Wednesday 28 December 2016

The West of England

The allotment plots at the Eden Project. Inspiration!
"Where shall we go this autumn?" I asked. "We need to visit the Eden Project in the autumn, having seen it in spring and summer," was the reply. And so was born the latest adventure ... Cornwall is so easy from our home in south Lincolnshire: train to Birmingham New Street and change there for a connection the rest of the way. What else to do to fill up the week? Bath, I thought. We loved the Thermae Bath Spa when we went there in the spring of last year, and Bath is always worth a visit. I like to make bit of a tour of these trips, going out one way and back another, so we could return from Bath via London at the end of the stay. Four nights away in two places with some nice long train rides between: so, to the internet with notepad in hand to see what I could plan!

First off, the Eden Project website to see if there were dates to avoid when it is closed or otherwise not suitable: this revealed no issues, so next to to look for accommodation in St Austell, the nearest town with a rail station, and the terminal for the bus to the Eden Project. There seemed to be only one hotel and it was a small one and with good reviews, the White Hart. This needed to be booked pretty swiftly if we were to be able to make the trip, so I quickly looked up the train times on Cross Country Trains' website to ensure there were no expected problems there (unlikely midweek, but wise to check) and booked the hotel for a Tuesday and Wednesday night, to fit round a commitment on the relevant Monday evening, which fixed our Eden visit for the Wednesday.

The Royal Hotel in Bath, where we had stayed before, was offering an inclusive spa break with tickets to the Thermae Bath Spa and a cream tea with Champagne and two night's accommodation, and it was available (just!) for the two nights following our two in St Austell; a close thing: we could not have done it a day earlier or a day later, so early planning is essential. Having booked all that, I then booked train tickets with Cross Country Trains for the Tuesday, with Great Western Railway for the Thursday from St Austell to Bath and for the Saturday to London, and with Virgin Trains East Coast home from London on the Saturday. It all fitted in pretty neatly. I wanted First Class for the "trunk" sections: Birmingham to Cornwall, Cornwall to Bath and Bath to London and then Peterborough, with standard class on the local stretches to and from Stamford at the start and finish. To get good prices I had to compromise slightly, meaning an extra change of train at Plymouth (with standard class from there to St Austell) on the way out, but everything else fitted.

Lunch on the train from Birmingham to Plymouth. I did have
to pay for the beer. The wrap is vegan-friendly for those to
whom this matters. It was very good for anyone!
So off we set on a Tuesday morning mid-November to catch the 10:05 from Stamford, bound for Birmingham New Street. We had standard class Advance Single tickets bought with our Senior Railcards and these cost us very little and came with seat reservations. On the way we bought coffee from the on-board catering trolley, a perfectly decent cup of coffee: things have come a long way in on-board catering. At New Street we had time for a quick tour round the Grand Central shopping centre before going back down to the station for our train to Plymouth. This time our basic catering was included in the First Class Advance Single fare, but with our snack lunch we also bought beer and wine from the trolley, these not being included in Cross Country Trains' First Class complimentary offer. With free wireless internet and socket to charge my iPhone I tended to follow the route on Maps, which added much interest to the window-gazing which occupied most of my journey. My novel remained unread, but I did do a little sorting of photographs.

Between Exeter and Newton Abbott, of course, is the famous coastal stretch including the ride along the seawall at Dawlish and the piercing of many a headland. Fantastic ride:

The sea looked great and the cloudscape very dramatic that day.

At Plymouth we were directed across to the platform where our connection to St Austell was waiting. This was a GWR stopping train to Penzance and called at all the local stations in Plymouth and then crossed Brunel's famous Tamar Bridge into Cornwall, where the signs at Saltash station welcomed us to that special county, which I tend to think of as a country within the UK rather than a county in England, so different does it feel. Loads of schoolboys joined the train at one of the Plymouth stops and the last did not get off until Lostwithiel, an immense daily commute for such a young person, especially in winter when it was dark before we reached his stop.

