2004 - FORT WILLIAM, MULL AND BO'NESS
Fortune favours the brave, or at least the dead lucky. Out of the early evening sun came a train bound for Preston, having given up its attempt to reach Euston and sensibly retreating back north. A quick debate and a motion was carried to return to Crewe, to intercept the sleeper at its first scheduled stop. We boarded an empty train, fended off a posse of stewards defending the first class carriages and launched into a free and frank exchange of views with the train manager. As a result we were quickly ushered into first class and cans of chilled lager were promptly produced. We learned that at least six Pendolinos had expired in and around London that day. Wrong type of sun perhaps, or maybe the Italians had designed them in Centigrade while most of us Brits still measure in Fahrenheit.
Here we are again, a decade older since the first sleeper trip, but little the wiser.
To make the tenth anniversary expedition one to remember (for its cost if nothing else) we decided to start it from London. This would give us the benefit of the full sleeper experience, instead of the partial Preston one. The route selected was based on the classic 1997 excursion to Fort William, Oban and Mull. Again for reasons of jubilee, it would be extended, this time by a visit to the Bo'ness and Kinneil Railway. Regular readers will recall how a quirk of timetabling cruelly deprived us of a visit to this establishment last year. This time, instead of major corrective surgery to our schedule, we adopted the innovative solution of arranging our own personal tour of the site, courtesy of the Scottish Railway Preservation Society.
To start at the beginning. Only three members finally secured authority to travel, mirroring the number participating in the first trip ten years ago. One of these originals had been on all ten, but if he was expecting any form of long service award or discount for quantity he was to be disappointed. We set off from Liverpool Lime St in optimistic mood, encouraged by the knowledge that the incoming train was only fifteen minutes late and we had nearly three hours in hand for the connection in London. Perhaps Virgin's inability to provide anything resembling tickets was a premonition of trouble in store.
Problems started as soon as we boarded. Firstly, no air conditioning in our coach, on one of the first really hot days of the year. Secondly a failed train near Tring. Thirdly a derailment on the Northampton circle. Fourthly a track circuit defect somewhere else on the main line. The chance of further southbound movement seemed remote, despite promises of another train 'just behind'. We counted four parked behind us on the approach to Milton Keynes station, where our train had come to a stop. There were rumours of buses to Euston, but even if these were true we would not make the sleeper.
Once safely returned to the relative civilisation that is Crewe, two objectives were identified, to eat and to estimate the time of arrival of the sleeper, which at that very moment was struggling to release itself from the chaos gripping Euston. Eventually it broke free, but at the cost of all its coaches being marshalled in the wrong order. Not a trivial problem, as we shall see. After careful reconnaissance of Crewe's catering facilities we began to wonder if the town's only virtue was its railway connections. One establishment proudly announced its propensity for late opening, only to spoil the party somewhat by defining 'late' as not exceeding 6pm. However in the nick of time an Italian restaurant was located that was not only open but also served quite palatable pasta.
Safely aboard the sleeper, albeit an hour late, we considered ourselves back on track. However Virgin Trains had one last trick to play. The random assortment of carriages that was our train had to be re-sorted at Edinburgh, so that at least some of its passengers would end up at the correct destination. So the time made up en route was more than lost again.
However our Scotrail sleeper attendant (a fellow-member of the East Lancashire Railway Society, as it just happened) rose to the challenge, and with only a modicum of encouragement phoned ahead to secure a taxi for us. This would provide a short-circuit by road from Bridge of Orchy to Fort William, thus ensuring the connection with the Jacobite and maybe also pioneering a new sleeper route for Scotrail to develop.
The taxi driver was soon elected a day member of the SMRS, on the strength of a lifetime's interest in motorbikes (matching that of our eldest participant) and of an aunt living within yards of the deputy chairman. He repaid his election by pointing out a house in Glencoe which he confidently declared to be the property of Jimmy Saville. Unfortunately we did not have the time to call to see if the great man himself was at home, or if he too was stuck on a Pendolino somewhere in the depths of London's hinterland.
In the event, the steam train waited the few minutes necessary for its diesel counterpart to arrive, thanks to some cunning play with the signalling system by the Jacobite's fat controller. However it would have been barely sufficient for us to have performed the necessary ticket collection manoeuvre, so the taxi option turned out to be a wise move. The journey to Mallaig was as uneventful as it was pleasant, with B1 No. 61264 providing efficient motive power. The only jarring note was when a senior official of the West Coast Railway Company let slip that the Special Operations Executive once had a training base barely a stone's throw from the line. Such a security breach should have resulted in instant and severe retribution. The fact that he continued his duties apparently unscathed served only to demonstrate the complacency of our security services nowadays.
Two events of note marked our short stay at Mallaig. Firstly we renewed our acquaintance with the Marine Hotel and its excellent local-caught haddock. Secondly Joe tipped his digital camera card into the drink. He claimed it was accidental, and definitely not a dead-letter drop for collection by an enemy submersible. Nor was it a self-destruct process, initiated by a camera with an over-sensitive picture processor. Short of calling up the nearby Outward Bound school's canoe patrol or the very adjacent RNLI fast rescue craft, there was little that could be done to retrieve the offending article. In due course no doubt it will sink down into the sea-bed ooze, and over geological time transmute into a fossil that will tax the bio-computers of research scientists in some future aeon.
