2004 - Fort William, Mull and Bo'ness
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.
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.
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. Perhaps fortunately we did not have the time to call to see if the 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....’.