Saturday, 8 January 2022

Travelling with Confidence? Not So Simple!

Train travel in a time of uncertainty

Our trains are clean and air-conditioned, and face-coverings are legally mandatory, so as far as health and safety are concerned we can travel with confidence on almost any train in the UK. But making a journey by rail is not the same thing as riding on a train, and with constantly-shifting laws and government advice together with a very high infection rate leading to multiple staff shortages in all services including railways and bus services, it is not easy to plan a journey with confidence. Each railway company does its best: LNER, for example, has reduced its timetable on its Leeds and Lincoln routes in the hope that enough staff will generally be available to operate all other trains so that people can travel with LNER with confidence. The problem is that in reality people need the whole system to work together. I do not live on LNER's route and in order to travel to London or the north I have to go to Peterborough by Cross Country's Birmingham-Stansted service, so I depend on the two companies connecting smoothly. Such is the odd way Britain's rail fares work that a First Class Advance ticket for the whole journey would be ridiculously expensive, but it works well to by such a ticket for the LNER leg while buying Day Anytime Standard Class tickets for the short Cross Country leg. Last year when reservations were required for travel it was hard to be sure that seats would be available on all the required trains and we ended up occasionally using taxis to and from Peterborough, and although it is no longer as bad as that, there is now the fear that one company or the other may find itself short of a driver or guard during the pandemic and the journey fails. Fortunately, Advance tickets can be used on the next train if a planned connection does fail, so although we may be an hour late at least we would not be out-of-pocket.

As it happens we had bought tickets to visit family in London for three days after Christmas: we booked relatively late so the Advance First tickets were rather more expensive than we normally buy, but we felt that with the amount of luggage we might have and the headlines about busy trains Standard Class may not be able to offer the amount of space we would need. The First Class accommodation was pretty well fully booked, hence the fare, and our reserved seats were one behind the other, not side-by side or opposite. By the time Christmas came the panic over the "omicron" variant of the Covid-19 virus was beginning to make the trip look doubtful and we began making contingency plans for a one-day trip by car just to exchange presents and return home. Additional restrictions did not affect the trip, however, and we set out by train as planned, having done our "lateral flow" Covid tests and having heard that our hosts had also done their, with all four being negative. In the event our train form Stamford to Peterborough was on time (well, two minutes late) and the LNER connection was also running on time. There were several reserved seats which were unoccupied and so we forsook ours and sat opposite each other at a large table instead of in tandem. Refreshments were "thin" with this being the first day back at work and the train having already travelled from Edinburgh, but we were not going far and a mug of hot chocolate did nicely - we had our morning coffee between trains at the coffee lounge at the Great Northern Hotel, Peterborough, which serves as the LNER first class lounge there.

Although our train was only a couple of minutes late leaving Peterborough it was delayed in the tunnels on the approach to Kings Cross and was about ten minutes down by the time we arrived. Not a big deal, but annoying since all the work done to Kings Cross station throat a year or two ago supposed to make the station approach easier. We had two large suitcases because we were bearing gifts from other family members as well as our own for the family we were visiting, so we used the lifts at Kings Cross for step-free access to the Hammersmith & City Line platforms and set off for Shepherds Bush. Mercifully we were to bring back a lot less than we took, so my back pack which was carrying some of my personal luggage went inside one of the cases on our return.

On the one full day of our stay I went with my son and his wife and two children to The Design Museum in Kensington. The family did not stay long, having been there before, and went off to play in Holland Park, behind the museum, but I stayed and had a good look at the museum, started by the late Sir Terence Conran, an extraordinary designer whom I have long admired for bringing good design to anyone who wants it. We travelled there by bus and the museum and park visit were preceded by lunch at Wagamama in Kensington High Street. Wagamama is not a chain I have visited much before but I thoroughly enjoyed the meal there.

Apple (above) and Sinclair (right) computers

After meeting again in the park we all travelled home together by taxi, hailed using an iPhone app: Uber seems to have lost its dominance now, with a shortage of drivers apparently making it unreliable if the company increases pay to attract more drivers it will lose the price edge. I tend not to use either myself, but when the family is together a taxi can be competitive with multiple transport fares.