Back in Fort William a sweep through the main street identified a photographic shop with supplies of the necessary electronic goodies to restore the camera to full functionality. Loch Dubh 10-year old whisky was also entered into the search engine, but to no avail. We consoled ourselves with tea and shortbread at that haven of genteel rest, the first-floor lounge of Ossian's Hotel.
Onwards then to Oban. We intended the by-now traditional train lovers' leap from Tyndrum Upper to Ditto Lower, but an increasingly damp tinge to the weather drove us on to Crianlarich. Before boarding the Oban train we made good use of the station cafe. Here was an establishment dedicated to the needs of railway travellers, that when the chips were down knew how to produce chips. It even advertised the availability of phone-ahead food, that could be snatched up en passant by the hungry traveller, rather like the old-fashioned TPO lineside apparatus for collecting post bags. We made a careful note of this facility, as a possible means of acquiring a proper breakfast on a future sleeper trip.
Next morning we joined the merry throng of holidaymakers bound for Mull by Calmac ferry. An uneventful journey, for which we were grateful after the trials of the early part of the trip. We disembarked in light drizzle, but it being June at least it was warm drizzle. A gentle stroll around the bay followed. We dodged the numerous attempts to persuade us to board one of the numerous tour buses and navigated resolutely towards a signal post marking the start of the Mull Light Railway. We did however take note of the times of the Tobermory buses, as a wet-weather fallback Plan B.
This time the motive power on the MLR was diesel rather than steam, but the charm of Scotland’s island railway was undiminished. Indeed it was accentuated by the local fauna, in the form of hares bounding along the trackside in front of us and a stag guarding our seaward flank. By the time Torosay castle had been inspected the weather had brightened, to the extent of being able to sit outside and feed pieces of bun to a variety of birdlife. These had clearly carried out a finely-tuned risk assessment, and were willing to gamble all for a free lunch. The return journey was notable for sunshine and scenery that only the West Highlands can supply.
Our return to the B&B revealed yet another fascinating fact, namely that the man of the house had a relative living in Formby, dangerously close to one of our number. Whether he was also called Jimmy Saville we dared not ask. Next day involved an early start for the train to Glasgow and onwards to Linlithgow. There we were met by a certain John Birnie of the SRPS, who had been volunteered, in the unique way that voluntary organisations have, to look after us for the afternoon. After a false start at a bar that had a menu but no food, we lunched on traditional Scottish fish suppers and embarked on a guided tour of the Bo'ness and Kinneil Railway, led by a guide who was clearly an expert in the matter in hand.
Halfway round we were joined by Ian Duff, one of Tony's colleagues from a previous life long ago when insurance companies employed real people instead of unreal answering machines. Ian picked up the hospitality baton from John and chauffeured us into Edinburgh for a meal and then back out to Bo'ness for the B&B. He confessed a primary interest in ferries rather than railways, but nonetheless SMRS favoured-trading status was gratefully conferred on both parties.
The accommodation that night was a large house in uptown Bo'ness, complete with sweeping drive, Firth of Forth views and turrets. Our only disappointment was that the guns had long since been removed, so shooting at the oil tankers in the river was possible only with cameras. The final day began in more leisurely style, with a lift to Linlithgow station by our host for the train to Edinburgh. There we enbussed for Leith, to view the Royal Yacht, before entrusting ourselves to Virgin Trains for the journey back to Wigan. Although tickets still seemed beyond them, at least an authority to travel was ready and waiting.
Altogether now: ‘Dear Mr Branson, I fail to understand why, in this day and age....’.
Some photos are here.
2003 - A GRAMPIAN ODYSSEY
After the usual burst of enthusiasm from potential trippers, the requirement for financial backing soon whittled them down to four. These included the two who have been in it from the start, and a third since his membership was authorised in the necessary triplicate. The fourth was a newbie, proving that advanced years and a medical history donated for teaching are no bar to railway adventuring. The start was uneventful, although the use of a car to get to Preston required a somewhat earlier start, and longer wait at the station, than normally scheduled. An attempt was made to confuse us by directing the sleeper into a different platform than expected, but we were up to the challenge and boarded successfully.
Number nine already, and it seems barely a decade since we first set out on these little jaunts to the extremes of ex-Railtrack's network. One day I shall remember what ex-Railtrack calls itself now, but then again it may not last beyond the next election so perhaps I won't bother. As to destination, regular readers will surely have noticed that there are three sleeper destinations north of Scotland's Central Belt (as the planners insist on calling it) and the SMRS have only visited two. The Granite City beckoned, and there was no putting it off.
