Monday, 5 October 2020

Quantum of Solace on LNER

In, out, in, out ...
As I write the UK seems to be heading towards another lockdown and I wonder if Her Majesty's Government really quite understands what "exponential" means, the President of the United States is in hospital with the foreign virus he said would not affect his great country, and foreign travel restrictions look remarkably like some version of the hokey-cokey. We had offered to look after grandchildren in London so that our son and his wife could have some time away to celebrate their tenth wedding anniversary (tin, before anyone asks). They took us up on the offer and booked flights and accommodation and I started looking for the necessary train tickets to do our part, and tickets to a national museum on the Saturday as an activity for the grandchildren.

I found that booking outward travel to London was simple: both LNER for the main leg from Peterborough and Cross Country for the hop from Stamford to Peterborough had their timetables sorted and plenty of tickets available, and LNER had some bargain Advance First Singles, too. But their return times were not yet fixed and I could not book them. I asked for an alert for when the were available and booked immediately but by then Cross Country had sold out of tickets for the connecting service home to Stamford. Their trains were running but reservations for the reduced number of seats on them are compulsory and the Train Tickets app would not sell me tickets on a sold-out train. So we were resigned to a taxi home, the only alternative being to take our car to Peterborough and leave it there for four days, which would make the taxi look cheap. Both are considerably more expensive than two Senior Railcard standard singles. At least it would be as quick, and taxis are easy to get at Peterborough station. That little matter was the only problem, really, and everything else went brilliantly, indeed, better than I had expected, because although we were facing all the issues I allude to in my opening paragraph, LNER did offer a crumb of comfort, to be a bit less Ian Fleming about it!

Looking back: the InterCity 225 in BR days at Kings Cross

On the morning of our departure I made sandwiches and put them with some fruit into a paper lunchbag for a picnic lunch in London, as we have done before during the pandemic. I was anticipating coffee and maybe crisps an a biscuit on the train, as we had had recently both to London and to Edinburgh, so I did not pack drinks. I checked on Cross Country's Train Tickets app that the trains were running to time and we left for the station, found our socially-distanced seats on the train to Peterborough and looked forward to our trip to London. Again, the London train was indicated on time and we were soon aboard. I was surprised to see that it was an old InterCity 225 electric set - our reserved seat numbers suggested that it would be one of the new "Azuma" trains, and it was soon clear that it should have been, for our reserved seats were not together! In any event, one was taken already, but we were easily able to find two together that were nowhere near anyone else, so that really did not matter as it happened. I wondered if perhaps this might be my last ride on one of these venerable trains and cast my mind back to my first experience of one in 1991, twenty-nine years ago!

Best on-board catering for months!
No sooner had the train left Peterborough than our host came round offering ... hot and cold drinks (expected), snacks (expected) and two different sorts of sandwiches (unexpected joy!).  I was not going to say "No" to this: we could eat this offering now, with our coffee, and the picnic I had made could come later when we had unpacked at our temporary home mid-afternoon. This was still not the usual First Class complimentary offer, with paper cups and limited choice, no alcohol (not that we'd have wanted that at this time of the day!) and no hot food, but it was getting there, and far better than what we'd had in August. The food was good, too, and the young lady serving it was both friendly and efficient, as we have generally found not just on this line but throughout the UK rail network.

At London we were in no hurry. We did not have to meet the children from their respective school and nursery until after five o'clock, and we decided to travel by bus from Kings Cross to their home in Shepherds Bush. It is a direct and simple Underground ride but we have done that so many times and this would (a) make a pleasant change, (b) save money - for what that's worth - as I have free bus travel as a senior citizen and (c) would allow us an opportunity to weigh up whether we were ready for the Underground yet as the coronavirus outbreak was beginning to look threatening in London. We used the Citymapper iPhone app to find a suitable route. The app does show the quickest way first, which was the way we normally go by Underground, but also offers a bus-only route as well as walking, cycling, taxi and driving. Despite having suitcases we travelled on the top deck of the bus to enjoy the view, well worth the effort of hauling them up the stairs and with social-distancing we could keep them on thew seats in front without fear that someone might need the seats - buses are running at less than half capacity. Our first bus took us to Park Lane, near Marble Arch, so we rode along Oxford Street which was nothing like as busy as normal and it was the easiest ride we've ever had along there. Crossing Park Lane to catch the connecting bus presented a slight challenge as the pedestrian underpass was closed, possibly a pandemic measure, but there was a signalled crossing just a few metres farther along and we were soon on the next bus which took us along the north side of Hyde Park and Kensington Gardens through some of the loveliest residential areas in London until we arrived at our stop and walked to the house. We unpacked, ate our sandwiches with a cup of tea and then set out to collect children from nursery and school, enjoying a meal together before putting them to bed and crashing out! 

