Sunday 22 October 2017

To Chichester via Portsmouth

On a lovely afternoon we boarded a train at the charming little station in Shanklin, bound back to the mainland for the rest of our summer holiday. Some effort has been made to make the stations on the Island line redolent of the past - appropriately given the great age of the former London Underground tube stock of which the trains consist. It was all rather "retro', as also, I suppose, is taking a summer holiday by train, but we hardly ever take our car on holiday at all these days: the once-desirable "freedom of the open road" is no longer available on the congested roads in England and even in our Jaguar we do not really find road trips enjoyable in the summer. On the train, though, the journey is definitely part of the holiday, not just a means of getting to it.

We passed now-familiar places for the last time this summer as we made our way to Ryde Pier Head for the catamaran to Portsmouth. At Ryde St John's Road the little train trundled past its brothers and sisters stabled in the sheds there (this was once the terminus, and passengers for the mainland had to carry their luggage from St John's Road to the pier!) and then we were through the tunnel under the town and out onto the pier - a tube train at sea.

There was a short wait at Ryde Pier Head for the catamaran, and we had time for a snack lunch
overlooking Ryde seafront. We could see the hovercraft plying its way between Ryde Esplanade and Southsea - that is the very fastest way back to the mainland from the Isle of Wight, but we were heading for Portsmouth Harbour which is some way from Southsea, so we waited for the catamaran and were soon boarding and off across the Solent into the harbour. A short walk across the road and we were checking in at our next hotel, the Ship Leopard, overlooking the waterfront and the harbour station.

The Ship Leopard advertises itself as a "boutique hotel". I'd never stayed in one of these before and it was much as I expected, really: small, and with small rooms. We were only staying one night and not intending to unpack and our little room was perfect for the job. I think they have bigger rooms for longer stays! We had a drink outside on the pavement, just a little Prosecco with some nuts, sitting in the sunshine and enjoying the world passing by, but bus, train and ship as well as on foot. A stroll into Gunwharf Quays shopping area for some shopping and then dinner was interesting. We turned up at one place for just a drink and were never served, but we moved on to Carluccio's by which time it was time to eat as well, outside, overlooking the harbour. Lovely. Friendly, helpful service, too, even though they were busy.

After a good night's boutique sleep we went downstairs for what was billed as a "gourmet breakfast" which turned out to be much like any other breakfast in a modest-sized hotel: very nice, tasty and plenty of it, but not superior to many others. Still, it set us up for the day, which was what was needed. We checked out and, as usual, the hotel staff kindly looked after our luggage until the time we were expecting to leave Portsmouth. Our reason for stopping off here was to visit the Mary Rose Museum: this would be our first visit since it became possible for visitors to stand in the same room as the wreck of the ship and really look at it first-hand.
All the good stuff we had seen two years before about its story and the artifacts recovered were still there, but it was special to walk through the air-lock and stand looking at Henry VIII's flagship, sunk in battle in the Solent whose waters we had just crossed. A visit is recommended.

And so back to the Ship Leopard and their other speciality: tea and cake! Nice timing after the breakfast ... then with our luggage returned we made our way to the station to catch a train on the Chichester for the rest of our holiday. My plan had been to book a pair of First Class singles but the next fast train with First Class accommodation had been cancelled (here we go again, Southern Railway even without a strike) so we had standard class tickets and travelled on the slow train (which is still fast enough) and arrived in Chichester in ample time to check in at our Bed & Breakfast in the cathedral grounds. Our room for the first night was small and with virtually no view, but we were due to move to a better room the next day - I had not been able to get one room for the three nights we needed, so popular is this place. As always we were made very welcome here.

After settling in we met our friends (now traditional on our first evening in Chichester) we made plans to visit our friends in their holiday cottage by the coast on our last full day there, when the weather was expected to be reasonably good. That left one more day, the day following our arrival, which was expected to be rainy for much of the day. We can't complain: this was our fourth holiday here and the weather had generally been excellent, and so far this year in Shanklin and Portsmouth it had been warm and sunny most of the time. We had already arranged with the bed & breakfast house staff to move to our better room during the morning of that second day.

Before we had come away on our summer holiday our friends whom we were due to visit at the coast had contacted us to say that they and other family members were thinking of seeing the new production of Fiddler on the Roof at the Chichester Festival Theatre and wondered if we'd like to join them. We had already offered theatre tickets vouchers as a birthday present to one of them, so instead we bought the tickets for this performance and made plans to meet them all at the theatre. We spent the day in the city; shopping, blogging (!) and having a light lunch together. We also met some other friends whom we had not seen for a very long time and who happen to live in Chichester but had usually not been available when we were there (on holiday, presumably!) but were there this time. By the time we had had tea with them it was time to change for the evening at the theatre and await the taxi that would take us there - it was not far but we did not want to sit in wet clothes through the play.

The taxi driver was really good and not only refused a tip but rounded down the fare as well! I think he was embarrassed by the time it had taken owing to some road closures in the city.

The play was brilliant. It opened in Chichester and was off to the West End next, thoroughly recommended. Chichester Festival Theatre is also recommended, a great place to watch drama and within easy walking distance (when it's not raining hard) of the city centre but with a large car park for those not so handily placed. We walked back afterwards, the rain having stopped, and had our dinner in our usual venue, the Côte Brasserie in South Street.

The next morning we were off on the bus to East Wittering for our day by the coast. We met our friends at the shops there and went back to their wonderful, quirky holiday let formed from two ancient railway carriages. Other members of their family were also on holiday on that section of the coast and we had a long walk along the beach (a bit too windy for sitting on the beach as we had done the previous year) to visit one daughter in a flat a little way to the west, and also had drinks with the other couple we'd been with at the theatre the night before. It is really great to be part of this annual family gathering on the south coast. (I may run out of things to write about, though, as the years roll past!). Dinner together and then a lift back to Chichester and our holiday was almost done.

The following morning we were up, packed, breakfasted and checked out reasonably early to catch the one through train of the day to Bristol (we had come on the one in the other direction last year). While not overcrowded, the train was a bit of a disappointment: it was composed of a high-density set intended for short urban journeys, not a long cross-country one, and the aisles were not wide enough for a trolley so there was no catering, whereas last year we had enjoyed a gin-and-tonic coming the other way. We were travelling this way for the scenery, which was spectacular in places even though the weather was not very special this year. One day we must take a day or two travelling this route, staying here and there on the way: we do not have to rush by just because we're travelling by rail!

Lunch on the train. A fresh sandwich on a plate!
We had time between trains at Bristol to have some coffee and boarded our train for Birmingham, travelling First Class. The catering on this service was also a bit hit-and-miss: nothing for us until a First Class host joined us at Cheltenham and nothing at all in Standard Class. As ever, though, the ride was smooth and the arrival through leafy Edgbaston into Birmingham was very pleasant. A change at New Street and we were soon back in Stamford, walking home across the Meadows with some great memories of another great summer holiday.