Saturday, 2 December 2017

Relaxing at the Spa

The Royal Hotel, Bath, seen at night from the rail station
  1. I needed a rest: it had been a busy couple of months and I was very tired
  2. Last time we came to Bath the Christmas Market was being set up and we thought it looked like it might be worth seeing
  3. We had a loyalty card for the Royal Hotel because we thought last year that we might come to Bath fairly often
  4. There was a certain amount of family history research that required a visit to the Bath record office
  5. We needed something exciting to take our minds off the exciting trip to eastern Europe that we had already booked for 2018
So I booked a stay at the Royal Hotel, Bath; three nights of their Spa Break deal which not only included the room and breakfast at the hotel and tickets for Thermae Bath Spa, but also a Champagne cream tea at the hotel. I then booked train tickets with Cross Country Trains which would give us four days in Bath (three nights) without exhausting us travelling. As usual I booked First Class on the trunk haul between Birmingham and Bristol, with Standard Class from Stamford to Birmingham and for the short hop between Bristol and Bath. Tickets bought online, collected from the machine at Stamford station and carefully stored with our hotel booking confirmation, all I had to do was find a way of living with the anticipation!

Soon enough we were on our way to Birmingham on the 09:05 Cross Country train on a Tuesday morning, bright and sunny although cold - weather which lasted throughout our little trip. I had brought along a small bottle of sparkling rosé to get the trip off to a good start, with two plastic wine flutes rescued from an al fresco reception some time and packed with a small ice-pack. At New Street we simply looked around the shops at the station for half an hour between trains and caught our booked Cross Country train forward to Bristol. To my delight this turned out to be a HST (diesel high speed train) rather than the newer but less spacious Voyager more common on this route. It was a while before the refreshment trolley came round but when it did we were able to have our coffee and order a night lunch which the hostess brought along in due course, included in the cost of the First Class ticket (which, bizarrely, was less that the cost of the Standard Class tickets of the Stamford-Birmingham leg of the journey!).

Although I had reserved seats on the next reservable departure from Bristol to Bath as "insurance" in case the trains were crowded, there was a South Western Railway train for Waterloo at a nearby platform ready to go and with plenty of spare seats, so we boarded that and were in Bath earlier than I had planned. This was a stopping train but with only double track between Bristol and Bath I knew that nothing would be overtaking it so it would be the next arrival in Bath. The hotel is just across the road but our room was not yet ready (check-in was not yet officially under way but they'd have taken us if the room were ready), so they kept our luggage and we set off around the city centre and our first look at the Christmas Market. Novelty gifts purchased at Bath Abbey gift shop, and the Bath record office located at the Guildhall we were back at the hotel to check in and unpack and then we went to the hotel bar to enjoy our Champagne cream tea: thoroughly recommended.

Later we set off for an evening walk around the streets. For the first half of the week the Christmas Market closed at six o'clock so there was not much to see of that but there were the decorations to enjoy and we booked a table for the following evening at the Acorn Kitchen vegetarian restaurant where we had been once before and had wanted to revisit. We are not actually vegetarian, but always enjoy vegetarian food and this place is exquisite, the sort of restaurant worth dressing-up for.

After our cream tea we did not need an evening meal but bought a take-away fruit salad from Marks and Spencer to share back at our room. A bath and an early night were then all that were needed to complete the first day of rest. It is all too easy to try to cram a lot of activity into these breaks, but a large part of what had brought us here was the need to rest!

The Wednesday morning was bright and sunny as forecast and we enjoyed the usual standard of hotel breakfast in the restaurant dedicated to the memory of IK Brunel who apparently designed the hotel itself as well as being the engineer for the railway line across the road. after breakfast we did some leisurely clothes shopping and visited the legendary Fine Cheese Company where we investigated Swiss cheeses (not easy to obtain in England) for Christmas. (They also have a branch in Belgravia, London, if you want to visit without coming to the West Country.) With four weeks still to go we took away the brochure to order the cheese online later, but it was good to be able to sample them in the shop. Life could get expensive if we lived in Bath and could shop here every week! They also have a coffee shop & restaurant attached and we had our "morning" coffee there surrounded by people eating lunch ...

Lansdown Crescent
Sunset from Landsown

Back to the room with our shopping, and then I went to photograph architecture at Lansdown on the north side of the city while my wife visited the record office to seek details of her ancestors. From Lansdown there are great views (in autumn and winter when the leaves are away) over the city and while I was there I was fortunate to see a wonderful sunset before walking down among the evening peak traffic: if there is a city in the world where the private car is an efficient form of transport, Bath is not that city!

Parsnip & Hazelnet Soup: fantastic!
We dressed for the evening and made our way to the Acorn Kitchen restaurant and enjoyed another wonderful meal well up the the standard set last time, although this time we did not need a third course. On our way there we checked with Thermae Bath Spa when might a good time to visit on the following day - never having been there after dark we thought it might be good to do that this time, but with the Christmas Market on the spa was likely to be busy early evening. As our ticket allows two hours, which is extended if we take time out for a drink or snack in their cafeteria, we would need to be in and changed by 18:30 to get best value from our tickets - when to start queuing in order to achieve that is hard to determine, but we decided to have a look at the queue at about 17:00 and see how it is going.

