Monday 28 December 2015

If you go down in the woods today

Rather hot-looking teddy bear taking a rest at Leicester
North station
Between Leicester and Loughborough runs the only stretch of preserved double-track main line in the country, the former Great Central line which once ran all the way to London Marylebone, duplicating the older Midland main line for much of the way. It has been reopened by enthusiasts to show main line steam and heritage diesel trains in their proper setting. I have wanted to visit it properly ever since I paid a brief visit when it was in an embryonic state in the mid-1970s, and now that it has reached Leicester and I am living in Stamford a visit was not hard to arrange: I just needed a free day in the summer and in many ways I could not have chosen a better day if I had tried. It was one of those warm, sunny, dry days that are perfect for a day out, and I planned my trip as well as I could: train to Leicester, bus to somewhere near where I thought the new "Leicester North" terminus  of the preserved Great Central Railway was (actually the site of a station originally known as Belgrave and Birstall), and then such rides on the Great Central as I had time to make, with opportunities to photograph working main line heritage trains. A grand day out, I hoped.

I bought my ticket to Leicester and waited for the train, indicated on time at Stamford station, but the time came and went and the next train was shown without mine turning up. I want and enquired at the ticket office and was told that it was delayed by a broken-down freight train and that the indicating equipment was faulty. There was no way of knowing how long it would be. In fact it was about fifty minutes late; I had taken a Delay Repay form "just in case" and expected to apply for a partial refund because of a delay exceeding thirty minutes. However, the train lost more time on the way owing to losing its "path" between other trains and it was getting close to the sixty minute threshold for further compensation and just exceeded it when it arrived in Leicester!

The Teddy Bear Special approaches Leicester North through the Down arch
of the bridge which used to give access to Belgrave & Birstall station: the
bricked-up entrance doorway is clearly visible. Steps would have led down
to a platform between the Up and Down lines in Great Central, LNER and
BR days
The timing did not matter on this trip, though. I had no particular return time in mind and the weather was fantastic. I made my way to the bus station (Leicester has two: researching the buses was an adventure in itself) and caught a bus that took me to where Belgrave and Birstall station used to be. I walked along the lane to where it crossed the railway and there was the distinctive doorway in the middle of the bridge, but no stairway down to the platform - the new station was of a totally different design and clearly intended to be approached from the other end. No matter, there was a (downhill!) walk alongside the line to the new station entrance and I strolled along there in the sunshine and explored.

It took me a while to realise that this red locomotive was a
LMS Class 8F for these were always black. I asked the driver
why it was red and he simply explained that it was the
property of a lady ...
There was visitor centre with refreshments separate from the station, and for the first time in my long experience of visiting preserved railways there were more women there than men - it was a weekday and the railway was promoting a Teddy Bears' Picnic day so the stations were full of mothers with young children, often two families together. All the usual activity of a preserved railway were going on alongside the teddy bear stuff, though, and a pint of real ale was still available to be quaffed in the restored British Railways Mk1 Griddle Car in the train that soon arrived at the single platform of this makeshift terminus, hauled by a red-painted LMS 8F. The locomotive ran round its train and we were off along the initial single-track stretch, pint in hand.

The train called at Rothley, the first of the restored stations on the line, with the distinctive GCR design: an island platform with a staircase down from an entrance on a road over bridge at one end, and it was here that we entered the double-track preserved main line. This station is the smallest and simplest and is restored in Great Central Railway condition.

After Rothley the train eventually crosses Swithland Reservoir on two low viaducts punctuated by a small island. This is probably the most scenic stretch of the line and if you travel on one of the dining trains you will find yourself stationary on this crossing for part of the duration of your meal so that you can enjoy the view. Ordinary trains like this one, though, simply cross the water and eventually arrive at Quorn and Woodhouse station, restored in London & North Eastern Railway condition. Again the GCR standard design of station but this one is slightly more complex.

Finally the train arrives at its current terminus at Loughborough Central, a much larger and more complex station but still with the distinctive island platform design. Here the station main building is at street level, built across the tracks and still with access off the road over bridge, with stairs leading down from the booking hall to the platform. No thought of step-free access for prams and wheelchairs in the days these stations were built! Must have been interesting for all those parents (mostly young women) with buggies etc for the teddy bear day - I hope most of them started at Leicester, a 21st century station, and then stayed on the railway. Loughborough station was decorated in British Railways Eastern Region style, the last it will have worn before its closure as a main line station.

I spent some time at Loughborough Central photographing the locomotives and coaches and exploring the station and locomotive shed which visitors were allowed and encouraged to tour. Two trains were in use: the one on which I had come, with BR maroon coaches and matching 8F steam locomotive, and one with BR Southern Region green coaches with a Brush type 2 (class 31) diesel locomotive painted light brown ("desert sand," I think they called it). The buffet on the platform at Loughborough was selling a specially-brewed ale and I bought a pint of that while I awaited the departure time for my train back - I had decided to travel back on the green one - but I was not fond of that particular beer, I'm sorry to say.

On the way back my train passed the other one at Quorn and Woodhouse station, the two trains pulling away simultaneously, an experience unique to this preserved railway.

At Leicester North I walked off to find a bus back to the city centre: so easy in this mobile internet age, with an app that finds my nearest bus stop and tells me when and where the buses are going. I spent some time photographing some of the city centre buildings (I am interested in inter-war moderne and art deco style) and caught my Cross Country train home. A satisfying day in decent warm weather and exploring places I'd seldom been. I'd recommend a day on the Great Central to anyone with an interest in English history, geography or railways.

