Just 24 hours before I found myself being tossed around a metal container at 80mph, I was watching a sack of letters undergoing the same treatment.
I was sitting in the BFI on the Southbank watching a special presentation of archive GPO films. Centrepiece of the afternoon was Night Mail: a ride on the pre-war “Down Postal”, following its progress from London to the Highlands, with music by Benjamin Britten (whose centenary had prompted the screening) and passages of verse by WH Auden.
It’s one of the most thrilling travelogues ever committed to camera. I defy anyone to watch it and not get itchy feet. The fast pace, frantic editing and dashing soundtrack take your breath away, in part from excitement, but also from audacity. How did they get away with something so daring? It seems totally contemporary in its attitude and wit, but dates from almost 80 years ago. What must its first audiences have felt?
Hopefully the same stirrings I felt, helped a great deal by the knowledge that just a day later I would be making my first ever journey on the Caledonian sleeper from London to Scotland. I dearly hoped some of the film’s views from the train, not to say the film’s views of the train, hadn’t changed too much. I wanted to cross the border in style and join the “thousands still asleep, dreaming of terrifying monsters, or a friendly tea.” Failing that, safe arrival in Fort William without looking too tatty around the trussochs.
I made the journey with my friend Robert. It was he who, three months earlier, had deftly bagged a couple of the cheapest-possible advance tickets. For where the Caledonian sleeper is concerned, it pays to do as much forward planning as possible.
This is utterly at odds with the idea of the train being a “service”. But then it isn’t. Well, not really. No doubt there are those with the income and disposition to commute up and down at the drop of a pyjama hat. We didn’t see many of those on our trip, however. Far and away the majority of passengers were, like us, on board as much for the ride as the destination.
Given this is the way all train journeys should be treated, I didn’t find the precept especially out of the ordinary. What did seem out of the ordinary was just about everything else. And thrillingly so.
I’d had an induction into the culture last year. On that occasion I’d travelled alone, as it’s relatively cheap and easy to book a single berth on the Penzance sleeper.
This time I was with company, and not just because – as my friend Scott rightly noted – this is the sort of journey best made with an accomplice-cum-confidante. Unless you travel first class, you can’t get a single berth on the Caledonian sleeper. At least, you can’t guarantee one. Best find somebody with whom you’re comfortable enough to share a) jokes about who’s going on top b) very limited body space and c) oxygen and intimate smells if, as happened to us, the air conditioning breaks down.
A jumble of sensations crowded in, which was a bit awkward as the two of us were pretty crowded in already. I reacquainted myself with some of the impressions I’d formed last year, but layered on top were new ones: the earlier start (we got on board around 8.30pm), the longer train (16 carriages!), the twin beds, the fact our destination lay over 12 hours away. Previously, I’d reached the end of the line at 5.15am. This time it would be nearer 10am.
You have to adjust your code of living on a sleeper. An addendum to this code covers matters of hygiene and cleanliness. And a footnote to the addendum deals with appearance. The reason it’s a footnote is because this has to be, or rather should be, one of the least of your concerns. There is no point trying to look presentable in these circumstances. You’d be up all night trying to get ready for bed.
Instead, you have to lower your standards slightly, but not so low you forfeit your dignity as well as your dapperness. Soon after we set off, I saw a woman wandering down our corridor sporting only a towel and damp hair. This was taking things too far. I feared we were in the bawdy carriage. What next: the two elderly women in the berth next to us flinging wide the internal door so we could all “get to know each other better”?
I tried to set an example by only venturing outside our berth sans shoes, and no further (though I may have violated this rule during a late-night toilet run). But my shoes were very firmly on my feet when I went along to the lounge car. This is a venue I probably wouldn’t have visited had I been alone. Indeed, it was something I’d avoided when I had been alone on the Cornish sleeper last year. All my instincts were saying keep yourself to yourself and enjoy the trip on your own terms. But Robert was saying let’s go to the lounge car, and he was shouting louder.
I’m glad we did. One of the absolute highlights of a sleeper train is getting to sit, lie and generally go about your business at right angles to the direction of travel. It’s such a simple change from the norm, but there’s nothing wrong in being simply entertained. As such, we sat on a battered leather banquette, watching the lights of Watford go by.
The décor was an appealing mix of decades, with parts of the 1980s poking out from under the clutter of the 2010s: a bit like yours truly.
