Monday, 19 July 2021

The Best Laid Plans

Summer Sunday Trip to London 

With the gradual easing of lockdown restrictions we have been able to see many of our family whom we had not seen for several months, but our son and his household in London, with no garden, we had seen least, and so some arrangements were made for this summer and we set off yesterday, Sunday, the eve of "Freedom Day" when the remaining legal restrictions were due to be lifted, to visit them. But it did not quite work out as planned, even though the plans were only a few days old. Our daughter-in-law had a cough and was awaiting the result of a Covid test, so it was uncertain whether we could visit at all, but on the morning of the visit her negative result arrived. In the meantime, however, their younger child's nursery had told them that the little girl must isolate as a contact at nursery had tested positive ... so we only met our son and the older child for a picnic, not being able to go to the house.

This has been the problem with unlocking - is it actually saving the economy and bringing some certainty to business when infection levels are so high that random self-isolations are making it hard to plan anything at all, even as minor as Sunday lunch with Granny and Grandpa?

As far as travel was concerned,  getting out of Stamford on a Sunday morning always means driving because the rail service starts very late on Sundays. This particular weekend was when the line between Stamford and Peterborough was closed while engineers built the new junction at Werrington to connect the new "dive under" to the Stamford Line tracks, so there was no rail service at all on our local line. So we drove to Peterborough, a trip short enough for our plug-in hybrid car not to need any petrol, being within range of the battery. We also got to play with the new (to us) car park payment system at Peterborough station! At the barrier on the way in we did not have to do anything but pause while the Automatic Number Plate Recognition system read our car number plate then opened the barrier. Parking on a Sunday morning in the pandemic was a piece of cake, and then I made sure I read the notices about payment so that I knew what to do when we came back later on! There were several options, but it seemed to me that the simplest in our circumstances was to use my credit card contactless on the way out. There was no ticket to lose, no faff at ticket machines. no need to remember our own number plate (and having bought the car at the start of the first lockdown we are not really familiar with it yet!), and, most important to me, no need to use a smartphone app - although the LNER app is one option for those who prefer it. If you think buying a train ticket is complicated, to me as a very occasional driver and parker of cars paying for parking these days seems far more complex than paying for train tickets. The app you need varies from car park to car park and the ticket machines are complicated and do not often use the same English that I do. And if you think that is complicated, you should try electric car charging ... but that is another story.

We had allowed bags of time to get to Peterborough because you never know what sort of hold-ups there might be (none in this case) and how much time might be soaked up parking the car and fighting the ticket machine (minimal and zero respectively, see above), so we had some time to wait for our booked LNER train, time we occupied with our usual Sunday routine of the Sunday Times General Knowledge Crossword puzzle. We were booked on a specific train in order to take advantage of low-price Advance First Class tickets in each direction. Our trains both ways were LNER's "Azuma" class inter-city express trains and on the morning trip to London we were treated to coffee and the weekend breakfast menu, although having already had breakfast I just topped up with a pain au chocolat with my coffee and a bottle of water for the sweltering day which lay ahead. Our booked seats turned out to be the pair with no window, but there was no-one in the table seats immediately in front of them and no further station calls for this train, so we consulted the First Class host and moved into those seats, still well-enough distanced from other passengers, and we were all wearing face-coverings, of course.

We knew in advance that from Kings Cross the Hammersmith & City Line was not operating, and that several other lines were suffering from sudden closures because of unexpected self-isolating staff, so we took a bus to our chosen rendezvous point, which was Kensington High Street. Buses are not quick, although perhaps they are not so slow on Sundays, but we do get to see a lot. We actually travelled by bus only as far as Hyde Park Corner and then walked along the South Carriage Ride of Hyde Park and along the souther edge of Kensington Gardens to reach our destination. This part of London is just a joy to visit on a summer day and there were lots of people, walking, sitting and cycling. We met our son and senior grandchild and then bought the components of a picnic from the Whole Foods Market in what had formerly been Barkers department store, opposite St Mary Abbots church, and returned to Kensington Gardens together for our picnic, followed by coffee in a side street café where the crowds were much thinner. Altogether it was fairly easy to keep a safe distance from others, with just a little care, and we were very happy throughout.

