Saturday 15 June 2024

Tour of the French and Swiss Alps by Train, part 1

Away at Last!

It was not until we settled into our seats on the train to London that we took in how much we had missed travel since our last trip in autumn last year. Sitting at our "club duo" seats in LNER's First Class and browsing the menu it almost felt like we had come home from a long absence rather than the other way around! The familiar rattle of the catering trolleys being pushed into the coach and the friendly hosts taking our order brought back many memories of past train trips as the countryside slipped past. Late spring and early summer is a brilliant time to travel in England: the greenness of the landscape is just fantastic, especially after the wet weather we had had this spring. The cold drinks came first and we both ordered rosé wine but there was not quite enough left in the bottle on the trolley to pour two glasses, so I volunteered to have white … and the host placed the rosé bottle on our table so that we could finish the last half-glassful between us! We ordered the homity pie, a delicious vegetable pie which came with a “bean salad”, and meanwhile the crisps for a starter and the lemon and elderflower pot for dessert were delivered off the trolley. By the tine we arrived in London all of this had been consumed and we knew we’d need no supper that evening. 

We were on our way by train to London early on a Friday evening ready for a very early start on Saturday to check in for the 08:01 Eurostar train for Paris on our way to Switzerland on another Great Rail Journeys adventure. This one was new to the Great Rail Journeys catalogue, because it uses a train service which had only started a couple of years earlier, the Golden Pass Express which we were to use between Montreux and Interlaken. We had never visited Montreux before, or anywhere else on Lake Geneva, nor Chamonix in France which was included as a day trip by train in this tour. We had never really visited Interlaken, either, although we had changed trains there often enough, and although one of the day trips from there was something we had done before it still included lots we had not. Amazingly with a mix of four- and five-star hotels and First Class rail travel, this tour was not particularly expensive and I did not hesitate to book it as soon as I saw it advertised the previous year. It has been something to look forward to through all the health issues that have dogged me over the last several months, culminating in (yet another) cardioversion just two days before we left home. 

In London we stayed at the Hub by Premier Inn beside Kings Cross railway station. We have used this place once before: it is a touch cheaper less expensive than a proper Premier Inn, but to my mind is still very poor value. The room was very cramped and inconvenient and although this time we did at least have a room above ground (last time we were two floors below ground!) it was till very claustrophobic. We shall probably not use it again: the Premier Inn in Euston Road is also better located for St Pancras station and far more pleasant for just a few pounds more. 

We went to bed early but did not sleep especially well before we were up early and off to St Pancras International railway station to meet Richard our tour manager before going to the International Departures ticket gates to begin our continental rail trip. The station was extremely busy! Train travel has definitely resumed now and we look forward to more services being reinstated. After showing our tickets at the gates we were soon through the security checks and then showed our passports at both UK and French Passport Control - unusually it was the French controller who smiled and spoke to us and not the British one, very odd. Seeing that the preceding train to Paris was just boarding, we thought that if we made our way straight to the café area we might get seats at a table there for our breakfast: this turned out to be correct and while my wife looked after the luggage at our chosen table I went off and bought a couple of black coffees which we drank with the fresh fruit salads we had bought from the Little Waitrose at Kings Cross station before we went to our hotel the previous evening. Before long the boarding of our train was announced and we were off on the travelator to the platform to board the train.

We were in coach 3, towards the rear of the train, and our section of the coach was where the wheelchair spaces were located, separated from the rest of the coach by a partition with a couple of private coupes, so it was a cosy area with just nine people in it, and around our table of four there were just us and one other couple on the Great Rail Journeys tour, so we had met the first of our travelling companions already. Before long our Eurostar E320 train slipped out of the platform and began accelerating along High Speed One towards the Channel Tunnel and on to Paris. A continental breakfast was served soon after leaving, as usual in Standard Premier Class on a morning departure. We had finished breakfast by the time we emerged in France, and for some reason the train slowed down and even stopped briefly causing us to arrive a few minutes late in Paris. This was not a concern as we had about three hours to change stations and have lunch before travelling on. As always with Great Rail Journeys we were taken across Paris by coach to Gare de Lyon; if we had been travelling alone we'd have used the RER or Metro, but it would be hard to keep a group together that way. At Gare de Lyon we bought a salad lunch at Monop' Daily as we so often have and ate our lunch outside in the sunshine while we awaited the departure of our train, a TGV Lyria direct to Geneva.