On Thursday morning we had success in finding ancestral monuments both in old St Mary's churchyard (where we had looked before and failed!) and in Bath Abbey, and we photographed addresses where we had reason to believe family members had lived, and we visited a great café, Boston Tea Party, for which we'd been given a discount voucher by a marketer in the street the day before and where we seemed to be the only people without a baby ... the coffee and cakes were great though. We then made our way back through the maze of the Christmas Market - and finally bought something from one of the stalls - and returned to the hotel to rest and to warm up before our visit to the spa.

For the visit to Thermae Bath Spa we pared our belongings down to the minimum: hotel key, credit card, admission tickets, clothes. Bath robe, towel and flip-flops are provided, so swimwear was all that we needed to take. We had decided to visit in the evening to see the spa after dark, our previous visits having been in mornings, and we knew that the trade-off for this would be that we would have to queue to get in.  It was cold, but we fell into conversation with others in the queue and the hour soon went by, helped by an introductory video in the windows, and the feeling of warmth once we entered the building with about 20 minutes still to go. When the spa is busy, new guests are let in as those already inside leave so that overcrowding is prevented. Admission is by wristband which opens the turnstile, locks the lockers and clocks up the cost of food and drink bought in the cafeteria which we then pay for on the way out (hence taking the credit card!). Once the wristband is handed in at the end of a session, another person can be let in. It is as perfect a system as I can imagine for ensuring the everyone gets a changing cubicle, a locker and space in the pools.

New this year is the "Wellness Suite" which replaces the former four steam rooms. It includes two new steam rooms, one with a Roman theme and one with a Georgian theme, as well as an ice room (which we did not use!), a sauna and a dark room with twinkling "stars", a video art installation on a cosmic creation theme and half-a-dozen loungers on which to relax. The last of these did nothing for me, but the steam rooms were very good and my skin felt better for days afterwards. We did venture into the roof-top pool once, essential, really, when visiting after dark. The water is so hot (this being the UK's only hot-water spa), but we knew that the air temperature was not much above zero so it was quite an act of will to leave the pool - straight down to the steam room to warm up!

We had a light supper at the Springs restaurant within the spa - not cheap but very good - and a final visit to the steam rooms and the Minerva Pool; we did not feel the need to visit the roof-top pool again as the air temperature was forecast to have dropped another couple of degrees by then! And so it was time to leave and wend our way back to the Royal Hotel where we fell for the advertised Christmas cocktail menu ...

On our final morning we checked out and left our luggage at the hotel while we had a final walk around Bath city centre, visiting a few interesting shops and posting our international Christmas cards, then we retrieved the cases and went to the station neatly in time to catch the 13:58 train to Bristol, arriving on the platform just as the train approached. A slight setback then occurred as I was stunned by a blow to the head while walking towards the train ... my head had struck a metal box (apparently housing train starting push-buttons) projecting from a roof stanchion. I picked myself up and made my way to the train, surrounded by much fuss and care from other passengers and platform staff. I ensured that the staff were aware of what had happened and then settled onto the train. On arrival at Temple Meads I reported the matter because by then it was clear that some minor bleeding had occurred, and after first aid and very kind care and attention from GWR staff I went on my way. No concussion, no lasting damage, but that box does need to be removed or the space under it rendered impassable so that no-one else suffers a similar accident: if I'd been shorter I'd have walked under it, taller and I'd have seen it, but at my height the top of my head hit it.

And so we walked into Bristol city centre which is good in parts! We chose a less scenic route in and a more scenic one back - not really through choice but because we did not know the best way. Like many places, there has been a lot of redevelopment along waterfronts lately and especially near the station it is looking very promising with some lovely urban walks to be had - even when wheeling suitcases, and even after dark. We had a very pleasant light meal at the House of Fraser store's Zest Café. We saw in Bristol some very similar Christmas Market stalls to the ones we had seen in Bath, though rather fewer of them. Someone is making a fortune out of supplying the timber chalets for these events!

We had a very pleasant pint of Tribute in the station bar (Bonaparte's) before boarding the 18:30 to Birmingham, again a HST (possibly the same one we'd come on: it creaked just the same). A very hospitable First Class host immediately offered us hot drinks and cake which were very welcome. At Birmingham we bought a snack supper at a kiosk and soon found our way to the platform for our connection to Stamford where the train was already waiting and although for some reason the reservation labels had not been applied, we found two seats together quite easily and had a smooth and easy ride home. There is something special about travelling in the dark - I would not want to do it all the time but it is an interesting experience occasionally.

It was a really good few days rest with the usual great feeling after a visit to the hot spa. Straight back into the thick of Advent and Christmas preparations ...