The downside to the lounge car is it can very quickly fill up with the wrong kind of people. After almost an hour in the company of a brigand of shouty Sloaney types, one of whom had his FEET ON THE SEATS, I had to retire.
Their topics of conversation – how to take your temperature, how to pronounce the word “Corrour”, how to tell red wine from white wine – would have been more tolerable had they not been so loud. I felt sorry for a man reading his iPad who they’d squashed at the end of a sofa. An old couple at a nearby table had given up completely and were sitting in doleful silence.
Later I went back to the lounge for some cups of tea and found the place had become peaceful. The few Sloanes still there had quietened down; someone appeared to be fast asleep. It all felt much more attractively after-hours, but only to a degree. It also felt as if a grope or a fight could break out at any moment.
I returned to our berth with teas plus the fingers of shortbread that seemed to come complimentary with every single thing you bought on board. It was time to start preparing for the night ahead.
The train stopped at Preston, where I watched a grand total of five people get on. After Watford and Crewe, this was our last call before morning. The deserted, shimmering station seemed an eerily beguiling place at such a late hour, but almost certainly one best appreciated from inside a train than on the platform. To paraphrase Auden’s commentary for the GPO, none shall hear the sleeper’s rattle without a quickening of the heart.
I unpacked my freebies: soap, a towel and a bottle of water. This was nothing like the haul on the Cornish sleeper, and frankly a bit pathetic. I can’t complain about the rest of the facilities, however, as they were exactly as I was expecting. In fact I don’t remember separate male and female toilets on the Cornish train, nor quite as much room inside. Don’t worry, there’s no photo. Instead, here’s one from just outside, replete with some twinkling stars:
How much sleep you get on a sleeper comes down to how well you enjoy your small hours to be full of shunting and rolling. I knew I wouldn’t get much rest. Sure enough, I was awake when the train stopped outside Carlisle sometime after 1am, when it divided at Edinburgh at 3.30am, and when it made its first call of the morning at Westerton just before 6am.
In between I lay in the darkness, syncopating with the rhythm of the wheels while sympathising with the satchels of the Down Postal. At times I felt similarly trussed up, thanks to the giant straps that hang from the ceiling and coil around the edge of your bunk:
I realised too late that the best strategy was not to try and resist or anticipate the bangs and jerks, but surrender to them. Yes, I know the preceding sentence would not look out of place in a piece of cheap erotic fiction. But almost everything to do with the sleeper can be twisted into innuendo. You just need to relax enough to pull it off.
I must have dozed at some point, for if I’d have had no sleep at all I wouldn’t have felt as fair as I did in the morning. My mood was helped enormously by the sight that greeted me outside our window. Of all the memorable moments you get to experience on a sleeper, the one where you first raise the blind in your berth is the most precious of all. No matter your location, you get a restorative burst of reassurance at seeing the real world once again. And if your location happens to be one of the most spectacular in the country, that reassurance comes with an almighty dose of awe.
The scenery helped take our minds off the big glitch of the journey. One of the power supplies had failed overnight, leaving the train without any air conditioning or hot water. The steward brought us a breakfast of sorts, but I couldn’t help but fantasise about a cup of tea for the remainder of the ride. This lasted a good few hours, as the train threaded through the Highlands with an ever-dwindling number of passengers. A very old lady got off at Upper Tyndrum, telling us: “This is my home. I haven’t seen it for three years!” The obnoxious students got off at Corrour, one of them having the gall to wave at us. I responded with a watery smile.
At 9.55am, 12 hours and 40 minutes after leaving Euston, we arrived at Fort William. I didn’t want to leave. I wanted the train to carry on, to take us further northwards, to prolong the experience and continue the adventure. But somewhere a steward was rattling some keys. These night males had reached their destination. We stepped on to solid ground for the first time in 500 miles, looking if not quite as dishevelled a postbag, then equally well-handled.
This is a journey anyone with a love of the romantic, the sentimental, the unlikely, the adventurous or the absurd should take. It is train travel at its most variously idiosyncratic, and therefore at its best. It somehow connects more than just nations, but also memories and emotions, tying together disparate places and pasts with all sorts of personal possibilities and tomorrows. It’s a place to dream and to dawdle, to moan and to muse, and to seem part of something again. For, in the words of Night Mail, who can bear to feel himself forgotten?