Tuesday 3 December 2013

The Thirties Era, with a Polish Twist

Since the National Trust opened Agatha Christie's home at Greenway, on the left bank of the Dart Estuary, we had promised ourselves a visit there, and browsing through the NT handbook revealed two other interesting houses nearby, both twentieth century, all of which could be reached from a walking holiday based at Paignton or Dartmouth. We had visited Dartmouth in the past and decided to make that our base, and the first requirement was to book the bed & breakfast to ensure that we could stay there, the second to set up an alert to tell us when the cheapest tickets for the trains would become available. As a fan of Agatha Christie our daughter Celia was to join us for the first couple of days, meeting us in London for the start of the adventure!

For us, the trip started with the usual train to Peterborough and then to London, and we made our way to Paddington where we had arranged to meet Celia at the First Class Lounge on platform 1. (A little tip if you're travelling from Kings Cross to Paddington by Underground: change at Edgware Road to the District Line because the District platforms at Paddington are much better placed for the main line concourse than the Circle/Hammersmith & City platforms are, and it's an easy change.) In the lounge we had our coffee and snack as we waited to be called to our train. We had been here once before when we had travelled to Cornwall on the Night Riviera, but this was the first time we'd caught a day train here. The deep blue livery of First Great Western's High Speed Trains is very striking, and their First Class cars have comfortable leather seats. It was a nice ride, but their catering is not like that of East Coast. We were offered a variety of drinks, biscuits, nuts etc but for a meal we had brought our picnic, bought from the M&S at Paddington before boarding, including "le Froglet" wine in plastic "wine glasses". The catering offer on board was not advertised well on Great Western's website and we had not known that there was a "Pullman" (so they call it) restaurant car, or we may well have budgetted for a special meal on this special trip rather than our M&S picnic. The line took us through Exeter and along the Exe estuary and the south coast via Dawlish and Teignmouth, a stretch which is now becoming familiar to us.

There are though trains from London to Paignton but not at the time we needed to travel in order to meet Celia and to make our connection to Kingswear, so we hd to change at Newton Abbot. This was a simple matter of getting off one train, waiting at the platform and getting on the next. Our little train from Newton Abbot to Paignton was a fairly full local train full of shoppers, workers and just a few other holidaymakers (most using the earlier through trains, I expect), and we found ourselves chatting to some local people which is always a bit of a bonus on these trains. The sun was shining and Torquay looked lovely. And so into Paignton. Here we had to leave the main line station and cross the line to the preserved railway's station next-door where we acquired our "Jubilee Passes" which would give us our travel around the area for the time we were staying. I had bought these in advance via the Dartmouth Steam Railway and Riverboat Company's website for collection at Paignton booking office and they entitled us to travel on any of the company' train or regular passenger boat services for five days (three in Celia's case as she was leaving early). This is a huge bargain, saving on the cost of the train to Kingswear on arrival and from Kingswear on departure with all other travel effectively free! We had allowed plenty of time for the connection to the steam railway in case the main line train were delayed but all had been on time so we had a little while to look around the gift shop and wait in the sun for our train. Our pre-war fantasy holiday had begun!

As those who've seen Michael Portillo in Dartmouth will know, Dartmouth has a station but no railway: the railway terminates across the river at Kingswear and passengers for Dartmouth cross by ferry. Arriving by steam railway and ferry would add to the inter-war era feel of the holiday.

We waited in the sun on the steam railway platform with its timber buildings and mock period posters and boarded our train when it came, the first of several steam train rides that would be taken on this trip. We were efficiently delivered to Kingswear and queued for the ferry across to Dartmouth where we arrived early for our check-in and whiled away half an hour at a pavement table outside waterfront bar surrounded by our luggage! There is always plenty of movement to see on this stretch of the river. We stayed at the unusual and excellent Anzac Street B&Bistro run by an Anglo-Polish couple with a Polish chef and would recommend it to anyone. We had dinner at a first-floor restaurant, in the yacht club overlooking the estuary.

Our first full day was the day at Greenway and it began, following the usual guest-house breakfast, with the ferry over to Kingswear and the train to Greenway Halt. This is a new station, with a very short platform requiring travel in a specific coach and it is on a very steep gradient just through Greenway Tunnel. As we made our way off the platform the locomotive struggled to haul its coaches away towards Paignton with about two seconds between exhaust blasts: those who know about steam traction will realise how hard this engine was having to work. Meanwhile dense smoke continued to pour out of the tunnel mouth, testament to how hard it had been working to get us this far. By railway standards this is a very steep hill!

Then began the first country walk of the holiday, through the woods to Greenway House, and the first of three National Trust house visits, with both coffee and lunch taken at the NT catering facilities at Greenway and a thorough tour of the gardens, the boathouse and the house itself, all seen on TV recently in the Poirot episode Dead Man’s Folly. Back through the woods to Greenway Halt and our train back to Kingswear. We were in plenty of time and while waiting were treated to the dramatic sight of a Paignton-bound train thundering up the grade without stopping. We had anticipated a pint at the hotel at Kingswear before crossing to Dartmouth, but it had unfortunately closed permanently a short while before. So home to sample the “menu with a Polish twist” at Anzac Street.

The second full day entailed the longest walk, to Coleton Fishacre, the home of the D’Oyly Carte family of Savoy fame, an Arts & Crafts style home with fabulous Art Deco interior and a wonderful garden. There was a well-worthwhile cross-country walk to get there, although we did not take the rather longer walk via the coastal footpath. Celia was to travel back to London this day and so we took her luggage and although there is not an official left-luggage facility at Kingswear station the staff kindly took in her case for us so that we did not have to lug that to the house and back.

