Thursday, 22 May 2014

Penzance to Wick. Let's do it!

One of the best apps on my phone is the National Rail Enquiries app, the 'official' one for getting a display of trains to catch, and - if you so wish - to buy the ticket online (although I have so far preferred to visit the booking office, and do it personally, face-to-face).

I like this app because it takes the hard work out of planning a rail journey. An interesting rail journey is beginning to become a regular treat when I'm on holiday. Earlier this year, it was for instance the Barnstaple-to-Exeter line. While in Wales, I shall if funds permit ride on one or two of the narrow-gauge steam railways, but a stretch of 'ordinary' railway is surely to be considered as well. Blaenau Ffestiniog to Llandudno? Bangor to Holyhead? Harlech to Pwllheli? Who knows. My camera will overheat and explode.

Back to the National Rail Enquiries app. The detail it provides is amazing: not just the time of the train, but which platform to catch it from; details of the route; where the train will stop, and when; details of the individual stations - very useful if you have a lot of luggage. About the only thing not to like is the price of a really long rail journey!

For instance, I got up details of the longest journey possible in Great Britain the other day - Penzance in Cornwall (not far from Land's End) to Wick in the far north of Scotland (and not far from John O'Groats). Naturally I've already been to both - by car. But one could do it again, by train, departing from Penzance and a day later arriving at Wick. The National Rail Enquiries app can tell you how, and what it will cost.

Here's Wick on a nippy April day in 2010, with winter not yet gone:

As you can see, while there I was lucky enough to witness the arrival (and departure) of a train! And believe me, 'lucky' is the right word. There are only four trains a day on weekdays. However, as you can see, the trains are comfortable and modern, and the terminus at Wick is no mere shack, even if it does inexplicably lack a Burger King, a Costa Coffee, and a Weatherspoons.

But away from the sophistication of Wick, out in the country, these short trains get entirely lost in the bleak, intimidating landscape. And for much of its far northern mileage, the line to Thurso and Wick connects little else but a series of desperately lonely and remote stations like Forsinard:

You might think this doesn't look too bad; but appearances deceive. This unstaffed station is in the middle of nowhere, and you'd be in serious trouble if you got off here by mistake on a dark winter's afternoon. If you were fit, and able to walk in the shrieking wind, there are a few habitations - including a hotel - not too far off. Depends on the depth of the snow, and whether you have the stamina and endurance. These habitations are open during the main shooting season - but outside of that, well, who can say? No man.

The platforms at Forsinard are low, hence the mounting-blocks. Low so that the sleet and snow don't build up too much and form a glacier. Don't bank on there being a stove or electric fire in that grey hut, like the emergency heater at isolated and desolate Dent station in the High Pennines, so much further south in Northern England. In fact I'd say that hut - even in April - probably contained the frozen, contorted skeletons of hapless stranded Hogmanay revellers, tragically clinging together in their last frostbitten oblivion. I didn't try the door to see. (Surely they were discovered later in the year, and given a quiet local burial once the tundra had softened. But, who knows?)

As for Penzance, jewel of the sunny Cornish Riviera, I expect you already know what the terminus station there looks like. In 2010 I saw it in November, when the evenings were starting to get a bit cold:

Already the dree, numbing chill of the Cornish evening had the place in its grip, turning the station into a gloomy cave of secrets, interrupted only by the late afternoon express from Paddington.

Back to my proposed journey: Penzance to Wick. Just the outward journey there, no return. To be taken three days ago (on Monday):

There you are. You catch the 14:00 train from Penzance, and arrive, after three changes, in Wick at 14:52 next day. Cost: £228.

Just out of interest, I fired up the app for the same journey if taken yesterday (Wednesday). It now cost £239. And tomorrow (Friday) it will cost £250. So the fare varies with the day of the week. Perhaps the Saturday service to Wick is really crowded, standing room only, and they are forced to up the price to quell demand. With Japanese-style attendants at Forsinard, pushing people inside so that the doors will shut.

Well, then. Here's a project for later in the year! What a post it would make: Twenty-Four Hours On A Train. Mysterious passengers. Russian spies. Hercule Poirot. Intrigue. Murder. The very stuff of romance. Ah, a champagne dinner in candlelight, as we smoothly glide through Wigan! Cards and cocktails as we race past Carlisle! The Forth Bridge! The sudden swirl of bagpipes from a massed band on the platform, as Perth approaches! Let's do it.

Mind you, those ticket prices seem steep.

Let me see...if I drove from Penzance to Wick in Fiona, that would be about 830 miles. At 33 mpg and £6.15 per gallon...why, the fuel cost would be only £155.

Of course, I'd have to stop overnight - two nights if I'm not insane. So let's add £50 for each night - £30 minimum for accommodation, and £20 for an evening meal. Or the same £50 if friends put me up, and I treat them and me to the cost of a decent meal. That's £100 more to add on. So the true cost if driving is actually £255, and the 'expensive' train is not only much faster, but a little bit cheaper! Plus the chance of encountering a secret agent, licensed to kill.

Of course, I'd have to eat on the train too, but I could get away with home-packed food and drink if I really had to. Chicken. Cold meat pie. Salad. Chablis.

And all because I have the National Rail Enquiries app on my phone! (Who needs games?)


  1. Well Lucy since you have the app perhaps you should push the boat out and actually take that journey. It might just be the journey of a lifetime. Is it possible to do a round trip instead, Sussex to Cornwall, to Wick and back down the east coast? Now that would take some time to complete and you could then claim to have been right around the country, literally!

    Shirley Anne x

  2. The app - and similar ones such at the Great Western app - are also very useful if your train is running late and you need to find a new connection - as happened to me during the resent flooding.

    Were you to book your mammoth journey a couple of months in advance, that price comes down to an impressive £100.50 - possibly cheaper if you divide the journey up and buy separate tickets.

  3. Don't you just love knowing that everyone in the carriage with you paid different prices for the same journey? Or not!


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