Sunday, 3 September 2017

The Traditional Route to the Isle of Wight

Our location on my iPhone screen
as the catamaran left Portsmouth
Harbour on our way to Ryde
We have had several holidays now on the Sussex coast, sometimes tripping out to Hampshire. We always stay in Chichester and spend at least a day with our friends who rent a bungalow at Bracklesham Bay. Two years ago we went to Portsmouth to visit the Mary Rose Museum and when we saw how easy it was to get across to the Isle of Wight we went back the following day and visited Osborne House - you can read all about it in A South Coast Adventure. Last year I had hoped to visit the Isle of Wight Steam Railway but the industrial troubles on Southern Railway made that impossible to do, so we put it off until this year and made our 2017 trip into a bit of a tour. I managed to plan the whole holiday to require only one journey to be made on Southern, and that could be replaced by a bus trip if the trains were not running! (But the industrial action was suspended and the trains were running with only the normal Southern cancellations.)

As usual we would go one way and come back another and the route fulfilled several objectives:

  • To use the traditional route all the way from London Waterloo to Shanklin with through First Class tickets
  • To be on the Island on a day when the Steam Railway was operating to full timetable
  • To travel back via Salisbury and the scenic route to Bath (we had come this way last year and I wanted to see it from the other direction)
  • To avoid reliance on the dispute-ridden Southern Railway
  • To provide enough time to relax and enjoy the journey
Booking was complex. I needed a hotel room for two nights at Shanklin, a Sunday on the Isle of Wight, a day in Portsmouth so that we could visit the Mary Rose Museum again now that the ship is fully preserved and can be seen properly,  and three nights in Chichester. Given the destination and the time of year I bagged the Shanklin hotel first, then one night in Portsmouth and three in Chichester; I came unstuck slightly in Chichester and we had to change rooms after the first night because three nights in one room were not available in the cathedral guest house where we wanted to stay: small price to pay for everything else falling into place!

Tickets ready at Waterloo.
First Class London to Shanklin:
through ticket just £17.35 each!
I booked the Mary Rose Museum in advance but the best deal for Steam Railway was an inclusive rover ticket which has to be bought from the station at Shanklin and covers the Steam Railway along with the Island Line (the national rail service on the island).

Train tickets for all the main legs of the journey were bought in advance as soon as the Advance First Class tickets went on sale, which in the case of the Waterloo-Shanklin leg was not until a fortnight before we left, a tad nail-biting but we got there. These tickets are very substantially cheaper than off-peak Standard Class ones bought on the day and gave us a much better experience, but because of all the work being done at Waterloo station the timetable was not fixed that weekend until very late and so they could not sell Advance tickets until then either, and when they did there were very few, but I got the two I needed.

And off we went.

The trip began as always with the stroll to Stamford station, on a Saturday morning because we wanted the middle day on the Isle of Wight to be Sunday. We left Stamford at 10:00 and were in Shanklin at tea time, a quick, smooth and simple trip. The usual change of train at Peterborough and then Virgin Trains East Coast, First Class, to London Kings Cross. In the past I've walked to Waterloo from Kings Cross but it's a bit of a trek with holiday luggage so we used the Underground, Northern Line to Bank then Waterloo & City Line to complete the trip. The transfer went so well that we had an hour to spare at Waterloo before our booked train and spent it choosing a packed lunch in the station shops and looking around at some of the other shops. We also had a quick look at the work beginning to open the former international platforms for local use as part of the work to expand the station.

First Class saloon on the main line to Portsmouth Harbour
Our train was announced in good time and we went to board it. Our tickets were valid only for the 13:05 departure but we had no specific seat reservations and went for the First Class section nearer the front of the train so as to be nearest the ferry at Portsmouth Harbour. The SouthWest Trains express train was very smart and comfortable inside and we were delighted with the accommodation. It was fast and smooth and whisked us rapidly through southwest London, stopping occasionally. There were no refreshments included in the fare (and as I had paid only £35 for both of us to travel in some luxury I could hardly complain!) but there was a retail trolley and we bought a half-bottle of wine and some fruit cake to round off our lunch brought with us from the station.

I know, I look more like I'm commuting to
work than going on holiday, but we like to
wear our best outfits for the journey so as not
to crush them in the suitcase. Anyway, it's all
part of the "updated retro" style of our holidays!
On the train to Portsmouth again.
Before long we had our first fleeting glimpse of the sea as the train crossed a creek onto Portsea Island and made its way along the final stretch all through Portsmouth and onto the pier at Portsmouth Harbour.

Walking along the platform the ramp down to the Isle of Wight catamaran was right in front of us and we strolled down: there was a short wait for the catamaran departure and a comfortable waiting area with a café bar where we had cup of tea before boarding. We showed our train tickets which included the crossing on the WightLink catamaran and sat down for the short trip across the Solent. The forecast rain began at this point and visibility became poor (but not unsafe!) and we waited under the canopy at Ryde Pier Head station for the little ex-Underground train that would take us the rest of the way to Shanklin. It soon came and with several other luggage-bearing holidaymakers we trundled our way down the east coast of the Isle of Wight, in our case to the current end of the line at Shanklin. Nothing much to see through the wet windows and we walked to the Channel View Hotel - only about a five-minute downhill walk - with hoods up. Not a good start, but this was the only bad weather we had on the Hampshire half of the holiday.

