For more years than I care to remember I have wanted to travel the scenic lines of Scotland which are so very different from anything else in the UK. Having finally begun a couple of years ago, as I have reported here, with the West Highland Line to Fort William (by the Caledonian Sleeper) and Mallaig, I was left with a couple of lines radiating from Inverness. I had also long wanted to see Aberdeen, the "granite city" and to take a ride on the one through train per day from Aberdeen to Peterborough. The opportunity presented itself when our East Coast loyalty points added up to enough for four First Class singles, and so a four-day, two-centred tour was thus devised: one day travelling to Inverness by the Highland Chieftain, as we had done once before, one day tripping out to Thurso on the Far North Line, one day in Aberdeen and a day travelling home from there.
At one point south of Helmsdale the train runs right along the pebble beach of the east coast with the waves of the North Sea right outside the windows, far closer to the sea than the Great Western main line is at Dawlish. Among the mountains and the lochs we felt very small and insignificant in our little two-coach train on its winding single track.
There is only basic catering on the trains and we stocked up with Marks and Spencer sandwiches before boarding the 10:37 departure for the Far North. (We had to go to M&S anyway because the shirts I had intended to take were still hanging on the wardrobe door at the Vicarage …) An interesting feature of this line is that just before the north coast it divides at a station called Georgemas Junction, but the train neither divides nor connects with another: it reverses to Thurso and then reverses again, returns to the junction station and then goes to Wick and the end of the line. Coming back from Wick it goes to Thurso before performing the same double-reverse in the other direction to head south to Inverness. We chose to get off at Thurso rather than do the shuffle through to Wick and back, partly because it was the farther north and partly to give ourselves more time before the last train back (which was, in fact, the next train back after than the one we'd just arrived on).
And so back to Inverness and our hotel. Time to sample the restaurant, which had a bargain meal offer for over-50s! We had the most avant-garde haggis, neeps and tatties, Alison as a starter and I as a main course: delivered as cylindrical stacks of the three dishes, one for the starter and two for the main, with a delicious mustard sauce. Thoroughly recommended.
On Thursday morning after breakfast we checked out of the Royal Highland and caught the 10:57 Scotrail train to Aberdeen. I don't know if rail fares really are cheaper outside the south-east, but I had bought First Class Anytime tickets without discount and they were quite affordable here. These tickets would have allowed break-of-journey if we wanted to see anything else on the way, but we decided to stay on to Aberdeen and spend the rest of the day there. It is over two hours and hot drinks and snacks were included in our fare.
Neither of us had been to Aberdeen before and although we knew it was coastal and the main base for the UK oil industry we had not reckoned on it as a seaside town, complete with amusement park (a bit low-profile this early in the season, though) nor had we realised what a huge part of its life the oil industry had become. Our hotel was a stone's throw from the dock where the oil platform supply ships were docked and from where the Shetland ferries operated. In the other direction it was a short walk to the shops and other city-centre facilities including the university. Pubs selling cask ales were hard to find but we tracked one down in the end, in a student area, naturally! We had shopping to do and we had a stroll along the seafront (but not on the actual beach today) and back through the city centre to a good night's sleep.
The train back to England started at Aberdeen and was waiting for us at the station: it was due to stop at Peterborough, so that would be our only change on the way home. Brilliant: we would sit back and let the scenery slip by while the drinks, snacks and meals were brought to us. As far as Edinburgh this was all new to us and included bits of coastline and the famous bridges over the Firth of Tay and the Firth of Forth. Again, this was a diesel High Speed Train as used for the Highland Chieftain and in our opinion the most comfortable trains on the system.
Soon we were speeding past the familiar sights of the Northumberland coast and on south through Newcastle-upon-Tyne, Durham and York and so into Peterborough dead on time. Across the bridge on Platform 5 our little East Midlands single-coach train was waiting: this is the one East Midlands Trains service from Peterborough to Stamford each day, a through train from Spalding to Nottingham which leaves Peterborough at 21:30 and makes a brilliant connection with our train from Aberdeen.
As we walked up through the familiar streets of Stamford on our way home it was hard to believe that just two days ago we had stood on the beach at far north of Scotland. The repair to the suitcase just about got us through our summer holiday in Devon (which will be reported fully in due course) and has since been tweaked in the hope that it will keep going for a bit longer: it will be tested on a trip to Paris before very long, but you'll have to wait a little while for that story!
All the photographs taken on this trip can be found at http://www.flickr.com/photos/frmark/sets/72157633274168402/