We accompanied the others back to their front door but could not enter, of course, and then spotted that although the Hammersmith & City Line was not operating, the Circle Line apparently was, because we saw trains passing and the local station open. that would do: we went to the station  and took the next train to Kings Cross St Pancras. There was plenty of space to start with and although mask wearing (still compulsory) was patchy we were OK for a while. Someone sat opposite us and kept taking his mask off and on but there was nowhere else to move where everyone was masked so we were reliant on our vaccinations and our own masks. Gradually the train filled up and our neighbour left his mask on, as did most others - interesting. Transport for London will be requiring face coverings even after the legal requirement is lifted because London's transport does get crowded and there are parts of London where vaccination take-up has been poor (not where we had just been, though).

We now had an hour to spare at Kings Cross and we spent it in the First Class lounge and enjoyed a salad we had bought at the Waitrose beneath it, before making our way to the train when it was ready to board, using the bridge over the platforms once more - this had been closed on our recent trips. Again we had our socially-distance reserved seats but this time a pair facing each other across a small table, our favourite arrangement. The complimentary refreshments on offer included wine (which I have never known at a weekend before, but I remembered that I would have to drive home so I declined that and accepted the cheese and pickle sandwich and another bottle of water.

The car park at Peterborough worked beautifully: I did ensure that I had my credit card to hand and at the barrier simply "showed" it to the card reader and drove out. We took a scenic route back to Stamford and arrived home to plug the car in ready for duty the following morning having used no petrol and emitted no exhaust.

It was a good day out. In spite of the difficulties a summer day in west London is never going to be bad, and neither is day with children and grandchildren, even in reduced numbers, and, I have to say, a trip in First Class with LNER is almost a guaranteed joy as well! Just as well, as we have quite a few more coming up, including Edinburgh in a few weeks' time when I am hoping that the catering will be better still. It is already so much better than last summer when we all lived in fear of getting near other people and touching anything that someone else may have touched. Looking forward to next month's trips, and just hoping that plans do not have to change too much!

Saturday, 17 July 2021

Day Out in Cambridge

A group outing by train

At last I have been able to take a small group on a short "adventure" by train. Myself, four regular adventurers and a new subscriber to my list gathered at Stamford station on Saturday morning for the 09:54 train for Stansted Airport, which we left just over an hour later at Cambridge. Just as with my recent personal trips we found it hard to use the "socially distanced" seats we had been allocated because we wanted to travel more-or less together: two members were a married couple and did not need to be apart at all, one of our seats was taken anyway (none was labelled), and none of us, all vaccinated, felt the need to have a whole seating bay each. But there was plenty of space and, occupying the general area of four of our allocated seats we managed to seat reasonably close without taking too much risk: "one metre with mitigation," I think it's called - face-coverings (still compulsory in any case), not directly facing, and speaking only quietly. I'll let you know in a fortnight if any of us is ill ...

A pleasant surprise was the arrival of a refreshment trolley after a few moments, and we celebrated by buying coffee and biscuits (we know how to live ...) which also meant, of course, that we were allowed to unmask temporarily in order to enjoy them. As I said, I'll let you know if any of us is ill!

Across the Cambridgeshire Fens we noted that there was not as much flooding of the wash land as there sometimes is, so more land was visible. We passed the beautiful view of the city of Ely, with the boats moored close to the railway and the city rising behind the riverside, surmounted by the cathedral with its unique lantern roof and single west tower. And so into Cambridge over the River Cam's boat race stretch, and an arrival on time at Cambridge station.

We made our way together to the exit and ticket barriers and scanned our tickets to exit the station - because I had bought these tickets using the Cross Country iPhone app (for some reason the website was unable to take my money) I had electronic tickets which I had printed for everyone to take their own. Getting the whole party through the barrier with me having all the tickets on my iPhone was not something I'd want to experience!