The first task was to establish a viable itinerary. High on the Essentials list were Inverness and the Speyside Railway at Aviemore. Close behind as Highly Desirables were Edinburgh and the Bo'ness and Kinneil Railway. The Possibles bringing up the rear consisted of the Keith and Dufftown Railway, the Alford Valley Railway and (in the interests of transport diversity) the adjacent Alford Motor Museum. The next problem was how to join up the dots in a smooth anticlockwise progression taking in as many as possible of the above, plus suitable accommodation, public houses and restaurants. At a pinch, we were prepared to combine the last two categories. Previous experience suggested that the local bus network could be relied on to fill in the gaps between Scottish railheads. That nice Mr. Google's search engine was therefore filled with such words as 'Grampian', 'omnibus' and 'June' to see what might pop out.
The results were encouraging, hinting at the existence of a morning bus from Aberdeen to Alford (daily) and an afternoon one from Alford to Dufftown (Tuesdays and Saturdays). The latter was undoubtedly a critical path, as it led not only to the K&DR but also to a B&B at D. Failure at this point would leave us stranded in the depths of Aberdeenshire, with the expedition barely started. Such was its importance that I took the opportunity of a business trip to Aberdeen to call in at the bus station to demand documentary proof of the existence of the service in question.
Much to my surprise two separate threads of evidence were produced, as required for a conviction under Scots law. One was a printout from the ubiquitous computer, the other a genuine pre-printed leaflet complete with an up-to-date timetable for Service 335. I returned south satisfied, with only the remotest feeling of disquiet that both strands relied on the service actually running on the particular Tuesday we needed it to. Common-mode failure is the technical term. As for the rest, it was never going to be that simple. Halfway through scouring the Internet for B&Bs beginning with ‘Mc’ I decided to check the provenance of the Bo'ness railway timetable. Doesn't run on Thursdays or Fridays. B*gg*r (join up your own dots). Reluctantly the venue was consigned to the ‘next year in Jerusalem’ pile. A similar check, inexplicably carried out at a much later date, indicated that the Keith and Dufftown was a weekend-only affair. Still worth a visit, but back to buses for that leg of the trip.
Aberdeen was its usual monochrome self, enlivened by the occasional shaft of sunlight turning the dull grey stonework into bright grey stonework. Its bus station was co-located with its railway counterpart, a sensible piece of town planning that seems to be completely beyond the good burghers of Southport, who add insult to ignorance by pretending that a holiday resort doesn't really need a bus station at all. A single stop in the middle of a busy street will suffice, and we can sell the now-spare land to a supermarket. End of rant.
Bluebird Northern's list of destinations was impressive, both for its length and for its complexity of names. Every other one was a Mearns of Balquidder or a Mains of Auchterlonie or similar. Departures involved an angled reversing manoeuvre, controlled by a uniformed employee equipped with a whistle and no doubt a set of codes for such commands as ‘Left hand down a bit’, ‘I said left, you deaf Doric’ and ‘Now look what you've done’. The journey itself confirmed one of Aberdeen's main virtues - you can quickly get out of it into some fine unspoiled and low-traffic countryside.
Alford was a typical Aberdeenshire village, with the addition of an excellent transport museum and a small narrow-gauge railway. The museum included such gems as a Morris 10, a Foden steam lorry and a tractor as used by Edmund Hillary to cross the Antarctic, all in excellent condition. If only they had managed to open the café mid-week we would have had no hesitation in awarding an SMRS gold star. As it was they had to get by on a silver.
The railway was a low-budget affair (diesel power in a steam outline) that meandered slowly across a golf course and back again. Such was the leisurely nature of both activities that none of us felt in any danger from either runaway trains or low-flying golf balls. Still it was a pleasant way to pass an afternoon, interspersed with occasional checks at the adjacent Tourist Information Office to see how they were getting on with making sure that Service 335 was actually running that day. The SMRS hasn't got where it is today without being sure of its facts. There was also the worrying question of whether the bus actually stopped in the village or at Bridge of Alford, a mile or so up the road. In the event all was well, and we boarded the right bus at the right place at almost the right time. Another silver star.
Dufftown is a place which takes its drinking seriously. Not, I hasten to add, in terms of the number of its inhabitants staggering from one bar to the next in a state of semi-permanent intoxication. A more sober and upright citizenry would be hard to find in any Moray township. In fact the town is the self-styled capital of the Scotch Malt Whisky industry, as demonstrated by the number of distilleries, whisky shops and whisky museums in the locality.
We resisted the numerous invitations to tour a distillery (seen ten, seen them all) but in the interests of modelling research some photographs were taken of the home of Glenfiddich and a museum was visited. A shop was also searched for signs of the presence of black gold (Loch Dubh 10-year-old) but without success. The same evening we took the opportunity to inspect the Dufftown end of the K&DR, a relatively new preserved railway mainly running DMUs. Some interesting visiting Pullman stock was noted, also one or two strange vehicles of Canadian origin that resembled the railway equivalent of a bubble car. A good seven out of ten for effort, we thought, and well worth a Lotto grant to encourage further development.
At this point mention must be made of how such a gentle, if longer than anticipated, excursion was only possible after the medical pensioner in our midst had had his trousers repaired, after managing to split them asunder whilst performing some minor gentleman's procedure. The expert seamstress who restored his seams was none other than the mistress of the house in which we lodged. The service was rendered free of charge, but the recipient of such generosity (rather churlishly in the view of the rest of us) insisted on removing the garment before repairs were commenced.
