Back from Scotland!
I’m sorry I didn’t post sooner–there was no internet on the train, nor was the internet at the station worth a crap, and I was too tired to even write the post. I apologize for the length.
I began this leg of my journey at London’s Euston Station. My train was the Caledonian Sleeper, which I discovered at The Man in Seat 61’s website (see link). I collected my tickets at the station.
All photographs in this post © Elizabeth West
A word about trains in the UK:
- A train car is a carriage. On the sleeper, your bed is a berth. Your berth is located in a compartment. A rail company employee is handy all night to help you if you need your door unlocked or if you have a problem. He/she is known as an attendant. He has a little office on the carriage so if you need him, just knock and he will help you.
- When you get the ticket, you NEED to keep it until you are completely done with your trip. Why? Because you need it to both enter and exit the platform. There is a little machine with a gate, not unlike the tube station barriers I remember from London in 1983. You feed your ticket through the slot and it comes out the top and opens the gate. Without it, you can’t get in or out.
- Keep your ticket handy on trains where you are in a seat. They will come round and check your ticket. If you get on a train without one, you can get fined. Sometimes you can buy a ticket ON a train if you mess up. But they want to see that you are holding a valid ticket.
- You can buy a ticket online and collect it from a machine at the station. This is what I did for both Inverness and Cardiff. All you need is the credit card you bought the ticket with and your confirmation number. MAKE SURE YOU HAVE THAT CONFIRMATION NUMBER.
On the Caledonian Sleeper, if you are in standard class, you may use the first class lounge to sit and charge your device, buy a drink, or buy dinner and eat.
If it’s full of first-class passengers, however, you will have to go back to your compartment and wait until the lounge is less busy. My advice–there is only the one lounge car, so get your butt up there as fast as possible if you want to eat. You can purchase food to take back to your compartment if you like or if you’d rather not wait, but the to-go stuff is limited.
ScotRail is supposed to refurbish the sleeper. They actually almost did away with it altogether, but there was a huge outcry because so many people used it to commute, and it was a sort of traditional thing.
The train doesn’t leave until eight or nine o’clock, so you’ll be tired by the time you get on. The bed is okay; it’s just narrow. You get two pillows and a thick duvet, and you can control the temperature in the compartment. I was nice and warm.
The corridor is extremely narrow and the compartments tiny. First class is just standard class with more frills and the extra berth (upper) folded up into the wall (single occupancy). If you’re traveling standard class, you will be sharing with someone of the same sex. They’ve been doing it this way for years with very little problem and you’ll probably be fine. Or you can spring for first class –if you buy your ticket far enough in advance, you can save money.
WARNING! The walls are very thin! You can hear everything. If you’re planning to shag your sweetie, good luck not bumping your head, and keep it silent.
Someone coughing kept me from sleeping the first night and I was freaking exhausted the next day. The second night, I had the compartment to myself (yay!) because of a double booking, but my neighbor was playing a video and I could hear every word. I knocked and politely asked him to turn it down, and he obliged.
I met up with Inverness Tours at the station. What I did was a share-a-tour deal, where someone purchases the tour and they sell off the unoccupied seats. You then get to go on the tour without having to get a huge group of people together. A very nice American couple had booked the tour–it was just the three of us. Our guide was George Munro, who is a retired local and a delightful storyteller with a lovely Highland accent. He was hilarious and we loved him.
Here is a video I took of Loch Ness from Urquhart Castle. I wanted you to see and hear the sound of the wind and the lapping of the water. It’s an absolutely lovely place.
The wind is very strong there. I had a scarf wound loosely round my neck, and when I went to the top of the castle citadel, I had to knot it because the wind actually unwound it and almost removed it!
Loch Ness is almost 24 miles long and contains more fresh water than all the lakes in England and Wales combined. At its deepest point, it is 875 feet down. Sadly, expeditions found mostly fish and little plankton-type things. There is not enough food there to support a large monster, and all the sightings are explainable by other means. But Nessie or no Nessie, you can’t deny its beauty.
