Friday 26 December 2014


A few weeks ago alterations were made to the signalling at Spalding, on the direct line between Peterborough and Lincoln. The line was closed for a few days while the work was done, part of the upgrade of the line, and I was due to go to Lincoln on the second day after it reopened. My meeting was at 10:30 in Newport, north of the cathedral, and the first through train from Peterborough arrives at 09:59, in plenty of time.

The little train to Lincoln at platform 1 at Peterborough
When I arrived at Peterborough on the 08:00 train from Stamford I found the train was indicated "delayed" with no indication of how long. It turns out that something had gone wrong with the one-day-old signalling between Peterborough and Spalding, and as this unit had already been there and back, once each way, it had built up an accumulated delay. Engineers were trying to find a remedy the fault so it had been difficult to tell how late it would eventually be. If it were already fixed and no further delay was incurred it would be just 20 minutes late, much of which could be recovered on the journey and I would not inconvenienced at all, and in the worst case in would not be fixed until much later and a further 20 minutes will have been built up, potentially making me at least 30 mins late and bound to miss the start of my meeting. I had to decide whether to get the next train back to Stamford and get my car out and drive: I'd then be on time (unless there were also a problem on the roads - no less likely!) but would have done none of the jobs I had planned to accomplish on the way. I decided to wait: the crew seemed confident that they would not be very late into Lincoln, possibly only a few minutes but up to about twenty.

I boarded and got on with my jobs, whatever they were.

Never been to Lincolnshire before!
 A group of "young retired" people from Hitchin joined the train, too, on a tour by train and bus to explore Lincolnshire. They were doing the sort of thing we sometimes do, although we are less keen on the bus element and tend to use more train: they, of course, had free bus travel for which I am not old enough!

It was a misty day and the scenery of the Lincolnshire fens was fascinating through the mist. At Sleaford, Ruskington and Metheringham the usual crowds boarded the train for shopping or studying in Lincoln.

A few minutes of the delay were made up by shortening the stop at Sleaford, and we arrived in Lincoln at 10:18. If I had been going to the Cathedral I'd have stormed up the hill on foot and expect to be just in time, but I knew I'd never get as far as Newport on foot in that time, so to the taxi rank. I asked for the address and watched the meter tick up as the driver took me through the crowded streets. Now there was no hurry in terms of getting to the start of the meeting, but the quicker he did it the less expensive it would be! I know Lincoln and know he took the shortest and quickest route and I arrived in good time.

Now the interesting thing is that even with the taxi fare this journey was still a lower expenses claim than the mileage would have been had I driven. If had not had a Senior Railcard then the cost would have more-or-less the same by car; with the railcard it was a worthwhile saving. As my expenses are met by the sacrificial giving of church members I am pleased to be able to keep the costs down as much as I can; in a large rural diocese like Lincoln it is inevitable that I'll have to use the car a fair bit but I always look at train and bus options first to see if it is possible to save. It sometimes takes longer, but the time can be used when on the train or bus, and I tend to save up jobs like reading papers so that I can make use of travel time.

Passengers seated in the luggage space!
The trip home was uneventful apart from the overcrowding of the train between Lincoln and the first stop at Metheringham. I was able to board swiftly and had a seat (as did most people, of course), but a number of the students ended up standing towards the ends of the car or even sitting on the luggage rack! I Tweeted this to East Midlands Trains who responded that their franchise did not allow enough coaches to strengthen these trains. Effectively they are victim of their own success - people want to travel by train, and if you were to add those who are put off by the overcrowding and those who cannot make their plans fit round the timetable (as often mine can't) they could probably operate twice as many trains on the routes in and out of Lincoln and fill them all. The overcrowding ceased at Metheringham as a large group of students and shoppers left the train, and by the time the train left Sleaford there was plenty of empty space until more joined at Spalding. The stretch between Spalding and Sleaford has a late start and an early finish to its timetable, so the people are not accustomed to using trains for this trip and the few they do have load poorly. A good service needs to start and finish before and after the working day at least, but on this line the first train of the day was the one I used, due in Lincoln at ten o'clock! The people of Spalding will not think "train" when a day in Lincoln is needed.

The signal problems had been solved and I was in Peterborough on time and connected smoothly for Stamford and home. I hope that the upgrade of the line, which is primarily to provide a freight route away from the East Coast Main Line between Doncaster and Peterborough, will enable the passenger train companies to consider providing a better service here which would contribute to easing road traffic congestion in Lincoln as well as enabling people to make better use of their time.

Monday 22 December 2014

Two more trips to Cambridge

Recently I had to visit someone in hospital again, at Addenbrookes in Cambridge, and used the tried and tested off-peak day return train ticket with Plusbus. With my Senior Railcard this was very considerably cheaper than mileage plus parking, and it avoided driving on the dreaded A14 and the traffic in Cambridge.

View from the top deck of a bus at Cambridge rail station
Since my previous visit a year or two earlier, a vast amount of building work has taken place, transforming what had been the goods yard and some commercial and industrial buildings adjacent to the station into a pleasant residential area, with large blocks of flats (presumably many for students) in a decent quality townscape. The bus stops are now located along this street, to the left as you leave the station, and, as before, there is a frequent service to the hospital and I boarded a waiting vehicle and was soon under way along a brand-new street.

