Monday 18 May 2015

Rum and Submarines

Unlike most of the stories in my weblog, this one does not start from home. We were on a motoring holiday in Cumbria but, always on the lookout for an interesting day out by train, we fitted in a grand day out on the Cumbrian Coast line. As so often in the north-west of England the weather was patchy and rained at times but it did not spoil a good day out which took in hills, valleys, the sea, lots of history and two gauges of railway. It was not a fast journey and although comfortable was not luxurious, and we saw some coast not easily accessible by road

The erstwhile seafront at Grange Over Sands:
a westbound train is leaving the station

We were staying in Grange-Over-Sands, an interesting place in itself, for it has all the hallmarks of a seaside town including an esplanade, although the swimming pool on the esplanade had recently closed when we were there. But there is no beach. The course of the river which flows into the bay had changed and the erstwhile beach silted up and became salt marsh, so the view from all the seafront installations is of mud and grasses, grazed by sheep, rather than sand with deckchairs.

Our daughter joined us for a few days, arriving by train from London with a change at Lancaster. The station at Grange is charming, a great gateway to what had been a great beach resort and is still a very pleasant town in which to spend a holiday, so long as it is not a beach holiday you want. A couple of days later we made our way back to the station to catch a train through to Whitehaven. We chose that destination because it gave us a decent trip up the coast with a worthwhile amount of time there before catching a train back. Sandwiches and drinks were bought from the little shop at the station, along with postcards for sending home in due course.

Laurel and Hardy Monument in Ulverston
By and large the railway hugs the coast, our train stopping at all the stations - right through to Carlisle for those who stayed aboard long enough. Along the southern stretch of the line through Grange there is also a service to and from Manchester Airport as far as Barrow-in-Furness, a town which once had through trains to and from London when its steelworks and shipyards were more significant than they are now. Soon after leaving Grange the train leaves the coast briefly to cross the Cartmel peninsula then crosses Cartmel Sands, an estuary fed by rivers from Coniston Water and Lake Windermere. The towns of Ulverston (home town of Stan Laurel) and Dalton-in-Furness are also away from the coast and then the line loops right round to call at two stations in Barrow-in-Furness, adding two or three miles to the journey in order to serve the most significant town on the line. The shipyards at Barrow have lately been used for the construction of submarines and have long been an important employer in the area, but this is also an area with a lot of history, abbeys, castles and other historic buildings and ruins are to be found in some number, and a dock museum.

From Barrow-in-Furness our train headed north along the east side of Duddon Sands, the estuary of the River Duddon which rises high up in the Furness Fells near Scafell Pike. Crossing the estuary the train then headed south along the opposite side, turned west at Millom towards the Irish Sea coast and  then made a more-or-less straight run northwards. North of Seascale the line is very close to the sea which was grey and foreboding on the day of our trip, certainly atmospheric as we paused at the station at Sellafield, adjacent to the famous nuclear power station and reprocessing establishment. A nuclear waste flask train was waiting in an adjacent siding.

Just before Whitehaven we missed the sea again as the train crossed a headland and plunged into a tunnel to emerge at Whitehaven station, where we left the train and walked the short distance into the town centre. There was some drizzle when we arrived in the town but it soon passed. Whitehaven, like so many other places here, had been through some difficult times but was keeping its head above water economically, with some signs of new businesses and facilities, and the station itself was fairly new. My daughter and I visited a rum museum, Rum Story, and I learnt more about rum, sugar cane, and trade with the Caribbean than I realised there was to learn.

Leaving Ravenglass for Dalegarth
Soon the time came to make our way back, and we broke our journey at Ravenglass and took a ride into the hills on the narrow-gauge Ravenglass & Eskdale Railway. By now the weather was slightly better but as we climbed into the hills on the little train there was a slight mist which obscured the distant view. The little train seemed to make light work of the climb up the former mineral line through woodlands and small villages.

Train standing at Dalegarth
At the Dalegarth terminus those passengers with more time (and more energy) walked off into the hills. The train crew had a cup of tea and ran the locomotive round the train for the return trip.

We just watched the locomotive run round the train and rode back down to Ravenglass to have tea in the café await our train back to Grange-Over-Sands.

