Thursday 13 December 2012

Beer and Barges in Birmingham

One Christmas we were given a vineyard or brewery tour, which we opted to take at the end of May. When we looked at the locations of the possible places to visit one stood out as easy to visit by train from Stamford, so we worked out an itinerary for another adventure which would have as a centrepiece a visit to the Banks's brewery in Wolverhampton. We would stay in the centre of Birmingham and include some of the many other activities available there during the rest of our time. A holiday in Birmingham may not be an obvious thing to do, but our three days and two nights were far short of the time needed to see all that this city has to offer the tourist, and getting to the heart of the city at the Heart of England is simplicity itself from Stamford!

At the time CrossCountry were offering Advance First Class Singles and by booking well in advance (once the brewery tour was confirmed) we were able to travel in more comfort. Regrettably this fare is no longer on offer - presumably because there is so little First Class seating on these trains - but Standard Class is perfectly satisfactory and comfortable enough. There is trolley catering all the way between Stamford and Birmingham New Street, and only the coffee is free for First Class ticket-holders anyway! We left on a mid-morning train direct to New Street and were able to leave our luggage at our hotel before lunch, giving a full afternoon in the city centre. As it happened we had good friends who were also visiting Birmingham at the time and whose holiday overlapped with ours, so we spent that afternoon with them and I need not bore readers with the details of catching up on life once lived in Birmingham! The evening meal was to be a special one together with our friends at one of the amazing number of restaurants by the canalside off Broad Street. There is something there for everyone and we settled on a Thai restaurant and went for a canalside stroll afterwards. You do not need a beach to be on holiday!

The following morning after breakfast at the hotel we walked to Snow Hill station for the Midlands Metro tram to Wolverhampton. Between the two cities this tramline follows the route of the former Great Western main line but has several more stops than the railway used to have. It runs through regenerated metal-working areas and it totally different from the run-down and decaying urban sprawl that I remember from the seventies. The tram is not the quickest way to Wolverhampton but it gives a chance to see local things on the way and it terminates in the street not far from where we were heading.

Banks's Brewery tours require a minimum number of bookings to run and when we turned up at the reception by the brewery shop we were told that there were a dozen others expected, prizewinners from a pub competition who had won the tour as a prize. After waiting until well after the booked time, we were still the only two so we were taken round on our own! Possibly the most personal tour they had ever run ... we saw more, could ask more questions and still took less time than if we had been in a big group. Round here the beer from that brewery and the others in the group is normally sold as Marston's, a better-known name in the East Midlands, Banks's being very much a Black Country name little-known outside the West Midlands, but the company owns half-a-dozen breweries whose products are well-known throughout England, and lorries bearing advertising for all sorts of great beers were busy loading in the yard. We saw where the beer is brewed and we watched cask ales being put unto their metal casks for distribution.

The tour finishes with a chance to try a couple of pints of the beer and then we bought some as souvenirs to bring home - and when you see me in my Banks's polo shirt you now know where I bought it!

The nearest pub for lunch was at the end of the short street leading to the brewery, and then after a look at some of the shops in Wolverhampton we made our way to the station and caught a fast train back to Birmingham New Street and took our shopping back to our room. Much of the rest of the afternoon was spent in Birmingham city centre, including a visit to the Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery where the Staffordshire Hoard was on display. Tea in the splendid Edwardian Tea Room makes a visit to this place worthwhile on its own! I went for short train ride to where I had lodged as a student - we had network tickets to cover all our travel for the day. Dinner at our own hotel - not that we needed much after the breakfast and lunch.

Entrance to Court 15 and the rear houses
Our last day had been unplanned when we arrived but we had soon identified some things we wanted to do. In the morning we visited a National Trust property unlike any other was have seen, a preserved courtyard of Midlands back-to-back houses (details which have to be seen by pre-booked guided tour and are well worth a look. The history of our industrial way of life includes this way of squeezing huge numbers of workers into a small space.

These houses are on a street corner just a few yards from the Bull Ring Shopping Centre, an easy few minutes' stroll from our hotel. Fascinating - and when I was studying town planning here in the seventies some were still in use!