The following day was a school day and after taking the children to their usual day-time places we had the time to ourselves. We did not fill it with activities, saving ourselves for the day out with the children the following day, for which we had tickets booked for the Natural History Museum. These are free of charge for a national museum but booking is required to keep numbers down for social-distancing purposes. (Last time we went we had to queue for over an hour to get in; this time we would queue only because we got there before the gates opened!). We had a parcel to post, little gift shopping to do at the Westfield shops and some preparation for the children's evening meal, and we spent some time doing some overdue "housekeeping" on our MacBooks, too!

It turned out that the easiest and probably quickest way to get to South Kensington for the museum was by bus from Shepherds Bush, so we wrapped ourselves up in rain gear (which turned out to be unnecessary) and set off for the bus. amusingly, when you walk onto a bus with a child in a buggy an automated announcements firmly tells you to stay with the buggy throughout the journey: Big Brother may not be watching you, but the bus robot certainly is!

Visiting the London museums is always worth doing, and with the pandemic measures in place is actually easier than it normally is, but you do have to be prepared for a few disappointments for some of the galleries cannot be opened safely at present and constant vigilance is needed to ensure that social distancing is maintained, which can be rather tiring, plus, of course, face-coverings are needed. But we had a great day and, as always, must return one day to see things we missed. We took the same bus route back, again through some very pleasant residential streets as well as the familiar Kensington High Street and past the church where both these children were baptized. All of us were tired and all went to bed early by the standards of each of us!

After lunch on Sunday the children's parents came home. Theirs had been an adventure unlike ours, for their planned holiday was in Istanbul and no sooner had they landed there than Turkey was taken off the UK Government's list of safe places which would require them and the children to quarantine for two weeks if they stayed on as planned, so they swapped to an earlier flight and came back to England after just a day in Istanbul, spending their first night back in an airport hotel (far too late to go anywhere else, and we were in their bed!) and then having a night's holiday in London - well, it is the world's favourite holiday destination and just because you live there that doesn't mean it is not worth seeing - then came back to spend a little time with us before we headed home.

We knew the homeward trip was going to require a taxi from Peterborough, and we had booked the train from London as late as we reasonably could in order to allow for flight delays from Turkey, for a flight that was no longer relevant, of course! We left in good time for the 20:00 Newcastle train on which our Advance First tickets to Peterborough were booked, and we decided to give the Underground a try this time, taking the Hammersmith and City Line to Kings Cross St Pancras. It was fine (but then it usually is on a Sunday evening), but were disappointed to find that the First Class Lounge at Kings Cross closed earlier now and we had to wait on the concourse for the hour we had allowed before catching our train. Boarding began twenty minutes before departure, though, and we started making our way towards the platform (which was indicted on the Live Departures on my iPhone before it was announced) even before that, so it was not too long a wait. This time the train was an "Azuma" and our seats (the same numbers) were together. Again, the kind host brought our meal which we greatly enjoyed on our way home. Apart from do-it-yourself teabag tea in a paper cup instead of brewed tea in a china mug this was little different from the usual weekend offering. We are getting there, but I look forward to wine on weekday evenings!

And so to our taxi and the ride home to Stamford. With a traditional taxi there is no fuss: our luggage comes inside with us and we are separated from the driver by a perspex screen. Sanitizer before and after, masks still in place from the train ride anyway, and we feel safe enough.