Thursday 17 December 2015

So here it is ...

Merry Christmas ... when it gets here. But Advent is incomplete without the shopping for gifts, festive food and decorations, of course, and this year we decided to make special treat for ourselves out of the necessity of Christmas shopping. We can do quite a lot of the shopping in our own town of Stamford or by popping over to neighbouring Peterborough, but we thought it would be good to have a short break (just one day and night) at the Lincoln Christmas Market. We had been at the very first of these when we lived in Lincoln in the early eighties and it has come a very long way since then! I booked a room at the Doubletree by Hilton down on the Brayford waterside, an easy and pleasant walk from the station, and tickets on Virgin Trains East Coast, using the one through train to Lincoln which leaves Peterborough at 8pm. We would have time for a drink at the Great Northern Hotel in Peterborough while changing trains then dinner on the train, an early night at a luxury hotel and straight into the mayhem of one of Europe's biggest Christmas markets before getting a train home.

So we left Stamford after work on the Friday evening on the 19:00 Cross Country train to Peterborough and after a pint of one of Grainstore's excellent ales at the Great Northern bar we went over to Platform 4 for the train to Lincoln. When we had lived in Lincoln there were several through trains per day between Grimsby and London via Lincoln but these completely disappeared at one time and are now gradually being reintroduced: currently there is normally one each way per day and the northbound one suited our purposes nicely. With no further change of train there was time for a relaxed dinner on board, included in our First Class ticket price which, booked in good time, was not at all expensive. Virgin Trains had recently introduced a new menu and we were very impressed with the "All Day" cooked meal options. I had the chicken, leek and ham open pie with gravy and potato mash and my wife the chickpea and apricot tagine with giant couscous: both were delicious and went well with the house white wine served as usual on these train in large tumblers!

Yellow belly Baron in the
hotel foyer
Soon after dinner we arrived at Lincoln and strolled round to the Brayford Pool waterside to find our hotel. Storm Desmond was blowing hard (but without rain) as we arrived. We had checked in online the day before and so just had to collect our key card and go to our room. By now it was getting on for bedtime and that was when a problem arose: the washbasin plug was jammed in the waste and we could not use the washbasin. When you're paying Hilton prices you expect basic things like this to work, and to be fair a man in a suit appeared pretty swiftly after I phoned reception, but it was not until half an hour later and two more visits, the last with a man in overalls, that we were able to empty the basin. Now we could not fill it but that was acceptable: we can wash in running water. So to bed half an hour late - the upside was that I mentioned this on checkout and was given a 20% discount which, as far as I am concerned, was more than acceptable and I left happy.

View from the 5th floor Electric restaurant
We were up bright and early in the morning and consumed the usual substantial hotel breakfast, served buffet-style, which kept us going all through our time at the Christmas Market. The bar and restaurant at the hotel are on the fifth floor; unusual but excellent, giving views of both uphill and downhill Lincoln. It is open to non-residents and access (when the doors are not locked because of high winds!) is straight off the waterfront and via a panoramic lift!

If you've never been to Lincoln Christmas Market I can thoroughly recommend a visit, but it is probably better to leave Lincoln sight-seeing for a separate visit, perhaps in the spring or summer, because the Christmas Market takes over all the uphill part of the city where most of the historic places are that you'll want to visit. The Cathedral, Castle and the Medieval Bishop's Palace (English Heritage) are all very different from normal, and packed with visitors! Starting early by staying in the city the night before, we were able to browse the main part of the market in the Castle before it became crowded: we visited many stalls and could wander freely, but very soon a one-way system was imposed in the Castle grounds to cope with the huge numbers of people arriving after us.

Leaving the Castle by the back gate onto Union Road we found a number of traders selling the novelties we were seeking as gifts and then visited the stall at The Lawn – which I remember as a psychiatric hospital! – and then made our way back towards Bailgate and the Cathedral via large marquee on Westgate where we bought some cards.

Lunch in the Cathedral chapter house was exceptionally good value and ewas a chance to sit down, too. We visited the Medieval Bishop's Palace where there was a “medieval” Christmas market: I had not thought to bring our English Heritage membership cards but the admission charge was only £1 each for this occasion, and it all goes towards the upkeep of our historic places anyway. The medieval market was quite well done, actually, in spite of the strong winds which had forced some traders to pack up, and we enjoyed some honey cake to an ancient recipe – or so we were told, and perhaps at an English Heritage event we can have a bit more confidence.

We made our way downhill to finish the day shopping in the city centre. A one-way scheme for pedestrians going up and down the steep and narrow streets kept us moving in safety at a reasonable speed. Many shops were open until late and when we had all we needed we went for a final stroll along the Brayford waterfront and went to catch the train home. A lot of effort had been put into handling crowds at the normally quiet Lincoln Central station, with queuing areas in the empty car park to prevent overcrowding on the platforms, and the normal single-coach train to Newark Northgate was three coaches – just enough. All our trains home were reported running on time and we settled down for an easy ride home, changing at Newark and Peterborough. On our way to Newark I noticed online that a passenger had been taken ill at Wakefield on the train we were to connect into at Newark, and it was now running about forty minutes late, meaning we would miss our connection at Peterborough. On arrival at Newark we checked if there was any action that could be taken to make the connection but there was no train that could be stopped to get us there in time but the train company would ensure that we got home. Having half an hour or more to wait, we strolled out to find a pub rather than wait on a cold platform or overcrowded waiting room. The pub opposite the station had closed and been turned into a paint shop, but an enterprising banner outside it showed the way to the Newcastle Arms, just along the street, where we enjoyed a pint of real ale before heading back to the station. We were not the only passengers who did this, but the vast majority just sat on the station in the residual wind of Storm Desmond.

