2011 - Speyside and Grampian
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.
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.
Regular readers will recall that 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.
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 accommodation consisted of 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.
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.
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 Kyleakin 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.
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.
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.
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).