Monday, 19 August 2019

The State Rooms at Buckingham Palace

While travelling home from London on our last visit we noticed an advertisement for an exhibition at Buckingham Palace about the work that Queen Victoria had done there to make it into the modern home and workplace that it is today. We filed it at the back of our minds until our son mentioned that he would be away on business for a couple of days and that we might like to borrow his home again, so a quick look online for tickets on one of those days, followed by a search of the LNER website for cheap Advance First tickets to get there and we were off once more to the capital.

Complimentary refreshments in LNER First
Class on a short trip: wine, fruit and
sandwich. Other options were available.
It so happens that just a few times a day a fast train to London stops at Peterborough at 30 minutes past the hour, connecting beautifully with out train from Stamford, and that these trains are seldom busy and so have both space and plenty of cheap tickets. So we found our selves on the 14:30 to London and the journey was perfect: plenty of space in our seats; power sockets that worked; complimentary food trolley came round even before the train had left the station, closely followed by hot and cold drinks; friendly and efficient staff who looked after us well. We did leave Peterborough a couple of minutes late but we were in no hurry and I did not notice whether we were late on arrival.

This was a short trip in summer and we combined our luggage in one small wheeled case, so there was little need for step-free routes and I was able to carry everything straight down to the Hammersmith & City Line Underground platforms at Kings Cross, and sitting near the correct end of the train we were down the stairs at our destination in no time and soon letting ourselves into our temporary home. Having had lunch at home before we left for the station, we had not needed all of the food provided for us on the train, so this did well for a light supper.

The following morning we were up bright and (reasonably) early and after breakfast walked to a stop to get a bus to Buckingham Palace, allowing plenty of time for things to go wrong and for traffic hold-ups on the way. The bus is nothing like as quick as Underground train, even if there are changes of train, but it is generally a more pleasant ride and we do get to see something of London. I don't think there was anything on this route, the 148, that we had never seen before, but it was nonetheless a great ride, going through some of London's loveliest residential streets and past Kensington Gardens, Hyde Park and the grand hotels of Park Lane. Further, the ride was quite swift and simple and we were well ahead of schedule, so we stayed on past our expected stop as far as Victoria Street, opposite Westminster Cathedral, and went for a walk along Broadway, through the modernist extravagance of St James's Park station to and around the park itself, including a walk along Horse Guards Parade - the only guard we saw was the armed police office at the rear of 10 Downing Street. The flower borders in St James's Park for spectacularly beautiful and we seemed to be seeing them at the very best time, with almost everything in full bloom.

In the distance we could hear the sound of a military band, and as we neared The Mall we saw a contingent of marching troops in ceremonial uniform entering from a side street. Meanwhile large crowds, including many escorted parties, were beginning to gather. The Changing the Guard ceremony was taking place at the palace, and our 11:30 timed-entry ticket meant that we would be passing the front of the palace on our way to the side gate in the midst of this crowd-drawing spectacle. Visitors to London from all over the world will have come to these few street just to watch this hour-long piece of traditional pageantry. We managed to get past the crowds and to cross the road without inconveniencing any marching bands, and although we did not know this end of the palace grounds at all well it was fairly obvious where the entrance to the State Rooms was and we soon joined the small crowd of people entering for the 11:30 start. The Queen Victoria exhibition is simply woven into this year's opening of the State Rooms, so an ordinary ticket to visit those rooms is all that is required, and then as you go round there is extra information and additional artefacts relating to the life and work of Queen Victoria.

Photographs are not allowed, so I cannot show you any here, but I will say that these rooms are well worth seeing. You do not have to be an ardent monarchist or historian, but an interest in British culture or in architecture and design will be well satisfied here. There are many rooms open, and personal headsets are available free of charge to give a commentary and further information as you round at your own pace. If you want to study all the paintings in the Royal Collection, you can take all the time you want, but in the unlikely event that you are bored by these you can just walk through and enjoy the spectacle of the building. The profits from these public openings go to maintain this art collection, and part of the purpose of opening this rooms is to allow the public to see the works of art.

