28 December 1995, Isle of Skye.
0930. Load family - Nettie, K (7) and Bobby (5), and luggage into Land Rover (26). Engage four wheel drive and low ratio gearbox, and plough through deep snow to village. Collect 'Diddly' McDougal, local mechanical wizard, who will bring the Land Rover back. Grind 15 miles through snow to Sligachan. This is a solitary hotel (closed, phone and water out) and a bus stop, situated at the foot of the Cuillins in one of the most beautiful and inhospitable places on earth. Wave Diddly off, and realise that I've left my shoes in the car. Wade through drifts to bus stop, and excavate space in snow for cases and children. We know the bus will be late; it has to connect with the Harris steamer at Uig. Our own boats are now burnt, and it is about -15°c. Wonder if we will be found before the next thaw.
1050. Flag down approaching coach. Load cases. K and I wind up in front seat. The driver is the sister of the postmaster, and the speed and recklessness of her driving is a byword. We are late. The road is narrowed by snow, and we have to climb through a hazardous pass over the Red Cuillins. From our elevated seats we speculate as the verges fall far, far down to the frozen shore. I have been coming here too long; each bend marks the spot where a car or lorry has plummeted in the past. Compose news bulletins in my head..."14 die in Highland coach crash horror".
1140. Arrive, pale and shaken, at the ferry square in Kyle with 5 minutes to spare. Heave cases 200 yards through the snow to the railway station. This is the only station platform I know of from which you can fall into the sea. Discover from disconsolate foreign people who haven't that the line is impassable and there will be no trains all day. There is talk of a coach.
1200. A coach arrives, and we board, settling ourselves for the long drive from west to east coast. The coach drives 200 yards back to the ferry square and stops. The driver mutters something in Gaelic, and disappears for half an hour.
1230. Coach departs. Climbing over high passes and descending to sparkling lochs, calling at each of the Kyle line halts, this trip is wonderfully scenic. Clear skies, deep, unbroken snow from frozen lochans to mountain peaks. Deer gather at the roadside. At Achnasheen the coach mounts a boulder and sticks. Without being asked, as if it is an everyday occurrence, the passengers get out and heave it free. Wise fellow travellers, on a day trip to shop at the Inverness sales, have brought food and drink, and share these with us. The road winds and dips, and Nettie goes green and silent, clutching an empty carrier bag like a talisman. Achanalt, Loch Luichart, Garve, and then the bridge over the Moray Firth from the Black Isle to Inverness. It is about 1530, and we have about 5 hours to kill.
1730. Inverness is slippery, shop carpets sodden with slush. To pass the time and get warm, we have a meal in a Chinese restaurant. K acts sophisticated, Bobby upsets his drink, I try to hide my gumboots under the table.
1830. Shops shut. Station buffet shut. No waiting room. It is bitterly cold, and Christmas spirit is wearing thin. We are joined by an overweight, 6'2", whingeing, potentially psychotic big-mouth with a crew-cut.
1930. They let us board our sleepers. Settle family, order coffee etc for morning, then leg it for the first class lounge (well, there are comfy armchairs, and a nightcap helps one sleep). Unfortunately am spotted by Big-mouth, who insists I share his table. Claiming to be Orcadian, he has undertones of Scouse.
2120. Train departs, 40 minutes late. Sublimely oblivious to the body language of fellow passengers, Big-mouth interrupts, wisecracks, argues about prices with the steward and is generally loathsome. Bury head in book. He goes at last.
2330. Totter off to bed (from past experience, I have written my carriage and compartment number on my arm). And so to bed.
0215. Crawl into consciousness at an insistent knocking. It is the attendant. We have not yet reached Kingussie. Far from waking at Euston, we may make Edinburgh by 0630. It means that in the five hours since our departure, we have travelled only 30miles. The locomotive cannot cope with the icy rails.