The following day we returned home in the afternoon, ready to greet friends who were coming to stay with us in Stamford for the next few days. Our Underground train to Kings Cross was fine, as was the train from there to Peterborough, but it was clear that the pandemic was creating staff shortages on the Cross Country route that should take us home to Stamford from Peterborough. There was no connection at Peterborough as planned, and the following train, an hour later, was not running either. There was a replacement bus but it was not due to leave until over half an hour after the train after our booked one. While the next train was running, that was the one our friends were expecting to be on, and it would get there just a few minutes after the replacement bus. We decided that to be good hosts we really needed to forsake the railway and take a taxi. This was expensive and there was no guarantee we could successfully claim any compensation from Cross Country, although I shall try.

Our friends' journey was fine, only booked on the day after all four of us had taken our lateral-flow Covid-19 tests to ensure that it was safe to meet, and when the time came for them to return home a few days later, their trains for that journey were fine, too. But there are big gaps in the timetable on our line which are not well-plugged by the replacement buses. The sooner this need for isolation ends the sooner we can start travelling again with real confidence: vaccinated and fit I am not afraid of the disease, but I am afraid of being stranded and a trip being ruined! Having said that, I am making bookings for the summer and beyond, it is just the next couple of months which are hard to book.

Saturday, 11 December 2021

Christmas Market Rhine Cruise

With Great Rail Journeys to What's Left of the German Christmas Markets!

Or Doing Battle with the Greek Alphabet

I have visited "German" Christmas markets in England a few times, three such visits by train being described earlier in this weblog, but I thought the time had come to go to Germany and see what they are like at home. Great Rail Journeys had sent me a winter tour brochure which included a short Rhine cruise with visits to Christmas markets including those in Cologne, a city where we had spent the night on our way to other places but had never really visited properly before. We booked it straight away, upgrading to First Class train travel and booking a similar cabin to one we had enjoyed so much on the Danube cruise a few years ago. We had also travelled along the Rhine valley by train a few times on our way to and from Switzerland, and now we would see it much more slowly from a river cruise ship, the Amadeus Silver II, a sister ship of the vessel on which we had cruised the Danube.

Coronavirus pandemic precautions in Germany tightened up a couple if weeks before the tour, and the cruise operator required us to book a Covid test before we could board, so we booked the test with Collinson's at St Pancras as we had for the Italian trip in October. We also intended to book with Collinson the required rapid antigen test for entry to the UK on our return but before bookings were available for either test the British government changed the requirement to the more expensive and time-consuming PCR test in order to check for the new and more transmissible "Omicron" variant of the virus. Self-isolation was required until a negative result was received. I managed, with some effort, to book all of these tests and then the government, just a few days later, added the need for a pre-departure rapid antigen test which meant we would also need a test before we could leave the continent. (This was a bizarre ruling: if we took that test at, say, Brussels before boarding the Eurostar and then took our arrival test in London - as booked - as soon as we arrived, the tests would be less than three hours apart! What is the point in that?) Thankfully, Great Rail Journeys sent an email message to assure us that they were arranging the pre-departure tests for us, at their expense. Even so we later learned that several people cancelled their bookings and a few simply failed to turn up on the departure day. So sad, but quite understandable. Our booking for the PCR test on arrival meant that our self-isolation should be only two days assuming the result is negative.

I don't want to put readers off travelling so I shall not describe all of the hassle, but eventually the day dawned and we set off for London, using the open First Class tickets booked for us by Great Rail Journeys. Leaving on a Sunday meant that we were subject to the timetable changes of weekend engineering work, but that all worked perfectly satisfactorily and we had a smooth an easy trip to London. Cutting a long story short, we checked in at the Premier Inn opposite St Pancras International station, also booked for us by Great Rail Journeys, took our rapid antigen tests and then visited our son's family in west London for supper before turning in for the night.

We did not have breakfast booked at the hotel because we anticipated an early start on Monday morning and knew that we would have breakfast on the train, and an opportunity to eat and drink while waiting for it. We went to the Great Rail Journeys office at St Pancras and met our tour manager who was Julia, the very person who had accompanied us to Italy in October. It was lovely to see her again. Normally the tour managers would just take us to the ship and then meet us after the cruise to take us back to London, with a cruise manager looking after us on board - Great Rail Journeys had booked all of the places on this cruise and there were four of their groups on the cruise - but with the amount of paperwork and testing needed it was easier for the company to give their tour managers a cruise with their parties than to send them home and out again, so Julia was with us for the whole time.