When the train came we settled into our First Class seats and enjoyed the light supper provided – just sandwiches, and no wine at weekends – and when we reached Peterborough and went to the counter a taxi was called for us and for anyone else who has missed last trains (although there were not many) and the taxi driver kindly took us home rather than just to Stamford station as he was contracted to do: Virgin Trains East Coast paid the fare. I have since applied for the Delay Repay compensation for the late running train, but it will not be much because it is just half of the cost of the great value Advance single tickets we were using.

We had a great trip and I would recommend it to anyone. Even the two problems that arose spoilt nothing because both were dealt-with in an efficient and kind way. And that was our Christmas shopping started.

Wednesday 11 November 2015

Wet and Windy in Yorkshire

It began with a plan for a residential meeting in London, but it turned out that the only dates available at the conference centre were in the half-term holiday and lot of people couldn't attend (probably why those dates were available). So a new arrangement was made for different dates at a very different venue which everyone could make - near Scarborough in Yorkshire. If the meeting had been in London everyone would have gone by train, possibly with a lift to a Lincolnshire railway station to start with, but by train. In the event, I think two of us went by train: the rest used cars, only a few of them sharing, partly because we were a scattered group and offering lifts was not going to work for everyone. The drivers don't know what they're missing in terms of engagement with the world.

TPE train from Scarborough to Liverpool arrives at York
The slight snag with train travel was that the venue was well outside the town and onward travel by road was needed. There was a bus, so that was OK. Good connection to get there, not so good coming back, but tolerable. I planned my travel and booked my train tickets from Stamford to Scarborough, with a change train at Peterborough (as ever ...) and York. I was able to book well in advance and bought First Class between Peterborough and Scarborough (but, naturally, only claimed standard class expenses).

Travelling over lunchtime allowed me to take full advantage of the included catering on East Coast First Class before changing trains at York, a very relaxed hot lunch with wine and coffee.

TPE First Class - I love the 70s retro feel of the purple decor
At York I caught a Trans-Pennine Express connection to Scarborough: this is an hourly service of reasonably comfortable diesel units from Liverpool, but how ever fast they cross the Pennines they do not really deserve the word "Express" on the section between York and Scarborough! The Scarborough Spa Express this was not, but it got me there safely, comfortably and on time according to the timetable. I was the only passenger in First Class on this train, as I had been when used this company's service to Scunthorpe earlier in the year.

Outside the station was a bus stop and I met a colleague from Grantham there, the only other one to come by train and bus. The internet has made this sort of thing so much simpler - we knew what bus we needed, when it would leave and where to find the stop before we'd left home, and we knew we would meet one another at Scarborough, too. Travelling on the top deck we enjoyed the Yorkshire scenery and, following our progress on my iPhone were able to stop the bus at exactly the right place and began the walk up the long private road to the conference venue. We had begun striding this out when a car-borne colleague offered us a lift for the half-mile or so up to the house, and while we had both planned to walk and had budgeted time for it we were not so bloody-minded or anti-social as to turn down the offer.

This trip had meant only two nights away and so with a little care it was possible to get away with minimal baggage. I needed some stuff for work (and mercifully had allowed spare capacity because while there I acquired a very large file to bring back!) and spare clothing in case of wet weather, but all fitted easily into a overnight bag plus my backpack. This is ideal for the amount of walking I had expected to do - wheeled cases are OK for rail stations, airport and city streets but not rough country lanes.

After a couple of days of inspiring talks and amiable networking and friendship and a day of study and planning, together with some great meals, uplifting worship and grand scenery (mostly seen through windows as the only free time was also the only time it rained), it was time to pack up and go home.

Scarborough Harbour
I had allowed time in Scarborough for some photography, and was also in no hurry to get to the bus stop since the next bus was some while after our last engagement, but in any case those of us with trains to catch were given a lift back into Scarborough by another friend, so I had more photography time than I had bargained for and went on quite a lengthy walk around the town, some of which I knew from accompanying school trips there many years before. Walking round the headland between the north and south bays, with the castle high above, was a blustery experience. There was a very strong wind carrying some sea spray and it was very invigorating at the time, although did take some energy!

Opposite the station, the art deco theatre
I took many photographs of art deco architecture - my main purpose - and explored some places I had not seen for a long time, and as the November evening drew on and darkness fell I made my way back to the station to await my train to York where the East Coast connection to Peterborough, on which I would now enjoy a light dinner, would soon pick me up. A final change there for Stamford and home.

I really must finish reading through the material in that great big file some time ...

Wednesday 21 October 2015

Travel Plans

 After the activity of 2014 we have not done much travelling this year for various reasons: just a few family outings to London, the summer holiday on the south coast, a couple of trips on ecclesiastical business and a couple of days out for me. No Scotland, no continent this year. BUT THERE ARE PLANS!

Booked for the rest of this year are some of the same, really: more trips to London both for family and church, and an outing to Lincoln for the Christmas Market. This will be the first time we use the through Virgin Trains East Coast train to Lincoln and I've already booked First Class tickets for this.

