Tuesday, 5 November 2019

An easy way to lose a pound

Having returned from my trip described in the post below, I went through the Journey History on my TfL Oyster app and found an interesting phenomenon. The trip from Kings Cross St Pancras to Orpington cost me £3.70 but the trip from Orpington to St Pancras only cost me £2.70. It took me a while to twig why that was, but it is plainly because I used the Underground between Kings Cross and London Bridge on the way there and Thameslink (which is part of the national rail network) on the way back. The change of mode involving an extra touch-out, touch-in at London Bridge cost me £1, whereas by using a rail connection the charge was as for an unbroken journey because I had not passed through any barriers.

So .... always Thameslink in future (it's a more pleasant ride anyway).

An Unexpected Adventure!

LNER Azuma train in the evening mist at Peterborough
I was a guest at a little art exhibition in a suburban chip shop in Peterborough on Sunday afternoon (it is a long story: perhaps I shall tell it one day, but that day is not now), when I received a plaintive WhatsApp message from my daughter in Orpington: she and her little boy both had stomach upsets and she would struggle to look after him when her husband went to work on Monday - could I possibly come and help?

I went home and packed and my wife drove me to Peterborough station on her way to collect another grandchild who was already due to come and stay at our home. The drive to Peterborough went very well and I was expecting to catch a LNER Azuma and be well on my way in a short time. It was tight and I had a ticket to buy, but just enough time, until we joined the queue of cars for the drop-off area at the station! I had no choice, really, but to grab my luggage from the boot and walk to the station; no time to be driven the last few metres! To my great relief the travel centre was still open and I was able to ask for the ticket I needed from a real human being; I find LNER's machines long-winded to use and was afraid of missing the train. I bought a Standard Class off-peak single for Kings Cross with the intention of buying a Weekend First upgrade on board which ever train I caught. Mercifully the one I had intended to catch was just a couple of minutes late, so I did not have to run to catch it. I found a single seat at one end and settled down, on edge, hoping I had packed all that I needed and could do all that would be asked of me in Orpington. I was expecting to stay just the one night but could just manage a second day if necessary. Those who follow this blog may remember that there is no guest accommodation at my daughter's home, but the usual fix of staying at the Premier Inn would not really work for this visit as I needed to be on site, so I had an inflatable mattress among my luggage, a brilliant pice of kit in its own backpack and with its own pump for inflating and deflating it. So easy to carry but one more thing to keep track of.

Weekend evening snack
As the train left Peterborough the First Class hosts came round offering the food and drink: I had a bacon, lettuce and tomato roll, which I do not recall having before on a LNER train, and apple juice, there being no included beer at weekends. Soon the ticket examination began and I paid £25 for the upgrade - an expensive BLT sandwich but a very smooth and comfortable ride with space to unwind, just what I needed to help me calm down after the hectic preparation and departure. Well worth it.

And so in London to the Northern Line Underground to London Bridge (yes, I remembered to bring my Oyster Card with me!) and then the next train to Orpington, a fast one in just a few minutes. I splashed out on a taxi to complete the journey as buses are thin on a Sunday evening and I wanted to get there as quickly as possible. This was probably the fastest door-to-door trip I have ever done between the two houses, and also probably the most expensive, being at short notice.

Wine already served, work on blog continues
When I came to book the return trip, once I was sure the emergency was over and it was safe to come home, by choosing a late train back and booking in advance, even on the day, I was able to secure a First Class ticket for only £15.50, much less than the cheapest possible fare on the way out  even without the upgrade! The downside was that I had to take a specific train and as it happened I could have gone half-an-hour earlier if I had known how easily I could get away and how smoothly my journey into London would go. (So much time did I have in hand that I wrote most this blog post as I awaited the train back to Peterborough.) I took a bus from my daughter's him to Orpington station where a fast train left for London Bridge just a few moments later. From there a Thameslink train took me quickly to St Pancras whence I waited in the First Class Lounge at Kings Cross until my train was ready to board. There I typed most of this blog post: much of the rest was done on the train until my meal arrived.

Monday evening's meal, with wine
I decided to try out the new electronic ticketing system and did not have to pick up a paper ticket at the station: it is held in the Apple Wallet on my iPhone. I also downloaded the optional PDF file as well so that I could show it on my iPad in case I had a problem with the phone. I still needed the Standard Class single between Peterborough and Stamford and bought this using the Cross Country Train Tickets app, again placing the ticket in my Apple Wallet. I still needed to keep my Senior Railcard to hand as I do not (yet?) have a digital version of that, although I gather they are now available.

The LNER ticket worked fine when inspected and although the Cross Country one was safely own the Apple Wallet that ticket was never inspected so it was not put to the test, although I have no reason to think it would have been otherwise. What I have not yet done is use one at a ticket barrier, and I can see that being a particular problem when travelling together with both tickets on one iPhone: there would be a delay while swapping tickets.

The Azuma arrived in Peterborough on time, allowing me plenty of time to cross to platform 7 for the connection home, also on time. Two perfect journeys giving me the opportunity to relax after my unexpected trip and to prepare for a good night's sleep before what were already expected to be a couple of busy days.

Sunday, 27 October 2019

London Never Ceases to Amaze

It started as a short visit to daughter and grandson in Orpington, although we did take a slightly different route by way of a change, but on the way back we popped in on an exhibition at ExCel and that's where it became amazing, as I shall explain shortly!

For a year now Thameslink have operated weekday half-hourly through trains between Peterborough and destinations in Surrey and Sussex, using a new tunnel to reach their subterranean platforms at St Pancras International inserted of terminating at Kings Cross. The trains go on to the usual Thameslink central London stations including London Bridge, which is the station from which we depart for Orpington. They stop at several stations between Peterborough and London, so they are not for those in a hurry, but it does mean there is less fuss crossing London,  with just one change of train.

We booked the tickets just a day in advance, Super Off-peak Day Single, standard class, a reasonable price. Catching the 14:00 train from Stamford to Peterborough we had plenty of time at Peterborough to go across to platform 1 where the London train was already waiting - the Thameslink trains start and end their journey here. There was plenty of space on the train: they are twelve coaches long and it was easy to find a seat where we could keep an eye on our luggage and enjoy the ride. The seats are firm but comfortable, similar to a good bus seat. We had plenty to read and the trip soon passed. We barely noticed the station stops until we got to London and had to get ourselves ready to leave the train at London Bridge.