Exit was through the famous Buckingham Palace garden where we had been several years ago at one of Her Majesty's summer Garden Parties, but now the terrace along the back of the palace was host to a café where we enjoyed an excellent lunch, and where the tea tent had been for the Garden Party there was a large souvenir shop, where we bought little gifts for the two grandchildren whose parents had kindly lent us their home for this trip. On the way out we also took time to visit an ice-cream stall by the lake (did I mention that we'd also had a Bertotti's ice-cream the previous evening? No? Well, we did: this ice-cream lark is becoming a habit so ingrained I do not always remember it ...). Back out on the street we took the bus back "home" via a brief shopping trip, mostly to get something to cook for dinner, and our amazing day out was over. Our tickets are valid for 365 days, so if we can return to London on a day the State Rooms are open any time in the coming 364 days we can ring for a time slot and repeat the visit if we wish.

On Saturday I had a small task to do, involving a walk to the Royal Mail office a short distance away, and then I went for a longer walk with no destination in mind, with the intention of returning with something interesting for lunch ... I finished up at the whole foods market in Kensington High Street, on the ground floor of the former Barkers department store. On the way I passed Olympia where people were queuing for the current event, Drag World. Looking at the queue it was clear that this was nothing to do with drag racing but with dressing-up, and while the majority of attendees seemed to be dressed normally (although you could not always tell whether they were dressed in the usual clothes for their sex, of course), quite a lot were very flamboyantly dressed and made a colourful spectacle. I could not help wondering just what might be on display at Drag World, being well outside my life experience, but it was clearly a very large niche and seemed very popular with all sorts of people, including families.

After my lunch-buying trip I caught a bus back to my temporary home and after lunch we packed, locked up, left gifts for our absent hosts and made our to the Underground for the trip home. Our LNER train left Kings Cross bang on time and got us to Peterborough where we had time to buy a few necessities from Waitrose before taking the connecting train to Stamford. On the platform were several Ipswich Town football supporters fresh from their 2-2 draw with Peterborough United and waiting for their train which was due to leave two minutes before ours. There was a heavy police presence for crowd control and although all the fans I saw were very well-behaved their mere presence might have been alarming for some. By the time our train left it was clear that things were not going well: on the opposite platform the train to Ipswich, just three coaches like ours, was not going to cope with all the intending passengers; this was not a special and there were many other folk aboard including children, all squashed into their places and the lobbies overcrowded while some football supporters were still on the platform. The police were having heated discussions with one group as our train pulled out so I do not know what became of those who would not be able to get on this train. It is only an hourly service and some of the trains are even shorter than that one; it is not a service designed for heavy flows of football fans on match days, and yet such capacity problems were easy to predict. Our own train came into Peterborough heavily laden with Newcastle supporters who were changing trains at Peterborough on their way home - a large crowd leaving the platform as the large crowd of Ipswich fans arrived - all good-natured but simply too many people for the trains and platform to cope with. Most Newcastle fans, knowing they had some time to wait, simply stood around until things eased off with the departure of the trains at the platform.

And so home, unpacking once more and preparing for our next trip! Watch this space ...

Monday, 12 August 2019

Yarmouth (no, the other one ...) and Chichester

Ready to go!

Summer holiday by rail on the south coast of England


I recently had an interesting conversation with an Australian lady at Yarmouth bus station on the Isle of Wight, off the coast of Hampshire, England. When we arrived to wait the few minutes for our bus she was engaged in a telephone call and when she had finished she told us that she had booked a hire car but it was on the other side of England in Great Yarmouth, Norfolk! The car-hire company had misunderstood her desire for a car in Yarmouth, and being a visitor to the UK it had not occurred to her to say, "Yarmouth, Isle of Wight," when making her booking; she had probably never heard of Norfolk. It really was the duty of the firm's call handler to enquire which Yarmouth she meant, surely, rather than assume it must be the big one - especially as that one is, strictly, Great Yarmouth. Woe betide anyone asking for a car in Newport, for that could end up anywhere.

