Category Archives: Waffle and randomness

Technology Waffle and randomness

Milton Keynes Geek Night – three years on and going from strength to strength (#MKGN)

I don’t remember how I first became aware of Milton Keynes Geek Night but, three years ago, I turned up in a room above a converted bus station to see what this new event would be like. 13 Geek Nights later (plus a special Geek Mental Health event too) and I haven’t missed a single night*, being described as a “groupie” by one of the founders. I even brought my wife along once…

In the early days, I used to blog about the topics of discussion. More recently I’ve struggled to find the time but the audio from the talks is on SoundCloud (well, all of the talks from Geek Night 3 onwards, that is).

Last night’s MK Geek Night lived up to expectations. Not being a designer or a developer, I tend to find that some of the talks are a little beyond my knowledge but still good for an IT architect to understand at a conceptual level.

I thought that, as MK Geek Night celebrates its third birthday, now would be a good time to look back on some of my favourite talks:

…and then there are Ben Foxall (@BenjaminBenBen)’s talks which are in a category of their own – they need to be on YouTube not SoundCloud! I just cant do them justice in words but how he gets 200 people to join in on their devices and illustrate some amazing functionality inside a browser I do not know. Similarly, Sii Cockerill (@siicockerill)’s dynamic art based on maths/environmental considerations was incredibly visual but you can at least see the results on the web.

I’ll sign off with massive congratulations and a huge thank you to Richard Wiggins (@RichardWiggins) and David Hughes (@DavidHughes) who organise and MC these events – and to all of the sponsors (without whom they wouldn’t be able to take place) – and of course to the speakers too! Here’s to many more years of #MKGN.

 

*There was also an MKGN All-Dayer which I was unable to join but hey, that’s not a “geek night” is it?!

Waffle and randomness

Dabbling at DIY: fixing dripping taps and wiring bathroom extractor fans

This week, my blog is in danger of transforming from markwilson.it to markwilson.diy. Fear not, normal service will be resumed soon!

As I’ve worked through the seemingly never-ending list of jobs-that-need-to-be-done-one-day this week, I dabbled in some minor plumbing and electrical work… I thought I’d blog some notes because I’m bound to have to come back to this again one day!

Changing the ceramic valve in a dripping tap

The Franke Panto taps that were installed in our kitchen/utility room have been great – after all, their function is pretty straightforward: all I want a tap to do is look good and dispense water on demand!

Unfortunately the kitchen tap had begun to drip on the cold flow. A mini science experiment with my sons told me it was losing quite a lot of water every day so I turned off the cold supply using the isolator valve below the sink. I couldn’t see how to fix the tap though, so we asked advice from a plumber we’ve worked with before. He didn’t know how to get into the tap but told us it would be the ceramic valve that needed replacing (cue sucking of air through teeth and “it’ll cost you” look) and we might as well get a new tap.

What nonsense! After 3 months of confusion about which part to buy based on my Internet “reaseach” and putting off calling Franke’s spares/service partners for fear of being bamboozled, Central Services were really helpful, a new ceramic valve cost me just over £15 and I installed it myself in 5 minutes…

One of the challenges I had was whereas it seems for many taps you can prise away the cap on the end of the tap (the bit with the red or blue marker on it), ours didn’t work like that as the Panto just has a tiny marker on the front of the tap to show which side is hot/cold. Then I realised that there was a cap on the end – it was on a screw thread, which then exposed the grub screw inside, allowing access to the valve, which was then easily removed with a spanner (after removing the collar that covers it).

Of course, after I had asked a plumber, procrastinated, and finally done the job myself I found this video (ignore the sexist comments if you view it on YouTube…):

Blue and yellow wires for live and neutral?

Another job was to change the old, noisy, bathroom fan for something quieter as part of my preparation for an upcoming bathroom refit. When I took the old one out I was surprised to find that the wiring used red/yellow/blue (what appears to be three-phase wiring) instead of twin and earth.

(My house was built in the 1990s – today the red/yellow/blue would be brown/black/grey.)

I could see that blue was neutral and yellow was live (based on how the old fan was wired) but couldn’t understand why until I found this advice on installing a shower extractor fan. Yellow (now black) is switched live (cf. red/brown for live, not used in my installation).

