Sunday 29 April 2018

A Transport Heritage Holiday

Reflections of a wet city in
the shiny valance around
New Street Station. That's us
standing there!
Our best friends suggested a spring holiday in Birmingham. Yes, that Birmingham in the English West Midlands: not an obvious holiday destination, but (1) they and I have all lived there briefly a long time ago and (2) it is actually a much better place for a short break than most people think. A neighbour here who once lived in nearby Lichfield (now there is a place to visit!) says that Birmingham undersells itself: as our largest city after London it is fairly self-sufficient and self-confident and simply does not advertise how great it is. Birmingham is also booming, and things that were brand-new and forward-looking when I was there in the 1970s have now largely been demolished, replaced, put back as they were before or are simply tired old buildings that look like they really do not belong in this vibrant reinvented city.

The Comfort Inn: the hotel in theatre land!
So we found mutually convenient dates, I booked a couple of hotel rooms and we each bought our train tickets, arriving from different directions within ten minutes of each other at Birmingham New Street, probably the most centrally-located railway station  in the UK, or even the universe! Our chosen hotel was the Comfort Inn, one of a chain of budget hotels, chosen both for its low price and for its location. The location in Station Street was both its biggest advantage and a disadvantage at the same time! It is the handiest hotel for New Street station, being just along the street from the new south exit of the station, but in a back street by a station meant the detritus of city life swilled around it a bit (the smell of cannabis smoke hung around the street one night). However, this part of town is on the way up: it is what passes for theatre land in Birmingham - not one of the first parts to be improved - and the nation's oldest extant cinema, The Electric, is three doors from the hotel and has recently been refurbished and reopened, and the strip club the other side has closed. These were small matters, though: this was not a holiday spent hanging around the hotel, and it provided the sleeping space we needed in a place that could not have been more convenient or economical.

We did have an agenda for this break. We were to visit the Severn Valley Railway and to take a boat ride on the canals - these trips for our friends: I have done both before but am always ready to do these again. The schedule left some considerable gaps for which we could devise activities once we were there, Birmingham having plenty of museums, shops etc, etc. Or we may just need a rest, or to explore places we had once known.

Travel-wise for us it was easy: there are hourly through trains to New Street from our local station in Stamford and I booked Advance tickets to save a few pounds (not a lot on such a short trip), and with travelling out on Easter Monday I was able to get a First Class upgrade for a little extra. The return leg was with a straightforward Off-peak Single so the we could be flexible about our return time. Our friends travelling from Croydon had to allow plenty of time crossing London and enjoyed coffee at Euston while awaiting their Virgin Trains Pendolino to New Street. We arrived first and waited for them on the main concourse. Meeting people at the new New Street is slightly daunting owing to the sheer size of the place, but in the event it went well and we walked off together to check in to the hotel.

After finding our rooms and unpacking we made our way through the Bull Ring (a shopping area, not a venue for animal cruelty, for those who do not know Birmingham) to Moor Street Station. We were not going anywhere but having tea at the Centenary Lounge on the concourse of this beautifully restored terminus. The art deco surroundings, the swing music, the excellent tea and cakes all make this the best place for a cup of tea and piece of cake in this part of the city. We then strolled through the city centre to the canalside and in due course enjoyed a pint in a pub by Gas Street Basin before seeking a suitable restaurant at Brindley Place for our dinner together that evening. So far the weather, which had been predicted to be cool and wet, had been reasonably kind to us, at least it had not been wet.

We arranged a meeting time for the following morning at Moor Street, having made our own arrangements for breakfast (we all did different things, so we did not include breakfast in the hotel booking this time - it is not difficult to find something in Birmingham city centre!), and bought a group ticket to Kidderminster for our day on the Servern Valley Railway.

The ride out to Kidderminster is interesting in itself, under the centre of Birmingham to Snow Hill Station (which was closed when we were living in the city!), then through the Jewellery Quarter alongside the Midland Metro tramway before bearing left to head south through the Black Country and into Worcestershire. At Stourbridge Junction we passed one of Chiltern Railways' silver trains in the carriage sidings, and soon we were at the platform at Kidderminster and within a few more minutes buying our rover tickets for a day on the Severn Valley Railway at their terminal station next door. We began by taking the next train all the way to Bridgnorth, a rake of British Railways Mark 1 coaches and a GWR pannier tank locomotive. This was small engine for a big train and sitting near the front of the train we were treated to quite a bark from the exhaust whenever we faced an uphill section of line.

From the train there's an interesting view across the West Midland Safari Park not long after leaving Kidderminster. Always there is a family in the park waving at the train, then the train pauses at Bewdley, once the terminus of the restored line before the new station at Kidderminster could be built. A stroll along the train to the buffet car and there were pints of beer for us all as we continued the journey northwards: the kind steward helped me carry them back to our compartment two carriages away.

