My heart’s in the Highlands, my heart is not here,
My heart’s in the Highlands, a-chasing the deer;
Chasing the wild-deer, and following the roe,
My heart’s in the Highlands, wherever I go.
– Robert Burns
I love stations. I love the pivotal role they play in unlocking the treasures of a city. So many stories collide and disperse at their bosoms. I love that rebound of energy.
Rail travel is an artistic notion in my head. Amongst the rhythmic scurrying of hurrying feet, sleepy queuing at coffee shops, and bobbing heads projected at departure boards at a well-practiced 45 degrees, I find mirrored images of myself. I am playing some unknown, albeit minor, role in the stories of those around me, and they, mine.
Euston is a central railway station in London, and a personal favourite. It is always so busy at any given time of the day that if you stick your tongue out at the people-weary air flurrying in the wake of rushing passengers, you can taste the surrounding chaos. And Burger King onion rings.
Just before midnight on a Monday evening, it’s a markedly different story. Euston looks docile and nondescript. Some passengers are huddled together at the centre of the station, waiting for platform announcements. Boots and Accessorize have been shut for hours and there is something eerie about the muted brouhaha – like the low snoring of a fierce lion that has decided to settle down for a semi-comatose nap.
What was I doing so late here, anyway? I scanned the departure boards quickly. There! The Caledonian Sleeper was calling out from Platform 1.
The Maiden Voyage
Years ago on a cold December day, I made my maiden voyage from Scotland to England. The year was 2008. Route: Glasgow Central to London Euston. Over the next eight years, I would make this journey countless times, from Edinburgh to Manchester, London to Aberdeen. I have flown, rode a bus, and taken the fast and furious Virgin Trains that cuts across the odd 400-500 miles in 4-5 hours. I have conquered and reconquered this journey, switching ‘homes’ as I went, and yet, my restless traveller-commuter spirit, permanently homesick for the (metaphoric) warmth of Scotland, jumps with joy at new tricks to sneak back in.
The Caledonian Sleeper is a niche flavour of rail travel. Mission: Hop on a midnight train in London, have a wee snooze in a sleeper berth, and get teleported to the Scottish Highlands in the wee hours of the morning.
Lovingly nicknamed the Deerstalker, the Caledonian Sleeper is the longest train in the UK, with a capacity of 500 passengers. One of the only two remaining sleeper services in the country (the other one being the Night Riviera Sleeper service from London to Cornwall), the CS has been teleporting Londoners from ‘goodnight’ in England to ‘rise and shine’ in Scotland for decades, six nights of the week. The Caledonian Sleeper Highland route runs to Fort William, Inverness and Aberdeen, while The Caledonian Sleeper Lowland route runs from London Euston to Glasgow Central or Edinburgh Waverley.
Platform 1, 11:30 pm.
The atmosphere was rather hush-hush in Euston, the emptiness jarring. I was convinced there was magic hidden somewhere in the quiet desolation engulfing the station, waiting to manifest itself only to those with a ticket on the Sleeper. I showed mine to the Ticket Master. He ushered me in with a welcoming smile, too kind for someone working so close to midnight.
The train was sitting mysteriously astride Platform 1, smiling like a Cheshire Cat. Coach C was at the far back. As I stumbled down the narrow passageway looking for Cabin 17, a stately looking attendant dressed in green tartan garb apparated out of nowhere. He checked me off against a list and took my breakfast order, matron like. I was given a quick tour of my wee cabin (people struggle to find the washbasin, look its right here!) in a gloriously Scottish accent. I felt an instant connection. As he ushered himself out, I asked for directions to the dinner lounge.
The Cabin and Lounge Car
A ‘first class’ cabin has the effect of conjuring fancy things in one’s head. In the Caledonian Sleeper, first class offers sole occupancy of a tiny room over the more affordable options of sleeper seats and shared berths, but not much else. As far as aesthetics and modernity goes, the Sleeper is charmingly old-fashioned and mindfully prudent. The washbasins are at least two decades old, charging points for smartphone savvy millennials are non existent and the archaic flush in the shared toilet has to be stomped by foot, a rather punishing exercise in the middle of a late night wee.
Nevertheless, I was excited. A full length bed had been cleaned and readied for my arrival, a set of toiletries resting cheerfully on top of clean, ironed sheets. It was very much to my liking. I wanted to get to know my wee cabin a bit better but the revelling would have to wait. The travel down to London Euston from Southampton Central had induced some severe hunger pangs and they were in no mood to be left waiting longer than I could help.