I was in Yarmouth at the start of the latest of my south coast summer holidays. We always include a few days in Chichester in order to visit friends who regularly stay a week at nearby East Wittering, in Bracklesham Bay, and we precede and sometimes follow those few days with a visit or two to other places in the area on the way. In the last two summers we have stayed a few nights in Shanklin on the east coast of the Isle of Wight, and this year we decided to stay at the other end of the island, which involved a little research into both travel and accommodation, since I had only ever been there once before, which was by car (two cars, actually, for there were many of us) and in a self-catering holiday flat. I knew that there was a ferry from Lymington but that was about all I knew until I turned to the internet and looked at maps, hotel information and rail/ferry timetables.

Our planning chart for this year's south coast
summer holiday
The Lymington ferry by Wightlink goes across the Solent to Yarmouth every half-hour and connects this side with shuttle trains to and from Brockenhurst where neat connections are made with fast trains to and from London. There is no railway at the west end of the Isle of Wight and so although it is quite possible to complete a journey by bus I decided to start the search for a suitable hotel or bed-and-breakfast in Yarmouth. I soon came up with the George Hotel, just a few steps from the ferry terminal and with great reviews - and it had vacancies for the dates we needed. I snapped up three nights bed and breakfast at the George Hotel and then set to work to book a stay in Chichester. Our usual lodgings at 4 Canon Lane could not have us for the days we wanted, so I looked further and booked four nights at the Chichester Harbour Spa Hotel, nowhere near the harbour and not as near to the railway station as we have been before, but perfectly acceptable. I then waited a few months until the Advance rail tickets became available so that I could try to get good prices on First Class train travel and booked those: through to Yarmouth from London Waterloo, Peterborough to and from London Kings Cross, and Stamford to and from Peterborough; then there was Ryde to Chichester and Chichester to London Victoria. Everything else would be done by Oyster in London and contactless bus fare (and my senior citizens' concession pass) on the Isle of Wight.

Planning done and tickets bought we waited for the day of departure and set off with our cases to our local station to await our first train, the short hop to Peterborough for our LNER fast train to London. We did this section in standard class as usual and had our seats reserved near the luggage rack to make things easy for this quick trip. We had a little while to wait at Peterborough, but our First Class tickets from there to London include coffee and cake in the coffee bar of the Great Northern Hotel in Peterborough and that was where we awaited our connection, which, like all the other trains on this trip, was on time. The train to London was one of the old diesel High Speed Trains, now over forty years old but still providing excellent front-line service: would this be our last ride on one of these on this line, now that they are being replaced gradually by the new "Azuma" trains? We were served the usual drink and biscuits on the way to Kings Cross.

In London we made our way by Underground to Waterloo station. It was now after noon and I had allowed time for lunch before our booked departure for Yarmouth, so we had lunch at Auberge, a French restaurant right opposite the exit from the Underground at Waterloo, and then strolled along the Thames for a few minutes before going back to catch our train. We do like to enjoy the journey as part of the holiday, and how well this compared with the frantic search for a roadside restaurant, or, worse, the current type of fast-food motorway services!

The ferry Wight Sun docked beside Yarmouth Castle. We
had arrived a little earlier on Wight Sky. Our hotel, the
George, is on the left of the castle. Taken from the pier.
We travelled First Class to the ferry at Lymington: our fast train from London called at Brockenhurst in the New Forest where we changed into a connecting branch line train to Lymington Pier where our ferry was waiting. We had through tickets from London to Yarmouth so there was no fuss and with every train on time everything went smoothly - and we were comfortable in the knowledge that had something gone wrong there were half-hourly ferry crossings long after our intended one was due to sail. The First Class fare Waterloo to Yarmouth was just £19.60 each, including ferry! The ferry was a pleasant crossing with a buffet from which we enjoyed a cup of tea - no food necessary after a good lunch.

