Thursday 17 November 2016

Rising to the challenge!

A couple of years ago I had to attend a residential meeting in Yorkshire, which I managed to do by train and bus in spite of a clear expectation that everyone would drive there, a house miles from the nearest town. My Bishop does seem to like setting me a challenge, and this autumn the meeting was held at a country house hotel in Market Bosworth, famous only for the battle in which King Richard III was killed, although a very pleasant little town. Last time I had been in that part of the country I was 21 years old and driving a minibus full of other members of the Aston Steam and Rail Society to visit the (since deceased) Revd Teddy Boston at Cadeby Rectory, over forty years ago.

But how would I get there without the car? Quite simply, as it turned out, and this is where the internet has really made travelling to new places so much easier by public transport: by searching for "buses to Market Bosworth" I was easily able to download the timetable for the bus service from and back to Leicester, Arriva route 153, and Leicester is a quick through train ride from my home in Stamford. I worked and enjoyed coffee on the train to Leicester and took in the scenery on the bus ride.

Driving is probably quicker, to be fair, but I do try not to clog up the roads and present hazards and pollution to everyone I pass unless I have no choice. I have written into my rule of life that I shall walk, cycle or use public transport whenever possible, and although it is not always possible, it is not as difficult to avoid driving as many people think. And I met people, and spoke to some, and I enjoyed a walk across Leicester city centre between the rail station and St Margaret's bus station, and the views across the Leicester countryside from the top deck of the bus, turning a necessary journey into a joyful adventure.

Tuesday 15 November 2016

A Day in the Garden

Cambridge is an easy day out from our home in Stamford and there is a lot to see there, so many day trips are possible without boredom ever setting in. While the rail station in Cambridge is a bit of a walk (or a cheap and simple bus ride using a PlusBus ticket bought with the train ticket) from the city centre places of interest, one destination for which the station is really well-placed is the University Botanic Garden. The Botanic Garden is, of course, of academic interest for some but it also just a lovely place to visit, a pleasant day in beautiful gardens with some interesting plants and, as a bonus, a really good cafeteria, too!

Travelling on Cross Country Trains' 10:00 service from Stamford towards Stansted Airport, we arrived in Cambridge at about 11:00 and simply walked straight ahead out of the station, and right opposite the end of the station approach road is an entrance to the Botanic Garden. There is an admission charge of £5 for adults, well worthwhile for a day's activity but perhaps not for a quick hour or so. We arrived just at the right time for coffee and then explored the gardens, beginning with the hothouses, and broke off in due course for an excellent lunch, sitting out in the sunshine, and then resumed our exploration. We learnt a lot about the history of rose-growing, and a lot about fenland plants, relevant to our own lives and to Cambridge. We looked in more detail at some things than at others, but to some extent I think we saw everything there and eventually were tired enough to need to return home! The more energetic of my readers might like to go into the city centre shopping or sightseeing after visiting the Botanic Garden (and using the bus would make this less energetic than it sounds!) but for us it was time to make our way back down Station Road to await our train.

It is always disturbing to see the number of people awaiting the Birmingham-bound trains at Cambridge in the afternoon, but although the trains tend to be packed leaving Cambridge, a lot of people leave at Ely and there is soon plenty of space: Ely is not very far, and these trains, along with those to Norwich and to Kings Lynn, form part of a frequent local service for people who work or study in Cambridge, without whom things like the Botanic Garden would not exist for us all to enjoy. It could be worse: you could be stuck in the dreadful Cambridge traffic queues on the streets and highways!

I'll let my photographs speak for themselves about the wonderful things we saw on our grand day out in Cambridge!

Thursday 10 November 2016

Mediterranean Sunshine, part 4: Le pont d'Avignon

LGV platform at Avignon TGV station
Avignon is one of those towns where the station for high-speed trains is outside the town with a local train service linking it to the central station. Being a brand-new station SNCF had taken the opportunity to indulge in some spectacular architecture and produced a stunning main building for the high-speed line. A curious design, it has just one platform to serve the TGVs in both directions, and there is no canopy over the platform but numerous doors into the long, curved air-conditioned building that houses all the station's facilities, with a subway under the main line to reach the platforms for the ordinary trains that take passengers to and from Avignon and beyond.