For 2016 we are looking wider again and have already booked a Great Rail Journeys holiday to the Swiss Alps for the summer: a similar route to the one we took last winter so that we can see it in different conditions, but different enough not to be repeat performance but warmer! We have our last free First Class Virgin Trains East Coast tickets to use, from the withdrawn Rewards scheme, and these have to be used by March. Edinburgh is tempting. We have not visited Edinburgh for about thirty years and have simply changed trains there on our way to the Highlands, so it would be great to see the city again for a couple of days.

We have also promised ourselves a journey to the South of France on Eurostar's through service and will be looking to book that as soon as tickets are released for the dates we can go. This will take us to places we have never seen before and will hopefully make an interesting blog post when we get back. Also in the summer we shall want to visit the south coast of England again. This is almost becoming a tradition now ...

That is "it" for now, although other smaller trips wil be bound to occur as the year progresses, and they will be posted here, of course.

Friday 9 October 2015

When is a lounge not a lounge?

With two colleagues I needed to travel to the National Exhibition Centre for the Midlands Christian Resources Exhibition so that we could look at some screen and projection equipment and see what else might be useful. We would need to travel peak time so there were no cheap tickets to be had (apart from my Senior Railcard discount - my colleagues are too young) and it would have been cheaper for three of us to drive, but the roadworks where the A14 meets the motorways were a bit off-putting, while the opportunity to talk or do other work on the train was an attractive proposition. So we set off to Birmingham International via Birmingham New Street, taking the 08:05 Cross Country train from Stamford. I had bought the tickets in advance and reserved seats on this train, and on the most likely one coming back. When our train called at Coleshill Parkway it occurred to me that this may have been a better place to get off, and catch a bus to the NEC. I am not yet used to the existence of this station!

We changed at New Street as planned, arriving at platform 12, which still needed some work doing before it would be complete, and reading the screens on the huge new concourse to find out where our connection would be. It did not matter which train we caught to International, but we did have seats reserved on a Virgin Trains departure a few moments after arrival so we made our way to platform 2a which was listed for it.

This was my first experience of New Street station after its rebuilding, and the space was truly amazing. Even though I knew the old station as well as I know my own home I struggled to know where anything was and had to follow signs as if I were in a place I'd never been before. It did feel strange. Getting to platform 2a by following signs to "Yellow Lounge" (or was it "Blue Lounge"? Or was that the one where we arrived?) seemed odd. I've never thought of platforms being in lounges before - although at Paris Gare to Lyons they are in halls - and I did not notice any soft furnishings, but then we did have a train to catch. And there it was, a Pendolino occupying the whole of platform 2 and the standard class seats, ours, were at the other end. Departure time was imminent, so we boarded and walked through, deciding to stop at the on-board shop (what we used to call the buffet) and bought coffee and biscuits, there having been no trolley on our train from Stamford.

I must say that I rather liked the interior of the Pendolino: short on luggage space like all trains designed for Virgin, but a very pleasant ambiance, I thought. I've heard them described as cramped but even on this relatively busy service - it took us a while to find three seats together - it felt OK to me. I'll have to try it properly some time, and in First Class, on a holiday in the north-west. In no time at all we were in Birmingham International and walking into the National Exhibition Centre. This place has grown a lot since my first visit almost forty years ago, just after its opening, and it was a long walk to Hall 10 where our show was being held.

Our time at the exhibition is not really the subject of this blog, but I'll just say that the facilities of the exhibition centre were excellent and the show itself was up to the usual standard for the Christian Resources Exhibition. I'd only ever been to the national one before and this was quite a bit smaller but did have what we'd come for and a lot of other useful stuff as well.  There was a restaurant within the exhibition hall and although the prices were on the high side, as they generally are at these places, the food was good and were were able to meet over lunch, discuss what we'd seen and decide on the afternoon. There was a lecture I wanted to hear but after that we would go home, rather earlier than we had originally thought, so our seats on the homeward train would not be reserved. It did, however, allow me a little while in the city centre to pop into the Ian Allan model shop just off New Street ...

My colleagues joined my on my little expedition and then we walked back to the station along New Street, entering via the ramp to the newly-opened Grand Central shopping centre, a huge improvement on what had been there before, although the Birmingham Shopping Centre as I recall it from the seventies, seemed pretty good at the time, but Birmingham is a more significant shopping destination now and needs this sort of place. There were still, naturally, some units not let but it was already a thriving, busy place. We found the escalators down to the concourse of the station and sought platform 12 for our train home.

This platform does not (yet?) have any seats for waiting for trains so we stood. We had no reservations for this departure and there were several people waiting, and it was only a two-car train (they are often three-car): we boarded through separate doors and scrambled to get a table together - and succeeded! There were plenty of seats but we did want to be together to continue our discussions - all rather unfortunate for the poor lady occupying the fourth seat at the table, even more so as she also got off at the same station as we did and so may cross our paths again!

This time there was a refreshment trolley and we enjoyed glass of wine to cool off and relax after a fairly heavy day of trekking round exhibitors' stands. Passengers came and went: it was peak travel time by the time we reached Leicester but we were home smoothly and easily with big carrier-bags full of brochures, samples and business cards which will keep us busy for some months to come, and over an hour earlier than planned.  For a business trip, altogether a grand day out - and I have some new stuff for my model railway, too!

Sunday 6 September 2015

What a difference a few minutes makes!

