garden for the better containment of the local miscreants. Just across the road a new-looking hotel beckoned, the Tigh Dearg, which hosted an impressive collection of the national liquor. On the return journey we diverted a little to try our hand at low-light camera work across the local jetty, it being almost dusk at almost midnight.

    Next morning after breakfast, cooked or raw depending on location, we set off to explore the environs of Lochmaddy, guided by local information that a pleasant walk could be obtained beyond the Tigh Dearg in a circular fashion. The degree of dampness underfoot, and occasionally in the air, encouraged a shorter version that still succeeded in testing the waterproof qualities of our footwear to the limit, and in some cases beyond it. Highlights of the tour included a circular stone igloo, far too new in appearance to be an ancient dwelling-house, that later research was determined to be a camera obscura. So obscure in fact that we never twigged it at the time. Also on the itinerary was a wooden suspension bridge and Sponish House, a somewhat run-down mansion built 200 years ago for the local sheriff. We circled back to the hotel for a welcome coffee, and wandered back down to the harbour, via the local museum and shop, to wait for the bus to the airport. This was on Benbecula, not to be confused with either North Uist or South Uist, between which it lay. First to arrive was the local post bus, whose driver offered to take us but with the honest appraisal that the journey would be both shorter and more comfortable in the proper bus, which was but five minutes behind. We decided to wait, and had the shorter and comfier trip across the island and the barely-discernible bridge (or was it a causeway?) to the airport.
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    There we checked in for Barra and settled down to wait for half-an-hour or so until the flight was due. This was rudely interrupted not once but twice, as the polite but determined security staff selected not one but two of our party for random baggage searches, no doubt using some complex formula involving thinking of a number between one and five, twice in quick succession. Altogether about nine or ten passengers squeezed into the De Havilland Twin Otter for the short trip south to Barra. The flight was remarkable not only for the scenery but also for the beach landing, which was accomplished with the aplomb of a pilot who has done it many times before and who regards bumping over multiple worm-casts merely as an environmentally-friendly way of maximising runway grip. The spray from residual tide-water just added to the interest.

    We disembarked just in time to miss the bus to Castlebay, but were assured there was another a few minutes behind. True to form it appeared, piloted by a driver whose customer service battle honours were clearly born of natural island breeding rather than of an anonymous training course delivered in the back room of some soul-less Glaswegian urban hotel. Not only did we manage to underpay the fare, but we were cheerfully delivered right to the door of our chosen B&Bs, both involving a diversion off the bus route and one a three-point turn on a narrow road.

    Castlebay turned out to be an attractive well-appointed small town on a scenic island. After a quick spruce-up we set out looking for sustenance. The local Indian eating-house was closed, which was a pity because it claimed to combine both sub-continental and Italian cuisine, a combination well worth exploring, although perhaps not on the same plate. Instead we went up-market in the Castlebay hotel, which claimed to be the best dining experience in town. Almost certainly the most expensive, but on balance judged to be good value. As the evening drew to a close, and the light even began to dim a little, a shadowy shape approached the jetty. This was the ferry from Oban, at the end of its seven-hour journey.

    Next morning was unscripted, allowing us to choose how to explore the attractions of Castlebay. We elected to visit Kisimul castle, the home of the chief of the MacNeil clan. This had a moat of some considerable proportions, namely the whole of the bay, the bay of the castle in fact. Whilst waiting for the boat to take us across, various buildings were pointed that had starring roles, or at least significant bit parts, in the making of
    Whisky Galore in 1949. The castle itself was interesting rather than excessively fascinating, with a number of medieval features that held the attention long enough to elect to stay longer than the first available return journey. Distinctly un-medieval was the helicopter that took off from the edge of the town while we were there, its yellow livery indicating its function as a flying ambulance.
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    Lunch was taken on the patio of a small cafe overlooking the bay, consuming sandwiches which the vendor correctly described as 'not your average Tesco'. The bus to the airport was driven by the same driver, giving us the opportunity to equalise the fare structure we had created the night before. He seemed unfazed, and perhaps even a little disappointed that he had no opportunity to divert from his route to serve us better. So much so that half way there he exchanged vehicles with a female driver coming the other way, and returned whence he had come.

    Back on the beach we soaked up the sun, finished off lunch and waited for splashdown of the Glasgow plane. Its landing was well worth the wait, as was the scenery revealed as we flew south-east over such exotic isles as Coll, Tiree and Mull, and quite possibly Muck and Eigg as well. A combination of clear weather and limited altitude meant that the landscape did actually resemble Google Earth's representation, albeit without the zoom facility. A bus to Paisley station was ready and waiting outside the airport, and we entrained for our final destination, Largs. The final B&B was within a stone's throw of the station, although we managed to reach it via a somewhat larger slingshot. The proprietorix was welcoming and Rumanian, and encouraged us to make full use of the facilities, including our second resident's lounge of the trip. However we had more important matters to attend to, namely to find a suitable venue for eating, drinking and watching England's stumbling performance through world cup qualifying. The first two requirements were easily met, the third was somewhat frustrating.

    The final day saw us back at the station aiming for a seven-minute connection at Glasgow Central for the train to Preston. We made it without undue alarm, and once the seat bookings were sorted out we had an uneventful trip back home, the final leg courtesy of the Stagecoach X2 omnibus.

    Planning has already started for next year, the new man promising a fresh, vigorous approach to executive sleeper trip management. In reality, more of the same will do nicely.

    Some photos are here.
  • 2009
    Stacks Image 1665
    Our second foray into Euroland began with a celebratory dinner at the Kasturi, a well-known Indian restaurant in downtown Southport. For five of us at least, as our medical officer was busy boosting his expenses bill at a health conference in uptown Cardiff. With his wife, no less. A rendezvous was therefore arranged at the Norfolkline ferry terminal in mid-town Birkenhead, and much to my surprise, successfully achieved. A brief quote of a reference number, a flash of photographic ID, and we were through into the inner waiting area. A few cars joined us, but mostly it was lorries.

    The loading procedure was reminiscent of a circus ride. It started on a fairly innocuous-looking landing stage, with a hard left to avoid the fatal error of boarding the Dublin ferry, followed by a sweeping curve onto the loading ramp, and we thought we were there. However a uniformed official had other ideas, and pointed us firmly in the direction of a second ramp, equipped with ominous-looking, and ominous-sounding anti-slip markings. The reason for such provision immediately became clear, as we were launched up a steep slope that threatened to test the driver-vehicle combination to the limit. Just as it seemed we were inevitably to be catapulted onto a maritime version of the wall of death, we emerged onto the top deck of the ferry and some welcome flat parking areas. At the far end we espied a well-preserved Mini, looking far younger than its 29 years, if the number plate was to be believed.

    The cabins were functional but more than adequate, as was the midships bar, the aft bar, the min-casino and the restaurant. This last served dinner that was not only filling but also included in the price of the ticket, so we were compelled to put the Indian meal firmly behind us and ensure full value was secured from our investment. Mid-way through dinner a steward appeared and pulled the curtains across the front windows firmly closed, although it was by no means dark outside. One hoped no such procedure was being carried out upstairs on the bridge.
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    Outside dusk descended only slowly, and we were able to enjoy watching first of all the Dublin ferry depart from the adjacent dock, by means of a stately three-point turn in front of the Liverpool water-front. The lights of our beloved Bootle came next, followed by numerous lights that seemed to be moving. One pair in particular seemed to be closing fast, accompanied by lines in the water that looked suspiciously like torpedo tracks. Fears that the U-boat tied up at Birkenhead as a tourist attraction had somehow slipped its moorings and had come seeking revenge on its captors of sixty years, were eventually proved unfounded. Just a fishing boat.