Now adaptability is our middle name in the SMRS (along with John Smiths, the aforesaid Loch Dubh and a few others in similar vein). So when we realised that there was a bus to Elgin as well as one to Keith, we decided a cathedral city was far more worthy of our custom than a mere town. Both were on the main line to Inverness, so we could still reach our next stopover without difficulty. On arrival at Elgin, after another pleasant hour surveying Grampian scenery from a surprisingly modern bus, one of our number decided that he was just born to shop, and Inverness just had to be reached before its retail therapy establishments closed for the night. A new set of hedgehog spines for the sporran, or something similar.
So only three of us did the grand tour of Elgin, starting with lunch in a convenient pub, continuing with a professional survey of the ruins of the cathedral and finishing with a cream tea at a convenient café. Never let it be said that sleeper trips are all fun and frivolity. Scotrail then did their usual efficient job of transporting us to Inverness, where we were reunited with the solo shopper. He confirmed that the selected B&B was of an adequate standard and could be safely entered by the full team.
Of the evening's eating and drinking no more will be said, except that we took full advantage of the north of Scotland's ability to postpone a June nightfall until well after a southerner's normal bed-time. Next morning we were up bright and early (or at least early) to embark on a visit to the Speyside railway at Aviemore. This runs on part of the old Highland Railway line to Forres, a fairly modest distance but with well-restored locomotives, rolling stock and stations. The weather was also somewhat modest, with intermittent rain to start with. Another potential problem was several bus-loads of American tourists, who threatened to swamp both gift shop and train. Fortunately they had reserved coaches, so it was possible to keep them safely corralled for most of the time.
The line runs via Boat of Garten to Broomhill, whose station is best known for its character acting as Glenbogle in the TV series ‘The Monarch of the Glen’. Understandably the railway made the most of the connection, although in the author's view the lack of any Susan Hampshires in residence reduced the appeal considerably.
The highlight of the trip was the discovery of a lounge car fully equipped with both bar and food servery. Extra tickets were promptly purchased to prolong our stay in this mobile haven of civilisation. Eventually however the staff showed signs of wanting to put their train away for the night and go home, so reluctantly we took our leave and changed platforms to catch the somewhat more modern service to Edinburgh.
The selection process for overnight accommodation has been rather glossed over so far. Let it be said that in most cases quality of the furniture and fittings, availability of a cholesterol-rich breakfast and closeness to railway stations and public houses are all key points in the assessment. For Edinburgh however the over-riding factor was proximity to Harburn Hobbies, a modeller's emporium of considerable depth and variety. Therefore we were happy to occupy a B&B that otherwise might have scored a touch low against some of the more mundane criteria. It was also close to the city centre, which probably accounted for its modest performance/price ratio.
However its location did allow our patronage of a type of restaurant almost certainly new even to Scotland's cosmopolitan capital, the eat-all-you-can fixed-price Chinese buffet. Several different consumer strategies were noticed in this popular establishment. Examples were: (1) the ‘little and often’ employing frequent trips to the counter for modest portions of selected delicacies, with time inbetween for polite conversation and relaxed digestion, (2) the ‘I've started so I'll finish’ involving a determined, and towards the end a somewhat desperate, clockwise progress from the soup right round to the ice-cream, and (3) the ‘no-prisoners full-frontal attack’ involving loading the plate (or in extreme cases a pair of plates) to the limit of adhesion with four spoonfuls of everything in reach, and repeating the process until no longer able to stand. Needless to say, we ate well but not to excess, mindful of the need to be able to imbibe liquids for at least an hour or two afterwards.
Friday dawned fine but windy, just right for a short bracing walk to HH's, as we aficionados term it. A few minutes later (when strangely almost an hour and a half had passed in the muggle world outside) we emerged with sufficient goods to more than justify the whole sleeper trip, let alone the visit to Edinburgh. Never mind the mail-order service, sometimes one just has to be there.
For our final excursion we again split, with three choosing a city tour by yet another bus, whilst the ex-resident of Edinburgh decided to renew his acquaintance with the estimable Royal Scottish Museum. Much of it was as I remembered from twenty years ago, but a lot had been done by way of sprucing-up the exhibits and re-arranging them into themes, complete with the inevitable audio-visuals. One new item was Dolly the sheep, looking startlingly life-like and remarkably healthy for a stuffed stiff.
By mid-afternoon the team were reunited and Waverley station was re-entered to identify and board the train to Preston, before customs and passport control could intervene. Despite being completely unkilted we evaded detection and returned uneventfully to Merseyside, or to Greater Liverpool if some clown in local government has their way. Home rule for Lesser Southport, now that would be progress.
Some photos and video are here.
Our first foreign excursion. Precedent was set a few years ago when 'Scotland' was interpreted as 'a part of the UK with strong Celtic traditions', to permit a sleeper trip to Cornwall. This year the definition was re-interpreted as 'the land over the sea with strong Celtic traditions where they play a mean game of football', to bring Ireland into the frame. We decided on a triangular tournament, taking in Dublin, Tralee and Cork, with a four-man team that included one new signing, the ink on his domestic visa still wet.