An East Midlands single-coach multiple unit, arrived from Spalding,
forms the first train of the day direct to Lincoln from Peterborough.
My train from Stamford connects neatly with it, giving me a
decently quick journey.
Boarding at Lincoln for the homeward trip: yes, we did all get seats,
with some to spare!
Twice now I have arrived by train for a meeting in Lincoln to which I would have had to drive before this year. It is at 10:00 in uphill Lincoln and the first convenient train service to Lincoln used to arrive just at 10:00, too late to get up the hill in time. Recent improvement work on the line between Doncaster and Peterborough through Lincoln and Sleaford mean that the timetable is now slightly faster than it was and the same train now get to Lincoln with just a few minutes to spare before my meeting begins. It is not enough time to walk up the hill (anyone who thinks Lincolnshire is flat has never been to Lincoln!), but it is enough time to get there by taxi, and the train and taxi fares are still less than the mileage, saving the Diocese money and allowing me to work while travelling. The train takes longer than driving (the route is not direct: I have to change at Peterborough, a long way round) but it is not wasted time because I can write, read and make phone calls etc on the way. I write email and connect to The Cloud wifi to send it while the train is standing at Spalding or Seaford stations, or to the office wifi when I get to my meeting.

With six of these meetings a year, that few moments timetable acceleration is saving me about 36 hours dead driving time per year. Thanks, Network Rail and East Midlands Trains. Now, if I could just have a word about service frequency and start and finish times ...

Monday 24 August 2015

A South Coast Adventure

So often when we visit new places we say that we'll have to return to see things for which we had not allowed time, and this was so true of Chichester last summer that we reserved a room at Trents for this summer as we left, and for four nights instead of three. We soon filled the diary with things to do besides meeting our friends by the sea at East Wittering, and we bought our tickets in advance, First Class again from Peterborough through London to Chichester, with standard singles to get us to Peterborough and back. The weather forecast was very much better, too: dry, hot and sunny.

A couple of days before we were due to leave it became clear that the threatened one-day strike on London Underground was not going to be called off and so our outward travel plans were thrown into some disarray: this was becoming more of an adventure than it had first seemed! We considered all sorts of ways around the problem but eventually tried the most straightforward: when we arrived at London Kings Cross (six minutes early; thanks, Virgin Trains East Coast!) we made our way to the bus stop for Victoria, guided by the "TfL Ambassadors" on duty in the street outside. The bus was held up in traffic and terminated short in Oxford Street, so we walked to Green Park, cutting through the streets with the aid of the UK Maps app on my smartphone, and then realising we were not going to catch the booked train we gave up the walk and caught the next bus that came along. There was another train half an hour later and in the circumstances we were allowed to use our Advance tickets on this, so in the end it all turned out to work quite smoothly - we had time to buy some lunch from Boots shop at the station and arrived at the hotel just 30 minutes later than planned, which was not bad, really, for the day of a tube strike.

We checked in at our hotel, unpacked and went for a walk around the shops before meeting our friends for a pre-dinner drink. We had supper at Côte, the same restaurant that we used last time, and had an early night in preparation the next day's excitement.

Harbour tour: withdrawn warships
The deck timbers of HMS Mary Rose
Day two, Friday, and we strolled down to Chichester station and bought return tickets for Portsmouth Harbour, having booked in advance to visit the Mary Rose Museum at Portsmouth Historic Dockyard. We remember seeing the operation on TV that brought this 16th century warship to the surface, and we remember visiting her when first on display, sprayed with water to keep her intact. Now the final stages of the initial conservation programme are under way and she is being dried out, surrounded by a museum which exhibits the artefacts discovered on board. In 2017 this should be complete and the drying equipment and temporary partitions will be removed and the museum will be complete. Our tickets also included a harbour tour and we took this first as there was only a short queue for the tour which was about to start. We were taken around the harbour on board a catamaran ferry and shown the modern and ancient (and recently-withdrawn) warships docked there.

One of many displays of artefacts from HMS Mary Rose
Our visit to the Mary Rose Museum itself followed after coffee and was fascinating. The ship was named by Henry VIII in honour of the Blessed Virgin Mary and details of her decoration demonstrated that he was a devout Christian king, a good Catholic (this was the king given the title Defender of the Faith) - how things changed as the years of his reign rolled by. We learnt much about medieval naval warfare, religion and politics as well as life on board ship, gun construction and use and the place of Portsmouth as a naval base (since Roman times, we learnt on the harbour tour).

There is much more to see at the dockyard which will have to await a further trip: too much for one day. Further trips will be easy to arrange since travel via Birmingham and Bristol would make a simple way to get there from Stamford, through some very pleasant scenery on lines we have yet to explore. One day ... It's on the list (one day I must write the list down!).

Back at Chichester we had a quick drink with our friends at a harbourside pub and a snack in our hotel room before another early night, but during the course of the day we had made a decision! We had left our programme for the Sunday undecided, but as we left our morning train at Portsmouth Harbour and saw several fellow passengers making their way to the fast ferries for the Isle of Wight we thought that might make a Grand Day Out for Sunday, especially as we could visit Osborne House with our year's English Heritage membership. This was becoming a many-faceted adventure!

Saturday was the day to be spent at the seaside at East Wittering with our friends and it was a beautiful day. The bus stop for the Witterings was right outside our hotel and we turned up to consult the timetable just as a bus approached, so there was no waiting. The bus was soon in the heavy coast-bound traffic of a sunny summer Saturday and so the trip to the coast was a little slow, but no slower than for those driving ... and at least we did not have to park the bus! The day included a walk along the beach, swimming in the sea and building a sandcastle, with lunch in our friends' quirky holiday home based around two grounded railway carriages (see last year's blog post).

