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Harbour tour: withdrawn warships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.