As with my last visit I returned from Addenbrookes using a Guided Bus from within the hospital grounds (other buses use a terminal adjacent to the main entrance). This took a while to weave through the grounds dropping an picking up passengers but once on the Busway sped into Cambridge and was soon at the station, neatly in time for the next train to Stamford. 

Timed carefully, this is a very quick and efficient way to and from Addenbrookes Hospital.

Last week we decided to do some of our Christmas shopping in Cambridge and set off bright and early with two off-peak day returns with Plusbus (Saturday, off-peak all day!), this time reduced by a third using our Two Together Railcard! As we were heading for the city centre this time the avoidance of traffic was just as important and although the trains were busy there was enough of space for us to sit together and again a very pleasant journey was enjoyed. The views of Ely from the train never pall. At Cambridge now our trains arrive at the new platform recently opened which takes away Cambridge station's unique arrangement of one very long platform face divided into two sections with points in the middle to allow it to take trains heading in either direction, at the same time. The points are still there and this technique can still be used but there is now much less need for it and train movements in the station are considerably eased by having two further platform faces in operation.

In Cambridge we rediscovered the Michaelhouse café/restaurant at St Michael's church and had both coffee and lunch there. A really good establishment serving "home-made" food of high quality and reasonable cost, and well-placed for the historic centre of Camridge.

When we were ready to return to the station we went to the bus stops and there were about four buses on several different routes all of which were going our way and any of which would have done, so it was time to guess which queue would move the fastest! As it turned out we were on the third bus to leave (not sure what one of the passengers wanted but she seemed to take about 20 minutes to buy her ticket from the driver - probably a gross exaggeration!) but were only a matter of seconds behind the first, and we were dropped nearer the entrance to the station anyway. The moral of this tale is that when there is a frequent enough service it really does not matter which bus you are on.

We love Cambridge. It is one of the few towns whose architecture compares with Stamford's, and it is so easy to get to by train. The shops provide all you could want but cannot buy in Stamford and the bookshops in particular are excellent, as you would expect with a world-class university. In the summer it is a great place just to be, without a reason. To picnic, to punt, to browse the shops or see the buildings, it is well worth investing a little time and money on a day in Cambridge.

Wednesday 12 November 2014

Return to the Dart

After last year's fabulous holiday in Dartmouth, we decided to return this year and booked our room at the Anzac Street B+Bistro as soon as the date could be fixed, then asked the East Coast ticket website to inform us when the advance tickets were on sale for the outward trip. As it happened this year's stay in Dartmouth would be in Royal Regatta Week which involves almost the whole town, and there were new and exciting things to see and do. It also came just after our wedding anniversary, and so we decided that our anniversary meal would be lunch on the way there, in the First Great Western "Pullman" restaurant car, the only remaining full dining service on a British scheduled train service: it had been new last year and we had not known about it and so this year I made sure that I booked the outward tickets on a train with the restaurant service. It would, we hoped, get the holiday off to a brilliant start and if it lived up to the hype would avoid the need for a big meal on our first evening in Dartmouth.

So, it was on a Tuesday morning that we boarded the 09:00 train to Peterborough at Stamford station. We always allow lots of time for the change at Peterborough when starting long journeys, especially when we are booked with advance tickets on a specific East Coast train: in the event of major disruption we would have time to get to Peterborough by taxi if necessary and resume the journey there, but to date this has never been necessary. On this occasion we were a few moments late but nothing to cause any difficulty and after a short wait boarded our train for London, which was on time and actually arrived a little early (so early it had to wait for a platform to become available). We made our way to the Circle Line platforms and used our Oyster Cards to pay for the short trip to Paddington to catch our next train. When travelling to Paddington for main line expresses we change at Edgware Road for the last part of the Underground transfer, so that we arrive on the concourse at the main line station and not at the far end of the local platforms: it is only a quick cross-platform at Edgware Road and saves a long walk with luggage at Paddington.

And so to the First Class Lounge at Paddington for a few minutes until our train is announced, the 12:06 to Penzance. As we walked onto the platform we soon found our coach, the only First Class one on the train, immediately next to the restaurant car. We found our booked seats and put our luggage on the rack and I then popped into the restaurant to book our table. The waitress put a reservation sign on a table for two and then said that as there was no meal service beyond where we were travelling to we could move our luggage into the restaurant car and occupy the seats there for the whole of our journey, which we opted to do, bringing our "reserved" labels with us so as to free up two more seats in the First Class coach.

The service lived up to its "Pullman" title, to my surprise, I must confess, and to our delight. Effectively it was an "at seat" service following our change of seating, and food and drinks of the highest quality with excellent service from attentive staff. Budget it is not, but we were deliberately making this a special meal and so began with a half-bottle of Champagne while we deliberated over the short but wonderful-looking menu, developed I understand, by Mitch Tonks the restauranteur who has premises in Dartmouth. Spring water and bread rolls were provided as standard. Alison had a starter of chopped beets with burrata and grated walnuts while I had smoked salmon with capers, cornichons and cream cheese with rye bread; for main course we had lemon sole with brown shrimps and fillet steak respectively, with seasonal vegetables; then she had the Devon blue cheese and fig tart while I had a chocolate orange mousse. Alison finished the Champagne with her sole while I had a glass of rich red wine with the steak. Coffee came with a Pullman branded chocolate.

