Wednesday 26 March 2014

Will I still get my breakfast?

A visit to my friend and spiritual director in Wakefield was long, long overdue and I finally got round to making an appointment to go and see him and booked the tickets for the journey: the usual route to the north via a change to the East Coast main line at Peterborough and Plusbus ticket to get to his house on the edge of the city when I got there. I booked First Class on a through train to Wakefield on the way there to experience the East Coast breakfast, and Standard Class for the return because there were not such good ticket prices to be had later in the day and in any case it would not be at a meal time!

The day came to leave and as usual I checked the train running online before leaving for the station and was disappointed to discover that my connection to Wakefield was cancelled because of a fault on the train. Aaarrgh! Now what? I had an advance ticket only valid on that train, but, of course, in these circumstances that restriction is waived provided one travels on a reasonable alternative. Anyway, I set off on the train from Stamford and enquired at Peterborough about what to do. It was very straightforward, actually: I was to board a York-bound stopping train which was due soon after the cancelled Wakefield and Leeds train, and then change later into the following Leeds train which will not have stopped at Peterborough: thus I would end up less than half an hour late, well within my schedule. It was where the later change would take place that was an interesting matter: the staff at Peterborough said Grantham, that was the official line because there was no change of platform at Grantham. Looking at the timetable I would prefer to stay on until Doncaster for the following reasons:
  • I wanted my breakfast soon (!) and would rather have it between Peterborough and Doncaster than between Grantham (after a wait) and Wakefield
  • The wait at Doncaster (for the same train) would be shorter as it would have caught up more with the stopping train I was boarding
  • The wait at Doncaster is under a platform canopy, but not at Grantham
  • In the event of further disruption, there are also local trains from Doncaster to Wakefield that I'd have been able to use

When I boarded the stopping train at Peterborough the announcement was made that we could change at either Grantham or Doncaster, and as breakfast was being served I stayed where I was, coffee on my table as I settled down. The breakfast menu is quite reasonable: you would not mistake it for a hotel buffet breakfast but it includes a choice of cereal (even porridge), fruit juice, various cooked items (I had bacon, egg, hash browns and mushroom), coffee, croissant and yogurt.

I had been concerned about whether there would be a seat for me on this train and whether there would be enough food and drink, with it taking the passengers of an entire second train, but that turned out to be no problem at all, in First Class, at least and there were many empty seats even so – no wonder there were so many cheap advance places available in this direction at this time of day.

So, that was the “excitement” almost over for the morning. An easy (cross-platform) change at Doncaster and after some work on my computer I was soon in Wakefield, there being no further disruption of any consequence. I said it had been a long time since I had last been, and the bus stop I'd normally used to visit my friend had moved, which was a minor panic for a second, but I knew the city centre well enough to find the new stop and, with my Plusbus ticket was on my way in no time, following the route on the city map on my iPhone so that I could be sure to get off at the right place.

Wakefield Westgate rail station, like so many others at present, was being rebuilt to serve better the number of people using it – the existing station having been provided in the 1970s when passenger numbers were very much less. The Bishop of Wakefield was due to attend the opening of the new building just a couple of days after my visit.

Returning to the city centre I caught my early afternoon train back to Peterborough and this time had an uneventful ride, working on my computer, changing smoothly for Stamford and home for tea. I always feel when I return after a trip like this that it almost seems like a dream – it has been so effortless, even though there was a problem in the morning, that it hardly seems possible that I really was in Wakefield today.

Tuesday 4 March 2014

Climbing the Swiss Alps - part 1: From London to Matterhorn and Eiger

The agenda for our rail adventures has always included a Great Rail Journeys accompanied tour to Switzerland to take in at least the famous Glacier Express and Bernina Express, and we had always assumed that this would be a retirement project. In 2012 I had seen advertised the very trip that would provide all we wanted to do in the Swiss Alps in one tour, and in winter when the snow would enhance the scenery: further I had almost saved up enough money to fund the trip and if we waited for the following winter, if it were still available, it would make a good way to celebrate my next round birthday. When the dates for 2014 were published one of the options coincided with a Lincolnshire school holiday just a few weeks after the relevant birthday, so we brought the project forward by several years and made the First Class Glacier Express in Winter holiday package my 60th birthday railtour!