When we added it it all up we reckon we paid around £75 for the two of us to get to Shanklin from Stamford, and it took an effortless, unhurried seven hours from our door to the reception of the hotel. I reckon that compares pretty well to driving and queuing (and paying) for the car ferry. Standard Class travel would have cost even less, of course, but with First at those prices, why on earth would we go Standard? Or drive?

View from our window on arrival
View from our window next morning!

The weather on the
Isle of Wight!

Our room was not advertised as having a sea view (which costs extra, apparently), but I was quite happy with this view of the sea!

The rain subsided and we went for a walk along the seafront and then inland to the old village, where we had dinner at a restaurant chosen from Trip Advisor, and from reading the menu outside and made a mental note of another restaurant to use the following day. We did not get very wet although the rain came and went a bit, and our jackets dried out well enough in our lovely hotel room which actually had coat hooks, not that common a feature.

On the Sunday morning we were down to breakfast in good time, waited service here with some buffet items. Brilliant view out to sea from the breakfast room, but facing east on a bright, sunny morning meant we could not actually look out much because the sun was straight in our faces ...

Island Line train preparing to leave Shanklin for Ryde
Isle of Wight Steam Railway train at Smallbrook Junction
Off to Shanklin station to buy our Island Liner tickets which gave us the run of both island railways for the whole day. First off to Smallbrook Junction where the Steam Railway meets the electrified Island Line. The ride on the ex-Tube stock was a lot more interesting than on the gloomy afternoon the day before: we could see the sea in places, the countryside and towns in others. It was warm and sunny when we got off at Smallbrook and went over to the platform where a steam train already stood waiting. No queue for a ticket, we just showed our Island Liners and went to find a seat. The ancient suburban coaches (also from London but much older than the 1938 Tube stock we'd just used!) had separate compartments with a door each, and finding a compartment to ourselves proved impossible, but two seats together was easy enough. This train took us straight to  Wootton at the other end of the line. Had we chosen, it would have been possible from here to catch a bus to East Cowes or to Newport, but although there would have been time for a little wondering we decided just to go for a brief walk and catch the next train back, thus we would have ridden behind both the locomotives in steam that day and on both sets of vintage coaches. The dark green Southern Railway livery looked really great on a sunny day and the whole railway was full of atmosphere.

Between trains at Havenstreet - you'd also be between trains
if the trains were both here
We got off the next train at Havenstreet (or Haven Street as its station name boards read) which is the main station on the line where the preservation work is done and the visitor facilities are. We had a glass of beer and watched the trains for a bit, avoiding the "Railway Folk" who were there to add a bit of extra entertainment for children, but it is a long time since we last needed that facility (although the time will come again when the grandchildren are not much older!). We then visited the museum, the carriage works and the gift shop (gifts for the aforesaid grandchildren) and had coffee and cake - there was an ice-cream in there somewhere, too, but I can't remember when we had that - and caught a train back to Smallbrook Junction. Everything at Havenstreet and throughout the day was of the highest quality and I cannot recommend the Isle of Wight Steam Railway highly enough: it is one of those good days out that will stay with me for a long time.

At Smallbrook we went back to the Island Line and could have used it for the rest of the day to
explore the east side of the island, but there is more to life than squeezing every last penny out of a rover ticket and we just travelled as far as Sandown and walked to the seafront there, from where we could see Shanklin along the bay. We decided to walk along the promenade which was well-maintained all the way along the beach to Shanklin, joining where we had walked the previous evening. The tide was well is, so walking on the actual beach was out of the question, and even with a calm sea we did have to dodge the spray in places!

We made our way back to our hotel and enjoyed a swim in its small swimming pool, and then went out for dinner at the restaurant we had identified the night before in the old village, telephoning first to reserve a table, which turned out to have been wise as it was very busy (this is a Sunday!) and some people did have to be turned away.

There was no planned agenda for the Monday provided that we ended up at Portsmouth by bedtime, so we had a leisurely breakfast and checked out. The hotel kept our luggage for us and we took the bus to Ventnor, which had been the next station along the line before it was truncated at Shanklin.

At Ventnor we first visited its small heritage museum where we discovered that this had been a small, poor, fishing village before it became a health resort for those suffering from the respiratory diseases of the industrial era, and then the railway came and became a more general holiday resort. The railway has since gone and town has suffered somewhat from the shrinkage of its tourist business, like so many other English resorts, but it is picking up again now. We had a fantastic ice-cream at a place called Crave a few doors down from the museum and after a walk along the seafront, coffee at the art deco Winter Gardens pavilion then caught our bus back to the hotel.