The first part of the TGV journey is unremarkable apart from its high speed, soaring across France down towards Lyon. Here I began typing the first paragraph or two of this blog post, and paid a visit to the buffet bar for drinks. We were with the rest of the group, some two dozen others, on the top deck of a duplex First Class coach and it was all very comfortable. The journey came into its own once we left the high speed line and started wandering towards Switzerland. We were threading our way through the hills where the Jura and the Alps come together and where France, Switzerland and Italy start to share mountains and lakes, and it is all very pretty. At Geneva we were changing trains to take an Interregional service to Lausanne where we were to stay the first three nights. We had changed trains at Geneva before but had been travelling in the opposite direction and taking a French train out of Switzerland. As with going the other way, however, there was no passport control at the EU border (although the facilities were there) and no customs check (although, again, the facilities were there, and we did see someone having their suitcase searched but no-one even looked at us).

Lausanne turned out to be a very interesting city to visit, although it was not originally planned to be part of this tour. We were supposed to be staying in Montreux and for many of us on the tour, ourselves included, Montreux was part of the attraction, but for some reason the hotel there was not available and Great Rail Journeys had booked the Lausanne Palace Hotel for the group instead, a better hotel, apparently, but not quite where we had expected to be. The itinerary otherwise remained the same, although it was not quite as efficient and convenient, but I think we can put up with that as a trade-off for the standard of the hotel. Getting to it from the station was fun: it is a very short walk to the station from the hotel, but the walk to the hotel from the station would be up a very steep hill so we travelled just one stop on the Lausanne Metro. The hotel minibuses took our luggage (and had room for four passengers, too) and we were handed public transport passes for the city which the rest of us then used on the Metro, alighting at Lausanne Flon station opposite our hotel. Well, I say opposite, but it was still four storeys below the hotel entrance, but there is a public lift from the Metro station to the street and we eventually all made it up to street level and were checked into the Palace Hotel. Our room was fantastic. This was a five-star hotel and was well-equipped: unusually for Switzerland there was a coffee maker in the room and the minibar was free to use (although the only alcoholic drink there was beer, but still a great part of the standard offer). By the time we had sorted out our luggage (brought up to our room by the porters) and showered it was time for dinner at a hotel restaurant and then bed. It is always helpful when dinner on the first night is included in these packages especially on Saturdays (busy) or Sundays (half the places closed), and dinner at the Lausanne Palace was great!

On Sunday morning we set of to explore some of the city centre of Lausanne, taking the Metro just two stops to the opposite side of the ravine in which the city's shopping streets are located, from where we were able to cross a bridge to Lausanne Cathedral. As it happened we were there between the Sunday morning services and were able to pop in to look at the building. We did not have time to stay to worship as there was a programme of activities for the rest of the day, but we did spot a likely restaurant for a fondue and kept that in mind as a possibility for the evening unless something even better turned up. We walked back through the quiet Sunday morning shopping streets to our hotel and met the rest of the group for the first group tour. As we were not now staying in Montreux our capable tour manager, Richard, arranged for the group to take an earlier train than necessary for the included tour of the Château de Chillon. The ride along the shore of Lake Geneva (Lac Léman in the local language, French) was wonderful with an almost continous view of the lake, with hills beyond and a series of towns, villages and vineyards between the railway and the lake. At Montreux railway station, standing at the platform was the train would be taking later to Interlaken, the Golden Pass Express, looking very splendid.

Montreux, billed as "stylish Montreux" in Great Rail Journeys' publicity, was a lovely place to visit, especially on the waterfront. Some of the party were excited by the statue of Freddie Mercury along the promenade! We bought a take-away salad lunch from the local Micros supermarket and sat by the lakeside to eat it in the warm sunshine. It was an idyllic time, and like most of the group we opted to walk along the lakeside footpath to the Château de Chillon rather than take the train (the plan, had we been staying in Montreux, had been to take the trolleybus there, apparently). We all arrived eventually at the entrance to the Château for the booked guided tour in which we learnt the fascinating history of this building, built on a natural rocky island just off the lake shore by the Savoy family to claim duty on traffic on the lake and conquered by the Bernese a couple of centuries later. While we were being taken around the interior the rain came, and came heavily. By the time we were ready to leave, mercifully the rain had almost ceased, and soon did cease. We made our way to the nearby pier from where a paddle-boat took us back along the lake to Lausanne, with a view of "stylish Montreux" and a few other places where we docked on the way. the weather by now had turned quite good again and we were able to sit on the forward deck with a super view of the surrounding hills and mountains. Most of us then used the Metro again to return to the hotel. We showered and changed and made our way back to the restaurant we had discovered in the morning and enjoyed our classic Swiss cheese fondue with Swiss wine served by attentive staff at the Café L'Evêché, after which we returned to the hotel, with help of the Metro, through the rain which had returned, but was OK for the short times we had to be outside. 