As we arrived in the blazing sun and the highest temperature so far, our local train was waiting for us and we were soon on our way into town. Our hotel, Le Cloitre St Louis, was a short walk from the station and was in a building which has had a complex history but began as a Jesuit seminary and had a real monastic feel to it. Modernised sensitively it still felt like a monastery. Our room was huge, and again it was a shame we were not staying longer. We unpacked and went to find the rooftop swimming pool, small, but uncrowded and very welcome with temperatures in the mid-thirty degrees. After shower and change of clothes we made our way into the town for dinner and a stroll to find the famous Bridge of Avignon where people were reputed to have danced and which ends midstream in the Rhône. We picked our way through the narrow streets around the Papal Palace and out onto the riverbank where we saw the bridge floodlit, and then returned to the huge area of outdoor restaurants in the main square and settled on one of them for supper. We walked back to our hotel a long way round: by now it was a little cooler and we need not hurry.

In the morning we had breakfast looking out into the quadrangle in the middle of the main building of the hotel. We checked out but were not leaving until mid-afternoon and were able not only to leave our luggage but to use the swimming pool, too, which we did after our exploration of Avignon. It was even hotter than the day before; not having visited anywhere tropical, this was the hottest weather we had ever experienced, so we opted to do just one thing that day before swimming and catching the train home, and that one thing was to go onto Le Pont d'Avignon.

We strolled there through the streets which now looked so different from the night before, with the shops open and the outdoor restaurants mostly closed, and we made our way to the free ferry to the opposite bank of the river. It was loading as we arrived and the queue was short enough for everyone to board. The crossing gave a great view of the bridge, and on the opposite bank we walked along with many a good view. A café at the end gave us a chance to take a rest and consume yet another iced tea, the signature drink of this holiday! Then we walked over the modern bridge which took us (all the way!) back to the town side of the river and to the entrance to the old bridge which has a fascinating history tied up in legend and the story of the Church in Avignon: I'm not going to relate it here but encourage readers to go and see it for yourselves - it's an easy ride from London!

Last-minute rooftop swim!
We walked out along the bridge which is narrow and not at all suitable for dancing. Apparently the people never did dance on the bridge but at one time did dance under it, "sous le pont," not "sur le pont;" an easy mistake to make! And so back for our swim, change into out travelling clothes and off to the central station for the local train to Avignon TGV where the Eurostar train was to whisk us back to London en route for home. It was a little late, delayed by a late-running Paris TGV in front of it: do not let anyone fool you into thinking that only British trains have that problem; we have travelled a lot in the UK and in Europe and in our experience our railways are no worse or better than anyone else's, including the much-celebrated Swiss railways.

Avignon TGV station
Boarding the train is fuss-free on the way back, but I have to say that the air-conditioning simply meant that the temperature was tolerable in the shorts and summer shirts we were wearing! On the way back, a light tea is served soon after Lyons, and then dinner later, again a very decent hot meal, and then at Lille Europ the train stops for the security checks that were made at St Pancras on the way out. Everyone leaves the train with luggage and goes through passport control and the usual searches. While we were off the train it was searched by the security guards and then we all re-boarded just as if we were travelling from Lille. The train was on the move again in about an hour. This stop is a bit of an annoyance, but we took the opportunity to change our clothes because we were fairly sure that in London the temperature at night was going to be considerably lower than in Avignon in the afternoon! It was not cold when we left the train at St Pancras, but I was glad to have put on slightly more substantial clothing - this was a matter of thinking ahead and having our London outfits easily to hand at the top of our cases when we packed them before leaving the hotel.

We stayed overnight in London at a hotel near Euston, a bit busy but OK. We had open tickets for the return and could leave at any time, and we had arranged to meet some of our family in west London for a celebration lunch at the amazing Hedone restaurant at Turnham Green, for which you really must read my Trip Advisor review! And then home a little earlier than the usual train, First Class all the way, thanks to the deals made for us by Great Rail Journeys Independent. As we so often say, we shall have to return, and indeed go further, into Monaco and Italy, perhaps. One day ...