A FEW NIGHTS AGO, at around 12.30am, I realised I was lying in bed with a smile on my face. This is not something that happens very often.
I was also lying in someone else’s bed. This is something that happens even less often.
I’ve the railway company First Great Western to thank for this pair of unlikely scenarios. For it was one of their beds I was lying in, a bed that was in the process of travelling around 300 miles. And I was smiling because I’d realised what a faintly ludicrous yet also rather wonderful experience I was undergoing.
The last time I’d spent the night on a train was almost 20 years ago. It hadn’t been an especially pleasant trip, but I’d survived in much the same way you survive everything that life subjects you to when you’re 18: by not dwelling on things too much until you’re 20 years’ older.
Now I was doing it again, but in what I hoped would be far more agreeable circumstances.
I’d felt a mixture of mild apprehension and juvenile glee as the hour of departure approached. Memories of that previous trip bobbed around my mind like scum on a tide.
I tried to counter them with the knowledge I’d come well prepared (in my bag were, among other things, a towel, a toothbrush and toothpaste, even some moistened facewipes – yes, I know). I also reminded myself that I was heading, not towards some further unfamiliar destination, but home. I was travelling from Penzance to London, and no matter how I fared on the journey, I knew my own bed in my own flat was waiting for me at the other end.
This mattered. I can only deal with so many known unknowns at once.
I was also forearmed with tips and tip-offs courtesy of Robert, who’d done exactly the same journey a few months ago.
As the minutes ticked by and a small group of fellow travellers gathered on the astonishingly gloomy concourse at Penzance, I did have to remind myself that this was something I’d chosen to do.
I took comfort from seeing a similar combination of unease and excitement on my companions’ faces. We were all in this together – even though none of us said one word to each other, not even when the specified time for boarding (9.05pm) had passed and none of the train doors were unlocked. Well, what did you expect? A centuries-old tradition for British reserve to dissolve suddenly into a continental conversational free-for-all?
By far and away the best thing about First Great Western’s sleeper service is the option to book single berths. Cheap berths, to boot. If you book far enough in advance, your ticket will cost only £49. That’s less than what you’d have to pay in most parts of the country for a stationary bed, never mind one that moves 300 miles.
(Twin berths are available. I saw one elderly couple gamely piling into their accommodation along with enough luggage for twice as many people, but not muttering one word of complaint.)
There was a faintly business-like air to proceedings during the half hour or so before departure, as an affable steward came round to tick us off his clipboard, ask when we wanted to be woken in the morning and with what. The “what” was a hot drink and a choice of refreshments: a bacon roll, a croissant, a bowl of cornflakes, or a packet of biscuits. I went for the biscuits. “A lot of people choose that one,” the steward grinned. “It must be because people like them,” I replied, stupidly.
Then we were off.
You can’t prepare for the novelty of being on a mainline train and not facing either forwards or backwards. It’s simply impossible to anticipate. If you want to experience the shock of the new, take a trip on a sleeper and take a sideways look at the world. Literally.
Sure, you travel sideways on most London Underground trains. But that’s different. They aren’t trains that carry you almost from one end of England to the other. And they aren’t trains in which you take your clothes off and lie down. Not officially, that is.
It being the longest day, it remained light outside my window for a good hour or so after leaving Penzance. I watched more people get on. The train stopped at around a dozen places, and each time I could hear the steward repeat his spiel along the corridor, always polite, always word perfect.
I admit I could have tried to get to know some of my fellow passengers. I could have gone along to the lounge car and essayed some Michael Palin-style travel-based chat. But I didn’t, for I am a wuss and preferred to stay sequestered in my berth, peering out semi-voyeuristically at the world, wondering when to venture along the corridor to make one last trip to the toilet before going to bed.
When I did, I saw around a dozen people in an adjacent carriage, all looking very bright and breezy. These were the folk who were spending the night in seats: an experience I also endured on that Europe trip in 1994, on a train from Brussels to Paris. I found it so disagreeable that half an hour after arriving I was bent double in a gutter throwing up.
Ah, la belle France.
But now it really was time for bed. I’d sampled the in-berth on-screen entertainment: an eccentric selection of pre-loaded programmes including Alan Partridge’s Mid-Morning Matters and the England v Holland game from Euro 96. I’d also thoroughly investigated and itemised the contents of my free toiletries bag. This was unexpected (as proven by my bringing along the toothbrush, toothpaste etc.) but wholly welcome. For the record, it contained:
– A face cloth
– A bar of soap
– A lemon-scented flannelette
– A small bottle of body lotion
– A tube of toothpaste
– A toothbrush
– An eye mask
– Two foam ear plugs
– A “vanity kit”
– A disposable razor
– Some shaving cream
I felt completely spoiled.
I got into bed and lay there, listening. Somewhere a distant memory answered back with echoes of 20 years ago. I enjoyed the association, particularly as I knew I was in a much better place now compared with then.
I did a good bit of jolting and writhing – all involuntary, mind you, prompted by the motion of the train. It might well have been the sensation of slipping from one side of the bed to the other that triggered my 12.30am smile.
But I also kept sitting up, curious as to where the train might be, intrigued by which station we’d got to. I couldn’t resist peeking out of the window at Plymouth and noticing a few groups of passengers stoically clambering aboard, despite the late hour.
I never fell properly asleep. I dozed a few times, but never for long. I didn’t really mind. I’d expected as much, seeing as I’m a light sleeper and the circumstances were so unusual.
There was a period, however, in the depths of the night when I lost track of time and geography entirely. I remember having a nose through the window in the small hours of the morning, realising the train had stopped somewhere and, straining to see a platform sign, catching sight only of a workman strolling past eating a bag of chips. In the distance there was the sound of a hammer bashing metal. I still have absolutely no idea where all this took place, and in a way I’m rather glad. It was one of the eerie highlights of the trip.
Around 4.45am the train stopped in a siding outside Paddington, before rolling into the station at 5.15am. I listened to the person in the berth next to me pack up what sounded like a museum of belongings and make a quick exit.
Then came the first station announcements. Once more the delightful absurdity of my situation loomed large. In all my life I never thought I would hear someone trailing a “5.40 train” to, well, to anywhere. Outside the window people were scurrying past: shift workers, station employees, early risers. I knew the moment had arrived to join them.
There was just time for that complimentary hot drink and packet of biscuits. It was one of the nicest cups of tea I had ever tasted.
By 7am I was back home and back in bed. I was more tired than I thought, and would sleep on and off for the rest of the day. But it was a sleep borne out of a sense of constructive exhaustion. It wasn’t the kind of hollow tiredness you get from a day at work or doing household chores. This was a tiredness of achievement, at having completed something a bit intimidating but also a bit special.
Plus I had laid to rest, if not myself, then a few ghosts of two decades’ vintage.