The presentation at the Loch Ness Centre at Drumnadrochit (pronounced Drum na DROCH it, with the ch pronounced like in loch) acknowledged that the monster probably doesn’t exist. It left enough ambiguity that you could choose to believe if you wanted to.
Before we went to the Centre, we crawled all over Urquhart Castle.
A stronghold during the Wars of Scottish Independence in the 14th century, the castle was partially blown up by the Clan Grant in 1692 to prevent the Jacobites from taking it over and it was never rebuilt. In 1715, a storm caused further damage to Grant Tower. The remains have been preserved and the castle’s ruins are now a huge tourist attraction.
I’ve wanted to see this place since I was a kid. Despite the gimmicky atmosphere of a short, eight-minute historical documentary before we went to the castle, and a huge gift shop, it did not disappoint. I loved walking around and reading the informational plaques. I climbed to the top of Grant Tower and only stayed long enough to take a couple of shots, because it too open and the wind too strong for me to feel comfortable with the height.
Shots of the castle:
On the way back, we stopped by the side of the road to get a shot of a house with some sheep in front of it and I broke off a sprig of heather. I’m pressing it to keep; I hope I can get it home without it falling apart.
Because I hadn’t slept well on the train going up, I was far too exhausted to explore much of Inverness after George dropped us off. We went to Leakey’s Bookshop, a converted church on Church Street near the city centre. Sadly, the café there had shut for good, but the bookstore was still open. I bought a cookery book full of historical photographs of Scottish people and full of traditional recipes. I can hardly wait to try some of them–if I can find ingredients.
Coming back, I lucked out and though I got the same berth in the same compartment, I didn’t have to share this time. I slept hard (with the aid of two glasses of wine, ha ha), on the way back to London. In fact, I was still sleeping when the attendant knocked the next morning with my tea, only to tell me “We’ll be arriving in forty minutes.” GAH!
Things it’s hard to do on a moving train:
- Use the loo (again, much bigger than on airplanes, and you should see the first class train loo). It’s hard to stand up without losing your balance if the train lurches. Just be careful.
- Get dressed.
- Make a cup of tea.
- Drink a cup of tea whilst getting dressed and packing at the same time.
- Put on makeup–especially eyeliner. I skipped it.
- Take pictures out the window.
Things to know about the tube:
- Lots of stairs; no lifts (elevators) in many stations, though there are escalators in some. So don’t overload your bags.
- Most people just want to get where they’re going, but if you’re polite, they will answer a question or help you if needed. I was trying to drag my borrowed roller bag up a particularly evil set of stairs at Paddington when coming back from Cardiff. When I got nearly to the top, my bag suddenly levitated as a man behind assisted me up the last few steps. He probably just wanted me out of his way, but I thanked him politely anyway.
- People do talk, but mostly to each other, if they’re sitting with people they know (and on the phone sometimes). There are exceptions–I was at the head of a queue with some people and it suddenly shifted so the front was at the other end. He joked to me, “Of course, now we’re at the END of the line!” I said, “I know, right!”
- On the London Underground, the ticket-operated gates have been replaced by automated barriers that you touch your Oyster card on. Just hold your card over the big yellow button until the light turns green and the gate will open. Do it when you enter and when you leave to go up to the street.
- Transport for London will put you on a bus (railway replacement service) if the tube is shut for some reason. I had to do this today–they were doing engineering work on the District line from Turnham Green to Richmond Station, where I had to pick up the bus. They don’t charge extra for this service either. I asked the underground attendant who was in charge if we had to use Oyster for the replacement bus, and he said no. Thank you, TfL! The bus stops as close to where the affected tube stations are as possible.
I shouldn’t have any problem with the buses, either, though I didn’t ride them last time. They’re practically idiot-proof now, with stop announcements and Oyster on them as well. All you have to do is know what your stop is.
It’s almost time for a lovely dinner, so I’ll go now. Tomorrow, I’ll be visiting with my step-cousin and we’re going to a car boot sale (garage sale) for her kid’s school. On Monday:
HARRY POTTER STUDIOS!!!
Back to the insanity that is Euston Station!