 

Technology Waffle and randomness

Some observations on modern recruiting practices

The weekend before I start a new job seems like an ideal time to comment on my experience of searching for the right role over the last several months.  It’s been a long time since I had to seriously look for work – all of my interviews since late-2003 have been internal, or with organisations where I already had a working relationship – and boy has the world changed!

In many cases, writing a covering letter and attaching your CV seems to have gone out in favour of automated recruitment systems. Recruitment consultants can help get you in the door (the good ones can, anyway) but many organisations only work with certain agencies – so you need to build the right contacts. And LinkedIn is all over the place…

But it’s not all bad – the interview experience should be two way – for the candidate to gauge the potential employer as well as the other way around. That’s why I’m going to write here about two roles I applied for. In both cases I was unsuccessful – for different reasons – and both left me with negative feelings (about the organisation, or about the process). Written at another time it might have sounded like sour grapes; today I hope it won’t!

Organisation A

A friend who works for a large financial services company commented that he’d seen some Solution Architect roles advertised on their job site. Sure enough, there was one which looked a good fit on paper – and it sounded extremely interesting. He referred me internally and I navigated the company’s Oracle Taleo-based job site to apply for the post.

A few weeks later, I was invited to a telephone interview to “describe the role in some more detail and get a better understanding of my experience”. With just a 30 minute telephone interview (and having done my homework on the company’s interview process), I was expecting a fairly high-level discussion with subsequent interviews going into more detail.

What I got was a technical grilling, without any context about what the role entailed, and when I tried to ask questions at the end of the interview (to understand more about the role), it was clear that the interviewer was out of time and overdue for their next appointment.

It was probably the worst interview of my career – I hadn’t performed well, partly because the questioning was not what I expected in a first-stage telephone interview; but also bad because the interviewer was pretty poor at managing the time, representing the company in a good light and allowing the candidate to discover more about the role.

My last contact with the resourcing team was over seven months ago, when they promised that they “would let me know as soon as they have feedback”. That feedback has never come, despite internal chasing and we’re now way past the time when it would have any value (the interviewer won’t remember anything useful at this late stage).  What it has done though is set me a poor impression of this particular financial services company – and that impression is one I’m likely to share with others in my professional network. No-one wins in this scenario.

I’ve logged in to the recruitment website this evening and my application is still there… showing as “Submission Status: Interview Process” with the last update dated the day before my interview. Meanwhile the position remains open for applications.

Organisation B

The second job application was with a major national infrastructure organisation. I do admit I allowed myself to get very excited (and then very disappointed) about this one but imagine my joy when I found out that the only person I know in that particular company worked in the department that was hiring. We met up and they told me more about the role, I made sure that my application was the strongest it could be – and then it failed at the first stage.

Even though I’d made sure that the team recruiting for the role knew my application was on its way, analysis of the communication I received from the HR department leads me to believe it failed a keyword search from the automated screening systems. That might sound like a candidate who thinks they are perfect and I’ve seen enough CVs pass over my desk to know that first-round screening can be hit and miss; however, using your network to make sure that the application is expected ought to help a little. Unfortunately it wasnt to be the case for me. I’ve since learned that one commonly-used trick is to paste the entire job spec into the end of your application, in white text, and a tiny font.

A piece of LinkedIn advice

One piece of advice I received from a recruiter, which seems to have been very worthwhile, is to turn on InMail in LinkedIn (it’s under Privacy and Settings, Manage, Communications, Member Communications, Select the types of messages you’re willing to receive.

Since I enabled InMail, the volume of contact I’ve received has hugely increased. There’s a lot of noise but some of it is worthwhile (especially now recruiters are having to target more carefully) and it may just bring you a contact that leads to a great new opportunity.

And finally

The good news for me is that I have a new role – one I’m really looking forward to starting on Monday. I applied directly via the company website and the interview process has been enjoyable, just as when I was growing my team at Fujitsu and I recruited people who I genuinely enjoyed meeting and talking with about how they would fit in and what we could do to help them achieve their goals.

Now I have a six-month probationary period to navigate but logic tells me all should be well.  The difference with the company I’m joining on Monday is that they were as keen to make sure they would fit me as that I would them. Good recruitment works for all parties – it’s the human part of “human resources” that needs the emphasis!

