Sunday 30 December 2018

Looking forward to 2019

Rail Adventures Planned for the new year

2019 will be a new experience for me, whatever unexpected surprises may come along, for at the end of January I retire from the "day job" and, theoretically, will have more time for travel, and for writing. There may well be, then, a bit more activity on the blog, but as I've never lived this sort of life before I find it hard to predict how things will be. Whether the UK's impending departure from the European Union will make any difference I also find it hard to predict. Not only might this make travel into Europe more complicated and expensive, it may make everything more expensive and therefore reduce what we can do. We are looking forward both to visiting new places and to travelling on "interesting" trains or routes.

I already have some trips in the diary but hope to add a few more, notably to Cornwall at some point. Already planned is a weekend tour of the West Highlands of Scotland in April, a day out in May in the Jewellery Quarter in Birmingham, and the best part of two weeks in summer with Great Rail Journeys in Switzerland. The Scottish and Swiss trips are booked and committed and the Birmingham one advertised as a "Come with me" trip so is virtually committed. We shall also have to arrange to be on the Sussex coast again in August to visit our friends on holiday at Bracklesham Bay.

For the first time since 1980 I shall be free for Holy Week and Easter and we are thinking of visiting a cathedral city and attending the principal worship at the cathedral with exploration and leisure in between the services. Looking at the English cathedrals' websites, York looks the most likely to provide what we are looking for, and would be the first time for ages that we have ventured north on the East Coast Main Line with LNER's excellent catering.

There will also, I hope, be several days out and short breaks once the pattern of life becomes
established, for we have little idea yet of how it will be to live in our new home, the first time in our 38-year marriage that we'll have a home of our own, private, chosen and fitted out by us. We are having as much done as possible before moving in so that I do not have to spend weeks of my life on DIY! But I do have the Swiss model railway to build when I'm not travelling! An annual trip to the Thermae Spa in Bath is one aspiration, and this can often be fitted into a trip to the south or west of England. We have been given for Christmas a voucher for an afternoon tea in London, so that is another trip to come!

Wednesday 19 December 2018

Birmingham German Market

Twelve go to Birmingham by train and have a great time

As my time as a parish priest nears its end, I decided to arrange just one more parish railway outing, and as it had to be in December, a visit to the Birmingham Frankfurt Christmas Market, supposedly the biggest (how ever you measure that!) Christmas market in the UK, and almost certainly the longest at several weeks, and an easy through train ride from our home in Stamford. There is always a lot to do in central Birmingham anyway, to suit many tastes, and I thought this trip might appeal to a wide circle of people. In the event it was one of the larger tours I have arranged, at a dozen people, and was enjoyed by those who came. Christmas shopping was, of course, an option for most, but some visited the excellent Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery, particularly to see The Staffordshire Hoard, and some also visited the churches and other places of interest.

We left Stamford on the 09:05 departure, on time, for Birmingham New Street and took up our seats reserved for us by the Cross Country Group Booking team. Although we did not get any group discount because all of us benefitted already from various railcard discounts, the group booking ensured that we could sit more-or-less together. The tickets arrived by Special Delivery a few days before we left.

The weather forecast was not good: rain all day from about the time of our arrival until about the time of our departure, thanks to Storm Deirdre, and although the rain started later than expected and was extremely light for an hour two before becoming a problem, the temperature was very low and we were cold outside.

First we walked through the Bullring Centre to ensure that everyone knew the location of the restaurant where we would be meeting later for supper - this was the Pizza Express, the nearest place I could get when I rang round to book a table for twelve during the Christmas market!

Then we strolled into New Street and everyone split off to follow their own agenda. Mine was a visit to the Ian Allan shop in Ethel Street, just off New Street, although on this occasion I did not buy anything - with a house move coming up and a continental model railway being planned there is a bit of a pause on buying British model railway things at the moment, and I already have enough unread books for the time being. It was time then for coffee and I popped into Caffe Nero opposite the station and came across two others of my party there, sheltering from the rain and wind which were just getting going by then.

Next on the agenda was buying a toy for a granddaughter for Christmas (I cannot say what it is in case she sees this blogpost, but I'll add a picture once she has been given it!) and so I went in search of a toy shop. I had time to look in The Entertainer and Debenhams in the Bullring, neither of which had what I was looking for, and then it was time for a lunchtime pint at The Wellington. On these trips I usually arrange a couple of optional things for us to do together, and at the appointed time five of us congregated in this real ale pub in Bennetts Hill, just off New Street. Then it was back to the toy search and John Lewis, in the Grand Central shopping centre over New Street station had exactly what I wanted, and a few other things as well, so for the rest of the day I was hauling a shopping bag around - I had to buy a plastic bag because (a) I bought more than I had bargained for when I chose my bag for the trip and (b) it was raining quite hard by now.

The other optional gathering I had arranged was a walk ... which, given the rain and bitter wind, was rather shorter than I originally intended! It did include, however, tea at the Centenary Lounge at Moor Street station. About eight of us came on this activity and although the Centenary Lounge was busier than I have ever seen it we - eventually - found a seat, although a few had decided to go across the road to Selfridges instead. Those who had not been to Birmingham before stood staring at Selfridges on our way to Moor Street, amazed at its architecture. After tea, we had the added bonus of the sight of a steam locomotive at one of the terminal platforms, returning with the Polar Express train, a Christmas special for families. In the retro-style of Moor Street it all looked very splendid.

We abandoned the idea of walking any more and all went our separate ways once again, although I bumped into other members of the party in Selfridges and elsewhere from time to time. Wanting somewhere to sit and read and write, and warm up, I went for a hot chocolate at one of Selfridges cafés. I sat opposite the french windows looking out at the driving rain and was glad to be inside. While I sat there the rain did gradually clear up and things began to look better, and just as I was about to leave there was a sudden blast of wind and the glass doors all swung open, letting in the cold air: it was like a scene from a spooky film!

I strolled over to New Street station to check that all was well for our return train, which it was, and then made my way, via browsing in sundry shops, to Pizza Express. I began to wait for the rest of the party but all of them had arrived there before me, and the table was ready, so we started our supper early and were in no rush at all to get to the station for the train home. The rain and the wind had both stopped by now, and the temperature was gradually rising, even though it was night! It was forecast to continue rising until midnight, by which time we'd be long gone.