We were going to use our Oyster Cards for the rest of the trip to Orpington, so we had to go out through the ticket barriers using our tickets to London, and then come back through again using our Oysters to ensure that we paid the correct fare for the journey. That took just a few seconds and we caught the very next train to Orpington, just a few moments after our arrival at London Bridge. Orpington was the train's first stop, so it was a quick and easy journey, then we walked down to the Premier Inn where we had a room booked for the two nights we were staying. All three trains were on time and our room was ready for us, and after unpacking we walked to our daughter's home for our little grandson's bedtime and our dinner. We spent the next day together and the third day, Saturday, it was time to leave. We had the day to ourselves and the plan was to speak some time in London. It so happened that there was an exhibition at ExCel (with a convention for those who wanted it) for those interested in family history research, RootsTech, and we had obtained free tickets for the exhibition only by email before leaving home. We were unsure how interesting it might be, but in fact it took my wife all the time we had to spare, while I stayed for some of the time as well.

So it was that on our return trip we alighted at London Bridge as usual but then took the Jubilee Line Underground to Canning Town where we were to change to the Docklands Light Railway to get to the ExCel Centre. The Underground train was packed, even though we had let the first one from London Bridge go without us (just one minute before) as it was so full. Some other passengers were in interesting costumes although the only one I recognised was a Jedi knight. Was there something on at ExCel, people were pondering, but I did not think RootsTech would draw such crowds, nor in such interesting clothes, although in London you can never be sure ... As we changed trains at Canning Town, people were being guided, in their hundreds, to the platforms for the DLR for what sounded like "Commicon", and several of them were interestingly attired. We began to realise that there was indeed something else on at ExCel - not a surprise as it is a big place and quite capable of mounting several events at the same time. The DLR train we boarded was an extra added to the schedule to help with the crowds, terminating at Prince Regent station for Comic Con, for so the comic convention was really called. Leaving the train at Prince Regent we were greeted by a Stars Wars fanfare from the public address system and herded off the station, urged not to take the time to touch out our Oysters as it would cause congestion. At the entrance to the exhibition centre, as the Comic Con visitors went their way to another door, there stood meeters and greeters in RootsTech t-shirts and we found ourselves in the right place. I have a feeling I would have been equally happy at either event, to be honest, possibly even finding more of interest at the other (it being so much bigger and more varied), and would not have been out-of-place in ordinary clothes for by no means everyone was dressed up, probably about half.

At the end of the day we made our way by the Docklands Light Railway to Bank station where we walked through to Monument station for the District Line to Kings Cross for our train home. This is probably not the quickest way to go but we had plenty of time in hand and the District Line is so much more pleasant to use than the Northern Line tube, especially at the Kings Cross end. We actually went via the shops at St Pancras for we had run out of Fortnum & Mason's St Pancras Blend tea and visited their shop to buy some more - they only sell it at their St Pancras shop! For the return trip we were booked on a fast LNER train with Advance First Class tickets as far as Peterborough, so at Kings Cross we were able to use the First Class Lounge to await its departure, with a very welcome cup of tea. The train left just a touch late and was quite full. We were served the usual light refreshments: sandwich, drinks (not alcohol at weekends), crisps, cake, biscuits.

At Peterborough we had to take a rail replacement bus service to Stamford because the railway line was closed for maintenance work, but I had known this when booking the tickets and had taken it into account when planning the journey. Not as quick and simple as the usual train, but it was a very comfortable coach rather than an actual bus and gave us a smooth ride to the station in Stamford where those going further would be able to take the waiting train to Birmingham while we we set off across the Meadows on our walk home.

Sunday, 20 October 2019

A Short Break at Short Notice

By train to Bath, with a special hotel deal

An email message arrived a little while ago from The Royal Hotel in Bath, whose loyalty scheme I joined about three visits before. I was offered, for about the usual price of two nights' bed-and-breakfast, two nights with bed, breakfast and dinner, with a bottle of wine at the dinner. A cream tea on one afternoon was also part of the deal. The dates were restricted: it was clearly an offer aimed at filling space during the relatively quiet time between the summer holiday period and the forthcoming Bath Christmas Market. I have received this offer a couple of times before and had always been unable to take them up on it, but now that I am retired it was possible to go for it at last! I asked if they could include tickets to Thermae Bath Spa and they said they could, but they could only sell full-price tickets and I could do it more cheaply by buying them at a discount price from the spa myself, so I took that advice. They had no standard rooms left at the advertised ("from ...") price but I was happy to take a better room for a little more money. We have stayed in several different room at this hotel and have never been unhappy yet, but it would be interesting to see what their superior rooms were like, at a bargain rate.

From the hotel phone call I moved onto the Cross Country Trains website where I sought decently-priced conveniently-times trains. As we were only having two nights away I went for relatively early trains there and late trains back, and was able to book Advance First Class for both legs of the journey as far as Bristol, and then just day single Standard Class for the short trip between Bristol and Bath. I paid the small fee to have paper tickets which I collected from the station when I was next there. I am not a fan of having tickets on my iPhone: when two are travelling together, electronic tickets are much more of a palaver to show when asked, and one of these days I'll drop my phone or something and the tickets will become invisible. I do have a lot of things stored on my phone, it's true, but I have physical copies of them elsewhere, too!

Changing trains at Birmingham:
the amazing architecture of New Street station
On a Tuesday morning we set off for Stamford station, a last-minute check on live departures on Cross Country's app revealing that there had been a signal failure at Cambridge and our train, the 10:05 to Birmingham, was cancelled. It did show that an additional train had been put on in its place but that, to, had been cancelled. We went anyway so that we could take anything that might be going but that we could go somewhere nearby for coffee if there was going to be a wait for the next train. The station staff could not tell us what might happen, although it was clear that there would be no 10:05. He was not confident that there would be a 11:05 either but I was much more optimistic: surely they would terminate eastbound trains early and send them back to Birmingham - or they would soon acquire a heap of trains at Peterborough or Ely! Sure enough, over our excellent cup of coffee at Gooch's Coffee Shop I checked Live Departures again to see that the 11:05 was on time, having started at Ely. After coffee we returned to the station and resumed our journey. We had Advance tickets, normally only valid on the booked train, bit, of course, we were allowed to use them on the next train in these circumstances; our seat reservations did not apply, but we were easily able to find seats together. In fact we had a very smooth and easy journey after that, just an hour late (which was not really important to us on this occasion). The Train Manager endorsed our tickets so that we could demonstrate to his colleague on the connecting train to Bristol that we had missed our booked connection because of a cancellation on this leg, although in the event he just took our word for it anyway.

Again, the journey was smooth and easy, and lunch was served on the way (no wine on these trains, but good sandwiches). At Bristol we took the next train to Bath Spa, which was a GWR InterCity Express Train bound for London, our first ride in one of their new trains. I have to say I found it very comfortable, although I have heard much criticism of the seats. They are, of course, just like the "Azuma" trains of LNER but with different décor.

Mushroom risotto with peas
At Bath we walked across the road to the hotel and checked in. Our room was excellent! We decided that when booking in future we would always ask for this room (although not in summer because it faces south and would easily overheat on a sunny day). It was on the third floor and overlooked the station ...