I think we caught the hotel on the hop by turning up so early for Sunday breakfast! They were supposedly open for service, but perhaps few holidaymakers get up in time for an eight o'clock breakfast on a Sunday - but we had a train to catch. With our Two Together Railcard I could buy two day return tickets to Ryde Esplanade - it is an integrated rail-ferry service with through ticketing - so for the first time in my life I found myself with a real Ticket to Ryde. The stopping train took us to Portsmouth passing Fishbourne where we went last year to visit the Roman Palace and straight to the top of the ramp to the Wight Ryder II catamaran. We arrived just as the catamaran was boarding, so the trip could not have been quicker. It was a hot, sunny day again and we sat on the "sun deck" watching the now-familiar Portsmouth waterfront recede as the ferry made its swift crossing to Ryde Pier Head.

I have been to the Isle of Wight before, but by car, and had never been to Ryde. The pier head is amazing: big enough for a small car park and complete ferry terminal and railway station. The railway is a single line along the east coast of the island, all that is left of a comprehensive rail network that once served most towns, and it uses two-coach trains made up of former London Underground tube stock. These have now been painted in the deep red they wore in service in London and it is strange to sit in one of these vehicles out at sea! We rode only the length of the pier and left the train at Ryde Esplanade, the first stop, where the bus station is immediately adjacent. So far we had taken just over one hour from Chichester to Ryde. We sought out the bus we needed for Osborne House - the route to East Cowes - and boarded asking for two tickets. The Osborne House stop is right at the gates of the property and the entire trip couldn't have been more convenient.

Visiting Osborne House and garden took all the day. It was hot and we needed drinks from time to time, and there is much to explore. We began with Pimms on the terrace then explored the interior of the house. We then walked down to the beach where Queen Victoria used to go - her bathing machine is still there, fully restored - where we enjoyed an ice-cream and views across to Portsmouth, then took the woodland walk round to the Swiss Cottage where Queen Victoria's children learnt the normal household skills that Prince Albert was determined they should have. A cup of tea there and we walked back through the extensive grounds to the house, visited the shop and made our way to the bus stop to begin the trip back to Chichester. We had walked many miles and seen and learned a lot.

Our bus came and took us to Ryde Esplanade, but we had a little time to spare before the ferry back, so we had a stroll along the seafront. It was high tide and there was a procession of huge cruise ships making its way through the Solent from the docks at Southampton, an amazing sight. We saw the hovercraft coming in from Southsea - this is an even faster way to cross to Ryde from the mainland but does not connect with any transport at the Southsea end so unless you happen to be there you lose more time than you gain by using it. Although we had tickets for the train along the pier we decided to walk out to the pier head and arrived just as the catamaran was boarding again. It was rather cooler now so we travelled "below" in the comfortable passenger saloon and were soon disembarking at Portsmouth Harbour and walking up to the railway platforms where the trains awaited: fast Southwest Trains services to London Waterloo and our stopping service towards Brighton. Being creatures of habit we simply went to Côte again for supper and were greeted like old friends - after two visits a year apart! It was a great meal. And so to bed, tired but very satisfied with a great day out.

Monday was the day of our departure, but we were not leaving until the afternoon and had set aside the morning for shopping and some sight-seeing in Chichester. This really is a very pleasant little city, with the main streets traffic-free and some charming back streets. We did our shopping and then explored the city walls and cathedral grounds then collected our luggage from Trents and made our way down the street to the station.

Our train was a fast Southern electric to Victoria and we travelled in the small First Class section at the end of the train - on this particular unit there was no door in the partition between the saloons and it was plain to see there was no difference between the seating in the two classes: you might wonder what we were paying the extra fare for, for it was only more spacious because so few us did pay it! I spent some of the time uploading photographs to my computer and began writing this blog post.

By the time it reached London our four-coach train had grown to eight, having been coupled to another en-route, at Horsham, I think. So it was quite a long walk to the Underground from the back end of it. We had plenty of time and comfortably reached Kings Cross in time for our East Coast train to Peterborough. As usual our reserved First Class seats were in coach M, and as usual the coffee was served as soon as the train started moving, followed by sandwiches, cake and wine: we felt we were home already, and by changing at Peterborough it was not long before we were crossing the meadows at Stamford and walking back to our front door.

Wednesday 15 July 2015

The Romance of Train Travel: not gone yet!

I was given a copy of Andrew Martin's "Belles and Whistles" about the decline of the famous named trains, the fall in standards from monogrammed cutlery on express trains to wooden stirring sticks.

The cover picture says it all, really, but although it is generally true that travel is not as special as it was (by car or by air as well, come to that, as well as rail), there are still four or five trains in the UK which are still rather special and I have made a point of seeking these out and travelling on most of them as part of my railway adventures. Their future appears shaky at times but at present is as secure as anything that requires commercial success can be.

All my train journeys have been described in posts in this blog, but I list them here for convenience, and there is one I have not yet done but is on my "list".

1 The Night Riviera

Great Western Railway has retained several named trains in its timetable, but most of these are just any old inter-city train, with a name in the timetable notes. The one real exception is the Night Riviera, the sleeper train service between Penzance and London Paddington, with dedicated coaches and a tailored provision of service. A movie about it can be seen in my post last summer. We travelled on it from London to Penzance and it was a great experience, quite different from many a frenzied departure from Paddington. The coaches have recently been upgraded and so the experience is probably (even) better than when I tried it.