The train was at the platform early, too, and we boarded and made our way to our reserved seats - it was just as well that it was early because, as I have discovered on this service before, the reservation cards had not been placed on our seats, and as the train was to become crowded (in spite of being three coaches rather than the two we sometimes get), we might have struggled to claim our seats if we had arrived just before departure. I had the list of seats which Group Bookings had sent me, but I don't imagine it would have been easy to turf others out of our seats just using that! Disappointing, that, but at least, as it happened, it did not actually affect us. But more by luck than judgement.

On the way back I sorted out who owed what for the meal and then we arrived in Stamford to find the Stamford Street Pastors greeting this, the last train of the day, as they usually do, and then made our way home, warm and dry here, too!

If you live near Stamford, Oakham or Peterborough and are interested in joining me on some of these day trips, please see the "Come with me!" Page.

Wednesday 12 December 2018

A London Triangle

or a grandparental adventure

In November two grandchildren were born, a boy to our daughter in Orpington (see The Leafy Suburbs), and a few days later a girl to our son in Shepherd's Bush. My wife had to pop down to the latter at short notice to look after the big sister-to-be (births are always short notice even though you have nine months to get ready for them!) and found the Thameslink service there and LNER back very satisfactory. It was a straightforward birth and she met the new child at under a day old and then returned.

We had both met our new grandson a few days previously but that left me not having met the new little girl, so a visit to Shepherd's Bush was arranged, this time with a few days to prepare! As we had done for the other parents, we took food with us to cook for them and all had lunch together, but we then moved on to visit the other part of the family in Orpington as well, a three-cornered trip. It was all remarkably easy to do, if a little tiring. The main line section between Stamford and London was booked in our usual way, with a Standard Class day return between Stamford and Peterborough and then LNER First Class singles between Peterborough and London - First Class was especially welcome (and especially cheap!) on the way back when we were tired, and supplied us with a good light supper. It was a bit expensive on the way there and it was fares at just a few days' notice that determined which train we took.

The rest was all done on our Oyster Cards, and with family advice we found a simple route between the two homes: Hammersmith & City Line to Baker Street, then Jubilee Line to London Bridge where we caught the next fast train to Orpington. These trains are about every ten minutes and Orpington is their first stop: it really could not be much quicker. From Orpington station we tried the bus service to get to their house: there are three possible routes and we took the first bus that came along which dropped us right at the end of their street, about 100 metres from the house: almost as close as the taxi would get, but we did have to stand in the cold for a few minutes to wait for it - substantially cheaper, though! We did call for a minicab back to the station, with it being dark, late, cold and with a train to catch. Must get in the swing of doing this by bus, though, which will be even cheaper when my concessionary pass arrives next spring! And so to London Bridge, Thameslink to St Pancras, wait in the First Class lounge at Kings Cross, train home via a change at Peterborough. And bed. A great day!

Monday 19 November 2018

The Leafy Suburbs

Through London by train to the edge of Kent

I have now been to see the new, spacious London Bridge station and finally, years after my daughter moved to Orpington, been there by train. Every previous trip has needed me to take the car for one reason or another but this time, to meet our new grandson, we could go by rail. And it was really rather simple! And, once out of London, a lot more scenic than the Thames estuary which we pass on the road trip.

The route is straightforward enough: up (or is it "down"?) to London the usual way, then across London to London Bridge station for one of the frequent fast trains to Orpington; returning the same way and trying to get a decent connection to Stamford and home.

Tickets are the issue here: with only a vague idea of the timing of the birth (as ever) we could not buy tickets far in advance, and so we had to choose our trains carefully to get decent fares. Mercifully the best train back had cheap First Class seats left, and we were able to find one there that was not too bad. Once in London we used our Oysters, which are linked with our Senior Railcards, to get about, taking us all the rest of the way to Orpington and back - with the daily fare cap. This is far cheaper than buying through return tickets all the way, although it does not include First Class on the trains in London, of course.

We took a mid-morning train from Stamford to Peterborough and then had just a few minutes' connection there for our LNER train to London. Although our seats were reserved in coach L, we moved on to coach M where there were many empty seats (and less smell of other people's delicious breakfasts!). We were served coffee, fruit juice and toast for this short inter-city trip and on arrival at Kings Cross made our way across the road to St Pancras International - we did not go straight to our next train, though, but called first of all at Fortnum and Mason where we replenished our stock of St Pancras Blend tea, available only from their St Pancras shop. We rather like it and every time we have a cup of tea we are reminded of our travels - especially as the teapot was bought at the Tate St Ives art gallery on one of our early rail tours!

And so to the "cellar" platforms for the Thameslink train to London Bridge. This was my first trip on the new Thameslink trains which are a standard twelve coaches long, so at this time of the day there is plenty of space. They are reputed to have rather too-firm seats but I have to say that it felt all right to me. Whether I would still say that if I were travelling all the way to Brighton on one I cannot say, of course. It is now possible to get a Thameslink train through from Peterborough to London Bridge without having to change, and the standard class off-peak fare is very cheap, but it is much slower than LNER, stopping frequently, and carries no catering: as so often, you get what you pay for. 

At London Bridge we left the platform by lift down to the new concourse which now links all of the platforms, enabling much easier changes of train. This used to be such a difficult and worn-out place but is now quite a pleasant, although still busy, station. We found a train whose first stop was Orpington and which was due to leave in one minute - we dashed to the platform just a tad too late to see the doors closing as the train dispatcher sent it on its way. The next, though, was on the adjacent platform in only ten minutes' time, so it was not a big deal. I have to say that when we were there every train was on time: off-peak this is often the case, but in busy times it only takes one small thing to go wrong and everything soon fouls up. Simply taking too long to get everyone on the train can cause multiple delays in places like this.

The ride to Orpington was great: views of the rooftops of east London, with distant views of the City and of Canary Wharf, to begin with, and then out into the suburbs the bigger houses and trees. Thousands upon thousands of trees, and this is autumn so the colours were gorgeous - two weeks earlier would have been better, but they were still good now. At one point we could see nothing but trees either side! Come winter there will be houses among them, but for now just the tree canopy.