All was served, consumed and cleared away by Exeter and we settled down to enjoy the last few miles to our change of train at Newton Abbot, alongside the Exe estuary and then along the coast past using the recently re-opened section of main line at Dawlish, with the hasty patching-up still in evidence: the railway was all right but the road behind it and the houses which had hung over the brink still looked decidedly unsatisfactory. The station there looked better than when we had last seen it and we couldn't help wondering if the battering had done it a favour by forcing some repairs which had been long-needed! The line then turns inland along the Teign estuary and we had to be ready to leave the train to catch the local connection down through Torquay to Paignton.

First Great Western's video about the Pullman service

So far everything had gone very smoothly and easily and we had eaten what was quite possibly the best meal we'd ever had on one of the most comfortable trains that operate in the UK. It looked like it was all unravelling when we stood on the platform at Newton Abbot to hear that a blockage caused by a broken-down train was severely disrupting the service on the branch line to Paignton. Two trains were cancelled and passengers were being urged to use a regular bus service from the station forecourt which was accepting tickets for the railway: all very well but buses are not good at taking holiday luggage. Should we wait for the next train? We had some time to spare in Paignton before our steam train on to Kingswear for Dartmouth, but on the other hand we could not delay for long a decision to take the bus as these were so much slower and would need all that spare time. As we pondered, our train came in, on time, and was announced as if nothing had gone wrong. We boarded, looking out at all those who were boarding a bus outside in the street: we had made the right decision!

At Paignton we walked round to the Dartmouth Steam Railway station adjacent to the main line terminus and acquired our Jubilee Passes for the week, ordered in advance online, and boarding cards for the first trip, the train to Kingswear and ferry to Dartmouth. This year my pass cost a little less, with a senior citizen concession! These allowed us unlimited use of the Dartmouth Steam Railway and Riverboat Companies' services for the five days of our stay and proved invaluable, as they had last year.

Soon after leaving Paignton, the steam train runs along the coast for some distance, passing beaches, parks and playgrounds before crossing the peninsula and following the Dart estuary into Kingswear. This really is an excellent way to arrive at a holiday destination, although judging by the lack of luggage carried by other passengers there are few who do it this way. On arriving at Kingswear we enjoyed a cup of tea at the excellent station café while the crowds queued for the next ferry then we wandered down the pier to catch a slightly later one, being in no hurry to check in at Anzac Street. We were greeted at the B+Bistro by Simon and Aga and shown to our room, a slightly smaller one than last year, at the front of the house, having no need for the occasional bed this year.

After settling in we went for an evening stroll, seeing everything being made ready for the regatta and people arriving at the marquee for the regatta ball. We bought a salad from M&S and took it back to our room for supper, needing nothing more after our Pullman lunch. And so, eventually, to bed.

The weather forecast was not good for Wednesday and although we did not have firm plans for the day, one  possible option was ruled out by the weather as the scheduled Coastal Cruise was cancelled due to rough seas, but there was a harbour cruise and we went on that instead, tripping around the Dart estuary with an informative (and supposedly amusing) commentary. This did take us as far as the castles guarding the entrance to the river, a trip which we had not made last year.

We called at the tourist information office and decided to visit Brixham, where we had never been, and caught the ferry across to Kingswear and then the bus to Brixham. Buses go from a turning circle cantilevered out from the hillside over the railway just beyond the station and are a frequent service of small single-deck vehicles well-suited to the narrow lanes of this part of south Devon.  This journey was not covered by our passes and the best fare was the Dayrider ticket which would cover our return to Kingswear as well; indeed it would cover any other trips we might decide to make in the Torbay area that day, which as the day developed became quite useful. It was still rather windy when we arrived at Brixham, with occasional light showers, but we strolled around the harbour and sat outside for our coffee at a harbour side café.

We had wondered if the ferry to Torquay, the Western Lady, might be operating, but no, the weather was still too poor for that, and so we decided to take advantage of our Dayrider bus ticket and make our way to Torquay by bus. The traffic was terrible and the ten-minute frequency bus arrived after more than half an hour, followed by the two others that should have arrived by then. The traffic did not improve and it seemed to take about a week to get to Torquay, although we did see a lot on the way, riding on the top of a double-deck bus. By the time we arrived there it was raining heavily and it was almost time to head back to Paignton for the train home ... but the traffic had lessened slightly and we even had time for a cup of tea at Paignton before catching the steam train and then the ferry to Dartmouth. Dinner at Anzac Street was absolutely wonderful and we retired to bed well satisfied with our day. Yes, it would have been better without the rain, but it good as it was.

Thursday was the only day for which we had plans: we were to walk to Coleton Fishacre as we had last year, but this time via the South West Coast Path. We had visited the house last year but had not seen much of the grounds, so a further visit, as well as seeing this stretch of the coast, was in order.  Once more via the ferry to Kingswear and we started walking the coast route, using the mapping apps on our iPhones and following the way marks. Just as we began the walk the rain started. This is the first time I'd ever done a country walk with an umbrella, but it did the trick and after a few moments the rain stopped and the sun came out. Not as hot as last
year, but we were wearing substantially more, so it felt as hot! As we followed the coast we came across the wartime battery at Inner Froward Point and explored that for a few minutes (while our jackets dried out) before completing the walk to Coleton Fishacre. The entrance from the Coast Path is not manned, but we were honest and made our way through the gardens to the pay desk, not to mention the café for local beer and a scone before visiting the house. and the rest of the gardens.

