Glory days of the Caledonian Sleeper retold in new book

A 1932 poster for the Night Scotsman by Robert Bartlett.
A 1932 poster for the Night Scotsman by Robert Bartlett.
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From illicit romantic rendezvous and near-births, to the time Beatrix Potter’s pet rabbit sank its teeth into a shocked passenger, it is a compendium of unlikely travellers’ tales from one of Britain’s greatest journeys.

A new book celebrating the Anglo-Scottish rail sleeper service has compiled dozens of quirky and eventful stories from generations of passengers.

David Meara's book gathers first-hand accounts from passengers who had particularly memorable journeys on the sleeper service.

David Meara's book gathers first-hand accounts from passengers who had particularly memorable journeys on the sleeper service.

The tome, a whirlwind history of the sleeper and those who have travelled aboard it, reflects on the glory days of train travel, when the dining cars had British Rail-branded cutlery, as well as myriad unsavoury incidents, such as when passengers settling down for the night discovered their cabins were infested with fleas and cockroaches.

Its author, the Venerable David Meara, a former Archdeacon of London in the Church of England, said the sleeper remained “one of the last truly romantic experiences left on the mainline railway system in Britain.”

He first boarded the overnight service on a relief train in 1959, travelling in an old third class, four-berth compartment.

With the future of sleeper travel between Scotland and London secure until at least 2029 under its current operator, Serco, Meara said the cross-border route was arguably more popular than ever.

An LNER First Class sleeping compartment on the Northern Belle.

An LNER First Class sleeping compartment on the Northern Belle.

“I have watched the fortunes of the service rise and fall, and then in this century rise again as we have become disenchanted with long-distance car travel or the hassle of airports and flying,” he explained.

In Meara’s view, the anticipation of the journey is rivalled only by the prospect of enjoying unlikely liaisons as the service’s greatest pull.

“People become more confiding, secure in the knowledge that they probably won’t meet again,” he reasoned.

To prove his point, Meara recounts the story of one female passenger who, after partaking in a few drams with a lively crowd in the lounge car, retired to a gentleman’s cabin.

When she awoke, she realised the Highland sleeper had divided overnight; while she ended up in Aberdeen, her luggage went on to Fort William, where her “irate” husband was waiting on the platform.

Thankfully, some dalliances on the sleeper proved longer lasting. Anglo-Scottish Sleepers notes how one woman, Sally-Jane Coode, met her husband-to-be on a sleeper, with the couple returning to the rails to mark their golden wedding anniversary.

Meara’s book also gathers together first-hand accounts from passengers who had particularly memorable journeys, such Pippa Fell.

In November 2015, then heavily pregnant, she was travelling from her family’s holiday cottage near Fort William back to London.

As the train chuntered on, just south of Glasgow, her waters broke – some five weeks prematurely.

One panicked telephone call later to her midwife some 400 miles away, she was told she needed to get to a hospital at once.

The staff on board arranged for an ambulance to meet the train at an unscheduled stop in Lockerbie station and provided her with water and supplies, and later that day, her daughter was born.

“As regular travellers we still see the team who helped us that night, and we tell our daughter how special they are,” Fell added.

Another anecdote comes from the pen of Beatrix Potter, who, Meara recounts, was travelling from King’s Cross to Perth via Edinburgh in the summer of 1892, accompanied by her pet rabbit, Benjamin.

“Benjamin Bunny travelled in a covered basket in the wash-place,” Potter noted in her journal. “Took him out of the basket near Dunbar, but proved scared and bit the family.”

Such incidents, said Meara, offer evidence of the sleeper’s timeless charm and idiosyncrasies.

“It is the journey of a night time,” he added, “where anything can happen, and probably will.”

Anglo-Scottish Sleepers by David Meara is published by Amberley Books.