Once ashore, it was a very short walk around the corner to The George where we were shown to our very comfortable room, described as "cosy" by the receptionist, but nevertheless quite spacious and well-equipped. After unpacking we set off to explore Yarmouth, which is a very small town with a population of around 800 people but which receives a lot of visitors, many of them in their own boats. We visited the pier, which was built for the London South Western Railway as the terminal for passenger ferries before the service was upgraded to take vehicles as well. Now it is there for fun and for heritage and has recently been restored. The story of its restoration is interesting in itself and the toll of 50p well worth paying. The views of the town from the pier are good, too.

We walked along the shore and then along the disused railway line, now a bridleway and cycle track, as far as the former station which is now a café-restaurant with a strong railway theme. We promised ourselves we would return one day - it does not stay open for dinner and was closed when we went by. For now we returned to the town centre and had a great dinner at Jireh House, the former town hall now a restaurant and B&B.

And so to bed. Was this really only the end of the first day?! By the end of the next day it felt like we'd been there for a week ...

Freshwater Bay
The next day, Friday, was forecast to have by far the best weather of our time away so we decided that it would be the best day for exploring the west of the island and in particular for our visit to The Needles. The whole of the Needles headland is owned and cared-for by the National Trust and has an amazing amount of history in such a tiny area. It is quite a walk up to the Old and New Batteries (of which more shortly) and the view of the pointed rocky outcrops called The Needles with their lighthouse protecting shipping from them, but for its members the National Trust subsidises the bus fare on the Needles Breezer open-top tour bus, and this bus is the only one which goes right to the top, the ordinary services terminating at the "visitor attraction," which is also as far as you can get by car.
We took the Needles Breezer from Yarmouth bus station with our National Trust half-price Rover tickets and broke our journey for half an hour at Freshwater Bay where we had a brief walk along the beach before boarding the next Breezer on which we stayed up to its turning point at the Old Battery. There (after a cup of coffee in the 1940s-themed tea room) we climbed down to the tunnel to the searchlight position from which a brilliant view of The Needles and their lighthouse was to be had, and then explored the changing history of the Old Battery right up to its time as the "eyes" of the New Battery in twentieth-century conflicts.

The Recording Room at the rocket research facility
At what was once the New Battery we discovered the beginning and untimely end of the British contribution to space exploration. It was here at two gantries that British rockets were test-fired before being launched at Woomera in Australia. There was just one British satellite launched by a British rocket (built at Cowes on the Isle of Wight), before HM Government pulled the funding and British participation in space exploration came crashing down from its leading place to a cameo rôle. (Perhaps there is a lesson here for those who like to blame Johnny Foreigner for our nation's woes: how about having enough confidence in our own place in the world to put our money behind it?)

We walked down to the Needles Landmark Attraction, as the visitor site at the neck of the headland is called, with a stunning view of the Alum Bay multi-coloured cliffs and sands on the way. There we caught the Needles Breezer bus back to Yarmouth and made our way to Off The Rails, the railway-themed restaurant, for a very late lunch, just before their 4pm closing time! The food and drink matched the superb quality of their railway-retro décor and style, and the service was very good, and friendly. The former railway line was busy with cyclists and it was clear that this is a popular meal stop for cyclists, many customers having cycling helmets with them, and some serious people were clad in Lycra!

Back into town we took the Needles Breezer one last time and stayed on it through Freshwater Bay and the Needles headland, getting off in Totland for a walk along the beach. There we saw that Totland Pier is being restored (much work needed!) and on our way north towards Colwell Bay we came across a landslip from several years ago where the footpath has only recently been reopened, by-passing the damaged section. We walked back up to the main road at Colwell Common and took a service bus back to our hotel for the night. It had been a brilliant day: great weather, much walking in the fresh air, a lot of new things learned, superb views from the top of the bus, and an excellent lunch in entertaining surroundings.