We left the train at St Austell and it continued on its slow journey down to Penzance, by now, having left Plymouth packed with passengers, with very few on board. This was definitely a train for people leaving Plymouth rather than people going to Penzance! With a little help from Maps on my iPhone we found the way to our hotel, a five-minute walk, and checked in. As is the trend these day, our room had a name as well as a number, Tin Pit Meadow, very Cornish-sounding! We took our time unpacking and went for dinner from the bar menu. The hotel also had a very nice-looking restaurant but we were more than happy with the bar menu. We thoroughly enjoyed our stay at the White Hart in spite of a couple of hitches on the first evening and would wholeheartedly recommend it for anyone visiting Eden by public transport.

When one is used to prices in London, or even in Stamford, the value for money in Cornwall is staggering: the premium gin and tonic menu at £5 a time, for example. It is only prudence that stops one working ones way through the whole list ...

The following morning we sampled the breakfast menu in the main dining room. As is common with smaller hotels there was a buffet for the "continental" items with cooked dishes to order, all included in our room rate. And then off around the town for a quick look at the shops before catching our bus at 10:40 for the Eden Project. As with so many towns today, the centre of St Austell seems a little depressed: several closed shops, several charity shops and low-end retailers, but all the banks are there and the usual chains like Boots and WHSmith. There is hope, and a large newish shopping centre.

The bus station at St Austell is immediately in front of the rail station and there has been a clear effort made to integrate the transport systems there. The departure times of the bus service to the Eden Project even appear in the online departure list for the rail station, this service being considered an extension of the rail service. We boarded and bought our return tickets - showing these at the Eden Project admission desk would give us a worthwhile discount on our admission fee there, part of their effort to encourage people to use public transport. It was certainly low season: none of the outer car parks was in use, just the ones near the entrance to the project. There was no queue for tickets and we were straight in.

The first thing we noticed about being here in the autumn was that we could see things through the trees and shrubs that we could not see when more of them were in leaf. 2016 had a spectacularly colourful autumn, too, and everything looked gorgeous. We wandered around all of the outdoor areas first as rain was threatened, and started with the "allotments" so that we could get some idea of what we ought to be doing in our garden at this time of the year ... Then to the Mediterranean Biome where, once we had wandered through all the gardens, we had a salad lunch. This was, however, a mediterranean salad, and with one starter and one main between two of us we did not need a dessert!

Then off to the Rain Forest Biome which was the coolest we had ever known it, although we still took off our coats as we walked in ... and then as we moved up to higher levels the sheer humidity made us feel less and less comfortable: it is quite amazing how Eden has created this foreign climate in a claypit in Cornwall! We noted that a "cool room" has now been installed for those who cannot cope with the climate and need time out before continuing. A new high-level walkway was being installed in the Rain Forest Biome, the trees having grown so much taller than when the original one was built. There is a lot to learn in this huge greenhouse, but having been here twice before we moved through it fairly quickly this time. If you've never seen it, though, the trip to Cornwall is worthwhile for this biome alone.

Soon after we left the biomes the forecast rain began, although only a very light drizzle. We had seen everything we had come to see and so we caught the "land train" (a tractor hauling a train of - covered - passenger-carrying trailers) back up the hill to the visitor centre and spent a few minutes Christmas shopping in the gift shop before making our way back to the bus stop for the bus back to St Austell. The public bus service is roughly hourly, so it is necessary to plan the visit rather than just turn up at the stop and wait for the next bus, but it works well enough for us. I just had to keep in mind the times of the two most likely buses we'd catch back, together with the length of time it would take to walk back to the stop from the shop. In the event we were in very good time and sat in the shelter waiting for a few minutes.