Waffle and randomness

Miscellaneous painting and decorating tips

This week, I’m between jobs (technically, I’m on holiday from Fujitsu, but I’ve already worked my last day there). I was going to spend time sorting out the myriad things that never get done in my home office but, unfortunately, some decorating (ahead of a replacement bathroom) has got in the way and this got me thinking about some decorating tips I’ve picked up over the years:

  • Cheap paints can be a false economy. Almost every wall I’ve ever painted with a DIY (B&Q, Homebase, etc.) paint has looked tired after a while, whilst walls painted with branded paints seem to have kept their finish for longer.  I don’t know how much difference it makes but I always buy Dulux Trade paints from my local decorators’ merchant (Brewers) rather than the consumer Dulux paints from a DIY shed.
  • Having said that it’s sometimes worth buying branded paints, there are jobs where it’s just not worth the expense. All of our ceilings are painted with white emulsion (Albany Supercover), and the high-traffic rooms with magnolia walls (like our halls/stairs/landing) also use decorators’ merchant paints. I’ve just accepted that they need painting more often anyway!
  • There’s no such thing as “one coat” paint – it’s pure marketing! Some paints are thicker than others though and you might get away with fewer coats (for example two coats rather than three when trying to cover a bold colour).
  • Kitchen and bathroom paint is not just a way to sell a more expensive product – it really is moisture-resistant (and I really do wish I’d used it in our en-suite…) but there is an alternative. For my current job, in order to have the finish that I want (matt ceiling, soft sheen walls), I used the same paints as normal but added some VC175 mould-killer to the paint before applying it (as recommended by the Manager at my local decorators’ merchant).
  • Brushes and rollers can be wrapped in cling-film overnight; trays of paint can be placed in a bin liner (folded over to keep the air out). This saves a lot of paint wastage between coats, when you need to come back to the job the next day anyway! Of course, brushes, rollers, etc. should always be properly cleaned when the job is finished.
  • Most decorating jobs will need some holes filling, or minor repairs to plasterwork. After years of fighting with (and losing to) consumer-marketed products like Polyfilla (from Polycell), I found a product that’s really easy to work with and does a great job – unfortunately it only comes in large bags! It’s called Gyproc Easi-Fill and it’s made by British Gypsum. (This tip came via a professional plasterer and was recently reiterated by our bathroom fitter.) Even though I’ve only used a tiny amount of our huge bag of Easi-Fill over the years, it doesn’t seem to have “gone off” and is still working well – I’ve also used it as plaster for modelling purposes.
  • Baby wipes are great for cleaning up – like if you didn’t mask a door handle (because you weren’t painting the door) but it got splattered with specks of emulsion from the roller… actually, baby wipes are great for cleaning all sorts of things!

Just bear in mind that I wouldn’t take IT advice from a professional decorator – so those who paint people’s houses for a living might not entirely agree with my decorating advice!

Waffle and randomness

Moving on…

Just under ten years ago, I wrote a blog post to say I was leaving Conchango, and (re-)joining Fujitsu (it was ICL when I left).  Since then, I’ve moved through a succession of roles (technical, IT strategy and governance, management and pre-sales), worked with some extremely talented people and I’ve had some good times (as well as some less good) but one of the highlights has to be when I was given a Fujitsu Distinguished Engineer award last year.

Receiving a Fujitsu Distinguished Engineer award from Michael Keegan (Head of UK and Ireland region) and Jon Wrennall (CTO), in October 2014

Now, that time has come to an end, because today’s my last day at Fujitsu before I take up a new role in just over a week’s time.

For those who didn’t see my tweet last month, I’ll be returning to technical consultancy, joining the unified communications team at risual.

risual is a dedicated, UK based, globally recognised IT Services organisation delivering business aligned consultancy, solutions and services based solely on the Microsoft platform.  Along with several thousand others, I first came across risual when their corporate video was launched at Microsoft Future Decoded last year and what a refreshing change it made! Digging a little deeper told me they have a great reputation – and that’s capped off by appearing in The Sunday Times’ top 100 best small companies to work for list.