The Master Gunner's dining room at the castle
We had done in one day almost everything planned for two! After a leisurely breakfast on the Saturday we went to explore Yarmouth Castle. Looked after by English Heritage, Yarmouth Castle has a long history as a coastal defence battery along with Hurst Castle opposite on the English mainland and a number of other blockhouses and batteries along the Isle of Wight northern coast. They are often considered follies as they never fired a shot in defence of the realm, but when you look at the formidable firepower available they probably did an excellent job for centuries simply by being there: the real folly would have been on the part of any enemy captain who tried to get past them! These defences were erected after a French invasion of the island, and there was never another. Yarmouth Castle was designed to defend against a land attack also, in case an enemy landed from another direction with a view to establishing a base on the island and disabling the sea defences. It is fascinating to visit, and its history is intimately tied in with the one-time governor of the island whose home there is now The George hotel in which we were staying. We looked down from the castle walls on our breakfast table, and what was once the front entrance to the castle, with the Tudor arms over it, now faces into the hotel garden. We were there two hours altogether, including some time looking over the harbour (when the ferry was not obstructing the view!) and learning about local shipwrecks in a display in one of the rooms in the castle.

The castle's coffee shop is no longer open but we made a final visit to Off The Rails for coffee and cake to keep us going and then took a trip on the Island Coaster, another tour bus service by Southern Vectis, which lasted most of the rest of the day! This took us back down the west of the island to The Needles (but not onto the actual headland as the Needles Breezer had done) and then along the dramatic south coast of the island all the way to Ventnor and then back up though Shanklin and Bembridge, terminating at Ryde. It was not fast; it was not meant to be. This was a ride for the scenery and it was well worth it. We saw both coast and countryside that we had never visited before. After a very good fish and chip dinner at a restaurant on the seafront at Ryde we travelled back to Yarmouth on ordinary service buses with a change of bus at Newport. Southern Vectis provide an excellent service throughout the island with a range of helpful tickets which make getting about both simple and inexpensive. I now have a senior citizen's concessionary bus pass, but still have to pay for my wife's travel, and the Vectis 24-hour Rover ticket meant that after the afternoon's travelling there was still enough validity to get her to Ryde the following morning for the next stage of our holiday. (I did have to pay a fare for myself for the Island Coaster - reduced for a senior citizen - because as a leisure service it is not covered by the pass.)

And so after checking out of The George after breakfast on Sunday we set off by bus with our luggage, changing in Newport again, for Ryde. As it happened we boarded a bus to Ryde immediately after arriving from Yarmouth, and were well ahead of schedule. I had allowed time for lunch in Ryde but we did not need any after a good breakfast, and we had had our fish and chips the previous evening, so we went straight to the pier head on foot and boarded the catamaran that was just docking as we got there. It was a lovely sunny day so for the first time ever we travelled on the "sun deck" of the boat and arrived in Portsmouth two hours ahead of schedule. A Southern train was about to depart calling at Chichester so we hurried to board that and probably broke the record for travelling from Yarmouth to Chichester, if such a record exists, all by sheer chance!

Chichester is a wonderful little city (similar to our home town of Stamford, but rather bigger), and we very much enjoy spending time there. After checking in to the Chichester Harbour Spa Hotel we met our friends for an early-evening drink and then went for our evening meal at the Côte brasserie where we have eaten at least once every time we have been here (why? well, for no other reason than that it was the first restaurant we visited when we first came here five years earlier and we rather liked it!).

The following day, Monday, was our day to join our friends at the coast at Bracklesham Bay after the usual good hotel breakfast. A four-per-hour bus service operates there from Chichester and we had a great day with them both on the beach and walking on the edge of Chichester Harbour.