After unpacking we went for a walk into the city. I was keeping an eye on the shops for a new raincoat since my ancient M&S trench coat had worn out a couple of years ago, and we saw just the thing in a shop in Bath city centre. Trying it on it fitted wonderfully and was just what I needed - a deep breath was needed when paying for it because the shop turned out to be Gieves & Hawkes - although the cast will probably last me the rest of my life so is actually good value and an excellent investment when I stop to think about it.

We soon returned for the first of our included dinners! It is a sign of how popular the restaurant is that even though I booked the dinner times only the day after I booked the room the latest time I could get was 18:45. The restaurant is open to non-residents and is well-regarded. We had the run of the à la carte three-course menu with wine up to £23 (which was almost all the non-sparkling wine on the list), but any extra sides would be added to our room bill - but even these were only £2 a time and we decided to share some mixed vegetables. A walk up three flights of stairs is just what is needed after a three-course dinner with wine, and fortunately that was available to us! We only used the lift when we arrived with our luggage and when we left with our luggage on the last day, so we made sure that whatever else we did or didn't do, we were not short of at least some exercise! We had a fairly early night after all our travelling and the early dinner, looking forward to our visit to the spa which we had scheduled for the following morning.

Thermae Bath Spa
After an excellent night's sleep we had slightly less for breakfast than is often the case when staying at hotels: it really did not seem long since the three-course dinner ...  Then we went along to the Thermae Bath Spa prepared to join the usual queue. We had downloaded The Times to our iPhones using the hotel's excellent free WiFi so that we could do the Quick Cryptic crossword puzzle while queuing ... but there was no queue. We walked in through the door and waited for one person to finish paying and then it was our turn. Sure enough, 10% discount applied (I think that is a mid-week reduction but I am not sure), and we were handed our towels, robes and flip-flops for use in the spa, along with the wrist-bands that operate the lockers and are used for charging us for anything we may buy and any time we take over the allotted two hours (half an hour is added free to allow for changing into and out of swimwear, so it is two hours pool time. Further time is added if the café is used). So after about three hours altogether in various hot spring-water pools, steam rooms, ice room (did not spend much time there!) and the café - for the usual Prosecco - we left feeling very fit and well. It was a sunny day and the daylight on the rooftop pool was dazzling bright when facing the sun, but unlike last time we were there there was no visible vapour rising into the frosty air and we were not terrified of leaving the hot pool when we had had enough!

Why there are no photos inside the spa
We decided that we really needed no lunch between the hotel breakfast and the forthcoming dinner, and we also decided to take the included cream tea early in the afternoon on the last day, after checkout, in lieu of lunch. That would do nicely until the snack on the train heading back towards Birmingham. I had left the schedule empty on the last day so that we could decide what we wanted to do depending on the weather and what we saw advertised, and what we decided to do was to return for another spa session on the last day!

So, back to the hotel for dinner, then sleep and after packing we checked out and left our luggage, returned to Thermae Bath Spa at pretty much the same time as before, but with a coffee break instead of a Prosecco break (the Prosecco had been a mistake, really: caffeine a more appropriate drug at that time of day, although I always say that sparkling wine is the only alcoholic drink that can be taken before noon). After the spa session we returned to the hotel for our cream tea and then had one little task to do, to buy cheese from the amazing specialist cheese shop, before returning for our luggage and taking a convenient train to Bristol to begin the journey home.

Bath Spa station
We had a little while to wait at Bristol and went to Bonapartes bar on platform 3 to await our departure. Although it had a clutch of Cask Marque certificates and four or five real ale pumps, none of them had any ale under them and I was offered some gassy stuff or other, from a tap, which I declined and ordered two halves of Stella Artois: at least that is supposed to be fizzy and cold. It was reassuringly expensive (well, expensive anyway). Our train came, more-or-less on time, and we had a good journey as far as Birmingham. No First Class host on this train, but the Train Manager served us with hot drinks, sandwiches and biscuits and we did not go hungry.

At New Street our departure for home was waiting at the platform, without its engines running, and we boarded in plenty of time. A driver boarded and made several valiant attempts to start the engines, watched by ominous-looking people in overalls on the platform, before the train was declared failed and we were asked to get off. This is where it all unravelled and Cross Country Trains did not make a very good start at dealing with customers: there was no clear plan about how they were going to get us on our way, and for those of us going beyond Leicester (like us) this was the last train of the day. I asked platform staff and was advised to join the train to Leicester, due at another platform in half an hour, and then ask at Leicester - experience tells me they would have ordered taxis, or they may have had a bus put on by then, or even dug out another train and crew. However, after about fifteen minutes it was announced that our train would be departing from the extreme end of the platform we had just left! They had found another train that could be used and there was enough space for it at the platform. We were urged to join it quickly so that it could get away as soon as possible, but the announcer did not seem to realise that it had passengers aboard who had to get off first, so our very haste actually slowed things down as people at the back blocked the way off for those arriving.

The replacement train eventually left almost thirty minutes after our original train was supposed to have departed and the journey actually went quite well in the end, just rather later than planned. A few minutes were made up and we were not too late getting home. I was impressed by the way things were eventually worked out and the problem was solved, but not at all impressed by our unnecessary trip to platform 10 and back, and the worry about how long it would take to get us home from Leicester: while the managers were working out a plan we should have been advised to wait until they knew what would happen. In the event there had been nothing to worry about, but we had been given something to worry about anyway! It was very similar to the situation at Stamford on our departure: the staff on the ground seem to take a pessimistic view of what the railway management are able to achieve when things go wrong, bit my experience in all our travels has been that problems are usually tackled very well - if only the information could be given to passengers, even if it is only, "we're working on it and will let you know shortly," that would make a huge difference.

See my previous trips to Bath at

Wednesday, 16 October 2019

Adventures by Bus

Stagecoach Gold bus. Stop buttons, reading lights and USB
sockets are on the back of the seat in front of most passengers
I have always liked travelling by bus. I suppose it takes me back to childhood when every journey anywhere always had to start that way, and probably end that way, too. The vehicles were very different then and buses always carried conductors to collect the fares and look after the passengers. From a practical point of view, it is good to be able to do things while travelling (which I cannot do when I drive my car) and I get a great view from the bus - even single-deckers are higher than most cars. You can read about some bus rides as part of my rail adventures in this blog.
Before we moved to Stamford we did not have a railway station within walking distance, so many of our trips then began with a bus to and ended with a bus from Peterborough. I used to use buses quite a lot then, even for local shopping, even though we were then a two-car family: it is part of the way I prefer to live, only using my car when I really have no other option. On days off I sometimes took a round trip on a rover ticket, visiting both Peterborough and Stamford to do odd tasks and enjoying the scenery on the way. Most bus companies offer “day anywhere” rovers which provide a cheap day out if you’re at a loose end.

