You might be surprised to learn that London’s Euston Station on a Friday night is the starting point for one of Britain’s great adventures. Travel writer Alex Gladwell goes on a journey that whisks him away from the big city and deep into a magical kingdom – seemingly with the wave of a wand.
I’m taking the Caledonian Sleeper, the overnight train from London to Inverness, capital of the Scottish Highlands. My train doesn’t leave from Harry Potter’s Platform 9 and 3/4 – that’s down the road at King’s Cross station, but it feels like magic when my tartan-clad host welcomes me aboard and enquires in a soft Highland accent, ‘what will sir be having for breakfast?’
Before long, luggage safely stowed in my small but comfortable cabin, I’m leafing through the menu in the lounge car. Should I have the Wester Ross salmon or the smoked venison? Giddy with excitement, I opt for both. Whisky seems appropriate – there’s a whole list dedicated to it – but in the end I choose a Highlander Ale and sit back smugly to enjoy the outskirts of the city slipping past. Back in my cabin I spritz the complimentary pillow spray, take one last look at the lights of suburbia rushing by, and then snuggle under the duvet. Sleep comes quickly as we chug north through the night.
The next morning a knock at the door announces the arrival of my full Scottish Highland breakfast: bacon, sausage, black pudding, potato, tomato and mushrooms with plenty of coffee. Then, with all the flourish of a magician producing a rabbit from a hat, I whip up the window blind and see Scotland shining in the dawn. Where once traffic wheezed, Highland cows snort heather-scented air, and in place of skyscrapers, dense pine forests stand. The feeling of waking up somewhere different to where I fell asleep is genuinely thrilling. By 8.30 I’ve arrived in Inverness ready to start my adventure in the Highlands, feeling the promise of a new day in a new land.
What is it like on the Caledonian Sleeper?
I travelled first class which means you get a cabin to yourself, priority access to the lounge car and can choose to have breakfast delivered to your room in the morning. If you’re on a budget you can opt for a seat – I've done this a few times and it’s not as bad as you might think. The seats are airline-style with a decent amount of adjustment. You can buy food from the buffet if you have a seat but you can’t eat in the lounge car.
The sleeper runs from London to Glasgow, Edinburgh, Aberdeen, Fort William and Inverness every night of the week apart from Saturdays. For the best prices it’s best to book well in advance. You can book up to 12 months in advance and prices start from around £40 for a seat and £80 for a berth.
3 amazing rail journeys in Scotland
So what’s next? You could carry on your Scottish rail adventure with one of these magical train journeys...
West Highland Line from Glasgow to Mallaig
Journey time: 5 hours 15 minutes.
Taking in one of Britain’s most enchanting stretches of coast, the West Highland Line thoroughly deserves its reputation as one of the world’s great rail journeys. Chug north from Glasgow over wild Rannoch Moor passing through Britain’s highest altitude station at Corrour before heading across the curving arches of Glenfinnan Viaduct, which starred in the Harry Potter films as part of the route to Hogwarts.
From there you’ll rattle by several beautiful lochs including Loch Eilt and Loch Morar, before arriving in Mallaig. From here you can transfer onto the ferry to the Isle of Skye, one of the most stunning of the Inner Hebrides.
The Kyle Line from Inverness to the Kyle of Lochalsh
Journey time: 2 hours 40 minutes.
This is a winner for wild Highland scenery and gorgeous coast. In just a few hours you’ll pass by the craggy shores of Loch Carron and take in some of the West Coast’s attractive villages. Hop off at the village of Plockton and see the resident seals and palm trees which thrive in the warmth brought by the Gulf Stream.
The Far North Line from Inverness to Wick
Journey time: 4 hours 30 minutes.
Head north from Inverness to the far reaches of Scotland on a journey that takes in varied landscapes, ancient castles and several excellent distilleries. En route you’ll see Skibo Castle across the Dornoch Firth, and traverse a vast expanse of peat bogland. Make a stop at Dunrobin Castle with its eccentric French style – the train stops just outside the gates. The whole journey feels thrillingly remote – which is no surprise given this is Britain’s northernmost railway.