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.

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