We left Orpington station on the side where the taxis wait and took a cab to the family's home. We had a shopping trolley with us (yes, really! No, not the sort supermarkets have, the two-wheeled sort for taking things home.) because we were taking Lincolnshire sausages, potatoes and vegetables to cook lunch for our sleep-deprived daughter and son-in-law as well as gifts for the new grandchild from various Lincolnshire and Peterborough family members. We asked the cabbie for his business card and then called him when it was time to leave, walking back onto the station just as a train for London Bridge was arriving at the platform - brilliant! 

Darkness was falling now and we could see little. At London Bridge we made our way to the Thameslink platform for a train back to St Pancras and met someone we knew from Stamford. She was waiting for one of the through stopping trains direct to Peterborough which left several minutes after the one we took, so we said our farewells after a few minutes' chat and then we had a little time to wait at Kings Cross in the First Class Lounge before our train. I find the Lounge a rather depressing place, actually, although it does beat standing on the concourse. There are free nibbles and (non-alcoholic) drinks but there is no variety from visit to visit and the décor is "Virgin" red which is not as restful as you might expect a lounge to be.

Soon our train was indicated and we made our way to the platform, this time our reserved seats were fine and we settled in the for the trip home. This time we were served sandwiches, crisps and cake with beer and wine as well as hot drinks. The train made a very neat connection with East Midlands Trains' extra little service to Stamford, noisier and less spacious than the usual Cross Country Turbostar, but if we were to be late and miss it, the next Cross Country one is only about twenty minutes later, very handy. But we were not late and did catch it and then took another taxi home from Stamford station. A great family day, and a great train ride, too, partly on a route new to us.

Tuesday 30 October 2018

Forthcoming Holidays and Trips

Next year's programme of train trips in the UK and Europe takes shape

Already booked for next year are one holiday in Switzerland with Great Rail Journeys and one short break with Statesman Rail, with a handful of other short breaks under consideration and a plan coming together for a west country holiday, together with our usual few days in Sussex in the summer. How can I manage all this time off, you might ask; today I announced that at the end of January next year I shall be retiring and so for now, at least, we shall travel a bit. I need, I think, to make "the list" a real physical item and not just something vaguely washing about in my head.

In addition am currently planning another little outing for local people this December. Details of these group outings can be found by choosing the "Come with me" tab to the top right of this pane, and the plan this time is to travel to Birmingham for Christmas shopping, during the time of the Birmingham German Market, the largest in the UK. If you live in or near Stamford and are interested in coming on any of these little outings, do have a look at the "Come with me" page and sign up to the mailing list so that I can keep you informed about plans. I intend to do at least another two of these in 2019, possibly more.

Meanwhile trips to London are proliferating now that two more grandchildren have been born there. So we are kept on the move!

Wednesday 17 October 2018

A Lesson in Cocktail Making

Essential train travel!

Last Christmas I was given a couple of vouchers for a public cocktail-making class at TT Liquor in London. Although we visited London a fair number of times this year it took until October to fit in the visit to TT Liquor, which is on Dalston Road in Shoreditch, not a part of town we often visit (in fact, I think I've been just once before). This is, of course, just the sort of thing for public transport, for driving after making and tasting four cocktails (and drinking the one with which we were welcomed to the session) is not recommended! The public sessions are held on Friday evenings and Saturday afternoons so I checked availability online and telephoned to book us into one on a date we could make and then set about buying train tickets. We allowed plenty of time before (to ensure we did not miss it) and afterwards (to ensure that we were fit and well). We caught to 08:00 from Stamford, travelling Standard Class on this section of the route, and then changed trains at Peterborough to travel First Class to London, and wait of just a few minutes. We had a very smooth and easy ride to Kings Cross with the light Saturday breakfast served as soon as we left Peterborough.

On arrival in London we caught a bus to Bethnal Green, for we had decided to spend the morning at the Museum of Childhood there, an outstation of the Victoria & Albert, which had recently been refurbished. The bus ride was interesting in itself and involved a change of buses at Ludgate Hill. We saw all that we wanted (all that there is, really!) at the museum and also had a very decent lunch there before taking another bus to Shoreditch for the main event, the Public Masterclass at TT Liquor. The Oyster Card makes this sort of thing so simple, and with our Senior Railcards we get a discount on London transport, too. There was a bit of a walk up Shoreditch High Street before we spotted the venue just after the street becomes Dalston Road.

Using the Mexican Elbow to squeeze fruit
There was a bit of a delay getting started because a delivery had not arrived and staff had to got out and buy the fruit that was needed not only for the public class we were attending but for another event going on at the same time. Eventually we were called through and made ourselves at home in our classroom. There were seven others taking part and two training bars set up facing the teacher's bar at the front, all stocked with the ingredients and equipment we were going to need, some shared with others and some were there was one each. Each bar had a sink for washing, one for waste, one filled with ice cubes and one with crushed ice. We introduced ourselves to each other over the welcome cocktail and heard a bit about what goes on at TT, and then we were into the first lesson which was my favourite cocktail of the whole day, a lychee martini. I'll be able to make them myself because we have been sent by email the recipes for all four of the cocktails we made, although I am not sure I'll be making the zombie which we did last!

There was no hanging about once we got going, quickly preparing the next drink while enjoying drinking the one we had just made, although we did not lose time because of the late start: the class was allowed to overrun so that were were not short of time.

The most helpful thing about the class was not so much the actual recipes but the techniques. I learnt how to shake properly (using a two-part shaker; I have only used the three-part one at home) and the way to prepare mint leaves properly. I may need to look again at ice-making and buy some more equipment ... And having enough fruit juices at is important: if a cocktail is to be refreshing and thirst-quenching it need not be all alcohol!

Tea on the train - not bad for a weekend offering,
smoked salmon and cucumber sandwiches
We walked back to Kings Cross. Booked on the 18:18 Leeds train back to Peterborough we had plenty of time. We were open to getting a bus or the Underground but did not need to do so, since there was plenty of time, even to stop for a cup of tea on the way. It was unbelievably sunny and warm for October, about 24 degrees Celsius. As usual we waited in the First Class lounge at the station, and our train was a little late. There had been some sort of hold-up and it came in late from its previous turn. We were not worried by this as we had a long wait for our connection at Peterborough and were in little danger of missing it. Indeed, having had tea and sandwiches on the train, we had time at Peterborough to have another hot drink at the Great Northern Hotel, provided free-of-charge for First Class ticket-holders by LNER. And so the train back to Stamford and a taxi home - after all the walking we had done that seemed like a great way to end the day, and although it was dark by now, it was very warm still and the night was still young.

