Thursday 28 January 2016

The Birthplace of the Railway

An email message arrived out of the blue from Virgin Trains East Coast around New Year with a gift of two First Class single tickets to anywhere on their line, a thank-you for being a frequent customer. It was a very welcome gift and a complete surprise; the tickets had to be used by a date around Easter time and it worked by having two £0.00 priced First Class advance singles available when I logged into the company's website. I looked at my diary and all the opportunities to travel as a couple within the allowed time had already been booked up (one of them the last use of the old East Coast Rewards scheme free tickets, as it happens), so rather than using these to reduce the cost of a trip together, I started thinking about a trip alone, perhaps to somewhere my wife would be less excited to visit … and Locomotion Shildon sprang to mind, a branch of the National Railway Museum, near Darlington.

This would give me a long ride for my free tickets, was easy to do in a day, and would take me somewhere I'd been wanting to visit and could be arranged for my birthday week, which was rather nice, especially as the diary that week was looking congested and my “uninterrupted 24-hour rest period” looked like being on my birthday itself. Website consulted, tickets were booked with connecting tickets between Stamford and Peterborough and between Darlington and Shildon, map of the museum site was downloaded and printed and I waited for the big day.

East Coast breakfast!
I left Stamford on the 07:19 train to get an early East Coast train from Peterborough to Darlington. Then I would not be hurried and would have breakfast on the train – included in the ticket price (i.e., free!). Day dawned as I waited at Peterborough: I can think of more exciting places to watch the sun rise, but I can also think of worse times to be in Peterborough … The weather forecast was rain mid-morning all down the east side of England, almost perfect as it would have stopped by the time I arrived at Shildon. Breakfast was served after Newark (and again after York – a bit late then for breakfast, but people were still taking it!) and I had the cooked English option, with orange juice and a croissant: coffee and a muffin had been served earlier to keep me going as far as Newark. When not eating and drinking I was in touch with my family via Whatsapp, which is brilliant for this sort of thing, sending pictures and messages to multiple recipients free of charge over the onboard wireless internet (again, free in First Class).

I got off the train at Darlington and spent a few minutes in the waiting room beginning to write this blog post, after a little exploration of this fascinating station. The entrance is in the middle of the station, with road access via a ramp from a street below, and the two through platforms are either side of the station with a pair of terminal bays facing south between them. (Edinburgh Waverley is similar, but larger, with more terminal bays.) Soon my train to Shildon came along – the contrast between this Pacer and the express I'd just left was stark, but it was warm and comfortable and it was only a few minutes' ride. The rain came on quite heavily on this section of the trip so I put my hood up as I prepared to get off, but it had stopped by the time I stood on the platform, The way to the various elements of Locomotion Shildon was clearly signposted from just outside the station and I decided to look at the outdoor bits first in case the rain started again before I'd done them.

Frankly there was not much to see outside. The “Welcome” building, a former Methodist Sunday School room which houses “Sans Pareil,” one of the earliest railway locomotives (not to mention the toilets!) was locked – not ever so welcoming, but I could lurk around the goods shed and the coal drops, the later being especially interesting from the railway historical point of view. No rain came and I saw all I wanted to see (apart from the inside of the Welcome building) there and made my way to the main exhibition hall at the other end of the site. I passed what I'd thought was a preserved signal box but it appeared to be still in use on the line by which I'd just arrived! An hour or so spent looking at the locomotives, coaches and wagons in the main building was well worthwhile, and in one corner, cordoned off because of the paint spray, a Deltic express diesel locomotive was being painted in the early two-tone green livery: I look forward to seeing her, “Kings Own Yorkshire Light Infantry”, out and about in due course. A beautiful engine and only one generation before much of the current front-line traction on the East Coast Main Line today.

There was a decent cafeteria inside the hall and I had a snack lunch there and then made my way back to Shildon station for the Pacer to Darlington. I had about three hours left before my booked train home, and so I alighted at North Road station instead of going through to Darlington Bank Top: at North Road is the Darlington Railway Museum, recently re-titled “Head of Steam,” in which the early locomotive “Locomotion No.1” is displayed, among other things. The museum gives a history of the area's association with railways, longer, of course, than anywhere else in the world: it all began here. The exhibition hall here is the original station building, now far grander than is needed for a local station on what is now a branch line. Admission is not free but is very inexpensive and well worthwhile.