2002 - THE IRISH REPUBLIC
The sleeper element was established by selecting the overnight Merchant ferry from Liverpool, a large modern ro-ro mainly used for lorries. The vessel was clean and spacious, with a friendly crew, comfortable cabins, a good restaurant and a bar. What more could one want? Departure was a protracted business, as Canada Dock is somewhat remote from the Mersey, with a large pair of slow-moving lock gates protecting it from the unruly watery elements. After a good deal of to-ing and fro-ing and at least two three-point turns we eventually emerged into the river proper. The captain promptly unleashed a tightly-wound rubber band and we accelerated smartly westwards. The urge to join hands and sing 'Ferry cross the Mersey' was firmly resisted, in favour of going indoors for dinner.
Dawn saw us cruising serenely into Dublin harbour, where we disembarked ready to do battle with the Irish Immigration Service. Unfortunately they seemed to have forgotten all about the fixture, and failed even to turn up. We therefore entered a completely unprotected Euroland, with our refugee status not even questioned. The wire cutters and camouflage suits were put back into the rucsac, ready for the next raid on Tesco. The first necessity was breakfast, as the ship's offering had been deemed to be far too early for mere tourists to accomodate. A taxi took us to Heuston station, where the first change to the carefully-crafted schedule was voted through, namely an earlier departure to Tralee, the better to throw pursuing officialdom off the scent. The ticket office confirmed that a return ticket to Tralee could be purchased that permitted a diversion to Cork on the return leg (only) at no extra charge, which seemed well, a trifle Irish. Not that we complained.
After a pleasant half hour spent eating, drinking and watching Dublin's commuters hurrying off to work, we ventured onto the platform to see what transport awaited us. Modern-ish diesels pulling old-ish stock, looking like something from British Rail 30 years ago, when trains ran on time and the staff knew which company they worked for. Only the colour scheme spoiled it - black and orange doesn't do much for Southport FC, and does even less for railway stock.
Tralee turned out to be a pleasant small town with a distinctly Irish character. After checking-in at the B&B we split up into two teams, the better to infiltrate the local ambience and search for the elusive Tralee and Dingle Railway. Needless to say it was the A Team which discovered its hideout, a small shed on the edge of Blennerville village about a mile out of Tralee. The solitary loco was out of service for peak-season boiler maintenance, so we had to be content with taking photos and imagining what it might be like chugging up and down the remaining two miles of track with its small collection of coaching stock. The operation looked a touch minimalist, but probably no less enjoyable for those involved. The evening was spent at a typical Irish pub, with typical Irish live music. Untypical in that it was in Ireland.
The next day we were due to play Cork, but another option was taken up on the way, that of visiting Killarney. Its station is on a short spur off the main line, so it was the train's turn to shunt backwards and forwards into position for disembarking. The first port of call was the permanent model railway in the town centre, a single large exhibit purporting to show the whole of Euroland (and certain renegade states such as the UK) in one sweeping canvas. This inevitably caused some difficulties with scale, but marks were awarded for grandeur of concept as much as for quality of execution.
Rumours of a castle in the vicinity were then pursued, navigating by the sun westwards until we arrived at the imposing architecture of Ross Castle, amongst some decorative lakeside scenery. Refreshed at the teashop we decided to take the restful way back by pony and trap, accompanied by a driver who could have easily walked into any Hollywood film about the Emerald Isle, so well did he fit the stereotype. The only jarring note was his complaint about insurance costs, which seemed a touch off-message.
Onwards to Cork, which turned out to be a somewhat industrial and down-at-heel place, not quite what we were expecting from Ireland's 2nd city. Our detailed investigation was postponed somewhat by the discovery of a suburban side-shoot to Cobh (pronounced Covebh), with a train waiting expectantly in the siding. Diversion no.3 was promptly approved and an evening excursion to the Titanic's last port of call embarked upon. On arrival we discovered an American team had got there first, and in typical understated fashion had hired a complete cruise ship as personal transport. Fortunately they had just done Ireland in 30 minutes, and were on the point of departure, with a local brass band noisily celebrating the fact. We were therefore able to practise our Guinness-drinking and group photo-taking whilst watching them sail off into the sunset, perhaps never to return.
A nearby statue commemorated the flow of emigrants which had left from that landing-stage for a better, or at least very different, life in the New World. One wondered just what proportion of the liner's passengers had claimed Irish descent as an excuse for the trip - probably 95% or thereabouts. Perhaps some were homesick for their heritage to the point of jumping ship, and were even then clambering over the rocks, Gucci suitcases in hand, to claim asylum in the land of the free Euro? Again, no sign of the IIS with man-sized fishing nets - did they actually exist?
The B&B turned out to be in a characterful old house on a hill next to an old military hospital, run by a lady whose collection of object d'art was as imaginative as it was striking. Her knowledge of European tramways was equally impressive.