The dinner lounge – one more notable perk of travelling first class in the CS – had a very relaxed atmosphere, the kind that entices one to let her hair down and pull up a wine glass (or, for the non-drinking pretenders like me who get by with coke and an active imagination, to regale in the idea of it).
For someone who has experienced a fair amount of rail travel in the UK, I cannot stress how pleasant it was to be sat (albeit in an odd hour) in a train that promised such novel notions as cooked food and horizontal sleep, with none of the stress of station changes and restless shuffling on stiff seats. Sat on a big, comfy chair, it was almost like being back home after work, the responsibilities of the weekday paused with adventurous glee. I was looking forward to some grub and couch/bed arrest, minus the cleaning and bed making.
There was a small mismatched group of people giving me company in the lounge. Two men dining solo, a couple indulging in a fancy assortment of cheeses, another traveller-type fellow enjoying a big book and a glass of white wine. The setting was very 1980s, much like the rest of the train (though the foot flush in the toilet was probably a bit more archaic than that).
The CS is almost like a time capsule set somewhere in Scotland in the olden days, men and women in Scottish finery transporting soldiers across the borders in the middle of the night. The kitchen staff were impressive in their tartan uniforms and extremely attentive. Two stewardesses were bustling about in what appeared to be an office-like kitchen. I could see a microwave and a sink and a smattering of cutlery. I was convinced they were all part of some Secret Scottish Service, the insignia of the Caledonian Sleeper saving the idea from being crazy to being pretty damn official.
The Scottish take great pride in their traditions and it was evident that they wanted to uphold that in the services inside the Sleeper. The menu boasted the finest of Scottish produce, the ingredients sourced from sustainable Highland sources. It offered fuss free macaroni cheese and the slightly more indulgent mushroom stroganoff among other things. I fell for the classic in the menu – haggis, neeps and tatties. ‘Sticks to your ribs, mate, this does!’ a colleague had once exclaimed between forkfuls of haggis at a breakfast bar in an Edinburgh hotel. ‘Start the day with this, and you are good to go!’ he added, patting his belly with satisfaction. The phrase has stuck indelibly in my mind; I could feel the haggis settling greasily around my ribs.
Just before midnight, the train shuddered into movement. As we set off purposefully, I struggled to keep my eyes open. I quickly asked for my dessert – blueberry baked cheesecake – as though afraid I would fall asleep without it. Freshly baked and endlessly indulgent, the cake more than made up for the haggis that had left me wanting.
Back in the cabin, I eagerly unpacked my sleep pack. ‘You can take them as souvenirs!’ the attendant had said as though he couldn’t understand the stupidity of people who chose to leave free goodies behind. I had every intention of using mine! I had only brought along an overnight backpack and the bulky camera and laptop had dictated that I skimp on other necessitates.
The sleep pack contained an eye mask, ear buds, pillow spray and a hand towel. A bigger towel and a small bottle of water were also provided in the cabin. I hung my jacket on one of the hangers by the wall mirror. The tiny space was well thought out and I was beginning to see the CS in a new light.
I spent some happy time enjoying my own little adventure, springing on my bed and setting up my washbasin with the toiletries. I almost forgot I was sat astride a moving train until something in the adjacent tracks whooshed noisily past or the train jerked on the rails.
Around 12:30 am I finally climbed under the covers. They had a musty smell but I tried to ignore it. The duvet and pillows were very comfortable and I dug around its lushness, as I do. Many times throughout the night I was forced awake by the train’s erratic movements. I have not slept in a sleeper berth before; it was clearly an acquired skill.
Eventually I managed to drift off for some length of time. The Sleeper stealthily moved through the night, up, up and away…
Around 6 am, I was woken up by…lack of motion? The train was standing still. Bleary eyed, I tiptoed outside. You can only walk single file down the corridors and it was hard work not knocking myself into other cabins as I stumbled towards the source of sunlight. A sign outside the window declared that we had called upon Carstairs. This is where the train splits into two sections, one for Edi, the other for Gla.
We remained at the station for a good thirty minutes as I fidgeted with my bed linen, not really awake nor asleep, stuck in a limbo. Eventually I put the blinds up. As the train restarted, I tried catching some shut eye but the scenery past me was starting to get interesting and I eventually gave up.
Misty moors and plush heathlands flashed past in a magenta haze. I sat, transfixed, tangled in creased bed linen, my camera shutter in frenzy. Click-click-click.
The play of mist and clouds hanging low over the beautiful countryside gave the impression of an animated postcard, refreshing my sore eyes from the grime of urban life and iPhone screens. This was my childhood dreams sprung to life, and I was back to being a little girl all over again.
