Sleepless in Somerset

Paddington Station, London
Paddingtion Station, early morning, December 2002.

A balmy Sunday night in late June finds me drifting, slightly drunk, through those quiet London backstreets which lie between the northern edges of Hyde Park and Praed Street. My destination: Paddington Station. The darkness and tranquility surrounding me fails to penetrate my frazzled senses. Spots dance in front of my eyes, my ears ring incessantly, and my thoughts are laboured, thanks to lengthy exposure to the sun, numerous cold beers, intensely loud live music, and the company of good friends, all of which I had indulged in earlier that afternoon in Hyde Park. I am on my way to the station to catch a train, the Night Riviera Sleeper which, all things being well, will deposit me upon the station platform in distant Truro, three hundred miles away, at eight o’clock tomorrow morning. The Night Riviera Sleeper. A romantic name, conjuring up images from the golden age of train travel. Of scenes from Agatha Christie novels, Kitty Lasswade’s nocturnal journey in Virginia Woolf’s The Years, and of the innumerable thwarted murder attempts in confined sleeper compartments made on James Bond’s life—and the inevitable, subsequent sexual conquests that followed.

My own reason for taking the Sleeper service is chiefly based on romantic whim. It is certainly not a practical decision. I for one do not have a cabin booked, intending instead to slum it in standard class. It would, truth be told, be much more practical to make the journey in daylight hours—and cheaper. No, my reasons are romantic. I vainly want to recapture something of the heyday of train travel, when running trains was not simply about making profits. Curiosity thus compels me to take the Night Riviera, but there is also a sense of moral duty involved. This Sleeper service, which runs each night during the week between London and Penzance, is an ailing, loss-making amenity, over which the corporate cost-cutting axe hovers menacingly. The residents and businesses of Cornwall are campaigning hard against the closure of their nocturnal link to the capital, arguing for the role it plays towards the county’s commercial status at a national level.

So, here I am at London Paddington at a quarter past eleven at night, slightly the worse for wear, but in plenty of time to catch the 23:45. Entering the station from the main entrance, I catch my breath at the sheer majesty of the interior space. In front of me, Brunel’s vast iron and glass roof soars and sweeps effortlessly over the tracks, receding backwards into the far distance. Up until a few years ago, a vast and unsightly departures board blocked this view, but now this immense interior space can be fully appreciated once more. Tonight, I practically have the station to myself; the shops and bars are shut, and—with the exception of the Heathrow Express—there are no other trains besides the Sleeper scheduled to depart until the morning. I make my way onto the platform alongside which my transport, the Tintagel Castle stands. It strikes me as absurd that high-speed trains can be named after such immovable objects as ancient stone castles. Though I have a standard seat booked, I am confident that the £10 first-class upgrade offer will be available. I make enquiries with the train manager, who is roaming the platform looking rather lost and in need of some passengers to attend to. ‘No problems’ he says. Result.

Once onboard, I make my way to the restaurant car and purchase a miniature bottle of red wine. Classy. I’m hoping that this final tipple of the evening will improve my chances of getting some sleep tonight. I settle into my first-class seat in an otherwise empty coach, and reflect upon the journey I am about to make—a jaunt I have made countless times before, but never at night. The sequence of stations between Exeter St Davids and Penzance is etched into my memory, like the days of the week, or the names of all the actors (in chronological order) who have played Doctor Who. The sensation is strange, this notion of a journey I am so familiar with, suddenly becoming foreign, almost otherworldly. How many times have I got lost visiting places in the dark, that I could find my way to during daylight hours with my eyes closed? It is akin to the tacit understanding we have that our public spaces—streets, offices, cafés and so on—are not wholly known to us and that, in what most people might call ‘antisocial’ hours, cleaners, shift workers, vagrants, drunks—occupy the world which we assume to be ours. The discomfiture these thoughts provoke is exacerbated by the unwelcome intrusion of another passenger into my—my—carriage. A businessman on his mobile phone, telling someone—who? his wife, a colleague?—that he is on the ‘red eye.’ Moments later, more passengers invade what I had optimistically hoped might be my own personal carriage. This time, two travellers with backpacks, speaking in a foreign, possibly Spanish language. Now I am riled. I fight back the urge to jump up and investigate prospects in the next coach, reluctant to impel my inert body into any sudden physical movement which might diminish my chance of getting some sleep.

Finally, the train rolls effortlessly away from the station; there is no whistle, no rushing and clambering of last-minute passengers, no pip-piping of closing train doors. The Tintagel Castle slips out of Paddington Station as if it had been caught being somewhere it shouldn’t be, sloping off quietly under scorn. As the train picks up speed, the platform lights and sidings are quickly replaced by an inky landscape that slides invisibly by. The gentle swaying to and fro of the carriage, combined with the soft rhythmic click-clacking of the wheels on the rails, is conducive to dozing. After two hours of drifting in and out of a slumbering unconsciousness, I am brought swiftly back to my senses by the jolt of the train lurching to a standstill. I look out the window: Taunton. Here, according to the timetable, the train will sit idle for some ninety minutes. The sudden lack of motion and acute silence has brought me back from the brink of sleepiness, and I find myself wide-eyed and alert, staring out at  railway sidings illuminated by an orange sodium gloom. The next hour and a half drags interminably. Unable to sleep, I make a half-hearted attempt at reading, but to no avail. To make matters worse, my fellow travellers are irking me once more, this time not with their noise, but with their utter sleeping silence. All I can do is vacantly stare into space, unable to sleep or think. Finally, as the first signs of morning light emerge in the eastern sky, the train silently, smoothly, resumes its westward odyssey.

As it gets lighter, the hours and stations slip by more quickly. Exeter, Newton Abbott, Totnes, Plymouth,… It is daylight now, a quarter past six in the morning. Sunlight has entirely extinguished any further possibilities of sleep, so I spend the remaining hour and a half of my journey looking out upon the startling and diverse Cornish landscape that greets me on the other side of Brunel’s Royal Albert Bridge. The Tintagel Castle glides over ancient stone viaducts spanning snaking quaggy tributaries of the Tamar, complete with fishing boats, quays and quaint houses. More viaducts have us soaring above steep valleys covered with pine trees, at the bottom of which lie industrial units and storage depots. On the left-hand side of the track, before we reach St Austell, a golf course sweeps by, squeezed between the railway line and the edges of the cliffs of the south Cornwall coast, beyond which the English Channel radiates under the morning sun, the deepest shade of azure blue. At Par, we pull up amongst the functional architecture and quays which serve the mines of Cornwall’s china-clay industry.

Finally, just after seven o’clock, the Sleeper pulls into Truro. I disembark feeling dreadfully tired, stiff limbed and slightly hungover. I am also acutely aware that I am still in yesterday’s clothes. I rub the stubble on my chin, and contemplate the shave and shower which will be my first actions when I arrive back home. But first I must catch the branch line service to Falmouth, whose carriages happily await me and my fellow ‘red eye’ passengers on the opposite platform. On this last leg of my journey, I reflect upon my Sleeper experience. Despite being unwashed, dehydrated and weary, I am happy that I took the Night Riviera. On one hand, I have satisfied my curiosity and done my bit for Cornwall’s campaign to Save the Sleeper. On the other, as the sun rises into a cloudless sky above vibrant green hills, I know that a perfect summer’s day lies ahead, and that there’s no better place in the world to spend it than here.

Falmouth. July 2006.

Happily enough, the Save the Sleeper campaign was not in vain and, four years later, and the Night Riviera continues to run between London Paddington and Penzance.

©  Mark Hobbs 2010.