Outside the station we went to the line of bus stops and sought a bus heading for the city centre. This is slightly awkward, although I cannot think of a way that it could be improved: there are several stops for several services and it is hard to decide where to wait because most, if not all, of the buses go to the city centre. One sat there but showed little sign of being ready to move off, so when another came up at another stop looking as if it might go first, we all boarded - all of this happening in a matter of seconds, as it does with the frequency of buses here. All but one of the party had senior bus passes and can use any bus without payment. The one remaining member paid her fare for a day ticket and that was when we realised that this bus was not one of Stagecoach's "Citi" services which serve most of the city and so her return ticket would not be useable on most of the buses back to the station - but we would find a solution to this matter. The bus took an interesting route to the city centre, rather further round than most buses but not much longer in time, and the party gradually left the bus as we arrived at the places they wanted to visit. The last of us left at Silver Street in order to visit places around Kings Parade.

Enormous sausage roll!
As on all of these group outings now, we were all members of a WhatsApp group and were able to share location and inform each other of what we were doing. I scouted the proposed lunch venue, Michaelhouse, where I had been before, and discovered that it would be quite suitable for the group so I was able to confirm that we would meet there as planned. I was amazed at how busy the city was. There were still hordes of young people and several family groups visiting Cambridge. In spite of the pandemic it looked as teeming as ever, albeit with face coverings and restricted access to most premises. Some wanted to visit Kings College Chapel but that was fully booked until two days' time. We met at one o'clock for lunch at Michaelhouse and had a very enjoyable meal. Some of us then took a stroll along The Backs and in Silver Street consulted the timetable for the bus that our youngest member would be using to return to the station! We then repaired to the Anchor public house where we had to check in and be shown to a table where our order was taken and the beer eventually delivered. The pub was not crowded and would never be as we would not have been let in if there had not been a table (duly sanitised) available for us.

Cambridge's weird platform arrangement!
I had some shopping to do at John Lewis: now that their shop in Peterborough is closed, Cambridge has one of Stamford's nearest branches of any department store and there is nothing quite like them for browsing for the things you need. I then strolled around to Christ's Pieces (I love the names of locations in Cambridge!) and sat and enjoyed a takeaway coffee in the afternoon sunshine before taking the bus back to the station, having heard from all the rest of the party that they were either already at the station or were on their way. Although it had been quite a short day out, it had been a tiring one, especially for the older members of the group, and we had a lengthy wait for our train home rather than making a last-minute dash for the station just in time to catch it. Some sat in the coffee lounge; I watched the trains. I was interested to see that the direct trains from Cambridge to Brighton would make a neat connection with trains from Stamford ... hmm.

Our train home was on time and again there was plenty of room for us although the reserved one-person-per-seating-bay seats had to be ignored. We raced back across the fens in the evening sun and were soon at Stamford and dispersing across the town to our various homes. The day had been a successful restart of the group outings and there had been much discussion on the way back about where we might go for the next one. Unfortunately these are still quite hard to arrange at present with the Covid restrictions, but something will be advertised soon to those on my mailing list.

Sunday, 27 June 2021

An Actual Seaside Holiday by Train!

High Speed Train to the Kent Coast for a Short Summer Holiday

"I'm on the train!"
Last weekend we took our first train trip of 2021 when we went to Croydon to join a wedding celebration, and this week we took our first seaside holiday of the year. 

We had been to Bath on a road trip as soon as hotel stays were permitted (and suffered terrible traffic congestion as a result), but this was a proper holiday by train to a coastal resort and although the weather was not playing ball when we left home we still had a great time with some warm sunshine while we were away. It was hard to believe that just a week ago I was in shorts and t-shirt but now I was definitely in jeans, heavy shirt and jumper for the journey, but was able to shed some layers as the days passed - mercifully I had brought one short-sleeved summer shirt with me.

Socks still match mask 

The hotel, in Broadstairs, was booked a couple of months earlier, when the "roadmap" towards the ending of lockdown was published: had we been able to end restrictions on 21st June as hoped, this trip would have begun on the following day; as it happened we still had the social-distancing rules and compulsory face-covering on trains, but it was still a good trip. The hotel was recommended by our neighbours and we had driven past it the year before when we had a short break in Kent by car. We decided then that Broadstairs looked like a town best visited by train, and when the opportunity arose we took it. LNER tickets to London (First Class as we usually do) were booked well in advance, and tickets from Stamford to Peterborough and from London to Broadstairs followed as they were released. The LNER and Cross Country tickets were electronic downloads which I printed at home and the Southeastern ones for the final leg of the journey were printed card tickets which I had to collect from the station.

