Thursday 15 February 2024

Don't Drink and Drive!

A Christmas Party by Bus

Each winter holiday some friends come and stay with us for a few of the twelve days of Christmas, arriving soon after Boxing Day and returning on or soon after New Year's Day. The last couple of years we have all travelled together to a relative's home in Helpston, a village between Peterborough and our home in Stamford. (The Helpston which was the home of the poet John Clare, very popular in these parts.)

We go for lunch which is a drawn out affair with plenty of fun ... and no-one wants to be "Des," the designated driver, but that is fine because there happens to be a bus service between Stamford and Peterborough which serves Helpston, and, indeed, stops very close to the end of the road where our relative lives (not so close to our house, but that is not a problem because we do need exercise with all the feasting that happens at that time of the year). Indeed, I have long maintained that one of the big advantages of using public transport is the incidental exercise you get compared with the "door-to-door" service expected of car travel: I do not need to spend time and money on gym membership!

This year our local bus company, Delaine Buses, has slightly improved its Saturday timetable by adding one more service at the end of the day to match the weekday service, which made a difference to us because on those days between Christmas and New Year the Saturday timetable was being used every day on our route and so we were able to return home an hour later than we have done in previous years. As I have often remarked concerning service changes: if a bus or train runs we shall use it; if it doesn't we can't! Our bus out to Helpston was pretty busy (well, five of us helped!), and the last bus back was fairly well loaded, too. This is a popular route linking several villages to Peterborough and to Stamford, and a pleasant ride, too, during daylight. (I am sure it could stand an even better service, with later buses and peak-time frequency enhancements, but this is something that Delaine do not seem to do.)

We had a great time and we returned home happy and content - with no-one concerned about their driving and without having to cram five of us into the confines of our car. Four of us travelled free of charge on passes of various kinds, too, which was a bonus.

Tuesday 16 January 2024

Three New Homes to Visit - and a Couple of Great Exhibitions

Well, R2D2, fancy seeing you here!

Trains here, trains there ...

As I mentioned in This Could Be the  Last Time ..., my friends who lived for years in Croydon have moved to Chichester. My wife and I had an invitation to visit them and see their now home, and we arranged a mutually convenient date for the diary. Meanwhile, our son in west London had moved with his family to a house just a few streets away from where they used to live, and we had, of course, an invitation to come and see their new home, too. By bringing forward by one day our trip to Chichester we were able to call on them in London on our way home! Great. Time to look at some train times and book some tickets.

The fastest way to Chichester remains Cross Country to Peterborough, LNER to London Kings Cross, Underground to Victoria then fast Southern train to Chichester, but much the easier way, and the way we chose because we were not in a hurry, was to take Cross Country to Peterborough and then Thameslink straight through to East Croydon from where a Southern train would take us to Chichester. It was a smooth, easy journey and we travelled Standard Class on through Super Off-Peak Single tickets, but we had a “cunning plan” for an even better journey! On the other hand, because these included Southern, electronic tickets were not available and we had to pick them up at the station: I did not risk buying them at the station because so often our local ticket office is closed

We left Stamford on the train to Peterborough just before noon, taking a packed lunch with us. Connecting with Thameslink at Peterborough is simple, and because trains are half-hourly there is not a problem even if there are delays, unless they are very substantial, because there will always be one soon. As it happened we caught a train earlier than we anticipated because a late one was standing there about to depart when we got to its platform, so on the "bird in the hand" principle we boarded it. When we take these trains we always travel in the rear coach from Peterborough, because there is a First Class section there which is always (well, whenever I've been there, anyway) declassified for Standard Class ticket holders, and our cunning plan was to move to that section as soon as the notice went up on the information display to show that it was so. And there we sat in First Class comfort on our dead cheap tickets and enjoyed our packed lunch, there being no catering at all on these trains in spite of the long distance they cover (all the way to Horsham!). a corollary of this dodge is that if you have paint for a First Class ticket on Thameslink, go to the front of the train southbound because if you travel in the rear you'll have to mix with hoi polloi like me on super off-peak standard dead cheap tickets!

