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!

Wednesday, 19 December 2018

Birmingham German Market

Twelve go to Birmingham by train and have a great time

As my time as a parish priest nears its end, I decided to arrange just one more parish railway outing, and as it had to be in December, a visit to the Birmingham Frankfurt Christmas Market, supposedly the biggest (how ever you measure that!) Christmas market in the UK, and almost certainly the longest at several weeks, and an easy through train ride from our home in Stamford. There is always a lot to do in central Birmingham anyway, to suit many tastes, and I thought this trip might appeal to a wide circle of people. In the event it was one of the larger tours I have arranged, at a dozen people, and was enjoyed by those who came. Christmas shopping was, of course, an option for most, but some visited the excellent Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery, particularly to see The Staffordshire Hoard, and some also visited the churches and other places of interest.

We left Stamford on the 09:05 departure, on time, for Birmingham New Street and took up our seats reserved for us by the Cross Country Group Booking team. Although we did not get any group discount because all of us benefitted already from various railcard discounts, the group booking ensured that we could sit more-or-less together. The tickets arrived by Special Delivery a few days before we left.

The weather forecast was not good: rain all day from about the time of our arrival until about the time of our departure, thanks to Storm Deirdre, and although the rain started later than expected and was extremely light for an hour two before becoming a problem, the temperature was very low and we were cold outside.

First we walked through the Bullring Centre to ensure that everyone knew the location of the restaurant where we would be meeting later for supper - this was the Pizza Express, the nearest place I could get when I rang round to book a table for twelve during the Christmas market!

Then we strolled into New Street and everyone split off to follow their own agenda. Mine was a visit to the Ian Allan shop in Ethel Street, just off New Street, although on this occasion I did not buy anything - with a house move coming up and a continental model railway being planned there is a bit of a pause on buying British model railway things at the moment, and I already have enough unread books for the time being. It was time then for coffee and I popped into Caffe Nero opposite the station and came across two others of my party there, sheltering from the rain and wind which were just getting going by then.

Next on the agenda was buying a toy for a granddaughter for Christmas (I cannot say what it is in case she sees this blogpost, but I'll add a picture once she has been given it!) and so I went in search of a toy shop. I had time to look in The Entertainer and Debenhams in the Bullring, neither of which had what I was looking for, and then it was time for a lunchtime pint at The Wellington. On these trips I usually arrange a couple of optional things for us to do together, and at the appointed time five of us congregated in this real ale pub in Bennetts Hill, just off New Street. Then it was back to the toy search and John Lewis, in the Grand Central shopping centre over New Street station had exactly what I wanted, and a few other things as well, so for the rest of the day I was hauling a shopping bag around - I had to buy a plastic bag because (a) I bought more than I had bargained for when I chose my bag for the trip and (b) it was raining quite hard by now.

The other optional gathering I had arranged was a walk ... which, given the rain and bitter wind, was rather shorter than I originally intended! It did include, however, tea at the Centenary Lounge at Moor Street station. About eight of us came on this activity and although the Centenary Lounge was busier than I have ever seen it we - eventually - found a seat, although a few had decided to go across the road to Selfridges instead. Those who had not been to Birmingham before stood staring at Selfridges on our way to Moor Street, amazed at its architecture. After tea, we had the added bonus of the sight of a steam locomotive at one of the terminal platforms, returning with the Polar Express train, a Christmas special for families. In the retro-style of Moor Street it all looked very splendid.

We abandoned the idea of walking any more and all went our separate ways once again, although I bumped into other members of the party in Selfridges and elsewhere from time to time. Wanting somewhere to sit and read and write, and warm up, I went for a hot chocolate at one of Selfridges caf├ęs. I sat opposite the french windows looking out at the driving rain and was glad to be inside. While I sat there the rain did gradually clear up and things began to look better, and just as I was about to leave there was a sudden blast of wind and the glass doors all swung open, letting in the cold air: it was like a scene from a spooky film!

I strolled over to New Street station to check that all was well for our return train, which it was, and then made my way, via browsing in sundry shops, to Pizza Express. I began to wait for the rest of the party but all of them had arrived there before me, and the table was ready, so we started our supper early and were in no rush at all to get to the station for the train home. The rain and the wind had both stopped by now, and the temperature was gradually rising, even though it was night! It was forecast to continue rising until midnight, by which time we'd be long gone.

The train was at the platform early, too, and we boarded and made our way to our reserved seats - it was just as well that it was early because, as I have discovered on this service before, the reservation cards had not been placed on our seats, and as the train was to become crowded (in spite of being three coaches rather than the two we sometimes get), we might have struggled to claim our seats if we had arrived just before departure. I had the list of seats which Group Bookings had sent me, but I don't imagine it would have been easy to turf others out of our seats just using that! Disappointing, that, but at least, as it happened, it did not actually affect us. But more by luck than judgement.

On the way back I sorted out who owed what for the meal and then we arrived in Stamford to find the Stamford Street Pastors greeting this, the last train of the day, as they usually do, and then made our way home, warm and dry here, too!