    The morning alarm call, courtesy of several mobile phones, was sounded earlier that we would have liked, but the promise of a free breakfast was stronger than we could resist. As we ate Belfast Lough slipped by either side and we were soon docking at our destination, surrounded by container cranes, container stacks and container lorries. As we tied up a Stena high-speed catamaran ferry pulled in a little astern of us, probably without any containers. Leaving the ship required a firm hand on the steering wheel and a strong will to avoid breaking any speed limits for the descent into the bowels of the ship where lay the exit ramp. Once safely at ground level we headed north in convoy, initially in the direction of Londonderry but then south-west towards Donegal, in weather that seemed determined to emulate, if not improve on, the previous day's. At Strabane we stopped for a coffee, the effect of an early start being that the town still seemed rather more than half asleep. Fortunately we found one cafe wide awake and functioning. En route we passed a baker's shop that seemed to take to heart the Irish reputation for dairy products of quality and quantity, with a good dozen square feet of counter space given over to essential supplies of cream cakes.
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    Suitably refreshed we passed on to Donegal, to seek out the local railway museum. This took several attempts, and two lots of directions from local inhabitants before we eventually found it. On one circuit of the town square we were surprised to see a van drawn up outside the bank with an escort of not only Garda but also of the military, complete with sufficient portable weaponry to deter all but the most hardened bank robber.

    The museum was an interesting affair, cataloging the rise and fall of the local narrow-gauge systems with photographs, posters, models and audio-visual displays, supplemented by some static coaches outside. The lady in charge explained the lack of signs to the museum by saying that it was easy to find if you knew where it was, or words to that effect.

    Lunchtime was approaching, but we decided to press on the twenty miles or so to Fintown, in weather that was turning increasingly warm. After a journey through country roads in scenery that looked decidedly Scottish, we reached a lake and soon afterwards spotted a railcar progressing eastwards alongside it. A swift overtaking manoeuvre and we pulled into the somewhat basic station facilities to await its arrival. It turned out to be a pair of vehicles, with a small diesel locomotive providing banking assistance (on almost completely level track) to the railcar. After confirming the afternoon timetable we repaired to the local pub for lunch, only to find it served no food. Faced with a five-mile run back to Glenties for an alternative venue, we opted instead to gather a selection of supplies at the village shop, for consumption at a picnic table overlooking some particularly picturesque scenery. The train returned, departed and returned again, and this time we strolled back to the station and took our seats for a leisurely ride along the lakeside. At the far end we were a captive audience to a taped message describing the history of the line, its closure and its reopening, and we were driven sedately back again. In an adjacent yard were several other railcars and another diesel locomotive, all in considerable need of repair.

    We drove onwards to a B&B on the outskirts of Letterkenny, a busy small town that sported a considerable number of new commercial and residential developments, no doubt part of the Celtic Tiger effect, before it caught cat 'flu. It also featured a one-way system, which the lead vehicle managed to negotiate no less than five times whilst a) re-establishing contact with the separated support vehicle, b) locating a shop selling camera cards and c) finding a suitable place to eat. This last was the first of two Chinese restaurants we were to patronise during the trip. As a pre-dinner exercise we explored the eastern perimeter of the town for signs of previous railways. The stone-and-cast-iron bus station looked a good candidate for a restored railway terminus, circa 1908, further evidence being in the form of a hand-operated pedestal crane in the car park outside.
    Stacks Image 1674
    Next morning the first rainfall of the trip helped to wash the salt of the cars as we prepared to depart for the Bushmills railway at the Giant's Causeway, back in Northern Ireland. Despite entering the correct postcode for the railway we were directed by Sally the Satnav to the Bushmills distillery. Whether this was a demonstration of electronic good taste or of technical insubordination was not immediately clear, but later events suggested the latter. After a minor route adjustment we arrived at the railway, the Bushmills end of which consisted merely of a platform containing a newly-arrived narrow-gauge train, drawn by a steam engine named Shane. Perhaps named after the driver. The carriages were small boxes on wheels, just big enough for our six-man party. After a couple of miles ride through wood and grassland we arrived at the terminus proper, complete with station, workshops and a carriage shed. We followed the rest of the passengers on a short walk up an increasingly steep road to a National Trust car park, always a sign of an Attraction with a capital A. Just past the inevitable gift shop and cafe was another road, this time going steeply downwards towards the sea, before disappearing around a corner. A bus stood invitingly at the top, and mindful of the likelihood that the visible corner probably wasn't the only one, we elected to use the vehicle rather than walk. Halfway along the road The Giant's Camel was pointed out to us, followed in quick succession by the Giant's Boot, Chimney and Organ. All contrivances of rock and an optimistic imagination. Two corners later we arrived at our destination, the Causeway itself. Although slightly smaller than previously imagined, it was none-the-less impressive. Equally impressive was the number of visitors it was host to, from a wide spectrum of nations apparently intent in doing in a few decades what wind and wave had yet to accomplish in millennia, namely erode the structure to a shadow of its former self.

    After a thorough examination of the edifice, and our contribution to its eventual disappearance, we returned to Bushmills by bus and train. This time the train was pulled by a diesel locomotive, complete with a set of roof-mounted horns that could probably be heard in Stranraer. The steam loco had been declared temporarily unfit for employment with injector problems. Possibly some form of psychosomatic neurosis brought on by being called Shane – one wondered if it had a twin called Sharon, or perhaps Tracy? We set off for our overnight accommodation in Ballymena, in one of a matching pair of large guest houses.

    Next day we drove on almost deserted roads to the small town of Whitehead, the home of the workshops of the Railway Preservation Society of Ireland. A track off a road alongside a children's park opened up into a large yard full of assorted locomotives, rolling stock and associated machinery. We introduced ourselves to one of the volunteer workers, hoping the the deputy chairman's careful preparation for our visit had paid off. Fortunately they were friendly enough to overcome this obstacle, and we were treated to a thorough tour of the works and much detail on the Society's operations. The range of this works was impressive, and even included a small foundry for casting assorted items of railway infrastructure.

    Our second stop of the day was at Downpatrick, for the Downpatrick railway. Unfortunately they had suffered a break-in the night before, and were unable to run trains, the local scenes of crime officer being fully engaged on the platform and station building with magnifying glass and fingerprint powder. We were however given our second detailed and informative tour of the day, by an apologetic and friendly staff. After a late lunch at a local pub we drove to Castleblayney for our overnight accommodation.

    Next day the Cavan and Leitrim Railway was a considerable surprise. We were expecting perhaps a repeat of the Downpatrick railway, although hopefully without the criminal element. What we found was a treasure trove of old transport, of virtually every conceivable type. As well as a restored steam locomotive and numerous industrial diesels there were buses, coaches, ambulances, parts of planes, a German WWII glider and even a midget submarine, painted the inevitable yellow. It was run by another national treasure, known in the railway fraternity as 'Mad Mike', possibly for his slightly eccentric appearance, for his 'can-do attitude to preservation issues or for an eclectic and all-inclusive approach to selecting items for his personal attention. Or possibly all three.
    Stacks Image 1677
    We were treated to a non-stop flow of pertinent, and sometimes impertinent, information on a generous sample of the stored stock, much of which seemed to have a story involving royalty. As well as the steam locomotive, the available motive power included a large number of small diesels from the local peat-winning industry. Three of the smarter ones were lined up as our personal run-past photo opportunity, an event which included riding on two of them whilst Mike propelled us from the rear with the third. The finale was a run behind a slightly larger coach along the full length of the currently-navigable line, the latter part of which clearly demonstrated the need for Mike's latest invention, a home-made weed-killing wagon.

    After a session buying T-shirts and finding other excuses to press modest amounts of money into our host's hands, we took a reluctant farewell. Pausing only to watch the local service train stop at the adjacent station, we departed south for the final railway of the trip, and the most problematical. We knew there were narrow-gauge railways in the area, supplying power stations with freshly-dug peat, but we had also been reliably informed that the associated tourist-carrying track was closed. Apparently it was being upgraded to a full-blown Tourist Attraction, possibly even a Heritage Centre. But not for a couple of years.