I just ought to mention that we only made this trip at all at the last moments because although I had booked it a couple of weeks earlier I developed a cough a few days before scheduled departure. I thought it was just a cold but ... the later I leave a test the later would be the result and the later, if it turned out to be Covid-19, I would start isolating and protect others, so I booked a test online on the Monday afternoon and drove over to the drive-in test site at Peterborough, very impressed with the faculty and the efficient way it all worked. I would not have been so impressed if I had not had a car, though, for no walk-in tests were available and no home testing kits, so only motorists could be tested. Anyway, the negative result came in during my sleep on Tuesday night, well within the 24-48 hours I was given to expect a result. Life was back on, and it is amazing how after just one day in isolation it took a little while to get back to being able to sit near my wife again!

Sunday, 30 August 2020

Quick! While There's No-one There!

Our first train trip to London since February

Normally, visiting Westminster Abbey is a nightmare, with queues and little opportunity to appreciate the spiritual qualities of the place. I had only been there for services, choosing to avoid visiting it for the history and architecture, both of which are worth a look. But for the moment, in 2020, hardly anyone goes there and in any case the Abbey cannot manage many but desperately needs the income from visitors. So we decided to go while it was quiet, to see the place properly and to do our bit for its upkeep by buying tickets to visit, all pre-booked like virtually everything else in Britain at present. This was to be our first visit to London since all the cancellations in February and we decided to stay one night, have tea at Fortnum & Mason in Piccadilly (they were offering two for the price of one, so it was only expensive rather than extremely expensive) and just enjoy the West End without the crowds.

As a member of Hilton's loyalty scheme I booked a room at the Doubletree Westminster, a few minutes' walk from the Abbey, and First Class tickets with LNER to and from London Kings Cross to connect conveniently with the reduced-frequency trains between Stamford and Peterborough.All was set. Both Cross Country Trains and LNER insist on reservations for travel: with LNER we are given specific seats which we have to use; on Cross Country we can choose any empty seat far enough from other passengers but they will not sell tickets for a train which already has as many as it can take with social distancing. All our train tickets were electronic, held on my iPhone. I am beginning to get the hang of finding them quickly for operating barriers at stations.

The weather forecast was not wonderful: warm enough but wet at times. We took minimal luggage for just one night, one small case between us and walked together to Stamford station. Our train to Peterborough was just a couple of minutes late and our connection to London was easily made, although the temporary "one way" system at Peterborough station really does not work well for connecting passengers. Once the London train was under way I sent to collect our coffee and biscuits from the First Class host, probably not very different from what we would normally have had on such a short trip.

Arriving in London we walked to our hotel in Westminster. A long walk punctuated by a lunch break in a small park, and not quite the shortest route but a more scenic one which took us by the Savoy and along the Embankment. The hotel was having building work done and the main entrance was not in use, so it took us a while to find the way in: it turned out that it only reopened that day after the Covid-19 closure and that we were only the second group of guests to arrive. The restaurants were not open so we would have to have a packed breakfast either in our room or as a take-away; as we had nowhere to take it to we opted to have it in our room and specified a time. We went to our room, unpacked our few things and got ready to go out to tea. The room was looking really tidy and clean: Hilton had been to some effort to combat the virus by extensive cleaning of all rooms. It was looking a bit dated, though, with no device charging points by the bed, unlike our hotel in Edinburgh a few days which had double sockets with double USB points each side of the bed. We wondered if the refurbishment would address this sort of thing.

We set off through the drizzle, which came and went a bit, for the long walk to Piccadilly. By now, tea time, there was very heavy traffic in our street and here-and-there elsewhere, but our route was largely through quiet streets and pedestrian ways, and across St James's Park, all very pleasant. We arrived in plenty of time before our tea booking, and we walked through both Piccadilly and Burlington Arcades and then had a few minutes browsing the goods on offer at Fortnum & Mason before proceeding to the lounge for tea, which compared quite well with the afternoon tea we had enjoyed in Edinburgh less than a week before! As then we had two hours, which was more than enough, and as then we did not need any supper afterwards but rather a long walk ... we even declined the slice of cake which was an option to finish off the meal!

We took the long walk back to our hotel, through the occasional light shower, via Piccadilly Circus, Leicester Square, Trafalgar Square - it felt like the Monopoly board - then along Whitehall and across Westminster Bridge and back over Lambeth Bridge to our hotel off Horseferry Road.