After the walking and the visit to Coleton Fishacre we took the steam train again and saw Celia off at Paignton, then returned to Dartmouth: our steam train back had the Devon Belle Pullman Observation Car marshalled at the back and for a small additional fare we were able to travel in that and had a wonderful view of the coast and of the countryside. Unfortunately the champagne bar in the coach was not open … More of our Polish “home cooking” that night and a good sleep after all the exercise.

No train rides the third day, but a splendid river cruise to to Totnes, again included in our Jubilee pass. It was warm and reasonably sunny and we sat out on deck all the way. We were on our way to Dartington to see High Cross, the modernist house built for the headmaster of Dartington School and now a design museum managed and opened by the National Trust. It was a long walk across the farmland of the Dartington Estate, the opposite side of the town from the riverboat quay so we saw quite a bit of Totnes, too. An alternative way to travel to Dartmouth would be by train to Totnes and then riverboat, but it would be a long walk with a week’s luggage, so I think our route via Paignton was better.

From High Cross we walked down to the main road at the Shops at Dartington and caught a bus back to Totnes, then after tea and cake in a café in the town went to get our boat back to Dartmouth. This was when we had the only rain of the entire holiday but the late boat back was not crowded and everyone managed to travel in comfort under cover.

By the time we arrived in Dartmouth the rain had stopped and we were able to enjoy an evening out, fish and chip dinner to celebrate our wedding anniversary (!) and then a walk on the riverside. We popped over on the ferry to experience the crossing at night and on the way back over to Dartmouth were the only passengers. The ferry crew kindly switched off all but the navigation lights so that we could better enjoy the view of Dartmouth and Kingswear lit up at night. This simple pleasure was one of the highlights of a fantastic week.

All that remained after one last night at the B&Bistro was the trip home. We were going via Cheltenham and Birmingham, partly because were were to stay with friends near Cheltenham on the way, as we have done before, but in any case it is part of the experience on these tours to go back by a different route if it is convenient. Cross Country Trains run services to and from Paignton so after a final ferry and steam train ride (this time in the observation car behind the locomotive which was an amazing experience as it blasted through Greenway Tunnel with fire-lit smoke and steam all around us and pouring in through the windows!) we  had a picnic on the beach at Paignton and boarded our through train to Cheltenham, returning home from there two days later via the usual change at Birmingham New Street. We have already determined that we must return to Dartmouth and the English Riviera, and I am working out which way we might take next time. There is a lot more available from the Jubilee Pass which we did not fit in this time and now that we have visited all those NT houses, we may do a bit more exploring of the sea and the beaches on a future visit.

If you would like to see all the photographs of this adventure, they are available at http://www.flickr.com/photos/frmark/

Tuesday 26 November 2013

Parish Pilgrimage to Lincoln

When a group from All Saints' travelled to Ely earlier in the year for our first tentative rail adventure there was much enthusiasm for further trips and I resolved to try to do two per year: a shortish one in the autumn or winter and a longer one in the spring or summer. So for this year's autumn trip I arranged a visit to our own cathedral at Lincoln on 16th November, the eve of St Hugh's Day, St Hugh being the Bishop who had the cathedral built after the Norman original was almost completely destroyed in an earthquake. I was graciously allowed to preside at the 12:30 celebration of the Eucharist at St Hugh's Shrine, and the trip was organised around this pivotal event.

We began with the 08:01 train from Stamford to Peterborough where we connected with the 08:33 direct to Lincoln via Spalding and Sleaford. Good views across the fens were had once we were clear of Peterborough: across to Crowland Abbey between Deeping and Spalding, and the enormous bulk of the Bass Maltings as we approached Sleaford. North of Sleaford the train stops at two very small stations opened in the 1970s and now very popular with people going into Lincoln and into Sleaford for shopping and other purposes. As we drew near to Lincoln the view of the cathedral towering over the city was awesome, even through the November mists. Arrival was on time at about 10:00 - not a fast trip but an interesting one.

All of us managed the walk up the hill to Exchequergate and through to the cathedral where we were warmly greeted. Most opted for a guided tour while I sought out a verger to make the arrangments for the service. No-one seemed quite sure whom they were expecting because I had just been written into the diary as "Dean of Stamford" which did not mean a lot to most of the staff! I had time for a quick look around to ensure that the plans for a later walk would not be affected by road works or similar and thenit was time to worship. Although I had often taken part in services at the cathedral I had never led one before and this was quite as experience: no two churches ever do things quite the same way and I had to keep my wits about me (it was gratifying to be approached at the station several hours later by a stranger who had been there and thanked me for the service, so I must have got it about right!).

After the Eucharist we had lunch at the cathedral's refectory and then set off on a brief tour of one quarter of the Roman city wall. There is not much of it left and most is only foundations, but the section from the east gate, by the exit from the refectory, to the north gate is easy to follow and there are information boards here and there. Regrettably the north gate is having some substantial repairs done and is covered in hoardings so we did not see much of it, the only Roman arch in the country still in use by road traffic.

We then walked back towards the cathedral and castle along Bailgate, stopping to look at the well in the Roman forum area and the site of St Paul's Church, probably founded by St Paulinus on his way to York to become the first Bishop there. we all went our separate ways, meeting again at the station for the next part of the adventure. Some of us had coincided near a city centre pub in the meantime and had a swift half together before strolling down to the station.

The return journey was via a different route, for a the direct service between Lincoln and Peterborough does not operate in the evenings and in any case, real adventures shouldn't go the same way back. We travelled to Newark castle on a Nottingham-bound train and walked along the street to Zizzi's restaurant where our supper table had been booked. They were aware that we had a train to catch and despite being very busy managed to feed us comfortably in time and we were able to walk through the town to Newark Northgate station with no haste to get our next train, a London-bound East Coast express for Peterborough where we changed for our train home to Stamford. All the return journey was in the dark, of course, so there was little to see but trains ...

