'So, which one do you think is the murderer?’
I ask the question with enough sincerity that Antony feels compelled to ‘shush’ me in case any of our fellow passengers (potential victims and psychopaths to my overactive imagination) are listening.
I reckon I’m not the only one thinking this. How can anyone take an overnight train journey and not be reminded of all those literary and cinematic antecedents?
From spy adventures (North by Northwest, From Russia With Love), to comedies (The Darjeeling Limited, Some Like It Hot) trains have been the setting for some of my favourite stories. Perhaps it’s because the relatively close confines of a railway carriage allow for the drama to be similarly confined and intensified.
And then there’s Murder On The Orient Express, Agatha Christie’s arguably most famous (and certainly most cinematic) mystery. Whichever incarnation is your favourite, you will have an impression of what it’s like to spend time on a train clickety-clacking through the night. You don’t even have to have seen the story (or read it) to expect that it will probably be quite the experience.
Most evocative are those stories set in the past. Here in 2018, there are only two sleeper services still operating in the UK: The Caledonian Sleeper operated by ScotRail six nights a week, and the Night Riviera from Great Western Railways (GWR), running seven nights a week (no sleeper on Saturday) from London Paddington to Penzance.
The route of the Night Riviera
Heritage diesel locomotives pull the Night Riviera from London Paddington to Penzance
The official marketing for the Night Riviera emphasises the romance of long-distance train travel – in the broadest and narrowest senses of ‘romance’. A video soundtracked with a voxpop of Night Riviera travellers lingers almost as long on the luxurious upholstery as it does other aspects, including the sight of dawn breaking through the windows. The three minute clip is ravishing, if not also slightly disconcerting. At one point, one of the anonymous passengers intones: “I never lock my door. You live in hope.” It’s unclear whether the speaker keeps his door unlocked because he is wishing for a romantic liaison or an encounter of the more murderous variety.
I watched the clip the day before our own journey on the Night Riviera. My birthday present from Antony, I have been looking forward to it for weeks.
We arrive at London Paddington early on Friday night in order to take everything in. Having never found a reason to visit Paddington station before, I don’t know how adequately the facilities will be able to fill the three hours we have to spare before boarding the Riviera. The prospect of spending two hours at our usual station, Euston, would make me wish to become of Mrs Christie’s victims. We are therefore pleasantly surprised to be greeted by a brass band. It is sheer coincidence of course that the Great Western Paddington Band are working their way through their diverse repertoire just as we arrive, but it immediately gets us off to a pleasingly retro start to our trip.
A brass band playing live should start off all railway journeys
Less retro is our choice of dining establishment for the evening: Barburrito is the closest restaurant to the brass band. The food is flavoursome and filling and we can still just about hear the marches and waltzes above the sound of us chomping our way through chorizo, beef and guacamole.
Conveniently, the Night Riviera leaves from Platform 1 which is precisely where the statue of Michael Bond’s famous creation is located. Photographs with Paddington are, of course, obligatory.
Bucket list moment: meeting the bear from darkest Peru
At 9pm we are allowed access to the Great Western Railways’ (GWR) First Class Lounge. In fact, the very courteous staff let us in 10 minutes early. Originally Queen Victoria’s waiting room, the ‘lounge’ is half traditional, half modern. The modern section has complimentary snacks and drinks, including wine. For once, we do not imbibe. We want to save ourselves for the train. I had read on the GWR website that a lounge of another kind would be opening in 2018. There was no more precise date, but once I heard about the new ‘lounge bar’ I couldn’t stop myself having James Bond fantasies of supping a Martini (or similarly decadent beverage) before retiring to our sleeper cabin to be rocked gently to sleep.
Boarding begins at 10.30pm. We find our cabin with no difficulty and another very polite member of the crew gives us our orientation - how to work the air con, convert the table into a sink and vice versa – as well as take our breakfast order. We both opt for a bacon roll. Not the most James Bond of choices but his preferred breakfast (scrambled eggs) is not one of the options. We ask for breakfast to be delivered for 6.00am, commenting that we like to get up early anyway. My plan is to see as much of Cornwall just after dawn as possible. The sun is due to rise at approximately a quarter past 5am. I know this because I Googled it the day before.
Room for the night
We head to the lounge, which is reserved for sleeper passengers only. The Night Riviera is a working commuter route but most people who use it to transport themselves from London to Penzance on a regular basis choose to sleep in their seats. It’s far more affordable though, one imagines, a lot less comfortable.
