Tuesday, 9 April 2019

The West Highland Statesman

The Statesman crossing Glenfinnan Viaduct in the
care of 47593 Galloway Princess

Return to our first destination, this time in Pullman Class

I had long wanted to return, hopefully in better weather, and hopefully in better health, to Fort William where our rail adventures began. Each year Statesman Rail offers at least one excursion that serves my home town of Stamford and I was so pleased when the catalogue arrived and I discovered that this year it was a weekend visit to the West Highlands. Even better, this was just after my retirement so I was free to take a long weekend.

Booking was duly made (I was amazed that Statesman Rail didn’t ask for a deposit, and we paid in full on their invoice weeks later) and in due course we set off, on an April morning, departing from Stamford at 05:25 (yes, getting up at 04:15 to catch a train!) for an arrival at Fort William at 20:20. We travelled “Pullman Dining” Class with a window table for two, all meals included along with Buck’s Fizz, coffee, mints, etc etc, and Champagne before dinner. The fare included a bottle of wine between two on the outward journey and unlimited supplies of spring water. A case of “Never mind the destination, enjoy the catering!”

The train was interesting: 1970s vintage intercity coaches painted in Pullman livery and reupholstered, and we were hauled by a green Brush type 4 of 1960s vintage, with a blue one attached at the rear.

We boarded just a couple of minutes late at Stamford station: the train is far too long for the platform and we were ushered into one entrance of Pullman Car Helvellyn, shown to our seats and helped to put our luggage onto the overhead racks. Tea and coffee were soon served but the first sitting of breakfast was not served until after a few more stops when enough passengers had joined the train, beginning with Buck’s Fizz and working through porridge and the full English to croissants and coffee. During all this the train took a rather interesting route through the Midlands, towards Leicester but turning north at Syston to join the northbound Midland Main Line through Loughborough to Sheffield then across to Doncaster where we joined the East Coast Main Line to head towards Scotland. 

Leg-stretching during the layover at York
Our vintage diesel locomotive had a top speed of 90 mph which was on the slow side in their seventies heyday when they hauled secondary express services on this route and now is very plodding beside the 125mph trains that normally work that line today, so there were occasional stops to allow “proper” trains to overtake us. There was a forty minute break at York where we were able to take a short walk while the train had its water tanks replenished, ensuring that we could still use the toilets and wash basins all the way to Fort William. 

We were treated to the usual scenery of the East Coast Main Line but at a lower speed than is normal today, so we were able to enjoy it better - when not distracted by the constant flow of food and drink, that is, and in spite of the fairly gloomy weather. There is a wine allocation of half a bottle each on the outward trip, and we had our bottle delivered in time for luncheon because it would go so well with the chicken pie that was served for luncheon, and with the supplied water as well, the wine would suffice for dinner also, on top of the champagne which was to precede it. This trip was all about food and drink! After dinner, miniatures of local single-malt whisky were distributed to each Pullman traveller and we kept ours for later.

We passed through Edinburgh and then west towards Glasgow and along the north bank of the Clyde then turned north onto the West Highland Line which took us eventually, past Faslane nuclear submarine base, along the “bonny, bonny” bank of Loch Lomond, and over Rannoch Moor to Fort William. Our train looked a bit out of place alongside the two Sprinters and four coaches of the Caledonian Sleeper with which it had to share this tiny station! The weather was varied but over this line was misty throughout, shrouding many of the mountain tops and bringing darkness forward an hour or two.

We walked the three minutes to our hotel and were the first to check in, a whole trainload of people behind us. Unpacked, we soon set off on an evening walk around the town, the only real exercise of the day since walking to Stamford station in the morning, other than the short toddle round York station. There is not a lot to see in Fort William at night be we did walk along the loch side (Loch Linnhe - information that came in handy for a general knowledge crossword puzzle in the Sunday Times the following day, as it happened).

After our very early start we retired to bed much earlier than usual, after a tot of the aforementioned local whisky, and were soon sleep, despite some noise from the room above.
Very little time seemed to have passed before our alarm sounded nearly ten hours later, but we were soon up and dressed and enjoying a buffet breakfast in the hotel, up to the usual standard we have come to expect.

The Statesman left bang on time at 09:00 to take us forward on the reminder of the West Highland Line to its terminus at Mallaig. This is possibly the most scenic line in the uK, and although we have been there before it most certainly bears a revisit, especially on our excursion train which paused for a few minutes on Glenfinnan Viaduct to allow us to to photographs. Many lochs, Islands, deer and mountains later we had short time at Mallaig (and on a cold Sunday a short time is more than sufficient) before boarding for the trip back to Fort William - we were taking this trip just for the scenery, although it also included coffee and lavender shortbread on the way out and a light luncheon (salmon steak!) on the way back.

The Sunday afternoon was free in Fort William, and the volunteer-run West Highland Museum, normally closed on Sunday, kindly opened on this Sunday so that Statesman Rail customers could visit. If you’re confused by all the Jameses and Charleses and what a Jacobean is, then this is the place to sort out your mind. You may wish to take notes, though ... It was interesting to learn that the sort of tartan worn is more to do with location that with clan membership, though, for it depended on what dyestuffs could be produced from local plants. A stroll up a hill for a view over the loch and we returned to our room for a cup of tea and then dressed for the only dinner we would have at the hotel, five courses with wine, all included in the cost of the trip. We met some very nice people at our table and were the last to leave, straight to bed!