Reunited with our luggage we now walked to the station for the last time on this trip and bought two single tickets to Portsmouth Harbour for the next exciting stage of our holiday.

Monday, 28 August 2017

Summer Alpine Adventure 5: Sunshine and Rain

When I began writing up this tour, I expected it to need three episodes to take all that we had packed into the eleven days without (a) taking an age to write before I publish the first bit and (b) boring my readers, and myself. However, it was so action-packed that one of the other customers on the tour asked the tour manager on about the third day, "Do we get a holiday at some point?" and so after four episodes I find myself writing a fifth. I really must get on with this, because I've since been on another holiday - a rather interesting one which I am raring to write up - and a day out which is worth a few words.

So, where was I? Yes, the day trip to Italy! A reasonably early start was required from Zermatt because before we could go anywhere else we had to travel back down the valley to the main line at Brig. Here we had a few minutes to spare before our international main-line train to Domodossala and we had a little wander around this place where we had stayed for three nights on our last visit to the Swiss Alps. Little had changed and it was great to see it all again. Our train was a regional one, nothing very special, and although we were in First Class accommodation it was fairly spartan and not air-conditioned, although the windows did open very wide. Off we set and before long were in the Simplon Tunnel on our way to Italy. The train was signal-checked in the tunnel, tantalisingly close to the end but very dark and very hot, but eventually we were on our way. This is still mountain territory and although we were on a standard-gauge main line there was still a spiral tunnel, although you do not really notice it; so many tunnels and this is just another one. We arrived in a baking hot Domodossala and made our way to the bus station across the road where a coach waited to take the whole party to Stresa on the western shore of Lake Maggiore. I had been disappointed that we had to take road transport on this trip but it was a very smooth and comfortable coach and got us to Stresa reasonably quickly, and straight to the quayside for the boats to the various islands on the lake.

The brochure had described the boat trip as a "cruise" but in truth this was large motor boat providing a fast ferry to Isola Piscatore, a small island consisting almost entirely of restaurants, clearly intended for foreign visitors at mealtimes, just like us. We had brought a packed lunch, however, bought from a bakery at Brig station during the train change, and sat eating it watching the boats on the lake. It was warm hot and sunny and an almost idyllic place to sit.  We set off on a walk around the island (a few moments), visited the church and the market stalls along the lake shore (carefully watching our bags and pockets) and met the rest of the tour for the ferry back to Stresa. Some of the party had used the restaurants for a rather more substantial lunch than ours and perhaps when presented with a wide selection of Italian restaurants that is a reasonable course of action, but we prefer not to have too many huge meals per day. We'd had a great day out, but it was the one thing on the trip that looked like a mass-produced experience: it stood out amidst the very high standard of the rest of the tour.

Back in Stresa we had an hour or so before the coach back to our return train and we enjoyed a walk around the town and bought some souvenirs to take home for friends and family, and, of course, an Italian ice-cream!

At Domodossola station we boarded the train to find our empty takeaway cups exactly as we had left them on the tables when we arrived that morning: not only had the train patently not been cleaned (not a big deal: it had only been a short trip), but had not been used by anyone else either. It must have stood there, in the heat, at the platform, all day! We were soon back in Brig and on our metre-gauge cog-railway train back to Zermatt, and an evening meal in the comfort of our wonderful hotel.

The following day was a free day and we had been planning to go back to Domodossala to take the Centovalli railway across to Locarno on the north-east shore of Lake Maggiore. We had done it before in poor weather and wanted to see it in sunshine. A day like the one we had just enjoyed at Stresa would be really great, and Locarno would be in holiday season with everything open and available to enjoy. The weather forecast was not wonderful but we went to bed hoping that all would turn out well ... but no, the forecast in the morning was no better and the day was already murky. Given that even with our half-fare cards it was quite an expensive trip and that the visibility may be little or no better than last time, we decided not to go to Locarno and spend the day exploring on foot around Zermatt instead.

We walked out past the cable-car terminals which were taking some tourists high up into the mountains: one route went to a ski resort where it was possible to ski even in summer, and another went over the border to Italy. These cable-car routes work just like bus or tram routes and there are interchange points up in the hills where it is possible to change cars for other destinations. We were not tempted to pay the fares and see the world from even higher, but it was fascinating watching the cars coming and going as we walked along the roads and footpaths were the village was being expanded and more and more homes were being built. The road on which we eventually found ourselves walking uphill is a toboggan run in winter and a road when passable! Lower than that was a route for the electric bus service to and from Zermatt village centre.