So we rushed down to London. Even these stopping trains have fast top speeds and do miss the suburban stations in London. Then the train takes the new tunnel across to the "basement" platforms at St Pancras International and crawls through central London stopping everywhere until London Bridge, affording some great views along the River Thames from Blackfriars, where the station now stretches right across the bridge. After London Bridge the next stop is East Croydon where we were to change trains. The friends we were visiting in Chichester used to live in Croydon and here is where we used to transfer to the tram for the last couple of miles to their former home. Now we did not even have to change platforms because the train to Chichester followed ours into the same platform. At least, it would have done but for the signal failures that had caused our train to be late and were leading to congestion at such a busy junction. In the event a few other late trains had to squeeze through before our connection could get in, but it was only three minutes late in the end and hardly a big deal. The wait for it gave us time for coffee in a platform coffee bar, which had been a factor in the plans, but what I hadn't bargained-fr was the 50p surcharge for decaffeinated coffee, on top of the expensive London price. In many cafés there is no surcharge at all, and where there is it is usually only 10p. Still, it was good coffee, freshly made and we sat and enjoyed it until our train came in. The trip down to the south coast is always a pleasure, very different scenery from our home area, and as we pass Arundel and see the castle and cathedral on the hill we know we are somewhere very different: indeed, Arundel Cathedral looks more like those across the English Channel in France than any other English cathedral, Anglican or Roman Catholic. Then along the flat coastal plain to Chichester where our friends met us at the station and took us to their new home, much the size of our own, into which we moved five years ago when I retired.

At Chichester Cathedral there was an interesting art installation, Peace Doves by Peter Walker, made up of fifteen thousand individually handmade paper doves which are suspended above the Cathedral’s historic Nave. Each dove contains a message of peace, love and hope, written by local community groups, schools and members of the public. All white, they are uplit by violet lamps and are quite captivating as they hover over the nave.

We enjoyed our friends' new home, meals out and drinks by the sea at Felpham (a bit breezy even in the south in October, so the visit to the beach was short!), and we also visited their daughter's new home at Havant. Everyone seems to be on the move. 

On our last day in Chichester I visited an exhibition at the Novium Museum which displayed the toys, books and posters which were associated with the Star Wars films. This made an interesting addition to the Star Wars costume and merchandise exhibition I had seen at Peterborough Cathedral just a few months before.

Soon the time had come to wend our way home from Chichester, but first, the too-long delayed visit to our son's new family home in west London!

We were driven back to Chichester station on our last morning and caught a train to London Victoria, beginning much the way we had come - this is probably the service we had used between East Croydon and Chichester on our way down - but there was no need to change trains to get north of London this time. It was Saturday morning and you can never be sure what Underground lines are working at weekends, but all was well in the direction we were going, and by changing stations at Hammersmith we were soon in the familiar streets of Shepherd's Bush for they had not moved far and their nearest Underground station was still the same one, the children at the same school, but a lot of work to be done to get the house into the great condition that they'd left the previous one. To get a house with a garden in London, though, some compromise is necessary.

After lunch with the family we left by our familiar route (albeit with a longer walk to the Underground) of Hammersmith and City Line to Kings Cross, LNER First Class to London and the Cross Country Trains connection home to Stamford. Not the most exciting trip to write about, but exciting for us to see our friends' new home and our son's new home, with Chichester Cathedral's Peace Doves and the Novium's Star Wars thrown in for good measure, together with some very pleasant train rides. 

Thursday 23 November 2023

How to Visit Frankfurt Without Leaving the English Midlands

Day Trip by train to the Birmingham Frankfurt Christmas Market

We have visited a number of Christmas Markets since we began our "adventures" by train a few years ago.  There were the real German ones on the Great Rail Journeys Christmas Markets Rhine Cruise, the big local one in Lincoln and those in Bath and Bristol. I had also taken a group by train to the Birmingham one a little while ago, but it was so cold that day that I did not see much of the Christmas Market that time! The Birmingham Frankfurt Christmas Market lasts almost two months (Lincoln's, now ended, was just two days but was very much bigger), from the beginning of November until Christmas Eve, and occupies New Street and Victoria Square in the heart of the city of Birmingham with German-type stall selling German and German-influenced gifts, food and drink. There is a more locally-inspired market in the Cathedral grounds with smaller stalls selling local crafts, food and drink, and some of the shops join in the Christmas theme or the German theme as well. My wife had never been to the Birmingham Frankfurt Christmas Market but has always been a fan of German culture, and so, Birmingham being an easy trip by train from our home in Stamford we decided to visit it this year. My adventures are having to be a bit simpler at present for health reasons, so a day trip with no change of train fitted the bill nicely: it is quicker and easier to visit Birmingham, several counties away, than to visit our own county town of Lincoln!

