Inside the UK's longest sleeper train journey
The era of the sleeper train is fading as Europe becomes criss-crossed by high-speed railways, but it lives on in the UK to some of the farthest corners of the country. It’s possible to sleep by rail all the way from the far western reaches of Cornwall to the glens of the Scottish Highlands, in the comfort of your own compartment. Here’s how.
Stage 1: Cornwall to London
Near England’s far western tip, Penzance has plenty of interesting attractions to explore before boarding Great Western Railway’s Night Riviera sleeper train. If you want to include the westernmost point of England in your epic journey, catch a local bus to nearby Land’s End and back.
The prince of Penzance attractions is St Michael’s Mount, in the town of Marazion to the east. The former abbey is a dramatic sight on its island just off the coast, and at low tide you can reach it by foot along a causeway. The recently renovated Mount Haven Hotel provides a fine view of the Mount, and is a good place to stay or dine.
As the Night Riviera doesn’t depart until late evening, there’s time to grab dinner at one of Penzance's historic pubs – perhaps the Admiral Benbow, which is thought to have given its name to the pub in Treasure Island.
At Penzance railway station, sleeper passengers have access to a lounge with seating, showers and complimentary drinks.
From Monday to Friday passengers can board the train at 9.15pm, with departure at 9.45pm (on Sundays these times are 30 minutes earlier). There’s no Saturday service. After boarding, drop your luggage in your compartment and head for the lounge bar for a cheeky glass of Prosecco or nightcap of your choice.
Aboard the Night Riviera
The Night Riviera had a major refurbishment in 2018, and its bar area is now a pleasant space with comfortable seats and a couple of sofas. There’s something about sleeper travel that feels intensely social, so there’s a good chance you’ll end up chatting to your fellow passengers and making new (if brief) friendships before heading off to bed.
The refreshed sleeper compartments are sleek modern spaces akin to small hotel rooms. Each has an upper and lower berth made up with pillows and a duvet, with a towel provided. There’s one wheelchair-accessible sleeper compartment on each service.
The zig-zag brown and green carpet enhances the hotel feel, and there’s a washbasin whose lid closes to form a table. A shallow wardrobe provides space to hang a jacket. On the wall at the head of each berth is a power socket and a reading lamp, and there’s access to free wi-fi. Toilets are at the end of each carriage.
It’s everything you need for a comfortable overnight journey to London, sleeping through Truro, Plymouth and Exeter before reaching Paddington station and its statue of Paddington Bear. The train arrives in London at 5.23am (5.03am on Mondays), but passengers are allowed to stay on board till 6.45am.
Before disembarkation a simple breakfast is served (bacon roll, anyone?), and passengers can book a shower in the station’s first class waiting room, a grand space where Queen Victoria once waited for trains.
Stage 2: London to Scotland
To keep the railway enthusiast vibe going, pay a visit to the London Transport Museum in Covent Garden, with its wealth of exhibits about rail history. The museum also offers Hidden London tours, which explore abandoned stations and other railway curios.
Another intriguing London attraction is the Postal Museum’s Mail Rail, whereby visitors ride underground aboard snug trains which once ferried postal items beneath the city’s streets.
Then it’s time to head north, aboard the Caledonian Sleeper. There are two separate sleeper services which head from London Euston to Scotland nightly, bar Saturday. The Lowland service departs Euston at 11.50pm Monday to Friday (11.28pm Sunday), with boarding from 10.30pm. It then splits into two trains, arriving at Glasgow at 7.22am and Edinburgh at 7.23am.
Earlier in the evening, the Highland service departs Euston at 9.15pm Monday to Friday (8.59pm Sunday), with boarding from 45 minutes earlier. Along the way it splits into three trains, reaching Aberdeen at 7.39am, Inverness at 8.42am, and Fort William at 9.57am.
Inverness is the northernmost destination, from where you could catch a train and bus onward to John O’Groats if you want to pair Land’s End with the other point traditionally considered the furthermost in Britain. Either way, in Inverness the Glen Mhor Hotel with its riverside location is a good place to stay.
Aboard the Caledonian Sleeper
As with the Night Riviera, the Caledonian Sleeper has had a recent major upgrade. The standard sleeper compartment aboard the new trains is the Classic Room, with the option of single or twin bunk beds. These compartments come with a washbasin, toiletries and access to free wi-fi. As you’d expect, the brand-new rooms are shiny and sleek, and well organised with lighting and power outlets.
A step up, however, are the Club Room and Caledonian Double, which offer more of a hotel experience. In addition to the amenities of the Classic Room, these rooms each include an en suite toilet and shower, lounge access at stations, breakfast, and priority access to the Club Car dining car. The Caledonian Double has a double bed rather than bunks. There are also rooms accessible to wheelchairs.
The Club Car is the social hub of the train. After boarding, it’s recommended you head to this mobile lounge bar to enjoy one of the most enjoyable elements of this sleeper train – its menu of dishes involving Scottish ingredients.
The Club Car has tables for both solo travellers and groups. You’ll find yourself easily slipping into conversation with fellow passengers as your train heads north, perhaps with haggis or salmon in your stomach and a fine whisky in your hand, before eventually waking to the scenery of the Highlands.
That experience beats flying, whatever way you look at it.
Make it happen
Bookings for the Night Riviera can be made via the Great Western Railway website; make sure you choose a sleeper berth rather than a sit-up seat from the options on your preferred date. Bookings for Scottish sleeper trains can be made via the Caledonian Sleeper website.
Tim Richards travelled with the assistance of Visit Britain. Lonely Planet contributors do not accept freebies in exchange for positive coverage.
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