Tuesday 16 April 2013

Seaside Summer Holiday

The time had come to book the 2012 summer holiday by the sea and we wanted to go somewhere that would allow us to spend a couple of days with friends near Gloucester or our way back. "Easy!" one might think, given that the whole south-west peninsula and quite a bit of the south coast of England lies that way. We had, though, only just had a short tour of Devon and Cornwall (see the Night Riviera article a couple of months ago) so we thought we'd do something different. "What about South Wales?" Well, looking at the map there is only one beach resort within reach by rail, but it is a place we'd long-ago decided to see again, having called there briefly on a motoring holiday many years ago. So Tenby it would be! Planning the trip was interesting: trains to Tenby leave Swansea every two hours and connect with trains to and from London via the Severn Tunnel, so we would travel to Birmingham and then on to another change at Bristol Parkway for a Great Western express to Swansea for the connection to Tenby. A wide selection of companies and types of train, and with some judicious splitting of tickets I was able to book it for a reasonable cost, although none of the sections would be first class this time.

Booking.com came up with a Bed & Breakfast overlooking South Beach and within a few minutes walk of the station and the town centre at Tenby. When we got there it was obviously a converted parsonage house, the current Rectory having been built in its grounds! Our bedroom had the most fantastic view over the sea. But I digress: first we must get there!

Our journey on the 10:05 from Stamford to Birmingham was the usual smooth and comfortable ride we have come to expect and we had  enough time in Birmingham to buy provisions for a picnic lunch on the next stage of the journey to Bristol. This second leg was on one of the Voyager units CrossCountry inherited from the Virgin franchise and was comfortable enough but the overhead "luggage" racks just about took our coats: we travel light but even our little cases were too much and we had to take our cases to the racks by the doors. In any other train you only have to do that with really huge cases. Since these trains travel long distances serving major cities and several holiday destinations you would think they'd have been designed with luggage in mind.

Like every arrival on this fairly complex trip, our train arrived bang on time at Bristol Parkway where we waited a few moments at the same platform for our Great Western High Speed Train to Swansea. I'd never been at Bristol Parkway before: it was built both for this interchange purpose and as a railhead for motorists off the M4 and M5 motorways wanting to join trains without having to drive into central Bristol, and it functioned very well for our purpose. Another first was the transit through the Severn Tunnel, short by Channel Tunnel standards but still a long tunnel which predates the two motorway bridges by many decades. The journey through South Wales took us through many well-known industrial places and the principality's capital Cardiff. Across the Bristol Channel can be seen the north Somerset coast where we have been many times and looked across at these towns and cities. It is an area very much in transition and a lot of rebuilding is taking place. In spite of the toll taken of its industry by several recessions there is still a lot happening in South Wales!

On our arrival at the terminus at Swansea after more than 90 minutes we were ushered across the platform into the waiting train for Pembroke Dock which would drop us at Tenby after another couple of hours. This was very different from the HST we had just left, an Arriva Trains Wales Sprinter unit which certainly moved quickly but had a very long way to go. We were now into into rural Wales and followed the coast at times, river estuaries at other times, always something to see. While this train was perfectly adequate and got us there in good time it seems a missed opportunity not to have trains of better quality for such a long trip. The fragmentation inherent in the franchise system will probably prevent this from happening: Arriva does not run to London and Great Western does not run to Pembroke. They co-operate at Swansea, but that is all. It is also a bring-your-own-refreshments train, and I think we were the only holiday-makers on board. A far cry from the trainloads that used to come to these places in the past. No wonder the roads are jammed.

Arrival at Tenby was bang on time just after 5.30pm and we strolled off to our B&B, hoping it was as good as its photos on Booking.com. It was under new management and refurbishment was under way, our room being one of the better ones with a sea view. The entire staff seemed to be young men, mostly students, with a young manager, and on the whole they did very well. This is a surfing area and I expect they were there for surfing. There was a surf shop advertised at the house but we saw no sign of it: an aspiration of the new owner, I expect! Off into town for dinner. Now, Tenby is a sort of Chelsea on Sea and finding an affordable restaurant was proving difficult until we spotted a pub offering bargain sausage-and-mash which turned out to be excellent. We made a mental note to return here another day but we never did.