In the afternoon we took a canal tour, seeing another aspect of Britain's industrial past which has been made accessible and is within easy reach of Birmingham city centre. Our tour operated from the quayside at the International Convention Centre and took in the new "main line" canal towards Wolverhampton (we saw the railway line on which we had returned the previous day) and meandered via the older, narrower canal which served the industries which once thrived along here. An informative commentary taught us a lot about the history of the midlands canals and there was a bar on board to keep us fed and watered as we cruised. Beside the canal is Britains largest Sea Life Centre whioch had queues right round it. At first it seems odd to have it there, as far from the sea as you can get in Britain, but perhaps that is the very reason why it is there!

We soon collected our luggage and returned to New Street for the last train home, leaving much for future visits: the rest of the Museum and Art Gallery, the Museum of Science and Industry, Aston Hall (a Jacobean Manor House), the Jewellery Quarter and lots more shops. As a change at Birmingham often fits into longer trips we may tick some of these off as we travel about the rest of the country and have already done some shopping as we passed through on our way home from one journey - New Street station is right in the heart of the city centre so it is not difficult to do this, and an overnight stay here would easily fit into a trip to Wales, the West Country or the North-West.

There are photographs of our time in Birmingham at as well as some I took forty years ago in my student days; an interesting comparison.

Tuesday 20 November 2012

The Highland Chieftain, the bargain trip of a lifetime!

It is tempting when signing up for services on the world wide web always to tick the "Don't send me email" box, but sometimes it is worth letting compamies write to you. Recently I tried to invite two readers to subsibe to East Coast Trains' loyalty programme but I received the reply that they had refused to accept mailings from East Coast, so that was that. For myself, I receive email from East Coast Trains about once a month or so, and in the summer of 2011 one such message conveyed a startlingly good special offer ...

In 2011 East Coast had relaunched their First Class service, abolishing restaurant cars but including at-seat food and drink within the ticket price (which did not rise) for 1st class ticket holders. Less luxury, but better value. To promote this new service they offered those on their email list a one way 1st class ticket to anywhere on their line for £25. No limit to the number of tickets one could buy (within the number they had made available) but they had to be booked within the next few days and the trip taken within the next few months. I booked two first-class singles each way between Peterborough and Inverness because that is the longest trip we could take from here exclusively on East Coast trains! It is so long, infact, that the value of the food and drink consumed probably reaches the cost of the ticket, with the travel, in spacious reclining seats, effectively free! Two nights booked in a cheap B&B and we were off on another adventure!

Funny how it works out. We had never been, together, north of Edinburgh until 2011 and yet now we were to have visited the Higlands twice in that year. The overnight trip to Fort William I have already described two months ago; this time we were bound for the opposite end of the Great Glen at the mouth of the River Ness and the North Sea end of the Caledonian Canal. I had no idea what to expect of the town.

As usual we started at Stamford station and changed at Peterborough. The Highland Chieftain, the one through daytime train per day to Inverness, no longer calls at Peterborough so our train took us to Edinburgh where we changed again into the Highland Chieftain for the trip through the Highlands. The free coffee was served almost as soon as we boarded (but for some reason water was not available until the lunch came along north of Newark - the only blot on a fantastic trip). The lunch menu is small and light but absolutely delicious. The wine is free as well as the water, so consumption is moderated by prudence rather than cost! But at least we were not driving ...  Persuading us to try out this service by offering it at such a giveaway price was a pretty good move - we shall use East Coast First Class whenever we can book early enough to get affordable tickets.

Once north of York the scenery becomes much more interesting and attention wandered from the table in front of us to the view from the window. Our favourite bits are the arrival into Newcastle Central with the classic view of the famous Tyne bridges (apart from the one we were crossing, of course!), and the long run up the Northumberland coast with views of Lindisfarne Castle and Priory, Alnmouth and so many wonderful patches of rugged coast and the ships on the North Sea.

Arriving in Edinburgh always feels like you're arriving somewhere worthwhile. It is a very distinctive city with the station right in the heart of it, the Castle towering over the railway to the west of the station. The Highland Chieftain is formed of a diesel High Speed Train with much more spacious coaches than most trains in Britain these days and an even more comfortable ride than we had enjoyed so far. Another meal on this stretch of the trip with the scenery of central Scotland slipping by as we head north to Inverness through the Cairngorms, with Scotch whisky and shortbread also free of charge, and when north of the border, well, you have to fit in ...