I am only momentarily dismayed to learn that the ‘lounge bar’ (with cocktails) has not come into service yet. We are told it will be operating later in 2018.
Either way, we receive a bag of complimentary snacks (crisps, biscuits, water). A trip to the onboard bar adds a self-mixed G&T apiece to our supplies. I make the acquaintance of Stuart, our very friendly steward/bartender/barista. I wonder what will happen to Stuart once they start serving cocktails in the new lounge bar. Presumably, he will add ‘mixologist’ to his CV.
We grab window seats just in time. The carriage fills up quickly as we near the 11.45pm departure time.
At around 11.30pm a couple ask if anyone’s sitting next to us. I say no, they can help themselves. Instead of sitting, they plonk down large bags. They disappear for ten minutes or so. Just before we depart, they return with bags full of McDonald’s. I enjoy a Big Mac as much as the next person, but the smell is repellently overpowering on a train. So much for Orient Express sophistication. Rather than ruin the illusion completely, Antony and I make our way back to our own cabin and experience the departure from there.
We pull out of Paddington dead on time. The scenery is what everyone expects from the immediate surrounds of a railway station: bleakly post-industrial. Fortunately, the darkness swallows most of it. We know we aren’t going to be able to see anything worth looking at until dawn so we decide to get some sleep. Antony tries the top bunk and I go below.
Our one and only experience of trains, taking the Sunset Limited across the southern states of the USA, has led us to believe that we both sleep well on trains. Unfortunately, as we quickly learn, one experience is not enough to draw firm conclusions from.
The Sunset Limited took its time transporting us from New Orleans to Los Angeles, in more or less a straight line. The London to Penzance line is straighter than most UK lines and it has a very reasonable gradient. There are no sudden rises and falls. The great railway engineer Isambard Kingdom Brunel designed it this way, increasing the cost of the line significantly. Even so, the relatively rapid movement and occasional turns are enough to roll me out of my bunk more than once. Antony doesn’t fare much better, although he is prevented from falling out by some suitably placed straps. To be fair, it might not be the train’s fault: we may just be accustomed to being able to roll around in our queen-sized bed at home with little fear of falling out.
I don’t set my alarm for sunset but I wake up at 5.30am nonetheless. Dawn is breaking over Plymouth, and it’s as romantic as I imagined it would be, even if I do watch most of it alone. Antony wakes soon enough though and we both decide to take breakfast in the lounge rather than crouch down and bang elbows in our cabin. We’re the only people in there, apart from Stuart of course. He’s been awake the whole time, along with the rest of the crew. Like airline crew, it must play havoc with their body clocks.
Dawn breaking over Plymouth. As seen from our cabin.
When I walk back to our cabin just before 6.00am, I find our breakfast already waiting for us. I take it back to Antony in the lounge car. We munch on bacon rolls and deliciously strong coffee whilst taking in the Cornish scenery. Both of us managed around four hours sleep in the end. We’re refreshed enough to enjoy the last leg of the journey, although both of us envision having we’ll be having an early night in our very stationary hotel bed that evening.
Good morning from the lounge car
The lounge car fills up around us. We look both out sides to see who can see the sea first. We wonder if seeing the sea is something especially exciting for Midlanders like us. We live as far away from the sea as you can possibly manage.
When we eventually do see the sea, we’re only minutes from our final destination: Penzance. We pull in, grab our bags and thank the universally attentive crew. As we’re stepping off I overhear one of them say to Stuart ‘I can’t wait to get some sleep’. I’m inclined to agree, but then feel guilty: However unsteady the journey, Antony and I at least managed some shut eye. We may not be rested enough for James Bond-style action heroics but at least no one was murdered (that we know of).
Old and new trains, side by side. Our arrival in Penzance.
7.53am: Unwashed, slightly shaken and stirred and ready to explore Penzance.
We spend our day in Penzance on our feet, determined not to give in to sleep. We don’t really have much choice in the matter: hotel check-in is not until 3.00pm. We walk miles along the coast, some of it in bare feet, feeling the sand between our toes. Another rare pleasure for Midlanders. We also take a bus journey to Land’s End which is more like a rollercoaster the way it plunges and rises through tight country lanes. It makes the Night Riviera feel as serene as floating in zero gravity by comparison.
Feeling the sand between our toes. It was a lot warmer than it looks here. We have the sunburn to prove it.