I have to admit I am a little anxious about the move – but really excited too and looking forward to joining the risual “family” and getting stuck in.  And, if ever there was proof of what a small industry we work in, I already found that I’m linked to quite a few of my new colleagues through Twitter or this blog!

Waffle and randomness

Excel formula for calculating a price, based on a known cost and margin percentage

A couple of years ago, I blogged about the difference between margin and markup. Since then, there have been a number of occasions when I’ve wanted to know the formula to take two cells in Excel, one with a cost and the other with a margin percentage, and then calculate the price. I’m sure I’ve blogged that too, but I can’t find it now – so here it is (after I worked it out again this afternoon)…

Using the example above, the formula to calculate the price in cell C2, based on cost in A2 and margin in B2 is =A2/(1-B2).

Waffle and randomness

Please be honest…

It’s appraisal season where I work and I spent a significant amount of this morning writing feedback on various colleagues’ performance.  One that did amuse me though, was the annotation on one colleague’s form:

“Please be honest. Feedback is a gift, like a woolly jumper from your auntie at Christmas. You might not like it but you take it with good grace and remember that it was sent with the best possible intentions.”

Nice one. Many people take constructive feedback as a negative (and it can be hard to give). At least this approach encourages others to provide honest opinions.

Technology Waffle and randomness

A manifesto for improved use of email

Email. A critical business communication tool: ubiquitous in its use; with global reach – it’s clear to see how the benefits of improved, anytime, anywhere communication have broken down barriers and created efficiencies. But has email reached a tipping point – where the volume of messages and the need to respond have changed the focus from email as a tool that helps us to perform our work to one where email has become the work itself?

The problem of email overload has led some people to call for “no email days”, or to consider the “email rapture” (i.e. what would we do if email suddenly didn’t exist) and some organisations (most famously Atos) have initiated programmes to reduce or remove the use of internal email, using evocative terms like “information pollution”. (Forrester Analyst Philipp Karcher has an interesting view on this too.)  Others have targeted other drains on productivity (e.g. Coca Cola’s crackdown on voicemail) but it’s clear that there is a huge hidden cost associated with unproductivity in the way we communicate in the workplace.

I became an “email bankrupt” recently where, on return from the Christmas holidays, I processed the new items in my Inbox and moved everything else to an archive – starting a new year fresh with a new (empty) Inbox and vowing to stay on top of it (tidy Inbox… tidy mind).  Many of the archived messages were over a year old and whilst I intended to take action on them, there just wasn’t enough time in the day.  Mine is not an isolated case though – there are many stories on the Internet of those who have found it cathartic to start afresh – and many more with suggestions for keeping on top of things. Some ideas have gained traction, like the Inbox Zero approach evangelised by Merlin Mann or Scott Hanselman’s Outlook rules for processing email but the problem was perfectly summed up for me late in 2014 when I saw Matthew Inman’s cartoon depicting email as a monster that craves attention.

A cultural issue?

Many of the issues associated with email are cultural – in that it’s not the technology that’s at fault, but the way that people use it. For example, email is an asynchronous communication mechanism – i.e. the sender and recipient do not both need to be online at the same time for the message to be sent and received; however many email users seem to expect an immediate, or at least rapid response to email.  Multiply this by many tens or hundreds of emails sent/received a day – and their replies (possibly in various threads as people are copied or dropped from the distribution) – the resulting volumes of email become significant, as does the effort required to process it.  Consider the cost of this email mountain and the numbers are staggering (one infographic estimates the cost of processing email in North America alone to be around $1.7 trillion) – so anything that can be done to reduce the volume of email has to be positive.

In an age of smartphones and mobile communications, out of office messages may seem a little quaint (although we all need to take holidays – and that should include a break from business communications – although that’s a topic worthy of its own discussion) but the need to say “I’m travelling so my response may be delayed” is indicative of an organisation whose culture expects emails to be answered quickly – and where email is used as a task manager, rather than an information-sharing and collaboration tool. Not that there’s anything wrong with using email as a task manager within a workflow system – that’s a perfectly valid use of the technology – but when knowledge workers send an email asking someone to do something (often without context) as if it somehow absolves them of responsibility for a task and passes the baton to another, email becomes a giant “to do list” over which the owner has no control!