We were soon on board the 09:01 Eurostar departure for Brussels, where we had a couple of hours to buy a picnic lunch for the next leg of the journey, and to enjoy a Belgian beer (well, you have to: it's that or chocolate, isn't it?) before taking the German ICE train onward to Cologne. In case of extra formalities, this was a later train than originally planned and because of the late change we had to travel 2nd class on this leg of the journey: this was OK, though, for even in that class we still had reclining seats and adequate space. Typical of German railways, though, we arrived several minutes late at Cologne, but at least that ensured that the four road coaches taking the four groups were waiting for us at the station to take us to our ship which was moored on the other side of the river. In December you don't want to hang around waiting!

Afternoon tea was being served in the Panorama Lounge so we went to our cabin and simply left our coats and hand luggage and went to the bar. The ship's crew had collected all the luggage from the coaches and was delivering it to the cabins ready for us to unpack later. The cabin was very pleasant and spacious, with a picture window, a small walk-in wardrobe and a shower room. There were plenty of power sockets for charging our electronics, an improvement on the older ship on which we'd cruised the Danube. It was St Nicolas's day, and each of us had a chocolate Santa Claus on our pillow - not needed just yet! After tea we were introduced to the crew and given the necessary safety briefing before a glass of sparkling wine and canapes. Then everyone went down to the restaurant on the deck below for the first of many excellent on-board meals. We sat with a couple from Australia who were staying with family in Britain and were giving their family a bit of a break by leaving them for a few days on this tour.

After dinner there was a quiz in the Panorama Lounge. We teamed up with two others to enter the quiz but even the four of us with very different tastes and backgrounds managed to score very few points in a quiz about "Christmas music". Our new acquaintances were a retired detective and one of the other Great Rail Journeys tour managers who used to be a train driver. We were still sitting chatting at 23:00 hours when the ship departed on its journey southwards along the Rhine, and it was after midnight before we had finished unpacking and gone to bed. We kept our curtains open and fell asleep as the towns and villages slipped by our cabin.

Loreley statue seen from our ship on Tuesday morning

In the morning we had a fairly light breakfast and then sat in the Panorama Lounge watching the scenery pass in the bright sunshine as the ship made its way to our first stop at Rüdesheim. Rüdesheim's Christmas Market had been seriously cut back owing to the surge in Covid cases in Germany, so Great Rail Journeys had arranged coaches to Mainz for those who would prefer to go there for the full Christmas Market experience, but we decided to visit Rüdesheim anyway, the markets not really being our main reason for taking this tour. We were glad that we did, for the town is the home of Asbach brandy and the local speciality coffee which features burning Asbach and sugar with strong coffee and whipped cream atop. This we had to try, and we also bought some little Christmas gifts here in one of the local shops. It was good to be there and to spend a little money with the local traders who seemed to be having a difficult time - many shops and hospitality businesses were closed and the streets while not quite deserted were certainly not busy. It is a charming little town and a great place to visit and enjoy.

Back on the Amadeus Silver II we had a cup of tea in the lounge at the rear of the ship, but a problem with the water supply prevented us having a shower before we gathered with the others for nibbles, gluhwein and carol-singing in the Panorama Lounge. This was slightly disappointing as we sang together only The Twelve Days of Christmas before recorded carols and hymns were played but with no words for the people it was hard to join in so I soon realised I was singing a poor solo and joined everyone else sipping the gluhwein in silence ... We then moved on to dinner, the usual excellent standard, and a fairly early night with a good night's sleep. (The water supply was back to usual by now.)

Wednesday morning was not bright and sunny,  but rather dull and misty, as we took our breakfast and then sat in the Panorama Lounge as the ship left on time and turned to make its way back through the Rhine Gorge towards the next port at Koblenz. Apart from the stunning rocky scenery and the views of villages and vineyards, this whole stretch of the Rhine valley is interesting in having a road and a railway on each bank and a lot of passenger and freight shipping on the river itself: we have travelled along the west side of this valley by train several times ourselves. On the way to Koblenz there was a gingerbread making demonstration in the lounge.

At Koblenz the ship docked in the River Mosel (or Moselle), which flows into the Rhine in the city centre and which gives the city its name, a corruption of the Latin for "confluence", for this had begun us a Roman city.  A guided walking tour of the city centre had been arranged and we were split into small groups divided among several guides, using radio headsets in order to hear the commentary clearly. Although Koblenz still had its full Christmas Market, this was spaced out more than usual and it was clear that a lot of local people were staying away and, of course, visitors such as ourselves were also present in smaller numbers than normal, so social distancing to avoid viral infection was not difficult. In order to but anything at the Christmas Market we had to show our vaccination certificates and photographic identity, but in order to avoid having to do this several times over we were given wristbands at the first stall we visited so that subsequent stallholders could quickly accept us as vaccinated customers. The first port of call once our guided tour was completed was a glühwein stall to try the mulled white Riesling - not something we have ever tried at home. 