View towards Seascale and Sellafield from Ravenglass as
train approaches. The track in not really that rough - this
is an effect of the telephoto lens!
From Ravenglass mainline station there was a great view of the Sellafield complex in the distance and soon our train came into view and picked us up for our ride home. On the way back we sat on the left, inland, side and looked across at the hills, having seen the sea on the way out. The train paused for a while in the rather pleasant little station at Barrow-in-Furness and then we were off eastwards along the north side of Morecambe Bay until we reached our temporary home at Grange-over-Sands for dinner. It had been a grand day out!

Wednesday 6 May 2015

The Usual Train

First Class at-seat catering, included in
ticket price and brought to our table
The recent birth in London of our first grandchild has given rise to more trips to the capital than has become the norm, and yet when I stop to think about it, we do actually go there quite often for various reasons.

Occasionally we have driven there but always regret it - the car is something we have to put up with if taking something or someone for which the train is inappropriate.

The trip to our family in west London involves two changes, at Peterborough from our local Cross Country train to (now Virgin Trains) East Coast, and at Kings Cross into a Hammersmith & City Underground train: both of these are simple and the journey is accomplished very easily.

Standard Class at-seat catering, bought from
If we can book early enough (which was not the case when the baby was born!) we travel First Class on the main line. Although it is a short trip on which we are not offered a hot meal as part of the ticket price, we do get drinks (but not wine at weekends!) and snacks on the way there and sandwiches and cakes as well on the return. But it is also much more restful in First: there is more space and a reclining seat and larger table, and fewer passengers in the coach mean less movement, less luggage, less noise (and shorter loo queues!), especially since not many leave their seats to buy things from the Foodbar: all we are likely to need is brought to our tables. Standard Class is OK and we do use it sometimes, and on a short trip like this it is more than all right on this line. A refreshment trolley service is available of drinks and snacks for sale, but when booking early enough we usually get First at such a low fare that it seems penny-pinching not to use it - especially if we'd be buying coffee and biscuits in Standard!

We do not usually bother with First Class for the hop from Stamford to Peterborough (or anywhere else on this line, come to that!) because we can seldom find low enough fares, the extra comfort is not  great and the duration is less than a quarter-of-an-hour. Sometimes, though, as on our way back from last summer's break on the south coast, we can get a cheap enough through fare to Stamford.

It is quite possible to use Great Northern trains rather than East Coast between Peterborough and London, but most of these are very much slower and somewhat less comfortable, and do not carry refreshments. We used to use them at one time but hardly ever do now, especially since Virgin Trains East Coast Advance fares often undercut them anyway. If budget matters more than speed, and advance booking is not possible, then Great Northern trains are perfectly acceptable.

Take a card ... saving money on the railway
Travelling together we use our Two Together Railcard to obtain the very best fares, or if I'm travelling alone I use my Senior Railcard instead. In London our Oyster cards are an easy way of paying for our local travel needs, and I have linked my Senior Railcard to mine to minimise fares in London. My fare from Kings Cross to Hammersmith is 80p cheaper each way than the non-railcard fare.

Returning from London it is important to allow plenty of time to get to Kings Cross if using Advance tickets because they are valid only on one train (and include seat reservations on it), and if we have time to spare there are many ways to pass it: a drink in the Parcel Yard bar, or a meal in one of the many eating places if travelling Standard Class.

The various places to eat are mostly located on the upper level of the concourse and there is direct access from that level to escalators down to the platforms at the Standard Class end of the trains. If travelling First Class we tend to wait at the lower level so that we can more easily walk to the First Class end of the platforms. We can then relax as the crew look after us until we change at Peterborough for the last few minutes to Stamford. We find the 19:30 departure from London gives us a nice length of wait for the connections: not so tight as to make us worry if our East Coast train is delayed by a few minutes (as it was last time), nor so long as to feel like a waste of time - for there is not much to occupy oneself at Peterborough rail station!

We really do need later trains on our local line, though, especially on Saturdays when the service finishes an hour earlier than in the rest of the week. A half-hourly service would be good, too, to end the 55-minute wait for connections which can happen at some times of day, but later trains so that it is possible to leave London after an evening engagement would be really good: see An Evening in the City.