After a good walk we repaired to a bar-restaurant for a drink (hotel breakfast - minimal requirement for lunch!) and sat outside in the sun looking across at the Matterhorn. From our table we could see the trains of the Gornergratbahn making their way up and down the mountain, crossing the valley in which we sat. Mental note made that this looks a great place to eat, too, and TripAdvisor seems to agree. We were just leaving, having decided our route back into town, when we felt a few spots of rain. The a few more and a heavy
shower began. There was a bus stop with a timetable, I checked and a bus was due, then I realised that the crowd standing across the road in the church porch was the bus queue! We joined it and boarded the bus. I paid the fare, forgetting in my haste and relief that we were entitled to travel free with our pass. Never mind, it was not expensive and it was dry. And an experience to travel on one of Zermatt's little electric buses! By the time we were back at our hotel a few moments later the rain had stopped and the sun was shining again ... and we were still wet! We spent the rest of the afternoon, as planned but maybe not quite so soon, in the hotel swimming pool, which was excellent, and ate our picnic "dinner" on our balcony, preparing to leave Zermatt the following day, when rather better weather was forecast.

Departure for the next stage of the tour was rather more leisurely than we had been accustomed to. There was no rush and we were able to pack at our leisure and make our way down to the station. Before then, however, there was the spectacle of the Corpus Christi procession which passed the entrance gates to the hotel. I thought how little my own parish would be noticing this important festival (although there would be a service in church) compared with the way that Zermatt people could not miss it! Almost all of us on the trip went down to watch the procession.

Our cog train took us back down the valley for the last time and we changed trains at Visp, buying provisions at the station, and bought the main line train for Basle where changed to a local stopping service into France for an overnight stop at Colmar.

Colmar is a beautiful town which looks more German than French and is well worth a visit. It was very hot when we stayed there and we were grateful for our hotel room's air conditioning. We had time to explore the town both on the evening of our arrival and briefly on the morning before we left.

Our train from Colmar was a little late, and we had one simple change of train at Strasbourg to catch the TGV for Lille were we changed for the Eurostar to London and thence home. It was the first time we had caught the Eurostar from Lille and we did have a little time to explore. Again, Lille is a place worth visiting and one day we must programme a little time there into one of our own European tours.

Saturday, 5 August 2017

Home from another trip!

I am now home after a brilliant trip to the Isle of Wight, Portsmouth and Chichester. A blog post will follow in due course, and meanwhile my Trip Advisor reviews are available by following the relevant Helpful Link for Adventurers on the right >>>>

Wednesday, 2 August 2017

Summer Alpine Adventure 4: Glacier Express, Zermatt and the Matterhorn

Provisions being loaded into the kitchen of the Glacier
Express during its reversing stop at Chur
A feature of our Great Rail Journeys holiday this year is that it includes the complete route of the Glacier Express, all the way from St Moritz to Zermatt, the two Alpine resorts in which we stayed on this memorable adventure. We had done the whole route before, but in bits and pieces, only using the Express itself between Brig and Chur, so it was good to see it in one go.

Our party was all accommodated in a First Class car at the rear of the train leaving St Moritz, although there were a handful of other passengers in the same coach. The first part of the journey was back along the way we had arrived from Chur, some of it the same way we had travelled as far as our change of train on our free day, too. At Chur the locomotive was coupled to the other end of the train and hauled it in the other direction, retracing our journey for a few kilometres before taking the line straight along the Alps towards the east.

It is impossible to do justice to the scenery on the route of the Glacier Express; it is a journey you simply have to experience yourself. After leaving the line on which we'd arrived we traced the Rhine gorge for some distance, totally different from anything else we'd seen, and then with the familiar twists and turns we climbed up into the Alps. At Disentis the Rhatische Bahn locomotive was taken off and a Matterhorn Gotthard Bahn locomotive with cog-wheels was coupled onto the train to take us the rest of the way: this route is a collaboration between the two railways.

Soon tablecloths were brought and lunch was served. It so happened that we were waiting to cross an oncoming train in a passing loop overlooking a high-altitude lake as we were eating. A cooked meal was included in our holiday and we bought our own drinks, in our case an appropriate wine, and after the meal the Grappa liqueur which is worth having just for the joy of watching it being poured from a great height by a skilled waiter.

There was another brief pause in the journey at Andermatt and from the station there we were able to watch another Glacier Express train climbing up the way we had just come down, shuttling across the Alpine mountainside and weaving in and out of tunnels, the railway and the Oberalp highway criss-crossing one another in the landscape. Far beneath our feet was the Gotthard Tunnel taking a railway line north-south under the Alps, and a little to the west the Gotthard Road Tunnel on highway 2 which crosses the middle of Switzerland, north-south.

The tables were cleared and we descended into Brig, where we had begun our winter holiday in the Alps three years before, and then, turning south at Visp, the cogs were engaged once more as we began the climb to Zermatt. We were running out of words to describe the scenery, but in many ways the best was yet to come as we made our way to the Park Hotel Beau Site in Zermatt and then, after checking in stepped onto the balcony of our room to see the stunning view of the Matterhorn presiding over the village.

Zermatt had been a poor agricultural village until the penchant of rich young aristocrats, mostly British, for mountain-climbing was established just a century or so ago and the village decided to make an industry out of welcoming its visitors. Hotels were founded, railways and cable-cars were built and people came in droves and spent their money, and plenty of it. Outside the village is the settlement where the mostly foreign workers live who keep this expensive tourist attraction functioning, and the car park where everyone has to leave their cars, for internal combustion-propelled vehicles are not allowed in Zermatt.