    However local intelligence, from Mad Mike himself no less, indicated that a working peat operation was located nearby, and furthermore that a working power station was not far distant, and it might even suffer visitors to view its activities. We set off in optimistic mood, and quite soon came upon a somewhat nondescript collection of sheds, vehicles and tracks that looked vaguely peat-related. Our veteran ambassador was sent to negotiate with the handful of workers who looked as if they had had enough for the day. Whether they had strange visitors from abroad every other week was not clear, but they seemed quite happy for us to wander around and record what they were doing, or to be precise had just stopped doing. The operational nature of the site was quickly confirmed by a small diesel locomotive which drove energetically past towing a wagon, the driver clearly needing to be somewhere else by the end of his shift. Peat-scraping machines and a briquette-making equipment were seen, along with a large pile of assorted track panels and serried ranks of sleeper packs.

    A few miles further on a tall chimney emitting a plume of white smoke indicated a power station. This time the chairman took charge, and introduced himself to the shift manager. The latter was also unsurprised at the request to look round his domain, and spend some time explaining in detail just what went on there. We were granted favoured-visitor status, and allowed to wander around outside taking photographs of the train movements. Peat-loading had finished for the day, but several locomotives were seen coming and going with long trains of wagons, with the occasional light-engine positioning moves, ready for the morning.
    Stacks Image 1680
    At the end of an interesting and rewarding day we drove the few miles into Athlone and our accommodation for the night. Next day was rostered as time off for good behaviour, so we split up for an hour or two of recreational shopping before reconvening for a boat trip up the Shannon. This followed the normal routine for such expeditions, namely a steady cruise up-river with a running commentary by a cheery owner-driver. However at the turn-round point the plan went off-message a little, as a large group of middle-aged men descended on the boat and rapidly filled up virtually every seat. One had an accordion, and it became abundantly clear he was not afraid to use it. And so as the rain clouds that had been threatening a downpour for some time finally delivered, we were treated to a series of popular (at least to the Irish male sterotype) songs, sung with considerable enthusiasm and varying talent. Well it helped to pass the time.

    Back on dry land it was still wet, so we retrieved our vehicles promptly and set off in the direction of Dublin, for our final B&B and the ferry home. Negotiating the route to the docks was a little trickier than on the outward journey, but we made it, and had the pleasure of a millpond to sail on back to Birkenhead.

    Some photos are
    here.
  • 2008
    Trains and boats and planes


    I
    dimly recall, back in 1997, sitting on the harbour wall in Thurso debating the merits of including a visit to Orkney on the next sleeper trip. For ‘next’ read eleven years later, and here we are. No sense in rushing these decisions.

    The idea was promulgated by the chairman, which immediately added a degree of authority to the discussion on where we should go in 2008. The prime aim apparently was to experience the world’s
    shortest scheduled flight, from Westray to Papa Westray in the Orkney Islands. The value of going several hundred miles to sit in a small plane for a few bumpy minutes was not immediately apparent, but like good loyal members we smiled and nodded and let the idea sit for a while to see how it looked. In the meantime a few tentative prods were made on McGoogle to see how the logistics might pan out. It looked complicated but do-able, which is the sort of verdict we have been used to in recent years. Two nights on Orkney seemed the optimum, to minimise the chance of itinerary failure, and also the amount of luggage needed to be either carried on the plane or deposited at the airport.

    A deal was struck - we would fall in with the idea on the understanding that the chairman would allow us to vote for him in the forthcoming elections at the AGM. Well it seemed a good idea at the time.

    The many and varied episodes between conception and execution are documented
    here, and you will be grateful to learn that I will not repeat them. Sufficient to say it was probably the most testing pre-trip period I can recall, not made any easier by being deputed as ticket monitor. This was due to the deputy chairman’s determination to play with his steam locomotive in the deep south at virtually the same time as embarking on an expedition to the far north. It broke down (twice) so justice was done in the end.
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    As is now established as an unalterable tradition (until we do something else) we departed Southport on the Monday for Wigan. We were two down at that stage, one being somewhere south-west of Swindon trying desperately to get a new left-handed nadging sprocket for Duke of Gloucester. The chairman had elected to join us at Wigan, thus avoiding the large crowd of admirers, well-wishers and papparazzi gathered at Southport to see him off. The Station Cafe at Wigan again benefited from our mid-morning custom. We boarded one of Virgin Rail’s finest on time and in First Class, thereby enjoying not only a more peaceful and less crowded ride, but also the at-seat buffet and snack service. The beer on offer was Peruvian in origin, which seemd a little exotic to say the least. If we had been bound for Paddington a possible link with a certain bear might have been made, but Euston knew nothing of such connections.

    London appeared only a few minutes late and most of us elected for a visit to the
    London Transport Museum in Covent Garden. The general verdict was interesting, but not as big as we thought. One wandered off (just getting into practice for later in the trip) to investigate the tram service to Croydon, for no other reason than it was there and he could. The Duke’s minder appeared in time for the evening meal in a Covent Garden pub and the full party then set off for Euston.
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    At this point I discovered the one and probably only advantage of minding the tickets - I could give everybody else the sleeper doubles and retain the single for yours truly. It just happened that way, honest. After sorting out the sleeping arrangements we repaired to a busy lounge car and sought to engage the attention of the chief steward, who regarded us as lucky to be on his train, let alone in his buffet area. Eventually we reached an amicable agreement - he would divulge what he had available and then we would order from the menu. Thus a lucky few were served an excellent, freshly-killed haggis, whilst the rest made do with more mundane fare. Gradually the lounge car got less busy, and we could engage the stewards more frequently over just what liquid refreshment was available for supply. And so the night progressed.
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    Morning revealed the Great Glen in sparkling form, followed by Inverness in reasonable nick. Breakfast was taken in the market cafe and we returned to the station for the train to Thurso. This took the best part of four hours, with numerous stops and much winding in and out of the scenery, which gradually became more bleak and barren as we travelled north. The train dropped us off at Thurso terminus and promptly reversed out for the final part of its journey to Wick. Expedition members were then given freedom to roam the environs of Thurso unrestricted for another three hours, before regrouping for the bus to the ferry. Some of us took the opportunity to visit the (somewhat nondescript) harbour for a preview of the route we would take that evening. Orkney (the island of Hoy, to be precise) was clearly visible, as was the Old Man of Hoy, which we would shortly be sailing past. Apart from a handful of small boats, the harbour briefly played host to a pair of otters before they disappeared off seawards.

    At the appointed hour the bus turned up at the station and took us off on the short journey to Scrabster harbour. One of our number (the tram wanderer) had been tempted to walk the route along the sea-front, but had backed out at the last minute due to a suspicion that the ferry may depart from somewhat further round the coast. As it happened it didn’t and we were soon deposited at the loading-ramp of a smart, modern ship that looked very capable of dealing with whatever weather the Pentland Firth might contrive to throw at it.
    For reasons which were not clear, either to us or to the ferry company, a surcharge of £1.45 was payable. As this worked out at a bare 20p per person argument seemed a little pointless, but a mystery it remained. It was certainly not a congestion charge, as there were hardly a couple of dozen foot passengers for the whole ship. Reference numbers were duly recalled, and photo-identities produced, and we were allowed to board. The bar was comfortable, and open, and so became the natural resting place for weary travellers.
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    In my experience, any activity involving a stretch of water seems to conjure up at least two of the three elements wind, cold and rain. In this case, being high summer, the trip was only moderately windy, cool and almost completely dry. Even so venturing out on the weather-deck for a closer examination of the Old Man of Hoy required some determination and fortitude. The sea stack was surprisingly close and duly impressive, although perhaps not quite as tall as one might have expected. However one could well imagine an ascent to be for neither the faint-hearted nor the unskilled.

    We arrived at Stromness as dusk was falling, but being so far north it took most of the evening to get anywhere near dark. Just as well, as the B&B was sufficiently well hidden off the main street to make it difficult to discover even in the full light of day. However we eventually got there, and were allocated comfortable berths in the adjacent building.