Thursday 4 October 2018

Back to the Valley of the Watchmakers

By train into Switzerland

Into Switzerland!

It began with a message from a VERY distant relative that there was an exhibition in Le Locle, in Switzerland that we might be interested in seeing, Le Locle Past and Present. It was at a historic site and museum that we wanted to see eventually anyway, and this temporary exhibition was the catalyst for making the visit this year.

Six years ago we had visited Switzerland for the first time to see places associated with my wife's ancestors in the watchmaking region of the Neuchatel Canton and we were intending to go again when more research had been done, so we planned just a short trip to see the exhibition, and a couple of tourist things that we had not had time to do when we visited in 2012. We would go again in due course, when more family history research had been done, and visit the village of Valangin as well, near Neuchatel, where there were also family connections.

Last time we went I had planned my own itinerary and booked the accommodation and many of the rail tickets myself, engaging an agent to book the travel on the continent because it was difficult to do that oneself. After our more recent experience with Great Rail Journeys Independent I telephoned them an asked them to arrange the trip for me this time, specifying that we were to stay at Maison DuBois in Le Locle, the bed and breakfast house that was my wife's ancient family home, and specifying that we were to arrive there on the branch line from Besançon as we had the previous time. We would stay in London the night before departure rather than Paris as we had before. All was fixed up and then we had to wait, but because we had to travel soon in order to get to the exhibition in Le Locle it was not too long a wait, and we had our summer holiday on the south coast of England to keep us occupied - but it did mean that I had to pay Great Rail Journeys straight away for the whole project.

On a Monday evening we were driven to Peterborough station by our family, the first time we have started one of our adventures by car: it was great to say farewell, and it did mean that we were not observed leaving together with our luggage, better for security. We caught the next LNER train to London Kings Cross, travelling First Class as we had booked throughout this trip when available. Booking through Great Rail Journeys Independent meant that the open tickets cost about the same as Advance First would have cost us booking ourselves, as they are part of an international package holiday even though we were the only participants. We had to carry our itinerary with us in case we needed to prove it was a package. It was a smooth, easy journey to London and although this was a long-distance train in the last stretch of its journey we were well-served by our hostess who managed to find a pasta salad and a glass of wine for us. In London we were staying at a Premier Inn in Euston Road, almost opposite St Pancras station and very handy. I had never stayed in one of this chain before and was very pleased with it: nothing special but all very competent, with comfortable bed, enough space and an excellent buffet breakfast before making our way to the Eurostar terminal the next morning.

Unlike some trips we have taken, Great Rail Journeys had given us a very easy itinerary with plenty of time between trains and no early starts, so we were able to pack after breakfast without rushing and  walk to St Pancras. This time we entered through the Underground station so as to be on the correct level for the Eurostar check-in, and when we got there check-in for our train to Paris had just begun so we joined the queue, which kept moving, and scanned our tickets to get through to the security and passport checks. This is all a bit of a nuisance but it is as well to be safe, and it's much less fuss than flying. We waited for our train and then made our way to the platform when it was announced. This time we had a refurbished original Eurostar train (E300, I think they call them), very comfortable in Standard Premier class, and our second breakfast of the day was served as we sped through Kent. For once I declined the second bread roll.

No matter what your view of the London Underground, if you're looking for grot London has nothing to beat Paris. Once we found a ticket machine that worked we struggled to understand how to buy tickets even though we could and did choose the English language option on the machine: in London you could just go through the barriers with any contactless credit or debit card and pay for your ride without a ticket at all. When we got to the RER line D platform for our train to Gare de Lyon there was a train already at the platform so at least we did not have to wait on the dark, smelly platform, but it was a bit tight on the train with our luggage: you would think that a service linking two main rail termini would have space for suitcases, but not in Paris. It was a short ride, though, and we were soon in the light, airy surroundings of Gare de Lyon, in a part of the station we'd never noticed before, because we never come out of the RER the same way twice. We had plenty of time and went for a stroll down to the river before returning to the station for our next train, enjoying a glass of wine at a bar on the concourse right opposite our platform, as it happened.

Our train from Gare de Lyon was a TGV through to Besançon Viotte where we had a couple of hours to await our connection for Le Locle. In First Class the TGVs are very comfortable and the journey soon passed. There is no included catering on French railways but there is an at-seat paid-for service in First Class.

Besançon is down there somewhere!
At Besançon we walked from the station into the town centre just to see the place: it was farther than we thought it might be, and was all downhill towards the river, but we did have time a for little exploration. We do try to make these trips into tours by leaving plenty of time between trains at changes, and this also helps to "soak up" any delays that might occur on route - not that there were any delays this day. To avoid having to climb back up to the station we caught a tram from the town centre at Besançon to the station - so easy to use here although I did have to buy the tickets in two separate transactions: the machine does not seem to be set up for people travelling together!

And so on to Switzerland! At Besançon Viotte station we had the picnic tea we had bought in the town and then went on to the platform to await the train, and then we realised it was already there, waiting in the distance in a bay platform at the end, so we made our way there and boarded. No First Class on either coach, but standard was very comfortable with a good view through the large windows, and the train was not crowded. We left in bright sunshine but darkness fell before we reached the Swiss border. I emailed ahead to the B&B to say that we would be arriving about 21:30 and received a message back that our hostess would not be present then but she would leave the key in our room, and entry to the house is by a combination which she included in the message - all in French, of course! Arriving at Le Locle station, we took the route we knew from our previous visit and were tapping the combination into the keypad on the front door within five minutes. And so to shower and bed, having had a terrific day of travel and exploration and with some exciting activities on the agenda for the morning.