I was delighted to find that since our last visit the prohibition of photography in the house had been dropped and I was able to take lots of pictures of the art deco interior of this externally arts & crafts house, as well as to explore the gardens, the main reason for our visit. After we had seen all the garden there was to see, we repaired to the café once more for tea and then made our way back to Kingswear by a different route, walking by the roads to a bus stop we had passed the previous day. This walk was much easier and quicker than the coastal footpath by which we had come, and we timed it so that we arrived just before a bus was due which took us back down towards the ferry and home to Dartmouth. 

There was a pause before we could catch the ferry because there was a helicopter search-and-rescue demonstration in the river which required the river to be cleared and so we had to wait on the Kingswear side and watch the display whether we wanted to or not. Which was fine: we were on holiday, after all. And there were photographs to take - maybe not as good as from the Dartmouth side, but OK anyway.

When the ferry company started shifting the backlog of passengers in both directions we were able to go back, rest, shower and change for another wonderful meal at Anzac Street and a brilliant day was complete.

 On the Friday we decided to take the river trip to Totnes. We had done this last year but it is not easy to tire of this trip through the Devon countryside, and this time we would not return by the river but by bus from Totnes to Paignton and then steam train again from Paignton to Kingswear. We wanted to get back to the Dartmouth side in time for the scheduled air displays from The Blades, an RAF Typhoon and the Red Arrows. We consulted the "Round Robin" (boat, bus, train round trip) timetable and found that we could easily do it and so we went to the little booking kiosk on the waterfront at Dartmouth and booked our tickets. It was warm and dry enough to sit on deck as we cruised up the river to Totnes aboard the Cardiff Castle, one of the largest cruise boats on the river. 

The Steam Railway and Riverboat Company runs a dedicated bus service from the Steamer Quay at Totnes to the bus station at Paignton, often with open-top buses but ours was closed top (I suspect they all were that week!) and we travelled on the top deck with a great view of the countryside. From the bus station at Paignton we walked down to the seafront and then rather than catch the next train to Kinsgwear from there we knew we had enough time to walk along the seafront as far as the station at Goodrington. It was an interesting walk along the promenade, past the fishing harbour and round the cliff top to Goodrington Sands. The sand along this part of the coast is very red and quite different from anything I've seen anywhere else. We eventually made our way to Goodrington station and having seen a train a little while before had expected that ours would be the one conveying the Pullman Observation Car, so we decided that we would travel in that. When it came we boarded and found that for the first time that we had known the on-board Champagne Bar was open, so the day was simply getting better and better - it had been far too early to use the bar on the boat trip but now was just right for a glass of sparkling wine (I think it was Cava rather than Champagne, but very pleasant to sip in an armchair in an observation car on the Devon coast!

The train was loaded heavily with people making their way to Dartmouth for the air displays, and the Pullman car is, naturally, marshalled at the back to give the best views through the end windows, so we found ourselves at the back of a lengthy queue for the ferry but the shuttle back and forth pretty quickly and we were soon over to the Dartmouth side. We found a good place to stand but it was announced that The Blades would not be performing as the cloud was too low for their displays. Thus we had a little to time to go back to our room and come out later for the two RAF shows. The first, the single Typhoon, was amazing: such a powerful aircraft that could make steep, almost vertical, climbs with ease and the sound of the engines was overwhelming. The air behind the aircraft glowed orange with the heat from the after-burners.

Our ears recovered from the Typhoon in good time for the Red Arrows display team. The programme was restricted to their "flat" by the low cloud and they passed by in a number of formation flights, unable to perform their rolling and other more adventurous routines. Soon they had gone to a round of applause the pilots would not have been able to hear, and as the ferry service resumed we made our way back for our final meal and good night's sleep at Anzac Street, passing an enormous queue for the ferries back to Kingswear. Indeed, Kingswear station was full of trains, including and excursion from Bristol, waiting to take people away after a day at the Dartmouth Royal Regatta.

And so to the day of our departure. There was no hurry to get to Paignton and before we left Dartmouth we spend some time at the little museum which gave us an idea of some of the history of the town, and just as we thought we’d seen it all and were about to leave we were taken by the very friendly staff to another house along the same street and shown a ceiling. These had all been merchants’ homes and they seemed to have competed with each other for the best, and most pious, ceiling: this one was decorated with plaster carvings depicting our Lord’s family tree from Jesse, father of King David, onwards, following the biblical genealogy. It was absolutely stunning and fascinating to see, having only just become available for public viewing. Then we caught our ferry and the steam train, Pullman Observation Car again, to Paignton then waited at the main line station for the Cross Country train which would take us home. As before, we travelled home via a single change of train at Birmingham New Street: this is much simpler than our outward route via London but we would not have enjoyed the amazing Pullman lunch if we had come this way, and in any case a round trip is a good thing to do in itself, allowing us to see more of England than we otherwise would. The train was direct to Birmingham and we spent our time between trains there exploring the newly-opened part of this huge station: the rest is still under construction and will not open for some months yet, but it is all very promising.