Hotel lobby in former station cab road
Like all these packages, it began at London St Pancras International and we decided to travel to London the day before departure and spend a night there to extend the holiday and ensure that there would be no worry about catching the first train of the tour. It happened that the day before the tour was St Valentine's Day, and one of my birthday presents was a night at the St Pancras Renaissance Hotel, where I also booked dinner that night, so it all worked together very nicely to start the holiday in style and with some unhurried time for each other before setting off on the adventure. Great Rail Journeys booked decently-priced First Class tickets for us to and from London as well as all the essential travel and most of the meals throughout the tour itself.
View from our table in the hotel restaurant

The Renaissance Hotel is in the thoroughly rebuilt hotel/offices and former station buildings right beside the international platforms at St Pancras station and the restaurant where we had dinner and breakfast is in the former booking hall. It is a spectacular place in itself and well worth a visit: the bar and restaurant is open to non-residents.

After checking out of the hotel we made our way to meet out our tour manager, Glyn, by the Eurostar check-in gates and met some of our companions for the coming week. We were certainly among the youngest members of the group, and even though it was a school holiday there were no families. The great advantage of an organized tour like this one was that we were looked after all the time and someone else was doing all the arranging of tickets and hotels and the seeking of information that I normally have to do myself! Glyn gave us our Eurostar tickets which would take us all the way through to the first night's stop at Luxembourg.

All the train travel was in First Class; although that varied widely in what it provided, at least it was always spacious and comfortable, and after the usual security and passport checks at St Pancras we waited for our first train, the 10:58 to Brussels. Even though it was well into the morning the light meal on the Eurostar train was breakfast! Bread, croissant, amazing muesli yogurt, orange juice and coffee: not bad for elevenses, a second breakfast. The coffee is a disappointment on these trains but everything else was excellent. Once through the Channel Tunnel our train took the left turn towards Brussels, the first time we had been this way, and we arrived at Brussels South on time, where we were to change trains. Porterage had been arranged for out bigger cases and we had time to go to the shops at the station to buy lunch, essential because the next train did not have catering on board: Glyn was able to advise on where to buy things and called us all together, 39 of us including himself, to ensure that everyone boarded the correct coach in which a block of seating had been reserved for us. Our cases were waiting on a trolley on the platform. So we settled in for a three-hour journey beginning with a slow crawl around Brussels before heading out to the Ardennes where the scenery improved markedly with woods and rock cuttings. Night had fallen by the time we reached Luxembourg and once we had all gathered on the platform we walked the short distance to our hotel for the night. Dinner was all together after we had taken our bags to our rooms and at dinner our tour manager gave us our Swiss rail passes for the coming week. With the train rides, the bar and the dinner we had made about ten new friends already.

After a solid night's sleep we enjoyed an excellent buffet breakfast at the hotel and made our way across to the station to meet the rest of the party. Again we bought a picnic lunch before joining our train which made its way down the eastern side of France via Metz, Strasbourg and Mulhouse to Basel, only just inside Switzerland, the first railway station to be built in the country. There was a frisson of excitement when the first hilltop snow was seen, on hills more reminiscent of Wales than Scotland: we were still some way short of the Alps! Even more excitement when an EasyJet airliner came in over our heads to land at Mulhouse airport. Funny how adults still get excited by the sight of aircraft. Arriving at Basel at about 2.30pm we all made our way to the nearest café for our first caffeine fix since breakfast, before boarding our intercity train to Berne, travelling on the upper deck of a duplex First Class coach by a high-speed route. Ironically this train conveyed a bistro car, now that we were between mealtimes, but a glass of wine was very nice as we saw our first big snow-covered mountains. Another change at Berne onto a similar train and we were on our way to Brig, using a new route only recently tunnelled through a mountain to take an hour off the journey time. We were met at Brig by a tourist road train that took us round the town to our hotel and then the whole party gradually made its way up to our rooms and unpacked – for the first time after leaving home.

The routine was now established: our tour manager spoke to us at dinner about the following day's activities and handed out papers giving details of what was laid on, together with suggestions for what to do with the free time, and so to bed. Each evening before and after dinner there was a little gathering in the hotel lobby, which was furnished with armchairs, of people with their smartphones and tablet computers taking advantage of the free wireless internet connection to read the British news and keep in touch with families at home and elsewhere – and these were almost all retired people older than we are. We went to bed excited by the coming days' outings to the mountains of the Alps.

Monday morning in Switzerland dawned with mist and low cloud, and we were out bright and early to walk to the station for the train to Zermatt. This was a narrow (metre) gauge mountain railway which started from the place in front of the station building like a tram and climbed into the mountains from Visp using a rack-and-pinion system. We very soon encountered deep snow and saw people at work clearing snow from roads and railway stations, and even using hand-propelled snow-blowers to clear their own paths and drives. The train climbed steeply and steadily towards Zermatt where it terminated. Our tour manager advised us where to look for coffee and lunch and where the stations were for other places to which we may wish to venture. Our Swiss Card entitled us to free travel for the group tours and half-fare travel for anything additional we might choose to do. We began by walking carefully through the town towards the mountains. Vehicles propelled by internal combustion engines are banned, but small electric vehicles are busy about the town and sneak up rather quietly, so care is necessary because of those as well as because of the ice and snow. Soon we saw the famous shape of the Matterhorn in front of us in the mist and as we watched it the mist cleared so quickly that by the time I had my camera ready there was just a wisp of cloud near the peak and five minutes later the whole sky was bright blue with the mountain standing in bright sunlight, the most awesome sight I had ever beheld … but then I was only just starting a week of awesome sights!