Despite our tiredness, we have a great day and one of the best meals we’ve ever had. But we are in bed at 9.00pm and sleep all the way through until 7.00am. This is almost unheard of for us. It’s fair to say, the sleep deficit has been paid off.
We have another busy day in Penzance before re-joining the Night Riviera for our return journey to London, and thence back to Birmingham and home.
We’re early, as usual, but we’ve read, on a sign outside Penzance station, that “in 2017” the station is being renovated. Now that it’s 2018, this means the first-class lounge (detailed on the poster) should be built. I enquire about this and I’m told it hasn't opened yet. This is disappointing chiefly because the poster says the first-class lounge will contain showers. Warm weather, climbing St. Michael’s Mount and part-wading across the bay has left us both feeling distinctly sweaty and salty. A shower would be ideal. Instead, we make do what we can with the best part of a packet of wet wipes. For most people, not being able to shower at the end of a day would not constitute a personal hygiene problem. But it’s fair to say that neither of us fare well at music festivals. And when you’re boarding a sleeper train, you at least want to feel the part. You never see Poirot giving himself a bath with moist tissues.
Walking through the surf seemed like a good idea at the time
The return journey, leaving at 9.15pm, promises to be much the same. That is, until we make friends with a couple who live on the south coast near Brighton. We’ve made friends on trains before, but rarely this rapidly. Both are retired and loving it. Ted was a teacher until recently. We quickly set the education world to rights and then promise not to talk any more about teaching. Louise won their trip on an episode of an episode of Ant ‘n’ Dec’s Saturday Night Takeaway. After we’ve swapped stories from our own lives, they regail us with tales of their jet-setting neighbour who works with the crème de la crème of Hollywood. We are sworn to secrecy. Suddenly, the glamour of train travel is back: meeting mysterious strangers; secrets from the movie industry; the sun having only recently set, lending everything a delectable glow. The prosecco might also have something to do with it. I buy it off Stuart, the same Stuart who was on our outward journey. He remembers me. He apologises for not having champagne flutes on board. He only has normal wine glasses. I tell him not to worry. Anything is better than the plastic cups they give you on Virgin.
That night, I sleep a little better. Being on the top bunk might have something to do with it, although my rudimentary understanding of science makes me think it’s less to do with how far I am off the ground and more to do with just being more tired than I was on the outward journey.
View from the top bunk
In the middle of the night, I wake up to go to the toilet. The toilet is at the end of the corridor. GWR are intending to renovate the sleeper carriages to have en suites, presumably at the same time as introducing the cocktail bar. Perhaps knowing people are likelier to drink more they reason they will need to urinate more frequently. I don’t bother pulling my clothes back on. Doing so will wake me up too much and I won’t be able to fall back to sleep. Instead, I peek my head out of the door, check the coast is clear, and semi-streak my way to the bathroom. I manage to get back without giving anyone the chance to pass judgement on my choice of underwear.
The second time I awake we are stationary, and remain so for a while. When I ask about this in the lounge car in the morning, a crew member will tell me we were waiting for 40 minutes for a new engine to pick us up. I get the sense that this is not so out of the ordinary. At least we didn’t get stuck in a snow drift for days on end like Hercule and co.
We eat breakfast (we try the porridge this time) whilst the train sits alongside Platform 1 in Paddington. Although we arrived at around 6am, we are welcome to stay onboard until 7am. It’s a faintly surreal experience, slowly eating your breakfast on a stationary train whilst everyone else, in business dress, races the other way to get their connections to their places of work.
It is Monday, I have to remind myself. It is 2018. For a while there, for the better part of two nights, I lost track of time.
Update: The new lounge car (with 007-style cocktailing) came into service just a week after our trip and, on 17th August, the First Class lounge in Penzance opened for the first time. We look forward to experiencing both on our return journey.
To book your own journey on the Night Riviera, visit:
As it was a birthday present, Antony was obviously in charge of the booking so I was somewhat detached from this crucial step. However, he informs me that, as with a lot of rail tickets in 2018, a sleeper berth on the Night Riviera a) is not inexpensive and b) is complicated by the 12-week advance booking system. Essentially, to get the most bang for your buck you need to call or visit the Great Western Railway website when you're exactly 12-weeks out from the date you wish to travel. Be aware that, as one of the only two sleeper services in the country, others will being doing the same so berths can completely sell out on the day advance bookings become available.