We made our own way back to the ship and prepared for the evening, billed as a gala dinner with a Christmas theme. I was surprised when we arrived in the bar before the dinner to see that most men were wearing ties, and of those quite a lot were bow ties including a handful in full black tie dinner suits and several in Highland Dress. For once did not feel our of place in the bow tie I generally wear for these dinners on our tours. The meal was several courses, although I omitted one of them, and there was a choice of traditional British or German main course - I chose German, natürlich (no sausage or saurkraut included!). As always on an Amadeus ship there was as much wine as we wanted, included in the fare. After the meal we went back to our cabin and had a fairly early night, having has such a full day. The ship remained docked in Koblenz overnight and we woke at our usual time just as the ship was moving away to rejoin the Rhine for the trip down to our next port at Bonn.

I knew very little about Bonn and one of the attractions of this trip was that a stop at Bonn was included. I knew, of course, that before the reunification of Germany, Bonn was the provisional capital of West Germany, and I had once changed trains here but had not left the station on that occasion. The visit to the city was after lunch on board the ship. We met our local guide and the tour began with a poignant memorial to those who suffered in the holocaust, the darkest chapter of Germany's history, and then moved on to the Kennedy Bridge, named after the late president of the United States who visited Bonn just a few weeks before his assassination and was very popular in West Germany.

Outside the Rathaus (town hall) the paving was spotted with brass casts resembling book spines including titles by many respected German philosophers and other intellectuals, commemorating the burning of books on that site by the Nazis - today's despising of experts and learning is not new, and such popularism is always catastrophic. By 1945 the beautiful historic cities of this wonderful nation had paid an enormous price for the follies we had commemorated on this visit. This city was also the birthplace of Ludwig van Beethoven and there is a museum at the house where he was born and a statue in the main square where the Christmas Market was held. Our guide left us there for an hour to do our own exploring and then took us back to our ship in time for afternoon tea. Tea was interesting: we had cups of tea, of course, and there were sandwiches, stollen and mince pies - but these turned out to be exactly that, minced beef pies, dusted with icing sugar but with no fruit in sight ... Once enough time had passed we all took our pre-departure Covid-19 tests ready for the following day, and everyone struggled with the Belgian and British Passenger Locator Forms. These worked well enough on our iPhones but with a river cruise it was hard to know how to answer some of the questions, and those who are less tech-literate had a real problem with what actually had to be done, what "download a pdf" means, for example. One passenger had acquired a smartphone just for this tour - it is hard to travel abroad now without one. We soon learned that everyone had tested negative and we could at least return to Britain - but such is the muddled thinking of our government that we now had to test again when we got there, and isolate until we had the result. We just had to hope that the results would come quickly, and would be negative.

On arrival at the mooring in Cologne we had plenty of time to explore some of Cologne's Christmas Markets in the early evening December darkness: the atmosphere there was fantastic and the goods on sale fascinating. We had to be careful not to be tempted to buy food: we had had our afternoon tea, and we had dinner still to come! Our ship's mooring was on the far side of the river from the city centre, so we had a stroll over the landmark Hohenzollern Bridge to get there and back again. A coach was provided for any who wished to visit the city but could not manage the walk, but we were more than happy to get some exercise after all the eating and drinking! The fence between the footway and the six railway tracks was solidly encrusted with what must have ben millions of padlocke placed there by lovers over the years; we did not add one ourselves.  Thursday's final dinner together was up to the usual standard and we enjoyed the company of some new friends, and then retired upstairs to the bar for a final Asbach brandy before bed.

Up at the usual time on Friday we packed our suitcases ready for collection and enjoyed our final breakfast on board before returning to our cabin for our hand luggage. We were not due to leave Cologne until 13:43, so we had the morning to continue to explore Cologne, which was interesting but did not have the atmosphere of the previous evening. A coach took us with our luggage to the station and our luggage stayed with the coach while we explored, then we were able to collect it before going to the station for our train to Brussels where we changed trains for the Eurostar back to London. We enjoyed a hot chocolate from the buffet car on the ICE from Cologne and the usual complimentary light meal was served aboard the Eurostar from Brussels, but the waiting area at Brussel Zuid station was disappointing, with rebuilding work making it a dark and dreary place and the only source of coffee being the checkout at the new duty-free supermarket which presumably is one of the "sunlit uplands" of the UK's exit from the European Union. One of our chocolate Father Christmases was finally eaten at this point while we waited for the train to be ready for us to board.

