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!