And so our first, brilliant, day of this Swiss "adventure" came to an end. We had visited a cathedral and a castle in two different towns and enjoyed a traditional Swiss supper and we were staying in a wonderful traditional Belle Epoque hotel. We looked forward eagerly to what more new experiences the subsequent days would bring, beginning with the Mont Blanc Express, back into France for the day!

Monday 3 June 2024

No Such Thing as a Boring Train Journey

East Midlands Railway class 170 at Lincoln
A very familiar route to a very familiar destination

It all began with the Bishop of Lincoln's car being stolen ... Newly appointed, Bishop Stephen arranged to visit all the parish priests ("vicars") in his new diocese before his diary became too full, just to get to know us all, but on the day he was due to visit Stamford the programme fell apart because his car was stolen and he needed the day to sort things out regarding that. New arrangements were hastily made with him visiting some in the town as planned but several weeks later, and some others visiting him in Lincoln, as by then it was becoming hard for him to clear a whole day for visiting. Unfortunately the new dates coincided with my radiotherapy and I could not be available to visit or be visited, so ...

Eventually, long after everyone else had met the Bishop I set off to Lincoln to go and see him. We had actually met before because he had been our interim bishop for a few months during the vacancy and he had installed me as an honorary Canon of Lincoln Cathedral, but we had not had the "tell me about yourself" conversation that he wanted to have. It had been a long time since I had been to Lincoln, and I had not been on many train rides recently either, so rather than just rush off to Lincoln, see the Bishop and rush back, I decided to go in good time, look around the city for a bit, have lunch and then attend the meeting before returning late in the afternoon: I would make it a day out.

I even bought my ticket at the station. I like to do this if the ticket office is open and it is a simple enough journey. It is good to talk to the booking clerk and build a proper relationship over the years. And so I sat on the station awaiting my train to Peterborough, which, as with all the trains on this day, was on time. Changing trains at Peterborough I had a few minutes before my train left for Lincoln, and in my wallet was a free coffee-and-biscuit voucher which I had received last time I passed this way with LNER - they give them to First Class ticket-holders who ask for them, and when I was given mine the Bike Barista who honours the vouchers was not open so they said I could use them any time in future. This time I was travelling Standard Class with two other train companies but the voucher was, of course, still valid once issued. Carefully carrying my coffee and wafer to Platform 2a I waited briefly for the train doors to be opened and found a suitable seat with a table at which I could get some work done on my way to Lincoln. These trains are so much better than the ones that used to be used on this route: comfortable seats with enough legroom and tables big enough to work on.

Lincoln trains often share a platform at Peterborough
with Thameslink trains through London

It is amazing how quickly time passes when you're concentrating. In no time the train was stopping in Spalding and then slowing and stopping while awaiting a platform at the junction station in Sleaford - the timetable is so slack on this train service that the trains often run early and have to wait here and there. At Sleaford a few more passengers boarded the train. It is busiest between Sleaford and Lincoln, and emptiest between Spalding and Sleaford, neither of which is surprising, really, but now that there is a full day's service between Peterborough and Lincoln, with better trains, stopping at these large market towns the number of passengers overall seems to be on the rise and the two-coach units fill well but I have yet to see one overcrowded like the single-coach ones sometimes were north of Sleaford.

And before I knew it I was hastily packing away my things as the train approached Lincoln: I could not afford not to be ready because this train was not terminating there but going forward to Doncaster so I had to get off smartly.

And so into the city centre. I was keen to see how it had developed since I had last been there with time to look around. Almost all the shops in the redeveloped Sincil Street area were now filled with a mixture of established local traders and new upmarket shops. This really was now the place to be whereas it used to be very much a secondary street with down-market shops. The covered market hall has also now opened but was not trading on the day I was there unfortunately so I was not able to visit that. I made my way to a small Italian bar I knew just off the High Street and had my lunch there before going to the bus station to take a bus up the hill to go and meet the Bishop.

It was a lovely chat: we had both waited a long time for it, and it was good to be working together. Apart from my unpaid voluntary ministry in one of the Stamford parishes I also have one other ministry working directly for the Bishop across the diocese, so there was plenty of practical stuff to talk about as well as getting to know each other as colleagues.

I had a brief meeting afterwards with my Archdeacon who kindly drove me back to the station, and then I was on my way home.