Real coffee in a mug, and a glass for the water!
After a leisurely morning of packing and preparation we strolled into town and caught the 10:57 train to Peterborough: the latest timetable revision has given us trains that are broadly hourly but which arrive and leave at a variety of "about the hour" times rather than the "clock face" departures we had become used to having. We arrived in Peterborough on time and made our way over to where the LNER train to London soon arrived, in good time for an on-time departure. We declined the offered sandwiches as we had a picnic lunch with us, but the coffee was very welcome, served with biscuits, and we were so pleased to see that freshly brewed coffee was back, in the china mugs which have been a feature of First Class travel on this route through several different operating companies: far nicer than the instant-coffee-in-paper-cup of the pandemic era! And it was served from trolleys by the familiar friendly LNER First Class staff: the pleasure of rail travel was returning, and we look forward to the day when staff can dispense with their plastic aprons and we can all take off our face-coverings and smile at each other again!

I had allowed plenty of time in London for lunch before taking the train on to Broadstairs. Had all restrictions been lifted I had thought we might visit one of the station restaurants - there is quite a choice of them between Kings Cross and St Pancras stations, as well as lots nearby. But we instead retired to the First Class lounge at Kings Cross to eat the Waitrose salads we had brought with us. After an hour at the lounge we made our way across the road to St Pancras to find our train onwards, the 14:12 to Margate, a Southeastern high speed Javelin train. The only special things about these trains are their high speed (they are Britain's fastest domestic trains) and their stunning appearance: no catering, and no first class, but they are comfortable and do their job well. The ride is good, although the scenery ends as the train leaves St Pancras and heads into the tunnel that takes the High Speed One line under east London and towards Essex. The first stop is at Stratford and then back into tunnel until we emerge into the urban-edge sprawl on Thameside Essex, glimpsing the Queen Elizabeth Bridge (with its slow-moving traffic)) before plunging into tunnel under the Thames and into Kent, stopping at Ebbsfleet (a park & ride station for north Kent) and Ashford on High Speed One, with a brilliant view of the Medway estuary in between, and then turning east towards our destination. Now on ordinary tracks our Javelin was still travelling pretty fast and stopped in Canterbury and Ramsgate, heading north into Broadstairs, our seaside destination, a smooth ride and on time.

As we left the train at this traditional little station, a sign at the exit directed us to "Beaches and Town Centre, 5 minute walk," to the left and we followed it. It didn't mention the flight of steps down to the street! These required us to carry our rolling luggage, but never mind: in the days the sign was written everyone was carrying their cases all the time, so we tried not to be spoilt 21st-century brats ... and although it seemed more than five minutes to our hotel it probably wasn't: that was just the excitement building! 

The Royal Albion is a traditional hotel in the Shepherd Neame brewery's chain, updated and enhanced by some up-to-date features. Our spacious room was beautifully decorated in the current trendy grey and reasonably well-appointed, with plenty of power points and storage and a comfortable bed. As requested, it had a sea view. In fact it had a very good sea view because it was on the third floor - more carrying of luggage required as the hotel is traditional enough not to have a lift!

After unpacking we went for a short stroll around the immediate vicinity of the hotel and then returned for dinner which we had booked at the hotel restaurant for the first evening. The meal was excellent, with local produce and, of course, Shepherd Neame's local ales. We had a table in the restaurant's glazed section overlooking the terrace with the beach beyond. It was quite idyllic from where we were, but, as yet, pretty chilly outside! Although still early evening when we completed our meal we returned to our room and I spent a little while beginning this blog post then reading a book before retiring to sleep, unaccountably tired - my theory being that we had had such a busy few weeks that now that we were on holiday with an opportunity to rest, our minds and bodies were taking that opportunity!