And so home on our familiar little Cross Country train and that final walk across the Meadows in Stamford, wondering on all that we had done since we came this way just five days before.

Sunday 9 November 2014

North Lincolnshire, a different world

Michael Portillo’s BBC2 rail trips around the UK have shown us that we do not have to be travelling on glamorous long-distance expresses to enjoy exploring our country, but that local trains to local destinations can sometimes take us to interesting places. We have begun using some of our local trains for leisure exploration, and visits to Melton Mowbray and to Great Yarmouth (as well as the parish trips to Ely and Lincoln) have already taken place. 

Recently a meeting arose in Scunthorpe, a town in the historic county of Lincolnshire which I had never visited in half a century of living in the county but about which I had heard good things and which was far enough away for a road trip to be a daunting prospect. I looked online at the practicality of going by rail and found that it would work quite well, the venue for my meeting being near the station. I allowed some time to explore the town while I was there and booked tickets via the East Coast website as usual. Booked in advance I managed to find First Class tickets at a decent fare, too (I only claim the standard fare from the PCC on expenses when I do this!).

To reach Scunthorpe in good time I left Stamford on the 07:19 train to Peterborough. This gives a very neat connection into an East Coast High Speed Train for Doncaster, and soon after taking my reserved single seat my coffee was served and breakfast order taken. The East Coast website now allows choice of seat when buying advance tickets and when travelling alone in First I try to get one of the single seats; when we are travelling together we aim for a table for two: the earlier I book the more likely I am to find the seats that I want are unreserved.

I did begin some reading before my breakfast arrived, but before long the cooked breakfast was served, along with orange juice and and pastry. I changed at Doncaster into a Trans-Pennine Express train which had stopped at an adjacent platform, bound for Cleethorpes, and this took me the rest of the way to Scunthorpe, about half an hour. I resumed reading (the material for the Advent study and for the Pilgrim study course, if you’re interested!) but as this was a part of the county I’d never visited before I did have to look from the windows, too! The train passed a still working deep mine which is not something common in England today, and soon the pleasant suburbs of Scunthorpe came into view and I gathered up my things ready to leave the train.

The station now called Scunthorpe is in the part of the town called Frodingham, one of five villages which have merged to become the town of Scunthorpe. It is where the civic church for the town is located (which is why I was there) and where the one remaining large steelworks is situated. (As I left my Trans-Pennine Express train I noticed a local train parked in an adjacent platform with “Lincoln” on its destination blind - not a service to take if actually travelling to Lincoln, not only because it stops at every station but also because its route is via Sheffield! Much quicker to take any train to Doncaster and change there.)

My meeting over and lunch with colleagues consumed I walked into the town centre. The town has a pleasant pedestrianised main street, and a lesson perhaps for Stamford is that there is a dedicated space at a junction of the shopping streets for advertising boards, so they do not clutter all the street. Soon I was hailed by man who asked where I was from. When I told him Stamford, he said, “You must know Tim Ellis,” i.e. the former Bishop of Grantham, “He drives a big Jag now, you know …”. I said I did know him and looked for somewhere to sit down and post a report of the encounter on Facebook where I knew Bishop Tim would find it!

After a little shopping I returned to the station to come home, and found that my reserved seat was on one of the aforesaid local Lincoln-bound trains as far as Doncaster, where I changed and boarded my East Coast service for Peterborough, enjoying the afternoon tea on the way, changing again at Peterborough for Stamford and arriving home on time. My booked train from Doncaster to Peterborough had actually been cancelled owing to some problem with the train, but those of us with tickets for that train were put on the next one which was just a few minutes later and still made the connection with the Stamford train - and fortunately had enough seats, too. And enough tea and cake!


With a Senior (or any other) Railcard and advance booking, such exploration can be very reasonably priced, and it is quite cheap to put together a simple tour visiting a few towns and staying overnight in B&B in some of them. We’ve done it in Scotland: perhaps we should do it closer to home, too!

Monday 3 November 2014

Trip after trip!

Been so busy lately, including a lot of travel, that there has not been time to keep up the travel blog! Just back from Newcastle upon Tyne and the photos are gradually appearing on Flickr at and while I've been away I've been writing up this year's summer holiday, so I should get that finished and posted soon. Lots to come!

Thursday 2 October 2014

In the Teeth of the Hurricane!

A short break on the south coast.

We have long-standing friends who regularly take their annual summer holiday at the same village on the south coast each year along with varied numbers of their grown-up children and other members of the extended family, and this summer they suggested that we join them there for a day or two. I had never seen this particular bit of the coast, Bracklesham Bay, and took them up enthusiastically on their offer. Looking at the map the obvious place to stay would be Chichester and we could trip out to see them as much as was mutually convenient, there being a decent bus service to and from the coastal villages, and the city itself is somewhere we had visited only once very briefly, so there would also be much to see there. To fit in with our friends and with my wife's work commitments we would have to travel after the Sunday morning services and return at some time on the Tuesday of the week our friends were in residence, so I made the necessary arrangements and set about booking the train tickets.