Paradoxically, the rapid response to email (fuelled by notifications each time a new one arrives) is feeding the email habits of others – if your colleagues are used to receiving rapid responses, late night replies, etc. to their emails then you make the problem worse by continuing to respond in that manner – a conditioned reflex which could be thought of as “Pavlov’s Inbox” (credit is due to Matt Ballantine for that observation).

Time for change – an email manifesto

In the 1990s, as email was rolled out to large populations in government and commercial organisations, it was common practice to include training on email etiquette. Back then, the focus was on use of informal language for business communication and the implications of emailing other organisations, forwarding/replying/replying to all/copying, capital letters (shouting), emoticons, etc. but maybe we’ve reached a point where we need another round of cultural change – a new email etiquette for 2015 – an email manifesto?

  1. Email should only be used where appropriate. If an immediate/rapid response is required, consider alternatives such as instant messaging, or a phone call. Save email for communications that are not time-sensitive. Use other systems (e.g. enterprise social media platforms and RSS-based newsfeeds) for collaboration/knowledge sharing.
  2. Emails should include a clear call to action. If it’s not clear what is being asked, you’re unlikely to achieve the desired outcome.
  3. Email sent does not equal action taken. Consider that emails may not be received, may not be read, or may be ignored. Just because something is a priority to one person, department, or company doesn’t mean it is to another and, if you need someone to do something, make sure they are on-board and ready to work with you. If you don’t hear back, follow up later – but consider using another method of communication.
  4. Carbon copy (CC) or blind carbon copy (BCC) means “for information”. If you expect someone to take action (see previous point), make sure they are on the “To” line.
  5. The subject heading must be relevant to the content of the email. Topics sometimes branch off in new directions as the conversation develops and if someone new is brought in to the discussion then it really helps to have a relevant subject line!
  6. Keep it brief (but not too brief). Emails should be concise – a couple of paragraphs – any more and it won’t be read. If you have to spell things out in more detail use bullets, etc. but consider the reader – they might be reading the message on a mobile device and if you make it easy to understand you’re more likely to get a positive response.
  7. Check your email before you send it. Brevity is good but does your message make sense? All too often one line responses require the recipient to decipher ambiguity or read through pages and pages of message history to understand the context.
  8. Check calendars when scheduling meetings. This is only tangentially related but, if the email system includes calendar functionality, take the time to check availability before sending a meeting request. It may be the best time for you – but is everyone else free? On a related note, emails to groups of people asking “when’s best for a meeting” are a waste of everyone’s time – use the calendar scheduling tools!
  9. Consider the cost of email. Not the cost of running the systems but of continually checking email. Multitasking is a myth. Turn off email notifications and try to get out of the habit of glancing at your smartphone in meetings. Focus on one thing at a time and do that thing well. Think before you send email and consider that every email costs money and time!
Waffle and randomness

Dreaming of a better commute

Travelling in and out of London this week for the course I’ve been attending has reminded me why working from home (mostly) is a huge blessing. At least 4 hours’ travel a day for a relatively simple 60-mile commute? No thank you!

I did, however, use two different routes with contrasting experiences and that made me think – why does it have to be this way? And what might it be like one day?

Commute route 1: Olney to London via Bedford (Thameslink/East Midlands Trains)

After driving to Bedford and finding a space in the car park (not always easy), the next question was where are the ticket machines? The option to pay and display with optional mobile phone/SMS/app payment seems to have been replaced by a system to pay as you leave the car park on foot (albeit with an optional mobile app). It uses ANPR to recognise my car but the user interface is confusing and there’s no option for contactless payment (surely a perfect use case for fast commodity transactions like this?). At £7.90 for a day’s parking (when the only reason you would ever park there is to catch a train!), it’s expensive too.

Then, at the station I bought a ticket – again falling foul of a confusing user interface (not helped by Thameslink’s corporate colours not really highlighting what I need to see). I switched to another machine and followed a different (but more familiar) purchase journey on the touch screen whilst another customer switched queues because of a broken card reader in the machine she was using.

Catching the train is simple, with frequent services but lots of stops and the (07:34) train is packed well before reaching London.

The good thing about this route (on Thameslink – not on East Midlands Trains) is that it goes right to the heart of the city (not the West End) although I change at Farringdon to get on the underground towards Tower Hill. Sadly, with no barriers to pass through and crowds of commuters I didn’t see an Oyster touch in/out machine, which I realise after boarding the train – wouldn’t it be good if there were more of these machines or if you could swipe on the train!? I touch out at the end of the journey but am charged the full fare and it takes me a lot of time on the phone waiting to sort out the charging…

Commute route 2: Olney to London via Milton Keynes (London Midland/Virgin Trains)

After a faster drive to Milton Keynes (MK is famous for its roundabouts but there’s a real benefit in the national speed limit grid road network), I park close to the station. The actual station parking is extortionate (so much so that I know some people who don’t pay, preferring to take the risk of an occasional fine) but off-street parking is available and half price if I pay by phone (£4.18).

I buy a ticket at the station but know to always allow time for queuing: there are 6 machines and 4 booths but that’s never enough! It’s 06:54 so I dash for the 06:55 London Midland service, but see that the (faster) 06:53 Virgin train has only just arrived (even though it’s showing as “on time”).

We set off towards London, only to be delayed by a vehicle striking a bridge at Watford and are overtaken by the slower London Midland service that I nearly caught earlier! Eventually, we get moving and arrive in London 20 minutes late…

A dream of a better commute

These real world stories are just single journeys and it could all be so different on another day. So let’s compare with what it could be like:

  • My calendar shows that I’m planning to be in London for the day.
  • My alarm wakes me with enough time to get ready, and the lights in the house gently warm up to wake me from my slumber.
  • I drive to the station and, as I park my phone recognises my location and that I’m stationary, asks me if I need to pay for parking and then takes care of the details.
  • Arriving on the station concourse, my digital personal assistant has pre-bookèd my train ticket and there’s a boarding pass on my phone. No paper tickets are required as the barriers can simply scan a QR code on my screen (or even use NFC?)
  • There’s a steady flow of trains (on time of course!) and as I switch to the Underground, payment is dealt with as I pass through turnstiles using a contactless payment card – and, even if I end up on the platform via a different route I can pick my boarding point (verified using location services) and ensure I’m correctly billed, using a smartphone app…
  • Realising there are delays on the line, my phone reschedules appointments as required, or otherwise ensures that contacts are aware I will be delayed.

It’s not difficult – all of this technology is available today but it just doesn’t quite work together… all of this talk of an Internet of Things brings it tantalisingly close but train companies, car park operators and other organisations still cling on to outdated methods. So it seems I’ll be dreaming for a little while longer…

 

Waffle and randomness

The sleeper train to no-where!

There’s something about travelling long distances by train that seems much more civilised and pleasurable than flying. Certainly, for me, the glamour that may once have been associated with taking a jet plane is no longer present – at least not in economy class – and there was nothing pleasant about arriving at a very busy “London Luton” Airport at 6:30 on a Monday morning to catch a flight to Inverness.

Of course, navigating our increasingly arcane airline security: disposing of liquids; removing items of clothing; and being asked to take a sizable chunk of my possessions out of my hand luggage before it can be x-ray scanned gave me something to do for an hour. That was followed by lots of waiting around at the terminal as I arrived far too early, because of the unpredicatability of rush-hour traffic in South East England.

But this trip was special – my return journey would be by train – and I’d booked onto the ScotRail Caledonian Sleeper as far as Crewe (from where I would make an early-morning exit and hop on a train to Manchester). One of only two remaining sleeper services in the UK (there’s also a Night Riviera Sleeper service from London to Cornwall), I’ve often seen the Caledonian Sleeper come through Milton Keynes as I’ve waited for my train to London and thought “what a great way to travel overnight”. This was my opportunity – and at £112.40 for train and a bed for the night, it was no more expensive than a no-frills flight and a budget hotel.

The day was going so well – right up to the point that my taxi driver to the station said that he’d always been delayed when he’d used the ‘Sleeper. Did he jinx me? Somehow I doubt it but I should have realised that the high winds that had made my flight a little bumpy would also be causing chaos with overhead power lines on the railways and I arrived at Inverness station to see that the 20:44 to London was cancelled. Cancelled? But that’s where I was to be sleeping!

