Saturday 20 August 2016

South for the sunshine

For the last two summers we have taken a few days' holiday in Chichester to coincide with our friends' annual holiday at nearby East Wittering so that we can join them for a day at their holiday home and usually an evening or two out in Chichester. Each year we seem to discover more to do there and we stay a day longer each time, and this year we booked four nights in Chichester and also made it a bit of a tour by staying a night in Bristol on the way there ... travelling there by Cross Country Trains via Birmingham and then GWR's wonderfully scenic route down through Salisbury and Southampton. On the way back we would leave early in the day and spend some time in Brighton before returning through London.

M Shed: contemporary Bristol
Departure from home in Stamford was on a Sunday afternoon and when I booked the tickets I discovered that a Weekend First Class upgrade was available for the Stamford-Birmingham leg which would make the journey that bit more pleasant for a modest sum, and I was booking the leg to Bristol Advance First anyway, as I often do, very inexpensive when booked well in advance.

M Shed: buses and balloons
After church and a snack lunch on a summer Sunday we caught our train to Birmingham, the only passengers in First Class, and at the first appearance of the refreshment trolley we treated ourselves to chilled white wine to get our holiday off to a good start - not free on this service (or anywhere else at weekends!) but worth it on this occasion. Later on we had the free coffee which our First Class ticket allows. When we changed trains at Birmingham New Street our train onwards to Bristol Temple Meads had been delayed by a line side fire earlier in its journey, but only by a few minutes and we were really not inconvenienced. We made our way to our reserved seats in the First Class coach, and as usual with these Voyager units struggled to find a space for our luggage, but there was enough space between seat backs to take all that would not fit on the overhead racks. Tea orders were soon taken by the First Class Host and we enjoyed our tea and biscuits on our way south through Gloucestershire to Bristol, pausing only at Cheltenham Spa and Bristol Parkway.

M Shed: the Bristol Lodekka
We made our way to the Doubletree hotel, a walk of less than five minutes, and checked in. As always at a Hilton group hotel we received our chocolate cookie at check-in (very nice, but somewhat inconvenient while wheeling or carrying baggage and trying to press lift buttons and unlock and open doors ...). It was a lovely room, but as we were only staying one night we did not unpack all our stuff because most of it was destined for Chichester, not here. We dined at the restaurant in the old glass kiln once more, as we had last year on our way to Bath, and had a good night's sleep. Checkout was not until noon on the Monday, and our train, the once-a-day through GWR train to Brighton, calling at Chichester among lots of other places, was due to depart from Temple Meads at 12:39, which fitted perfectly. After the usual hotel breakfast we walked to the waterside heritage site, where we had previously visited Brunel's SS Great Britain, and spent almost two hours at M Shed, a museum of the history and people of Bristol, before it was time to check out of the hotel and make our way to the station. We had coffee at the Pumpkin café on the platform and waited for our train. There was no First Class accommodation on this train, and plenty of people waiting, but everyone got a seat and we had a decent view from the window, which was important because part of the point of coming this was was the view from the train.

The Severn - Solent line is included in many people's lists of scenic railway journeys in Britain, and we had perfect weather for it. There is so much to see that you really need to do it four times: in each direction sitting on each side of the train! Maybe a future adventure needs to include a carefully-planned trip visiting some of the towns and villages on the way and staying in some of them. There are not many trains per day on this line, so planning would be essential to make such a holiday work. The railway line, river and canal run together in many places, criss-crossing with bridges and aqueducts and we passed many an attractive-looking pub ... Approaching Southampton the scenery changed to docks and ships (including huge cruise liners) and factories, and then we were on the run along the south coast, the train packed with passengers displaced by a strike on Southern Railways. Arrival at Chichester was almost on time, delayed by the time taken to deal with the extra passenger load, and we walked to our accommodation at 4 Canon Lane in the Cathedral Close. This is run by Chichester Cathedral and was extremely comfortable and pleasant.

We met our friends for a drink at a pub with local ales, sat outside in the sun for the evening and made our plans to travel to East Wittering by bus the following day and spend the day with them in their holiday cottage and on the beach, as we had done the previous year.

Sunset over Wittering beach
After a continental breakfast at our temporary home in the close, we went to the bus stop and caught our bus down to the coast, about a twenty-minute ride through the Sussex countryside. Our friends had already been there over a week and had deeply tanned skin, and although we did catch the sun during our day there we did not catch up with them! Following our evening meal we returned to Chichester to bed and a late start the following day.

This is our third stay in Chichester and we had still not seen inside the cathedral, so Wednesday, our second full day, began with a tour of Chichester Cathedral which took us a couple of hours during which we learnt a lot about the history of Sussex and the Church's place in it. We had coffee at the coffee shop and then moved on to visit the city's tourist information office and the Novium Museum in which it is located, learning more about the earlier history of the city and its region. We had lunch at the café attached to the Pallant art gallery and strolled alongside the Chichester Ship Canal as far as the village of Hunston. This canal predates the better-known Manchester Ship Canal but is not so large. An engineering feat of its time, it enabled 100-ton seagoing ships to dock within Chichester. We discovered a café and visitor centre and a trip boat and decided to return the following day and take the boat trip. Our knowledge of the history of Chichester was growing by the hour! Meanwhile, in Hunston we had a pint of ale at the Spotted Cow and then walked back to Chichester by a different path alongside fields and through the eastern suburbs.