And so to the main line station at Bank Top to get the train home. It is a bit of a walk from North Road to the town centre but I had plenty of time and had a good look round some of the shops before I went to the station where after a short wait my train to Peterborough arrived and I took my seat and waited just a short while before I was asked for my food and drinkorder. Although it was still quite early the hot meal was available and after ascertaining that I was travelling far enough the hostess handed me my cutlery and napkin (a neat little package, with salt and pepper sachets wrapped inside, too) and the lady with the drink trolley served me my beer. I had been looking forward to trying this bottled ale, Hop on Board, brewed especially for Virgin Trains East Coast, which has now replaced the canned Old Speckled Hen which used to be served in First Class. The beer was excellent, as I had been led to believe by others who had tried it, and crisps were a suitable “nibble” while waiting for my beef and ale pie which soon arrived. I was assured that more beer would be available after York, which it was. A banana made a good second course and I declined a third beer after we left Grantham. Hot chocolate was a better bet then, with the cold weather at the end of the journey.

A quick change of train at Peterborough and I was soon home, large dinner unnecessary for I had eaten rather more than the afternoon tea I had anticipated, but when beef and ale pie is on offer at no cost, well, you have to have it, don't you … and it was superb. I have to say, I do think the food and drink on offer suits me better than it did: I always liked it, but it now more filling and the pie crusts are really crusty. The Hop on Board ale is really good, although it is a pity that the label does make me think of Where's Wally!

It was a great day, a visit to the birthplace of the world's railways and at very little cost indeed, thanks to the sudden and unexpected gift of First Class tickets from Virgin Trains East Coast. A thoroughly good time.

Photographs of the day can be see in my Flickr album at

Sunday 10 January 2016

A Couple of Nice Little Houses

Chiswick House
As I have mentioned before, last year was marked by rather more frequent trips to London than usual for family reasons, and we also enjoyed a year's membership of English Heritage, so when we've visited our family we have usually stayed a mayor two extra and visited some of the London properties managed by this state heritage organisation. In October we stayed near our family at the Brook Green Hotel, Hammersmith, which I thoroughly recommend, by the way, and visited a couple of houses in west London while we were there, one in Chiswick, the other at Hyde Park Corner, both with interesting histories.

Apsley House
Our trip began as usual with a train from Stamford, and a change at Peterborough, but rather later than usual as it was a Sunday and we could not get away until the evening. The Brook Green Hotel kindly arranged for us to check in later than usual, although our trains were actually well on time and we were earlier than anticipated. The Hammersmith & City Underground line was closed for weekend engineering work and we had to travel by the Piccadilly tube line instead: Hammersmith has stations on both lines, opposite one another in the town centre, so it does not make much difference, but the Hammersmith & City is mostly on the surface and makes for a more interesting journey in rather bigger carriages. A short walk to the hotel and check-in. Very friendly staff, nice room with view over Brook Green, the urban oasis which makes this part of London such a pleasant place to live.

Café at Chiswick House
It is always worth checking opening times for historic houses etc because they are commonly closed on one or more days per week; they have to do their cleaning and maintenance some time, so the "tourist" section of our itinerary was built around when our planned destinations would be available for a visit. We have the English Heritage app on our iPhones and were able to plan our days over the wonderful Brook Green Hotel breakfast, including planning the travel there using the Busmapper app. And so, after breakfast we toddled down to Hammersmith bus station and sought the departure bay for service 190 which would take us almost to the gates of Chiswick House. The grounds of the house are a public park, open year-round free of charge, and are well-used by local people; plenty of dog-walkers in evidence and lots of people casually using the café, which, incidentally, is a worthwhile piece of modern architecture itself.