Since I acquired my senior concessionary pass the incentive to use buses has grown by the fact that it is free at any time of the day within Lincolnshire, and after the morning peak anywhere else in England. Unlike most day rover tickets it is not restricted to just one bus company.
A couple of recent trips are worth describing (I hope!) for readers’ interest.

The Long Way Round to Kettering

 One Saturday I needed to go to a function in Kettering. Now Kettering is about a 45 minute drive from my home in Stamford but on this particular day the car was not available to me because it was needed elsewhere by the family. I had time to make the trip by bus but only just, and even then I had to use a train for part of the way back because bus services no longer go on late enough. I enjoyed the ride and was in no hurry, but it would have been all the same if I had been!

My bus to Kettering, a Stagecoach Gold X4, was due to leave from Peterborough Queensgate bus station at 13:12, so I left Stamford on Delaine’s 12:00 service 201 which would give me about half-an-hour between buses in Peterborough. I took a packed lunch with me which I intended to eat while sitting at the bus station. Going into Peterborough my bus was delayed by roadworks and then again by cars queuing for access to city-centre car parks - this city desperately needs bus lanes, and I do not understand how it can call itself “environment city” when it is choc-a-bloc with cars! Anyway, in the event I did manage to make the connection but had to eat my lunch while queuing to board the bus rather than in a civilised, leisurely fashion.

The Stagecoach Gold bus was very comfortable and had on-board WiFi and USB ports for device-charging, being intended for lengthy journeys. I sat on the top deck and spent some time catching up on reading some documents I needed for later in the day, combined with some gazing out at the countryside and the towns. The way we passed through Oundle was amazing, a circuit of the town in some residential streets, following Peterborough-bound bus through the market place. Although this is a limited-stop inter-urban route it plainly serves as a local bus service for Oundle, too. In due course the bus arrived at my stop on the road into Kettering - whatever else this service did it dropped me right at the end of the street I needed, and I could not have asked for better than that.

At the end of the day I caught the bus back to Peterborough from the opposite side of the road. This time it was about ten minutes late leaving, but the timetable allows some slack at Corby and the driver also managed to make up some time between towns so that we arrived at Peterborough Queensgate bus station on time. By this time, however, the bus service to Stamford had come to the end of its working day; there are no bus services into the evening in Stamford. The train service goes on for several more hours, though, so I walked across to the rail station and bought a single ticket home to Stamford and travelled back on the train. Total fare, then, for the day's adventure was that of a single for a short train journey at Senior Railcard rate, the bus fares being zero for me as a concessionary pass holder.

Going for a Ride

Free entertainment for senior citizens: bus rides for fun! It is quite possible to set off by bus for an adventure not knowing where you will end up, but with services finishing early in the day in most places (see above!), it is a good idea to have the bus times with you to ensure you get home. Our local operator, Delaine Buses, publishes pdf downloadable timetables on its website, and it is easy to keep those on a smartphone and refer to them as needed. I began my little round trip with the 203 service towards Spalding and got off at Deeping St James where I used to live. I was not sure how much time I wanted to spend there and when I consulted the timetable I realised that there was a bus to Peterborough due from the opposite side of the road in about two minutes, so I thought I'd move straight on with that. Ominously, the bus passed on its way from Peterborough at about the time it should have been at this stop on its way back. It turned up going the right way about fifteen minutes late, having been held up by roadworks in Peterborough. I rode right through to the Queensgate terminus and spent a little while in the shopping centre before having lunch at the brilliant Pizza House in Colgate. Do try it if you are in Peterborough at a mealtime; run by an Italian family this restaurant has been there since I worked in Peterborough in the 1970s and has recently been enlarged by taking over the shop next door to its original premises and knocking them into one.

Market Deeping Market Place seen from the front of
the top deck
After lunch I caught a city bus to a trading estate which I wanted to visit and from there awaited a bus towards Stamford. The roadworks were playing havoc with bus running and the first Delaine bus to come along was for Deeping; a quick look at the timetable on my phone showed that I could connect there for the next bus back to Stamford from Deeping, so stopped the bus and boarded it, spending a pleasant while in a little café in Market Deeping chatting to someone I used to know there long ago. Soon it was time to get my last ride of the day. This bus was the one that schoolchildren use to get home from The Deepings School to Stamford or the villages in between, and there were many children aboard, all of them extremely well-behaved. I was very impressed.

I must plan a proper trip and take a picnic, on a warm sunny day it can be a great day out and the buses stop in some lovely villages on the roads between Stamford and Bourne or Stamford and Peterborough, some of them still having pubs. Even if paying for a rover ticket it is amazing value for money, and for those of us who are old enough, it is a very cheap day out indeed!

Friday, 11 October 2019

Exciting Trip for Next Summer

Scotland again, but by a very special train this time

I have just taken the plunge and booked a trip through the Scottish Highlands on Belmond's Royal Scotsman, a very special trip to celebrate a special wedding anniversary next summer. I have also booked a couple of night's at the Balmoral Hotel (formerly the North British) adjacent to Edinburgh Waverley from which the tour departs, and our actual anniversary will be spent there, leaving on the Royal Scotsman the day after.

The trip takes in the Kyle of Lochalsh line, the only line out of Inverness that we have yet to travel, so it all fits in nicely. I look forward tremendously to the experience, and to writing about it afterwards.

Meanwhile there will be other journeys and experiences, of course, beginning later this month with another visit to Bath for a session at the Thermae Bath Spa and just to take life easy at the Royal Hotel. We are taking up a special offer of inclusive dinner with wine at no more than the usual bed-and-breakfast rate - and in all our trips to Bath we have never actually had dinner at the hotel before, so that, too, will be a new experience and will make the trip more relaxing, although less adventurous. It is a measure of how popular the hotel restaurant is that I had trouble booking a table several weeks in advance! Also adding to the relaxing feel of the trip is that I have been able to book reasonably-priced First Class seats with Cross Country as far as Bristol. The whole three days will feel like pampering, but at a budget price! I'll write it up as soon as I get the chance.

In December I have the group outing to Canterbury, too, which should be a grand day out.

Nothing is sorted out for next spring yet, and no beach holiday for the summer, so there is some planning yet to do.

Saturday, 28 September 2019

Another Group Outing Booked

Southeastern Javelin train arrives at Canterbury
I have just returned from the station with a huge pile of tickets! I have booked the trains for a group of seven to Canterbury for a day in December. High speed trains and the closeness of Kings Cross and St Pancras stations in London mean that a decent day out in Canterbury is now possible from south Lincolnshire without any difficulty. To get a reasonable ticket price (those of us with Senior Railcards are going for under £70) I have split the journey into stages, including First Class on LNER between Peterborough and London. It promises to be a great day, although I hope the weather is better than when we visited Birmingham last winter, when the biting cold and the drizzle stopped just as we were about to board the train home.

