Monday, 16 June 2008

The journey home

This morning Nigel, Tom and Ian had our final "full Scottish breakfast" and then got on our bikes for the quarter-mile ride to Wick railway station to catch the 0813 to Inverness, the first leg of our long journey back to Cambridge.

Only three of us were travelling back today. Geoff, Mick and Averil were staying another night in Wick and were due to return tomorrow. This was because the website that I used to buy the rail tickets and make the cycle reservations only allowed two cycles on each train from Wick to Inverness. So Nigel and Tom travelled back today whilst Geoff and Averil were due to travel on the same train tomorrow. Ian has a folding cycle and could travel with Nigel and Ian today. Mick is travelling tomorrow, but by an earler 0622 train.

Wick to Inverness

After the debacle we had two weeks ago at Paddington (when we all turned up clutching six cycle reservations for the journey to Penzance only to discover that three unreserved cycles had pinched half the bike spaces, and First Great Western staff refused to do anything about it apart from prevent three of us from travelling) I made sure we arrived early at Wick to avoid any similar reoccurrence. I need not have worried. The conductor checked our cycle reservations carefully as soon as we boarded and in any case there were no other cyclists. Meanwhile Ian folded his Dahon and stowed it neatly in the luggage rack.

Our train from Wick actually had space for four cycles, so two spaces were empty. Evidently the online reservation system was expecting a different train than the two-car "Class 158" that was provided, something that was confirmed by the fact that our reserved seats didn't actually exist on what was fortunately a lightly-loaded train.

The journey to Inverness was comfortable but slow, taking a remarkable four hours for a journey that is only 104 miles by road. Our train even made a side trip to Thurso and back, causing us to stop at one station, Georgemas Junction, twice in the same journey!

The view from the train window was impressively empty and bleak for the first part of the journey; barren moorlands with nothing but low heather and the occasional forestry plantation stretching all the way to the horizon. Later the landscape became less severe and more familiar, as well it might since we passed through many of the places we cycled through on the way up, including Lairg, Bonar Bridge, Dingwall and Beauly before arriving at Inverness on time at 1213.

Inverness to Edinburgh

At Inverness we had a 25-minute interval before our connecting train left for Edinburgh. It was already waiting in the platform when we arrived so we had plenty of time to locate the cycle spaces in this 3-car "Class 170" and load our bikes. No-one asked to see our cycle reservations but there were no other bikes present and the passenger who was sitting in the tip-up seat where the bikes should go moved to another seat without prompting.

Our bikes suitably stowed, we relaxed, dumped our bags in our reserved seats and went back to the station concourse to buy a sandwich and a coffee for lunch.

This train was rather faster than the last, covering about 157 miles in about three and a half hours. However the sun had come out and this was a lovely train ride, taking us down the A9 corridor through Aviemore and Pitlochry that we had rejected as a route for our End to End in favour of the one we took via the west coast. Although we had heard that the A9 route was a "long slog" it was hard to judge what it would have been like from peering out of a train window; it certainly looked pretty attractive in the bright sunshine.

At Edinburgh our itinerary had told us to change onto our third train at Haymarket rather than the larger Waverley station, despite both trains calling at both (the train we were catching would be coming from Glasgow). However a check on the National Express East Coast (NXEC) bikes-on-trains web page warned off a short platform at Haymarket so I suggested changing at Waverley to avoid the risk of the guard's van (with the cycle spaces) not being accessible from the platform. I also reckoned that NXEC platform staff at Waverley would be more likely to know which end of the train we would need.

Edinburgh to Peterborough

Changing at Waverley instead of Haymarket was a good idea, with helpful NXEC staff on the platform telling us exactly where to wait on the platform (for an electric train such as this one from Glasgow, at the First Class end, closer to London). It also gave an opportunity to buy a picnic supper to eat on the train. We met three other cyclists also planning to take their bikes on the same train; they had spent the weekend cycling from Newcastle to Edinburgh along a coastal cycle route and were now returning home. The NXEC staff arranged for those of us bound for Peterborough to board with our bikes first. This was a full-sized train with an electric locomotive puling a dozen or so coaches, and with a guard's van which contained about half a dozen bike racks with straps which we used to stop our bikes falling over, and there was ample room for all of us.

Our bikes safely stowed, we ran along the platform to Coach F and our reserved seats on this very busy train. The 300 mile journey to Peterborough was scheduled to take four hours, and for the rest of the journey I plugged the Nokia 810 into the supplied power sockets and enjoyed the intermittent and slow but free onboard Wi-Fi whilst the countryside of southern Scotland and northern England whizzed by.

It was probably the pleasure of returning home, but eastern England was looking beautiful as I sped through it. York Minster glimpsed between some trees, the parish church of an industrial Yorkshire town, a power station in the distance; they all looked lovely in the evening sunshine.

Peterborough to Cambridge

When I'm travelling back to Cambridge from the north I always feel I'm almost home when I reach Peterborough. Presumably it's the familiar edge-of-the-Fens flatness. And this evening was no exception. So it was with a weary familiarity that I crossed over the bridge to Platform 5 and boarded the 2118 to Cambridge. This was an almost empty three-car "Class 170" and the bike spaces were similarly empty.

Tom observed that at 9.15pm in Peterborough it was already getting dark whereas last night in northern Scotland it has still been broad daylight at 10 O'clock. But by the time we reached Cambridge an hour later, the expanses of Caithness seemed a very long way away.