Sunday, 26 July 2009

The Royal Scotsman – what an experience!

Photographs from the top: the observation car; the dining car; a table set for dinner; and one of the luxurious cabins.

"One thing about trains: it doesn't matter where they're going; what matters is deciding to get on." Tom Hanks, The Polar Express

When I was a child and my dad didn't have a car, we used to go everywhere by train. Visits to my nan in Wandsworth meant a train from Carshalton, change at Balham and alight at Wandsworth Common for a shortish walk down Burntwood Lane to Fieldview where my dad spent his childhood during the Second World War. The house is still there, but somebody has ruined my grandfather's prize-winning front garden by concreting it over. What a travesty. My dad says he can't pass by anymore because it looks such a mess.

That's another story. This one is all about a train. A luxury train. I loved trains when I was a kid, still do, but I was never a trainspotter. It's something about gazing out of the window at passing landscapes from the warmth of a train carriage. I always get slightly miffed when I hear people moaning about the trains because I use them a lot and I reckon I could count on just one hand the number of times I've been inconvenienced by signal failures or other problems. Most of the time, the train is there and is rarely late.

I'm a writer and journalist. In the mid-nineties I was editor of Pub Food magazine. The job took me all over the UK where I interviewed many pub chefs. It was a great job and I went to some seriously remote parts of the UK, all by train. And you know what? Even in the remotest part of the country, there was always a railway station that was never more than half an hour away from my final destination – a decent British pub serving top quality, homemade, locally produced food. I moved on to become editor of Hotel & Restaurant magazine and spent a further four years travelling the UK (and the world) writing about fine dining, top chefs and quality hotels. Again, I reached most places in the UK by train and rarely had a problem.

But this isn't a story about the punctuality or otherwise of the train network. This is a story about The Royal Scotsman, a train that is a cut above average. A train that will make you weep when you have to get off and go home, on a scheduled service, back to your mundane life.

The Royal Scotsman is a mode of transport that is not only romantic in the extreme but a time machine that will take you back, way back, to when movies were filmed in black and white and Margaret Rutherford was Miss Marple. You will find yourself in a spy movie, looking tensely at your watch as you make your way along the varnished corridors towards the dining car. Putting it bluntly, you will have the time of your life.

I mentioned earlier that I was a writer and journalist. Well, my chance to ride the Royal Scotsman – for free – came about when I decided to write about moving hotels: hotels with wheels or keels; and that was when I stumbled across what turned out to be one of the most amazing experiences of my life, which I still think about today and that I continue to rave about whenever the opportunity arises.

I often find myself involved in conversations about what to do for special occasions, fortieth birthdays, anniversaries, that sort of thing, and I always suggest a trip on the Royal Scotsman. It's not cheap. In fact, its damned expensive, but I would argue that all good experiences come at a cost unless, like me, you're a journalist writing about hotels and restaurants for a living.

Anyway, let's cut to the chase. I was up early and waiting for Rob Wilkinson, my photographer, at King's Cross. We travelled on the East Coast line using a normal scheduled service: any train that isn't the Royal Scotsman is a normal train in my book. When we reached Edinburgh Waverley we made our way to the Royal Scotsman and were piped aboard by a man in a kilt, a real Scottish piper no less!

Once on the train, we were shown to our cabins, but not ordinary cabins. These were the height of luxury with polished wood-panelled walls and ornate period furniture. As soon as I stepped aboard I went back in time to England in the 1930s. Suddenly I was a character in Graham Greene's Stamboul Train, I expected to bump into Peter Ustinov or David Niven at any moment.

The train jolted and was on its way north towards the Scottish Highlands, first stop Glamis Castle, but we were so taken aback by the train that we stayed aboard. There were plenty of other excursions away from the Royal Scotsman to come and besides, Rob and I had the train to ourselves. We wandered the corridors to the empty observation car with its sumptious furniture and exposed rear end where passengers could watch the tracks behind them disappear or could simply sit and enjoy the ride with a drink of their choice brought to them by one of the train's waiting staff.

Dinner was a high point of every day on board the Royal Scotsman. It was a chance to mix with the other passengers on board: a Harley Street dentist, a Florida car dealer and former baseball player, an Italian millionaire and his new wife on their honeymoon, a printer from Birmingham, a fairly ordinary couple from Cheam and, of course, us. The best conversation took place in the observation car after dinner when people were at their most animated after a decent meal and some fine wine.

The food was a serious cut above anything found on scheduled services in the UK, or, indeed, anywhere else. It was cooked to order by an accomplished chef and served with some amazing wines – while we were aboard the highlight was Francis Ford Coppola Merlot.

I was always reluctant to leave the train, but decided to take advantage of the excursions to wonderful places like the Falls of Bruar and to Gleneagles on our final evening where we were all invited to take part in a traditional Kayleigh before returning to the train.

The traditional dancing at Gleneagles prefaced our last night aboard the Royal Scotsman. In the minibus back to the train after the dance, there was silence: everybody knew that tomorrow they would have to wave goodbye to the train and the staff and the good times had by all. Nobody wanted to talk about going home so everybody remained silent.

The last time I felt remotely unhappy about going home was when I was a kid on holiday on the South Coast. Now, in my forties, married with two children, that feeling had come racing back to me and I was genuinely depressed about the prospect of having to disembark from this wonderful train.

Feeling pleasantly sozzled, as we all were most nights, it was time for us all to wind our way back to our respective cabins for the last time and that pleasant sensation of being rocked asleep by the motion of the train. Oddly, while on the train, I felt as if I had gone back in time. The only way to break the spell was to peer out of the window at the wrong moment, only to spy, say, a parked Somerfield lorry or something equally mundane from the 21st century.

By the next morning there were only minutes to go before the train arrived at Waverley and we would all go our separate ways, back to our normal lives in the new millennium. For Rob and I, reality meant a scheduled service to King's Cross, tea from a paper cup and sitting in Standard Class next to somebody eating fast food. You get the picture.

The trip has remained with us both and I think it always will.

If you would like to experience the Royal Scotsman, log on to or if you want to see more of Robert Wilkinson's photography, go to

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