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.

Saturday 9 August 2014

The North Yorkshire Pullman

The North Yorkshire Moors Railway between Grosmont and Pickering is the most popular preserved railway in Britain and is set among the splendid scenery for which this part of England is renowned. It has a reasonable collection of steam and heritage diesel locomotives and preserved coaches. I had thought of including it eventually in a classic “adventure” tour of North Yorkshire, taking in York, Scarborough, Pickering, Whitby and Middlesbrough (which we may still do one day) but a visit to this line was brought forward by a kind birthday gift from some good friends who gave me a voucher for afternoon tea on the North YorksPullman. I looked up the dates and found that it was available during the school Easter holiday which meant taking the usual “post-Easter” holiday before Holy Week (!) as I have had to do once before, so I snapped up a pair of tickets for then and set about booking train tickets to get there.

One feature of the North Yorks Moors Railway is that some of its trains continue past its northern extremity at Grosmont onto the national rail line to Whitby and back, and the Pullman meal tickets include travel by these trains to connect with the Pullman at Grosmont, so we could stay in Whitby for a short break with the Pullman tea trip as the centre-piece. It is just about possible to do the trip from Stamford to Grosmont, take the Pullman trip and get back to Stamford in one day but it does rely on nothing going wrong, and with antique railways that is just too much of a risk to take! In any case, a stay in Whitby is always worth doing, especially if a visit to the Magpie Café can be fitted in … An adventure was beginning to take shape.

We took the early morning East Midlands train from Stamford to Peterborough, connecting for York by EastCoast. With Advance First tickets (booked free-of-charge using our East Coast loyalty points!) we had a full English cooked breakfast on the train to York: these trains are so fast that there was only just time to take the order and cook and serve the breakfast so that we could eat it before we had to leave the train. The real adventure began at York when we saw that our Transpennine Express connection to Middlesbrough was running late. Not very late, but late enough, because we had a connection to make at Middlesbrough for the long, meandering Esk Valley line to Whitby, a service with only a handful of trains a day and if we missed our connection we'd have had to amuse ourselves for three hours, with our luggage, in Middlesbrough. We had visited Middlesbrough before and were fairly confident that we had seen all that it had to offer …

We waited at the indicated platform for our train at York and the train crew who were to take it forward were there, too, so we told them that we needed to make that connection. Meanwhile the train made up a little time and the new crew got it smartly away from York. The guard checked all the tickets and found several people for Whitby and telephoned ahead: Northern Rail would hold the Whitby train for up to ten minutes if necessary, but any longer and they'd provide a minibus for connecting passengers. That was fair enough, but we'd have awaited the next train rather than go by road and miss some of the most spectacular scenery of the trip. In the event, several minutes were made up at Northallerton where the booked length of station stop was not all needed and by the time we arrived at Middlesbrough we were comfortably in time, even having to wait a couple of minutes for the Whitby train to arrive at its platform. Much ado about nothing, as it happened, but the train crew and the Middlesbrough station staff did a wonderful job with the contingency plans and ensuring that we all caught our onward train.

The line between Middlesbrough and Whitby is well worth travelling, featuring hills and moors, rivers, waterfalls, woods and charming villages with little stations, once clear of the Teesside industry and suburbs (and those are interesting enough, including the famous transporter bridge). The train reverses at the station at Battersby which used to be a junction but the through line from York was lifted long ago leaving a v-shaped line. There is still a water crane on the platform, and occasional North Yorks Moors steam trains work through to Battersby from Whitby.

We arrived in Whitby on time and made our way across the road to our hotel, the George, rather different from its namesake in Stamford! Its main advantage was its proximity to rail and bus stations and the town centre, its downside being that it was very pub-like downstairs which meant that the continental breakfast, taken in a semi-basement bar, was not like being a hotel dining room. Staff were very friendly and helpful, looking after our luggage when we'd arrived before check-in, and we relaxed over a pint of beer before setting out for a stroll around the town, a place we'd visited several times before, including two week-long stays. The room was really pleasant with a view over the street to the river and beyond, though strangely lacking anywhere to hand coats – which was all right as we'd had no rain and so our coats could go in the wardrobe, but that would not always be the case.

We took a bus ride out to Sandsend, at the west end of the long sandy bay at which Whitby is at the east end and tried to locate places we had visited before – memory can play remarkable tricks and it took some time before we recognised where we were. We enjoyed a hot drink at a beach café (bear in mind this is April!) and shopped for greetings cards we needed to send, then caught our bus back, dropping us right outside the door of the George Hotel.

I had booked a table in advance at the famous Magpie Café which is not really a café at all but a fish and chip restaurant, one of many in Whitby but the only one with an Egon Ronay recommendation and the only one with long queues, queues we avoided by advance booking.

