Trains. Three of them today to kick off this journey to the Western Isles. As I type I’m sitting in the third train which is rattling it’s way along the West Highland line towards my destination for the day, Oban. But back to this morning, or rather, last night.
I woke at a time nearer to me going to bed than the time I would, ideally, have liked to wake up. 3? Around then. Couldn’t get back to sleep as playing on my mind was train number 2, the one from Preston to Glasgow. I had only managed to secure a reservation of sorts. More specifically, I didn’t have a reservation, just an apology in a tweeted message from a social media chap at Trans Pennine Trains explaining that he couldn’t reserve a space for my bike, not because there wasn’t space but because he didn’t know if there was space. (Booking bikes via Twitter is one of the methods they want cyclists to use…) How did we ever send a man to the moon? Well, we – the British – didn’t. Certainly Trans Pennine Trains didn’t.
So this was worrying me when I woke up, as I listened to through-the-night radio, as I loaded the panniers on the bike, as I cycled into Halifax, as the first train (no-reservation-required Northern) crossed into Lancashire in the direction of Preston… Would the entire trip fall at the first speed bump?
Well no, it didn’t. Despite the inadequacies of the Trans Pennine Trains bike booking system, they have at least invested in some trains on the Manchester to Scotland line that have ample space for at least four – probably six – bikes. The platform manager asked if I was putting my train onto the 12:02 from Preston and I launched immediately into a convoluted explanation / minor rant about the booking. He looked somewhat puzzled, stopped me in my tracks and told me the bike carriage would stop opposite the lifts. No one asked if I had reserved a space for the bike or not. Rant over.
There were three bikes in total on the train. One of them was a Van Nicholas titanium model owned by a just-graduated student. His name was Cameron (Scottish for ‘crooked nose’ he told me; it was crooked but he was from just outside Preston), he had bought it second and I don’t think he realised what a bargain he had bagged. After studying French and Russian at St. Andrew’s he had just completed a master’s in central Asian languages in The Netherlands, interspersed with a fair bit of travelling. He was enjoyable company; down to earth and interesting although it did take a few minutes for me to disregard his ‘student’ attire; brown dungarees, too short for his legs and a beret of some sort. Had I never spoken to him I would have just put him into the ‘annoying student’ column on the imaginary spreadsheet of passing acquaintances. But he wasn’t in the least. [Note to self: don’t judge people by their dungarees.] He was heading to north east Scotland to do some lightweight cycle touring with a friend.
The presumed ‘stressful’ part of the day over, I cycled the short distance from Glasgow Central to Glasgow Queen Street where, after a couple of hours, I boarded this train that continues to rattle its was towards the coast at Oban. (See map below which is actually the table in the carriage.) I became aware of the Scot Rail ‘Explorer’ carriage a few weeks ago. It’s a converted standard train carriage of which two-thirds has been given over to housing bikes. 20 of them I think on a busy day. Today isn’t a busy day and there are, again, just three bikes. One of them belongs to Kirsty, a woman in her 50s who had travelled up to Scotland from the West Midlands. We chatted and exchanged experiences. She, rather admirably, is very much a newbie in the cycle touring / bike packing game but her positive enthusiasm for doing what she is doing is commendable. I dare say our paths will cross again in coming days as she is also booked on tomorrow’s ferry to Barra and plans to wild camp on Vatersay. Her plans after that are much more certain than mine; she has ferries booked all along the Hebridean Way and then back to Oban via Skye and Eigg. Post-Vatersay, I have nothing booked whatsoever. Should I be more worried about that than I am?
It’s now 6pm. Oban will loom into view at around 7:30pm. I’m booked into the youth hostel and will hopefully have time to stretch my legs later. Much of the day has been spent sitting and loitering in train stations. Tomorrow there will be a fair amount of sitting and loitering on a ferry before finally getting down to some cycling – south to Vatersay – in the later afternoon…
Here’s the plan for my trip to the Outer Hebrides…
…and here’s a podcast I made about cycling the Hebridean Way prior to setting off:
More episodes of The Cycling Europe Podcast can be found on this page of CyclingEurope.org.
And finally, since you’ve made it this far, just one more thing:
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