I was out touring in Scotland on my own, having a short break to myself, recharging the moral and emotional batteries. After leaving the Atholl Arms Hotel at Blair Atholl (see More Scottish travels) I made two short detours along single track roads through grey and rainswept countryside deep in fall colours, and after some indecision about which route to take, found myself at the Sugar Bowl Café in Kingussie, a pleasant room painted grey and orange, the steamed-up windows indicative of a warm welcome within, shelter from the driving cold rain of November.
I sat over coffee and cake, looking through some purchases from a nearby second-hand bookshop. I had “The sending” by Geoffrey Household, “Raw Spirit”, the de facto autobiography of Iain Banks (but on the surface, a book about malt whiskey), and “The January Man”, an account of a year of walking Britain, by a guy called Christopher Sommerville.
I made an entry in my diary, and put my pen away. I happened to check my phone and I saw that the nearby Strathspey Railway were having a Diesel Gala Day! I left the café on the instant, in a heavy downpour, and returned to the car. I drove to Aviemore and parked up at the heritage railway car park, again in heavy winter rain. It was 12.50.
In the cold and wet station I learned that the next train was at 13.15. On the platform I got talking to Duncan, a professional photographer who took a few pictures of me enjoying myself. https://www.duncansphotography.co.uk/
From here on in the reader has to put up with nerdish trainspotter details about locomotives and carriages (for which – while I explain it – I make no apology.)
In due course an old English Electric “08” shunter brought in the train, and a Brush type 2 locomotive was attached to the front. I sat resplendent and alone in a very well-appointed Mk 1 FK (First Class Compartment coach). It had an absolutely lovely atmosphere. For me it is the ambience of the old Mk I’s; the woodwork, the lamps, the curved sheet metal ceilings. The sound of the doors slamming that make me feel about 10 years old, going on holiday to Skegness or Blackpool. Notwithstanding the atmosphere, I “bailed”, as the train-spotters are fond of saying, at Boat of Garten, hurriedly crossed the footbridge, and joined the up train back to Aviemore, which was hauled by a Birmingham Railway Carriage and Wagon (BRCW) Type 3. A “Class 27” since the 1970s. This was mostly the newer (but still vintage) Mk II stock, still atmospheric, still nostalgic, but not quite the same as the old Mk I compartments.
When the railways were nationalised, British Railways found itself in charge of an absolute plethora of styles and designs of coaches, inherited from the four large companies that existed before. Some form of standardisation was required: from this, in the late 1950’s, came the British Railways Mk I coach.
This was the experience most people would have on a railway journey in the UK from the early 1960’s until the late 1970’s and indeed later, although newer designs were brought out subsequently. The Mark II arrived in the late 1960’s; the first air conditoned Mark II not long after that, and then the Mark III in the early 1970’s.
These are still around – they are the carriages seen in the old “HSTs” which can still be seen in Scotland and down in Cornwall. The privatised railway of today is up to Mk V which are the coaches used for the most modern trains like the Caledonian Sleeper. The final Mk I coaches were the old “slam doors” used in the south of England, and these were withdrawn as late as 2005.
I ordered some tea, crisps and a sandwich. The sandwich was freshly made! What a remarkable thing. I chatted sociably with the guy selling the food. At Aviemore, off the train and back on, and then all the way down to Broomhill at the other end of the line.
The sound made by these Sulzer engines in the Brush type 2 and the BRCW type 3, particularly when they are working hard, is really quite something; it is a magical music to my ears. There are, for me, few sounds that have quite the same effect as does the sound of a vintage diesel locomotive – or perhaps in particular, these slow-beating Sulzer engines.
One might have a hopefully pleasant Pavlovian reaction to many sounds – for example, the sound of a drinks can being opened, or that sound described by Alistair Cooke as the “most civilised sound in existence”, that is, the sound of ice cracking as spirits are poured over it. But for me, it is the sound of diesel locomotives, reminding me as they do, of going on holiday when I was a small boy.
From Broomhill back to Boat of Garten, where I changed again from one train into the other. As the afternoon went on, the weather and the light improved, though heavy showers persisted. I took loads of pictures.
From Boat of Garten back to Broomhill, then all the way back to Aviemore, arriving in the dusk after as remarkably moving and relaxing afternoon as I’ve had in recent years. And this on top of everything else this weekend bas brought. I paid £23 for a “Rover ticket” which enabled me to make something like six separate journeys up and down. I think I got my moneys’ worth.