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.

1 comment:

  1. Update: I have now had my Delay Repay compensation for the late train from Brighton to London, which is nice, and shows that we and the driver were correct and not the ticket-collector!