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: and click on Franco Swiss Adventure set

Thursday 4 July 2013

A Parish Pilgrimage

Much more discussion and excitement has arisen in the parish and beyond concerning my magazine articles on railways journeys than about anything I have ever written about God or the Christian life! So, combining the two I arranged a trip for readers to Ely, a nice short little journey by train, with no changes, to a cathedral which is also a shrine and a city with a fascinating history.

And so it was that at nine o'clock on Saturday 15th June a party of nine boarded the CrossCountry train for Ely at Stamford station. Some of us had done the trip before, some had not, and some had hardly ever used trains at all.

People had gathered in very good time in some excitement.We had seats more-or-less together and I had written a leaflet giving some details about things which could be seen from the train as we travelled to Ely:

The bridges and tunnels east of Stamford station take us under the streets of St Martins and were obviously a cut-and-cover construction to make the railway invisible in this rather beautiful part of town. We emerge into daylight beside Welland Mews (to the left, north, of the line) which is built around the goods shed of the former Stamford East station, once the terminus for local trains to Essendine and to Wansford. The trackbed of the Wansford branch follows to our left for some distance before curving away and rising to cross our line between Pilsgate and Barnack - the bridge has been removed but its abutments are still there.

To the right of the line as it leaves Stamford are, of course, Cummings Generator factory and Burghley House. How many familiar places can you see as we follow the Welland valley between the Barnack and Uffington Roads?

As we near Helpston the East Coast main line with its four tracks and overhead power lines joins on the left and we run parallel with the main line the rest of the way into Peterborough. Peterborough station is being greatly expanded and you can see new platforms and tracks under construction to the right of our train and new facilities on other platforms.

Mark worked on his next
magazine contribution as
as we travelled, including
the first episode of the Swiss
rail adventure!
Our line now descends to cross over the River Nene and under the main line and London Road to follow the Nene valley into the Cambridgeshire fens. Reasonable views of Peterborough Cathedral trying to show itself above the cityís buildings can be seen on the left as we leave familiarity behind.

Substantial brickworks are passed at King's Dyke, Whittlesey (where Michael Portillo tried his hand at stacking bricks!) and the countryside opens out into some of the richest farmland in the world. The long straight fen roads are severed here and there by the railway line which runs at a different angle to the roads, leading to large numbers of remote and sparsely-used level crossings. No Tallington-style queues out here!

As we enter the town of March we pass the junctions leading to the site of what was once Europe's largest goods marshalling yard, Whitemoor, now partly occupied by a high-security prison. March used to be a junction, with trains to Wisbech (where the line still exists for a few goods trains) and into Lincolnshire and beyond via Spalding, and the station was busy with passengers changing trains, but like Spalding it is now a ghost of its former self.

Our next stop is Ely itself, and we are now entering the "valleys" of the Rivers Delph and Great Ouse where at times there is more water than land. Keep an eye on the right-hand side of the train for your first view of Ely cathedral, although it can hide quite well among the trees at this time of the year.
The line approaches Ely on a tangent to the north-west of the city and soon begins to curve south to approach it. On the right is a junction to a loop line which enables freight trains to get to the main lines to Kings Lynn and Norwich without having to reverse in Ely station - we pass the other end of it in a moment or two! The cathedral appears to pirouette as we travel around the north side of the city and join the Kings Lynn to London line and the Norwich line which converge on Ely.

We soon pass the water-filled pits and nature reserve which some of us will visit on foot later and then cross the River Great Ouse twice as it loops into the city where it is filled with boats of all sorts. Beyond the river are the waterside pubs, cafes and restaurants including the Boathouse where our evening meal is booked. The cathedral beyond presides over all of this human activity. On a sunny day it is a sight hard to beat and has been used on travel posters for decades!

We left the train and gathered on the platform at Ely station before using the ramped subway to get to the exit and then stroll up to Ely Cathedral. The rain began falling gently as we set off, but soon stopped and we arrived at the west front of the cathedral, which was our agreed rendezvous point for the day. There was a programme of activities from which participants could choose: none overlapped so it was possible to do everything if one had the energy, but I don't think anyone tried!

Fixed points in the day are:

  • Dinner for those who wish at 18:30 hrs at The Boathouse Restaurant, Annesdale (the waterside, not far from the station), and most importantly the departure of our train home, the last of the day, at 20:15 hrs
  • Evensong will be sung in the Cathedral at 17:30 hrs
  • Mark will lead a city and country walk from the Cathedral west front at 14:00 hrs

Other suggested activities (with times for those who wish to keep together as a party) are:

  • 10:30 Visit to Cathedral, Coffee at Refectory Cafe
  • 12:00 Visit to Oliver Cromwell's House
  • 13:00 Picnic Lunch (bring your own, or buy in town) on Cathedral Green
  • 16:00 Visit to Ely Museum, the Old Gaol

It was amazing how easily a second, informal, rendezvous point was established in the bar of the Lamb Hotel, especially with the need to dry out after the fen edge walk.

The walk included an opportunity to watch a heron on the water-filled gravel pits and a spectacular view over the water of the cathedral towering over the city. Several trains in their distinctive company liveries were seen on the railway as we crossed over and under it. At about our farthest point from the city the rain started. This time it did not stop for some time and indeed it became fairly heavy at one point. It had been expected, however, and we were all ready for it with hoods, umbrellas etc and continued to enjoy the walk.

The Evensong in the cathedral was delicious, although the psalm was a bit lengthy and made us late for dinner! Dinner at the Boathouse was great, but it was unfortunate to have started late when we had a train to catch, but all went well and we were soon on our way home, "tired but happy," like Rupert Bear at the end of some of his adventures! Indeed, we were a little early at the station and had to wait a bit for our train. The trick was not to fall asleep on the way home and wake up in Birmingham ...

As soon as we were back people were asking for another trip and looking disappointed when I talked about doing one per year. So, two it will be: short ones in the autumn, starting this November with Lincoln for St Hugh's weekend, and longer ones in the spring or summer. How about Canterbury?

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.

Tuesday 2 July 2013

Another Cathedral!

I shall be reporting in a few day's time on the recent parish outing to Ely which some readers may have been following live on Twitter, and just wanted to mention that the next such trip will be to our own Cathedral at Lincoln as a pilgrimage to the shrine of St Hugh on Saturday 16th November, the eve of his day in the Church calendar. This is a more complex journey than the one to Ely, much more like most of the rail adventures I have been describing here (but still only one day!), so we shall be leaving an hour earlier for this one. Book the date in your diary now, and watch out for more information!