We had four nights at Tenby and although the weather in the summer of 2012 could have been a great deal better it was a very good holiday with enough time on the beach and plenty of time in the town. There was very little rain and some hot weather and we were able to do a lot of walking and exploring.

At low tide one day we walked the entire length of the five beaches and across the harbour. We never left the town, for although I had looked up local train and bus times ready to do so we found plenty to see and do in Tenby itself. We discovered a terrific bar/restaurant just a few steps from our B&B, controversially sited on the South Beach but we were perfectly happy with it, as seemed to be many hundreds of others who packed it every evening! There was a museum, and as we often do we picked up a town trail leaflet at the tourist office and followed the trail around the town. In the parish church is a monument to Robert Recorde, the eminent mathematician who is credited with inventing the "equals" sign, =, and who died in 1558. Hard to imagine a world without the "equals" sign!

Friday, and the time finally came to leave and we went to catch the "local" train back to Swansea where we caught our Great Western connection. This time, however, we left the train at Newport where we had coffee at a very pleasant little coffee shop on the platform before taking a connection to Gloucester for the final two nights of our holiday with our friends. The line takes the north-west bank of the Severn along the edge of the Forest of Dean and has some great views of the river, another line we'd never travelled before and which has far better views than the parallel road which we'd used several times in the past. As we passed over the ring road at Gloucester I couldn't help noticing that the traffic jams had not improved since we left the county in 1991! Again, arriving on time at Gloucester we could have caught a bus to our friends' village on the outskirts but they kindly met us in their car and drove us there.

We left our friends after Sunday lunch and they drove us to Cheltenham Spa station since their village has no Sunday bus service. We were pleased with the comfort (and luggage space) of the CrossCountry HST that picked us up on time and took us to Birmingham for our connection back to Stamford. The uphill walk from Stamford station is compensated-for by the great feeling as we cross the meadows and see the view of the town ahead of us, and we were opening our front door by 7.15pm having enjoyed a great week away.

More of an adventure than expected

Yesterday afternoon I had a training event in Lincoln and went by train. Partly this was because I prefer not to drive and can work on the way and partly because it gave the opportunity have a niggling fault fixed on my car while I was away. The day was complicated from the start by the closure of the line between Sleaford and Lincoln while work is being done to upgrade it to take freight off the main line, so changes at both Peterborough and Newark were needed in both directions.

It all started fine, my train from Stamford to Peterborough being early, so I even had time to grab some coffee before boarding the connection for Newark that I was supposed not to be in time to get! There was an announcement from the guard that the driver was attending to a mechanical fault and that we should be under way soon. Swiftly followed by another that the driver had been unable to fix the fault and the train was cancelled! Ah well, I was an hour ahead of my own schedule and I could work at Peterborough station just as well as at Lincoln or Newark, so for me this was not a disaster. Everyone got off the train and we were then directed to platform 2 where a London-bound train was terminated short so that we could use it to go north, the London passengers being evacuated onto a second southbound train that was stopped for them at platform 3. By this time the station was becoming somewhat congested with three trains none of which should still have been there! So, on my way to Newark half an hour late, which I think is not bad following a train failure. The train I was now on was the one which had been decorated to celebrate the launch of the James Bond film "Skyfall" on DVD:

My connection to Lincoln was the one I had in any case planned to catch, and I wrote a magazine article (and next blog post - to follow shortly) over lunch at Newark station.

By the time I left Lincoln to come home the knock-on effects of the breakdown were finished, along with the effects of a power failure around Doncaster but there was a new problem of an accident at Alnmouth so trains from Scotland were running very late indeed, and my connection for Peterborough was one of these. Trains from Leeds were unaffected, however, and one of these was stopped at Newark to give Peterborough and London passengers the connection we needed, and I was still in time to get my expected train home to Stamford from Peterborough.

East Coast had to cope with a lot of problems yesterday (there were others, I gather, south of Peterborough, which did not affect me) and I was very impressed with the way they were able to make changes to get us all to our destinations with minimum delay (in my case no delay, but that will not have applied to everyone).

Monday 15 April 2013

On the Highland Chieftain again!
I have just returned from the latest trip, to the Far North Line, which will be the subject of a future article. Spent some of my time on the train writing the text for the Tenby article to be published shortly!