The Night Riviera departs from platform 1 with its polished marble surface, and sleeper train passengers are entitled to use the First Class lounge on this platform. The gleaming train is brought in well in advance of its departure time and passengers are met at the doors by attendants and taken to their berths. A pack of toiletries is included and there are all the facilities needed for a night aboard the train (though no showers on board, but there are at the terminus stations). There is a Club Car serving food and drink, and breakfast can be taken in sleeping compartments or in the Club Car: I always prefer sitting fully-dressed in the Club Car, feeling ready for the day, and it is great to look out on Cornwall slipping past the train windows while eating breakfast.

This train operates every night except Saturday (few need to be in Cornwall first thing on Sunday morning!) and the London-bound one (which I have not yet tried) arrives in time for work. Weekend in Cornwall: no waking travel required (if you're in London)!

My description is at The Cornish Riviera!

2 The Caledonian Sleeper

This is actually two trains: the Highland Sleeper with sections for Inverness, Aberdeen and Fort William, and the Lowland Sleeper with sections for Edinburgh and Glasgow. Both depart from and arrive at Euston station in London, the former leaving much earlier in the evening than the latter. Both are special but the Highland train more so, and that is the one I describe at West Highland Adventure.  Like the Night Riviera, the train is at the platform in good time and passengers may use the First Class lounge, but in this case there is no beauty in the platform itself, looking as much like a cellar as any other Euston platform. We are met by the attendant and shown to our berths. This train includes a Lounge Car with leather sofas and a few dining tables, and leaving early enough in the evening it provides a decent dinner menu (which I understand is even better now than it was when I travelled - I think another trip is called-for!) with a Scottish feel.

It is worth travelling to Forth William just for the train ride! Arrival is well into the morning, for the ride is so long, and this train just takes you to another world, finishing on winding single track in wild landscape after its departure from London along some of the busiest main line in the country. Again, it is worth dressing and having breakfast in the Lounge Car, with coffee on the sofa watching the snow-capped peaks slip by the windows.


New rolling stock has begun to be used on the Caledonian Sleeper there is an opportunity for even more romantic travel, including double beds in some berths, and en-suite showers.

3 The Highland Chieftain

This train does not have dedicated coaches, it is "just" another HST (Inter-city 125 High Speed Train), but it is the only daytime train between London and Inverness (the sleeper being the only other through train) and is the longest trip available on the East Coast Main Line. I have used this a few times in both directions (although never end-to-end, having to connect into it along the way). The catering is just like that on other Virgin Trains East Coast services, but you do get to consume quite a lot of it on such a long journey! There are no longer restaurant cars on these trains, but a First Class ticket includes an at-seat meal service of decent-enough food and drink.

It feels particularly special when standing at the platform at Inverness among the two- or four-coach Sprinters going to other parts of Scotland, and, naturally, even more special if you travel, as we always have when visiting Scotland, First Class. 


The Highland Chieftain now uses the Hitachi Intercity Express Train sets which the present operating company LNER calls "Azumas", just like almost all of the other LNER trains. But its route, and its once-a-day timetable, still makes it special.

4 The Gerald of Wales

Dinner on the northbound Gerald, with thanks to
Thomas Isherwood on Twitte@ThomasIsherwoo2
This is the train that needs to be included, but which I have not yet tried, Transport for Wales's Gerald of Wales between North and South Wales, which has dedicated coaches and complimentary cooked meals in First Class and sounds wonderful, one journey per day in each direction. I understand that the tablecloths have now been removed to give a more "businesslike" atmosphere, which is a pity for leisure travellers but understandable! The train leaves very early in the morning from Holyhead with breakfast served on the way to Cardiff via Chester, and the crew aims to serve everyone, not just those boarding early. The return evening service is more likely to appeal to leisure travellers than the early southbound one, and a three-course cooked dinner is served on this.

I understand that there is a simple First Class upgrade available to Standard Class ticket-holders, this being the only TfW train conveying First Class accommodation. I can feel a triangular trip coming one - starting with an outing to South Wales and ending at Llandudno via the Gerald (apparently named after a medieval Archdeacon ...).


I understand that TfW now runs a similar train a few times per day on its Cardiff-Manchaster rail route. Makes it an even more enticing proposition for those of us living in England!

5 Pullman Dining

I said there are "four or five" special trains. The one I did not know whether to include or not is the handful of ordinary First Great Western train services that convey what the company calls a Pullman Restaurant Car, the only remaining full restaurant service on ordinary British main line trains. The trains are nothing extraordinary, but the dining is! It is not cheap, but neither should it be with this standard of catering. You have to look carefully in the timetable to select a train that has the Pullman Restaurant Car, for most of them do not, and you have to budget for the meal as if you were going out to an expensive restaurant. It was one of the best meals I've ever enjoyed and it was served beautifully. Fully recommended as a way to make a 125mph journey to Devon pass even more quickly - we were in Exeter as the table was cleared!

Posted at Return to the Dart 


Since writing this I have travelled on the direct train to the French Riviera and would definitely now include that journey in this list. It is mostly not in the UK, of course, but it started in London and is long enough for two on-board meals. It is just one train a day at most (less in the off season), but sadly does not have a name. My report at Mediterranean Sunshine, part 1.


Wednesday 1 July 2015

Don't you know there's a war on?