In the morning the sun greeted us when I opened the curtains, and our hostess Céline was waiting to serve our breakfast when we went down: hugs and kisses (three each: this is Switzerland, not France) like old friends and coffee, bread, fruit and yogurt for breakfast. We had checked bus timetables in advance and knew we needed to leave swiftly to get a bus to our first visit, the underground mills at Le Col-des-Roches just this side of the French border: miss it and it was a couple of hours before the next. We got to the bus stop to find that it was temporarily closed by roadworks - and the instructions where to get the bus were in French and required local knowledge: I had just about translated it when a road sweeper kindly pointed the way, just as the bus went past, and said, "À droite; à gauche," and we moved swiftly to arrive at the stop just as the end of the queue was boarding. We were on our way.

We did not have to pay a fare for this five-minute ride. Indeed, we hardly had to pay for anything at all in Switzerland: Neuchatel Canton tourist board operates a scheme whereby anyone staying at least one night in a hotel or B&B in the canton receives a Neuchatel Tourist Card - Céline gave us ours at breakfast - giving free train, bus and funicular travel for the duration of the stay, plus one free entry into most tourist attractions in the canton, including the place to which we were heading that morning.

The Moulins Souterrains at Le Col-des-Roche is one of the most amazing sites I have ever visited and as we chatted with the lady at the reception desk it transpired that it was founded by a member of my wife's family tree, which added a certain extra interest to what we were about to see. The reason for building the factory underground is that at this point the valley suddenly ends and the water cascades under the rocks through a series of caves. This provided a great opportunity for water wheels in the day when water power was essential to industry; there was still plenty of space left in the caves for the millstones and workshops of a factory making multiple products - there was a sawmill as well as flour mills and and edge mill. The whole complex closed when electricity put it out of business and was used as an abattoir in the twentieth century, processing meat crossing the Franco-Swiss border nearby. It took volunteers months to remove foul sludge from the caves in order to create the museum installation that is there now, with some machinery replaced in order to get a flavour of what was done there and other spaces left as they were. Audio guides are available in several languages to explain what is there. I'd thoroughly recommend a visit, but if you go you need decent footwear and reasonably warm clothing, and if you are mobility-impaired there will be very little that you can access - it is in the nature of a cave.

Where the narrow-gauge ends and the
standard gauge begins at Le Locle -
train for Neuchatel in the background
This was where the Le Locle Past and Present exhibition was staged,and we visited that and bought a book of its pictures at the museum shop before we caught a bus back into Le Locle ready for our next outing, to Les Brenets, a lakeside village on the French border. We had consulted the timetables and knew that our bus would give us ample time to get to the rail station but without too long a wait for the narrow-gauge train up through the hills (and I mean "through" - there are tunnels, as ever in Switzerland!) to Les Brenets.

We took the new cliff lift up to the station from Sidmouth Place in the town centre (Le Locle, rather incongruously in my opinion, is twinned with Sidmouth in England) and crossed the tracks via the subway to the far platform. Le Locle station is unique among all the stations I have ever visited: it has one long platform at which the main line trains from Neuchatel terminate and then commence their journeys back to Neuchatel via La Chaux de Fonds, and the far platform is split into two halves, one for the French train that three times a day travels between Besançon and La Chaux de Fonds, and the other half for the metre-gauge branch line to Les Brenets. One platform face, two track gauges. The people awaiting the service to Les Brenets were interesting, quite different from those who might use such a service, where it still exists, in England. There were a few other tourists, a handful of young people of student age, a couple of shoppers and a good few business people in suits and ties, as many of them speaking German as French. Curiously, too, when we got to Les Brenets many of the signs were written in German first with French beneath whereas in Le Locle most signs are in French only.

I had pictured Les Brenets as a small place but it actually turned out to be fairly large in the sense that it took up a lot of space, and the walk to the lake was quite long - and downhill! The walk back was a daunting prospect but fortunately this has been considered by the authorities and there is a taxi bus available at the quayside which would take us back to the station when had finished on the lake - although the fare for that was not included in our Tourist Card. We went to the lake cruise booking office and exchanged our vouchers for boarding cards then bought lunch from the quayside café while we waited for the boat. The other shore of the lake was in France: this lake is a EU border, and both French and Swiss tourist boats ply the lake.

Where the waterfall wasn't. The viewing platform on the
French side had no better view!
The water level in the lake was very low and we had to walk out over a muddy shore - on timber decking provided for the purpose - to reach our trip boat. Quite a few people came ashore but only three of us boarded, so we had a quiet trip! The lake is long and quite narrow with sides wooded in many places and the cruise was reminiscent of the trips on the River Dart in England, but with France to port and Switzerland to starboard. The trip took us to the top of the lake, the farthest point possible. A rock-strewn dried-up river bed went on further and we walked alongside this towards the reputed waterfall from which the water supposedly cascaded down to a lower river. But we never saw any more water. There was a bridge across the rocky river bed, and on the Swiss side a notice about customs and passports (but no officers), and eventually we found the sheer drop where the fall might have been - no water. The lake, the river and the falls are fed from mountain meltwater and by this time in the summer it has all drained away: early spring is probably the best time to visit, when the snow is melting and lake filled.

Back at the pier we found many more passengers waiting to return, many looking like a German (or German-speaking) tour party and we had a commentary in French and German on our return trip. We made our way straight to the ticket office at Les Brenet quay and paid for the taxibus, the driver helped us aboard and we were straight off to the rail station; when I say "straight" we actually followed the usual Swiss winding road, crossing several times the fairly straight path by which we had walked down. The trip only took a few moments and it happened that the little train was already standing at the platform so were straight on board and soon on our way back through the hills to Le Locle. We did not need a lot to eat that evening but went to the crêperie next door to our boarding house for a light supper and went to bed. With the early start and the fortunate connections, we had already do one in one day all that we came to  Le Locle to do, so we had to plan what we would do on our free day in the morning, and that was to bring more excitement on the ancestor front, and more value from our Neuchatel Tourist Card!

One thing we had not expected to fit into this trip but were planning to do in a couple of years' time was to visit the village of Valangin where we knew there was a castle which was associated with the family (don't ask me exactly how: I only married into this family!) and a church which had windows with images of the arms of the DuBois family, and we decided attempt a visit on our unexpected free day. By using a fantastic Swiss public transport app we were easily able to plan the journey - a bus from LeLocle to a suburban bus stop in Neuchatel from where another bus would take us to Valangin, a small place where the bus dropped us right in the centre.

