2003 - A Grampian Odyssey
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.
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.
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 drink 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.
An itinerary is here.