It does not take as long as you might think to get to and from Chichester! I looked first of all at booking through tickets from Stamford, quite prepared as usual to have to break it down into affordable sections, but the ticket price was as good as we were likely to manage. First Class all the way, with our new Two Together Railcard bringing the cost into the affordable category. The tickets covered all the journey including Underground from Kings Cross to Victoria in London and the connections were all generous enough to be easy to make without needless waiting around. I had never travelled by Southern to the south coast before and the new experience was something to look forward to. What was not so exciting was the weather forecast: after a smashing summer the south of England was being attacked by the remnants of the Hurricane Bertha and wind and rain remained in the forecast until the day we left.

So we packed for varied weather, and after a light lunch made our way to Stamford station and took our seats in the tiny First Class section as far as Peterborough. We waited in the sunshine at the new platform 3 at Peterborough, where southbound East Coast trains can stop without leaving the fast track, and joined the rather more substantial First Class coach M as is our habit. We always try to get single seats opposite one another at a small table rather than side-by-side with strangers sitting opposite, and the East Coast on-line booking facility allows us to choose seats from among those still available so we generally get what we want. Catering south of Peterborough is minimal, especially so on Sundays, but we did enjoy the coffee and biscuits provided. Arrival at Kings Cross was a little early, and we were very soon on our way by Underground, Victoria Line, to Victoria for our connection to Chichester. The automatic gates on the Underground were not fond of our tickets, but Transport for London always have staff available to help and we were let through quickly at both ends with no trouble.

The platform for the train for Chichester, a semi-fast to Portsmouth Harbour, was not yet indicated on the departure boards at Victoria, although the train was shown. The Southern world is very different from anything we've been used to: once the train was announced we had to be careful to join the right coaches! It was the first eight coaches at the front of the platform (and, of course, you're counting from the back …), and of those only the first four go to Portsmouth via Chichester, then rest being detached en-route for Littlehampton. Easy enough, though, and plenty of announcements were made, including on board the train, to make sure that we were all in the right part of the train. The FirstClass section looked absolutely identical to the Standard Class: the same type of seats, the same density of seating, the same lighting and luggage space. Only the signs and the presence of white covers on the headrests showed it as First. Still, it was peaceful enough and, the train leaving on time, we had a very enjoyable ride. Our train took a rather longer route than some, almost due south down through East Croydon and Gatwick Airport towards Brighton and then turn abruptly west (within sight of Brighton station) to follow the coast towards Portsmouth. It was a fascinating journey and I watched out of the window all the way. A highlight was passing Arundel at a distance and seeing the castle and cathedral presiding over the town. Although it was a bit breezy there was no rain and things were beginning to look up weather-wise.

Chichester has a simple two-platform station with full facilities and a frequent service of trains to places all along the south coast and to London. It is on the south side of the city centre and I had booked a room at Trents, a small hotel (inn, really) between the station and the shops, a short walk away. The bar served as the hotel reception and we were soon checked-in and taken to our room overlooking the street. The sun pours in through the window during the day (which at that time of the year its still was) but with the curtains drawn and the window ajar it was not too hot, and the hotel provided and electric fan, too. Curiously the refrigerator for the supplied spring water and fresh milk was in the built-in wardrobe which (a) took up clothes space and (b) made it very hot in the wardrobe! The room was decorated with motor-racing pictures, Chichester being the home of the Goodwood circuit and both car and horse racing were a bit of a theme.

And so, off for a stroll around the city centre and to find dinner, and we settled for the very pleasant Côte Brasserie just along the street and then after dinner met our friends in our hotel bar and planned our day with them at their holiday bungalow the following day. We would not need the bus service, they would pick us up by car after our breakfast. Trents breakfast menu was very comprehensive and full and the food excellent, setting us up for the whole day on both mornings, and we could choose anything within the price of our bed & breakfast booking, made through as usual.

The day at the coast was as interesting for the wind as anything! People were in the sea even though it was a little cold by normal summer standards and the waves were huge: good for surfing but not so good for swimming, and paddling was out of the question! 

Our friends' bungalow was right by the beach, with a gate from the garden straight onto the shingle. It was one of the original holiday bungalows built from two disused railway carriages (as bedrooms) with a living space between them and had much more character than more recent or heavily rebuilt ones. 

We stayed long enough to see the moon with the hurricane-driven clouds rushing past it, and then were driven back to our hotel and to bed.

Some of the conversation had been about how we would spend our last day, taking advice from friends who knew the area well, and we decided to visit Fishbourne, where the foundations and floors of a Roman palace had been discovered in the mid-twentieth century. Looking at tourism information, bus and train timetables using the brilliant free wifi at Trents, we decided to take the shortest main-line train ride we'd ever had, the mile or so from Chichester to Fishbourne, so that we could check out and take our luggage with us, the Roman Palace site having lockers for our cases. By now the weather had improved markedly and the day there was sunny and warm. The archeological site is a short walk from the station and there is much to interpret the remains to the non-specialist visitor like us: much of the assumed history and design of the buildings is necessarily conjecture, but firmly based upon evidence from elsewhere and forensic-style evidence on site, and a good third of the original palace site is inaccessible under roads and houses built before its existence was known. Seeing medieval ploughshare scars on Roman mosaic paving brings home just how long these ruins lay undiscovered!