If you are interested in my little "friends' days out", so have a look at the "Come with me!" tab at the top of this page.

Thursday, 5 September 2019

Rhatischebahn Research Trip

Ready to run but nowhere to go ... yet.
One of my RhatischeBahn trains bought from eBay

Fact-finding in Switzerland for a model railway layout

As we enjoyed our Great Rail Journeys tour of the Bernese Oberland around Grindelwald this year, I remarked that before I could do much more planning for the proposed Rhaetian Railway model layout I would need to make another visit to the Graubunden (Grisons) Canton to take a closer look both at the railway itself and the towns it serves. I had next summer in mind, but to my surprise my wife suggested that I should get it fixed up for this autumn as soon as I get back. Indeed, that perhaps our Tour Manager, who knows Switzerland well, may be able to suggest where to stay. We asked and he suggested Samedan, which is at the junction of several routes through the Engadin valley and both the Albula and Bernina passes.

When we reached home I consulted diaries, maps and timetables then telephoned Great Rail Journeys Independent and asked them to devise a suitable route to Samedan and back and to send me a draft itinerary and quote. I tweaked the itinerary a bit and called back to pay for the tour. They were not able to get a room for us at the hotel our Tour Manager had suggested, but another one about two minutes farther from the station was able to take us, although at a rather greater cost. It was not too much, though, and we took that rather than change our plans. So it was fixed: our second trip to the Swiss Alps in one year! I then set about thinking what things I needed to see and experience in order to inform the construction a model railway which would give a flavour of the Rhaetian Railway and the Graubunden canton while not attempting to model anywhere in particular. I was to learn a lot of geography and history as well as seeing some of the details of the way the actual railway is built and operated - all new to me as someone who has spent sixty years building models of several eras of British (indeed, English) railways.

Leaving London by train

Cheering up the RER with a little mathematical fun ...
We stayed overnight at the Premier Inn opposite St Pancras International station in London, having travelled there after dinner at home on a Monday evening. Our tickets to and from London were included in GRJ's package and were valid in First Class for any train, which would normally be far too expensive for us. We checked in at St Pancras early on Tuesday morning and had coffee and croissant while we waited to board our train to Paris, a light breakfast being served on the train. We crossed Paris to the Gare de Lyons by RER, which I have to admit was less grotty than on previous trips (although we still struggle with the ticket machines which are not intuitive even if you choose English before starting). We bought a light lunch from a shop at the station and sat there to eat it while we awaited the TGV to Zurich, where we changed again to a Swiss train which took us along the Rhine valley towards the far southwest corner of Switzerland where we were heading. 

Samedan, with the Bernina 1865 Hotel
The TGV from Paris lost time from the start for all sorts of reasons and was over half-an-hour late at Zurich we we missed our planned connection. That in itself was OK because our tickets for that part of the journey were not restricted to a specific train, so we caught one 30 minutes later, but unfortunately the next leg, on the Rhaetian Railway itself from Landquart to Samedan, was booked for a specific train and we would be too late to catch that. The train manager on the Zurich-Landquart train made an official note on our tickets which we could use to authorise us to travel on a later train to Samedan. In the event no-one looked at our tickets on that train anyway! The only problem with being late was that is was dark by the time we reached Klosters and so we saw very little of the lower Engadin Valley to which we were not planning to return during the rest of the visit. Those who think that continental trains are never late, please note that we used very few on-time trains on this trip: many in Switzerland were a few minutes late and this one in France was very late. We walked the three minutes from the station to our hotel and checked in to a lovely room overlooking the railway and airport. Straight to bed, and no hurry to start the next morning ... it had been a long but interesting day, with much seen from train windows.

The train to Davos

Wednesday looked like being the only sunny day, although it was hard to dress for a day that started at 3°C and was expected to rise to over 21°! We started with a stroll around Samedan and then travelled to Davos. I wanted to take a good look at Davos station as I wanted to use some elements of it for a main station on my proposed model, and while we were there we planned to visit a museum of domestic life in the region.

Our train took us to the junction at Filisur where we we changed for the branch line to Davos Platz. After photographing the station we walked to the museum at Davos Dorf and after our time at the museum, and a cup of coffee there, we caught a bus back towards Platz, getting off at the valley station of the Schatzalp Bahn which we’ve used a couple of times before. We had a beer and a snack at the restaurant at Schatzalp and then walked back down to Davos Platz station, a long, enjoyable scenic walk, well worth doing. Davos seems to have begun as a resort for health reasons, and the railway from Landquart via Klosters was an essential element in building this business.

We returned the way we came, via Filisur, and went straight across the road at Samedan to have dinner at the Hotel Terminus. This was wonderful and worth waiting for. It was the hotel where we had originally planned to stay but which did not have a vacancy this week - fortunately its restaurant did!

We tried out the “spa” bath at our hotel room, with ozone bubbles and coloured lights (!) and retired to bed, aware that the next two days’ weather was unlikely to match that day’s warm sunshine. At least snow was no longer expected, but rain was certain at some point.

Watching how bridges were built
We woke on Thursday to a dry, bright morning with some sunshine and after breakfast set off on what was probably the most important outing of the trip, the visit to the Albula museum at Bergün. We started a couple of hours earlier than the previous day, buying our museum entrance at the station with our train tickets and so receiving a discount. The train took the same route as the previous day and so we got to enjoy once more the wonderful spirals and multiple curves, tunnels and bridges between the Albula Tunnel and Bergün. At the museum we were to learn a lot about the way this line was designed and constructed and why it took the route it did. At the museum is a huge model railway in Om gauge, built by one man as his hobby and depicting a stretch of the Albula Line several decades ago. At 3pm he was due to come along and operate the layout, so although I took a few photographs straight away we moved on to the rest of the displays and had lunch at the museum's excellent restaurant (local cuisine - worth a visit in itself) and then returned to watch the trains operated. Although he had the points set locally for each station, the trains were digitally-controlled and had working lights and digital sound. It was all quite amazing and the public is allowed to wander through the layout, and even into the builder's workshop area, while it is being operated. I hope to have my photographs and video on my Flickr site soon.

We moved on into the village where there was a small local museum and found there an equally impressive model railway, this time representing the section of line we had just travelled with it spirals, bridges and tunnels, and in HOm gauge (the scale in which I shall be working, and half the scale of the one at the Albula Museum). This one was being built by a local model railway club and in some ways was even more amazing with its huge heiht difference between the two ends. Much inspiration from both these layouts for may own project planning, and much detailed history to inform the background to the planning.