A British Love Affair
Nothing ever comes out of your mind that hasn’t already been put into it in some form or other. It may come out changed, re-arranged, polished, shining, almost unrecognizable—but nevertheless it was you who put it there first of all. Your thoughts, your actions, your reading, your sense of humour, everything gets packed into your mind, and if you have an imagination, what a wonderful assortment it will have to choose from!”
– Enid Blyton
When I was a kid, my mother would bring the world home in her office bag and rain books over my greedy hands. I fell in love with Britain long before ever laying eyes upon it. Enid Blyton’s love for the countryside became my own. A fascination for all things British bloomed larger and bigger with every book or novel I read.
Now I enjoy collecting these bookish memories as real life experiences. Eureka moments when I catch myself eating scones and jam at an afternoon tea date or boarding trains at King’s Cross like an ordinary Muggle are precious, even in the adult world. A decade on, I am still making new discoveries. I had almost forgotten about the ‘spotted dick’, a dessert commonly found in Blyton’s stories, until I saw it being served at my workplace last week. The Brits seem to enjoy a unique sense of humour in the nomenclature of things, particularly roads and desserts. If you observe closely, a pattern emerges of a rather bemusing fascination for the ‘willy’ (Cockfoster is a legit London underground station).
My childhood, I assure you, was innocent, notwithstanding the funny named desserts I came across in children’s storybooks. Noddy, Famous Five, Secret Seven and Malory Towers instilled in me a profound sense of adventure set against a quintessentially British canvas. I grew obsessed with caravans and farm life. The novelty has worn off over the years but the child in me revels every moment of juxtaposing her youthful dreams and adult reality, ever so often, to marvel at the tapestry of her twenty something years. If someone had told me I would grow up to make home out of the home of my favourite book characters, I would have dismissed it as a realty too good to be true.
The breakfast knock arrived promptly at 6:45, as promised. I eagerly accepted the tray, laden with raspberry jam, tea, smoked salmon and eggs. A jolly good breakfast as the Famous Five would say!
I changed quickly as we rolled into Waverley. Climbing out of the sleeper, I found myself giddy with excitement. Is it me, eager as ever, or is it you, Scotland? I whispered out loud. I credited it to the latter.
Once again, I felt the familiar thrill of people-watching wash over me. I stopped slap bang in the middle of the morning ruckus, watching people shuffling around the station with purpose. There was a powerful surge of concentrated energy and my body connected to it like Wi-Fi.
A big sign advertising the Cursed Child brought a smile to my lips. It almost made sense to see a Harry Potter poster first thing in Scotland. As I climbed the last set of elevators to Princes Street, smell pockets in the air ambushed me as though they had been waiting. I couldn’t quite put my finger on the individual notes but it made my heart swell. It reminded me of deep fried mars bars and the purity of northern air. It was absolutely, rivetingly Scottish and I felt like a fresh-off-the-boat Asian teenager again.
Edinburgh is a sight to behold. The weak wash of sunlight further accentuated its magic as I stepped out into this charming land. What is it about this place that breaks and mends my heart in new ways every time I visit? Gloomy and picturesque, it’s somehow so UK and so not. If there was a Half-Blood City, Edinburgh was it. Part wizard, part Muggle, it is easy to see why the world of Harry Potter was penned here. The dramatic vista of a castle in the distance is an obvious giveaway but there is so much more going on here. It’s a feeling, a connection that makes you believe that magic does exist, right here in the ordinary world.
The pros of rising early is manifold – wide awake, I could rejoice the smugness of being an early bird while soaking up the quietness of a beautiful city morning at its baby stages. Most people out and about at this hour meant business, the shared camaraderie palpable.
Well done, Missus.
And you, Mate!
I made my way to a local Costa for my latte fix. The baristas were dancing to Black or White and I no longer felt all that smug. Such experiences make the idea of being a morning person seem so enviable and inspiring – until the 4:30 am alarm go off and you realize you are just not one of them ‘rise and shine’ types.
I sat quietly outside the Scot monument for a while…contemplating…sipping coffee…watching the city, the city watching me. But duty beckoned and I had to cut my reverie short. Single to the airport, please!
It is Fringe Festival time in Edinburgh and the city had been dressed up to welcome the world at its magical shores in style.
As the bus trundled into the heart of the city, I sat glued to the windows, rediscovering Edinburgh as though it was my very first time. I was reminded of the unique styles sported by the people in this equally unique city, blending beautifully with the enchanting atmosphere – all cobbled streets, haughty pillars, happiness and intellectuality.
Coming back to Edinburgh was like coming back home…