We do not count ourselves among the rich, the young or the aristocracy, but with a little willpower and some savings is is possible for commoners of more limited means to enjoy a good holiday in Zermatt, at least with the resources of Great Rail Journeys to get a decent deal. On our first evening we just had to stroll down through the village on the route we had walked on our day-trip to Zermatt in winter, simply to see how it looked without a metre of snow having fallen the night before. Unfortunately the sky was not quite as clear this time, so our view of the Matterhorn was not as good as before, but it still, as always, looked stunning.

After an excellent dinner and a good night's sleep we were ready for the next day's adventure, to climb the Gornergrat by train and to enjoy a guided tour of Zermatt. We also planned to visit the Matterhorn Museum in the village, so although we were not off to too early a start this time, there was still a lot to pack into the day! The party walked down to the Gornergrat Railway terminal and boarded the next train to the summit. Last time we had done this on our own in free time in Zermatt but this time it was included in the tour. One of our party was an experienced geography teacher and author and gave us a most informative lecture on the glaciers we could see from the summit of the Gornergrat, an unexpected and worthwhile addition to the programme. We had not seen these on our winter visit, being deep under snow.

We did not avail ourselves of the expensive refreshments at the hotel on the Gornergrat and made our way back down to Zermatt a little ahead of the party then met them again for the guided tour, which took in both the English church (founded mostly for climbers!) and the local Roman Catholic church. Each was interesting in different ways.

We learnt something of the story of Zermatt and how it became the holiday resort that it is now. After tea at our hotel (tea and cake served every afternoon at no extra charge) we went to the Matterhorn Museum which taught us about the first ascent, how it ended in disaster as four members of the seven-man team died on the way back down, and how that tragedy started Zermatt's fame and fortune.

Another wonderful dinner and an early night, because we had another early start in the morning for the next excursion on our tour, a trip through the Simplon Tunnel to Italy and a visit to a lake island.


Wednesday, 19 July 2017

Summer Alpine Adventure 3: Geography and Social History

Last time we visited the Alps, we spent one of the "free" days exploring the resorts of Klosters and Davos in the winter holiday season and we decided that we ought to return to Davos and see it in the summer. We left early in the morning in order to allow time for some activities at St Moritz later in the day, and in order to make the most of the day we made sure we also made the most of the breakfast at the hotel before we left! Making our way down to the station we took a train bound for Chur and changed trains at Filisur for Davos. This meant another thrilling ride on the Albula line with the train winding its way up and down valley sides between St Moritz and Filisur, where the three platforms provide a convenient interchange for passengers to and from all the destinations on the lines that converge at that junction.

In Davos we went straight to the Schatzalp funicular railway that we had used last time and were soon on our way up the mountain. This time we only stopped for coffee at the restaurant where we'd had lunch before, and we drank our coffee outside overlooking the town in the valley below. After coffee we walked further up Schatzalp and looked at the wild flowers and grassland that had been snow-covered ski slopes on our winter visit. This time no-one was toting skis, but there were several people with mountain cycles enjoying the slopes another way.

We eventually made our way back down on the funicular railway and with another change at Filisur arrived back in St Moritz early in the afternoon. When we boarded the St Moritz train at Filisur we discovered one coach fitted out for young families, with simpler seating and a built-in indoor play area on a railway theme: what a brilliant idea! We left it for those who needed it and went and sat in a more grown-up coach!

From the station in St Moritz we walked along the lake shore following the signs for the Engadiner Museum which we intended to visit. We were also going to walk around the lake later, so this would be one stretch we would already have completed ...

The Engadiner Museum, which would actually have been a very short walk from our hotel had we started from there, was well worth a visit. It tells of the social history of the Engadine valley before tourism changed it into what it is today, each room being a recreation of typical regional design with artefacts rescued from demolished farmhouses throughout the region. There was only one other visitor there when we looked around: information for visitors is displayed on a iPad which is supplied with the admission ticket and we were able to share one and use the loudspeaker in it as there was no-one to disturb.

As one might expect in a place like this, there was much emphasis on keeping warm, and every room had its stove of one design or another. On all our visits to any part of Switzerland we have always been struck by the enormous stoves in each home!

After an hour or so at this fascinating museum we looked briefly around the shops in the town centre - it had a similar range of upmarket clothes and jewellery shops as, say, Chelsea, many of which had not yet opened for the summer holiday season after closing at the end of the winter holiday season, but critically the Co-op supermarket was open and we bought provisions for a light supper on the balcony of our hotel room overlooking the lake.

After eating we set off back towards the museum and then resumed our walk along the lake shore, the very lake on which we had seen a racecourse set up on the ice on our last visit! Leaving the urban part of the lake we walked along the wooded side opposite the town and looked back at our hotel, and then continued to the short section we had walked in winter three years before and finally back to the station where we just managed to grab a hot chocolate at the café before it closed and then returned to our hotel for a shower and bed. Another great day, but a lot of activity! We needed a rest ...