    Breakfast was a meal to be savoured, with enough quality content to keep us going for ages, even perhaps as far as elevenses. The weather was not promising, windy and wet, not really the sort of conditions for aerobatics,  wing-walking or indeed any sort of flying in anything smaller than a 737. However we were fully committed, not to mention fully paid up in advance, so we queued for the bus in an orderly fashion and duly arrived in an equally damp Kirkwall. Only a brief tour of the town was feasible before catching the bus to the airport, which was surprisingly modern and even a touch busy. We presented ourselves at the Loganair desk and were pleased to note that we were not only expected but both plane and pilot were at that moment preparing for our aerial adventure. The former turned out to from the very deep south (London) one of a surprising number of ex-pats we encountered on Orkney. They mostly claimed to be fugitives from the rat-race, but even so we thought it better not to mention that one of our number was an employee of the Inland Revenue.
    Stacks Image 1826
    Our aircraft was indeed smaller than a 737, in fact smaller than most passenger-carrying aircraft of our acquaintance. An eight-seat Britten Norman Islander no less, of considerable vintage. Hopefully it was at that middle point in its reliability curve between early failure due to faulty manufacture and late failure due to wearing out. At least being a twin, it had a spare engine. Or to put it another (and less comforting) way, a twin-engined plane gets you to your first experience of engine failure twice as quickly as the single-engined variety. Also of momentary concern was its livery, which was of that well-known and excellent malt whisky, Highland Park. Normally such liaison would be evidence of forward thinking by an discerning management, but one wondered if there was a risk of the sponsor being just a little too free with its product samples amongst a workforce which surely would have sobriety as one of its key performance measures. Hardly a hi-vis colour either.

    However the pilot was not only reassuringly sober but had clearly driven this particular machine many times before, as he made light work of a series of takeoffs and landings that to our untutored eyes looked decidely tricky. The cloud was low but we flew lower, securing a unique view of Orkney's many islands. The combination of a cramped cabin, engine noise (don't knock it, it shows they're working) and minimum altitude gave a sense of involvement that jets definitely lack. First stop was Westray, a small island with a gravel airstrip, a windsock, and a couple of part-time firemen trying to look professional whilst sheltering from the intermittent drizzle. Then came the experience we had travelled virtually the length of the British Isles for, a two-minute hop, skip and jump to Papa Westray, an even smaller island with matching gravel airstrip, windsock, etc.
    Stacks Image 1829
    At both islands we were encouraged to disembark, take the odd photo and even talk to the locals. All too soon we were heading back over the wind-flecked Orcadian waters to Kirkwall airport. There we were each given a certificate to mark the occasion (in some cases even with the name spelled correctly) and a miniature of said Highland Park. All-in-all a day to remember, and it was still only lunchtime. Back in Kirkwall we topped up our fuel reserves at a high-street cafe and members were then released for an afternoon at leisure. Museums, the cathedral and the pub were all options, as was getting the early bus back to Stromness.

    At this point the Duke’s servant had to take his leave, as his locomotive was calling to him from way beyond the northern seas. He was seen off on the evening ferry, by two of his compatriots determined to win the waving competition and not be the first to give up and seek shelter from wind and rain.

    For the evening of the second day on Orkney we decided the imposing Stromness Hotel was the only place worthy of our custom for eating . It was of the type that had the town had a railway line it would almost certainly have been called the Station Hotel. Afterwards the local, and possibly only, pub seemed both noisy and crowded, but just opposite  a sign was seen bearing the legend 'Royal British Legion - visitors welcome'. An exploratory knock revealed the sign was correct on both counts, and we spent a convivial hour or two drinking modestly-priced beer and playing pool, at the same time trebling the number of customers.

    Next day, after another excellent, and this time more leisurely, breakfast we had time to explore Stromness before the mid-morning ferry. It had a single main street, rather confusingly laid with pavement slabs, which wound gently uphill to a lookout point complete with signal cannon. For some inexplicable reason we were not afforded even an 18-gun salute, so we had to be content with a mere team photo. The town’s fishing heritage was very apparent, with virtually every other house on the seaward side having an alleyway down the side leading to a small jetty. An most unexpectedly of all, one even had a small N-gauge railway layout in the front window, complete with winterised scenery, and with evidence of further modelling activity behind. Unfortunately we had neither visiting card nor exhibition flyer to post through the letterbox, so we were unable to make contact with this bastion of far northern civilisation.

    The return trip was less windy and more busy than the outward one, and took us to Thurso by lunchtime on the Thursday. A free afternoon was then declared, which two members seized on as the perfect time to visit the thriving metropolis of Wick. Unfortunately the bus ride was the most interesting part of the trip. Meanwhile the rest of us spent a restful couple of hours lunching in the harbour cafe, and sitting watching the waves breaking on the beach. Back at the station we received text reports that the other two had exhausted Wick's leisure facilities and were impatiently waiting for their train to depart for the even more thriving metropolis of Thurso. In due course we were reunited and an uneventful journey saw us back in Inverness. One item of note was the empty deep anchorage of Cromarty Firth, usually home to up to a dozen drilling rigs resting between contracts, like unemployed actors. Only one remained, and that looked to be in the throes of a major overhaul, the better to join its compatriots in the current rush for oil at $140 a barrel.
    Stacks Image 1832
    At Inverness we split again, four into one B&B and two in another just up the road. The latter pair had a little difficulty in persuading the landlady that a booking had been made and they were the two she was expecting. Apparently their lack of bicycles was a confusing factor. Eventually however they were recognised and allowed to enter.

    Friday morning was another train ride, this time for Kyle of  Lochalsh. The group of four prudently walked to the station whilst the group of two decided on a taxi. This was initially late and latterly caught in traffic, which caused a little stress amongst both groups, particularly as the tickets were only valid with the single group seat reservation, and the ticket inspectors were out in force at the station. However a timely reunion was effected and we boarded en masse. As we progressed westwards the scenery became more mountainous and picturesque, and as on a previous trip we passed the Royal Scotsman tour train on the way. At Kyle we made the acquaintance of the Kyle of Lochalsh hotel, specifically one of the three employees who seemed to be running the hotel between them. We certainly saw no others. We were allocated outside rooms on the ground floor, which gave us both good views of Skye and easy access to the  village facilities.  Plenty seemed to be going on, including the building of a new and possibly over-scale health centre, and loading of a ship with oversize tree trunks.

    After lunch in the hotel (served by employee number two) the third free period was declared. Three of us, mindful of the tradition created last year of a natural history element in the programme, elected to try a trip on a glass-bottomed boat. In truth the glass was more on the sides rather than the bottom, and the main wildlife visible through it was seaweed. Topsides however we saw seals, a brief glimpse of a pair of otters, and numerous varieties of birds.

    DInner (served by employees two and three) was followed by a brief walk in the evening air before turning in for the last night of the trip. Breakfast (employee no. three) was timed to finish just before arrival of the bus for Fort William, which we boarded with the help of a printout of our e-ticket purchased some weeks before. The trip was as scenic as the last time, slightly less damp and with the added bonus of a view of a couple of local deer beside the road.

    At Fort William there was an hour to spare before the train to Glasgow, where we boarded the train to Wigan. In the seat opposite was a lady who had stayed on the bus at Fort William and only made the train at Glasgow by a small and worrying margin, thanks to heavy traffic in the city’s suburbs. We sympathised, trying not to sound too smug about our choosing the train for that leg of the journey. For once we arrived at Wigan just in time to catch the Southport train, instead of the usual just in time to miss it, and arrived home on schedule, after a round trip of some 1500 miles.


    Next time, something simpler perhaps, at least for the organisers.

    Some photos are
    here.
  • 2007
    Stacks Image 1835
    Another year, another sleeper trip. It might by now be almost routine, but for 2007 we resolved to do something different, in modern jargon to push the envelope, even if it only got as far as the other side of the desk. This time we were also determined to get the full sleeper experience from London to Fort William, and heaven help Mr Branson if his Virgin trains failed to get us to the capital on time.

    The number of participants this year reverted to six, with the addition of one member who had been painted a sufficiently rosy picture of previous trips to be persuaded to make up the number to evens. Getting accommodation for six men can sometimes be tricky, the number of twin rooms in Scottish B&Bs seems strictly limited, with triples even rarer. Also the possibility of rowdy behaviour had to be considered - one guest house agreed to accommodate us on the strict condition that we would be well-behaved and would observe an 11.30 curfew. In truth most of us are of an age when riotous conduct is but a fond and distant memory.