This is one of the longer and better-established preserved railway lines in Britain and has a variety of stations each with its own character, and the line's own website is worth visiting for information about them. At a couple of the stations we crossed with trains going the other way, all trains steam-hauled today and one of them consisted of Gresley-designed teak panelled coaches. A little effort with the timetable supplied with our tickets enabled to work out which service we should need to catch on the way back in order to travel on this set, complete with Gresley buffet car, the whole set with art deco features!

Soon we were traversing the hillside high above the river at Bridgnorth and gathered our belongings to leave the train. Although I had visited this railway three or four times before I had never explored Bridgnorth: the plan was to have lunch here but we did not need to leave the station to do that unless we wanted to! There were many options, basically either a short time here and stop at several stations on the way back, or a longer time and stop once or not at all on the way back. After discussion, and looking at the reasonable weather (and it never got more than reasonable all week!), we decided to take a stroll into the town centre and visit the cliff railway on the way. The walk took us just below the top of the ridge, looking down on "Low Town" Bridgnorth and the River Severn, with "High Town" to our left and thence came across the upper terminal of the Cliff Railway. By now it was lunchtime and we were disappointed that the lovely-looking tea shop at the railway terminal was full and we'd have to look elsewhere for lunch, but we soon found the retro Tea and Roses in the charming town centre, which was worth seeing in any case.

We made our way back and bought tickets for the ride down the cliff - only return tickets are available here so each of us now has a ticket to ride up this cliff should we ever find ourselves needing to do so! I wonder if I'll remember where to find mine when the time comes ... By Swiss standards this is a very short funicular railway, but it has charming old-fashioned coaches and is quite unusual (though not unique) in England. From the lower terminal we made our way back up cliff by way of the highway until we reached the footbridge across the valley back to the railway station where we had a short time to explore the gift shop before boarding the aforementioned LNER teak panelled train for the trip back towards Bewdley and Kidderminster. We decided not to break the journey at any intermediate stop but to make our way back to Birmingham for a bit of a rest before our evening meal. I had personally visited most of the line before, so I was happy to do whatever the rest of the party wanted.

Art deco detail of the Gresley teak panelled coaches of our train back to Kidderminster

There was a short wait for our train back to Birmingham and we decided to leave the train at Snow Hill and walk across the city centre to our hotel, just to see something of how it had changed since most of us had lived here back in the seventies and eighties. My friends had not visited much since although I had been occasionally over the years and even visited from time to time when changing trains at New Street. The presence of trams and absence of buses in Corporation Street comes as a great surprise to anyone who has been away from Birmingham for a few years, and in my view there has also been a decline in the standard of the shops in both Corporation Street and New Street, with the "high end" shops concentrated at the Mailbox and in the shopping complex of Grand Central and Bull Ring. It is not bad, but it is not a smart as it was.

The Grand Central terminus of the Midland Metro tram
service. Soon trams will go through here to Broad Street and
beyond, using battery power in places to avoid the need for
masts in sensitive areas
A different venue for our evening meal that night and then bed at the end of a fairly busy day of exploration. On our second full day we had a number of options, but continuing the transport heritage theme we had decided on a canal trip and we had photographed the boat departures list at the Brindley Place waterfront on our first evening stroll, so we knew when we needed to be there and planned a fairly leisurely start to the day.  I start rather less leisurely than most, so I went for a stroll before our agree time to meet: actually it was a bit more than a stroll because it included a tram ride to the Jewellery Quarter and back! It was all rather wet, although not cold.

I went back to the hotel to meet the others and off we went. The tour took us through some of the Birmingham Canal Navigation waterways with a commentary on the history of the canals and their significance in the city and region. The boat was comfortable and we took full advantage of the licensed bar. Not much had changed since my last trip on the canal, but a very great deal had changed since my first trip in 1972! It was hard to imagine back then what would become of this part of the city forty year later. But things come and go: in 1972 the smartest part of the canalside seemed to me to be the Longboat public house, crowded with young, upwardly mobile people in the lunch hour as I passed by on a tour of Birmingham in freshers' week - Aston Town Planning Department's intro to Birmingham for new students of town planning, as I was then. After our trip on the canals we visited the very same pub, now called The Flapper (though not as period as the thirties railway coaches we'd used the previous day!) and we were the only customers in a down-at-heel bar, a shadow of what I remembered. The rain didn't help, of course.

Before we went to The Flapper we visited the Library of Birmingham and made our way to the rooftop garden for views over the city, and especially the canals that we had seen and were about to see. After we left, we followed the canalside just a little farther and then made our way back across the city centre for our hotel.

