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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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 decidedly 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.

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.

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.


An itinerary is here.

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