It was good to have discovered the canal. The original plan for the Thursday had been to visit the Isle of Wight to experience both the preserved steam railway and the quaint mainline Island Line which is run with retired London Underground rolling stock, and maybe spend a little time on a beach somewhere, but the Southern Railway strike (since suspended but still having some residual impact)  was making the travel arrangements more complex. We decided, therefore, to stay in Chichester this time, visit the canal and take things easy (it had been a bit "all go" since we had arrived - and the Wight trip would have been likewise!) and visit the Isle next year. Indeed, plans were already evolving for more of a tour in 2017, staying a couple of nights in Portsmouth to take in the Isle of Wight, just a couple of nights in Chichester and then a night or two in Brighton ...

The trip boat on the Ship Canal takes just 22 passengers and operates only four times a day. Tickets for the first trip of the day include a free cup of coffee at the canal basin coffee shop, so that decided which trip we'd take. We had left it to the morning to make the final decision on what to do, so I logged into the canal trust's website before breakfast, ascertained that there were seats available on the first trip and booked them. This was a very personal learning experience with two local volunteers crewing the boat, both enthusiastic local historians who could talk about both the canal and the things we could see from it. Relaxing and informative, a great morning (and with free coffee after the trip!).

The view from Selsey Bill
The afternoon was unplanned and on a whim we took a bus to Selsey, never having been there. Frankly we had not missed much but we can now say that we have walked around Selsey Bill, the headland which marks the eastern extremity of Bracklesham Bay. We walked up the High Street of the village and hopped on a bus back towards Chichester but got off at Hunston where we'd had the beer the previous afternoon: this time we had the local Caroline's Ice Cream from one of the village shops - we'd seen it on sale the day before but did not feel it went well with a pint of ale.

Buses on this route are every 20 minutes, so we just finished our ice-creams in time to dash for the stop and get the next one to Chichester! A little time relaxing in our room, dinner out once more and our time in Chichester was drawing to a close. We checked out after breakfast on Friday and walked down to the station to see how things were shaping top for the trip home. Rail services were returning to something like the pre-strike timetable and we easily found a train for Brighton where we planned to spend the day.

A highlight of the train journey to Brighton from Chichester is passing Shoreham airfield with its art deco terminal buildings - once upon a time many airports were built like this, but most have expanded so much that the original buildings are gone. This one masqueraded as Croydon Airport in a Poirot TV episode, the real Croydon Airport now being an industrial estate.

It is always joy to arrive at Brighton station, a large, glass-roofed and airy terminus which dwarfs the trains and the people inside it and which gives the impression of arriving somewhere worthwhile, which in Brighton's case is true. It now sells itself as "the seaside city" which is probably quite reasonable. Our first call was at the famous Royal Pavilion and here we hit a bit of a snag. They have no cloakroom and we had almost a week's holiday luggage with us. Suitcases were not allowed in. The security man rang his managers who suggested that the Al Duomo Italian restaurant next door would probably take them if we promised to buy coffee there when we'd visited the Pavilion ... so we gave it a go and they were happy to do it (think they are tenants of the trust that owns the Pavilion, since their premises appear to be within its curtilege). We actually had coffee there before visiting the Pavilion, and afterwards as well!

I had been to Brighton Royal Pavilion before, but now it has much more been restored as a royal palace to visit for its own sake, whereas previously it had been more of a community space used for exhibitions and meetings. Worth a look if you are interested in English royal history, and currently they are concentrating on the use of the building as a hospital for Indian soldiers in the First World War.

After we had recovered our baggage we set off for a walk along the seafront and after an ice-cream returned to the station to begin the journey home. We had to catch a specific train from Kings Cross to use our Advance First Class tickets, and with the uncertainty over Southern's services (which had been unreliable in any case for several weeks before the strike) we allowed plenty of time. Just as well: the fast train we had thought we might get was cancelled, the next one was indicated on time but was cancelled as soon as it pulled in - no crew to take it out again, apparently - so we opted for the next Thameslink train. This would stop at several more stations (the intended ones stopped only at Gatwick Airport) but would take us to St Pancras, just across the road from Kings Cross, rather than Victoria which would have required an Underground journey across London in the evening peak.

I had tended to avoid Thameslink not just because of the number of stops but also because their trains were rather better suited to short journeys and were not very comfortable, but new rolling stock has transformed the experience of using their trains and I shall be pleased to use them in future for this sort of trip: trips to Brighton by this route will be a viable day out from the East Midlands now that trains suited to longer distances are being operated. As on Southern, though, there appeared to be no difference in the seating between standard class and First.

There was time at St Pancras for a little look around the shops and then we waited in the First Class Lounge at Kings Cross for our train home. As arrived at the Lounge our tickets were checked and we were offered a glass of Prosecco, which was a very pleasant surprise: apparently they do this on Fridays, handing out Prosecco to those using the Lounge in the evening. The normal fare is tea, coffee and fruit juice, which were still available inside as usual.

When our train was indicated as loading we made our way over the footbridge to our platform and found our reserved seats. On the way to Peterborough we enjoyed the complimentary tea, sandwiches and cake and then it was time to change for our train home to Stamford and the walk over the meadows to our home to load the washing machine and see what had arrived in the post since we left there on Sunday afternoon. A short break, but many great places visited and still there are plans for another visit, with much more to see and do.

My photographs for the whole trip (of which a very small selection is published here) are available to view on my Flickr site at

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