I’m not sure if I was more disappointed that I wouldn’t be taking the sleeper train, or worried about a bed for the night but ScotRail’s station staff seemed to know the drill. Clearly the cancelled sleeper is something that they have seen many times before and it becomes a “stationary” hotel for the night when it can’t run south. Most Caledonian Sleeper passengers are heading for London and the advice given to those of us who had arrived early enough was to jump on a train to Edinburgh, then grab a bed on the Edinburgh sleeper (plenty of space at this time of year), before boarding the 5.40 “Flying Scotsman” to London, which only arrives in Kings Cross a couple of hours after the Sleeper should have got to Euston. My journey was a little more complex though: I could stay in Inverness and travel south the next day, hoping that the issues caused by adverse weather conditions on the West Coast route would have eased; or travel to Edinburgh, then see if there was a bed for me on the Sleeper carriages waiting there (although ScotRail staff were confident there would be) and take an East Coast and Trans-Pennine route via York to Manchester. I elected for the Edinburgh option (on reflection, I should have stayed in Inverness, got a longer night’s sleep and taken in the Scottish scenery the morning afterwards – although I would have been travelling for most of the day instead) and so I spent my evening on a three-and-a-half-hour stopping service to Edinburgh… Upon arrival, I was directed to the Caledonian Sleeper Lounge, which was a scruffy affair, piled high with cardboard boxes, but staffed by a friendly ScotRail employee who directed me to drinks and snacks until our train/hotel was ready and it was only a few minutes later when I was able to go to the platform.

Sure enough, there was plenty of room on the train and a steward showed me to a berth, explaining “it’s number 1 and over the wheels but that won’t be a problem as we’re not going anywhere tonight!”. I was tired and had it not been for the need to charge my mobile devices (and the lack of power sockets in the sleeping berths – a side effect of using 1980s-built railway carriages I guess) I might have turned in for the night but instead I headed for the Lounge car where I found a warm welcome.

Whilst complementary tea/coffee and sandwiches were on offer, I waited for a locomotive to be connected to the train to provide the power needed for staff to cook meals. A short while later I tucked into Haggis, Neeps and Tatties, washed down with Deuchars. After all, if I’m in Edinburgh, I might as well enjoy some Scottish food and drink! It was good too – not the railway travellers’ fare that I’m used to on Virgin Trains – although it maybe something that first class travellers are more used to!

Red lights for the Caledonian Sleeper train

By then, I’d been up for almost 19 hours and decided that it was time for bed, making my way back to my berth. The standard berths are bunk beds and there’s not a lot of space around them but I found the flip up cover to access the sink and the spare bed was somewhere to store my luggage! There are options for single berths in first class – or there’s a reclining seat option for those who don’t need a bed. The rooms are not en-suite but there are toilets in the end of each carriage. For those travelling in larger groups, there are connecting doors to the next compartment and the warm, comfortable bedding, together a variety of lighting options (including a night light) meant that I was soon in the land of nod, albeit without the sound of railway wheels running over joints in the track. Maybe that would have helped to relax me but I did have a pretty restless night – although I was surprised that I didn’t hear noise from other trains in the station there didn’t seem to be a way to turn off the noisy air conditioning unit (only a temperature control).

At 5:00, I heard a knock on the door, whereby a steward handed over a cup of tea and told me which platform the London train would be leaving from. Even though I wasn’t taking that service, my time on the sleeper had to end – staff were clocking off and it was locked up by 5:30. Maybe this wasn’t quite the Caledonian Sleeper experience I’d hoped for – but I had got some rest at least and was looking forward to taking in some east coast scenery as I made my journey south.

It was certainly an eventful trip but, far from putting me off the journey, it’s something I’d try again. ScotRail’s staff were all very friendly and there’s an atmosphere on board that makes taking the sleeper feel like something different and special. The Caledonian Sleeper is looking a little tired now, but there’s a £100M investment programme coming as part of a new 15-year franchise and it may be worth making a return visit.  Unfortunately, I can’t convince Mrs Wilson to join me, so it may just have to be the next time I have a business trip to Scotland!

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