25th August 2010. I left home at 5.10am to catch the 5.28am to Waterloo, and then on to Kings Cross, to start my 15 hour train journey to Thurso, and eventually Stromness, Orkney.
I am staying just outside Stromness in a small B&B called Lindisfarne, for 5 days.
My journey from Kings Cross to Edinburg takes only 4 ½ hours. There is a 2 hour stopover, then I catch the train to Thurso, but this is now a 7 hour journey, changing at Inverness, and arriving in Thurso around 9.0pm. So, how was my day one?
One of the dilemmas on visiting a place you have never been to is what to take. Most holiday suitcases are packed with the usual lightweight summer clothes; shirts, shorts, T shirts, swimwear etc. Not usually fleece jackets, walking boots or waterproofs.
Summer 2010 has been, on balance, a good summer. Temperatures often hitting 23c - 28c in the south, where I live. My decision to pack fleeces, weatherproofs and thermal vests was not born out of old wives tales, but of 21st century technology – namely the National Meteorological Office – who can predict weather patterns months in advance. What this wonder of science informed me of was, rather too late, that the Orkney Islands enjoy an average August temperate of just 16c, during the day, falling to around 8c at night. My enthusiasm to book this holiday adventure before I checked out this small detail was beginning to diminish on receipt of this information.
That was four months ago. But this is now.
So, with my suitcase, rucksack and my trusty shoulder bag I board the 5.28am train to Waterloo. I had expected to see more commuters for some reason, but the train was surprisingly empty.
The journey however gave me one unexpected pleasant surprise. I saw the sun rise over South London. In fact what I saw was the sun’s rays preceding it. The sky was lit with the most wonderful colours; pale pinks, oranges, purples’ and reds, illuminating the few whispery clouds that were there. I noticed in some disbelieve that my fellow commuters took no notice of the spectacle at all. If this was their regular 5.30 train they probably have seen it before, but it must be worth seeing again – I would.
We left Kings Cross station at 7.0am and journeyed swiftly though the morning sunshine northwards to Scotland. Working our way out of London I noticed Alexandra Palace. Even with the addition of modernisation - notably glass spears and conservatories, the original facade was still an impressive sight.
I had planned to read or listen to music on the laptop or on my mobile, but I find the countryside fascinating. I have driven extensively through England and Wales, but when driving it is never really possible to appreciate the view the same way as on a train. Within fifteen minutes we were in the country, speeding through Hertfordshire, Cambridgeshire and Lincolnshire, and onwards to Scotland.
The familiar English scene was there to be admired. Church spires, harvest roll and bales, farmhouses, canals, manor houses and plenty of sheep, cows and horses.
I was not impressed with York station. Although old in design the surrounding tracks and haulage yards are an eyesore. Newcastle-on-Tyne on the other hand was very impressive. Every bit as grand and modern as any of the London Terminals.
If I had been driving I would have seen a sign saying ‘Welcome to Scotland’, but of course on a train each county blends in to the next. I expected to hear an announcement ‘Welcome to Scotland’ over the speakers, but none arrived. However, a visual signal was all I needed to appreciate we were approaching, or had entered, a new landscape.
The terrain up until now, although interesting, was generally flat along the East Coast route. Now it took on a new dimension. Nothing was flat. The fields were wide and rolling. The copse was thicker here and eventually became forests for as far as the eye could see.
Farmed fields were now separated by ancient stone walls and not manicures hedgerow. If all of this was south of Edinburgh, I was looking forward to my onward journey to Inverness and onto Thurso, and expecting to see even more breathtaking scenes.
Before that however, I had two hours to pass in Edinburgh. The sun was shining and there was plenty to see within a stones throw of the station. The festival was still on and the streets around Princess Street and the gardens were full of entertainers. I even had time to climb the Scott Monument – all 287 steps of it. ( I had climbed the Monument in London last year so I had to do this one). The views on this day were perfect, and I have some stunning photos to prove my climb.
The second leg of the journey took me to Inverness where I changed trains to Thurso. I was a little disappointed in the scenery on this section – although more rolling hills etc, it was not yet the highlands.
The final stretch however was more of the Scotland we tend to imagine. Vast panoramic views of rugged landscape, rolling hills and dark deep rivers. The further north we went the forests were thick with pine, fir and beech. Farmland gave way to impressive hills covered in moss and heather to the west. To the east, the North Sea was clam and tranquil as the Mediterranean.
An interesting feature of this leg of the journey was stopping at around 24 small country stations. Most were small villages or hamlets, and the stations are kept in picture postcard conditions, complete with flower boxes and hanging baskets. A first for me was hearing the announcement that the approaching station was ‘ a request stop’. Never come across that before. Hope they put their hand out in time.
Now 12 hours later, I was given another breathtaking view. The setting of the sun on my left, and the rising of the full moon over the sea to my right. The sun was setting behind a large range of hills, so it had around another 30 minutes to set completely. Further along, the hills spread out to graduating slops of green moss and large areas of purple heather. Suddenly the sun’s rays shone a bright low light over this scene, causing the purple heather to sparkle like jewels on a green table. To my right the sky was now a mix of pinks and blues, merging with the horizon of the sea, and a full white moon reflecting on its surface.
What an end to a long and perfect journey.
I arrived at the Weigh Inn Motel in Thurso at 10.30pm, and was glad of the comfortable room and amenities.
Tomorrow – The Crossing