If you live near Stamford, Oakham or Peterborough and are interested in joining me on some of these day trips, please see the "Come with me!" Page.

Monday 11 November 2013

To business!

Back in the 1970s when some of us first became aware of environmental degradation and the impending shortage of fossil fuels it seemed like an impossible task to get politicians interested in anything but more and more cars as far as transport was concerned. I was ridiculed at a public meeting by the then head of Planning at Lincolnshire County Council for suggesting that efforts be made to encourage cycling ("It'll be skateboards next," he jeered - many a true word ...). This is all over now and "green" has become trendy, but so often it is lip-service. I once attended a meeting in a town hall about bus services and was the only person there who had actually arrived by bus! When planning the diocesan clergy conference I was anxious that clergy from around the diocese should know how to get to the venue by train and bus and not assume that they had to drive - which meant telling them to ignore the advice on the venue's own literature which was out-of-date and misleading! We get lots of advice about "shrinking the footprint" and all that, but we have a long way to go to get back to he days when it was assumed that some, at least, would routinely take the train. We use the excuse that Lincolnshire is a rural county, and it is, but it still has a fair number of rail stations and a lot of people live in the populated bits (oddly!) where the stations are located, and a lot can be driven to those stations instead of driving themselves all the way to wherever a conference is being held, or can get a bus to them: for most it is an excuse, not a reason! We can switch off our lights and reuse our envelopes, but until we stop thinking "travel = car" (or, worse, "travel = 'plane") we are not really being "green". It is hard to manage completely without a car, and I do have one, but it is not hard to get our mileage down by several thousand per year if we want to do it.

Last October I was going to The Hayes Conference Centre at Swanwick, Derbyshire, for the National Conference on the Deanery, and for one person travelling alone it is considerably cheaper on expenses, as well as kinder to the environment - and more fun for that person, in my opinion - to travel by train and bus. Now, from Peterborough (and indeed from Grantham) it is a through train ride to Alfreton from where there is a bus every fifteen minutes to the gates of the conference centre, but because of the way the connection times work, this is not the quickest way to get there from Stamford! Never one to take the easy way out when an adventure (which is also quicker) is in the offing, I went the recommended way, from Stamford to Leicester, then Nottingham and Alfreton - the bit between Nottingham and Alfreton is on a train which has called at Peterborough but too early for the one from Stamford to have connected, so going this way saves almost an hour! Although I had to change twice, each leg was still long enough to get some useful work done between changes, a little reading of things in preparation for the conference, but mostly devising and typing up a draft Mission Area Plan document for the Deanery Synod . This planning process required quite a lot concentration and was best done away from the telephone (and internet!) at home anyway. As with so many "business" trips, the train in this case is not actually quicker than driving, but it is time that can be used rather than time wasted driving.

I left Stamford at 14:05 on a Friday afternoon on a Birmingham-bound train and after about 40 miuntes' work was ready to change trains at Leicester . The through tickets had naturally been bought in advance but were not for a specific train, and by buying them through East Coast's website I had earned some points towards my next free trip on their trains, too. My train to Nottingham was a main line East Midlands "Meridian" express from London St Pancras and was very comfortable for this part of the journey and I was soon able to get back to my index-of-deprivation calculations for the parishes of the deanery until Nottingham Castle came into view and I knew it was time to change again for Alfreton. This was quite an interesting change: although the train was a through service from Norwich to Liverpool, the section of route between Nottingham and Liverpool is much busier than the section south and east of Nottingham, so two additional coaches are added at Nottingham to the westbound trains, being taken off again from eastbound trains. When the train came in from Norwich (via Peterborough and Grantham), it buffered up to the two empty coaches waiting at the platform and the gangway between the two units was opened up, and so a four-car set departed for Liverpool via Sheffield and Manchester. My own journey on this train was a fairly short hop to Alfreton where I walked up to the road and waited for a Barton bus to Swanwick. Those who've lived in Stamford long enough will remember Barton's as the local transport provider here as well: it has changed a bit since those days and the bus served me well: it does fiddle around a bit in Alfreton but it gets there soon enough. One of these days I'll see if I'm quick enough to walk across Alfreton to catch an earlier bus the other side!

My return trip was on the Sunday afternoon. Sunday travel used to fraught with difficulty, but it is not so bad now. True, that is still the day when there can be disruption due to engineering work, but now it is taken into account when your journey is planned, so your travel advice applies on the day you travel, and there are still some lines which do not have services on Sundays, but there are not many now, and those that do generally start later but then run a decent service. Thus my journey back, which was not affected by works so far as I know, was much the same as my journey there - except that by now I had made a number of new friends and we travelled back some of the way together! Four of us gathered at Alfreton station and travelled to Nottingham and then three on to Leicester together, where I said farewell to my London colleagues and awaited my train to Stamford. So I did much less of the deanery plan on the way back, but continued to learn from the experiences of lay people from other deaneries in other dioceses. This is the other great feature of travelling this way: you do actually get to meet other people, and life is much less insular than sitting in ones own car listening to ones own CD collection and looking at the world as an observer rather than a participant.

This trip is one which would not have been possible in the 1970s, for the station at Alfreton was not there then and the hourly Norwich-Liverpool service did not exist. The "great car economy," as a later prime minister was to call it, was in full swing and it was assumed that railways woud continue to wind down and that buses were the last refuge for those who could not properly participate in society. Mercifully, the trend has reversed and railways are now carrying more passengers than ever and the opening or reopening of stations and even lines is gaining momentum: it is more complicated since privatisation but the pressure is relentless. (Meanwhile facilities for cyclists are growing and the rebuilt skatepark is about to open. Who looks ridiculous now?)

Saturday 2 November 2013

St Hugh's Eve Pilgrimage to Lincoln

Meanwhile the next planned All Saints' parish outing is now just two weeks away, to Lincoln Cathedral on the eve of St Hugh's Day. The party will travel out via Peterborough, Spalding and Sleaford in the morning, with great views of the Lincolnshire fens. After worship at the Cathedral and as much of a visit as each person desires, there will be some time to look at other things in Lincoln and the party will return via Newark (where there will be a stop for supper), Grantham and Peterborough.

Those not on the trip will be able to follow progress at @SaintsOnline

Tuesday 29 October 2013

Time to start planning

I now have enough East Coast reward points for four more first class East Coast tickets! So it is time to start thinking about Scotland again ...

Monday 7 October 2013

The Far North!

For many years than I care to remember I have wanted to travel the scenic lines of Scotland which are so very different from anything else in the UK. Having finally begun a couple of years ago, as I have reported here, with the West Highland Line to Fort William (by the Caledonian Sleeper) and Mallaig, I was left with a couple of lines radiating from Inverness. I had also long wanted to see Aberdeen, the "granite city" and to take a ride on the one through train per day from Aberdeen to Peterborough. The opportunity presented itself when our East Coast loyalty points added up to enough for four First Class singles, and so a four-day, two-centred tour was thus devised: one day travelling to Inverness by the Highland Chieftain, as we had done once before, one day tripping out to Thurso on the Far North Line, one day in Aberdeen and a day travelling home from there.

Two nights were booked at the Royal Highland Hotel in Inverness and one at the Aberdeen Douglas Hotel, carefully chosen for proximity to the stations, through booking.com, and the tickets were ordered from East Coast (of course!). I had never booked free tickets with loyalty points before but it proved very straightforward: having exchanged my points for tickets, I found that £0.00 tickets appeared when I looked up the trains for the journey and I just ordered them for the journeys we wanted. I then added the tickets we were buying, to Thurso and back (Standard Class) on the second day and First Class singles to Aberdeen on the third morning (as well as each way between Stamford and Peterborough, of course), and paid for those, collecting all the tickets from the machine at the station when I was next over that side of town.

It was on a Tuesday morning that we took the train from Stamford to Peterborough to make the connection there for Edinburgh where we would board the Highland Chieftain once again. Both Peterborough and Edinburgh stations are in the midst of substantial improvement works: it seems that everywhere we travel we encounter builders, for Birmingham New Street and London Kings Cross are just the same! Still, with a little care it does not make any real difference to the journey and both connections were easily made. Just as before the catering was entirely free of charge, beginning with the coffee as the Edinburgh train made its way through the northern outskirts of Peterborough. Lunch and an afternoon snack were served further north. I decided to have the beer with my lunch, canned Old Speckled Hen: cans are not the best way to store beer but Hen is always good, even served this way, and some compromises are needed to cope with the complexity of catering for lots of people in a confined space at high speed.

We were changing trains at Edinburgh when a slight disaster occurred: as I slid the telescopic handle out of Alison's case for her to trail it to the right platform for the next train, the handle came out completely, leaving the case standing. So for the rest of the holiday her case had to be carried - I would try to repair it when we were at home - but with having booked hotels close to the stations there would be mercifully little carrying to be done. The wheeled cases are an important part of modern travel, with porters being very few indeed these days and dedicated to helping those with special needs, such as the elderly and disabled. We have developed techniques for minimising the amount of luggage we take and it is generally one small wheeled case each plus a small backpack.

The ride on the Highland Chieftain from Edinburgh to Inverness is a further three and a half hours and another selection from the all day menu provided dinner, this time with wine. It was the second time we'd travelled on this service and we were beginning to feel like old hands … We look forward to trying it again when the builders have moved out of Edinburgh station!

Last time we were in Inverness we stayed at a little B&B a short walk away from the station, but as we were only using the town a a base for further exploration this time we opted for the station hotel, the Royal Highland, which is built alongside the station and could not have been more convenient. The entrance hall is every Englishman's idea of what a Highlands hotel should be, with tartan carpet and antlers on the walls. Our room overlooked the front door and the station forecourt, and provided a comfortable base camp for the following day. After the catering on East Coast, the vouchers for price-reductions in the hotel restaurant could wait for the following evening!

The usual big hotel breakfast set us up for the long ride to the far north. One may think that Inverness is a long way north, but the north coast is almost four hours further! The line is far from straight and at times is among the hills and at other times along the coast, weaving inland and coastwards around the estuaries and serving some very remote communities along the way. There is only basic catering on the trains and we stocked up with Marks and Spencer sandwiches before boarding the 10:37 departure for the Far North. (We had to go to M&S anyway because the shirts I had intended to take were still hanging on the wardrobe door at the Vicarage …) An interesting feature of this line is that just before the north coast it divides at a station called Georgemas Junction, but the train neither divides nor connects with another: it reverses to Thurso and then reverses again, returns to the junction station and then goes to Wick and the end of the line. Coming back from Wick it goes to Thurso before performing the same double-reverse in the other direction to head south to Inverness. We chose to get off at Thurso rather than do the shuffle through to Wick and back, partly because it was the farther north and partly to give ourselves more time before the last train back (which was, in fact, the next train back after than the one we'd just arrived on).

From the station at Thurso we walked through the town centre to the beach, bought our postcards (yes, this is a seaside!) and visited the museum (where we also had a warming cup of coffee) and looked around the shops. There is a fascinating display about Pictish symbol stones at the museum, something I knew nothing about before. Funny there was no-one sitting on the beach in swimwear.

At one point on the way back south of Helmsdale the train runs right along the pebble beach of the east coast with the waves of the North Sea right outside the windows, far closer to the sea than the Great Western main line is at Dawlish. Among the mountains and the lochs we felt very small and insignificant in our little two-coach train on its winding single track. At Invergordon, on the Cromarty Firth, I took some video of the oil platform servicing facilities clearly visible from the line the. At this stage in the holiday I knew next-to-nothing about the oil industry, but all this was to change when we were in Aberdeen two days later. Meanwhile we could see quite a lot of mysterious gear at Invergordon and a few nearby places.

And so back to Inverness and our hotel. Time to sample the restaurant, which had a bargain meal offer for over-50s! We had the most avant-garde haggis, neeps and tatties, Alison as a starter and I as a main course: delivered as cylindrical stacks of the three dishes, one for the starter and two for the main, with a delicious mustard sauce. Thoroughly recommended.

On Thursday morning after breakfast we checked out of the Royal Highland and caught the 10:57 Scotrail train to Aberdeen. I don't know if rail fares really are cheaper outside the south-east, but I had bought First Class Anytime tickets without discount and they were quite affordable here.  These tickets would have allowed break-of-journey if we wanted to see anything else on the way, but we decided to stay on to Aberdeen and spend the rest of the day there. It is over two hours and hot drinks and snacks were included in our fare.

Neither of us had been to Aberdeen before and although we knew it was coastal and the main base for the UK oil industry we had not reckoned on it as a seaside town, complete with amusement park (a bit low-profile this early in the season, though) nor had we realised what a huge part of its life the oil industry had become. Our hotel was a stone's throw from the dock where the oil platform supply ships were docked and from where the Shetland ferries operated. In the other direction it was a short walk to the shops and other city-centre facilities including the university. Pubs selling cask ales were hard to find but we tracked one down in the end, in a student area, naturally! We had shopping to do and we had a stroll along the seafront (but on the actual beach today) and back through the city centre to a good night's sleep.

On Friday we checked out but had the hotel look after our luggage until we were ready to go. We spent all the morning at the Aberdeen Maritime Museum which is one of the best museums we have ever visited. Not very large but it taught us about oil exploration and production, the centre-piece being a four-storey scale model of a production platform in an atrium permitting views of the entire structure. Through the windows of the building we could see oil industry vessels in the docks and we were fortunate enough to meet a visitor to the museum who worked on an oil platform and who explained to us what all the different vessels were for: that made our experience better still.

The train back to England started at Aberdeen and was waiting for us at the station: it was due to stop at Peterborough, so that would be our only change on the way home. Brilliant: we would sit back and let the scenery slip by while the drinks, snacks and meals were brought to us. As far as Edinburgh this was all new to us and included bits of coastline and the famous bridges over the Firth of Tay and the Firth of Forth. Again, this was a diesel High Speed Train as used for the Highland Chieftain and in our opinion the most comfortable trains on the system. 

Soon we were speeding past the familiar sights of the Northumberland coast and on south through Newcastle-upon-Tyne, Durham and York and so into Peterborough dead on time. Across the bridge on Platform 5 our little East Midlands single-coach train was waiting: this is the one East Midlands Trains service from Peterborough to Stamford each day, a through train from Spalding to Nottingham which leaves Peterborough at 21:30 and makes a brilliant connection with our train from Aberdeen.

As we walked up through the familiar streets of Stamford on our way home it was hard to believe that just two days ago we had stood on the beach at far north of Scotland. The repair to the suitcase just about got us through our summer holiday in Devon (which will be reported fully in due course) and has since been tweaked in the hope that it will keep going for a bit longer: it will be tested on a trip to Paris before very long, but you'll have to wait a little while for that story!

Tuesday 10 September 2013

Thought for the Day

Every couple of months I take a trip to Oakham to record a "Thought for the Day" for Rutland Radio - some of those who live locally may have heard them - and in keeping with my Rule of Life I have so far managed to avoid taking my car. There is no doubt that the bus would be cheaper, but with the train I can be there and back in less time, and I can work on the way, both while waiting and while travelling. Indeed I usually write the "Thought" on my way there!

As the blog is now a month ahead of the parish magazine, I thought I'd write up yesterday's trip to Oakham as this month's blog post while waiting for the magazine to catch up.

It is a common excuse among car owners that the reason they use their cars is that "you can go when you want to; you're not tied to timetables," but while this is often true I really do not accept that it is often valid. When Rob asks me to arrange my next recording time, I simply make it a time when the train will get me there and back: that is half past any hour. That gives me time to walk from the station to the studio and time to walk back to the station to get the train back. It does not feel like a bind - half past the hour is as convenient to me as 17 minutes past or any other random time that a motorist might feel "free" to travel. Choice is greatly overrated in my opinion.

So I sat yesterday on platform 2 at Stamford station at 11:00, reading papers for a training course I'm attending soon (I already have the train tickets for that, of course, and will write about it in due course!) and when my train arrived - a minute late at 11:06, shock, horror - boarded and travelled to Oakham jotting down the ideas for my talk, ideas I'd been kicking around in my head while walking to the station. There is a refreshment trolley on this service, and by boarding the coach where the trolley is you can be sure of coffee if you want it, which on this occasion I did. 

Coffee consumed and thoughts jotted down I resumed my reading for the last five minutes and left the train at Oakham, walking to the studio across the road. 

Ten minutes later I was walking back to the station and continued the reading while awaiting the train, this is after hanging around chatting to Rob for a while. On one occasion I got back to the station to find my train back was running twenty minutes late. This is not a disaster when it happens, for along the road is the Grainstore Brewery and tap, so a pint and a packet of nuts kicks off lunchtime quite nicely while awaiting any delayed train - but this has only happened once. If there happens to be something I want to do while in Oakham (not very likely but it does happen now and again) I simply catch a later train back.

Solid reading all the way back (no, I have not finished and must complete it soon). 