On our final morning we went for a walk through the city and explored places we had known before and then in due course caught our respective trains home, the hotel having kindly looked after our luggage in the meantime. Over the three days a certain amount of shopping was also done, so there was more to take back than we had brought, although not a great deal more!

I ought to explain for those who've never been that it does not always rain in Birmingham, or indeed in England, but for several weeks this spring (but for one brief burst of cold and snow and another of blazing hot sunshine) we have had daily rain showers right across most of western Europe. It must end soon, surely.


Tuesday 3 April 2018

Do this. Julius Caesar.

We do not often get to the theatre. Even less do we get to top London theatres. But when we saw a review for the Bridge Theatre's production of Julius Caesar we thought we really must see it. Booking early was vital, as was a matinée performance to avoid the need to stay overnight afterwards, and a matinée also gave time for a little while visiting our family after their working day. Checking dates with them we booked the theatre tickets and then the train to London: cheap tickets were becoming sold out for the London-bound morning trip but we were in no hurry and with a brief break at Peterborough were able to travel First Class as usual; coming back we chose the last train to connect for Stamford, the 21:00 from Kings Cross.

On the way there we had our 50-minute wait at Peterborough at coffee-break time and tried out the arrangement that Virgin Trains East Coast has with the Great Northern Hotel, giving free hot drink and cake for First Class ticket-holders. We bounded across the roadway to the hotel coffee lounge but were sent back to get vouchers from the Virgin Trains desk at the station: fair enough, I can see that they need those to reclaim the cost from the train company, but a prominent note on the advertisement  telling me to collect a voucher would have been handy. Anyway, hot chocolate a cake were really great and thus fortified we returned to the platform and boarded the train to London.

It was as well that we'd had refreshments because on this day we lost the Virgin Trains "catering lottery" and found there was no coffee available, although we did get a cold drink and a snack. Arrival at Kings Cross was on time.

The foyer and café restaurant at the Bridge Theatre
The Bridge Theatre is new. Very new. I had to look on their website to find its location and saw that it was where there had been an empty site when I last was there, on the south bank between Tower Bridge and the Mayor of London's office. The production we were to see was only about the second or third to be shown (or was it the first?). We caught a Circle Line Underground train to Tower Hill and walked over Tower Bridge, an interesting experience in itself, and were there nicely in time for lunch at the theatre's amazing restaurant, on the ground floor with great views towards the river, the Tower of London and the City beyond. There were interesting things on the menu (we had cottage pie) and the theatre's "signature" madeleines. We then took a brief stroll along the riverbank and returned to hand in our coats at the cloakroom and take our seats for the play.

The auditorium is built in the round, although rather elongated, and the stage is very flexible with sections that rose and sank according to what was needed for the various acts and scenes, and this Shakespearian play was delivered in modern dress and with some of the leading political figures (notably Cassius) played by by women as female characters - which worked very well and made this a modern play about modern politics rather than a medieval play about ancient politics. Thoroughly recommended but this is a travel blog not a theatre blog! The theatre is also recommended: if you are used to the lack of space at West End theatres, this one comes as a pleasant change, with the spaciousness associated with provincial theatres. The restaurant is worth visiting even if you are not attending a play, and many people do just use it as a café or restaurant.

After watching Julius Caesar we made our way back to Tower Hill Underground station and travelled to Hammersmith to visit the family and then, after time with them, made our way home via Kings Cross and Peterborough as usual. As it was a weekday we took advantage of the later travel time home that has been available since the timetable change a couple of years ago when the last train departure from Peterborough to Stamford was put back by seven minutes to allow a quick connection out of a train half an hour later out of London. We left London on time but somehow lost a few minutes on the way to Peterborough and when we had arrived and made our way over to platform 7 we got there just in time to see the doors closing and last train home leaving the platform. We remonstrated with the train dispatcher that he might have held it for just one minute for the advertised connection and he replied with the absurd observation that he could not see us from where he was and didn't know we were coming. Is he there to serve the traveller or to run empty trains on time, one might ask! There turned out to have been five people who were stranded by his indifference to the customers' needs, and Virgin Trains East Coast paid for taxis to get all of us to our destinations: two to Stamford, one to Melton Mowbray and some further away. Can that really have been cheaper than paying a fine for a one-minute delay, a delay that could probably have been made up by Stamford anyway and incur no penalty at all? So we arrived home by taxi; we left Peterborough at about the time we should have been arriving in Stamford, but actually reached home only about ten minutes late because the taxi was going through to Melton with the other passenger and dropped us off near our home. It did not spoil the day but it is hard to get over the stupid decision to let go a train which had been timed specifically to connect with one that had just arrived and from which passengers were already well on their way. We are comforted by the thought that his colleagues may well have had a word with him since ...

Do see Julius Caesar if you get the chance, and do find a reason to visit the Bridge Theatre. Actually, just finding any reason to visit London is worthwhile!