In the morning our packed breakfast arrived and although it was not quite the standard we have come to expect of Doubletree hotels it was all good, and the coffee was excellent. we checked out and left our case at reception to walk the short distance to Westminster Abbey, clutching our printed-out on-line tickets and vouchers for the multimedia guided tour. The queue was minimal and after a quick security check and hand-sanitise we were in and in possession of the devices which would provide us with the guided tour. Photography was not allowed in the Abbey, so this part of the blog will have to go without illustration, but it suffices to say that this building is one of Europe's finest, so do see it if you can. Similarly the history here is amazing: a thousand years of the story of England and her church and monarchy, intertwined, is told here and is better described by others than by me. I recommend the electronic multimedia tour: each talk is short and to the point, it is easy to operate and copes with several languages and is good at reminding us throughout that this is still a working place of worship with a regular round of prayer and praise - although somewhat curtailed at present like all places of worship.

We visited the gift shop and then returned to collect our case from the hotel, bidding a farewell to the receptionist, who was the only other person we met there! She is from Italy which is where we had been going to go this autumn and have rebooked on a date next year.

We then revisited Fortnum & Mason, having noticed the day before that they were offering their knickerbocker glories at two for the price of one ... then we walked that off by going on foot through London to Kings Cross, up Regent Street and Great Portland Street then along Euston Road and taking the signposted walk from Euston to Kings Cross through the middle of St Pancras station. We had a few minutes in the reopened First Class lounge (no refreshments yet, but expected soon) before boarding our LNER train to Peterborough where we changed for Stamford as usual. By then the rain had started but was all right for walking home where hot chocolate made a fitting end to such a day. We had only left the day before but we had enjoyed tea and ice-cream and walked 17 km as well as our object of seeing Westminster Abbey without the crowds. Wonderful!

Wednesday, 26 August 2020

A Very Special Weekend!

 By train to a fantastic weekend in Edinburgh

Sharing a bathroom with film stars!
This year makes a special milestone in my marriage, and a year ago my wife and I planned a very special holiday to mark it. We booked short tour of the Scottish Highlands on the Belmond Royal Scotsman, a luxury "cruise" train, to visit the one line out of Inverness which was still on our "to do" list. The tour started in Edinburgh on the day after our anniversary, so we also booked two nights at The Balmoral hotel to ensure that the day itself would be special and that we would be sure to be there for the start of the tour with no last-minute rush. There was so much to look forward to in the Royal Scotsman tour that I had given very little thought to the weekend in Edinburgh that was to precede it, but all that was to change when I came to pay the balance of the fare to Belmond - and I shall come to that shortly. First I really must tell you about the booking of the hotel for the weekend!

The Balmoral is not just any old hotel. It was originally the railway hotel for the North British Railway, later part of the LNER and then British Rail, of course. The railway hotels were sold off in the 1980s and this one was bought and refurbished to an exceptionally high standard by Rocco Forte Hotels and is now a very high-end hotel and bookings are made though Grand Luxury Hotels who appoint a Guest Experience Manager to look after guests prior to arrival. Our weekend was to be special so we wanted a room overlooking the castle, and we wanted a good room, and ... the weekend was during the Edinburgh Festival, so, taking all this together, it was not cheap! They asked if a room was sufficient or if we'd prefer a suite: I opted for a room since we did not intend to live in it, just sleep. After my Guest Experience Manager had been appointed I received an email message asking what time my flight was due to arrive and which class of Mercedes I would prefer for my transfer from the airport ... and all this at a railway hotel! I might have known that odd things would happen when the person taking the booking pronounced the city's name "Eedinburrow": it was plain that she had never been there and had no idea how things worked in the UK. I wrote back explaining that the hotel was above one of Britain's most important rail stations and that it would probably take me longer to fly there from Stamford than to go by train. (And even if I had flown, I think the tram from the airport would have been fine by me!)

Everything was booked, then, about a year in advance, but then like everything else in 2020 it all started to unravel with the advent of the Covid-19 coronavirus pandemic. Most of this year's outings in the spring and summer were cancelled and refunded early, but the August ones we hoped might happen. Unfortunately although the Royal Scotsman could run with only 20 passengers, just over half of its normal load, the other 18 still booked on it were American and could not get to Scotland, so that part of the holiday was cancelled. The Balmoral hotel, however, had just reopened and our booking still stood, so as soon as I could get train tickets the holiday, at one-third of its planned length, was still on, and it did cover the date of the wedding anniversary, which was great. Now the "supporting act" became the main attraction and we started to replan the trip around The Balmoral.