Returning meant a very tight connection at Peterborough, so tight that it was not shown in the online journey planners; they reckon that four minutes is not enough time to change trains at Peterborough (and it probably isn't if you're not familiar with it), but as I have said, the trains on this route often run a touch early and today was such a time. The train was stopped briefly at a signal while awaiting a platform at Peterborough but arrived in good time for me to make my way over to the correct platform for my connecting train to Stamford, which was just approaching the platform when I got there, also on time. Had I missed it, there would have been the alternative of taking the bus from the nearby bus station, but that would, of course, have been very much slower. Every train was on time, everything smooth and easy, a lovely day out, and dinner at home with my wife.

When I've not been able to travel much this year it was a joy even to undertake such an ordinary trip, one that I have done multiple times before, and to see that in spite of all the criticism currently directed at our railway system, there can be times when everything just works perfectly. Nothing was late, nothing was out of order, nothing was uncomfortable or inadequate. And now, for my next trip, Switzerland. Watch this space!

Tuesday 28 May 2024

Changed Travel Patterns

If no-one's travelling by train any more, what are all these people doing here?

I had to go to a meeting at Bulwell near Nottingham this week and, as usual, decided to go by train. It may have taken a little longer to get there than it would have taken to drive, but two factors made up my mind to use the train: the first is that I very much prefer rail travel, which I find more relaxing as well as interesting, and the second is that it gives me the opportunity to get things done during the journey, more than making up for any extra time it takes. I can do things on the train, and if I have more than a few moments at junction stations when changing trains, I can do things, then, too. And life in generally civilised, with tea and coffee reasonably available, toilets available, seats comfortable, and I don't have to drive.

I have started writing this in a waiting room at Leicester station while awaiting my connection home to Stamford. Some would have you believe that "owing to changed travel patterns" far fewer people are travelling by train these days, but frankly you would not get many more people, seated anyway, in this waiting room. And there are scores more waiting out on the platform. It is not crowded, but it is busy, busy enough. People are travelling, and they are travelling by train. The only reason fewer are using this route is that there are fewer trains to use! The real reason, which you seldom see quoted, is that there are not enough drivers to run the full pre-Covid timetable, at least, not without short-notice train cancellations cause by illness etc.. That's a good reason: Covid made it hard to do driver training and it will take a while to catch up, but I do wish they'd be honest. If there are changes in travel patterns it would be the reduction in travel-to-work peak travel, and yet the gaps in our local timetable are not in the morning and evening commuting times but mid-morning eastbound and mid-afternoon west bound, just at their most inconvenient for some of my usual journeys, resulting in bus and car use when I would definitely have used the train.

These issues did not affect my journey today, though, and all went very well indeed, with every train on time, no train overcrowded and all connections comfortably made. Indeed, one connection was so comfortable that I was half an hour ahead of schedule and found myself "forced" to enjoy a coffee and croissant to soak up the extra time at Nottingham ... I seem to remember exactly the same thing happening last year but I dare not rely on it and start an hour later, just in case things don't go so smoothly and I end up late! Whether I am driving or travelling by train I always travel with plenty of slack in the schedule to ensure, as far as humanly possible, a timely arrival.

And so I arrived at my meeting in good time and spent a good day with colleagues learning about the interface between psychology and theology in cases presented as "possession", but this is a travel blog and not a religion blog, so we'll skip over that! After a good lunch and a later cup of tea it was time to make my way back to the railway station for the journey home. I had about ten minutes to wait for the train at Bulwell station and in spite of it being mid-May the weather was very cold. I had only a raincoat to wrap around me for warmth and was glad when the train arrived and I could warm up on board. This train was reasonably full without being crowded and took me to Nottingham where I waited another few minutes for the next train to Leicester. This was a Midland main line London train, but unlike the one that brought me from Leicester in the morning it stopped at most of the stations in between. I was, however, engrossed in some work and was suddenly aware of arriving in Leicester and having to gather my things together quickly to change trains once more for the last train of the day, home to Stamford. 

By now it was the evening peak for travel home from work and the platform was quite full, as was the waiting room in which I began work on this blog page. When the train came in from Birmingham about the passengers already on board got off and then most of those of us on the platform got on: it is amazing how well these trains soak up huge numbers of people, for everyone had a seat and indeed there were just a few to spare. But it was busy, far from the "no-one is travelling any more" of government ministers. As with all the train this day, this one was on time and I was soon back in Stamford at the end of another good day. Not the most exciting adventure I've ever been on, rally rather workaday, but when you have travelled as little as I have been able to do this year it was good to get out and good to travel by train once again. Six trains, all comfortable, all on time, and not a bad price, either, for an Any Time Return, albeit with my Senior Railcard discount.