Wednesday 27 April 2016

Seeking the red Jaguar

The Easter holiday came and the family came and went and we could manage a short break, with the weather forecast indifferent and no advance tickets bought. Where to go was the big question, and "not the coast" was the reply that came swiftly to mind, followed remarkably soon by a prompt, "how about Oxford?" from a friend who had once lived there for a while. Not too far, one easy change at Birmingham New Street, reasonable standard class seating available lots to see and a place we've never explored, having only ever been there for specific occasions before. I booked a room at the only really central hotel in Oxford, the MacDonald Randolph, and some standard class open return rail tickets with reserved seats.

So we strolled down to Stamford station on a Tuesday morning for the 10:05 departure to Birmingham. The platform was quite full of waiting people: train travel from Stamford really is becoming very popular, but the train was only two coaches long. We did all get seats (ours were reserved anyway), but one or two passengers were standing later in the journey, although never for long. Longer trains, more trains (or both!) are needed on this route.

At New Street we had over half an hour between trains and we took the opportunity to have a coffee break. This was the first time we had changed trains here since the rebuilding of the station, although I had been here a couple of times before and could't help noticing that helpful signs had now appeared on the platforms advising that changing trains is best done at the "B" end of the platforms (that is, I happen to know, via the "red lounge", which serves all the platforms), but I did not notice it until we had left at the "A" end, which involves a lot of going through ticket barriers ... The coffee was good, though, and we had plenty of time, but not too much time, to get our connection to Oxford. This was a through train to Bournemouth (mental note made that this is probably the easiest way to Bournemouth if we ever decide to go there...) and was a four-coach Voyager unit.

Towpath walk, peaceful and interesting, with pubs

Again we found our reserved seats but as usual with Voyagers had difficulty stowing our modest baggage - more modest than ever: we only had one wheeled case between us instead of one each, so short a break was it - so our case had to be placed onthe rack at the end of the coach rather than overhead as usual. The time passed quickly and we were soon in Oxford. I had memorised the simple route to our hotel and we checked in and went to our room: no view but a spacious and well-equipped room with which we were very happy. On the way there we had noticed a canal-side walk and decided that we would do that straight away, as the weather was suitable. Along the way we stopped for a snack at the Anchor pub which was very pleasant and relaxing. An attempt to enjoy a pint at another pub later was disappointing for in spite of a prominent notice declaring that it was open from noon to late at night it was not open mid-afternoon.

Crossing the canal
The walk along the canal was great, scene of many a body-discovery in the Morse TV series, but we just saw boats. We walked across to the Woodstock Road (as in Last Bus To Woodstock*) and caught a city-bound bus back to our hotel. For our evening meal we discovered The Nosebag (yes, that is its name!), a quirky, studenty upstairs place with a menu roughly half vegetarian. We enjoyed our meal there so much that we returned the second evening as well, the menu at the Randolph looking decidedly uninspiring, although we did enjoy cocktails in the Morse Bar (can't see Morse with anything but whisky or a pint of ale, really) at the hotel on our second evening.

The Wednesday saw us walk along the river (Thames, or Isis as some prefer to call it) and then get the bus back and visit the unique Pitt Rivers Museum, which really has to be seen to be believed: I have been an officiating chaplain to the forces but do not think I have ever seen so many firearms in one place as I did at this museum, which covers every aspect of human life all over the world and through the ages. Well worth a visit.

The Eagle and Child
On Thursday after checking out we crossed the road to the Ashmolean Museum, the oldest museum in the UK, which was riveting. We tore ourselves away and after collecting our luggage from the hotel concierge had lunch - ale with fish and chips - at The Eagle and Child pub where The Inklings, CS Lewis and JRR Tolkien's group of writers, used to meet. Again, all very good.

And so it was time to return home and we set off to the station via the back streets of Oxford, unfortunately through the rain, and awaited our train to Birmingham where another simple change took us home to Stamford. We had a few moment longer for the change this time and spent it looking at the shops in the new Grand Central shopping centre above the station - worth a visit itself.

We must return to Oxford, as we so often say of many places we visit. I have some country walks in mind - they have been on "the list" for some time - but they need better weather.

We never did find a dead body, nor a red Jaguar**.

*The Morse novels were written by Colin Dexter, a native of Stamford where nearly all of my adventures begin. As it happens, I read Last Bus to Woodstock as we returned from our first adventure in Switzerland.
** The red Jaguar was introduced by the TV series. In the novels, Morse drives a Lancia. We didn't see many of those, either!

Wednesday 20 April 2016

The sands shift again

I wrote in January about changes to this year's travel plans, and since then there have been even more "events, dear boy ..." which have blown us even further off track but I think we'll come out all right in the end! The big disaster was the phone call from Great Rail Journeys saying that our planned, booked and deposit-paid escorted holiday in the Swiss Alps was cancelled owing to too few others booking it. That was to have been the big one this year. Alternatives were offered but none fitted our diaries ... yet.