Back to Chichester for lunch at a pub and then to the station for our booked train home! The return journey was at a busy time on a weekday, unlike the Sunday afternoon trip down, and our train took the more direct route through Horsham across to Gatwick Airport rather than the coastal route by which we had come. Lovely Sussex scenery until the approach to London. Crowds boarded our train at East Croydon but by then we were almost in London. Again our tickets were valid on the Underground across London and we were soon at Kings Cross awaiting our East Coast train for Peterborough, with tea and cake (and gin and tonic), and the connection home to Stamford.

All the photos of this trip, including several of the Roman Palace site, can be seen on Flickr, at

It seems to me that short breaks like this are a lot easier to do than we often think. It was only when we were invited to go that I looked up the travel details and found out just how simple a trip it would be – London, even when changing stations by Underground, is not the barrier we often make of it in our minds. The countryside in Sussex is well worth seeing and is so enjoyable when not driving and looking out for the back of the vehicle in front. The south coast is nearer than I had allowed myself to imagine, and we have already booked the hotel for a return next year when we shall explore more of the city itself (like the Cathedral, for example) and perhaps some other places in the local area. I'd recommend it to anyone, and if you want Brighton itself, then it is not even necessary to cross London by Underground because many trains for there leave from St Pancras, just across the road from Kings Cross – not quicker, but even simpler.

Thursday 18 September 2014

When I'm not travelling

When I'm not travelling I am building a thirties moderne fantasy model railway with luxury streamlined trains.

And when I am travelling I try to find trains that get as close as possible to this fantasy!

Sunday 14 September 2014

The future of sleeper service on the European continent

The Guardian reports that many European sleeping train services are under threat. These have been under-invested for a long time, so it is not altogether surprising; and as daytime speeds increase there is perhaps less need for them, but there is still no other convenient and comfortable way to arrive in a city early in the morning from hundreds of miles away unless you stay overnight from travelling the previous day.

This decline does not seem to apply in the UK where although sleeper services have been cut in the past, upgrades are promised on the remaining ones linking Scotland and Cornwall with London. Now we just need to persuade someone to stop one at Peterborough.

Long ago, on privatisation, the proposed overnight services through to the continent from the UK were cut even before they started, as were through daytime services from the north of England to Paris. But who knows what the future may hold.

Coming up: a couple of interesting trips to the north

On the way to Peterborough
One place I've been but never really got to know, and one place much closer where I've never even set foot are now firmly on the "booked up" list for the near future.

The place I've never been is Scunthorpe even though I have lived in Lincolnshire for fifty years, and finally
I need to go there for a meeting, so I've booked trains which will allow me plenty of extra time to have a quick look around while I'm there. I doubt there's a tourist trail but as a former town planner I'll be glad to see what this town, stitched together from a number of smaller places, is like. I've heard nothing but good things, so am looking forward to it. The journey from Stamford will involve changes of train at Peterborough (as the north generally does) and Doncaster - which demonstrates how far it is. Should be able to fit an East Coast breakfast into the way up there! (I've booked the main line bit First Class but will only claim the standard class fare on expenses - since buying my Senior Railcard it's all costing a lot less anyway!)

Further north and just for a weekend break is Newcastle upon Tyne. We were looking for a destination for our next free East Coast First Class trip and this was chosen partly because it always was on our mental "list" and now because it was one of the few places we could redeem an experience voucher one of us had been given (the experience has since been cancelled and we'll have to seek another, but we'll still enjoy Newcastle). Now to do our research and see what we can fit into a short break! We get the main line haul between Peterborough and Newcastle free with our Reward points and just pay for standard class tickets between Stamford and Peterborough.

Wednesday 10 September 2014

Lovely weather for a day out

On days like these it is so easy to turn up and just buy a ticket and go somewhere you've never been before, or somewhere you haven't been for ages, or ... just somewhere! Doesn't have to be London or Edinburgh: big cities, small towns or even the countryside can be well worth just turning up and enjoying if you have the time. Local trips with off-peak day returns can be cheap without advance booking, especially for railcard-holders.

Monday 25 August 2014

An Evening in the City

For a Lincolnshire town, Stamford has an excellent rail service. We have hourly reliable, comfortable trains to and from useful places like Leicester, Birmingham, Cambridge and Stansted Airport as well as Peterborough where we can change for London and the north. One real drawback is that although the train service starts quite early in the morning it does not continue very late into the evening, so trips to London or Birmingham cannot go on beyond about 8.30pm. (There is a campaign to get this shortcoming fixed, and to have the service beefed up to half-hourly, an online petition to Parliament just having closed.)

So, when I was invited to attend the induction and institution of a friend as Vicar of a parish in the City of London I could only accept if I could find accommodation in London for the evening. Having other friends already in London I arranged to stay with them, always a nice thing to do anyway, and set about shifting my day off and arranging a trip to London including a visit to the London Transport Museum (for which I had an annual ticket, bought when passing through on my way to Paris last autumn!), lunch with the friend with whom I would be staying in the evening, some photography around London and the church service at St Michael's, Cornhill followed by the trip out to Croydon for my overnight stay. I would be back in time for my first meeting at half past noon the following day.