The castle towered over us but was not due to open until the afternoon, so we went first to the church and were delighted to find it open. We went in and photographed all the windows and the interior of this amazing little church, including the window we had come to see, with the DuBois family crest. From there runs the original village street, direct to the castle gateway, and as we walked along this we came across an inn where we were able to stop for lunch while we awaited castle opening time - again, it all fitted in brilliantly. For me, the views from the castle were well worth the climb to it I had never really seen a castle anywhere but England before. From here this part of Switzerland was once governed, and this little village was therefore as important as Neuchatel is now.

The lake steamer Neuchatel
Mural at Neuchatel station

We caught a bus back to Neuchatel and walked to the lakeside with a view to taking a short cruise. We found where the ship was due to leave and again exchanged our vouchers for boarding passes and were delighted to find that the ship was a paddle steamer. We did try to sit on deck but a light rain began and we moved inside where we found a buffet bar for a snack and a glass of wine: amazing what you can afford when the cruise is free - I 'm beginning to understand how the canton decided it could afford to give away these passes!

We decided to catch a train back to Le Locle and stumbled across an entrance to an underground funicular railway that took us straight up to the concourse of the station and bought coffee while awaiting the train. We would be returning this way in the morning, but for now we bought salad for supper in our room and had a stroll round Le Locle for our last evening.

Céline's own holiday started that night, so she had prepared breakfast for us in advance which we had before packing and making our way to the station for the train down to Neuchatel where we were to change trains for Paris. Except it was not quite that simple! What was shown as a TGV to Paris in the timetable had a mysterious note about Frasne on the ticket, and the online public transport information which had been so useful throughout our stay also had a codicil about passengers from Neuchatel to Paris change at Frasne. At the station we enquired about where to get our train to Paris and we were told the platform number and departure time (it was the time we were expecting) and to change at Frasne for the TGV to Paris - the actual TGV apparently comes from Geneva. So we had an interesting regional express from Neuchatel to Frasne and then boarded the expected TGV, which did not actually travel at Grande Vitesse until it joined the high-speed line about half-way to Paris. We had never been to Frasne before and it was not an ideal place to change trains: it was OK for us but there was absolutely no cover on the platform, so on a wet day it would have been decidedly unpleasant. Still, it was warm and sunny and our train was soon there and wicked us off to Paris. We bought lunch from the at-seat service in First Class, including a rather splendid craft ale rather in the English style, quelle surprise!

Impromptu wine-tasting
on Eurostar
In Paris, the usual RER journey to Gard du Nord (we got the ticket-purchasing lark sorted out this time!) and then Eurostar check-in. Once aboard we enjoyed our ride home, assisted by rather more wine than might have been wise - so much so that we brought one of the small bottles home: that all started because I asked for a second wine but they did not have the sort I asked for, so the hostess gave us both two others to try ...

We had a little while to wait at Kings Cross for the train we wanted back to Peterborough for Stamford. Although our tickets were valid on any train it is better to wait in the First Class Lounge at Kings Cross than on the platform at Peterborough, so we aim for a train that makes a neat but not tight connection. And so home. We were intending to take a taxi home from the station but met a friend there who was meeting another friend off the train and she kindly drove us home. Stamford is that sort of town.

A short trip but we packed a very great deal into it and apart from the cost of the accommodation and fares there and back (plus mementos of places with family connections) we spent very little indeed.

Tuesday 4 September 2018

Sent to Coventry

Why drive when you can get the train?

A member of my household recently had to travel to Coventry for a weekend to sing at the cathedral. For various reasons she had missed the opportunity to participate in the car-sharing arrangements that other members of the choir had made, and had also not booked a hotel place. The hotel was simple: most of the others were staying at the Premier Inn and there were still rooms available there so one was booked online and the reservation printed. We had never used a Premier Inn before and this would be useful experience: they are inexpensive and widespread, so would be useful in future adventures if this proved a good place to stay.

Speeding off to the West Midlands
We started discussing the best way to drive there, where to park etc and then it occurred to us, "Can it be done by train?" Coventry is actually pretty easy from our home in Stamford: one simple change at Nuneaton is all that's required, giving a near-enough hourly service most of the time. I happened to know (from Twitter!), however, that there were major weekend engineering closures affecting Coventry at that time, but when I looked at the rail ticket booking websites and discussed the matter with the West Midlands Trains Twitter team I discovered that for our purposes things were fine: critically the line between Nuneaton and Coventry was operating normally for arrival on the Saturday morning and nearly-enough normally for departure on the Sunday: there might have been the need for a bus replacement and a change at Rugby if departure from the Cathedral were delayed a bit, but the journey would definitely work.

Again, a journey where the car is not needed and yet it is all to easy to think of driving as the default. Even though it is too short a trip for Advance ticket savings, it is not an expensive route anyway and with a Senior Railcard the fare was actually cheap. On the way there the connection at Nuneaton was just a few minutes, comfortably long enough to find the way to the right platform and board the train; coming back was not quite so neat but Nuneaton has decent waiting facilities and as always, the trick is to take something to do - which is the big thing about rail travel: you can actually do things!

And the hotel was fine! Premier Inns are excellent for budget hotels with all that you need (well, most) but without the things you never use on a short stay. We'll certainly consider them in future, and indeed have already just stayed in another ...

Wednesday 29 August 2018

Southern Summer Sunshine; Solent and Sussex

A rail tour of the south coast of England

As usual this summer we planned to spend a day at the seaside with our friends who habitually stay at East Wittering. We have normally stayed about a week and visited other places in the south of England, including a few days at Chichester which is our base for the day trip to East Wittering. Last year we preceded Chichester with two nights on the Isle of Wight and this year we decided to make that three nights, with one day given to visiting Carisbrooke Castle and one to visiting Osborne House, both English Heritage royal palaces. We used Tesco Clubcard vouchers to pay for a year's membership of English Heritage which gave us free access to these places, and we began to plan an itinerary and book hotels and travel.

Preparatory research for the holiday involved finding the opening days of the two Isle of Wight places we wanted to visit (easy from the English Heritage website), determining when our friends would be at East Wittering and then booking the accommodation. A couple of years before we had returned via a day in Brighton and I decided to book a night there as well this time and see a bit more of this "seaside city," as it calls itself. I booked the same hotel in Shanklin as last year as it was so welcoming and comfortable, the usual  B&B in the cathedral precincts in Chichester and a seafront hotel in Brighton then waited for the Advance First Class train tickets to become available.