Randolph Hotel, Oxford, beyond St Mary
Magdelen Church
The already scuppered spring holiday in the South of France, meanwhile, was replaced by a short break in Oxford which, while not the same sort of holiday was nonetheless very enjoyable and was an adventure of a sort because we had never explored Oxford before, only ever visiting it for a specific reason: the next blog post will describe this trip.

After much thought and leafing through the Great Rail Journeys catalogue we decided to shift the South of France trip to the diary slot where the Swiss Alps had been going to be, and the voucher the company had sent us by way of compensation could be used to pay for it if we used their tailor-made service to book it, which would also save me a lot of work putting the trip together. So I have made the phone call and await the draft itinerary: let its see how it works out. The idea is to travel direct from St Pancras International by Eurostar to Marseille and trip out from there to Cannes and Nice, then move on to Avignon and return direct from there: stays in London will be needed both ways because of the early start and late finish.

Still intact, although so far only the accommodation in Chichester is actually booked, is yet another summer holiday in the South of England - there is more to plan yet.

The Alps can await next summer, by which time we shall no longer be tied to school holidays, for the first time since I married a teacher  in 1980! That might just make it work.

UPDATE: The email message arrived today with the draft itinerary. It looked fine to me, and although I had a few queries a quick phone call to Great Rail Journeys Independent had them resolved by this evening and I shall telephone tomorrow and book the holiday! Now to research the Côte d'Azur and find out how we'll be spending our time, and we can do something in London on the way back, too.

UPDATE: The holiday is now booked, possibly cheaper than I could have booked it myself, and I have started a Pinterest board to help in planning the trip! We shall travel on the through Eurostar from London to Marseille, then move on to Nice and finally a night in Avignon begore getting the Eurostar home.

UPDATE: Rail tickets for the South of England trip have also now been booked, out via a night in Bristol, home via a day in Brighton. Should be good if weather is as expected. And the Oxford trip has now been blogged!

Wednesday 6 April 2016

Change at East Grinstead for Sheffield Park

Station stop at Riddlesdown: tunnel beckons!
We were staying with friends in Croydon (I really must write sometime about getting there!) when the idea of visiting the nearby preserved Bluebell Railway came up in conversation. An extension had recently been completed which connected the line to the national rail network at East Grinstead and so it had become another of the preserved, steam-operated lines that could be visited by rail, or even used for travel, if you happen to be visiting the places on its route (we had done this with the Dartmouth Steam Railway when travelling to Dartmouth via Paignton).

We began with the tram from their home to East Croydon station, using our Oyster cards for the fare payment, then bought a group day-return ticket for the four of us to East Grinstead and back - I had not known of this ticket and was advised of it by the clerk: it cheaper than buying four separate tickets even though two of us had a Two Together railcard.

Train loco running round at East Grinstead platform 3
The journey through arcadian Surrey into Sussex was very pleasant, along the east side of a valley in the bottom of which ran the A23 Brighton road and along the other side the branch line through Kenley to Caterham. East Grinstead main line station has a new building, and out of this station we turned right and walked the short distance to the adjacent steam railway station ticket office and bought our tickets and collected a timetable for our day on the preserved railway. These were rover tickets enabling us to travel back and forth between the stations as we wished. Our train was waiting at the platform and its locomotive running round, ready to haul it back to Sheffield Park.

The train was soon on its way along the newly-reopened northern section of this intensely rural branch line and paused at Kingscote station, restored in 1959 British Railways style, but we stayed on here and travelled through here and the next station at Horsted Keynes, restored as in the 1920s in Southern Railway style. It is here that the restoration of the line's carriages takes place, and they have a fine collection of coaches from various eras. The Bluebell Railway is licensed for civil marriage ceremonies and a wedding was taking place on the other platform at Horsted Keynes as we passed through. This station has an odd layout where the track between two of the platforms is single, with access to the train from both sides. And the platforms are numbered towards the entrance and not away from it as usual. A very quirky place, which we visited later in the day.

The current terminus at Sheffield Park: train of BR Mk1
coaches just arrived at platform and passengers making
their way to lunch
A northbound train came in from the other direction and our train moved on towards Sheffield Park, the end of the preserved line. None of these stations ever saw much traffic when in service but are very attractive and are now busy all summer with visitors enjoying the line which really goes nowhere much at all! Sheffield Park station was built really for the nearby stately home from which it takes its name, the home of Lord Sheffield,  and has been restored as it would have been in the 1880s, as originally decorated by the London, Brighton and South Coast Railway which built it. It was lunchtime and we repaired to the Bessemer Arms for beer and sandwiches, and then spent some time looking around the locomotive collection in the nearby loco shed and the museum on the other platform.
Carriage restoration at Horsted Keynes

Our next train back as far as Horsted Keynes was hauled by an ancient LBSCR locomotive and was composed of wooden-bodied Metropolitan Railway coaches, very much older than the British Railways Mk1 standard coaches on which we had arrived. At Horsted Keynes we looked around the workshops in which further examples of wooden-bodied coaches were being restored, original components being used as much as possible, with new timber used where the original was beyond re-use. A very great deal of work is needed on each vehicle, mostly by volunteers.

And so back to East Grinstead and the next Southern Trains electric to East Croydon and the tram back to where we were staying.