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Caledonian Sleeper
Photograph: ShutterstockThe Caledonian Sleeper crossing Rannoch viaduct

What’s it like to take the real-life Hogwarts Express to Scotland?

The overnight sleeper train to the Highlands is just as magical as it sounds

Phil de Semlyen
Written by
Phil de Semlyen
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Forget King’s Cross and Platform 9¾ – sorry, nerds – because the real-life Hogwarts Express leaves from next door at the otherwise unlovely Euston. Twice a night, six days a week. No running through pillars required.

There’s cognitive dissonance in that statement, I know. As any commuter will tell you, Euston is the place where dreams go to die. With its oft-delayed services and slabby 1960s architecture, it has the general vibe of an NCP car park that’s been cruelly stripped of all its joie de vivre. People mill about under its shiny new LCD boards on the off-chance of news from Harrow and Wealdstone. 

But it was lingering under the departure board, evening after evening, waiting for my train home that the idea of swapping London Northwestern for the Caledonian Sleeper gradually wormed its way into my brain. I’ve had a lifelong love affair with trains (ie: I wanted to be a train driver as a kid, mainly because I was heavily into ‘Ivor the Engine’), but I’ve never actually slept on one. At least, not in the formal sense, rather than the nodded-off-and-woke-up-in-Northampton one.

Caledonian Sleeper
Photograph: Serco

Sleepers are all the rage on mainland Europe, but we’re late adopters in this country. There are only two overnight services spanning the UK: the Caledonian Sleeper and the shorter Night Riviera service, which whisks passengers from Paddington to Penzance in eight hours. Both service a mix of bright-eyed tourists and weekend commuters gliding across a snoozing land to more scenic climes. 

My partner and I – along with our highly excited five-year-old – fall very firmly in the former category as we clamber aboard the Royal Highlander on a frosty Friday night, bound for Inverness and the Scottish Highlands.

Sleepers are all the rage on mainland Europe but we’re late adopters in this country

There’s been a sleeper service from London to Scotland since 1873, though the rolling stock and comfort levels have cranked up a few notches since those early steam-powered days. We’re greeted by tartan-clad stewards on the platform, steering us towards our two cabins, thus ensuring we don’t end up in Fort William or Aberdeen when the train splits in three at Carstairs in the pre-dawn hours.

It’s a warm welcome that’s typical of the whole experience. There have been recent moves to renationalise the Serco-run service by the Scottish government, but there’s no sense of transition or flux: the staff aboard are all friendly and unfailingly helpful. David, the train manager, steers us towards a free table in the dining car, hands us menus (try the crème-anglaise-and-whisky clootie dumpling – but don’t tell your cardiologist) and gives us a few local tips about Inverness before the train rolls out of north London at 9.30pm.

Caledonian Sleeper
Photograph: Serco

Those thoughtful Scottish touches make you feel like you’re over the border from the moment you board. If, like us, you’re only away for the weekend, that’s a big draw. The patchy wi-fi aboard inadvertently reinforces the notion that you’re here to unplug and escape. Leave your phone in your cabin, order one of the array of single malts on the drinks list and watch the suburbs go by in a restful blur.

Order a single malt and watch the London suburbs go by in a restful blur

The cabins themselves are small feats of industrial design, where every inch of space is cunningly maximised as if you’re aboard some kind of Swiss Army train. There are power sockets, USB ports, dimmable lights and toiletry kits, the doors are operated by hotel-style key cards, and there’s a weedy but serviceable shower to freshen up before disembarking. Breakfast can be ordered for delivery to your cabin. The cholesterol-athon Scottish breakfast is for the truly serious only (seriously, your cardiologist will kill you).

We have two adjacent Club Rooms, both with bunks and ensuites. They’re one of four sleeping options available: there are also Classic Rooms (bunks but no bathrooms) and Caledonian Doubles, which come with double beds and are the priciest mode of travel. You can also book a ‘Comfort Seat’ in a seated carriage. It may not be the dream night’s sleep but at only £50, it’s a seriously competitive way to get from London to Scotland. 

Caledonian Sleeper
Photograph: Caledonian Sleeper

And, in truth, sleep can be elusive in the berths too. Even as someone who prides himself in being able to nod off in almost any scenario, I find myself drifting in and out of consciousness as the train travels up the spine of the country. You can feel the cadence of the carriage on the rails, and despite technical advances to make the decoupling process that bit stealthier, it’s not so stealthy that I’m not aware it’s happening when we get to Carstairs at 4.30am. Maybe this is what all those single malts are for?

But it’s far from a dampener – and crucially, our five year-old has slept like a log, despite bubbling with excitement from the Euston lounge to the moment her head hit the pillow. 

It’s like rolling into Hogsmeade station – a magical way to start the weekend

Plus, any lethargy is banished when I pull up the blind at 7.30am to see Aviemore station outside, backdropped by the snow-blanketed Cairngorms National Park. It’s like rolling into Hogsmeade station: a legitimately magical way to start the weekend.

Inverness is still an hour away to the north, which leaves time for a leisurely breakfast in the club car, six or so hands of Uno and the chance to watch the Highlands stretching out before us. 

And when we pull into our final destination – the Highlands’ pretty, historic capital perched on the River Ness – there’s no mad dash for the exit, either. You’re given time to gather your things, give your berth a final check-over and detrain in your own time. It’s as relaxing as disembarkation comes. The only grumble? Absolutely no sign of Hagrid to help with the luggage.

Comfort Seats start at £50, Classic Rooms £205, Club Rooms £290 and Caledonian Doubles £410. All prices are for two people.

Caledonian Sleeper
Photograph: Visit ScotlandUrquhart Castle overlooking Loch Ness

Three great things to do in Inverness-shire

1. Explore Urquhart Castle and Loch Ness

You knew about the monster, but did you know about the castle? The thousand-year-old Urquhart Castle is worth the visit even without the added promise of a possible glimpse of a mythical dinosaur/monster/whatever-the-heck bobbing about below. A visitor centre presentation gives a handy intro to the area’s tumultuous medieval and Jacobite past, before the curtains pull back to reveal an eye-popping view over the half-ruined castle and the shimmering loch below. Oh, and stop by the lovely Cafe Eighty2 for a fortifying brekkie on the way.

Chanonry Lighthouse
Photograph: Visit ScotlandChanonry Lighthouse on the Black Isle

2. Go dolphin spotting on the Black Isle

Not an island, but a picturesque peninsular 15 or so miles north of the city, the Black Isle is well worth the hire car expense. The towns of Cromarty, Rosemarkie and Fortrose are small jewels nestled between its rolling hills and the wind-beaten coastline. Grab a coffee and a slice of cake from Bakhoos Bakery and head down to Chanonry Point to catch a glimpse of the Moray Firth’s bottlenose dolphin pod.

Culloden battlefield
Photograph: Visit Scotland

3. Take a walk on Culloden Moor

Recently dubbed ‘the happiest place in Scotland’, Inverness boasts understated grandeur and a keen sense of its own history. Perched above the city, about a 20-minute bus journey away, is the 1746 battlefield of Culloden, where Bonnie Prince Charlie’s dreams of a big Stuart revival met a bloody end. The sensitively curated visitor’s centre contextualises the struggle before pointing you out onto the windswept moor – Britain’s last battlefield. It’s not exactly a bonnie place, but it’s a memorable experience. 

Time Out was a guest of Caledonian Sleeper, Visit Scotland and Kingsmills Hotel, Inverness.  

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