Back at the station for our return to Samedan we met on the platform the builder of the O gauge layout in the Albula Museum who was going home on the same train that we were to use. It was late and he said it often is ... though only by about four or five minutes. These single-track main lines suffer from consequential delays if one train is held up for some reason.

Having had a filling lunch at Bergün, we bought a salad from a local supermarket for our supper in our hotel room and went to bed to be ready for the next day's exploration.

On Friday we caught a bus to St Moritz using our Engadin pass: it was slower than the train but took us through Celerina (home to the Cresta bob run!) on the way, and dropped us in the town centre just where we wanted to be, which was Paulis Toyshop - which also sells railway models. I had discovered it through membership of the Swiss Railways Society and thought it worth a look. There I bought a model of the very bus on which I had travelled there, and a pack of Rhatische Bahn employees in HO scale. I could have bought so much more but the lack of luggage capacity saved me a lot of money there! I then spend some time at St Moritz station taking photographs and making notes because I wanted to use a lot of this as a basis for a station on the proposed model railway. There were several arrivals and departures while I was there, too, so I could observe the working of the station. It soon became clear that I'd need a lot more model employees! And a little orange diesel shunting locomotive; we seemed to see those everywhere.

We caught a Bernina line train from St Moritz to Alp Grüm, the limit of validity of our Engadin pass. We had been to Alp Grüm before: there is nothing there but a view and a restaurant, but we went for the ride. On the way we not only passed a lot of snow-covered peaks but passed through falling snow at the highest point of the Bernina Pass at Ospizio Bernina. At Alp Grüm it was simply raining as we looked around and awaited our train back towards the Engadin. We got off at Morteratsch on the way back, a new station serving nothing but a hotel (the Swiss do this a lot: remote hotel and rail station) and the Morteratsch cheese dairy. It was the cheese dairy we were to visit and we stayed an amazing two hours there (that did include lunch). We were able to watch cheese being made in the traditional way, almost the whole process, and were taken into the store where the cheese is matured before being distributed via the shops. Naturally we had to buy some of the produce from their own shop - as well as having some for lunch - when we left. The homeward luggage would be heavier than the outbound. Back at the station we met another English couple as we waited for the train. We were only going as far as Pontresina, the nearest village to the farm, and there we visited the Alpin Museum for more background on the Graubunden way of life before taking a bus back to Samedan, alighting at the Co-op for the evening's supper, no further further cooked meal being necessary after our lunchtime raclette.

Early morning at Samedan station.
Apartments above the station look fun!
We packed our cases as far as we could so that in the morning we could finish packing and get to breakfast as soon as service started in order to check out in time for our booked 08:16 departure for Chur. Our last trip along the Albula Line, and this time all the way to its end at Chur, passing over the famous Landwasser Viaduct for the first time on this trip - although we have been over it many times before. 

First Class travel on the Rhaetian Railway!

At Chur we left the Rhaetian Railway behind and took a standard gauge German ICE (Inter City Express) through to Karlsruhe. I had expected to have lunch on this train, but apparently the restaurant car only took cash and we were down to our last few Euros and last few Swiss Francs. This was quite ridiculous; everywhere else we have been in Europe we have paid for meals on the train (when we have to pay; sometimes is it included in the fare) by credit card. How behind-the-times DB is! We did afford coffee and we had a few bits and pieces with us which saw us through to Karlsruhe where we bought a take-way lunch from a station shop and ate it while awaiting out TGV to Paris. The TGV was a few minutes late and had an enormous number of passengers to load, so it was a few more minutes late when it departed. This was slightly disconcerting as we did not have a lot of time in Paris to get from Gare de L'est to Gare du Nord and check in for the Eurostar to London. It did make up a few minutes and we were well-placed to leave the train quickly. The walk was only about five minutes and we were in plenty of time. Checked in, security checked and ready, our train was announced and we boarded. The ride back was really good: smooth, on time and with good service. Arrival on time and St Pancras and a swift getaway (we were the first through the exit gates and took the border force by surprise!) meant we were at Kings Cross for a train an hour earlier than we had dared hope, and we actually left even earlier than that, for by chance there was a late-running train that we were able to board just before it left and got us to Peterborough even quicker. We were, nonetheless, too late for the last train back to Stamford, as we had expected - on a weekday it would have been fine, but they stop earlier on Saturdays for some reason - so we took a taxi home, expensive compared with the train fare but much cheaper than a hotel in Paris, London or Peterborough!

And now, all I have to do is start building the model railway ... and I may be writing a blog about that when I start, but don't hold your breath; I have lot to do before I can get going on that.

Tuesday, 3 September 2019

The State Rooms at Buckingham Palace

While travelling home from London on our last visit we noticed an advertisement for an exhibition at Buckingham Palace about the work that Queen Victoria had done there to make it into the modern home and workplace that it is today. We filed it at the back of our minds until our son mentioned that he would be away on business for a couple of days and that we might like to borrow his home again, so a quick look online for tickets on one of those days, followed by a search of the LNER website for cheap Advance First tickets to get there and we were off once more to the capital.

Complimentary refreshments in LNER First
Class on a short trip: wine, fruit and
sandwich. Other options were available.
It so happens that just a few times a day a fast train to London stops at Peterborough at 30 minutes past the hour, connecting beautifully with our train from Stamford, and that these trains are seldom busy and so have both space and plenty of cheap tickets. So we found our selves on the 14:30 to London and the journey was perfect: plenty of space in our seats; power sockets that worked; complimentary food trolley came round even before the train had left the station, closely followed by hot and cold drinks; friendly and efficient staff who looked after us well. We did leave Peterborough a couple of minutes late but we were in no hurry and I did not notice whether we were late on arrival.

This was a short trip in summer and we combined our luggage in one small wheeled case, so there was little need for step-free routes and I was able to carry everything straight down to the Hammersmith & City Line Underground platforms at Kings Cross, and sitting near the correct end of the train we were down the stairs at our destination in no time and soon letting ourselves into our temporary home. Having had lunch at home before we left for the station, we had not needed all of the food provided for us on the train, so this did well for a light supper.

The following morning we were up bright and (reasonably) early and after breakfast walked to a stop to get a bus to Buckingham Palace, allowing plenty of time for things to go wrong and for traffic hold-ups on the way. The bus is nothing like as quick as Underground train, even if there are changes of train, but it is generally a more pleasant ride and we do get to see something of London. I don't think there was anything on this route, the 148, that we had never seen before, but it was nonetheless a great ride, going through some of London's loveliest residential streets and past Kensington Gardens, Hyde Park and the grand hotels of Park Lane. Further, the ride was quite swift and simple and we were well ahead of schedule, so we stayed on past our expected stop as far as Victoria Street, opposite Westminster Cathedral, and went for a walk along Broadway, through the modernist extravagance of St James's Park station to and around the park itself, including a walk along Horse Guards Parade - the only guard we saw was the armed police office at the rear of 10 Downing Street. The flower borders in St James's Park for spectacularly beautiful and we seemed to be seeing them at the very best time, with almost everything in full bloom.