0230. Now wide awake, dress and head for the first class lounge in search of coffee. Big-mouth is up, but I manage to avoid him. A harassed ScotRail person (crumpled suit, mobile phone) tells me my coffee is paid for. Get talking to a nice Scot from Bonar Bridge, excited at the trip of a lifetime to Canada, to visit a cousin for Hogmanay. He has a hunted look. It turns out he is sharing Big-mouth's sleeper. He has been shouted at for having his reading light on. Confidingly, he whispers; "The man stripped off. Stark bollock naked, he was". "Which bunk were you in?" I ask. "The bottom one", he says with a shudder. "I didn't know where to put my face".
0245. We make an unscheduled stop at Dalwhinnie - something to do with treatment for a diabetic on board. Somewhere on the moors between there and Blair Atholl, the train finally breaks down altogether. Another engine is despatched from Inverness. Have more free coffee. Big-mouth has reduced a sleeping car attendant to tears, but Crumpled Suit has restored order with considerable diplomacy. More free coffee and biscuits. Snow is whipped up outside the snug of the lounge, and penetrates the carriage doors, piling up in small heaps in the corridor. Eventually our relief engine arrives, and we begin to move again. An attendant bursts in and grabs Crumpled Suit; someone is ill in Coach K. We stop at Pitlochry, where an ambulance is waiting on the snowy platform. We restart, but the replacement locomotive soon develops its own fault. Now passengers will have to be transferred to an Edinburgh-Kings Cross service, which will be held to wait our arrival. Crumpled Suit is glued to his mobile phone, arranging taxis and flights from Edinburgh for passengers with flight and ferry connections. Water has run out in the lavatories.
0700. We crawl at last into Edinburgh Waverley. It is dark and bitterly cold. Everyone piles out and humps their stuff across the station. A chain of station staff point the route. Crumpled Suit has arranged seats for us in the most luxurious of First Class dining cars. Assist an elderly woman who looks on the verge of collapse (she is an asthmatic, it transpires). We are served a splendid breakfast; piping coffee, fruit juice, egg, bacon, mushrooms, saute potatoes, rolls, marmalade. The stewards are shaken by serving a hundred breakfasts, and one drops a glass of orange juice on the couple opposite. Crumpled Suit has counted us (89) and discovered that several of his passengers failed to wake at Edinburgh, and have been left behind. Below, a rumpled quilt of mist hides the North Sea, but Lindisfarne pokes through. Things are looking up.
0840. Things are looking down. The tannoy requests the guard's attendance in the cab. The train seems to be slowing down. It is coasting. It stops. It is now daylight, and we can look out at snow in a field, somewhere in Northumberland. There is an announcement on the tannoy, "This is your senior conductor speaking. This train is a total failure". (I am so charmed by the phrasing of this that I write it down).
After a while the emergency power runs out. The automatic doors have to be prised open, and slam back shut on springs. One catches Crumpled Suit, catapulting coffee down his front. He admits that things are beginning not to go well, and remarks wistfully that he likes to go whale-watching to get away from it all. As time passes, it grows colder. Passengers begin to unpack and put on extra clothes. Nettie lends a coat to the orange-juiced girl opposite, who works at RAF Lossiemouth. She is shivering. Blitz spirit is setting in. Possibly destiny is at work. Trains do not go anywhere; they are where you live.
Crumpled-and-Stained Suit is telephoning relatives, companies, Eurostar, the Home Office (someone has a meeting there). His phone is dying, and cannot be recharged because there is no power. Crumpled Suit phones my mother-in-law, but the message is breaking up. (She mishears it, and hurries down to meet us at Maidstone). An engine is being sent out from Newcastle. Hot drinks are off, but Crumpled Suit organises a trolley from the bar for his sleeper passengers. Body clock awry, I have a free Bells to wash breakfast down and celebrate 24 hours on the move.
1035. The replacement engine arrives, a diesel which has seen better days and belches an evil trail of particulates as it trundles laboriously along. They once upgraded this line to take the high-speed tilting train.