When we finally awoke the following morning I popped out to the nearby Costa to buy take-away coffee because our hotel reservation did not include breakfast and we did not need a big hotel breakfast after the previous night's dinner. We had brought a few things with us for a very light breakfast but I was disappointed not to be able to buy a croissant at Costa, so that had to wait until later in the day when I could find a better coffee shop. After breakfast we set off along the esplanade and out along the coastal path towards Ramsgate. Ramsgate is about two miles from Broadstairs and it is a very pleasant walk, away from roads most of the way and away from busy roads all of the way until the town centre. We had in mind coffee at an Italian coffee shop we discovered on a road trip here last year, but were open about what we might do for lunch, anticipating perhaps a light lunch and then a more substantial dinner back in Broadstairs in the evening. However, on the way to Ramsgate we had a stroke of luck that transformed our plans: one of our sons sent me a personal message about something unrelated to the holiday and having replied, I sent him 15 minutes of our live location just as a bit of idle chatter and he replied with a restaurant recommendation in Ramsgate - I had no idea he'd ever been there, but he had and we followed up his advice. The restaurant was the Royal Harbour Brasserie which we looked up on Trip Advisor over our Italian coffee (and croissant!) and to my enormous surprise turned out to be located at the tip of one of the harbour breakwaters, looking most unlike a restaurant!

Even when we approached the entrance it still did not look like the sort of restaurant to receive such a recommendation from my discerning offspring, or a visit from us, but we ventured up the steps to the entrance and gingerly went in to find a welcoming bar area with welcoming staff and a glorious seafood menu and wine list, with seating inside and outside. We booked a table for an hour's time and went off for a walk around Ramsgate. This old port town is well worth a visit, packed with history and still very interesting in spite of recent economic difficulties, and some of the newer enterprises like this Brasserie, and Wetherspoons redevelopment of a seafront pavilion as the largest pub in Britain (!), are lifting the town out of the doldrums - as are the new flats being built along the seafront.

Returning along the harbour wall to the Brasserie we enjoyed a great lunch and although I was disappointed to miss the swordfish, the last portion of which had just gone to another diner, the traditional cod and chips did not disappoint. Although the air temperature was not especially high that day we sat outside in the sunshine and there was amazingly little wind considering that we were, effectively, some way out into the sea, so we felt very warm. It was an idyllic way to spend a lunchtime on holiday and we were so glad to have discovered it in such an unlikely way - without that chance conversation on the way it is doubtful that we'd have walked out along the breakwater and it is absolutely certain that we would not have climbed the staircase and entered the restaurant!

After lunch we popped into Waitrose for a prepared salad for our supper in our room that evening, the need for a restaurant dinner in Broadstairs having been eliminated, and then we walked back to our hotel by a different route, taking us inland and along a variety of streets - there is no countryside between the two towns other than (briefly) on the coast.

After night had fallen we went for a stroll along the promenade in Broadstairs, very attractively lit with strings of coloured lights and spherical lanterns and with the full moon over the sea. It had been a really great day, sunnier than expected, and we had walked many miles, seen a lot of coast and historic town and enjoyed a fantastic lunch. Now it was time for a long and deep sleep in preparation for the following day's planned walk to Margate, more than twice as far and on what was expected to be a warmer and sunnier day. We slept like a pair of logs after all the exercise of the day, but soon ready for another like it, boosted by another Costa coffee and light breakfast of our own devising. 

This time we set off northwards from Broadstairs, along the promenade to start with and then the clifftop past Kingsgate Castle and the North Foreland Lighthouse down to Joss Bay where we stopped for our morning coffee before continuing towards Margate along the north coast of the Isle of Thanet. 

In the distance as we passed Cliftonville (where I spent many a childhood summer holiday) we could see our destination, the Turner Contemporary where we hoped to have our lunch in the excellent restaurant. We made a reservation for a suitable time and then took a short walk along the seafront and through the streets to return for lunch and visit the gallery. Just as the previous day, the lunch menu was short but wonderful and this time we went for three courses and would not be needing a meal later. I then visited the current exhibition at the gallery, The Tourists: Ellen Harvey & JMW Turner (this is all free of charge, registration for social-distancing and contact-tracing being the only requirement at present).