In the distance we could hear the sound of a military band, and as we neared The Mall we saw a contingent of marching troops in ceremonial uniform entering from a side street. Meanwhile large crowds, including many escorted parties, were beginning to gather. The Changing the Guard ceremony was taking place at the palace, and our 11:30 timed-entry ticket meant that we would be passing the front of the palace on our way to the side gate in the midst of this crowd-drawing spectacle. Visitors to London from all over the world will have come to these few street just to watch this hour-long piece of traditional pageantry. We managed to get past the crowds and to cross the road without inconveniencing any marching bands, and although we did not know this end of the palace grounds at all well it was fairly obvious where the entrance to the State Rooms was and we soon joined the small crowd of people entering for the 11:30 start. The Queen Victoria exhibition is simply woven into this year's opening of the State Rooms, so an ordinary ticket to visit those rooms is all that is required, and then as you go round there is extra information and additional artefacts relating to the life and work of Queen Victoria.

Photographs are not allowed, so I cannot show you any here, but I will say that these rooms are well worth seeing. You do not have to be an ardent monarchist or historian, but an interest in British culture or in architecture and design will be well satisfied here. There are many rooms open, and personal headsets are available free of charge to give a commentary and further information as you round at your own pace. If you want to study all the paintings in the Royal Collection, you can take all the time you want, but in the unlikely event that you are bored by these you can just walk through and enjoy the spectacle of the building. The profits from these public openings go to maintain this art collection, and part of the purpose of opening this rooms is to allow the public to see the works of art.

Exit was through the famous Buckingham Palace garden where we had been several years ago at one of Her Majesty's summer Garden Parties, but now the terrace along the back of the palace was host to a café where we enjoyed an excellent lunch, and where the tea tent had been for the Garden Party there was a large souvenir shop, where we bought little gifts for the two grandchildren whose parents had kindly lent us their home for this trip. On the way out we also took time to visit an ice-cream stall by the lake (did I mention that we'd also had a Bertotti's ice-cream the previous evening? No? Well, we did: this ice-cream lark is becoming a habit so ingrained I do not always remember it ...). Back out on the street we took the bus back "home" via a brief shopping trip, mostly to get something to cook for dinner, and our amazing day out was over. Our tickets are valid for 365 days, so if we can return to London on a day the State Rooms are open any time in the coming 364 days we can ring for a time slot and repeat the visit if we wish.

On Saturday I had a small task to do, involving a walk to the Royal Mail office a short distance away, and then I went for a longer walk with no destination in mind, with the intention of returning with something interesting for lunch ... I finished up at the whole foods market in Kensington High Street, on the ground floor of the former Barkers department store. On the way I passed Olympia where people were queuing for the current event, Drag World. Looking at the queue it was clear that this was nothing to do with drag racing but with dressing-up, and while the majority of attendees seemed to be dressed normally (although you could not always tell whether they were dressed in the usual clothes for their sex, of course), quite a lot were very flamboyantly dressed and made a colourful spectacle. I could not help wondering just what might be on display at Drag World, being well outside my life experience, but it was clearly a very large niche and seemed very popular with all sorts of people, including families.

After my lunch-buying trip I caught a bus back to my temporary home and after lunch we packed, locked up, left gifts for our absent hosts and made our to the Underground for the trip home. Our LNER train left Kings Cross bang on time and got us to Peterborough where we had time to buy a few necessities from Waitrose before taking the connecting train to Stamford. On the platform were several Ipswich Town football supporters fresh from their 2-2 draw with Peterborough United and waiting for their train which was due to leave two minutes before ours. There was a heavy police presence for crowd control and although all the fans I saw were very well-behaved their mere presence might have been alarming for some. By the time our train left it was clear that things were not going well: on the opposite platform the train to Ipswich, just three coaches like ours, was not going to cope with all the intending passengers; this was not a special and there were many other folk aboard including children, all squashed into their places and the lobbies overcrowded while some football supporters were still on the platform. The police were having heated discussions with one group as our train pulled out so I do not know what became of those who would not be able to get on this train. It is only an hourly service and some of the trains are even shorter than that one; it is not a service designed for heavy flows of football fans on match days, and yet such capacity problems were easy to predict. Our own train came into Peterborough heavily laden with Newcastle supporters who were changing trains at Peterborough on their way home - a large crowd leaving the platform as the large crowd of Ipswich fans arrived - all good-natured but simply too many people for the trains and platform to cope with. Most Newcastle fans, knowing they had some time to wait, simply stood around until things eased off with the departure of the trains at the platform.

And so home, unpacking once more and preparing for our next trip! Watch this space ...

Monday, 12 August 2019

Yarmouth (no, the other one ...) and Chichester

Ready to go!

Summer holiday by rail on the south coast of England

I recently had an interesting conversation with an Australian lady at Yarmouth bus station on the Isle of Wight, off the coast of Hampshire, England. When we arrived to wait the few minutes for our bus she was engaged in a telephone call and when she had finished she told us that she had booked a hire car but it was on the other side of England in Great Yarmouth, Norfolk! The car-hire company had misunderstood her desire for a car in Yarmouth, and being a visitor to the UK it had not occurred to her to say, "Yarmouth, Isle of Wight," when making her booking; she had probably never heard of Norfolk. It really was the duty of the firm's call handler to enquire which Yarmouth she meant, surely, rather than assume it must be the big one - especially as that one is, strictly, Great Yarmouth. Woe betide anyone asking for a car in Newport, for that could end up anywhere.

I was in Yarmouth at the start of the latest of my south coast summer holidays. We always include a few days in Chichester in order to visit friends who regularly stay a week at nearby East Wittering, in Bracklesham Bay, and we precede and sometimes follow those few days with a visit or two to other places in the area on the way. In the last two summers we have stayed a few nights in Shanklin on the east coast of the Isle of Wight, and this year we decided to stay at the other end of the island, which involved a little research into both travel and accommodation, since I had only ever been there once before, which was by car (two cars, actually, for there were many of us) and in a self-catering holiday flat. I knew that there was a ferry from Lymington but that was about all I knew until I turned to the internet and looked at maps, hotel information and rail/ferry timetables.