The last morning was Monday and the best weather was forecast, so after our breakfast we started a spectacular scenic trip back towards Glasgow, Edinburgh and home to England. Words struggle to describe the landscape with its rocky rivers, green hills and snow-covered mountains caught by the sunlight. All the mist had gone and we saw a whole series of views that would grace a few hundred calendars and chocolate boxes, as the coffee and Danish pastries were served. The Statesman paused for half an hour at Rannoch station for a little stroll and an opportunity to photograph both the scenery and the train.

Rejoining the train we were served with water and asked for our choice of wine for luncheon, choosing a Merlot to go with the Aberdeen Angus beef on the seven-course “Taste of Scotland” menu. The spectacular scenery continued for some time, including a horse-shoe curve and many a snow-capped peak. During a pause at Crianlarich the pre-lunch Champagne was served which was eventually followed, one course at a time over a long period, by an amuse bouche, an Arbroath smokie fishcake, highland broth and Aberdeen Angus beef by which time we were speeding along the north bank of the River Clyde towards Glasgow. Just the cheeseboard and pudding to go, with coffee and petit fours ...

We seemed to crawl very slowly through the Glasgow suburbs and then sped to Edinburgh, enjoying the urban splendour of Princes Street Gardens with the famous Castle towering over us before following the Northumberland coast down to Newcastle and Durham. With better weather than on the northbound trip we were able to see Holy Island from our train. We were early into York where there was once more a layover for topping up the coaches' water tanks and we were able to go for a short stroll: there was one of LNER's new "Azuma" trains which we were able to peer inside, so new that its smart livery had not yet been applied and the tables inside were still wrapped in paper!

Back on the train there were hot sausage rolls for supper and then the end-of-term feeling as passengers started leaving from Doncaster onwards, down through the Midlands via Sheffield, Chesterfield, Loughborough, Melton Mowbray until we left the train at Stamford at one-o'clock on Tuesday morning. Straight home to bed ... a fantastic weekend. We had little more than sit on a train for three days, but did take the opportunity to walk whenever we could. The Statesman Rail staff were amazing and we were really well looked-after. Pullman Dining Class is not cheap, but the experience was wonderful. There are two other classes which make the weekend affordable for those who do not want to spend so much, but we paid for no extras (half a bottle of wine each was perfectly sufficient for us!) and there were actually more benefits than mentioned in the advertising: a tin of points, a whisky miniature, a tin of shortbread and, on the way home, the usual Statesman Rail gift of a little box of chocolates. People had come from all over the south of England stay overnight in Peterborough and get up early to catch this train! I'd recommend the experience to anyone (although regrettably not wheelchair users), worth saving for.

Friday, 1 March 2019

Aaaarrrggh! Ahoy There, Shipmates!

Taking Children by Train to East London

Last autumn we visited the V&A Museum of Childhood in Bethnal Green while in London for T&T's cocktail masterclass in Shoreditch. We noticed then that the museum was well on the way to opening a special exhibit on pirates as seen in children's books, films etc and resolved to bring our two pre-school granddaughters to see it as soon as we had the chance. We finally got the chance in February when our London-based granddaughter came to stay for a weekend; the locally-based one was always with us on Mondays so we planned to take them to the exhibition together, return one to her home in London and then bring the local one home on our way home. Simple! Although nothing is ever quite that simple when dealing with little children, of course, but it did all work nicely and we all had a great day.

Both girls stayed the Sunday night and we were due to catch the 09:00 train from Stamford station on the Monday morning. I shall not bore you with the difficulty of having two such young children to stay while the hall, stairs and landing of our new house were being painted, but as you may imagine were slightly nervous about the project. Come the morning, one little girl was happy to bound out of bed and get ready for an exciting day; the other wrapped herself in her duvet and was hard to budge! With not leaving until the 09:00 train we did have enough time to get them both ready and set off for the station, taking two buggies although both girls are capable of walking but it was going to be a long day and we thought they would need help - and it's easier to look after them when they're strapped into their seats, too.

There was plenty of time between trains at the change at Peterborough, partly because we felt we needed to allow for any difficulty and partly because we wanted the best price on Advance First Class tickets: it would be easier to care for the children in the more spacious accommodation of First Class. Things went well and we used the time to buy something in Waitrose and then use the lounge at the Great Northern Hotel, as LNER's First Class ticket-holders can do. Unfortunately when we got back to the station our train was indicated as "Delayed," one of those sinking-feeling notices which tells you little and invites you to panic. I asked at the counter and was told that there had been a signal failure somewhere north of us but that trains were now running again and ours would only be about twenty minutes late, which was bearable. We went a long way round to our platform and waited in the waiting room: there is always something going on at a junction station like Peterborough, so it was not difficult to entertain the children.

