Thursday 28 June 2018

My, How You've Changed!

Local craft ale. My drink at dinner in
Nottingham city centre
We had an invitation to a celebration of an old university friend's 40th anniversary of his licensing as a Reader (a lay preacher and assistant minister) in the Church of England recently. It was in Nottingham where he and my wife were good friends at that time, and neither of us had been back there since her graduation other than to the university itself, but that is not in the city centre.

The celebration, a church service followed by a buffet lunch, was on a Saturday, starting at 11:00 and we decided to make a two-day "adventure" of it by travelling there on the Friday and staying overnight, exploring a bit and possibly doing something on the Friday evening if we found the right sort of thing.

For just one night we did not need much luggage and I did not bother with a wheeled suitcase, simply putting everything into my small overnight bag (that's probably why it's called that!) including my MacBook so that I could catch up with some photographic filing on the way. Nottingham is not far from our home in Stamford and there was not much to be gained from either First Class travel or Advance Tickets, so we booked off-peak Standard Class returns via a change of train at Leicester each way and I booked a city centre Mercure hotel (for which I collect Club Accor loyalty points towards future free hotel stays). Again this was a cheap room because for one night we really did not need much space.

George's Great British Fish and Chips
So off we went about midday on the Friday, having done several mundane market-day jobs at home before we left. Our shopping included a takeaway salad lunch to eat during the journey - the change of trains at Leicester provided an ideal opportunity to eat, followed by coffee bought from the Pumpkin café next to the waiting room.

Arriving in Nottingham we recalled that not long ago there had been a major fire which marred the recently refurbished station. A good tidy-up job had been done and if we had not known about the fire we'd never have been able to tell from looking at the station. Nottingham station is interesting in having the city's main tram line passing right over it and providing an excellent interchange with the railway below, but although I had chosen a hotel on the tram route we were in no hurry and decided to walk to out hotel.

"Just an ice-cream" for pudding ...
Our walk took us through the Broad Marsh Shopping Centre, which from my memory was never very special but now frankly is a dump. To be fair it is undergoing substantial rebuilding, but that looks long overdue. Having go into the place, through a building site and along half-closed roads, we then struggled to find the way out that we needed: such a pity because once we did find the outside world we were in charming city-centre streets which were really very attractive. A further short walk brought us to the pleasant street corner where our hotel was located and we checked in.

Mercure had given us a room upgrade, which was very nice, but unfortunately our air-conditioning was not working. That was one of several things that went wrong, actually, and the handyman was not able to fix it but lent us a very effective fan which did a reasonable job. We were given a free drink at the bar by way of compensation and when we checked out the next day we were given a discount on the room rate as well, the best they could do, really, so I will still be able to leave a good Trip Advisor review!

Having unpacked we set off for a walk around the city and decided that the only activity we needed that night was a good dinner, so we went back and changed, enjoyed our free drink in the bar and set off to a restaurant we had picked out on our walk, George's Great British Kitchen, one of the few independent restaurants we had seen. Apparently it began life as a fish and chip restaurant and still trades on that history but has a much wider, British, menu now. We both had haddock and chips but with different craft beers, and the most amazing ice-cream that came complete with a huge candy-floss! The photographs illustrating this article are all of this meal. The whole city seems to have weathered the recession better than most towns, and the tram system and city centre in general all feel very much better than I remember from visiting decades ago. When my wife and our friends were students here it was all very different: like most places the streets were full of traffic but now are very quiet and pleasant spaces.

Off to bed, and a decent night's sleep in spite of the choice between "hot" and "noisy" (we chose mostly hot with a touch of noisy), and in the morning we walked off to All Saints' church for our friend's celebration. Again, the tram route goes that way but we chose to walk. We had checked out and so had our luggage, but it was not much luggage for a one-night stay in warm weather. We met other friends as we approached the church and had a good time, especially those who had been at university together but also those of us on the fringe who just happened to be married to one of them, and after lunch five of us travelled back together, catching the tram straight back to the station for the next southbound train. We sorted out how to buy tram tickets and had just bought our five when a tram turned up. The ride through to the railway station was very smooth and pleasant: trams are such a civilised way to move through a city. We then followed the signs to the railway platforms and found seats on the London train that was already there, well ahead of its departure time: time enough to buy a round of coffee at Pumpkin (enough to earn a free one on my loyalty card next time I travelled!). The other three were all going on to London to their homes in Surrey but we changed at Leicester again for the train home to Stamford. Not such a long wait this time and we were soon on our way. Two of our friends from Surrey had travelled to Nottingham that morning and must have spent more of the day travelling than anything else, but at least when travelling by train it is possible to relax and enjoy the trip, and they had company on the way back.