Light meal in the bar again that evening, and after an excellent night's sleep, check out of the hotel and head to the station for the Cross Country train to Bristol Temple Meads, where we would change for Bath Spa. We travelled First Class again to Bristol, with a light lunch on the train, and our tickets from there to Bath were Anytime Standard Singles so we could spend time in Bristol en route if we so wished. We decided to go straight on to Bath and so on arrival at Bristol sought out the next train to Bath, a GWR High Speed Train which was arriving at one of the other platforms and where we found two seats together without too much difficulty for the few minutes' run to Bath.

One of the great things about the Royal Hotel, Bath, is that it is right opposite the station, so within five minutes of the train stopping at the platform we had made our way down in the lift, out through the ticket gates and across to the hotel and were standing at the reception counter. This is a very friendly and welcoming hotel and we soon felt at home in our little room with all the facilities we could require: even a cafetière and ground coffee in the room! We unpacked and went out to explore the shops: I had one last bit of Christmas shopping to do on this trip while within reach of an Apple shop ...

We also visited a few other shops and dodged a shower or two and then went back to our hotel and again found ourselves perfectly happy with dining in the bar before a relatively early night. I even began writing up this blog post!

Friday was to be the spa day, and we set off after the hotel breakfast to the Thermae spa, handing in our voucher and being given our robes and flip-flops. We have to take our own swimwear and I went with the swim shorts bought in the spa gift shop on the previous visit! Last time we have towelling sandals but this time flip-flops were provided and we were allowed to keep them if we wished, which we did, so I now have Thermae-branded footwear to match my swim shorts. The two hours which are included in our ticket is actual spa time: extra time is added to allow for changing etc, and by taking a break in the café another half-hour was added, so although this could never be called a cheap activity it is good value and you never feel you are paying too much for what you get. We had plenty of time in the hot spa baths and in the steam rooms: this time I avoided the eucalyptus scented steam room but I spent plenty of time in the other three, with a warm shower in between - there was plenty of chance to close the pores by walking up to the rooftop pool, before opening them again by getting into the water.

And so back to the hotel briefly. The champagne and cream tea which were part of the package would wait until later: first we walked out to the Royal Crescent to visit the restored Georgian home at 1 Royal Crescent, where we learnt a lot about Georgian high society and fashion as well as about the design and use of these fantastic houses. Anyone with the slightest interest in the way Bath has developed really must visit this place, and the associated Museum of Bath Architecture, for which a joint ticket may be purchased, which we did. After the Royal Crescent we returned at dusk to our champagne and cream tea, enjoyed at a quiet corner table in the bar area. Being a station hotel in the centre of a small city the bar and restaurant are always bustling (but not really packed; we always found a seat). Another brief turn around some of the shops, some time in our room (more blog-writing) and then time for a light supper in the bar (having had the cream scones earlier!) and to bed.

On our final day we were not due to leave bath until after noon, and the morning was spent visiting the Museum of Bath Architecture, with a leisurely walk there, partly along the riverbank, and back through some of the streets we had not yet seen. The hotel had kindly looked after our luggage which we then went to collect and caught our train to London. I had planned some time in London on the way back so we were in no hurry to get from Paddington to our train home at Kings Cross and we spent a little time at the British Museum - mostly buying a few more Christmas gifts at the gift shop. Warning: the cloakroom charges per bag and there is a maximum weight of bag: we had to decant some of our contents into boxes for which we were then also charged more. If you're used to free or cheap cloakrooms or lockers this can come as a bit of a shock, but we'd been before and knew we were taking a chance of being surcharged - it was not so much the cost as the faff of emptying a quarter of each of two cases to make up an imaginary third case, all of which had to be undone to repack when we left just before closing time.

Finally the good old number 10 bus to Kings Cross from right outside the museum (this bus gets us there from almost anywhere we need to be in London!), a short wait in the Virgin Trains East Coast First Class Lounge at the station, and the 18:30 fast train to Peterborough to wait for our little Cross Country train home. Brilliant holiday, with lots of new stuff as well as lots of familiar places. We'll be back in Bath, and have joined the hotel's loyalty scheme: it is so good and so well located, and there's a lot of Bath we still have not visited.


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