Our walk around Margate was restricted this time to the town centre and Old Town, having visited by car just last year. I used to come here a lot as a child, where my mother was born and brought up, and in those days it was a thriving holiday resort, but the seaside boarding-house type of holiday is now completely out of fashion even for those who prefer to stay in Britain rather than fly abroad, and Margate's economy has suffered greatly. The commercial centres of this town and of Ramsgate, it seems to me, have also suffered from the development of a shopping centre at Westwood Cross, central to Thanet but unrelated to its towns. All the main shop seem to be at Westwood, and the centres of Margate, Broadstairs and Ramsgate are effectively relegated to the role of local centres. We studiously avoided setting foot in Westwood Cross and spent our money in the towns (mostly on lunches, it must be admitted ...).

We took a bus back to Broadstairs at the end of the day.

The next day, Friday, was our last, but I had booked a train at 16:01, so we had a good chunk of the day still in Broadstairs. By modern high speed train services this really is not far away (indeed, it is quite feasible to have a day trip to the Thanet resorts from Lincolnshire now, as I did to Canterbury a couple of years ago), so three nights' stay meant three days' holiday, and four would have been feasible with an earlier start, but we preferred the more leisurely start. After the usual do-it-yourself breakfast with Costa coffee (and, to my surprise, a croissant this time!), we packed our cases and checked out of the hotel, asking them to keep out luggage for us until departure time. We walked again along the coast, but this time along the back of the beach, towards Joss Bay where we had stopped on our way to Margate; for some reason the café was not open, but we were returning straight to Broadstairs anyway and had our morning coffee there. Lunch was at Posillipo, a genuine Italian restaurant next to the hotel: they have a branch in Canterbury which we had visited before and greatly enjoyed, and eating here was part of our plan from the start. I had the most amazing pizza bianca, white pizza with mozarella and cream (!) in place of the usual tomato paste, absolutely delicious and thoroughly recommended. I regret I did not quite finish it and certainly had no room for a second course.

A last stroll along the seafront and it was time to collect our cases and walk to the station. We had had a fabulous time, but the holiday was not quite over yet. I have always maintained that when you travel by train the journey is part of the holiday, and although the time on the train was relaxing (I was reading, and sorting out my photographs, among other things), I had allowed a couple of hours in London on the way back, too. The intention had been to have tea at Fortnum and Mason while at St Pancras station, but we discovered the previous week that they have not yet reopened the café space there, so we decided to go for a walk around the developing Kings Cross area and then have a cup of tea at the First Class lounge at the station before boarding our LNER train. Coal Drops Yard had opened at Kings Cross since our last time there, and that was interesting enough, but what made the exploration a real treat was an outdoor exhibition of photographs sponsored by the Aga Khan Foundation and based on the historic Silk Road. It highlights the work of the foundation and is fascinating in the way it describes the various cultures - with an emphasis on Islamic cultures - of the nations along the Silk Road. I do not know how long it will be there, but it is well worth having a look - allow an hour - if you have the slightest interest in history, geography, human society or photography!

We tore ourselves away and took the cup of tea we had promised ourselves and then took our allocated seats on board the 19:30 to Edinburgh, first stop Peterborough. The complimentary hot drinks trolley came by and I declined a hot drink having just had tea, but when the cold drinks came there was not fruit juice ... but the good news is that they had wine! Wine has returned to the First Class menu! Gradually normality is returning. This was the first week for wine and brewed coffee - and the passenger numbers are picking up, too, so let's just hope that infection rates are not picking up too much as well. With all the numbers and with so much drink to distribute, the food did not come by before Peterborough, so I cannot comment on that. We did not need it after our Posillipo lunch, of course, but I think they would have fetched us a sandwich if we had been depending on it, because I saw one being taken to someone else.

And so to the connection to Stamford and the walk home over the meadows and through the Friday evening sociability (best avoided when tired!) of Stamford town centre. The 2021 summer holiday season had got off to a cracking start for us and this blog has finally come back to life. More to come, gradually, of course.