The view from our hotel room in Chichester,
across the rooftops to the Festival Theatre amid the trees.
On Tuesday we went our separate ways for the morning and early afternoon, although we met for coffee at noon. I explored the western edge of the city where on the map I had seen some evidence of a disused railway line; as a former planner I do like to explore these bits of urban history. Although a footpath/cycleway followed a course which looked like it might have been a railway line, that was only clinched when I found a line of disused telegraph poles. It didn't merit any celebration but it was good to feel right!

Tuesday evening was booked for a musical at Chichester Festival Theatre, the third year we have done this with our friends, and was the usual stunning performance we have come to expect. We are already thinking of 2020.

Wednesday was an empty day in the schedule. I had toyed with the idea of a visit to Goodwood House but this was complicated to book and with much walking involved it depended on good weather, which was far from assured. So that was put aside and we visited the wonderful open-air Amberley Museum, a collection celebrating and remembering Sussex life through industrial and other artefacts and set in a disused limestone quarry. It includes historic buses, a narrow-gauge railway, workshops, a garage, a museum of electrical devices, another collection of TV and radio equipment, a print shop and lots of other exhibits including the limekilns once the centre of activity of the site. The entrance was right opposite the station and so the place was easy to reach and easy to find. We stayed there for most of the day and I took dozens and dozens of photographs.

A mine entrance at Amberley Quarry, as used in the James
Bond film A View To A Kill as Zorin's Mainstrike Mine
For the third time this year we came upon a James Bond connection, as much of the action of the film A View to a Kill was filmed at a mine entrance on the museum site, and there are still two tipper wagons carrying the livery and logo of Zorin Industries. After a visit to a local pub and a stroll along the riverside at Amberley we took the train back to Chichester for our last night.




We were not scheduled to leave until mid-afternoon on Thursday and in the morning after checking out we left our luggage at the hotel and walked the couple of miles to Fishbourne to revisit the site of the Roman Palace which we had seen several years ago on a previous visit. Knowing what to expect we learnt rather more this time and also enjoyed our walk in the sun. We returned to Chichester by bus in the afternoon (no lunch needed after hotel breakfast!), collected our cases and made our way to the station for the journey home.

The trip home from Chichester should have been a simple one: through train to London Victoria, cross London at our leisure (I had allowed two hours) then LNER First Class to Peterborough and a change for Stamford - with enough time during the change to pop into Waitrose for milk. It finished OK but it was not a good start when our first train was several minutes late and was then terminated early at Horsham so we had to travel on the following train. Nevertheless we had time in London to travel from Victoria to Kings Cross by bus (never quick, always interesting!) and still had refreshments in the First Class Lounge before getting our on-time LNER train with complimentary light supper. We took a taxi home from Stamford station at the end of a long day and unpacked rapidly ready for the next exciting instalment of our travelling lives, to follow soon! (And I have applied for delay repay for the Southern Railway section of the trip, which amounted to a half-hour late arrival at Victoria.)

Thursday, 1 August 2019

An Exciting Few Months

Planned and spontaneous trips by train


To come soon is our usual few days on the south coast of England, this year beginning with the west end of the Isle of Wight, and there are already two further firm dates in the diary for next couple of months. 

One is to the Engadin in Graubunden (Grisons) Canton in Switzerland to research for my proposed model railway based on the Rhatische Bahn in that area, including a visit to the Albula Railway Museum at Bergen

The other arose from a marketing email from the Royal Hotel in Bath, England. We have stayed there a few times and have joined their loyalty scheme and mailing list, and every now and then they write to me with a great special offer: I have never been in a position to take them up on any of these before, but now that we are both retired we are free enough to fit in a trip when the bargains are available. So in October we are off to Bath again and will take the opportunity to have a session at the Thermae Bath Spa: having telephoned the hotel within minutes of reading the email I then went to the Cross Country Trains website and booked Advance First Class tickets to Bath Spa via Birmingham and Bristol at a reasonable price. It should be a great break, with dinner with wine included in the hotel special offer - we have never dined there before in all the times we have stayed there.

That, then, takes us towards the end of the year. But first, Isle of Wight, Chichester and the English seaside holiday!