Next morning saw us back on the rails again to Dublin, a journey enlivened by the buffet steward depositing the entire trolley onto its side, the better to entertain passengers (and definitely not customers). In the UK this might have been a major disaster, in Ireland it was merely a short interruption to the service, which was resumed with commendable swiftness. On arrival we bussed across to Connolly station and headed off on another local train, this time a few miles northwards to Malahide.Another castle, and another model display, this one courtesy of a Mr Cyril Fry (deceased), and a more sophisticated effort altogether, with some quality static exhibits as well.
Returning to Dublin, our final B&B was of altogether diffferent, and Catholic, style, run by an elderly couple who quite clearly knew their heritage and their place in it. This was reflected in the furniture and decor - Ikea chic and flat-pack self-assembly it certainly was not. The negotiations on the timing of breakfast were unexpectedly protracted, as a certain football match involving two non-Irish countries was timed to start just at the endof the cereal course, creating a log-jam of demand for the eggs and bacon. Perhaps with a premonition of the outcome, some graciously decided food was a priority over mere sport, while the rest of us saw England take lead before deciding to eat. Consoling ourselves that England had lost to the likely World Cup winners, we took a bus into Dublin centre and again split up, this time exploring the city singly. Time for purchase of souvenirs, postcards and the like, and for checking the authenticity of the bullet-holes in the GPO's front elevation. At least there was no nonsense over calling it Consignia, so they must have done some good.
After regrouping at the bus station (for the left-luggage facilities) we departed by taxi for the ferry port and a rendezvous with the Sea-Cat. The return journey was a touch bumpier than the outward trip, partly due to the captain keeping up a determined 36 knots until well into the Mersey, doing some impressive fly-bys of slow-moving traffic on the way. A quick hard left under the nose of the Birkenhead ferry and we slid sideways onto station alongside Pier Head, almost on time. The final score: UK 4, IIS 0 - a very satisfactory result.
Some photos are here.
2001 - A HEBRIDEAN ADVENTURE
To far-flung outposts of Empire.
This trip was characterised by no less than three trips on the Fort William to Mallaig route, out-and-back on the Jacobite and then out again on the service train for a night at the Station Hotel in Mallaig. Then ferry to Armadale on Skye, bus to Uig and another ferry to Tarbet on Harris. Bus to Stornoway, ferry the next day to Ullapool and bus to Inverness for the train home. Variety or what?
Another new experience was witnessing the naval might of the free world exercising across the full width of the Minch, whilst our MacBraynes ferry innocently tried to run the blockade to the mainland. A couple of Mark XII torpedoes (or were they only seals?) across the bows and the captain agreed that perhaps might was right after all, and backed the foretops'ls (or whatever captains do in mechanical ships) to gave way to the flotilla approaching out of the sun.
Some photos are here.
2000 - FORT WILLIAM, SKYE AND LEWIS
A four-day expedition, with trains, ferries and buses interacting with military precision, co-ordinating expeditionary travel into one harmonious whole. I for one was a little surprised at how smoothly it all went, given the number of connections that needed to be made, with little margin for error. The full route was Inverness, Kyle of Lochalsh, Skye, Mallaig, Fort William, Oban, Mull, Iona and back via Oban to Glasgow.
The only time things looked a little doubtful was the bus across Skye from the bridge at Kyleakin to the ferry at Armadale. A number of foreign tourists (American, as it just happened) kept the bus driver fully engaged in complex calculations over routes, times and costs, such that the departure was somewhat behind schedule. However the driver was clearly very familiar not only with the route but also with the limits of his vehicle's g-forces on the narrow, winding road to the ferry. Fortunately the other drivers on the route were also familiar with the bus's braking distances, and made appropriate allowances. We were not the first in the queue at the slipway, but certainly not the last either.
The other feature of the trip was a bus ride across Mull to Iona, reached by a short ferry ride from Fionnphort. The atmosphere of the place is a little muted by the large quantities of tourists (us included) bearing down on the cathedral from the tea-shops and cafes clustered around the ferry. An out-of-season visit might pay dividends.
Some photos are here.
The 1999 escape plan targeted the West Highlands, on the basis that it was three years since the last visit, and the region would have had time to nearly recover. Five members set out in mid-June, a sixth having withdrawn on the basis that life was one long holiday, and he needed some time just to live and do his laundry, like the rest of us more ordinary folk.
1999 - FORT WILLIAM, OBAN AND MULL
The first excitement was an unscheduled stop at the Springburn triangle, just north of Glasgow, when the locomotive abandoned its coaches and vanished into the dawn sunshine. As a peaceful hush descended, and remained, we started to wonder if we were being set up for a repeat of the surrender of France to Mr Hitler. Fortunately after half an hour the loco returned from the other direction, connected to our rear end and set off again northwards. Apparently the Edinburgh carriage shuffle had succeeded in detaching not only the coaches for Fort William but also the jumper cables on the assigned locomotive, effectively depriving us of all electrical power. Not even coffee for breakfast, let alone eggs and bacon. The railway authorities' first thought was to abandon the sleeper cars and decant the now-awake and very irritable occupants into the day coaches put on at Waverley. Fortunately they had a second thought to turn first the train and then the locomotive round at Springburn and use the jumpers at its front end.