The current house seen from a point in front of where the
original house stood
The "house" is actually just one wing, built by the 3rd Earl of Burlington in the Palladian style for entertaining visitors and contains no real facilities for dwelling. It was inspired by the Mediterranean architecture he encountered on the Grand Tour. An audio guide leads visitors around and explains the history of the house, including the long-demolished parts. Well worth a visit, and with the grounds freely available it is possible to see the exterior before deciding whether to come in. The bus ride there from Hammersmith was easy (we followed the route in real time on bus mapper so we knew where we were and when to get off) and passes the famous Fullers brewery. Chiswick station is a half-mile walk and if we'd been coming here from home, that is probably how we'd have come.

The other place we visited involved a bus trip in the other direction towards central London, and we began, the following day, with a walk along Brook Green to the bus stops for eastbound services along Kensington High Street, alighting (as they say in bus and train jargon!) at Hyde Park Corner. There to our left was Apsley House and to our right, on a traffic island, a statue of the Duke of Wellington and the arch commemorating him. Notable for his victory over Napoleon, we has also Prime Minister for some time and had Apsley House extended to make a comfortable London home. Even after extension it is still not huge: the neighbour over the road is Buckingham Palace, and that is huge.

In this house and at the Wellington Arch, also an English Heritage property, I learnt a very great deal about the politics of the Napoleonic era and the Battle of Waterloo, and the adulation in which the victor was held afterwards. Showered with gifts from all over Europe, Apsley House is as much as anything a museum in which to keep them all, and now they are available to anyone who cares to pay to visit the house. It is worth crossing the road, on the level or by subway, to visit the Wellington Arch, too: the exhibition space inside is small but the view from the top is well worth having. I have driven and been driven past this so many times and have never really given it a second thought before.

By the time we'd walked around these two places and between them we needed something to drink and there was no café or bar anywhere near, but we were on the edge of Hyde Park and walk through there soon brought us to an excellent café-restaurant on the side of the Serpentine and were we stopped for a snack and a drink before strolling on through Hyde Park to Kensington Gardens.

We paid a quick visit to the Albert Memorial on Kensington Gore: again, this is something I had passed very many times but had never really looked at, and it is well worth a visit. From opposite there we caught a bus back to Hammersmith and our hotel.

In due course I shall publish the photographs of the memorial on Flickr: there are far too many to show here.

We returned home from London on the 20:35 train from Kings Cross, the last on weekdays that gives a connection for Stamford, and after the usual First Class refreshments were home in time to unpack and still be in bed at a decent time, ready for what the next day would bring. On this trip to London we had used the Underground only for getting there and back: all our travel within London for our visiting had been done by bus. We did this because it was the most convenient in the circumstances, but it did have the bonus of allowing us some great views as we moved from place to place, too. Thoroughly recommended!

Thursday 7 January 2016

Shifting sands

I wrote a little while ago of my travel plans for 2016, and already I am writing about the changes to those plans: for the best of reasons (a family wedding in May) the proposed trip to the South of France by Eurostar's through service from London has been postponed for a year. It was a close-run thing, actually: if Eurostar and SNCF had agreed the train paths as soon as they had hoped then the tickets would have been booked before the engagement was announced!

On the other hand, Virgin Trains East Coast's recent surprise offer of a pair of free First Class tickets to be used in the next few weeks is sending me off on an unexpected day trip to Shildon to visit the National Railway Museum there. The few weeks after that trip will see several trips of various sorts. First I am taking some colleagues to explore the north of Lincolnshire which I do not know well and they do not know at all, then a few days later I'll be going to London for my granddaughter's baptism. Soon after that comes the visit to Edinburgh which will be the last trip using my old East Coast Rewards free tickets: there is an exciting itinerary planned but I cannot reveal it here because some of it is a secret treat for my wife. In between these are several day trips to Lincoln on various diocesan business. So, a fair bit of travel coming up and although the press bang on about fare rises (and there are some fare rises!), there are bargains to be had for leisure and even business travel if plans can be fitted round the special offers. I'd like to thank Virgin Trains East Coast for my free tickets: these came just as I was giving up on them ever valuing my loyalty and now they certainly have me back. I wonder if I'll experience a refurbished train on one of these wanderings ...