‘Let the train take the strain,’ ran the famous 1970s British Rail advert, and that’s certainly what ScotRail’s Caledonian Sleeper does, whisking a mixture of tourists and commuters on an overnight journey from London to the Scottish Highland, six times a week.
I must confess to harbouring a few slightly over-romanticised views of the service before I got on. There’d be oak-panelled cabins, smart waist-coated attendants showing us to our dining table and perhaps even the chance of sharing a dram with a corpulent Belgian detective. But although in reality this is no Orient Express, if you’re an urban southerner yearning for a weekend of majestic mountains, and can’t face 10 hours on the road, it’s still the cheapest way to travel. And it’s a great experience, too.
Cross town and country
We boarded at Crewe at 23.50 on Friday night. It was late and we were tired but having been shown to our adjoining cabins (basic affairs with a sink, two bunks and storage space) we still beat a path to the legendary buffet carriage, frequented by Caledonian regulars who, after a week working in London, were returning north to their families and country estates.
Many were on first-name terms with the staff, and there was much talk of a busy week spent in the office and the need for a bit of weekend R&R.
One warned us that there would be some shunting at Edinburgh when the train splits, with sections also bound for Aberdeen and Fort William. But although it did wake us, the reassuring clackety-clack of the wheels soon lulled us back into what was a very restful sleep.
We were woken at 7am, an hour before our scheduled arrival, with breakfast and the chance to pull back the blinds to some glorious Scottish scenery.
We alighted at Inverness, a picturesque town at the head on the Loch Ness. But it could wait for tomorrow – the train had brought us to the heart of the Highlands, which were just waiting to be explored.
We’d planned ahead and had decided to walk a section of the South Loch Ness Trail, launched a few years ago as a wilder alternative to the more touristy north side of the Loch. It runs for 28 miles from Loch Tarff in the west up to Torbreck, on the outskirts of Inverness.
The trail skirts across moorland and around vast country estates, the path zig-zagging through pine forests and across rain-swollen streams. We spotted red kites effortlessly soaring over head, against the looming backdrop of the Monadhliath Mountains, and at the village of Foyers we explored the stunning waterfalls before ending our walk with tea and cake at a cosy local café.
At 7.30pm next day we were back on the sleeper, this time heading south. The buffet car food was surprisingly good given the reputation of railway food and there’s even haggis to round off the Scottish experience.
We finish with a single malt and head back to our cabins to dream of monsters, mountains and an early morning arrival back in Crewe.
FIND OUT MORE
Runs from London Euston to Fort William or Aberdeen with many stops along the way. Mark boarded at Crewe.
Night Riviera Sleeper
This sleeper runs from London Paddington to Somerset, Devon and Cornwall.
Balachladaich Loch Ness B&B
Dores, Inverness IV2 6XP