     The novelty factor was provided by a decision to include a day in Mull on a wildlife expedition. Several entrepreneurs offered their services, but only one was chosen, mainly for the quality of their website and sightings diary. The reality did not disappoint, although the weather certainly did, being the wettest sleeper trip since records began.

     Another novelty was to have an escort for the first part of the journey, in the form of the wife of our new sleeper tripper. This was presented as an coincidental opportunity to visit southerly relatives, but we all knew it was a spousal monitoring exercise, to ensure that husband really did depart with a load of old train buffs, rather than go off enjoying himself somewhere else.
    Stacks Image 1838
    We departed for London via Wigan, the diversionary tactic via Preston not being available this year. This did however permit second breakfast to be taken at Wigan's Station Cafe, possibly the only railway-themed eating-house in the country to be within a hundred yards of two stations. With similar names, that is. At Lord's, on a Sunday.

    It was a fairly compact establishment, and we certainly were not, even without our extensive luggage. Fortunately our schedule required a timely departure, allowing other customers the chance to partake of its delights before closing time. As it happened, the train was late (the effect of the summer monsoon) causing the display board to cycle randomly through numerous train departures whilst it tried to work out which train came next. Odd that when you really want to know when a train will come the system can't actually tell you anything useful. One good omen was the train’s name - it was comforting to know we were travelling in such esteemed company.

    On arrival in London we took the now traditional (i.e. we've done it once before) visit to the Doric Arch, the renamed Head of Steam pub at the entrance to Euston station. Suitably refreshed, we set out on a medical history tour of Bloomsbury and environs, led by our expedition medical officer in full regalia, namely shorts, sandals and see-through yellow rain cape. From time to time we halted on some street corner to be lectured on the original form and function of adjacent buildings, as the rain alternated between gentle and vigorous. References to plague and leprosy were reminders that at least some things have improved under the NHS. After an hour or so (it seemed longer) we were escorted to the nearby Stockpot restaurant and allowed to eat dinner. Then time off for good behaviour was granted to visit Downing Street and Trafalgar Square, before returning to Euston, reclaiming our bags from the not-best-value left luggage and boarding the sleeper.

    For several hours we drank, ate, drank and watched England darken around us as we trundled northwards. Gradually the rate of consumption slowed as, one by one, we slid off to the cosy cabins further up the train. Only one remained to salute Oxenholme, and to astonish the steward by demanding more hot food well after bed-time, in the process disturbing a riveting game of Virgin Scrabble.
    Stacks Image 1841
    Daylight brought clear skies, bright sunshine and a cool wind, with highland scenery that for once matched the travel brochures. A restful time to savour the anticipated delights of our crowded itinerary, and earnestly hope that the rain would hold off. Unfortunately the weather had somehow learned that the wettest June since records began was within its grasp, and was merely marshalling its forces before unleashing a final, award-winning deluge.
    Stacks Image 1844
    At Fort William the Jacobite was ready and waiting behind a smart black K1, and soon departed on its now-familiar scenic route to Mallaig. Our extensive range of portable portmanteaus had to accompany us in full, as the left luggage was shut pending a station upgrade. Also shut was the Glenfinnan buffet - fortunately the train’s facility wasn't, and profited accordingly. A third closure was the Station Hotel at Mallaig, in what one might be forgiven for thinking to be peak season, so a more leisurely lunch was taken in a back-up restaurant thoughtfully provided nearby.


    On return to Fort William we dispersed for assorted retail therapy, with a rendezvous arranged at Ossians Hotel for afternoon tea. Then back to the station for the Glasgow train. As required for purity of highland travel experience, we disembarked at Tyndrum Upper and embarked on foot on the downward slope to Tyndrum Lower, resisting the temptation to use assorted luggage pieces as toboggans. At ground zero the Tyndrum Lodge Hotel provided the necessary recovery fluids before we undertook the last leg to the platform. The Oban train was on time, for which we were grateful as the midges were taking full advantage of fresh meat from down south.

    The B&B was equipped for all weathers, with palm trees in the garden and electric blankets on the beds. Outside a trio of surveyors spent a fascinating evening working out the levels of the road whilst we patronised the nearest chippie, allowing the vapours to waft tantilisingly in their direction.
    Stacks Image 1847
    Next day (Wednesday, if you've lost count already) we took the ferry to Craignure, in the wake of an authentic-looking three-masted schooner. This impressive ship spoilt the illusion somewhat by moving with sails furled at a speed not achievable without either a diesel engine or a very tightly-wound rubber band. A walk round the harbour to the Mull Railway revealed another diesel engine, in this case substituting for the steam loco, which was parked disconsolately outside the loco sheds leaking steam from several orifices. At the far end we disembarked for the many and various attractions of Torosay castle, especially the tea rooms. The lower lawn also provided ample opportunities for photography, with two stone lions strategically placed for model portraiture.

    For the first time we did not return forthwith to Oban, but took the bus to Tobermory, or Balamory as it is better known to followers of children's TV (the real thing, not Big Brother). The bus driver was clearly well-used to the intricacies of single-roads-with-passing-places, and to knowing when to give way and when to exert his moral right of progression, as the biggest vehicle on the island. We called at the ferry terminal at Fishnish, but only briefly, and certainly not long enough to rendezvous with said ferry hoving into view from Lochaline. Calmac may rule the waves, but Bowmans buses were definitely kings of the road. At Tobermory we alighted at the top of the hill and located the two B&Bs we were billeted in, probably the two highest buildings in the town, if not the island.   

    For the evening’s entertainment we descended a considerable height to the harbourside and thence to a pub at the far end. Mindful of our curfew we returned in good time, making use of a taxi that was surprisingly good value, even if it had been on the level.
    Stacks Image 1850
    Thursday was the day of expedition. The island got in-character straightaway with a determined downpour, and stayed in it all day. Undeterred we bagged the first wildlife of the day from the bedroom window, a seagull braving the elements over the harbour. After breakfast we huddled in a doorway to await the bus back to Craignure, and were surprised to find the door open and the proprietorix of Inverloy guest house do what she clearly did best, namely offer shelter to waifs and strays from foreign parts. The bus driver accepted our by-now somewhat damp return tickets, and pretended not to notice that no two had the same issue date. As the brochures say, time stands still in Mull, or inside its ticket machines at least.

    At Craignure we met up with David Woodhouse, a Yorkshireman of enthusiastic and forthright manner, and another group of five would-be wildlife-watchers. For the next five hours we were treated to a running commentary on the island's wildlife, with frequent stops to look for examples of same. Despite the weather, or perhaps in some cases because of it, the list of species ticked off grew steadily. Sea eagles were an early capture, viewed from the shoreline through a spotter scope trained by an observer with not only excellent eyesight but a precise knowledge of where to look. Otters were spotted feeding several times, and bird species too numerous to mention. We were instructed in breeding habits, feeding habits and territorial behaviours. We also discovered the collective noun for a group of wild-life guides - a tosser. The only major item to go AWOL was the golden eagle; clearly a creature of that size had a big enough brain to realise that rain equalled wet feathers and a spoilt hair-do, and anyway most food parcels were keeping their heads down under the grass until the weather improved.

    Other stops were for refreshment (soup, hot drinks and sandwiches out of the back of the minibus) and for personal comfort (in the trees, ladies to the left, gentlemen to the right, others behind the rocks). By late afternoon we were back at Craignure, with time for refreshment at the local facilities before the ferry to Oban. It stopped raining.

    For the record, the wildlife seen on Mull included: common gull, cormorant. curlew, eider duck, fallow deer, sea eagle, gannet, grey-lag goose, hen harrier, heron, kestrel, otter, oyster catcher, raven, red deer, seal, shag, short-tailed vole and twite.
    Stacks Image 39
    Friday saw us depart for Stirling via Glasgow, a transfer effected without incident, and then execute a baggage drop at a well-appointed B&B, the easier to explore a somewhat hilly city. The castle is, in modern parlance, a no-brainer. Even the most intellectually-challenged amongst us could recognise that the hill-top cried out for fortification, as nobody could move on the plain below without detection, with or without spotter scope.

