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.

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