Inverness is a small terminal station in a small city with the only long distance trains being ours and the overnight Caledonian Sleeper from Euston, another section of the train on which we had been to Fort William earlier in the year. We soon found our way up the steep steps of the pedestrian shortcut to our accomodation and settled in for our two nights and then went for a short walk around the city before turning in for the night.

After the usual hearty guest-house breakfast we set off to explore a bit more, and looking back it is hard to believe how much sightseeing we packed into one day! Along the south bank of the River Ness is a small linear park with some great views of this shallow river. We were still well within the built-up city but could see little of it, and there were anglers in waders, fly-fishing out in the water. One of my photographs looks like it was taken out in the wilds somewhere rather than in the heart of a (albeit small) city! Just as we'd had enough walking we came to a garden centre where we were able to have a drink and a snack and then walking back towards with city centre on the other bank of the river we visited the Cathedral which had the most amazing font - worth coming here just to see that.

I had always been fascinated by the concept of the Caledonian Canal, linking the North Sea and the Irish Sea by joining up the lochs of the Great Glen, and we walked out to the flight of locks near where the north-east end of the canal joins the estuary of the Ness. I thought this would be a quick look before heading off for a pub lunch, but it happened that there were two small yachts making their way down the flight of locks and we watched and photographed the process (they were already a couple of locks down by the time we arrived) until they finally passed through the swing bridge and into the final basin before the sea locks, out of sight around a bend. By this time lunch was foregone, but we were still running on the East Coast Trains food from the day before and the big breakfast from the morning, so beer and crisps sufficed!

For anyone staying longer in Inverness there is the possibility of a trip by coach and boat onto Loch Ness, but this was a short, simple and above all (as we had not budgetted for it!) cheap trip, so we did not take up this option on this visit. We found a suitable restaurant for the evening and recovered from several miles of walking.

The Higland Chieftain leaves early in the morning and breakfast is included in the First Class ticket, so we had warned our landlady that we would not need a breakfast but would be checking out at breakfast time. She insisted on packing something for us nevertheless, so we had something to keep us going if East Coast ever fell short!  This train dwarfs the little station at Inverness and we had a long walk to our coach - First Class is normally marshalled at the London end of these trains - and settled in. The people sitting next to us, students speaking French, boarded with take-away coffee and all sort of food - evidently did not know about the inclusive catering. The one blot on this trip was that there was no chef to provide the full breakfast which the brochure said "you can count on". It was a disappointment, but the hot bacon rolls provided as a substitute were excellent and when they came round with a second one I was ready to forgive the disappointment.

On the way back we changed at York and the electric train waiting for us there was clearly mainly for the use of passengers out of the Higland Chieftain who needed intermediate stops, as the main train was now going on non-stop to London. We had a coach to ourselves from York to Peterborough, so we also had a crew and a larder to ourselves and there was no shortage of food or drink, nor of someone to bring it! By the time we changed trains at Peteborough we had probably had enough Famous Grouse for the day, and arriving home at about 4.20pm we decided that after all the walking, the food and the drink we had probably just about had enough day, actually, and went straight to bed to recover from the shortest and most intensive holiday we have ever taken.

Further information on East Coast First Class at
My photographs at

Saturday 20 October 2012

Pints and Pork Pies

The first time I ever rode on the railway through Stamford I was on my way to an interview at Aston University in Birmingham, just after my eighteenth birthday. I remember being amazed by how pretty Stamford station was as my train from Peterborough emerged from the tunnel (in those days I used to ride behind the driver whenever possible, watching the scene ahead of the train). I also remember thinking how lovely the town of Melton Mowbray looked from the train. I must have been through Melton a hundred times since, both by rail and by road, and had often said I really ought to come and look at the place some time. It is so near that it had been easy to keep putting it off until later. When Michael Portillo included it in his Great British Railway Journeys we were given the push to get on with it and the next time I could clear a Saturday in my diary we set off.

Unlike the long and complex itinerary I described last month, this one was simplicity itself: one train in each direction, just half an hour each way. But it still took us to explore somewhere we'd never been and to experience new things. Our luggage was just a shopping bag and a camera this time!