    We split up, the better to confuse the occupying forces, some taking the full-frontal approach, via the ticket office and ice-cream van, whilst others circled around the back and took surreptitious photos of the defences.
    Stacks Image 1856
    The final day started with a short train ride to Linlithgow and a bus ride to Bo’ness, for the Bo’ness and Kinneil Railway. This time it was operational, running a steam service a couple of miles down the track. In truth the station and museum were at least as big a draw as the actual ride, particular as the former included a well-stocked buffet. As the rain came back again, to round off June in the manner in which it had been started, we retraced our steps to Linlithgow and took the train to Edinburgh. A couple of hours embarkation leave was then authorised, to explore Princes St and its environs, before boarding a Birmingham train for Wigan and home.

    Click
    here for the photos and here for some video.
  • 2006
    Stacks Image 1861
    The prologue. Pulling rank in the gutters of power

    It’s not often that one gets a Royal Summons. For most people it’s never, but the SMRS is not most people, nor even a most society. Six weeks and counting to the 2006 sleeper trip, and one pulls out for the most trivial of reasons. Apparently some amateur gardener, name of Charlie Windsor or some such, had asked if the royal personage could be allowed to make an exhibition of himself, and of his hostas, alongside the begonias for which our member is rightly famous.

    I must confess my first response to this withdrawal was of indignation – how dare he do this! How inconsiderate! Where are his priorities? Doesn’t His Royal Hosta consult His diary before issuing an Imperial Command? How could He not know when the sleeper trip was – didn’t we have a Court Circular issued so that every duke, dignitary, nob and flunky knew when not to arrange garden parties and suchlike?

    Our pleas for clemency fell on deaf ears – either your man turns up with the greens or bang goes his OBE, was the dismissive reply from Private Office. And don’t think the Tower of London is just for show either. Beneath the touristy facade lurks a deeper, darker level of dungeon just made for troublesome oiks like you. His HRH-ness was inspecting the manacles only last week, so get digging.

    In the face of such regal imperatives our humble horticulturalist felt he had no option but to tug the knee, bow the forelock and submit to higher, or at least taller, authority. Despite dark mutterings about Getting Some of Me Mates to Go Down South to Mr Fancy Pants and Sort Him Out Proper, the resignation letter was signed, the deposit monies adjusted and the sound heard of size 10 (fireman’s, retired) boots stomping off to the greenhouse, spade dragging along behind.

    For a moment fantasy took over. It was fate that reduced us to be the Famous Five, of Enid Blyton fame. Perhaps we were to solve some long-running crime that had baffled the Force, maybe another Beast of Bodmin, or the Great Tram Robbery of Seaton, or even the Phantom Imbiber of Beer. Then reality kicked back in, as it tends to do all too often. Who would be the odd man out on the sleeper, to take pot luck with a stranger sharing their cabin? Or would they get it to themselves, and be the envy of their friends? Would we consume more beer in five-man rounds than in six?

    And so we were five.
    Stacks Image 1864
    There and back again in twelve easy steps

    The organisation of the trip, like the well-oiled machine it was, clicked into gear around the Ides of March, with an extended and leisurely debate over destinations. A strong contender was a route back to Mull, with an overnight stay on the island to allow participation in some of the less bloodthirsty of the local sports, such as eagle dodging, seal ducking and whale surfing . However the realisation that Cornwall had escaped a visit for a good eight years swung the balance southwards, and it took a mere mention of the trams at Seaton to seal the decision.

    A chance encounter between our exhibition manager and a representative of the Bodmin and Wenford Railway led to a promise of favoured visitor status at Bodmin. [Are these meetings really chance? – discuss.] Our thoughts then turned to the coast, for it would be at least nominally summer, and our buckets and spades were well overdue a trip to the seaside. Dartmouth looked nice, and, imagine our surprise, we could get there on a preserved railway from Paignton. All the while we considered, beer was never far from our thoughts, until some mental giant made the obvious neural connection [beer = Beer = Pecorama = not really that far from Paignton = very near to Seaton = trams].  And so we were decided.

    Booking of trains and accommodation proceeded along familiar, well-worn lines. Virgin offered their usual incomprehensible pricing and illogical timetables, with Mozart symphonies heard in their entirety whilst waiting for Customer Service to serve our particular customer, whose call was valuable almost to the point of providing someone to answer it. A host of landladies expressed their eagerness to accomodate six, sorry only five now, adult males in their home-from-homes ('Are you with the sewage convention? – we’re fully booked that week'). The only hitch was Paignton, where so many ladies thrust their wares in the direction of the Society’s hapless booking clerk that he quite forgot which one he had eventually settled on, metaphorically, so to speak. A study of the list was not promising. At least fifty to choose from, with no clue from the memory as to which one it might be. Back to the phone, grateful for the foresight in subscribing to Telewest’s Talk Unlimited payment plan. In the event, the correct one was struck only fifth time lucky, and it wasn’t even on the list. I am available for lottery number predictions.

    As to personnel, it looked for a while as if we would, for the first time, field the same team two years running. However the Middle-Aged Pretender put paid to that novel circumstance. Yet another reason to vote Republican.
    Stacks Image 1867
    The Famous Five Experience Beer

    The first anomaly in the timetable involved going north from Wigan in order to progress southwards. One might be forgiven for dismissing this as yet another example of the idiosyncracy of Virgin Trains. The truth however was more prosaic, our chosen train ran non-stop from Preston to Euston, in a shade over two hours, so the diversion seemed well worth the effort. On top of this the female train manager told jokes, and responded to our complaint over buffet prices by explaining that women had both the foresight and the organisation to bring their own lunch. Gender was also apparently a factor in the need for at least one (male) passenger to try to get off at Wigan rather than enjoy an uncovenanted awayday to the capital.

    Safely and promptly delivered to the metropolis, we sought further safe haven in the Head of Steam, a hostelry conveniently located at the entrance to Euston station. It also overlooked the bus stop, close study of which revealed several fascinating facts. Firstly the very latest double-deckers have outside handrails on the top front nearside corner, no doubt to facilitate cleaners swinging from bus to bus without the need for inconvenient ladders or awkward abseil ropes. Secondly all buses, of whatever vintage, carry in addition to the route number a small plate recording their tally of cyclists shot down in traffic combat. And thirdly, whilst all buses contribute to traffic congestion, it takes a bendybus to really tie it up in knots.

    After a short intermission to synchronise watches and load up everyone's number into the ubiquitous mobile phones, the party departed to Paddington to reconnoitre the departure arrangements for the sleeper, including the location of the all-important First Class Lounge. With surplus goods deposited in the left luggage we then split up, for such diverse diversions as the Science Museum, the Natural History Museum, an open-air swimming pool, and the nearest pub to watch the world cup match of the day.

    After regrouping for dinner at a nearby steak house we attempted a survey of Hyde Park, but the relevant authorities had clearly received a tip-off of our intentions and set all the gates and turnstiles to exit-only, to better protect the reputation of London's premier play park. So it was back to another pub (the Mitre) and another world cup match (Switzerland against Ukraine).

    The First Class Lounge was just that, a first-class place to lounge and be looked after by an attentive steward before boarding the sleeper. Some experimental video was undertaken, with all the hallmarks of professional filming- multiple retakes, a director with a robust command of the English language, and actors who forgot their lines, quarralled over who should get the best parts and threatened legal action to secure their just rewards. It remains to be seen whether such hard-earned footage acquires the cult status it so clearly deserves.