This was dinner on the first day of the adventure. The fish is landed at the wharf opposite: it cannot be any fresher, and we had a superb meal with very friendly service. Between that dinner and the anticipated tea the following day, the continental breakfast included in our room price at the George Hotel would be perfectly adequate, we felt. No need to pay extra for the full English …

On the second morning we made our way to Whitby station and caught the steam train to Grosmont, where we had a couple of hours before the departure of the North Yorkshire Pullman. There was plenty to do. We explored the preserved side of the station and watched the train being prepared, a locomotive being coupled to it to provide heat and power, and we walked to the locomotive sheds where other engines were undergoing restoration or repair.

We spent some time in the gift shop, seeking an appropriate gift for the new-born baby of a young friend, settling on a toy model of Toby the Tram Engine, Toby being the child's name. We imagined it might just be too predictable and the poor boy would get nothing but tram engines to mark his birth but were later told that ours was the only one. The former village school has become a community centre and we had a cup of coffee there, overlooking the railway and river and then went back to the station to board our special train.

The train had been made very special, with red carpet laid on the platform and a pedestal of flowers by the entrance door. An attendant checked our tickets and offered to take our camera and photograph us together, and we were handed a glass of Bucks Fizz and taken to our seats in the traditional wooden Pullman car. There were three Pullman cars on this train and I had asked for this one because it is the only traditional art deco one of the three, the others being very much younger. We had a table for two with a brass lamp and fully set for a very good tea. The welcome drink, unlimited tea and/or coffee and all the food were included in the ticket price, paid with the voucher I had been given, and other drinks according to choice could be purchased from the bar, with orders taken and drinks brought by the waiting staff who were very attentive. We can thoroughly recommend this experience, and having subsequently read others' reviews on Trip Advisor it would seem that the lunch and dinner trips are also of excellent quality and well served.

The sandwiches and cream scones are served on the way from Grosmont to Pickering, there is an opportunity to stroll on the platform at Pickering while the locomotive is watered and then cake is served on the way back to Grosmont. It is a trip to nowhere but well worth doing! We were somewhat late getting back to Grosmont, having started from there rather late to await a couple of late passengers, but we just made the connecting steam train to Whitby and so back at the end of a marvellous day out.

The second night there was karaoke in the downstairs bar, but we were well above that and suffered no loss of sleep from the noise. We could have done without the noise made by some of the customers while waiting for their taxi after they left, though. Still, that is a hazard of town centre dwelling and is not unknown at home in Stamford.

I had booked the trip home on the third day to ensure the East Coast leg of the journey would be over the evening meal time so that we would enjoy the First Class all-day meal, but we decided to leave Whitby mid-morning and spend some time at the National Railway Museum in York on the way back. I had been there a year before but it was some time since Alison had visited it and the exhibits are being developed all the time. The ride along the Esk Valley Line was naturally as scenic as it had been on our way there but somehow seemed more interesting the second time round – especially as we passed Grosmont station and saw “our” Pullman car in one of the preserved line platforms. The connection at Middlesbrough was not as tight as the one we'd had on the way out and we'd resolved to repair to a bar for refreshment. Because of work being carried out on the station, though, it was a bit of a trek to the nearest pub from the only remaining exit. And then we tried the wrong door! But the local people were very friendly and we enjoyed a pint and crisps before continuing to York by Transpennine Express. The route between Middlesbrough and York, while not as wild as the Esk Valley Line, does have some very pleasant scenery and there is a spectacular view of the town of Yarm from the embankment.

From York station there is an exit from the footbridge direct to the forecourt of the National Railway Museum, and we were soon there, sorting out the right change for the right size of luggage locker and then round the museum for a couple of hours. Even for those not especially interested in the technical aspects of railways, exhibits like several generations of royal coaches and other social documentary displays can be fascinating, and the look back at things remembered from childhood and youth is always worth doing, too.

Finally, back to York station for the train to Peterborough. Like all East Coast trains, this was marshalled with First Class at the London end so we were in good time to walk along the platform to where our coach would stop: the coaches' identifying letters are displayed along the platforms so we know about where to wait, and there are plenty of seats at this station. Coach M, our reserved seats and some very nice sandwiches, cake and wine for our supper, followed by the customary (for us) glass of Famous Grouse before arrival at Peterborough for our connection to Stamford and the homeward walk across the Meadows.

A couple of years ago we had been out for fish and chips, involving a whole-day trip to and fromGreat Yarmouth. Now we had been out for tea, involving three days in Yorkshire – and fish and chips as well. Our recent holiday inSwitzerland had been the holiday of a lifetime, and now we had also had the tea of a lifetime: 2014 was becoming a memorable year!