When there is not pressure to get a document read, I can use my smartphone to read email and reply to urgent messages, pick up any messages left on the Vicarage phone and reply if urgent, or even relax if it has been a busy week. I seldom take my portable computer on such a short trip, but there is plenty to do, even if it is nothing. We need to rest and sometimes that is just what a train ride enables us to do - perhaps there is a Thought for the Day brewing there!

Thursday 22 August 2013

Coming soon ...

The posts in the parish magazine are now a month behind the posts here, so I shall have to adjust the way I post to the blog. Soon, though, we shall be back in Scotland, based in Inverness and visiting the far north. 

Then there is a church business trip to Derbyshire, and later another seaside holiday: this year the English Riviera, from which we have just returned.

Wednesday 14 August 2013

Park and Ride by Steam!

We have recently returned from a holiday in Dorset. This time we were travelling by car, but even then it is sometimes good to leave the car and venture forth by train or bus (or, in one case, boat - but that is another story).

We visited Corfe Castle and Swanage on the Purbeck peninsula, and the road traffic there has difficulty squeezing into the small amount of land, not aided by the closure in 1972 of the branch line from Wareham. This is one of those lines which has been restored as a steam-operated heritage line, and although services do not operate (yet) all the way from Wareham, a new station has been built just north of Corfe Castle with a huge council-run car park so that a park & ride service can be offered using the steam trains.

Trains only run every forty minutes, so it is not like the frequent park & ride services we might find in bigger towns and cities, but in a tourist place no-one is in much of a hurry and the service is well used.

We turned up at Norden Park and Ride station and bought return tickets to Swanage. These allow break of journey, so we left the train at Corfe Castle and visited the castle for the morning, returning to the station to eat our picnic on the platform and then complete the ride to Swanage where we spent some of the afternoon. A static buffet car at Swanage station serves a pretty decent cream tea, too, whether or not one is travelling by their trains.

For those interested in railway history, this line does reasonably well at recreating the atmosphere of a BR Southern Region holiday branch line, apart from the rather frequent trains! It is well worth a visit, and spending some time at Swanage station, soaking up the atmosphere, is worthwhile, too. Breaking the journey at Corfe Castle, whether one visits the actual castle or not, is always worth doing. This is a lovely little place and with a train every forty minutes it is easy to adjust the length of a visit.


Saturday 10 August 2013

Stamford to London via Lincoln

Last June the Church Urban Fund celebrated its first twenty-five years with a rededication at Evensong in St Paul's Cathedral, London, the Archbishop of Canterbury preaching. I had been a fan of the CUF ever since its founding and ordered a ticket to attend the service at 5pm one Monday in June. On the same day I had a meeting in Lincoln in the morning, the "wrapping up" meeting of the ad hoc group which had put together the highly successful diocesan clergy conference that spring, and I did not want to miss it, so it was time to consult the internet again and see whether a three-way journey Stamford - Lincoln - London - Stamford might be possible to fit the timings of the engagements. What had seemed like an unfortunate clash of dates thus became an opportunity for another "adventure"!

Access to Lincoln by train from Stamford is not especially good, but if meeting times fit, then it can work quite well, and fortunately this day it did work. I bought my tickets in advance as usual via the eastcoast.co.uk website (thereby earning a few more points towards my next free tickets!) and there were some surprises in the fares available. The single from Stamford to Lincoln cost a bit less than I was used to paying for an off-peak day return, as you might expect, and the evening single from London to Stamford again a little less than an off-peak day return, but the longest stretch of all, from Lincoln to London, provided I booked a specific time, was cheaper than either of the other legs - so much so that I booked it First Class in order to include a meal because it so happened that the most convenient journey was over lunchtime, and even First Class was several pounds less than I was paying on the two, shorter, Standard Class legs. 

So the day began with the 08:00 train from Stamford to Peterborough which connects neatly with a through train via Spalding and Sleaford to Lincoln (those who join me on the St Hugh's Pilgrimage to Lincoln in November will make this connection, by the way). It is neither a fast nor luxurious train to Lincoln, and if you want refreshments on the way you have to buy them at the station before you board the train, but it is comfortable, seldom crowded (at least until Sleaford, anyway) and there are enough tables for those who wish to work to do so. Given the time of the month, I was probably writing my material for the July 2012 magazine at the time!

The stretch between Peterborough and Spalding is one with which I used to be very familiar indeed, for I commuted on it for three years before I left work in 1980 to study for ordination. A few things have changed since: the trains themselves are better and far more frequent but a bit slower and the villages and towns are bigger. Spalding is barely recognizable, and half the station now has a housing estate built over it. The train speeds through the edge of my previous parish at St James Deeping, past the lakes from which the gravel was dug to build the railway. This section used to be part of the East Lincolnshire Main Line, the closure of which, north of Spalding, in the late sixties has been part of the story of decline of the towns it once served: Boston, Cleethorpes and Grimsby.

After Spalding the train passed through a couple of places which really ought to have stations: Pinchbeck, now much bigger than it was, and Donington. Across the vast expanse of Lincolnshire fen it is not long before the great spire of St Andrew's, Heckington, can be seen on the right and the huge, fire-damaged bulk of the erstwhile Bass Maltings at Sleaford on the left. Michael Portillo ought to visit the Bass Maltings and tell us all about Victorian rail-connected brewing …

At Sleaford a good number of people joined the train, many of them students at Lincoln College. North of Sleaford there are two villages, Ruskington and Metheringham, which did acquire new stations in the 1970s, having lost them along with the others many years earlier. Simple wooden platforms with no facilities but now heavily used for access to Lincoln and to Sleaford, tickets being bought from the conductor guard on the train.

Modern trains do not allow a view forward through the driver's cab so one no longer sees the Cathedral in the distance as the train approaches Lincoln, but it soon turns slightly as it nears the city and the Cathedral swings into view on the right, dominating the view of the city. By now I was on my feet and packing my things away into my briefcase, for Lincoln station was not far, the train drawing to a halt on time at about 10am.