My camera bag on my table; cyclists beyond!
Tickets were bought via the East Coast website, earning some Reward Points towards my next free trip (just booked: first class to Newcastle for a short break - will be blogged in due course!), standard class singles to and from Peterborough with first class singles each way between Peterborough and London Kings Cross. I was glad I had booked early. Both trains on the way there were busy because a stage of the Tour de France was starting from Cambridge that day and was to end in London! Some on my train for Peterborough were on their way to the start, and many on the London train were on their way to see the finish, and conversation on the London train was about bicycles almost all the way ... but I had my individual table seat and spent my time doing my own things - sorting photographs and writing entries for this blog, I think! As usual with East Coast complimentary light refreshments were served, beginning with coffee as soon as I had sat down - full meals are not available south of Peterborough or on short journeys, but at 10.15am who wants a meal anyway?

As always in London I used my Oyster card to travel onward to Covent Garden where I would visit the London Transport Museum and meet my friend for lunch. Oyster guarantees the cheapest fares available and applies a daily cap equivalent to the day Travelcard price. I have arranged for mine to be automatically topped-up from a credit card account so that I neither have to visit shops to buy credit for the Oyster account nor risk the money being taken from my bank account unexpectedly if the balance is low. It makes travel in London so simple.

I had all the time I wanted at the museum and in its gift shop, and took some "street" photographs around the former Covent Garden Market, now a shopping and restaurant area. There was a conjuror out on the street near the Opera House, and another in one of the courtyard-style restaurants in the former market building.

We were meeting for lunch at Le Pain Quotidien and sat outside under a parasol on a baking hot sunny lunchtime. After eating we decided to go for a stroll by the river and have a drink at a bar which my friend knew near London Bridge ... this was how we encountered the crowds trying to see the end of the Tour de France stage. As the race was taking place along a large stretch of the north bank of the Thames, getting anywhere near the river was not easy through the crowds, but we did manage. The sun went in. Then the rain started. People were nevertheless pouring out of their offices to try to find a place to watch the race, and then the rain became heavier. We sheltered in an office doorway and watched other people fail to see the Tour de France which eventually swept past at an incredible speed - we simply heard the cheers rise and fall as the riders soared past! the rain stopped and people drifted back to their offices and we resumed our search for The Oyster Shed, our target bar. Soon we heard loudspeakers requesting everyone to clear the race route for more cyclists were about to pass. With their motor-car escort with sirens and flashing lights two tail-end cyclists streaked past too fast to see them properly and that was the end of the Tour de France for today!

Not far now to our pint, with a view across the Thames to Southwark Cathedral, The Shard (and the Old Thameside Inn on the south bank where we'd often met before).

We parted company until the evening and after another short time taking photographs I made my way to Cornhill and sat awaiting the start of my other friend's induction service, at which the Bishop of London was to officiate and preach. St Michael's, Cornhill, is one of those churches in the City of London with a parish with virtually zero resident population but a lunchtime ministry to the office workers and bankers during the week and a Sunday congregation drawn from around London who like its so-called "Book of Common Prayer" worship style, although frankly it just looked old-fashioned to me rather than real prayer book, but perhaps that's not a topic for a travel blog!

The church was absolutely packed and the service most encouraging and uplifting. It took me ages to get through the crowd to the exit at the end and I could not get anywhere near the refreshments, but I was still going strong from the lunch so perhaps that was OK and I made my way through the fascinating narrow streets of the City to London Bridge and the train to East Croydon for my overnight stay. Many trains run fairly fast from London to East Croydon and it did not take long to find the one I wanted. Indeed, there was one about to depart and I ran to the platform and boarded just as it was about to go. From East Croydon station I took a tram three stops to where my hosts for my overnight stay live - all covered by my pay-as-you-go Oyster card. A pleasant evening spent with friends and a good night's sleep and breakfast and I'm back on the tram in the morning to travel back to Stamford. I had never caught a train into London from East Croydon in the morning peak before. I had expected a train to St Pancras from where I'd walk to Kings Cross for my train home - I needed to catch a specific train from Kings Cross because I was travelling on an Advance ticket, but I had plenty of time in hand. Just as well: the train I caught was a very slow one going a long way round and stopping at lots of places! A peak-only route, I think. It would have been quicker to catch a fast to London Bridge or Victoria and get the Underground from there, but in hot weather I try to avoid the Underground if I can. No matter, I arrived at St Pancras with ample time to await my train to Peterborough.

East Coast's 10:08 departure whisked me to Peterborough in 51 minutes, light refreshments included, and I waited for the connecting Cross Country train for Stamford, and here encountered the other, less significant shortcoming of our train service: trains every 60 minutes often leave us waiting for over half an hour for the connection, and if we had a half-hourly service we'd be home 30 minutes earlier. Somehow the tremendous speed with which we get to Peterborough seems a bit of a waste if the time gained is then spent sitting around at Peterborough station instead of in Stamford. I just have to remind myself, though, that it is all very much better than driving in so many ways and with my Senior Railcard (or Two Together Railcard when travelling with my wife) and advance booking I can almost always afford first class for the main section of the trip. While it is not always completely hassle-free we have very seldom had any real problems and nearly all our journeys have been on time (or even several minutes early), whereas the roads are becoming more and more congested and each improvement to then generates more traffic which then requires more road works to improve it again. The railways are not immune from closure for engineering works (hence the postponement of a parish trip to Canterbury a few months ago) but at least we find out about it in time and at least it does result in a lasting improvement when it is done.