There is something special about night trains. At Euston station, the main ticket hall was thronged with frustrated people. Signal problems and other delays north of London had caused chaos for the evening travellers, most of whom were just trying to get home, and the mood was a mix of anger and resignation. Down on our platform however, it couldn’t have been more different. As the train waited on the tracks and passengers moved along its length trying to find the right carriage, the prevailing mood was one of gentle excitement.
There were men and women in suits, heading north after long days working in the city. Some were clearly regulars, greeting the guards like old friends and discussing what time they would meet in the dining car. Familiarity did not seem to dampen their joy for the journey ahead. Others were dressed for other adventures, such as the small team of climbers who loaded their gear from the platform onto the train, making a chain to stow their rucksacks and duffel bags into any available space in their compartment. Some were like us, first-timers on this famous route through the night. The Caledonian Sleeper. Just the name alone was enough to trigger the imagination.
While the crowds still waited in the ticket hall, we left on time, easing our way through the north of the city in the darkness. It was the end of winter, beginning of spring. The weather was on the turn, and the forecast for Scotland was good. Still, the guard in our compartment told us, we shouldn’t get our hopes up. Quite often the train had travelled all the way to Fort William and the only thing visible through the window was the darkness of England and a Scotland engulfed in fog. She was from Fort William, she continued, as if that should be enough to confirm her knowledge and experience. You couldn’t trust the weather. Not at any time, but especially not now.
We ate our picnic and drank a beer or two, before letting the gentle motion of the train rock us to sleep. Despite the romance, it’s not always easy to sleep on a night train. Often it is the stops that wake you, as you peer bleary eyed into the bright lights of Preston station. But still, sleep came, albeit fitfully, and in any case we were too excited about what we would see when we woke to stay in our beds too long.
We took our position at the window, sipping on tea and coffee while spooning our porridge that had been delivered to our compartment, as the train moved north of Glasgow along the water. Hills and towns, ships on the Clyde and, slowly but surely, the gentle rise of the land as we moved ever closer to Rannoch Moor.
This had been the goal, a place of high, boggy moorland ringed by low, snow-capped peaks, that had long captured the imagination. In the corridor a woman told us that this was the second time she had done this journey, and the first time she had seen anything. Last time there had been nothing but a wall of white beyond the window. The guard, who had joined us, nodded knowingly. But this time was different. This time the sky was mostly blue with high clouds, clear air and a view across the frozen expanse that invited single-word scribbles in the notebook that could not possibly do justice to the scene.
Bleak. Beautiful. Breathtaking.
Down below we caught a glimpse of deer and even a stag. They had come down towards the tracks in search of food. The train continued on, calling at lonely stations where our hiking and climbing friends dropped down and disappeared into the wilderness, striking out for adventure. It was all we could do not to follow them. But we wanted the whole of the experience, to take the line across the moor and down the valley, circling Ben Nevis and arriving in Fort William at the water’s edge.
In all her years, the guard said, she had never seen it like this. We were standing at the end of the carriage, looking out through the window at Ben Nevis. It was a long night, she conceded, but on mornings like this it was the best job in the world. Then she remembered herself. We had been lucky, she said, with a stern look on her face. You can’t always expect a view like that. This was Scotland, after all. Then she looked back out through the window, and you could sense the pride that she felt for what had unfolded beyond the window of the Caledonian Sleeper and that we had been along for the ride to see it all.
Photographs: Katrin Schönig
Words: Paul Scraton