As a result we had our full quota of sleep, but arrived in Fort William just in time to miss the Jacobite steam special to Mallaig. The station manager generously provided taxis for us to chase the train to its scheduled stop at Glenfinnan Viaduct, whilst leaving us in no doubt that he considered the Special's organisers should be responsible for such largesse. We thought it better not to remind him that it was probably a Scotrail employee who had sheared off the loco cables in a frenzy of efficiency in the early hours. Scotrail would however no doubt blame EWS, the locomotive operator, for having used cheap bolts to hold the jumpers on in the first place, and anyway didn't the coaches belong to Virgin and run on Railtrack's rails?
The journey to Mallaig behind a steam locomotive (a big green LNER B1) was a highlight of the trip, with the sights, sounds and smells all one might expect from steam travel in its heyday. At Mallaig there was time for lunch at a hotel and a quick look round the harbour before the return trip, with the loco running tender-first. This time we were in the first compartment of the leading coach, only feet away from the B1's chimney, so it was atmospheric in more ways than one, particularly in the many tunnels and cuttings. Back in Fort William we took the opportunity to research the availability and price of certain single malts. Regrettably there were those who were unable to resist impulse purchases, despite being of an age when they might be expected to know better.
By late afternoon we were back on the train, bound this time for Oban. This required either a change of train at Crianlarich or a change of both train and station at Tyndrum. We opted for the latter, as a village of such size with two stations must surely be worth a visit. The two are separated by a fairly steep hillside, fortunately from Tyndrum Upper to Tyndrum Lower the way we were going. Nevertheless, complaints of excessive exertion from one member of our 1996 expedition (the permanent holidaymaker) has caused the phrase ‘a Tyndrum mile’ to pass into club folklore. Fortunately a hotel at the base of the descent allowed an opportunity for recuperation before the final stage of the day's journey. Tyndrum Lower is little more than a halt next to some caravan homes, but it does hold the record of being the furthest point north to display a poster advertising the Southport exhibition, both in 1996 and again in 1999. Such fame does not seemed to have changed it much.
After 30 or so miles of fine scenery, we arrived at Mrs Campbell's B&B for a well-earned rest. She remembered us from the last time, especially the incident with her husband and the bottle of whisky. The club chairman claimed the right to the single room, on the basis that keeping a certain distance from the troops was essential to maintain discipline, even on holiday. Next morning after a large and leisurely breakfast we wandered down to the harbour to book passage on the ferry to Mull. We discovered a joint ticket was available, consisting of ferry trip, admissions to Duart Castle and Torosay House, a ride on the Isle of Mull railway and coach travel in-between.
The ferry was punctual and well-organised - at four or five crossings a day, you got the feeling that they had done it all before. The crossing was short (40 minutes), smooth and scenic, and we soon disembarked at Craignure jetty, having shaken off a squadron of naval patrol boats on cadet-training exercises. The coach waiting for us was not the most modern, but had a certain period charm about it. The same could be said of the driver, who delivered a continuous running commentary with one hand grasping a giant-sized microphone and the other rotating, with a dexterity that belied his years, an equally over-scale steering wheel.
The first stop was Duart Castle, a small but beautifully-formed edifice overlooking the Sound of Mull, the 13-Century home of the chief of the Macleans. Among the more imaginative exhibits was a very realistic dungeon, complete with life-like, groaning models of prisoners from a Spanish galleon that long ago failed its seaworthiness test in spectacular fashion off Tobermory (the town, not the womble). The clan Maclean had obviously been advised of our visit, as they had laid on entertainment, in the form of a squad of REME engineers trying to excavate their excavator. This had managed to get water up its exhaust pipe whilst dredging a nearby jetty mooring, unfortunately at low tide. The amount of heavy-lift hardware being applied to the task was impressive, as no doubt was the bill landing on the desk of some apoplectic colonel in Inverness or similar. The invoice for separating the vehicle from two day's worth of salt-water corrosion would be even larger.
A ten-minute journey along windy single-track-with-passing-places roads brought us to Torosay. This was more of a gentleman's residence than the castle on the foreshore, with furnishings that a true Maclean would no doubt despise as being far to soft and un-Highland like. They probably also put sugar on their porridge instead of salt.
The gardens were spacious and attractive, although one of our number, who back home is the Mr Big of the begonia world, was heard to mutter that it was all lawns, with totally inadequate thought given to the vital matter of perennials. He did however permit himself to be included in the team photo. This was taken after really only a short delay whilst we worked out how to operate the self-timers on the selected cameras. Whilst recovering from this mental exertion we were engaged in conversation by a certain elderly gentleman, towing a small dog and looking sufficiently impoverished and down-at-heel to be the owner. He denied the charge, but his knowledge of the house's history meant he had to be at least a close relative.
Hidden away in the extensive grounds were a couple of retail outlets, one a small home-made jewellery shop and one a slightly larger weaver's. The latter was run rather incongruously by a Yorkshire couple of broad and distinctly un-Celtic accent. Both enterprises were carefully pointed out to us by our coach driver on the approach run, and who then pressed into each of our eager hands a newly-minted discount voucher for our personal use. It was somehow comforting to see that raw capitalism had not completely passed by this remote corner of the Scottish shires.