It was not a promising spring in 2018: daily rain, often heavy and prolonged, following a cold and snowy winter, but when summer came we had many long, hot, sunny days and a holiday at the coast was just what we needed. Packing was like packing for the Mediterranean this year: no waterproofs, no jumpers, no long sleeves, lots of shirts and underwear to allow for frequent changes, not many socks because I'd be in sandals most of the time.

It was on a hot, sunny Friday morning that we walked down to Stamford station with our roll-along suitcases to catch the 11:00 train to Peterborough, grateful for the air-conditioning on the train. At Peterborough we changed into a LNER train for London Kings Cross which was on time leaving but slowed down at Hitchin and never really caught up again, being almost ten minutes late into Kings Cross. I had allowed just an hour to cross to Waterloo for our train to Portsmouth Harbour, and while the fifty minutes we had were sufficient we could not afford to relax too much: it was not necessary to run, but we did have to keep moving. I have learnt the lesson here: in future we shall allow 90 minutes, not 60, and we'll look into ways of making the crossing which involve less inter-platform walking at Underground stations! The next mistake was to use the First Class section in the front half of the train to Portsmouth: yes, it is nearer the exit to the Isle of Wight catamaran at the other end of the line, but it is further from the refreshment trolley's starting point and by the time the caterer had reached us he had sold out of sandwiches, so lunch was nibbles (and some fruit we had brought with us) and Pinot Noir - could have been worse. This was not such a comfortable train as the one we had used last year, although it was more than OK, and the toilets were not in a good state, which was not OK: one near us flooded and the other without water. Doubtless there were others in the train somewhere but we did not seek them out for that could have been a long walk to find nothing better.

At Portsmouth Harbour we had a slight wait for the catamaran which was a little late - so many passengers, I think, that it was taking so long to unload and load and gradually becoming later as the day wore on.  We met a German couple in the queue and were fascinated to learn that they were not on a tour of England but were simply coming for a week's holiday on the Isle of Wight: it is a resort to which people from continental Europe come for holidays just as we do.

It was a quick crossing, but the connection with the Island Line train to Shanklin was tight and they do not like to run late. Again, we did not have to run and we had adequate time provided that we simply kept moving. The guard was blowing his whistle to hasten straggling passengers just as we were taking our seats. Last year when we had done this trip the weather was damp and murky and rain was just beginning; this year it was hot and sunny - and here on the Island the temperature was fresher than on the mainland, "only" 24 degrees, and there was a slight breeze. The 1938 tube train which now serves the Island Line rattled its way to Shanklin and then we walked down to the Channel View Hotel and checked in. This year I had specified a sea view room and we were not disappointed. We had a splendid room with windows on two sides, both with a sea view.

We strolled into the town centre the first evening and then through to the Old Village to dine at Keats Cottage - which we enjoyed so much we returned on the second evening as well! Returning via a circuitous route to the beach and back along the seafront we had an early night and good night's sleep after all our travels, and then the great hotel breakfast, served at reserved tables, so no hunting for a space and queuing at the buffet.

Our first full day, Saturday, was allocated to the visit to Carisbrooke Castle, and we began with a walk to the bus station. Boarding the bus to Newport we bought 48-hour rover tickets which would cover all our travel on the island for our whole stay without having to think about the cost - searching for change is not an issue these days anyway as most buses, including those on the Isle of Wight, now take contactless payment. To get to the castle from Newport bus station there is a variety of bus routes, and it so happened that there was a bus to Carisbrooke almost ready to leave as we got off ours from Shanklin, so we boarded that and were on our way: from the stop at Carisbrooke there was a short walk up the hill to the castle. There is much history to explore at Carisbrooke Castle, going back to the Norman conquest, including the famous donkey treadmill-worked well (which was not working because of the very hot weather), but we were most interested in the era when it was the home of Princess Beatrice who founded there a museum of the Isle of Wight, apparently the only museum founded by a member of the Royal family (although her father Prince Albert must have had quite an influence on the South Kensington museums).

Our visit to the castle included a light lunch at the cafeteria and then we made our way by a different route down the hill into the centre of Carisbrooke village where we caught the next bus back to Newport and a connection to Shanklin; this time we took the bus that goes the longer way round via Ventnor in order to see the place in which we had spent our last morning on the island last summer.

On the Sunday we visited Osborne House and decided to take a train as far as Ryde rather than the bus, just to make the trip a bit quicker. We bought day return tickets to Ryde Esplanade station (which is beside the bus station in Ryde): for a few extra pence this gave us the option of returning by train if we wished, but in the event we went back by bus to see a road we had not before travelled. From Ryde to Osborne the bus frequency is only hourly so the day's trip needed more planning than the previous day's when there were frequent buses between Newport and Carisbooke. We had been to Osborne before but it certainly repaid a return visit, especially since the Swiss Cottage display has been refreshed. We did not see everything all over again but quickly revisited the house and garden, and then after a good lunch at the Terrace Restaurant used the courtesy minibus service to the Swiss Cottage, walking down from there to the beach. We spent some time sitting on the beach in the sunshine, watching the boats, and had a cup of tea there from the tea-room. We had to wait a little while for the courtesy bus back up to the house and towards the exit before taking the service bus back to Ryde and then home to Shanklin. Having had lunch out we did not need a restaurant that evening but bought a takeaway salad from the Co-op and "dined" in our room at the hotel.

The Channel View Hotel has a small swimming pool on the ground floor and we made use of that on one evening, very welcome in the hot weather.

Fisherman's Cottage, Shanklin Beach
Monday was our day for moving on and after breakfast and checking out we left our baggage at the hotel and went for a stroll into Shanklin town centre via the seafront, including coffee at the Fisherman's Cottage (a bar-restaurant on the beach) and the cliff lift (recently refurbished and very smart) and then returned and asked for a taxi to the station; the taxi was there by the time we picked up our cases and had us at the station in time to catch an earlier train than we had planned! The booking office was closed and we had to buy our tickets on the train, two singles to Chichester.

