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 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: