Glasgow, Ireland and the Isle of Man
You can blame my old mate David for this trip. When I first suggested on Facebook that I might do the 50at50 train thing he wrote "I'll come with you to my home town Derry from Belfast just name the date" and pointed me to this page which describes the journey across Northern Ireland.
It sounded like an excellent idea and when I looked at how I could get to Belfast it also opened up some other possibilities. First there was the boat train which goes down to Stranraer from Belfast to connect with the ferry to Belfast. There was also a ferry from Belfast to the Isle of Man, which has several train lines despite being a tiny island, and I could catch another ferry from there back to the mainland. This all tied in nicely with a trip to the Yorkshire Dales which some friends on mine were planning for around the same time.
So this trip was going to be a bit different: up until now the trips I'd done had either been straight out and back, like to the Severn Valley line, or were part of other trips, but this time it was one continuous trip with lots of bits to sort out.
But the Internet makes this sort of thing a doddle, relatively speaking. Well in advance I'd booked my hotel in Glasgow and Edinburgh, David had booked us a hotel in Londonderry, I'd found a B&B in Douglas on the Isle of Man and I had all my ferry tickets and the mainland train journeys. The only thing left to get on the fly was the Northern Ireland train tickets and the rover pass for Isle of Man.
Then things went a bit pear shaped. The day before I was due to depart, and two days before I was due to meet David in Belfast he phoned me to say that a colleague had had a car accident and he would have to deputise for her on Friday and hence wouldn't be able to catch the flight to join me. This was a little unsettling to say the least, but he'd previously mailed me the confirmation details for the hotel so with a bit of luck I could manage on my own.
So the first part of this trip was an easy run to Glasgow, firstly from Waterbeach via Ely to Peterborough and then on my favourite east coast main line express in first class as usual. I'd managed to pick one that would take me all the way through to Glasgow Central which made life easier and I'd booked into the Alexander Thompson again as it was good value on my last visit to Glasgow and is conveniently close to the station.
By the time I got there and booked in it was time for supper so I wandered back towards the station and found a reasonable little Italian which served good calzone but tirimisu which although allegedly homemade seemed far from it. I headed back for the hotel and on the way was stopped by a young woman who muttered something to me. I didn't quite hear but assumed she was a panhandler. She wasn't, she was offering me more personal services! Thinking about it afterwards it dawned on me that I'd got to fifty and never been approached by a prostitute. Hmmm ...
The Boat Train
Anyway bright and early the next morning I headed off back to Glasgow Central to pick up the boat train. Curiously we had to change at Ayr. I wasn't sure why but it all became clear when I got there: the line from Glasgow Central as far as Ayr is twin track and electrified. From Ayr to Stranraer it's only single track and a little two coach DMU runs up and down it.
I'd taken the early train to Ayr as I the connection seemed a bit tight so I had time to hang around Ayr station for a while and get a cup of tea. My time there wasn't improved by a large family which included a number of young boys who seemed fairly out of control when presented with the empty threats from their mother. When we came to board the train to Stranraer I carefully chose the other carriage to them only for them to come through looking for seats and perch themselves at the other end of the carriage. I was just considering whether to move when two of the boys came scampering down the carriage to sit on the other side to me. Time to move. So I made my way to the rear carriage and plonked myself down at a table opposite some old chap who scowled at me. Oh well.
And so we set off to Stranraer and what a lovely little line it was. It reminded me a lot of the Kyle of Lochalsh and Mallaig lines. A little DMU struggling up and down serious gradients compared to the main line on old track with fishplates. None of your continuous welded here! The weather wasn't great but the countryside was nice, and we even stopped at Barrhill station, which made me do as double take.
At one of the stations the old chap opposite disappeared clutching a cigarette for a quick drag before we set off again. In England he'd never get away with smoking on the platform but I'd already noticed that in Scotland, despite platforms being designated non-smoking areas, no one took a blind bit of notice. Meanwhile I moved to another seat as the train was thinning out a bit.
After an hour and a half of pottering down the line we finally arrived at Stranraer. Well, to be more accurate, we arrived at Stranraer pierhead because that's where the train comes to a halt. It was gently drizzling but I walked back down the pier into Stranraer in search of lunch and then wandered back to the departure lounge at the land end of the pier. In theory there was a courtesy bus to take us back out to the end of the pier but it got increasingly raucous and the free WiFi wasn't working so I walked back down the pier and checked in there.
Eventually they let us on the catamaran, which was vast and very busy and we pottered off up Loch Ryan before turning south west for Belfast.
Part of the reason the ferry was so busy was that Belfast was hosting the European Pipe Band Championships so there was several bands on board who had come over from Scotland. One stopped to perform just outside the arrivals hall. Meanwhile I wandered around looking for a bus. My researches beforehand had suggested I would need to find a taxi share but in fact there were buses into town and a friendly local pointed me towards the appropriate one.
We chugged our way into the centre of Belfast and with the aid of Google Maps on my phone I was able to hop off at about the right point, close to Belfast City Hall and from there it was a short walk to the Belfast Hilton.
David and I had agreed to have supper at The Crown Bar on Great Victoria Street (a pub owned by the National Trust!) so I once I'd checked in and dumped my bag I wandered off in that direction. A surprise awaited me. Opposite The Crown Bar stood the Europa Hotel which was a real blast from the past ... if that's not an unfortunate metaphor to use in relation to that place. So as I sat on the first floor of the Crown Bar eating supper I was able to look out across the street at the Europa.
After a light breakfast I checked out on Saturday morning and made my way between office blocks to Belfast Central railway station to catch the train to Derry. The nice man at the ticket office explained my disabled person's rail card wouldn't help me, nor could I get a return coming back tomorrow but if I bought a single today my best option tomorrow would be a Day Tracker ticket, essentially a rover ticket giving unlimited travel on NI Railways. I filed this thought away for later.
Isle of Man