    The night passed (reasonably) uneventfully, the only events of note being an untimely sounding of the fire alarm in the early hours, and a complete failure on the part of all members to stand to at 0530 hours to salute the crossing of the Prince Albert bridge at Saltash. At least, being a south-bound sleeper there was no shunting at Edinburgh to tempt members out on to the platform, there to wander around in unsuitable night attire, higher brain functions barely ticking over.
    Stacks Image 1870
    Penzance arrived on time, giving us the best part of two hours to explore the harbour and the breakfast options of Sullivans diner. Not for the last time the loals failed to guess our true intent, enquiring as to whether we were perhaps twitchers? Twitching perhaps, but not at the excitement of bird-watching. Virgin Trains took us rapidly back to Bodmin Parkway, where we stood with a small group of like-minded folk to await the first train of the day on the Bodmin and Wenford Railway. It arrived pulled by a real live-steam GWR Pannier, which proceeded to demonstrate its traction qualities over some challenging gradients to Bodmin General. There Tony changed  into his Sir Topham Hat of Ribble Railway persona (one of several kept carefully in his software wardrobe) and blagged a visit to the footplate. He claimed later it was an unsolicited invitation from a driver who recognised the cut of his jib with no words being necessary. We didn’t believe it either.

    The choice between proceeding to Boscarne Junction before or after lunch was really no contest - the culinary aspects of any sleeper trip are of equal importance to the railway matters. After a short visit to the workshops we departed northwards again, this time bound for Paignton via Plymouth and Newton Abbot. Our destination did not endear itself to our critical faculties, 'the Rhyl of the South' was one comment. A touch hard perhaps, but the Southport of the South it certainly was not. The lack of taxis at the station did not help; after a considerable wait we ended up using the same taxi twice to get all the party to the B&B. Next morning, after another pub meal and another world cup game, we entered the station to seek out the preserved line to Kingswear. The Manor locomotive and observation car were immaculate, the coaches less so, and the number of passengers surprisingly large. Not one but two pensioner coach parties. We deployed our younger members to outrun the zimmer frames and pensioner buggies and stake a claim to an entire SMRS compartment.

    The trip was a scenic one past beaches and seascapes. On arrival at Kingswear we held back to allow the first wave of tourists to engulf the Dartmouth ferry. This was a short and slick operation, by seamen who gave the impression they were just itching to open up the engines well beyond their normal slow-ahead-both and see just how big a bow wave they could create on either bank of the Dart. The rendezvous point was the station building, which we later learned was built without the inconvenience of a railway to attract passengers bent on messing up its clean seats and tidy waiting rooms. Some minor problem over bridge-building rights apparently. The ticket we had purchased entitled us to a boat trip on the Dart, so we embarked on an hour-long cruise, complete with running commentary delivered with well-practised style and neatly-phrased wit. Houses occupied by the Dimbleby family and the late Agatha Christie were but two of the highlights, along with a castle and assorted harbour defences.
    Stacks Image 1873
    We returned whence we had come and departed east to Exeter, running the gauntlet of the Dawlish sea wall in the process. It was noticeable that the driver speeded up somewhat at this point, no oubt wishing to minimise exposure to the effects of global warming on wind and wave. Another taxi to another B&B, followed by a variation in the itinerary for which our sleeper trips are famous. Well, at least known. An evening excursion to Exmouth by the local train, a half-hour trip at a bargain price of £1.80 return, provided we stayed together. We promised the conductor we would, assuming no run-ins with the local constabulary.

    These were present in alarming numbers at our destination, prompting speculation as to who was the mole in our midst who had leaked our travel schedule to officialdom? No-one confessed, and after a short walk alongside the estuary we edged carefully up to whether the police appeared to be congregating the thickest. The mystery deepened when a sign was spotted indicating a temporary road closure since 07.00 that morning. Was it royalty, perhaps, visiting yet another begonia collection? A coach pulled up, disgorging smartly-uniformed men and women carrying musical instruments, in some cases as big as they were. All became clear, it was royalty, to be precise a Royal Marine Band, come to serenade townsfolk and tourists alike with a Beating Retreat ceremony, complete with bugles, British Legion flag-bearers and a brace of bechained mayors. Their escort and warm-up act was a bunch of testosterone-fuelled PT instructors bent on demonstrating that if defence cutbacks meant no money to buy weapons, that was just fine by them. Memories of an innocent youth spent within sound of the RM School of Music at Deal, and of a grandfather playing trombone in the Chatham band, came flooding back to your humble scribe. The performance confirmed a long-cherished view that this was The Best Band in the Land, No Argument, OK?
    Stacks Image 1876
    Thursday was the first bus of the trip, from Exeter to Seaton via Beer. We phoned ahead to secure authority to pay an early call on our chosen B&B to deposit excess baggage. The need for this had become clear on the journey, as although the bus passed within a few hundred yards of Pecorama the final gradient would have been a severe test for a pedestrian under a full load, particularly in the steadily-increasing temperatures. So tiffin and regrouping at the B&B, itself requiring a modicum of climbing effort to reach, was a welcome respite. We were then able to enjoy the full Peco model railway experience as unencumbered tourists. The highlight was the excellent miniature railway, running amongst well-tended gardens and with cunning use of spring-loaded points to maximise the scenic effect. A parked Pullman coach provided a civilised location for afternoon tea, although two attempts were needed to partake of cream scones and ditto cakes. The first was thwarted by the need to wash up from the previous customers before more food could be served, a problem familar to students world-wide.
    Stacks Image 1879
    We returned via Beer village, resisting all temptations to consume alcohol therein, and thence along the cliff-top to Seaton, amongst views of shore and sea reminiscent of East Kent, complete with collapsible cliffs and pebble beaches.

    The next morning, refreshed after a carnivorous dinner at the George and a excellent breakfast from our landlady, we embarked on a day-long exploration of the trams. These were relocated from Eastbourne in the 1960s, and were roughly two-thirds full scale. This meant that they looked big enough for amply-sized adults but actually weren’t, particularly for such crucial manouvres as ascending the spiral stairs to the top deck. However the views achieved were well worth the effort, as was the cooling breeze. Whilst the machines lacked the sophistication of their bigger Blackpool brethren, the charm factor was significantly higher, with the added satisfaction of knowing that a branchline trackbed was being put to better use than as a mere cycle track. A stop-off at the half-way point at Colyton allowed access to a nearby free house and to inspection of an original Gentleman’s Open-Topped Platform Convenience. The French term is pissoire, from which we get the English word lavatory.
    Stacks Image 1882
    A chance encounter in the George the night before (or, from previous experience, perhaps not so) with one of the tram engineers moonlighting as a barman, paved the way for another workshop visit. For this Tony adopted his well-practised role of club diplomat, negotiator and reluctant guarantor for our good behaviour. In truth it was too hot to do much else, whilst maintaining a 20-minute service with 40-year-old equipment looked quite a challenge in any weather. Rampant capitalism was however not far away, in the form of a proposal to relocate the workshop further down the line and use the land thus released for bijou holiday homettes. It was pleasing to note that the tram company was not rushing to take the developer’s largesse, but was sniffing cautiously all round it before taking the plunge.

    We finished off with an exploration of a long-gone and apparently long-forgotten landmark, Seaton station, which had suffered the same fate as so many branch lines in the 1960s. No traces could be found, the area now being used for some rather nondescript industrial buildings.

    By late afternoon the sun was still at high noon, so two of our party decided liquid refreshment was the only answer, and went for a swim from Seaton’s shingle beach. The rest of us encouraged them with pieces of said shingle tossed languidly in their general direction, without being too specific as to the exact aiming point. The last evening of the holiday was celebrated with a meal at the local Indian restaurant, preceeded for two lucky members by use of their en-suite bath for their second total immersion of the day.
    Stacks Image 1885
    Next morning we bid a fond farewell to our hostess and caught the bus to Exeter from a convenient, i.e. downhill, stop. A short walk to Exeter Central and an even shorter ride to Exeter St Davids for the second of two Newcastle trains that departed in quick succession. Just what the hurry was to get Geordie holidaymakers back home we never found out, but the train was on time and half-empty, so we took the opportunity regardless. Working air-conditioning was a welcome bonus, as was a brief glimpse of the Blue Pullman at Birmingham. The quickest of changes, across the platform to a Glasgow train ready and waiting, and we were nearly home. Back in time to watch England lose, in fact. Shame.