We found a vacant table for four and settled in - there is no requirement to use the seats we had reserved, which were a fall-back in case of a packed train but did not make allowance for the two non-paying little ones. The train staff were really good with the little girls and made sure that they had juice to drink when we had our coffee and the Train Manager brought them each an activity book and crayons which whiled away the rest of the journey for them (and for us, helping them with them). This took me back to my childhood holiday journeys when the first stop was at the WHSmith kiosk to buy similar things for me and my sister!

From King Cross we took the Circle Line round to Liverpool Street - this was all fully-accessible and the children could stay in their buggies for this part of the trip. At Liverpool Street we changed to the Central Line for the one-stop ride to Bethnal Green; being a deep-level tube the Central Line meant using escalators and smaller carriages, so one of us took both children by the hand while the other carried the baggage (including one folded buggy) on one of the buggies. There is always baggage when travelling with small children, even on a simple day out like this one.

The Museum of Childhood is a short walk from Bethnal Green station. I'd recommend the museum to anyone: it is not just for children, and indeed the older you are the more it might mean to you. Admission is free as part of the Victoria and Albert Museum, and there is an excellent cafeteria. Indeed we began with lunch, meeting our daughter there with her baby son. So, three cousins together, which was rather nice, and the girls got to see their auntie.

The pirates display was a small and simple temporary exhibition suitable for all ages but aimed at children mainly. As an adult I was interested in the explanation about how these murderous thieves came to be stereotyped with the familiar garb so beloved of children's toys, games, books and films; the children spent a long time playing in the play area with its miniature ship, treasure chests etc and hats, coats, hooks and eye-patches.

Soon it was time to leave and make our way back to Bethnal Green tube station, catching a train straight through to White City for the short walk to the senior granddaughter's home. One child fell asleep on Granny's lap on the Central Line, the other didn't quite nod off on Grandpa's lap. So tired after a great day out. We did hit a slight snag at White City, where the train terminated: I stepped off the train through the sliding doors as usual, with luggage and both buggies, while my wife got the children ready to leave the train; the driver announced that as it was terminating everyone still on board should leave, but by the time Granny had got the girls to the doors, they slid shut. They were not trapped on the train as the doors the other side slid open to let passengers enter from the other side - they left the train and hailed the driver as he came down the platform. He came over the bridge and used a key to open the doors for them so that they could join me and we left together. A slightly scary moment but soon put right by the usual helpful attitude of the staff, although the driver did admit that it had been his fault to start with - he had no way of seeing that there were still passengers on board and needed to give them longer.

We had tea and played with Lego and then left one granddaughter with her parents and baby sister (by now having seen all four grandchildren in one day - although not all together), returning to Kings Cross via the Hammersmith and City Line with the other.

Again allowing plenty of time between trains we spent a few minutes in the First Class Lounge at Kings Cross then caught the Lincoln train back to Peterborough. Having been well-fed already I declined the sandwiches and simply had a can of Hop On Board ale by way of refreshment. We were met on the platform at Peterborough by the remaining grandchild's parents and said our farewells, then had our complimentary hot chocolate at the Great Northern Hotel before catching our train home to Stamford and treating ourselves to a taxi back to our new home and back to the chaos of a house with its circulation space all disrupted. And no children for the first time in three days!

Sunday, 30 December 2018

Looking forward to 2019

Rail Adventures Planned for the new year

2019 will be a new experience for me, whatever unexpected surprises may come along, for at the end of January I retire from the "day job" and, theoretically, will have more time for travel, and for writing. There may well be, then, a bit more activity on the blog, but as I've never lived this sort of life before I find it hard to predict how things will be. Whether the UK's impending departure from the European Union will make any difference I also find it hard to predict. Not only might this make travel into Europe more complicated and expensive, it may make everything more expensive and therefore reduce what we can do. We are looking forward both to visiting new places and to travelling on "interesting" trains or routes.

I already have some trips in the diary but hope to add a few more, notably to Cornwall at some point. Already planned is a weekend tour of the West Highlands of Scotland in April, a day out in May in the Jewellery Quarter in Birmingham, and the best part of two weeks in summer with Great Rail Journeys in Switzerland. The Scottish and Swiss trips are booked and committed and the Birmingham one advertised as a "Come with me" trip so is virtually committed. We shall also have to arrange to be on the Sussex coast again in August to visit our friends on holiday at Bracklesham Bay.

For the first time since 1980 I shall be free for Holy Week and Easter and we are thinking of visiting a cathedral city and attending the principal worship at the cathedral with exploration and leisure in between the services. Looking at the English cathedrals' websites, York looks the most likely to provide what we are looking for, and would be the first time for ages that we have ventured north on the East Coast Main Line with LNER's excellent catering.

There will also, I hope, be several days out and short breaks once the pattern of life becomes
established, for we have little idea yet of how it will be to live in our new home, the first time in our 38-year marriage that we'll have a home of our own, private, chosen and fitted out by us. We are having as much done as possible before moving in so that I do not have to spend weeks of my life on DIY! But I do have the Swiss model railway to build when I'm not travelling! An annual trip to the Thermae Spa in Bath is one aspiration, and this can often be fitted into a trip to the south or west of England. We have been given for Christmas a voucher for an afternoon tea in London, so that is another trip to come!