I did take my camera with me intending to take photographs of Nottingham trams, but somehow the opportunity never seemed to arise, so perhaps I shall return one day.

Sunday 17 June 2018

A surprisingly easy journey

I recently attended a meeting in Birmingham, and being me my first thought was to go by train, but when I looked at the address of the meeting venue on a map I thought it might be a bit difficult by train, a bit too far from New Street station. Should I drive instead? Another factor was timing: I'd have to go to Birmingham in the morning peak so the train fare would be expensive, and the hourly train service meant I would be rather earlier than I needed to be: perhaps I should drive. But then I thought of other factors: actually it was not all that far from the station, and I could use bus to get nearer; I found that there are Advance tickets which made the fare more affordable; if I take a computer and some papers to work it did not matter if there was some slack in the schedule because I would still get more done than I would if were driving the car for a couple of hours - and at least I would not be driving in peak traffic on the M6! So I booked the tickets: an Advance single out on the 07:05, because I knew when I had to be there, and a flexible Off Peak single back to allow some flexibility in finishing time.

For many people a journey always means driving a car, and if I lived in rural East Lindsey I would have needed to drive. My two colleagues who joined me at the meeting drove all the way (starting out at 6 o'clock!) and hearing that I had come by train commented that they had not thought of that ... One get there before me and one after me, driving times being much more difficult to predict over that sort of distance at peak times. I like to think, though, that I would have driven as far as a convenient railway station  and then parked and caught a train: the advantages of being able to work while travelling to me outweigh the advantages of flexible timing of the journey itself. Whether I am at my desk, in a waiting room or on a train does not affect whether I am working, whereas when driving a car I never am. And I am not contributing to congestion or air pollution, which is a nice feeling. Usually my expenses claims are rather lower, too, (assisted by the Senior Railcard) although the extent of that does depend on time of day.

I set off on my early train, then, and arrived at New Street on time. This early train, being suitably timed for some commuters between Leicester and Birmingham, stopped rather more than most of our services and was packed full after Nuneaton, but, of course, the crowding did not affect me as I had boarded before most others and in any case I had a reserved seat with my Advance ticket. With the spare time I had before my meeting I called at the Centenary Lounge for a croissant to supplement my earlier-than-usual breakfast then boarded a bus towards my meeting venue in Great Colmore Street: I could follow the trip on a map on my smartphone and alighted at the stop nearest the street: because I had joined the bus after the walk to Moor Street for my croissant I passed a couple of stops before mine, but had I gone straight there from the station it would have been just one stop, really not worth the bus. So when I went back at the end of the day I walked all the way, less than twenty minutes walking slower than I usually do because I walked along with someone else who was returning to Gloucester and needed a train at about the same time as mine. The meeting finished on time and as I had nothing I needed to do before returning I was soon on the train back and was glad I'd bought a flexible ticket so that I could leave immediately.

It is all too easy to think of reasons not to use public transport, but unless my destination is uncommonly badly served (like Lincoln before 10:00, but not like Birmingham at any time!) I seldom end up driving because when I put my mind to it, trains and buses are easier than we think and still work well much of the time. We are now so confident of this that we have reverted to being a one-car household and so far we have not yet had to hire a car in order to cope with our travel needs. Now that is saving a lot of money for travelling for fun, but that is another story!

Saturday 9 June 2018

Onward, Upward and Homeward

Approaching a lock. This one has hinged gates at the
downstream end
The River Danube is navigable for such a great distance because much effort has been expended over the ages on making it so. On our cruise we passed several tugs with lighters of various freight as well as many passengers ships (all of them, like ours, leisure cruising vessels). A major part of making the river navigable is the provision of locks, like a canal, which provides sufficient depth and allows sizeable vessels to climb up the river from the Black Sea. Unlike the familiar narrow canals on England, though, these locks are huge: each one will hold four ships like the Amadeus Brilliant, two side-by-side pairs of 110-metre ships, and the locks are in
The duty captain steers skilfully into the lock. No other ship
was using it at this time.
pairs so that ships can pass in both directions at the same time. So far, our transits through locks had taken place overnight when most of us were asleep, but we were spending a day aboard the ship today, travelling upstream, and would be able to see the working of these magnificent feats of engineering. I had been at the front of the ship late one evening and seen a lock in use, and I had woken in the night and looked out of the window to find a concrete wall slipping by our cabin about 40cm from my nose, but most passengers had not seen them and I had not seen them in broad daylight.