    Some photos are
    here and video is here.
  • 2005
    Stacks Image 1888

    2005 - AVIEMORE AND KYLE OF LOCHALSH


    The government, we are reliably informed, is considering congestion charges for the train network. After years of being harangued about the virtues of public transport (not that the SMRS ever needed convincing) it seems that it is now too popular for its own good. We will be required to pay extra for letting the train take the strain.

    Maybe now is the time to do the same for the sleeper trip. With bookings up 100% from last year it is clearly underpriced, and in danger of being enjoyed by the unwashed masses, instead of by the discerning Alpha elite who are the target grouping. Perhaps we are making the itinerary too attractive - this year not only a guided tour of Speyside Railway's workshops but also a visit to the Commando Memorial at Spean Bridge. Add in a short but significant ride in the day coach of the Fort William sleeper and the package was complete.

    As a bonus, and probably uniquely in the history of rail tours, the trip started with a guided tour of a potting shed. Not any old shed it must be said, for it contained all the basics needed to support intelligent life, namely a beer store, a TV and a model railway layout. After the necessary critical review of the owner's modelling skills, we moved on to the adjacent begonia greenhouses. Again not just any begonias, but a sizeable portion of the National Collection, over 700 varieties in all. As Winston Churchill very nearly said: 'Never in the field of human horticulture has so much been grown for so many by so few'.

    After the chaotic scenes marking last year's departure, the initial moves of the 2005 expedition went remarkably smoothly. Despite using four different vehicles on the approach run we achieved a successful rendezvous at Preston station. The sleeper was on time, the berths were ready and waiting and the lounge car was freshly stocked with beer. Inverness was reached in style and comfort, with sufficient time for a second breakfast at a convenient cafe.

    Stacks Image 1891
    The Speyside Railway at Aviemore lived up to the reputation earned at our last visit, with the added bonus of weather which the global warmers constantly warn us about. Indeed the guided trip around the loco sheds gave some welcome shade, as well as a full description of its contents and of the difficulties of extracting suitable monies from the Lottery Fund.

    Practice makes perfect so they say, and after last year's escapade with the camera card Joe went one better this time and remaindered the complete camera. Left in a drawer at the Inverness B&B, allegedly for safe keeping. Unfortunately he failed to report this manoeuvre to the expedition quartermaster. The item therefore was not recorded on the exit procedure checklist and remained secure in the dressing table, whilst we entrained for the west coast. Fortunately the landlady took pity on our senior citizen and responded positively to the phone call requesting the camera to be forwarded back to Formby.

    The highlight of the westward journey, apart from the increasingly scenic and sunny scenery, was the sudden appearance of the Royal Scotsman tour train, which passed us eastbound at Strathcarron. For some reason we had not been advised of this venture, so quick work was needed with the remaining cameras to ensure the event was suitably recorded.

    On arrival at Kyle the party split, with the majority heading to the Lochalsh Hotel for lunch, whilst the expedition's medical officer decided fasting would add to the pleasure of a dip in the jellyfish- infested waters of the loch. Next in a crowded itinerary was a bus across to Kyleakin on Skye. The fare was a shock - 15p for a single, strictly cash, no credit  cards, cheques or concessions. We reluctantly paid up and crossed over the now toll-free bridge to Kyleakin. After a quick survey of the village, and mindful of the clouds building up over the Cuillins, we embarked on a route march back over the bridge to the mainland, thereby saving the return bus fare for more important matters, such as tea and scones at the harbour cafe.

    The final stage of the day was the bus ride to Spean Bridge. Much to our disappointment the driver accepted the printout of the internet booking with the merest dismissive glance. Any hopes of a prolonged and satisfying argument over the validity of our e-tickets were cruelly dashed. The ride itself was of the vigorous variety, through some of Scotland's finest (and towards the end dampest) glens, arriving shaken, unstirred and on time at the B&B. The evening was spent at the Commando Bar, drinking Skye ale served somewhat incongruously by a young Polish waiter. Attempts to generate interest in a gentle post-dinner yomp up to the Commando memorial met with a disappointing if predictable result. Also predictably, the day ended with testing a particular brand of malt whisky to destruction in the B&B's comfortable conservatory.
    Stacks Image 1894
    Thursday was Jacobite day, permitting a fairly leisurely start before boarding the day coach on the Fort William sleeper for the last few miles to its destination. A phone call to Fort William station confirmed it was on time, thereby ensuring we did not get up earlier than absolutely necessary. The steam loco was the same B1 as at our previous visit in 1991, this time camouflaged by a repaint in BR black. It performed faultlessly in both directions, and inbetween allowed us to partake of the usual excellent lunch at Mallaig’s Marine Hotel.

    Now the competitive spirit is strong in the SMRS, and the loss of a mere camera was bound to produce a strong response. Knight to king's pawn two, and Jim claimed the disappearance of a bum bag, complete with many and various financial resources. Several helpful theories as to the circumstances of its loss were promptly proffered: it was left at the hotel at Mallaig, in the toilet on the train, on the street in Fort William, etc. A return to the train drew a blank, as did a phone call to the Marine Hotel. However as the unfortunate victim prepared to throw himself on the mercy of the police, our landlady phoned to say the article was indeed in the safe custody of the Fort William constabulary. Just how she knew of this information, and of the phone number to pass it on to, is one of those mysteries which, like Masonic secrets, are only divulged to those deeply immersed in the lore of the Bed and Breakfast hostess.

    Jim then had the task of refilling the reclaimed bag, a distinctly non-trivial operation. The police, with their customary efficiency, had carefully segregated each item by type and deposited them into sealed envelopes, the better to make an exhaustive list of the bag’s contents. English notes, Scottish notes, dollars, euros, travellers cheques, keys, phones and enough plastic cards to play a decent hand of gin rummy, all had to be restored to their rightful compartment. Three cards had already been cancelled, and were ritually torn apart on the tea table, in front of witnesses. Then back to Spean Bridge for a second night, courtesy of the day coach of the southbound sleeper, somewhat cramped due to the lack of a lounge car and presumably, the beverage stocks which went with it. Same conservatory, different malt.

    Stacks Image 1897
    The final day dawned sunny after overnight rain, and we looked forward to a lack of unplanned events. We might have achieved this too, but for a camera charger which inexplicably became separated from its owner (Jim, as it just happened). Fortunately our landlady was by now well versed in our expedition procedures, and had carried out a comprehensive sweep-search of the bedrooms before signing our departure chit.

    It was perhaps tempting fate to split up again at this stage, particularly with a southbound train to catch. However by now we were past caring, so three members were authorised to depart for Fort William on shopping leave, whilst the remainder set off for a brisk uphill stroll to the Commando memorial. There we paid our respects to both soldiers and scenery, before repairing to a convenient hotel for refreshments. Sitting outside enjoying the view had one drawback, in the energetic form of a young cocker spaniel that had clearly just been through its initial commando training and was anxious to practice its new-found skills on any unsuspecting visitor.
    Stacks Image 1900
    Back to Spean Bridge to collect bags and charger and await the Glasgow train. A phone call to the other half of the party confirmed that the train from Fort William was on time, the shoppers were aboard saving seats, and a local cafeteria had supplied a suitably-sized luncheon hamper to sustain us at least as far as Crianlarich. It seemed unnecessary  to mention that some of us had already partaken of venison and home brew at Spean Bridge station.

    Glasgow Central was reached in good time, but this was more than could be said of the 1705 arrival from Euston. Its tardiness meant we were 20 minutes late leaving, and its lack of maintenance meant the public address, the air conditioning and the toilets were all of doubtful functionality. However we were promoted to first class for our trouble, so the overall rating of the sleeper trip was still scored as 'Excellent'. At Preston the doctor’s wife was ready and almost waiting to take us back to Southport, and no doubt to require her spouse to provide a full written inventory of items taken v. items returned. The retired fireman likewise retired to count his begonias and marvel at just how much spare-room-decorating a determined wife can do when her husband is well out of the way.

    Some photos are
    here and video is here.