We had coffee in a small hotel looking up at the Matterhorn, where the proprietor explained that it had snowed all day the previous day and nothing had been visible at all. This explained why everyone was so busy clearing snow when we were there. We then made our way back to the town centre and the station for the mountain railway up to Gornergrat, a mountain with a hotel and ski resort near the top. Half-fare tickets were bought for the ride to the mountain terminus! This was another rack railway and the cog system was needed all the way from the station at Zermatt to the terminus just below the peak. Even at Zermatt we were high enough for the air to be thin enough to require life to be taken easy: on Gornergrat it was essential not to hurry and to take deliberate deep breaths. Although the temperature on the mountain top was well below zero there was sunshine and no wind and it did not feel cold. We walked up the path, newly cleared but still very snowy, to the very top, from where the view of the adjacent Matterhorn across the valley was stunning. We had seen people struggling to get down safely on the ice and snow, but with Yaktrax ice-grips from George Alan of Stamford fitted to our boots we were able to walk down fairly easily to the station and await our train back down to Zermatt. Swiss railways have reputation for timekeeping, but I have to say that our experience did not support this reputation: time and again these mountain railways were late or simply chaotic: we could not always be sure what was going to run when, but they were so frequent that it really did not matter much. Our train down was a few minutes late, but it came and its rack-and-pinion system got us safely down through the snow-covered hills with wonderful views of skiers on their way down beside us.

As we sat in a cafe with hot chocolate and snack we soon found most of the group in the same establishment: we had clearly all decided to return to Brig on the same train. Bath, dinner and bed after a spectacularly wonderful day in the western Alps. There is a morning train from Zermatt, the Glacier Express, which goes right through to St Moritz, and although we would not be boarding it as far back at Zermatt we would use that train later in the week to take us as far as Chur: that trip is the centrepiece of this holiday package and we looked forward to it throughout our stay in Brig.

Jungfraujoch: the high Alpine research facility
Our second day was to be spent in the Bernese Highlands, beginning with a train ride via Kandersteg on the old main line to Spiez, the one we bypassed via the new tunnel on our way to Brig. At Spiez we changed trains for a ride along the southern shore of Lake Thun to Interlaken. Some of the party left the train at Interlaken West to visit the town itself, but most of us went to to Interlaken Ost to take mountain railway trains into the Jungfrau area of the Alps: we would finish up not far from Brig, but on the other side of a mountain range impossible to cross. There are many options from Interlaken for trains into the mountains and the one I had long wanted to take, up the line inside the Eiger to Jungfraujoch, the gap between the Eiger and the Jungfrau, would have to await another trip, for the weather did not seem as good as it might be, and there was insufficient time to make it worth the considerable cost of the ride. We chose a round tour, from Interlaken to Grindelwald, where we stopped for an early lunch, then to Kleine Scheidegg at the foot of the Eiger where we could look up at the north face and just make out the windows in the mountainside where there were intermediate stations on the Jungfrau railway. From there we could also see the Alpine meteorological station at Jungfraujoch, at the head of the glacier which runs down towards Brig. From Kleine Scheidegg we took the train down to Wengen where we took a short stroll through the town, with our ice grips on our boots once more. Everywhere here and in other places there were ski schools for children, as this was the school holiday. There were many skiers using the trains to travel uphill, ready to ski back down again, including parties of schoolchildren from several countries.

From Wengen we returned to Interlaken Ost, via a change at Lauterbrunnen, deciding that a future trip to Switzerland would have to include a stay in Interlaken so that other places accessible from here could be visited – from Lauterbrunnen a cableway and railway would take us to the Schilthorn which was used in the filming of the James Bond film On Her Majesty'sSecret Service. We did not have time for this and heard from others in the group that it is well worth visiting. Up in the mountains all was covered in deep snow, and back down by the lakes, most was green again. Another knockout day: it was beginning to look as if we'd need a holiday to recover from this holiday! Before we left Stamford I had downloaded On Her Majesty's Secret Service from iTunes and we watched it in two evening sessions before bed, an appropriate way to wind down from a day in the Swiss Alps.