Thursday 16 January 2014

Via Nuneaton, or via London?

Last year I was enrolled on a training course, six days in September, on the exciting topic of Transforming Church Conflict. I could write another series of articles on the course contents and a further one on why I attended it, but I’ll stick for the moment with how I travelled there. As my Rule of Life includes that I shall walk, cycle or use public transport wherever practical, my first thought was to see how convenient the venue is to the nearest railway station, the second being how easy it is to get to that station from Stamford. It was a longish walk, but not a ridiculous one, so I determined that if the trains were not too inconvenient I would go by train and walk to the venue, which was the Boys’ Brigade training centre at Hemel Hempstead in Hertfordshire.

Now Hemel is one of the early London ring New Towns and the station, built to serve the original village, is not ever so convenient for the town centre (though I’ve known worse), but it is on the same side of the town as the place to which I was to travel. It is on the West Coast Main Line, the former LNWR line to Birmingham and the north-west, and is served by semi-fast trains between London Euston and Birmingham New Street, which also have stops at, among others, Northampton and Nuneaton. Northampton is not far away but there is no direct public transport to there from Stamford, so that was not an option; Nuneaton does have hourly trains from Stamford but the connections are more concerned with getting people to the north-west and so, given also that all the trains involved are only semi-fasts, it takes longer to travel via Nuneaton than via Peterborough and London, and so it was that, booking in advance as usual via the East Coast website, I found myself on another brief adventure. An adventure because (1) it was to a place I’d never been and (2) used trains I’d never used before. The only other train I’d ever caught from Euston was the Caledonian Sleeper described in the very first of these articles. The Birmingham semi-fasts I used to use in the seventies, but only the five miles at the other end of the line, and the service was very different in those days, too.

Departure from Stamford was on the 14:00 train to Peterborough on the Sunday of the SKDC Chairman’s Civic Service at All Saints, so the civic reception nibbles provided my light lunch, dinner being the first thing on the schedule at the training course that evening. It was a warm, sunny afternoon and the ride to London from Peterborough was delightful. I still had some preparatory reading to do for the course: huge advantage of travelling by train was that I did not have to get all this finished before I left as I’d have had to if driving. Given the amount of activity that weekend, that was just as well. For luggage I took all the week’s clothes in my wheeled case, and my briefcase has a loop on the back that slides over the extended handle of the case, so I could pull both along at once. Ideal business luggage (bought for the purpose, of course).

The advance ticket required a specific train to be used, and plenty of time was allowed for the change of station in London: it did include Underground but I did not use that as Euston is only a short walk from King’s Cross. I sat in the sunshine outside a café at Euston and drank coffee while awaiting the time for my train to Hemel Hempstead and then made my way to the platform. Not so many years ago London was very quiet on Sundays. Not any more: the station and the café were heaving with people and the train, eight high-density suburban coaches, was full. Not uncomfortably so, but anyone getting on at the last moment would have had to search hard for a seat. I was amazed. Sunday tea-time and the world seemed to be at Euston.

It was still sunny and warm when I arrived at Hemel Hempstead. A small station on a busy line and in the style of the 1960s West Coast electrification modernisation, like Euston and New Street and, also like them, slightly down-at-heel because of its age but unlike the big stations, not being refurbished. Using the maps on my smartphone I navigated my way to the training centre. There is a cross-country path but no exit to it from the station, and in any case it will have been muddy, and difficult with luggage. So I walked round via the streets and lanes and a pleasant walk it was. Not immediately clear which side of the road was going to have the footpath, and I could have done without vehicles parked on the paths here and there, but a steady pace took me up the hill towards the venue.

The hill was not steep but it was unrelenting. And the sun was shining and it was hot. And I had two cases, albeit on wheels but they still had to be lifted up the hill. Jolly good exercise. I was almost there when a passing taxi stopped and offered me a lift. It was carrying someone else for the course and she was paying - although I did provide the tip! Checked in and straight to the shower!

It was an intensive week’s work but we did get one afternoon and a couple of evenings off. On the afternoon I walked into the town centre just for fun, really, as I’d never been there. This involved a walk near to a canal and was most enjoyable. Walking back up the hill was less shower-requiring without the luggage. Both evenings were spent at a canalside pub. By now the road and the hill were becoming familiar ground.

We left the course on Friday afternoon and several of us walked (downhill!) together to the station, some heading north to Birmingham and others travelling with me to London: the train was less busy than on the Sunday afternoon and in London a few of us walked round to King’s Cross for various trains to the north. I had some time in hand because we had finished a little early and my Advance ticket required me to await my booked train. So I sat on the balcony at the King’s Cross departure area and worked on my material for the October magazine, which by now you will have read and forgotten … This works well at King’s Cross: on that level there are various places to buy food and drink but the seats are for anyone, and there is a clear view across to the departures boards without that neck-straining look up from the ground level. When your train is indicated you go across the bridge to the escalators down to the middle of the platforms for the standard class coaches, or if travelling First Class go down to the concourse and enter the platforms at ground level at the end.

And so to Peterborough and the change of train for Stamford, magazine material almost complete!

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