Tuesday, February 22, 2011

On the sleeper

I've found myself travelling around the UK quite a bit this last week, taking in three of my favourite haunts: Glasgow, London and Cambridge.

The majority of the travelling was on the sleeper train. The sleeper train departs Glasgow a little before midnight, when central station is huge, hollow, smooth and clean. You walk along platform 10 and are greeted by a conductor (I'm not sure if that's the right title, perhaps carriage concierge is more appropriate) who checks your ticket and who records your preference for tea or coffee and cooked or continental breakfast. I’m not sure why they ask you. I always get both tea and coffee, and even if I ask for continental, I get handed a hot packet with MEAT written on the label.

The carriages are definitely in the British Rail slam-door era, circa 1990. It's a bit like a working museum in some ways. Perhaps I give the impression that I don't like the sleeper. Nothing could be further from the truth, I love it. It’s clean and functional but is most definitely not “shiny”. In the toilets, I'm delighted to find that the foot button approach to flushing toilets and operating taps is still employed.

And, possibly my favourite bit: there's a restaurant car. Well, it's more like a dimly lit bar car. Again, it's not decked out in the latest fashions - it's all a bit early 1990s - but I like that. The stewards are endearingly grumpy. One tall, bald-headed Glaswegian steward entertained me upon one of my first trips on the sleeper by explaining how he was hit on the head with a brick upon entering a public house in Kilmarnock. "How delightful!" I chirped as I clasped my hands together excitedly, "and what of the other scars upon your face, what stories do they hold?" OK, I didn’t say that; he might have thrown me through the window.

On my most recent trip I was genuinely pleased to spend a good half an hour talking to a lovely old lady whom I knew from my student days at Glasgow University Observatory. She's 80 this year, but full of energy and was charging down to London to exhibit a collection of original letters and photographs sent between various famous astronomers of yester-century. I handled each carefully mounted and protected A4 wallet with great care as she handed them to me over our table of wine, sandwiches and Laphroaig. Marvellous.

She told me her habit was to finish her refreshments and retire when the train reached Carstairs, where (I think) the train gets shunted together with the Edinburgh sleeper, rather clusmily. I didn’t have the staying power of this near-octogenarian, so bade her goodnight before Carstairs.

I made my way down the narrow corridors past the row of small cabins. It’s so narrow that you have to angle your body and walk slightly sideways. But, as I was walking down the corridor a hand reached out from a cabin doorway and grabbed me, pulled me in and threw me to the floor. It was the henchmen of my evil nemesis, Professor Moriarty. We struggled for a while until I bested one by trapping him inside a folding bunk. The other I managed to eject through the window after electrocuting his metal teeth with a broken table lamp bulb. I then climbed into bed with Eva Marie Saint. I may be getting this bit confused with a few films. Hmmm, hard to be sure.

If you get fed up faffing around at security at airports or are bothered by short haul air travel's pollution and wastefulness, or just fancy something different, give the sleeper a go. And do so soon before they make it all intolerably shiny like everything else these days.

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