Booking the train tickets turned out to be a little more interesting than usual because the outbound ones, on a Saturday, were not released until a couple of weeks before departure, so I had to invest in the return part in the hope we could get there! Otherwise it would have had to be a long drive in the car and an application for  refund for the return train trip. But it all came out all right in the end, although the reduced frequency of trains between Stamford and Peterborough meant that we started this luxury holiday on a bus to Peterborough. But Delaine's buses are very good and all worked well.

Just as with the Cross Country trains the previous weekend, the catering was minimal, so we took a packed lunch for the journey. we were supplied with coffee, biscuits, crisps and water with our First Class booking, but not the usual hot lunch that we had hoped to enjoy before the pandemic changed everyone's plans. This was by far our longest trip so far on LNER's "Azuma" Intercity Express Train and we thoroughly enjoyed the ride in spite of having to wear face-coverings and forego the usual standard of luncheon. We were required to sit in the seats reserved for us, chosen by LNER to ensure social distancing, although this had to be changed by our train manager because someone else had "stolen" our seats: she could check which ones were available and ensured we would not be disturbed again. This ride up the East Coast Main Line is one of my favourites, with a fast, comfortable train and some incomparable views, especially of the Northumberland coast but also including Durham, the Tyne at Newcastle, Berwick-upon-Tweed and some magnificent stations, too, at York and Newcastle.

We arrived at Edinburgh within a minute or two of the advertised time and made our way up to Princes Street to the hotel, at number 1 Princes Street. As we approached the front door with our cases, a concierge approached and asked if we were checking in - we must have looked like Balmoral guests ... we checked in and went to our room, the cases having been taken away to be brought up to us. We had booked one of the better rooms in the hotel but were given a free upgrade to a better one still. As I mentioned, this had been going to be Edinburgh Festival week but, of course, that was cancelled and so presumably the hotel had many spare rooms available. They knew we were there for a special anniversary because when I had called to book a table for dinner on the Sunday they had asked if it was for a special occasion, so it was very good of them to let us have an even better room. When we opened the door we were amazed by the room which was not only spacious and well-equipped but was right at the top of the building in one of the corner turrets with the most fantastic view long Princes Street as well as up the the castle. I could not have asked for a better room.

We unpacked and made our way down to the Palm Court where we had booked (everything has to be booked now) afternoon tea; just as we were leaving our room a basket of fruit was delivered by the house staff - all part of the service here! We had booked the tea as a substitute for dinner and went for a fairly late tie for tea, at 5pm. We were welcomed into the Palm Court and shown to a suitable table in the typically pleasant atmosphere of traditional palm court within the atrium of this hotel built on a square plan. Elsewhere in the hotel is a poster from inter-war days showing the Palm Court as it was then, and it is quite recognisable today. There was a choice of tea and an option to begin with a glass of Champagne,
which, naturally, we did.  We each had our own choice of tea, poured from a great height into personal teapots so that it was cool enough to drink immediately, and a plate of savouries which included a haggis tart, the first of several haggis-based dishes we would have over these two days. Two hours was allowed for afternoon tea and we used most of that, consuming two pots of tea each in spite of also having Champagne and water. Although each item in the meal seemed to be small, there was plenty to eat and we were well-filled. We did not even need to start on the basket of fruit in our room before bed-time! At the end of the meal we were given a small tin of tea and a couple of chocolates each to take away. The chocolates survived until the train home on Monday, and we started the tea at our first tea-time at home on Tuesday - having run out of our St Pancras Blend tea it was good to have something special again.

We went for a long walk after tea, to the other end of Princes Street, back around the castle and along The Royal Mile to Holyrood and then back to the hotel.

On the Sunday we had originally had nothing planned, but before we left home had managed to book a visit to the Scottish National Gallery for the late morning, all attempts to get tickets for the National Museum of Scotland having failed. These venues were both free-of-charge but needed booking for space reasons during the pandemic. We started the day with a great breakfast at the hotel - again booked in advance by completing a form left in our room at turn-down - and then made our way via a shop or two to the art gallery just along Princes Street. It is a small gallery but with a wide selection of styles and artists, including the universally-known Monarch of the Glen by Sir Edwin Landseer which was amazing to see for oneself rather than printed on a biscuit tin!