Looking at the train timetable and the peak and off-peak fares, it seemed that a good day out, giving enough time for all we wanted to do, could be had by taking the 10:07 train     to Birmingham, returning by the 15:22: if we stayed later than that, the next train on which an off-peak ticket could be used would be the 18:22, three hours later. Looking at our diaries, there were not many days when we could do it! In between our voluntary jobs and our family commitments, and not wanting to leave it to near Christmas we thought that this Tuesday would do nicely and so we kept the date free. I did not actually buy the train tickets until the day so that we could change our minds if the weather forecast were poor.

All was well and we set off for the station. Although I could have bought the tickets at the ticket office for a trip like this, the last two times I had been to the station the ticket office had not been open and so I used the Cross Country Train Tickets iPhone app which gave me our tickets on my smartphone. We had to remember to take our Senior Railcards with us! In the event the ticket office was open, a corollary of which was that the waiting room was also open and heated, which was just as well because the weather in Stamford turned out to be both colder and damper than expected, and the train was late. It had been delayed by "operational issues" around Cambridge or Ely and the slippery rails made making up for lost time impossible. You could hear and feel the wheels slip as the train pulled away from each station. There did not seem to be a catering trolley on the train, but our intention in any case was to have coffee in Birmingham.

Like all east-west lines in central England, this is not a fast line (and not a straight one, either!) but the trains are quite quick, when they can get a grip, and comfortable and the time soon passed. Fifty years ago I used this line to and from university and it was much slower and less comfortable then. We were soon in Birmingham, and New Street station is right in the thick of things in the city centre, so we were straight into the Birmingham Frankfurt Christmas Market. 

We walked along New Street towards Victoria Square, looking cursorily at the stands we passed while seeking an indoor café for our morning coffee. We ended up at Albert's Schloss, and Alpine-inspired restaurant beyond the Town Hall: we had sen this place when we visited Birmingham in the summer but had not been inside. Seeing the menu and enjoying the service and the "German" and "Austrian" atmosphere we thought we'd have to return some time for a meal, but today we wanted to eat from the Frankfurt Christmas Market - it would have to be a frankfurter, wouldn't it?

We looked around the food and drink outlets in Victoria Square and decided where our frankfurters would be bought at lunchtime and then walked off to the Cathedral grounds where there were smaller stands selling more local things, and we bought a glass Christmas tree decoration from a local craftswoman before returning to Victoria Square for lunch, "serenaded" by a singer singing many of the usual Christmas pop songs. It was all very atmospheric, and although it did remind us of our time in the real German Christmas markets a couple of years ago it was a very English interpretation! After our sausages we moved on to gluhwein. The bar we chose served gluhwein in very good glass mugs, for which we had to pay a hefty deposit, so it was much easier to drink than in thin wine glasses too hot to hold. We could take our time drinking it and then we moved on to New Street, buying some chocolate-covered marshmallow on the way. 

We walked the length of New Street, studying the stalls in much more detail now. These are much bigger than the stall you find at most Christmas markets and sell a wide range of goods as well as a lot of German and German-inspired food and drink. We had all we now wanted to buy from the market and were close to the Bull Ring shopping centre, so we paid a brief visit to Selfridges and Marks & Spencer and then it was time to make our way to New Street station to take our train back to Stamford. We bought take-away coffee at the station and it was just as well because there did not seem to be a refreshment trolley on the train home either! If these facilities are not reliable they will be underused because we shall all make other arrangements and buy little if anything from the trolley on the train. We found some good seats together again and had a comfortable ride home, leaving Birmingham on time but arriving in Stamford a couple of minutes late.

It had been a really good day out and we needed very little for supper after our small but sustaining "German" feast at lunchtime. The train to and from Birmingham really is very convenient for us and everything is so close to New Street station that a day out is so easy. We really must do it again.

There is, of course, no other city like London, but when I look at Birmingham now it is so much more London-like than it ever was fifty years ago when I was studying there and it felt like an overgrown market town. I am not sure that the city has caught up with its own new image, though, and it does not live up to its Second City status as I think it could. I intend to return in the spring or summer to hear a concert at its world-class Symphony Hall and, if it is open after its repairs and refurbishment, visit to world-class Museum and Art Gallery, too.

Birmingham Pins