From the station to my meeting at the diocesan offices by the Cathedral I walked up High Street, the Strait and Steep Hill. Who needs a gym when you live in the Diocese of Lincoln?! It certainly gives the heart and lungs a work-out. If tired or carrying a lot of stuff, then there are bus routes up the hill, too, but I usually prefer to walk, and there is a choice of walking routes, so if I have to go several times in a month I can vary the scenery.

When my meeting was over I returned rather more quickly down the hill to the station: the main difficulty is not to descend Steep Hill so fast that stopping at the bottom becomes too great a task …

My train from Lincoln was due out at 12.23pm. It was a single coach from Grimsby to Newark North Gate from where I would get my East Coast express to London, and while I had a First Class ticket for this trip, there was no First Class seating on this little train. These single units are really not adequate for this service and are always very busy: I never get any work done on this train (I sometimes return to Peterborough this way), but it is not for long and I was soon at Newark. I wandered along the platform to where a sign marked the right place to wait for coach M. Soon I was sitting comfortably in rather more spacious, air-conditioned comfort and my coffee was served before I'd even opened my briefcase. Once the stewards had served coffee to all those who wanted it, lunch orders were taken from the small but excellent menu (and after all this time I am sorry to report that I can no longer reliably remember what I ordered but rather fancy it may have been sausage and mash!) Wine was duly offered, accepted and poured. In order to simplify proceedings, all cold drinks are served in the same type of glass, a tumbler type, and the amount of wine is therefore generous just as the amount of beer would be relatively ungenerous.

About fifteen minutes south of Newark the train passed through Grantham, and then through Peterborough after another twenty or so. Tearing over Tallington crossing at full speed eating lunch I tried not to think too hard about all those sitting in their cars waiting for me to get out of their way! Having travelled now with a number of companies (though not all) I have to say that so far no-one else does First Class as well as East Coast do: it is the only company which as served me with metal cutlery, china cups and plates, and glass glasses and where the wine (and even the scotch!) has been included. You don't expect all this on shorter trips, of course, and Scotrail's coffee, soft drinks and biscuits was very nice between Inverness and Aberdeen this year (you'll have to wait for a full description of THAT adventure!), but Cross Country's long-distance trains' First Class, for example, is much poorer. I shall be trying Great Western's soon and will report on that in due course, but I already know from their website that wine is not included. Lunch over, I was able to work for the remainder of the journey to London.  

The celebration at St Paul's Cathedral was brilliant. It was good to be reminded of how much had been done for the urban poor in England though the Church Urban Fund and even better to see that much more was being planned. We have since had the CUF as our Lent project for 2013 and I think many of us were moved by the urgent need in some of our cities. If we need a FoodBank in Stamford, just imagine what life is like in some other places for the poorest citizens. St Paul's is easily accessed from Kings Cross these days: a stroll across the road to St Pancras and down into the "basement" for any train to City Thameslink brought me out to Ludgate Hill with a view of the Cathedral façade at the end of the street. I now use an Oyster card for travel in London, automatically topped up from my bank account, so I never have to think about money for fares in London and I also know that I'm always on the cheapest rate, capped at the cost of a day Travelcard.

The Parcel Yard, Kings Cross 
And so to home. To qualify for off-peak travel I had to wait until the 7.30pm train back, having a snack at the excellent new bar-restaurant at Kings Cross station, the Parcel Yard. Not as conveniently located as the old bar on platform 8, but far bigger and brighter and with views across the station. I am in the early stages of planning another parish adventure which might make use of this place for supper on the way home! By the time I caught my train back to Peterborough I had had a fairly full day and settled to reading something not too demanding. This was a good time to catch up with all the stuff that arrives in the post and I intend to read "when I get a moment", and I always stuff a few papers and newsletters in my briefcase when I am travelling. With the change at Peterborough it takes just over an hour-and-a-half to get to Stamford from Kings Cross on this service and I was walking up the steps to the Vicarage at 9.15pm. All in all, not a bad day in Christ's service, having done things for the diocese and the parish and started to prepare the parish to participate more in the national Church's mission to the poor.

For an independent view of East Coast First Class, see Our man on the Ground: http://omotg.com/blog/

Monday 8 July 2013

La Ligne des Horlogers! (Part 2)

It was bright and sunny in Besancon as our little train headed out of the town after coming in from the TGV station where we had joined it, and we found ourselves gently meandering through the suburbs with views of distant hills. The train stopped every few minutes at tiny stations and a few people got on or off.

This was very much a French local train on a single-track branch line but was one of the few which went did not terminate at Morteau, in the French watchmaking area, but went through to Le Locle and La Chaux-de-Fonds in Switzerland. Out in the country we caught a little glimpse of unmelted snow beside the line. And then another. Soon there seemed to be snow wherever there was a shadow, and before the border was reached there was a great deal of snow all over. From the train windows we could see the track ahead winding its way along beside the river and around the hills in a similar manner to much of what we had enjoyed in Scotland. The design of the the line side homes and other buildings took on more a Swiss style and then with no ceremony at all we passed out of the EU and into Switzerland: we only know this because we saw the border post on the main road beside the railway. No-one on the train had their passport checked or asked about declaring goods for customs. And yet this was an external border to the European Union! But branch lines seem to have an existence apart from the rest of the world … Although a couple of days later we did see someone taken off the train at Le Locle in the company of two officers of the border police, so someone somewhere is keeping a bit of an eye on things and therefore smuggling is not recommended!

