A Kennedy Moment, with Simon Best.

The second part of a sporadically occurring series in which I open my blog to a special guest writer.  Last Friday night, youth-working Quaker and all-round good egg, Simon Best, boarded the Caledonian Sleeper at London Kings Cross.  This is his account of the experience.

Boarding the Caledonian sleeper is a bit like stepping back in time, even the name sounds like something from a 1930s Agatha Christie novel and it put me in mind of WH Auden’s poem, ‘The Night Mail.’  I personally haven’t received or written a cheque all year and I think the last postal order was sent in about 1973.

I travel a lot by train and usually platforms are announced just minutes before departure, I then find myself rushing to get on and scrabbling to get my bag stowed and to find a seat. With the sleeper it’s far more relaxed - you can board up to an hour before it leaves.  You’re greeted on the platform and shown to your cabin with plenty of time to get settled.

Although I’ve been on the sleeper before and my bunk was already made up, the first thing I did was to play around with the bed, open the little shelf next to the bunk, climb up to the top bunk and sit there, lift the cover to the wash basin, press the taps, turn the three different lights on and off several times and adjust the temperature slider about seventeen times to get it just right.

The sleeper seems to attract a variety of passengers: people travelling for work, retired couples, train enthusiasts (yes, in anoraks) and people heading north to walk in the Highlands. The only ones I couldn’t work out were the four guys stood topless in the corridor. My immediate neighbours were a father and his young son, clearly excited by his first experience of travelling by sleeper.  The cabin on the other side was occupied by a young lady whose eyes were red and cheeks streaked with tears having said goodbye to her boyfriend on the platform (and at the prospect of having to share her cabin with someone she didn’t know). The stewardess quickly found an empty cabin, settled her in and even took her a cup of tea.  This was just one of many examples of professionalism and kindness from the staff.

There is a sense of camaraderie on the sleeper – normally I don’t talk to strangers on trains, people are on their mobiles or laptops or plugged into their iPods – there is a different atmosphere on the sleeper. I had a great chat with a man and his son in the cabin next to me.  The son, who was about ten years old, was really excited about his first trip on the sleeper and couldn’t wait to explore the train.

The lounge car is probably my favourite part of the train, you walk past other cabins till you find a carriage that has been converted into a bar with comfy lounge chairs and mood lighting. It was staffed by one of the campest waiters I have ever encountered – imagine a Scottish Graham Norton, possibly the love child of Kenneth Williams and Rab C. Nesbitt.

I sat in the lounge car reading the paper, enjoying a gin and tonic and having a chat to the man seated opposite about our journeys (he was heading home after a week working in London, I was going to a wedding). The lounge car stays open all night but you can only get booze until 1am because, as my stewardess said, "this is a train, nae a nightclub". I love people-watching and the sleeper is a great place to do this - you get so much time to watch these people.  There was a young couple opposite me in the lounge car. They were heading for a weekend in Scotland, she hadn’t been before and he was trying to impress her with is knowledge of whisky. He let himself down by pronouncing the isle of Islay as ‘Is-lay’ rather than ‘I-la’ (not that the woman heard him or minded, she just continued staring into his eyes).

Back in my cabin, after a short deliberation, I decided to take the bottom bunk and settled down to sleep. It’s surprisingly comfortable and you are actually able to sleep, soothed by the movement of the train - which goes at about half daytime speed so you don’t arrive inconveniently at 4am. I woke briefly when the train was divided at Carstairs in the Borders, the back half destined for Edinburgh and the front for Glasgow.

About 20 minutes before we arrived in Glasgow I was woken with a gentle knock on my door and a cup of tea, which was very welcome (though I did pass on the early morning shortbread). We arrived bang on time, though I didn’t get off straight away (they let you stay on for about half an hour after the train gets in). I had a wash, packed my bag, said goodbye, thanked my stewardess and headed off to find breakfast and a shower.

For Marc’s benefit the engine number was 90021.
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sarahcanterbury said...

A quite marvellous account. I shall add Travelling On A Sleeper to the list of things I'd like to do before I die.

Marc said...

Sarah, I agree that it's a marvellous account. Travelling on a sleeper to Glasgow might be something that you could do immediately before you die if you eat the local cuisine.

phu nguyen said...

Nice story! Me too, I would like to experience the sleeper.

Anonymous said...

Simon is a gifted story teller, and much loved and admired by his fellow Quakers, also, he rocks.

Jonathan said...

Sadly, this has put me off traveling on the Sleeper. In fact, the thought of a love child of Kenneth Williams and Rab C. Nesbitt has actually put me off sleeping full stop.

Marc said...

Paul, Simon (excellent use of a comma there) is also much loved and admired by non-Quakers. I've had first-hand eye-witness reports that occasionally he sways too.

Jonathan, that sounds a bit like Bri.

phu nguyen, I'm not ignoring you, it's just that your comment doesn't seem to require a reply. I didn't want you to feel left out though.

Jonathan said...


Och Aye the Noo, Matron said...

I suppose its better than sounding like a yokel gagging in a bucket