Looking astern, the gates close behind us and the lock is
filled with water.
With the lock full of water the upper gate is lowered into
the river bed and we sail on.
There was an early morning stop at Linz, Austria, for those going on the optional city walk of Linz and on to Aschach where the ship stopped again to pick them up. There was also an excursion by coach from Linz to Salzburg which took all day. The ship went on to Passau and there all the groups reconvened for the Captain's Gala Dinner evening while the ship carried on up the river to Regensburg. We did not take part in either of the excursions and so were on the ship all the way to Passau which we then explored on our own for about an hour. Passau's cathedral, St Stephens', apparently has the largest cathedral organ in the world and it started playing some short pieces just as we walked in - an amazing sound.

The port talk this evening had to be postponed and the Gala Dinner started a little late because the day excursion to Salzburg had been delayed in traffic. We had a chance to applaud the crew to thank them for all they had done to make this cruise such a great holiday.

During the afternoon there had been a short lecture about the building, design and use of the ship (and the river locks) and what each member of the crew did. I was amazed to find that the main propellors as well as the bow thruster can swivel though a complete circle, so either end of the ship can be steered in any direction: she can go astern as easily as ahead, and can even move sideways quite simply, handy when mooring alongside other ships.

The last complete day of the cruise section of the tour took us to Regensburg for the day. We explored the city on our own, seeing the places which had been pointed out to us including the cathedral (Dom St Peter), which was a gothic cathedral and I felt very much at home there after all the baroque churches we had seen so far on this trip. The stone bridge in the city centre is apparently the oldest bridge in Germany still in use, and it was having some serious restoration work done although still open with some temporary pieces here and there. After lunch we did some more exploration and visited the city's shops while an optional excursion went to Weltenburg Monastery. We bought gifts for the grandchildren and drank the local beer at a rooftop cafeteria at one of the department stores, with a fantastic view of the rooftops of the city.

Regensburg is said to be the best example of traditional Bavarian townscape in Germany: with that and the excellent modern facilities it is well worth a visit. It is also as far as the cruise ships are able go up the Danube, and indeed Amadeus Brilliant demonstrated her versatility by leaving astern, the river being too narrow to turn in the town. We travelled a few kilometres back down river before turning and heading back to Passau where our cruise would end the following morning.

Back aboard the ship before leaving Regensbourg we were entertained with a "Bavarian Evening," one of those entertainments where avoiding the front row is wise because a certain amount of embarrassing audience participation is expected ... then dinner while the ship moved off after the entertainers had left, and the ship's own music duo Katy and Dody played and sang for those who wanted to dance away their last night on board while most of us went to bed.

The following morning our packed cases were left outside our cabin and after breakfast we were taken by coach from the mooring at Passau to the railway station to begin the rail-born part of our homeward journey. we were soon aboard the first of three DB ICE trains which would get us to Brussels for the Eurostar to London. There is catering on board the ICEs but not included in the fare, so we had a light lunch, knowing that dinner was to come later. The first leg was to Frankfurt where a simple change of train took us onward to Cologne where we had dinner and spent the night at the Maritim Hotel. There was also some time for an exploration of Cologne before dinner, including a short stroll along the river front where Rhine cruise ships were moored, and after breakfast on the final morning we caught the third ICE for Brussels. We were right in the nose of the streamlined train, behind the driver, this time and could see forward as the train made its way towards Brussels and home.
One novelty on ICE trains currently is the distribution at intervals on the journey of little packets of jelly sweets shaped like ICE end cars. We consumed some ourselves and brought some home for the grandchildren. At Brussels we went through the now-familiar security and passport checks and waited for our train to London which again was one of the new E320 Eurostar trains, very comfortable and stylish, and a light meal was served as we were whisked back to the UK. This was our chance to thank our tour manager who had ensured we all made all our connections, and to exchange contact deals with the other "Pirates of the Danube" before we all went our separate ways at St Pancras, in our case taking the next fast train from Kings Cross that stopped at Peterborough and there connecting for our home in Stamford. Like us, Stamford had had a sunny week, but unlike us had suffered a very heavy shower indeed the previous evening and was still very wet as we walked home. Yesterday Passau, today Stamford, and not an airport in sight!

So we have added river cruising to our holiday experiences, and very enjoyable it was. Of course, not only do we wish to revisit some of the cities of which we had only a short glimpse this time, but we also now hanker after pushing further east along the Danube to the Black Sea ... maybe one day. But there is also a lot of Britain yet to visit, and much more, too. I think the mental "list" is going to have to take physical shape very soon now so that real plans can be made for all of this!