Thursday, 6 July 2017

Tales of the Riverbank

A swan on the Coronation Channel at Spalding
South Lincolnshire is mostly fenland and is probably the most productive agricultural land in the UK. The southwest corner in which I live is rather different and its 19th and 20th century history has been more in engineering and heavy industry, although you'd never know it to look at Stamford now. Not far away is Spalding, centre of the regional food industry and until recently of the British flower industry.

A group of us took a day trip to explore Spalding, a very different town from our home in Stamford, although with some similarities. It is on the same river, the Welland,  but Spalding is a former port town, the river having been navigable by sailing ships as far as the the town centre where goods were transferred to and from barges. Spalding has not been used by commercial shipping for a very long time but in recent years a water "taxi" service has been operating on the river to take people to and from the Springfields Outlet Centre, an edge-of-town bargain shopping development on the site of the former bulb industry show ground.

Eight of us left Stamford on the 09:00 train to Peterborough and changed there for the 09:35 Lincoln train which took us on to Spalding. We had reserved seats together on the Cross Country train to Peterborough; East Midlands Trains do not reserve seats on their local services in Lincolnshire but we were among the first to board and were easily able to find eight seats together. From the train we could see many church spires on the flat fenland horizon, and of particular interest was Crowland Abbey in the east, a short, broad tower with a low spire, and beside it the vacant arch of the ruined part of the abbey. We passed the lakes at Deeping St James where the gravel was extracted for the building of the line and is now a wildlife sanctuary.

Boarding the Spalding Water Taxi
We soon arrived in Spalding and walked together to the Market Place where the Tuesday market was in full swing. We had an hour before our booked Water Taxi tour and most of us took a coffee break at one of the many cafés in the town centre. Some also made a start to their day's shopping!

We were met at the Water Taxi landing stage at the agreed time by our pilot Marcus who took us on an hour's tour of the river and the Coronation Channel, a flood relief channel dug after the 1952 east coast floods and opened the following year. The Coronation Channel has become a nature reserve and many waterfowl were spotted by the keen naturalists in our group.

The Water Taxi dropped us at the Springfields Outlet Centre and Festival Gardens. Here we all went our separate ways until our agreed rendezvous at 14:30. Everyone found their own lunch at one of the many venues and many also did some shopping. The gardens are also worth a visit and in retrospect perhaps I did not allow quite enough time here. Some people took a bus back to the town centre (route 505 runs roughly every 20 minutes through the day) and most of us walked along the riverside which provides a very pleasant stroll through Spalding's mercantile past (and my teenage years - I lived here between the ages of 10 and 26!).

Back in town we relaxed over a pint at the Lincolnshire Poacher inn - formerly The Crane, named after the dockside hoist, not the bird - and then used a town tour booklet to guide us through some historic sights on the east bank of the river, Ayscoughfee Gardens in particular, and then crossed over to take in Welland Terrace and the Grammar School. By now it was time to gather at Prezzo where our dinner table was booked; Prezzo is located in Elsom House in Broad Street, a wonderful art deco building which used to be the head office and retail outlet for Elsoms Seeds, for whom I use to work in my summer holidays when I was an undergraduate student over forty years ago. It was great to be back enjoying a pizza where I used to collect my P45 each September!

After dinner we strolled back to the station and arrived on the platform just as the train arrived from Peterborough which would form the service back to Stamford. This was the last train of the day and was a through service to Nottingham via Melton Mowbray and took us direct to Stamford without a change.  Everyone seemed to have had a thoroughly good time, and for me it was really odd to be visiting a place I knew so well and yet seeing it as a tourist!

A word about tickets!

Half of our party had Senior Railcards and received discounts on their tickets. Two had a Two Together Railcard which only allowed a discount off-peak and we left too early to use that, so I tried an experiment before booking and split the journey at Peterborough, looking at prices between Stamford and Peterborough and Peterborough and Spalding.  It worked: I could get a discount for the Two Together Railcard holders for the second half of the outward journey (the return timing, well into the evening, was never part of the problem); to my surprise the price for everyone else was a bit less, too, with the the two part returns being cheaper than returns for the whole trip. So that was what I booked! It meant everyone had four ticket coupons but it saved everyone some money. The moral is that it is always worth looking at splitting the journey, even for very short trips.

Spalding Water Taxi

Taxi awaiting next turn of duty!
We booked a charter tour on the Water Taxi, £60 for an hour's tour for up to 12 people. We only mustered eight, so it cost us £7.50 per head.

If you just turn up on the day and use the public service, then it costs just £3 per head for a half-hour trip direct to Springfields. It is also possible to book a self-drive hire boat but I did not look into that possibility for this trip and cannot say what that would cost. The company is really friendly and I can recommend using this service for a relaxing and interesting trip on the river.