Onward then to the steam railway, a 2-mile 10-1/4" gauge line from Torosay back to Craignure, through woodland and along the open shoreline. Halfway along the driver of the smart royal blue Sheffield-built locomotive stopped in a loop, not to let another train pass but to collect the tickets, as if we were less likely to abscond in the middle of nowhere than at either terminus. The Craignure end had a small station, with souvenir shop, engine shed and turntable, and a great view of the West Highland coastline. A short walk around the bay brought us back to the jetty, where with impeccable timing and only a moderate impact the ferry sailed in to collect us and the couple of hundred tourists and locals gathered there.
Morning came with Mrs C. wondering if everyone was all right, as she had been awakened at approx. 0430 hours by a large crash from the general direction of the bathroom. We blamed it on the oldest member of our company, who conveniently could not recall anything after midnight. Just another incident to remember us by. A gentle start to the day was clearly called for, although for some reason this again involved strong spirits, this time in the form of a tour of Oban distillery, followed by more sampling and more purchasing.
By lunchtime we were on our way back to Glasgow and the deep south (Lancashire), already scheming a bigger and better escape for the millennium year. Plenty of time for such plans you might think, but the more domesticated reader will know the importance of preparing the ground early, to avoid that sudden request for a tourist visa which results in stony looks from one's spouse and far too much having to be given away in hurried negotiations. The talk was of more buses and of visits to Skye and Iona, on a four-day excursion this time, making full use of a well-integrated public transport network. The deputy PM would surely approve.
Some photos are here.
1998 - PENZANCE AND THE SOUTH-WEST
A new route, this time on the sleeper from Paddington to Penzance, then back to Bodmin Parkway for the Bodmin and Wenford Railway, then Taunton and Bishops Lydeard for the West Somerset, returning via Dunster and Taunton again to London. Peter Mills produced the brochures, clearly a travel agent in the making.
Some photos are here.
1997 - INVERNESS AND THURSO
To the far north. The itinerary was:
Tuesday - sleeper to Inverness,
Wednesday - Class 156 to Thurso,
Thursday - train back to Inverness,
Friday - train to Preston via Glasgow.
Some photos are here.
1996 - FORT WILLIAM AND OBAN
This was the route we tried to do in 1995, but couldn't because of the rush of bookings anticipating the closure of the Fort William sleeper. As it happened, it was saved by combining it with the Inverness and Aberdeen sleepers as far as Edinburgh.
On this trip we did the Tyndrum Mile for the first time, getting off the Glasgow-bound train from Fort William at Tyndrum Upper, instead of at the more sensible crossing point at Crianlarich. There we would have had only to stagger across the platform onto the Oban train from Glasgow. However this has its next stop at Tyndrum Lower, so it's really just a gentle downhill yomp from Upper to Lower. And plenty of time to stop at the hotel on the main road for rest and recuperation.
We also sampled Mrs Campbell's B&B for the first time, and made such an impression that the two of them promptly fled to Connel. It was a full three years before we could track them down and descend on them again. We also sampled Oban's swimming pool, a luxury later trips would never allow.
The timetables have certainly gained in intensity over the years - in the early years the trips were somehow more relaxed and contemplative. Soon put a stop to that - this is serious research, not a holiday.
Some photos are here.
1995 - INVERNESS AND KYLE OF LOCHALSH
Our first, tentative, visit north of the Great Divide (the Merseyside/Lancashire county line). As befits an advance party, the numbers were limited to three of the society's most expendable members.
Half-past midnight is not Preston station's most enchanting time-slot. However there is a certain air of expeditionary anticipation, of those few passengers hanging around the waiting room being united in a common purpose.
Fortunately in mid-June the night-time temperature is almost bearable. It is therefore possible to wander casually around the station (deserted of staff even more than of passengers) sniffing the night air and listening for signs of activity on and off the premises, at a time when sensible people are well tucked up in the pub.
From time to time a glow of lights in the distance followed by a growing rumble of sound indicated the approach of a freight train, increasing yet further the wear rate of the West Coast main line. Eventually a much slower-moving set of lights suggested that something might be stopping.
This precipitated a hurried debate as to which section of the platform we should stand on to line up with the right coach. BR had helpfully provided colour coding, but at that time of night colour-blindness is likely to strike without warning, and just when you can't even remember your destination. The right choice is crucial, as error means not only no berth but also being on the wrong side of the Great Train Divide at Edinburgh.
Fortunately the stewards have seen this all before. They know how to comfort confused passengers and shepherd them towards the right part of the train as it picks up speed towards the badlands of north Lancs. 'Can I get you something from the bar sir?' is a winner every time.
The sleeping compartments are just that, a compartment to sleep in, as there is precious little room to do anything else. It also helps if you're not very tall. A broad gauge sleeper must be something else. Whether you actually sleep or not is somewhat of a lottery, the main factor being whether your body considers the swaying of the train, the occasional jolting over points and the continuous swish of the air conditioning a soothing invitation to slumber or a continual series of disturbances. Those who tend to the former are lucky indeed.
Some photos are here.