In a few moments more the train halted at Le Locle and we climbed down onto the platform, just as you would at Stamford, and the little train set off to its last stop just along the line. We gazed about a bit: high over the town was the premises of Tissot, where our own watches were made, and just above the station was the Zenith factory. Through the subway and just down the road was our home for the next three nights at Maison DuBois, where Alison's several-times great grandfather was born! We had looked at the maps and descriptions of the town and the house long ago on the World Wide Web and knew exactly where we were going: of all the houses in the world this one was so simple to reach, just a few metres from the station and such an easy and exciting ride.

We were shown round in French - a bit of a struggle but between us we just about managed. In our whole time in Le Locle we only really met one person who could speak English, the chef at the a local bar-restaurant. Our French, which had been reasonably good over forty years earlier, was just about adequate. At least we could read all the signs!

The former office, just as it was left
The house was amazing: at street level there was just the breakfast room and café, the room which used to be the workshop, and the workbench was now the buffet bar. Up a flight of stone stairs was what had been the proper front door both to the residence and the office of DuBois et Fils the watchmaker. Alison was allowed free rein to explore the office which has been left just as it was the day the business moved out a few years previously (to new premises, as part of a much larger company), and there were some amazing things to be seen, much of it relevant to her family history research - but this is an article about travel and not about ancestry ... Our room was another floor up and was entered through its en-suite bathroom!

We enquired of those in the café downstairs about where we might sample the traditional Swiss Fondue but the recommended Café des Sports did not do food that evening so after a trek round the town looking for affordable alternatives we fetched up at a place serving pizza, not very Swiss, but we did have local Neuchatel wine with it. However, when we returned to the recommended place the following evening the proprietor had prepared a table for us and the (English-speaking!) chef was all ready for us.

Again the Neuchatel wine and a fantastic meal. We came back the following evening to try other Swiss cuisine, rosti potatoes and some mushroom dishes which were unlike anything we'd ever tried before. On neither evening was there anyone else in the dining room; a handful of men in the bar - how this business survives I cannot imagine. We were given a half-litre of wine to bring home as a souvenir, too. Next time we visit Le Locle we shall return there (if it's still open!). Although we asked for and, after much discussion of trade secrets, were given the recipes for these delicious meals we could probably never get the right cheeses and the right mushrooms to attempt it here.

During our stay the sun shone much of the time and  there was a slow thaw, so that by the time we left there was very little snow. But it had been just perfect to arrive in Switzerland with snow on the ground and to see it just as one imagines.

We found a café in the market place (where there never seemed to be a market!) which brewed its own beer on the premises and we were able to buy a sampler of their three beers in small glasses. All were good (but rather fizzy to English beer drinkers).

On the first full day in Switzerland we walked up the hill to the watch and clock museum, a former house on a hillside overlooking Le Locle

On the second day we took the train to La Chaux-de-Fonds and explored there. From the train we passed the premises of some of the most famous watchmaking firms in the world. Much bigger than Le Locle, La Chaux-de-Fonds has a grid street pattern after its rebuilding following a disastrous fire two hundred years ago. It was the birthplace of the architect known as Le Corbusier. We visited a carillon clock which we just came across in a park and explored the town. We finally managed to find a shop that sold something we could take back as gifts (Swiss chocolate seemed a bit more practical and affordable than watches or clocks): Le Locle just had nothing like that at all.

We returned to Paris by a very different route, leaving Le Locle the opposite way, via La Chaux-de-Fonds and down to the lakeside at Neuchatel: again a series of fascinating views from the train of landscape often very different from our own. Neuchatel has a large station in the city centre and from there we caught a fast Pendolino train to Geneva, passing along the shores of two of Switzerland's huge lakes. 


At Geneva we had a few moments for coffee, using up most of the last of our Swiss currency, before we caught the TGV to Paris. It looked like a bit more fuss was being made of the border here than there had been on our branch line train earlier in the week. There were dedicated platforms for trains to France, and customs and passport facilities were provided on the approach to the platforms: I wondered if we needed to declare the half-litre of Neuchatel wine … but in fact there was no-one manning either the passport or the customs counters and we just walked onto the platform. Our TGV was already there and we sought our reserved seats and settled down. Again, this train was looking a little age-worn, but the high-speed service to and from Switzerland is fairly new and I wonder if perhaps they do not yet have all the new trains and are having to press some into service that might otherwise be refurbished … anyway, the views from the train for the first part of the journey were stunning. It ambles slowly for a long way until it reaches the high speed line at Macon and we were treated to sights such as a motorway high above us on a viaduct just disappearing straight into a mountainside and through a tunnel, motorways being far too wide the thread through the river valley below as the railway does, where the river itself and the villages make a splendid scene.

On the high speed lines in France one soon understands why the French want these lines and how they can build them so easily, both from practical and political points of view: there are miles and miles of nothing across huge areas of France, big distances to cover with no-one to mind where the railway is built and how much noise it makes, and not many places where you'd want the train to stop, either. Good book-reading territory, really, there not being a lot to see from the window here, and I ticked off a Colin Dexter novel on this ride.

Across Paris by RER and we looked for the Eurostar platforms at Gare du Nord. Again the signposting leaves a lot to be desired but we were soon awaiting our call to board our train to London St Pancras, more fuss having been made of this border within the EU than of the Swiss one! It was dark by the time we reached the Channel and so the tunnel was barely noticeable, and in London we only had to cross the road again to get the next fast train to Peterborough and so change for home, just as at the end of so many less amazing journeys.

In our five days away we had used three different currencies, two languages, two time zones, countless trains. We had experienced so many new things and met some really wonderful people. We have hung onto the few Euros and Swiss Francs that we had left because we shall definitely return. Indeed, the next trip to Switzerland is already booked now!

For more information about the places we have been, you may like to see:

A selection of photos from the trip is on my Flickr photo site:
www.flickr.com/frmark/sets/ and click on Franco Swiss Adventure set