Our slow travel series explores how you can take more mindful journeys by train, boat, bus or bike – with tips on how to reach your no-fly destination, and what to see and do along the way. Author Monisha Rajesh (Around the World in 80 Trains) recently traveled from London north to Edinburgh, Scotland on the Caledonian Express.
Blinds down and humming quietly, the Caledonian Sleeper was already snaking the length of the platform as I braced against the wind in search of my carriage.
It was just after 11pm, and the thrill of adventure was setting in. A wave of passengers pushed toward the exit of London’s Euston station, while I wheeled my bag against the tide, delighted that I was about to board one of the UK’s only two overnight train services. Climbing up the steps into a carriage warm as toast, I produced my ticket and was handed the key card to my room.
The many ways to experience the Caledonian Sleeper
Like most sleeper trains, the Caledonian Sleeper offers a range of options to suit different budgets and requirements, with accessible wheelchair-friendly rooms available. At the top end of the scale is the Caledonian Double with an en-suite shower and toilet room, with breakfast included in the price. The Club Room offers the same but with a twin bunk, while the Classic Room, with no toilet or shower room and breakfast available for purchase, is the most popular choice. At the bottom end of the scale is the Seated Coach, which usually resembles a sixth-form common room: socked feet hanging over armrests, hoodies pulled over tired eyes, and heads face down on tray tables doubling up as pillows. For £50 a seat, it’s around the same price as a flight but without the hassle and cost of traveling to and from airports and stumping up for a hotel.
Three years earlier, I’d taken the same service from Glasgow to London, expecting to travel on the much-hyped fancy new fleet after Serco had taken over the franchise. But owing to numerous delays and setbacks to the grand unveiling, the familiar, fusty old cars were waiting on the platform instead. Eight months pregnant and unable to fly, I’d rolled myself into a lower bunk and spent most of the night being jolted awake by thuds, creaks and braking, grateful for my ever-expanding center of gravity. So this time I’d decided to treat myself.
For her 70th birthday, I’d booked my mother a surprise trip on the Royal Scotsman, and decided to meet her in Edinburgh by traveling the 337 miles on the Lowlander service from London. Running six nights a week (excluding Saturdays), this service connects London with Edinburgh and Glasgow; the Highlander route takes passengers up to Aberdeen, Inverness and Fort William.
While looking for tickets, I saw that it made no difference to the price whether I booked four days or four months in advance. So, curious about the Caledonian Double, I’d coughed up an eye-watering £345 to travel one way, and was now peering into a small room with an ample, square bed fitted tight to the corners. On the duvet laid a pair of eye masks and a trio of little bottles (shampoo, body lotion and pillow mist) tied inside an organza bag. With fabric walls, reading lights and dimmer switches, it felt cozy and soundproof enough for the night. But before bedding down, I had a higher calling: one that began with “h” and ended with “aggis.”
The scene in the dining car
Like a private members’ club, the dining car was already abuzz with regular passengers joining one another for a wee dram before bed. Used to the commute, these night owls were catching up with the staff, poring over notes for morning meetings and working on laptops – unbothered by the excitement of those who were traveling for fun. Their hands cupping the windows, taking selfies with prosecco and smiling over plates of haggis and neeps and tatties, these were my people.
For just over a tenner, I was soon tucking into my own spicy mound of offal and mash, doused in whisky gravy, when I felt the train glide away from the platform and glanced at my watch: 11:50pm. A young couple sat at the table next to me and gripped each other’s hands. The woman gave a little clap and rubbed her pregnant belly as we got chatting, explaining that they wanted a holiday before the arrival of their baby, but that she could no longer fly. The train, she said, gave them the chance to explore Scotland for the first time (while saving one night of a hotel stay, too). Behind me, a civil servant was tidying up notes for a morning conference. “Hope you’ve got ear plugs,” she said, raising an eyebrow and making her way to her compartment.
As the train veered out of London, the car cleared and I stood at the window watching the city’s lights through the darkness, the moonlit surface of a Hertfordshire river shining like ink as we sped north. Rooftops flashed past, terraced houses backing onto the tracks and motorways swinging close until we swept into the countryside – and blackness swallowed us whole, nothing but my own reflection looking back. That night, in spite of silicone ear plugs, eye mask and the duvet pulled over my head, I still woke to the shoop…shoop…shoop... of trains shooting past the window, long braking and footsteps thudding by. Just after 5am, I felt the train slowing into a station and leaped up, clambering to the window to find the horizon lit by peach light.
A new day dawns; Edinburgh nears
Rolling past graffiti-covered walls and low-hanging wires, we were just pulling into Carlisle, with at least two hours left until breakfast. The truth? I felt wrecked. But it didn’t matter. A glance up and down assured me that no one was about, and I stepped into the corridor in my pajamas, watching the morning mist lift like steam off the fields, sheep grazing on the slopes and the glow of a sunrise through the trees. Compared with other night trains, I didn’t feel the same sense of camaraderie from traveling in shared couchettes, strangers snoozing above and below with bursts of unfiltered, intimate conversation. This kind of travel was more private and contained (though I suspect those in Seated Coach may have felt differently).
Over a Highland breakfast – bacon, crisp black pudding, tattie scones and a sausage bursting its skin – I perched on a window seat and watched the West Lothian woodland flit by, a spritz of cloud in startling blue sky. Had I flown, I wouldn’t now be nosing into the backs of people’s houses, counting cows in the valley or watching Auld Reekie’s architecture rise into view.
At exactly 7:30am, the noise of engines roared through open windows amid the bang of compartment doors – the sound of passengers stepping out of a story and straight back into their lives.
As for my own adventure, it wasn’t quite over. I descended the steps and waited beneath the clock for a fellow travel writer to appear. Despite having chatted on Twitter for more than 10 years, we had never met in person, and she was about to board the electric Lumo train to London with just enough time for a hug and a coffee. There was something almost romantic about our trains crossing, and my tiredness vanished as she appeared through the crowd and steered me off into her city.
More information on the Caledonian Sleeper
Tickets can be purchased up to a year in advance on the Caledonian Sleeper website. The cheapest one-way from London to Edinburgh start from £50 for Seated Coach, but I coughed up £354 for the Caledonian Double; a private double room with en-suite. Accommodation is also available in the Club Room, a twin-bunk en-suite from £245, or the Classic (a twin bunk without an en-suite) from £210.
Food and drink on the journey
Sleeper cabin passengers can use the lounge car and are offered room service too, while those with Seated Coach tickets can get food delivered to their seats from the trolley buffet service. The menu features traditional Scottish food and drink.