The trains on the main service through Stamford pass each other just outside the town, and so once an hour the station gets busy with trains in each direction just five minutes apart and then it settles down to peace and quiet again for another fifty minutes until the next sets of passengers turn up. Thus when you are a waiting passenger the whole place has an air of busyness with people waiting on both platforms, a mildly exciting way to begin an adventure. CrossCountry's "Turbostar" trains are quite comfortable with air-conditioning, spacious seats with armrests and tables and a trolley refreshment service, and our ride to Melton was on time and straightforward.

Melton Mowbray station was being redecorated when we arrived, and a new council office building was under contruction opposite, so the scene immediately on arrival was pretty chaotic (but it is all finished now and looks very good!). If you look at the place on Google Streetview now, even though the site is labelled "Melton Borough Council" their building is still the disused goods shed!

We started with the shops, including, of course, Dickinson and Morris, the Melton Mowbray Pork Pie Shop, to which we returned later to buy our souvenirs: a pork pie and a couple of bottles of Melton Red ale. Some pies are made in the shop and we were able to watch them made in the tradtional Melton Mowbray way, although business is now so great that they also have a factory near Leicester which makes most of them. This shop sells lots of other interesting foods and is well worth a visit, the oldest pork pie shop in Melton and the only one still manufacturing in the town centre.

There was a street market and lots of little back streets worth exploring, with a heritage trail at as a guide to the town.

Lunch was at the Crown Inn which did a very warming and filling cooked meal with a pint or two of very decent real ale - one huge advantage of taking the train for such days out is that within reason it is possible to try the beers on offer without fear of not making it home: Everards at this inn, local to this part of Leicestershire.

Regrettably the church was not open for visiting, but the town still has a very good museum, the recently refurbished Melton Carnegie Museum which  traces the social and economic history of Melton and includes exhibitions on the town’s world-renowned Stilton cheese and pork pie industries and accounts of the arguments for and against fox hunting. We spent much time here and then made our way back to the station, stopping at one or two other shops on the way.

By the time we returned everyone else seemed to be returning home as well, so the little train was somewhat crowded but all got a seat and we arrived home on time determined to do this again some time with another town - of which I shall try to write in future months.

For those who would like to read a little more about the practicalities of trips such as the one I wrote about last month, it is worth looking at and for our local train services is the site to see (our "local" company actually can take you all the way to Penzance, by the way!).

Next month I intend to describe how 2011 accidentally became the year we saw both ends of the Caledonian Canal!

Thursday 20 September 2012

West Highland Adventure

The Caledonian Sleeper and other trains

The coincidence of a gift of the Time Out book, "Great Train Journeys of the World," with the broadcast of Michael Portillo's TV series of Great British Railway Journeys started the planning of our recent holidays by train, and now that we have made a few trips I thought it might be nice to share the experience with Parish News readers. Stamford is a good place to live for the rail-borne tourist, with direct access to Birmingham, from where much of the country can be reached, and quick access to Peterborough with connections to London and the north.

We began with a simple day trip which I shall describe next month, and then when visiting friends to the south of London took the opportunity to make a "dry run" for our planned holiday a little while later. They dry run was to ensure that we were OK with our new wheeled cases and could manage well enough with changing trains etc  with all we needed for a few days away. No problem: all went perfectly smoothly. The discipline involved in packing no more than you can carry makes many aspects of travelling much simpler! Booking in advance on-line can make rail travel very reasonably-priced with the proviso that one travels on a specific train, so planning the itinerary is important. This often makes first-class travel perfectly affordable and a trip therefore so much more enjoyable.

So early spring 2011 saw us setting off on our first adventure, one of the most exciting railway trips Great Britain has to offer. We were heading for the West Highlands of Scotland but with the journey as part of the adventure we were taking the Caledonian Sleeper from Euston, so on a Monday afternoon we trundled our cases to Stamford for the two o'clock train to Peterborough and on to London. We had a little time in London meeting our son and daughter-in-law after work and then strolled down to Euston station in good time to check into the train when it was ready for boarding at half past eight. Boarding the Caledonian Sleeper is like stepping back to the days of luxury trains that we thought were long gone: find the right section because this hugely long train splits into three parts at Edinburgh, then speak to the attendant who takes us to our compartments and looks after us on the journey. We were travelling first class with an interconnecting door open between our compartments and so we had plenty of space and yet were still together. The merged compartment is then locked whenever we are not "at home" and the attendant lets us back in on request, so our luggage is always safe.

