Earlier this week I caught a flight from Stansted Airport back to Northern Ireland. I first visited Stansted shortly after it opened in the early nineteen-nineties, when the vast £100,000,000 terminal was home to just a handful of airlines. Back then it was a delightful experience; a crystal clear navigational experience, with clean signage and spacious circulation spaces.
The plan was for Stansted to become London’s premier gateway, a true alternative to Heathrow and Gatwick, which could tempt the long haul airlines and passengers out into the Essex countryside. Then the ground beneath the aviation industry shifted, and it became instead a low-cost hub for budget airlines like Ryanair and Easyjet. Designed with the intention of making your passage through the airport as smooth as possible, Stansted was rapidly reconfigured to make your passage through the airport as expensive as possible. The airside lounge is a grotty and crowded retail hellhole, designed around the meandering line principle that if you expose passengers to the maximum possible surface area of shop frontages, they will eventually succomb and buy something.
Despite having three satellites (and a fourth under construction) departing passengers are bottle necked inside this cramped area in the main terminal until the hour or half hour before their departure. This is again to maximise their exposure to retail enlightenment rather than the relative tranquility of the satellite buildings.
Of particular amusement to me, spotted while waiting for my gate to be called, was this notice, applied in vinyl beneath the departure screens:
Stansted Airport does not verify the accuracy or completeness of this flight information which is supplied direct from your airline. The airport accepts no liability for any loss or damages suffered as a result of the reliance on such information which may later prove to be inaccurate or incomplete.
Departure information? Nah, this is just the departure information screen. Not our responsibility, mate…
If you’re reading this blog, then you are most likely a fully paid up member of the English speaking world (I did attempt to blog in French, but that hit the buffers quite rapidly). In which case you will also be part of a culture that will, for many years to come, ask each other where you were on the night Barack Obama was elected President of the United States of America. It seems that much of America and a not insignificant proportion of Britain was still awake when the television networks were able to make their first confident “call” that Obama had won.
I was (as I usually am at momentous moments) asleep, somewhere on the west coast mainline between Glasgow and London. There was no-one to note or celebrate the victory with me, my mid-week sleeper train was probably only half full and my compartment was mine alone. I had woken as we rattled over some particularly noisy points (my tip for you is to avoid berths 1-4 and 20-24, they’re the ones right above the bits that go clickety-clack) and gave in to the temptation of mobile internet on my phone. For the satisfyingly old-world-meets-new price of tuppence a megabyte, the BBC informed me of Obama’s win just a few minutes after it had been called. I pulled the duvet back up and snuggled down for the last hour or two of my journey south, wondering what this would mean for life in a world dominated by that one country and its politics
We don’t normally benefit from the later editions of the London newspapers in Glasgow, but with specially extended deadlines the majority of the newspapers were able to catch up with events and have a later edition (below right) on the news stands at London Euston station when I arrived just before 07h00.
I picked up two (admittedly complimentary left-leaning) newspapers and took a number 10 bus towards South Kensington for breakfast. In the large branch of Pain Quotidien there I took my time over a bowl of coffee and a basket of bread (smothered with the delightful spreads and jams of that chain). I took full advantage of the lazy service and enjoyed a good hour and a half with the newspapers, attempting to block out the loud, intrusive and self congratulatory chit-chat of a television news crew who had just come in from a late night election party for American ex-pats in a neighbouring pub.
Later in the day I boarded another train, this time from London Waterloo. It was mid-afternoon and the detritus of the morning rush-hour still decorated the interior of the train. Dozens of rumpled morning freesheets littered the floor, soon to be accompanied by the evening editions of their competitors.
History had been in the making. And all these thousands of miles away from the man who had made it, the crumpled pages that had recorded the passage of time within the space of one night were being scooped up by roving cleaners in time for another layer of history to be abandoned on the floor of a commuter train.
How does £36 sound to you for a bed in London? The capital is an expensive place to spend the night, but last week I found a comfortable single bed with clean linen, soft pillows, a good reading light and a sink with plentiful hot and cold water. There are some downsides to this cosy bed, though. Namely that the room this single bed is in is quite small, with only a narrow standing space beside the bed.
And that when you wake up in the morning, your bed will have moved by as much as 800 miles from London.
£36 is the cost of a standard berth reservation on board the ScotRail Caledonian Sleeper between London and Glasgow. For £51 you can have a first class reservation, which guarantees the same size of cabin but without having to share it. You’ll need a ticket for travel in addition to those upgrades, although all inclusive “bargain berths” are available online from £19 when booked in advance.
It can still come as a surprise to some British people to discover that our little country still supports full service sleeper trains. There are five routes still in operation: London to Penzance (the Night Riviera); London to Edinburgh and Glasgow (the ScotRail Lowland Sleeper) and London to Aberdeen, Inverness and Fort Wiliam (the ScotRail Highland Sleeper), all operating six nights a week. There are about sixty additional intermediate stations, although the services between London and Scotland’s two biggest cities are relatively uninterrupted. If you find yourself booked in the last compartment of the last carriage (as I did a southbound journey last week) you may feel a jolt as different train portions are shunted together at Carstairs or Edinburgh. But aside from that, the sleepers offer a smooth and extremely comfortable way to cover the miles. I find the gentle lateral rocking of the train particularly comforting, and bonded rails mean there is much less of the disturbing clickety-clack than you might think.
This photograph just about shows you everything you need to know. The sleeper carriages are specially constructed variants on the basic design of the Intercity 125 carriage, normally with twelve compartments. They’re smooth riding, solidly built and well heated and ventilated, although opening windows aren’t included in the cabin. The cabin is simple and compact, with two bunks (limited British railway clearances mean that we don’t have enough height for European-style couchettes or, for that matter, the double deck sleeper trains you’ll find in Germany and Switzerland) in standard class or a single lower bunk in first class. There’s a small sink under the lid by the window, and space for suitcases and bags under the lower bed or above the window. The panel between the door and the beds has switches for the main light and the reading lights, and a call bell for the attendant. Behind the door (on the left of this picture) is another door allowing two compartments to be conjoined for a family.
My train left Glasgow Central just after half past eleven on Thursday night and arrived in London almost an hour early at six the next morning, although if you would like to slumber a little longer, passengers aren’t disturbed until nearer seven when the attendant brings a hot drink and snack breakfast box. I snubbed the offer of the breakfast box, preferring instead a cab over to Smithfield Market for a greasy breakfast and mug of builder’s tea.
At the end of the day’s business in London, I adjourned with trusted friends and colleagues to a pub off Oxford Street. We discussed work and studies over pints of independently brewed Yorkshire lager and I watched the bright afternoon sunlight fall on the rooftops of Margaret Street. At about half past six though, one of our small circle had to leave. He was watching the clock for his journey home, which would consist of a tube over to Liverpool Street station, followed by a train to Stansted Airport. Then check-in, security, a long walk to the Stansted satellite terminal, boarding, taxi, take-off and then a short flight to Newcastle Airport. Then two buses to get home.
I, however, stayed for another pint. Then I took a bus over to Clerkenwell for another couple of pints and dinner. It wasn’t until nearer ten that I began my journey home. A bus to Euston and then… I slept my way home. I know how I want to travel between Scotland and London from now onwards.