I got involved in the war by accident, really, or by a coincidence ... One Saturday this summer I found my day off shifted to a Saturday and my wife away for the weekend. An opportunity to go away alone for the day. Living in the East Midlands the choice of destination is huge but a preserved railway was definitely high on the list of possibilities. "What about the Severn Valley?" I thought, as I had not been there for about twenty years and have always liked it. The trip would only involve a change at Birmingham - easy to do. So I looked at the Severn Valley Railway's website to start planning and found that the Saturday in question was the first day of the first of two "forties" weekends when various special events would take place to evoke the wartime era. Dressing up was encouraged but as the only outfit I had that would suffice would involve wearing a mac and a hat on one of the hottest days of the year I gave that a miss - as did about half of the day's visitors - but it was really great to meet a lot of forties enthusiasts in uniforms and other period costumes.

To get the most out of the day I left Stamford early, on the 07:05 train to New Street. At weekends all tickets are off-peak but I still saved quite a bit (apart from using my Senior Railcard) by booking to Birmingham return and then from Birmingham to Kidderminster return separately. The total was less than £20 for the round trip but would have been over £30 booked as a through fare! I had hoped to use my voucher I'd received as compensation for late arrival in London a few weeks earlier, but they can only be used at booking offices and that had not opened when I got to Stamford station so early on a Saturday and I bought my ticket by card at the machine instead. The voucher will come in handy some time, though.

Picking my way through the tramway construction in Birmingham city centre I walked to Snow Hill for my train to Kidderminster and bought my onward tickets. As I went down to the platform I passed a "soldier" and then a young couple with rather small, old suitcases and strangely archaic clothing. In the 21st-century context of Snow Hill station in the still-developing new financial centre of our second city I was already finding myself in the forties time-warp. The train was due any moment and was a semi-fast terminating at Kidderminster: on the way I would see some of the Black Country places I had not seen for many years, so it was a good time to be looking out of the window.

Arriving at Kidderminster I made my way to the terminus, next door to the main station, of the SVR to find it already busy with soldiers, sailors and airmen of several nations as well as civilians in period and in up-to-date costume. Although not in costume I think I fitted in OK with jeans and a check shirt. I bought my ticket (and identity card) and went to the NAAFI to buy my coffee. Prices were definitely 21st century!

Moving onto the platform I was delighted to see that my chosen train consisted of teak LNER coaches with art deco detail. Hauled by a Southern locomotive but there is a war on so these things happen - although the British Railways livery was a bit "Back to the Future". The train was packed as far as the first stop at Bewdley and then it was merely full. My plan was to travel part way up the line to Highley then back to Bewdley before making the trip all the way up to Bridgnorth at the other end of the line. This was I'd ride on several different trains and see several stations, and I'd be in Bewdley at lunch time so I could try the Great Western pub which had been recommended to my on Twitter.

So at Highley I left the teak-panelled splendour of the LNER and wandered around the station area for a while before catching the next train south. Re-enactors were busy preparing for a battle to be staged later in the day at this station. A locomotive had acquired a SNCF logo for the battle was to be in France - now I had shifted in space as well as time and began to wonder what was in my coffee ...

My train down to Bewdley was a real treat, too, GWR panelled coaches bearing some interesting destinations all over the West Country. I had never seen the interiors of coaches like these before. For this stage of the trip I wandered down to the buffet car, which had a sixties Formica interior unlike anything seen in the war, but it was selling a real ale for this weekend so I forgave the decor and took my beer back to my compartment. Bewdley is a place where trains "cross" in opposite directions and there are locomotive facilities and much to be seen on a normal operating day for those with enough time, but it was lunch time now and I left the station for the short walk to the pub, which I had seen earlier from the train as it crossed the viaduct just by the station. There were many "military" vehicles in its car park, and many "service personnel" in the bar! A pint of ale and a ham roll were consumed and I returned to the station to take the next train north the Bridgnorth. This time I sat in the (sixties) buffet car, near the "chimney sweep" I'd seen in the pub, with a gin & tonic and got into conversation with an "airman" and his (real) wife.  We discussed all kinds of things about forties paraphernalia and about real life, too, and another round of gin & tonic got us to Bridgnorth where we parted company. So far, everyone I had engaged in conversation lived a lot nearer to the SVR than I did and most were in the habit of attending this weekend every year. It is so popular that the railway now does it on two successive weekends to spread the load a bit.

I strolled into Bridgnorth thinking I really need to come here with more time - I think a four or five day visit when there is no special event on the railway (trains are much slower in wartime!) will have to be made so that the towns can be properly explored: a future adventure is now in the early planning stage! Back to the station and the train back to Kidderminster. This time I was in a compartment and I met a younger couple, he again the RAF uniform, both fairly local.

We were joined later by and older couple. Our new gentleman companion was in flying kit as if he'd just climbed out of his aircraft! Must have been a bit hot under the sun we'd had most of the day.

The train made frequent and sometimes long stops (there was a war on ...) but got to Kidderminster eventually. There was time to go onto the platform at Arley while we waited for two trains to cross ours: people were dancing to a live singer on the northbound platform.

With having to be back in Stamford for the Sunday morning I had to forego the evening entertainment on offer (at extra cost) and catch my train back to Birmingham and on home. But the day was not quite over yet: I stayed on as far as Moor Street station in Birmingham city centre and had my supper at the Centenary Lounge, stepping back another decade into the art deco pre-war era, before walking through to New Street and the train home.

Reconstruction at New Street is now coming along nicely and there is just a glimpse of the daylight above the concourse - still behind hoardings. I look forward to the opening in the autumn when we shall no longer have to find a different way around it at each visit and all the entrances and exits will be open. The journey back was smooth and uneventful and I was soon home and uploading my photographs for people to see. If you were there, you may spot yourself!

My photographs can all be found at of which only a tiny selection is posted on this blog entry!