1130. Three things happen in quick succession.
1. It is announced that hot snacks are being served in the buffet at the rear of the train. Nettie and the children prick their ears up, relieve me of a fiver, and take off.
2. Alarms sound. Crumpled Suit takes off to the restaurant car next door, and the intercom crackles in, "This is a medical emergency. Can any Doctor on the train please go to the restaurant car". Someone is having a heart attack.
3. The speaker suddenly announces that we will be arriving at Newcastle in three minutes, and that in view of its extreme lateness the train will terminate there. Passengers must transfer to other services. We all start having heart attacks.
As the train slows and passengers panic, I panic too, sweeping cuddly toys, crayons, glasses, lipsticks, books, coats, gloves, crisps, toy cars, etc into bags and backpacks. Heave all our luggage onto the platform in several trips. Hoping it will not be stolen, I return to the carriage to carry out the luggage of our adopted asthmatic. Nettie and the children arrive, breathless. Further down the platform, Big-mouth has finally gone critical. He is shouting and swearing and trying to get at Crumpled Suit. We wonder if we should help, but luckily the transport police arrive.
1200. South of the border, ScotRail's efforts to look after us have broken down. For want of anything better to do, we get on the 0930 Edinburgh-Kings Cross service. It is already full and late, and is now boarded by the entire contents of the 2030 Inverness Sleeper and the 0700 Edinburgh-Kings Cross service. Nettie and the children squeeze into a pair of seats. By the time I have found a seat for our asthmatic and loaded her luggage, it is standing room only. Some time later find a seat in the first class lounge (I am becoming an expert on these) at the other end of the train. Crumpled Suit is still at it. As the steward lays blue paper napkins for people wanting coffee, he follows laying white ones for the original sleeper passengers (he knows us all by now). White napkins get free coffee. Later he comes round with a tray bearing broken up bars of chocolate and divided up sandwiches. The feeding of the five hundred. Other belligerent passengers, late but not so late, demand to know why they can't have free food too. Eventually rejoin the family (who have missed out on the food and drink). Nettie has discovered her handbag got left under the seat on the last train. She finds Crumpled Suit, who has charged his phone, and calls Newcastle. The train has returned to Edinburgh, and the bag has not been handed in.
1525. The conductor announces that we are shortly to arrive at Kings Cross, and apologises for the lateness of the train. Then we hear Crumpled Suit, voice cracking, weary, a broken man; "I would just like to thank my passengers from the Inverness Sleeper for their patience and goodwill, and wish them well in the remainder of their journey". In the taxi queue at Kings Cross I recognise a party from the lounge car the night before. One is South African, but was brought up at Cobtree. We discuss Big-mouth.
1615. We board the Maidstone train at Victoria. There are no seats, and our cases fill the corridor. Unshaven, hollow-eyed and gumbooted, commuters give me a wide berth.
1745. We reach home, 32 hours after we set out. The house is freezing, the Aga needs lighting, there is no food, and a pipe has burst in the attic. It's nice to be home.
Footnote: I wrote to the Managing Director of ScotRail, praising Crumpled Suit's efforts. I met Crumpled Suit several times on the sleeper subsequently, and we reminisced over the odd beer. He was a customer relations officer for ScotRail, and had been off duty, travelling down on the sleeper by sheer chance. He was awarded a free holiday by ScotRail on the strength of my letter, and added that, against all the odds, ScotRail did not receive a single written complaint. He also ran into Bigmouth again, and had to have him removed from another train. He has subsequently left ScotRail and opened a B&B near Inverness, handy for whale-watching trips in the Moray Firth.
In the course of this journey, we travelled 600 miles at an average speed of 18 miles an hour. In the same time we could have flown from London to Sydney, and still have had time left over to fly from London to Cape Town. It occurs to me too, that not many children aged 5 and 7 would have put up with it without a word of complaint.