After settling into our accommodation we made our way to the lounge car and ordered the haggis, neeps and tatties with a half-bottle of wine we'd promised ourselves as the start of our Scottish holiday, even though we were still in Euston station when we started enjoying it! It was already dark as we travelled through North London and on through the Midlands. We ordered our breakfast in the lounge car (ones own compartment is an option, but it seems a pity to waste the scenic views from the lounge car) and turned in for the night.

Waking in the morning and opening the blind to see running deer and snow-capped mountains was amazing, as was breakfasting while lochs and hills slipped by, well north of Glasgow now but still with a couple of hours to go. Arrival at Fort William is over twelve hours after departure from London and every daytime mile is stunningly scenic to an English midlander. But the best scenery is still to come! After checking into our bed & breakfast home of the next two nights we had time for coffee and a quick look around the town before catching our next train: the West Higland Line does not end at Fort William even though the Sleeper goes no further, and we travelled on for another eighty minutes or so to the terminus at Mallaig. As Michael Portillo has said, this line was built mainly for the fish traffic; there is no more fish traffic on the railway now, but this stretch has been described by some as the most scenic railway line in the world, so it was good to start our railway adventures with this one!

A couple of hours watching the boats and exploring Mallaig, with an excellent fish and chip lunch with heather ale and we were on the train back to Fort William, seeing the scenery from the opposite direction. One outstanding feature is the curved viaduct at Glenfinnan, from which the monument to the Jacobean uprising is seen and which has been seen in the Harry Potter films with the Hogwarts Express crossing it! During the summer season it is possible to ride this line behind a steam locomotive on The Jacobite train, but we were too early in the year for this experience. Good views are nevertheless available from the comfortable Sprinter units.

All this, and we are still on our first day! By the time we've sought out a restaurant and finished our dinner it is still less than 24 hours since we left London! The second day was spent in Fort William with a country walk to the foot of Ben Nevis. It is possible, in better weather, to walk to the summit of Ben Nevis, but it does take all day to get there and back. Perhaps some other time ... Our B&B had a bar well-stocked with single-malt whiskies so it was important to sample of few of these on our two evenings there, and we had haggis in one form or another ("freshly shot," according to one restaurant evidently targetting the gullible foreign tourist!) each day.

Train home via Glasgow

After two nights in the Highlands it was time to board our train for Glasgow, seeing the scenery through which we had slept, dressed and breakfasted on our way north. Almost four hours of woods, lochs, moors and tiny stations in small towns, with a swift approach to Glasgow along the north bank of the Clyde. Our hotel was immediately next to Queen Street station and we had the evening in Glasgow and most of the next day to see something of this tremendously rich and exciting city, including a visit to a preserved tenement house. A longer stay in Glasgow is on the "to do" list for a future trip.

Finally, the train home via Edinburgh and Peterborough. The first change, at Edinburgh, went smoothly and we settled into the restaurant car for our dinner overlooking the North Sea. Restaurant cars have since been abolished (a future article will describe their replacement by at-seat catering), so this was a last-gasp full dinner on a linen table-cloth on a service train. The last leg of this trip proved to be more of an adventure than we had bargained for, though. A fatality on the line much further south and cable theft somewhere around Newark had combined to cause a severe delay, but we were looked after extremely well by the staff on our train, especially the relief crew brought in at the last moment to take us forward from Newcastle (the scheduled crew being marooned in Stevenage by the line closure). Having missed our connection to Stamford we were provided with a taxi free of charge and refunded our fares for the entire trip from Glasgow to Stamford! It was almost worth being delayed to have a free first-class ride on the East Coast main line.

So ended our first car-free tour, taking in one of the longest trips available in the UK (not the very longest, for it is possible to travel from Aberdeen to Penzance on one train!) and some of the most comfortable trains on the British railway network and seeing some of the most spectacular scenery the British Isles has to offer, including the highest mountain. More trips have since been taken and more are planned. I cannot promise to describe one every month (I do not get that much holiday!) but I shall do so occasionally. Next month's instalment is the shortest trip taken so far, the day out that started the whole series.