Top positive review
A stop-start journey of discovery
6 April 2014
REVIEW: The Next Stop: Inverness to Edinburgh, Station by Station – by Simon Varwell
When Simon Varwell set out on his big railway adventure, he wasn’t altogether heading into the unknown. He was already familiar – perhaps even over-familiar – with the full length of the Inverness to Edinburgh line. What made his journey special – probably unprecedented, in fact – was that it entailed getting off and exploring every town and village on the route.
On any routine journey from one end of the line to the other, these are places that would be bypassed with barely a desultory glance from the carriage window. From the Highlands to Perthshire, on to the Fife coast and either side of the Firth of Forth, Varwell was determined to find out something about the history and character of each one of these twenty-odd communities and whether it would be worth returning for a longer visit.
The result is The Next Stop: Inverness to Edinburgh, Station by Station.
Varwell aimed to spend a minimum of two hours in each place (a rather flexible time limit, as it turns out), with a few essential overnight stays. And he was rewarded with some delightful experiences. Newtonmore and Markinch are among those that fall into the category of pleasant surprises – and I for one am interested to see there is someone else who finds it mildly exciting that Raith Rovers’ football ground can be glimpsed from the train when trundling through Kirkcaldy.
Some other destinations fail to capture Varwell’s imagination in quite the same way, having lost whatever importance, vitality and sense of purpose they might once have had. But even in the midst of neglect and crushing dreariness – when he’s seen all there is to see and is making his weary way back to the station much, much earlier than he needs to – Varwell is liable to produce an engaging turn of phrase and share his sardonic sense of humour. In Inverkeithing he finds a closed Chinese takeaway called Happy Palace and notes: “It looked neither happy nor palatial.”
He is not the kind of travel writer who seeks out local worthies or history buffs to give him a running commentary. Rather he is a lone observer, reaching his own judgements after lengthy perambulations fuelled by well-earned pints of beer and the occasional caramel fudge doughnut from a certain bakery chain that doesn’t yet have a presence back home in Inverness.
His trip was not a terribly expensive one (he’s happy to stop over in a bunkhouse) but it did require a great deal of logistical planning and detailed studying of rail timetables. One aspect of this, it seems, involved pinpointing those stretches where it might actually be necessary to buy a ticket. (Given that The Next Stop is, for the most part, a paean to the joys of train travel, presumably ScotRail will forgive him for any minor cases of fare-dodging.)
In the early part of the book, Varwell is preoccupied by his lack of a phone charger. It seems to be causing him untold anguish. Roughly halfway through, however, there is a revelatory moment when he declares: “It would do me no harm to try to do what centuries of travellers had done before me: manage without a phone.”
Well, I say “roughly halfway”; it was actually 59%. I know this because The Next Stop was the first book I downloaded on a Kindle, a clever gadget that gives you this sort of very precise information and much more besides.
Which brings me, indirectly, to the matter of price.
The download cost me a mere £1.49 – outstanding value for a book centred on a genuinely original, ever-so-slightly eccentric concept and full of interest, insight and gentle wit. But I feel kind of guilty about it; I reckon I should be making out a cheque for about £6.50, payable to Simon Varvell, thus rounding it up to something like the true cost of a paperback in the shops.
At the very least, should we ever meet, I’ll offer to make a contribution towards his next rail ticket. Either that or I’ll buy him a pint and a caramel fudge doughnut.