Finally we were on the Eurostar train and relaxing in the familiar comfort of our Standard Premier seats and were whisked back to London with on-time departure and arrival, and an extremely friendly service of the complimentary light meal with wine and coffee. At St Pancras we were soon off the train and reconvened with several of the tour party in the queue for our so-called "Day 2" tests at Collinson's. Our appointment was at 20:00 and that was almost exactly the time we got to the front of the queue, which was extremely well-managed. Test done, we made our way over to Kings Cross station and caught the 21:00 departure for Peterborough, the last train from London to make a connection for Stamford. As with all the trains on the homeward trip, these we on time and efficient. LNER have introduced a Christmas menu in First Class, although our ride from London to Peterborough is too short to enjoy much of it, although the cheese and fig sandwich was really good.

And so to walk home and straight to bed, leaving unpacking and washing for the morning, along with opening the pile of Christmas cards that awaited us on our doormat. We have at least two days to to await freedom, ten if we turn out to be positive for Covid-19. Merry Christmas!

Thursday, 25 November 2021

Getting Back to Business at Last

By Train to a Real Meeting with Real People!

It has been a long time, but I have finally travelled to a meeting. Who would have guessed that going to a meeting could be so much fun, could have been a longed-for day out? The meeting was in Lincoln, not far away, and although I went there recently to visit with friends for a day out, I still looked forward to this day out on my own and not only to meeting my colleagues in person, in a room but also to travelling there and back on the improved train services to and from Lincoln.

When looking up train times to suit my meeting time (the ending of which had to be flexible), and allowing for time before and time after the actual business for any opportunities for friendly exchanges, it turned out that the travel both directions would best be done via Newark and LNER rather than Spalding at East Midlands Railway: I would have to change trains at Newark Northgate on the way there but that is never a problem.

On the day all my trains ran on time and the whole thing went very smoothly. I had plenty of time to work on the way there and the way back - this is all voluntary work, by the way, because I am now retired. Even going via the East Coast Main Line route on fast trains the journeys still took longer than driving because of the need to travel via a change of train at Peterborough, but the travel time was useful time and I made sure I had plenty to do on the trip. Further,  being retired I am seldom in a hurry anyway and wanted to enjoy my day out, so I booked First Class tickets for the LNER legs of the journey (but only claimed Standard Class fares on expenses, of course).

USB charging on the train
between Newark and Lincoln

On the way to Newark in the morning I enjoyed coffee and a pain-au-chocolat for my morning coffee break, included in the First Class fare, and kept the included sandwiches for an early lunch in Lincoln (my meeting started at noon!). At Newark I had to cross the bridge to Platform 3 where an East Midlands Railway Sprinter train soon arrived to take connecting passengers to Lincoln. They now use more comfortable, and big enough, trains on this connecting service, making it much more of a pleasure than it used to be.

At Lincoln I had plenty of time before my meeting and chose to walk up the hill rather than take the (free for a pensioner!) bus as I often have. As I have mentioned before, Lincoln is definitely improving, and the walk up the High Street and Steep Hill was great. 

After the meeting I walked back down to the station via the High Street. I had been for ages carrying a fully-stamped loyalty card for Caffè Nero on my iPhone, waiting for the day when I would find myself away from home and needing a coffee shop, so I based myself in Caffè Nero to do my post-meeting paperwork, emailing out to other members of the group the notes and instructions we had agreed. How much simpler and quicker IT has made this sort of administration! 

Off then to the station to await my LNER "Azuma" all the way to Peterborough this time, again in  First Class with tea and cake on leaving Lincoln, with a glass of white wine later before changing trains for the short trip home to Stamford. I was meeting my wife in town for dinner later, so I did not take up the offer of the hot meal on the train, but the cake was just what was needed to see me through to dinner time, and it was the right time of day for that sort of thing.

A few days later I returned to Lincoln for the weekend on personal business and had to travel by car for various reasons. For several days beforehand I had to keep reminding myself that it was no use taking things to do on the journey: I would have to concentrate on driving. It is interesting how used I have become to spending my travel time doing things which are useful and/or fun, but although driving was a bit quicker I had no use for my computer or my books and magazines when I took the car.