The breakfast was intended to last all day until the special dinner booked for the evening, so after our time at the art gallery we went straight on to our next activity, booked the day before, a visit to the Royal Botanic Garden. It was drizzling all the way there, about a half-hour walk, but dried up as we arrived. There was an occasional shower during our visit but nothing to spoil it. We were there to enjoy the gardens rather than study botany, and of all the botanic gardens we have visited, this is the best for that, for the layout and landscaping is superb. Do visit here is you're in Edinburgh, but try to choose better weather than we had! It is hard to do it justice in a photograph: you have to be there.

The third course, Orkney Scallop
We returned to the hotel via Harvey Nichols, for there was something we needed that we had been unable to source anywhere else, and it is not every day that we are in a city with a branch of that particular emporium. Showering after the day's weather and dressing for dinner we made our way down to another of the hotel's restaurants, named "Number One" after the hotel's street address, for the seven-course table d'hôte tasting menu that we had booked before leaving home. This would be our special meal for our anniversary.

We had done these tasting menus before: lots of small courses which can be accompanied by matching wines, but we opted on this occasion simply to start with a single glass of Champagne and then have a bottle of a light red wine which would go reasonably well with the whole meal. A glass for each course has always left us feeling that we've had too much alcohol before we have finished the meal.
Before the seven courses started we were brought "something to nibble," an amuse-bouche, and some bread and butter (both bread and butter the chef's own recipe and made to order - nothing from a factory here) as well as a glass of water, and the bread and water were topped up as the meal went on.

Three fish courses and a single large ravioli brought us eventually to the beef which was served with three vegetables and potato, but these were unrecognisable as they were presented, each of them delicious and, amazingly, filling. The beef, Highland, of course, was superb.

We opted not to have the optional cheese course and went straight to the two desserts, again, small, delicious and plenty. Espresso coffee rounded off the meal nicely and we retired to our room well-satisfied.

On the final day we were not due to leave until the 16:00 train, so we arranged to check out at 15:00 and had a final attempt, unsuccessful, to obtain admission to the National Museum and decided to go on a bus tour of the city instead, having been plied with a leaflet by Bright Bus on our first evening. It has a stop opposite the museum and runs every fifteen minutes so we went to the stop and waited for just a few moments. With our senior discount the fare was just £9 each for hop-on, hop-off travel on the tour bus all day. The rain held off and the open-top bus took us round a lot of the city with an informative commentary, and it interesting to see from a higher vantage point some of the places we had walked on the first evening. We left the bus near the castle and walked down through Princes Street Gardens, which had been closed for the previous two days, always a great place to be, and then made our way back, checked out and walked round the corner to the station for our train home.

Again we had a great ride along the Northumberland Coast and were plied with coffee, tea, biscuits and crisps from the First Class host at the end of the train (no trolley services anywhere during the pandemic) and took our own salad dinner bought from Mark & Spencer earlier in the day. Things went slightly awry at Newcastle Central when some passengers had to be refused boarding because they refused to wear face coverings, currently a legal requirement, and we left there five minutes late. This was slightly troublesome because we had a very tight connection to our train home at Peterborough. Some of the time was clawed back, however, and although we were a touch late getting into Peterborough it was easy enough to get over to platform 7 and board our train home. Unbelievably some people near us on the train south of York all claimed to be exempt from the face covering rule and although the train manager had to give them the benefit of such doubt as there was, he did check their tickets and ordered them to leave as they were not in their booked seats - indeed they were travelling First Class on standard tickets.

All in all we had had a wonderful time. Not as wonderful as we had expected when we first booked it a year ago but wonderful anyway. It was just a weekend but it was a great weekend. It had been expensive but we had what we paid for and felt we'd had excellent value. The hotel and the art gallery had only been open a matter of days after closure because of the coronavirus pandemic and yet we were served brilliantly by capable and dedicated staff, and at the hotel in particular felt like valued customers - which we probably were, given the number who must have cancelled. No foreign guests, no Festival. We were fortunate that The Balmoral was still trading. 

We shall try to take our Royal Scotsman trip next year, and we hope we can stay at The Balmoral again before we take that train.