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.