How long does it take to get from Inverness to Edinburgh by train? At time of writing, East Coast estimate your potential travelling time from anything between 3 hours and 14 minutes to 4 hours 56 (excluding any delays). To write his latest book, Simon Varwell completed the 156 mile journey in a little over 6 days.
The Next Stop is in essence a travel diary, tracking the author’s expedition along one of Scotland’s most iconic railway lines, stopping at every single station along the way. Now, there aren’t many pioneering journeys left these days: the North and South Poles have both been discovered, America is no longer a lost continent, and the fabled Northwest Passage has been mapped. But to the best of anyone’s knowledge, Simon Varwell’s journey along the Highland Main Line is the first documented trip along this route.
Borne out of a desire to view his regular commuting trip in a different light – and to stop taking the beautiful scenery for granted – Varwell determined to alight at every station the train could pass through. Each stop lasted for a minimum of two hours to give him time to explore and give a face to the many places whose names he had only ever heard sandwiched between railway announcements. The Next Stop is a collection of his thoughts, experiences, and random titbits of information encountered at each station on the line as the train moves south, chapter by chapter, until the journey culminates in Edinburgh Waverley.
The book itself reads like you are listening to the author narrate his journey to a close friend – very colloquial, amusing and opinionated. Whilst this literary style makes it an entertaining and light novel which is very easy to pick up and peruse, it could also make it a bit strenuous to read more than a few chapters in one sitting; much like keeping up an interesting yet in-depth conversation with a total stranger.
That said, The Next Stop is so much more than just an ‘I did this / saw that / ate such-and-such’ kind of travel journal. Varwell goes out of his way to bring in local facts and histories, teasing out the threads of the past from the long-forgotten remains of kirks, castles, abandoned stations and tombstones, and reminding his readers that we are surrounded by an amazing history which is just waiting to be stumbled upon. Indeed, I doubt that the small stations along Scotland’s main train line have come under more humorous and reflective scrutiny since the days before Beeching.
This book therefore succeeds in doing much more than simply keeping the reader amused for a couple of hours beside the fire – although it does an excellent job of this. It makes me want to travel Scotland’s rail network for myself; to stop at random locations along the way just because I can; and to look around my local area with the eyes of someone passing through just to see what I may have been overlooking for years. There couldn’t be a much better way of getting people interested in the country around them.
At a time when Scotland is hitting global news headlines and nationalistic rhetoric of all forms is pervading the national media, The Next Stop gives Varwell’s readers a refreshingly honest look at some of our towns and villages, highlighting positive surprises for their own benefit – whilst not glossing over uninspiring moments. Which town is already celebrating the Third Millennium? Where is the home of the most powerful man in Scotland – and who does this enigmatic phrase refer to? And why is Kingussie like a microwaved pie? You’ll have to read it to find out.