Our earlier train got us to an earlier catamaran sailing (with less of a wait for its departure) and then we were fortunate enough to catch a fast train to Chichester just before it left Portsmouth Harbour! I had anticipated waiting at Shanklin, at Ryde and at Portsmouth and so we arrived in  Chichester an our or more before I had expected, having had an easy journey. We checked in once more at 4 Canon Lane where we have stayed a couple of times before, in the Cathedral grounds. My wife wandered off around the shops and I stayed in the room, writing this blog post and filing my photographs of the Isle of Wight part of the holiday. We went to dinner at Côte Brasserie, which we have done on our first evening in Chichester every year since we first came (I think this was our sixth year) so it probably counts as a tradition now.

The agenda for the second day was to meet our friends for the theatre in the evening, preceded by a pre-theatre supper at The Bell Inn, right opposite the Chichester Festival Theatre and set up for getting meals served in time for clients to get to the theatre. We saw an hilarious production of Me and My Girl and retired for the night. Did I mention that there was rain that afternoon and evening? Forecast on and off and not really spoiling things - we did not use a taxi to get to the theatre this year as we had last, the rain being showery and allowing us to walk, taking shelter from time to time.

Summer returned the following morning, and we were off on the bus to spend the day at the coast with our friends at their rented holiday cottage at Bracklesham Bay. Bus services are very good at filling in the bits that the trains don't quite reach and although we are open to using taxis and self-drive hire we seldom resort to taxis and have never had to hire a car yet. There was a fair bit of cloud and a little wind and out on the beach I managed to pick up more of a tan than any other day of the summer (which is quite something in 2018), and indeed slight burn here and there - which was a surprise. And so back to our last night in our super room at 4 Canon Lane, a room we'd had the first time we stayed there, spacious and very pleasant.

On the final morning in Chichester we had a cooked course at breakfast - usually we have the lighter buffet option here but we were intending not to stop for lunch this day. After packing and checking out we trailed our cases off into town and had coffee at Boston Tea Party's new branch in the city: one of our friends is a waitress there, and we had enjoyed the branch in Bath so we knew we would like it. We like the ethos and attitude of the company as well as the coffee! And so to the rail station to await and board a Coastway train to Brighton for the next stage in the holiday. Although the railway follows the coast reasonably closely you do not see a great deal of the sea from the trains except around Shoreham-by-Sea, and then it is mostly docks and warehouses. But soon we arrived in the splendour of Brighton's glorious terminal station. Brighton is built on such a hillside that the approach is deeply below ground, with a huge cutting towering over the trains, but the concourse of the station is above street level, for the ground falls away the equivalent of several storeys in the length of the station; furthermore it continues to fall away and presumably the station is a long way from the seafront because it would be impractical to extend the line any further with a station on top of an enormous viaduct!

We walked down to the seafront and turning right were soon at the Hilton Brighton Metropole where I had booked a sea view room for one night to round off the holiday. We checked in and went to our room which certainly lived up to the Hilton description: large, with bath and shower, and with a great view over the sea (and the ruin of the west pier), and a fantastically comfortable king-size bed. I began to think it was a shame we were only staying one night. We unpacked what we needed to and had a cup of tea and then wandered off around the city, exploring the famous Lanes, and booked supper at an Italian restaurant, Al Duomo, at which we had had a snack on our previous visit, to which we then returned after further exploration.

As we prepared for bed we looked out of the window and noticed a side of morris men making their way along the seafront on foot and by cycle: they stopped right opposite our window on the recently-improved paved public open space and performed some folk dances. Not normally my thing, although I have friends in that world, but it was a lovely end to the day.

The following morning we checked out and asked the concierge to look after our cases while we went to hunt down some breakfast, finally settling on Lucky Beach, a much better place than its name sounds! An ethically sound, healthy place with an ideal breakfast menu for those of us who are hungry but trying to keep down our fat intake: thoroughly recommended! While we were there the rain started and we moved under cover ... then we strolled along the front to the Volks Electric Railway which I had long wanted to try. We rode out eastwards on the next train - they are more like trams - which were operating a quarter-hourly service. We got off at the far end at Black Rock which is near Brighton Marina, which is much less good than its name sounds. And it was raining, and the wind was blowing very fiercely. We got very wet, then we discovered that owing to a faulty train (well, it is the world's oldest electric railway!) the service was now only half-hourly and so we decided to walk to the halfway station rather than wait here with nothing to see for another 20 minutes. Some of the walk was under trees so we got less wet, then out again to be water-cannoned by nature, but by the time we reached the station the rain had stopped (just as well: there was no shelter on the station!)  but the (warm) wind blew just as strongly and we travelled on the open platform at the end of one coach so that by the time we reached the city centre (Aquarium station, opposite the Sea Life Centre) we were as dry as if we had been tumble-dried!

We went back to our hotel to collect our cases, getting soaked again in the process as the rain came down once more, but again drying out by the time we reached the hotel. As it was uphill all the way to the station we asked for a taxi - we were told that the waiting time was half an hour but by good fortune a taxi happened to arrive bringing someone from the station which was available to take someone back, so we took that and were taken no more quickly but a good deal more easily up to the station. We had open tickets so did not need any particular train and were not intending to leave just yet, for under the arches at the front of the station (remember the rapidly-falling ground level) was a toy and model museum which I just had to visit. Well worth a look, and as with all these places we spent a lot of time, along with all other visitors, saying things like, "I had one of those," "Do you remember these," and "My Mum had that!" We'll have to go back, there was so much to see.

And so to the station and the train back. We had First Class day singles for the Gatwick Express, the fastest trains between Brighton and London, which are half-hourly; but ours was slightly delayed by a trespass incident. Then it was a bit more delayed and a bit more. Fine: we had bought salads from Marks and Spencer on the station and so ate them on the station rather than aboard the train. It finally came in over 25 minutes late and left at the time of the next departure (which arrived on another platform as we were boarding ours!). Indeed, although the driver had encouraged everyone to claim Delay Repay the ticket inspector reckoned the train was on time: as far as he was concerned it was the next train! We were in no hurry and on arrival at London Victoria swiftly met our son for a drink at the Grosvenor Hotel before going on to Kings Cross (by bus; we were in no hurry and the ride is great) to await our train to Peterborough and then home to Stamford. The weather had brightened up and it was lovely evening to travel.