Travel review: Smitten as ever with Flying Scotsman

Flying Scotsman makes its way along the new Borders rail route near Heriot in the Scottish Borders. PIC: PA
Flying Scotsman makes its way along the new Borders rail route near Heriot in the Scottish Borders. PIC: PA
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Flying Scotsman is back and it’s as beautiful as ever says a smitten Stephen McClarence.

In 1928, around the time Flying Scotsman made its first non-stop run from London to Edinburgh, writers on the staff magazine of the LNER company, who owned it, became very excited.

“Have you seen the new Flying Scotsman?” they asked breathlessly. “It is the last word in luxury. In fact it would be a holiday merely to travel to Edinburgh and back in such a beautiful train.”

It still is, as my wife Clare and I discovered when we joined the refurbished Scotsman’s first trip over the border: a glorious weekend that confirmed just how much Scotsmania has infected – no, inspired – Britain.

The trip’s 415 tickets sold out hours after it was announced by Steam Dreams, the company running it. Many on board travelled up from London in vintage carriages that were coupled to the engine at York, where the station platform was packed with people eager to witness railway history being made.

As the bright green engine puffed and chuffed round the platform curve, the crowds waved and cheered and took selfies. There was a bit of tension in the air, though. Plans for a run across the Forth Bridge and along Scotland’s new Borders Railway were in jeopardy because Network Rail hadn’t checked whether the lines and the engine would be compatible.

For a while, Steam Dreams threatened to become Steam Nightmares. But the Scottish government stepped in, a man was sent out with a tape measure, Network Rail apologised and, an hour or so after setting off from York, the schedule was back on track.

“We had passengers crying because it wasn’t running and then weeping tears of joy when it was going to happen again,” said Aimee Stevenson from Steam Dreams.

We settled into our seats – plushly padded like winged armchairs. On the tables, white linen cloths were laid with gleaming cutlery and glasses for the first of an almost endless round of superb meals. Across the aisle was steam enthusiast Neil Cunningham from Cambridge.

“Sitting here is a wonderful feeling,” he said. “Of course, when you’re on the train, you can’t watch it passing. But you get the countervailing benefit of seeing the delight on people’s faces as it goes past.”

Delight it was. Over the 200-mile, six-hour run to Edinburgh, the route was lined with waving people. They stood in fields, on bridges, on car roofs, on piles of pallets and slag heaps, waving and waving, some with Union Flags.

Startled sheep and horses scattered across fields as the train coursed north on the East Coast Main Line. Past Durham Cathedral, high on its hill, over the Tyne at Newcastle, past Lindisfarne, and over the Royal Border Bridge at Berwick, where the bright evening sun cast smoke shadows over the houses below.

“I’ve never been this far north,” said one London-based passenger. “How could you possibly do better than this?” How far north had she been before? “Scunthorpe.”

Platform crowds cheered as we pulled into Edinburgh and many of them were back the next morning as we travelled down the 35-mile Borders Railway line. The gentle landscape, with its low forest-capped hills, shallow rivers and wooded glades, streamed past the window.

The line ends near Abbotsford, the fascinating home of Sir Walter Scott, whose poems and novels created a heroically romantic and highly saleable image of Scotland. The author was himself a railway enthusiast. “The increasing powers of steam will, I think, waft friends together in the course of a few hours,” he wrote.

So it proved on Scotsman. As it edged back into Edinburgh’s Waverley station – named after a Scott novel – staff emerged from the galley kitchen with a birthday cake for a woman just up the carriage and we all sang “Happy Birthday”. I bet that doesn’t happen too often on the commute from Horsforth to Leeds.

No-one was in a hurry to get off. “For the last few hours we’ve been immersed in all this and with the best of human nature,” said passenger Penny Balfour from Edinburgh. “Seeing people waving and smiling as you go past... it’s just been lovely.”

GETTING THERE

Steam Dreams (01483 209888, cathedralsexpress.co.uk) is planning another trip to Edinburgh on Flying Scotsman in May or June 2017. Other steam holidays in 2017 include the Emerald Isle Explorer, a nine-day tour of Ireland (from £1,795 per person) and the Devon Belle, three nights on the English Riviera (from £599).

In Edinburgh don’t miss the stunning Celts exhibition at the National Museum of Scotland (www.nms.ac.uk), which runs until September 25.