2007 - The Jacobite, Mull and Bo'ness
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.