Our planning chart for this year's south coast
summer holiday
The Lymington ferry by Wightlink goes across the Solent to Yarmouth every half-hour and connects this side with shuttle trains to and from Brockenhurst where neat connections are made with fast trains to and from London. There is no railway at the west end of the Isle of Wight and so although it is quite possible to complete a journey by bus I decided to start the search for a suitable hotel or bed-and-breakfast in Yarmouth. I soon came up with the George Hotel, just a few steps from the ferry terminal and with great reviews - and it had vacancies for the dates we needed. I snapped up three nights bed and breakfast at the George Hotel and then set to work to book a stay in Chichester. Our usual lodgings at 4 Canon Lane could not have us for the days we wanted, so I looked further and booked four nights at the Chichester Harbour Spa Hotel, nowhere near the harbour and not as near to the railway station as we have been before, but perfectly acceptable. I then waited a few months until the Advance rail tickets became available so that I could try to get good prices on First Class train travel and booked those: through to Yarmouth from London Waterloo, Peterborough to and from London Kings Cross, and Stamford to and from Peterborough; then there was Ryde to Chichester and Chichester to London Victoria. Everything else would be done by Oyster in London and contactless bus fare (and my senior citizens' concession pass) on the Isle of Wight.

Planning done and tickets bought we waited for the day of departure and set off with our cases to our local station to await our first train, the short hop to Peterborough for our LNER fast train to London. We did this section in standard class as usual and had our seats reserved near the luggage rack to make things easy for this quick trip. We had a little while to wait at Peterborough, but our First Class tickets from there to London include coffee and cake in the coffee bar of the Great Northern Hotel in Peterborough and that was where we awaited our connection, which, like all the other trains on this trip, was on time. The train to London was one of the old diesel High Speed Trains, now over forty years old but still providing excellent front-line service: would this be our last ride on one of these on this line, now that they are being replaced gradually by the new "Azuma" trains? We were served the usual drink and biscuits on the way to Kings Cross.

In London we made our way by Underground to Waterloo station. It was now after noon and I had allowed time for lunch before our booked departure for Yarmouth, so we had lunch at Auberge, a French restaurant right opposite the exit from the Underground at Waterloo, and then strolled along the Thames for a few minutes before going back to catch our train. We do like to enjoy the journey as part of the holiday, and how well this compared with the frantic search for a roadside restaurant, or, worse, the current type of fast-food motorway services!

The ferry Wight Sun docked beside Yarmouth Castle. We
had arrived a little earlier on Wight Sky. Our hotel, the
George, is on the left of the castle. Taken from the pier.
We travelled First Class to the ferry at Lymington: our fast train from London called at Brockenhurst in the New Forest where we changed into a connecting branch line train to Lymington Pier where our ferry was waiting. We had through tickets from London to Yarmouth so there was no fuss and with every train on time everything went smoothly - and we were comfortable in the knowledge that had something gone wrong there were half-hourly ferry crossings long after our intended one was due to sail. The First Class fare Waterloo to Yarmouth was just £19.60 each, including ferry! The ferry was a pleasant crossing with a buffet from which we enjoyed a cup of tea - no food necessary after a good lunch.

Once ashore, it was a very short walk around the corner to The George where we were shown to our very comfortable room, described as "cosy" by the receptionist, but nevertheless quite spacious and well-equipped. After unpacking we set off to explore Yarmouth, which is a very small town with a population of around 800 people but which receives a lot of visitors, many of them in their own boats. We visited the pier, which was built for the London South Western Railway as the terminal for passenger ferries before the service was upgraded to take vehicles as well. Now it is there for fun and for heritage and has recently been restored. The story of its restoration is interesting in itself and the toll of 50p well worth paying. The views of the town from the pier are good, too.

We walked along the shore and then along the disused railway line, now a bridleway and cycle track, as far as the former station which is now a café-restaurant with a strong railway theme. We promised ourselves we would return one day - it does not stay open for dinner and was closed when we went by. For now we returned to the town centre and had a great dinner at Jireh House, the former town hall now a restaurant and B&B.

And so to bed. Was this really only the end of the first day?! By the end of the next day it felt like we'd been there for a week ...

Freshwater Bay
The next day, Friday, was forecast to have by far the best weather of our time away so we decided that it would be the best day for exploring the west of the island and in particular for our visit to The Needles. The whole of the Needles headland is owned and cared-for by the National Trust and has an amazing amount of history in such a tiny area. It is quite a walk up to the Old and New Batteries (of which more shortly) and the view of the pointed rocky outcrops called The Needles with their lighthouse protecting shipping from them, but for its members the National Trust subsidises the bus fare on the Needles Breezer open-top tour bus, and this bus is the only one which goes right to the top, the ordinary services terminating at the "visitor attraction," which is also as far as you can get by car.
We took the Needles Breezer from Yarmouth bus station with our National Trust half-price Rover tickets and broke our journey for half an hour at Freshwater Bay where we had a brief walk along the beach before boarding the next Breezer on which we stayed up to its turning point at the Old Battery. There (after a cup of coffee in the 1940s-themed tea room) we climbed down to the tunnel to the searchlight position from which a brilliant view of The Needles and their lighthouse was to be had, and then explored the changing history of the Old Battery right up to its time as the "eyes" of the New Battery in twentieth-century conflicts.

The Recording Room at the rocket research facility
At what was once the New Battery we discovered the beginning and untimely end of the British contribution to space exploration. It was here at two gantries that British rockets were test-fired before being launched at Woomera in Australia. There was just one British satellite launched by a British rocket (built at Cowes on the Isle of Wight), before HM Government pulled the funding and British participation in space exploration came crashing down from its leading place to a cameo rôle. (Perhaps there is a lesson here for those who like to blame Johnny Foreigner for our nation's woes: how about having enough confidence in our own place in the world to put our money behind it?)

We walked down to the Needles Landmark Attraction, as the visitor site at the neck of the headland is called, with a stunning view of the Alum Bay multi-coloured cliffs and sands on the way. There we caught the Needles Breezer bus back to Yarmouth and made our way to Off The Rails, the railway-themed restaurant, for a very late lunch, just before their 4pm closing time! The food and drink matched the superb quality of their railway-retro décor and style, and the service was very good, and friendly. The former railway line was busy with cyclists and it was clear that this is a popular meal stop for cyclists, many customers having cycling helmets with them, and some serious people were clad in Lycra!

Back into town we took the Needles Breezer one last time and stayed on it through Freshwater Bay and the Needles headland, getting off in Totland for a walk along the beach. There we saw that Totland Pier is being restored (much work needed!) and on our way north towards Colwell Bay we came across a landslip from several years ago where the footpath has only recently been reopened, by-passing the damaged section. We walked back up to the main road at Colwell Common and took a service bus back to our hotel for the night. It had been a brilliant day: great weather, much walking in the fresh air, a lot of new things learned, superb views from the top of the bus, and an excellent lunch in entertaining surroundings.

The Master Gunner's dining room at the castle
We had done in one day almost everything planned for two! After a leisurely breakfast on the Saturday we went to explore Yarmouth Castle. Looked after by English Heritage, Yarmouth Castle has a long history as a coastal defence battery along with Hurst Castle opposite on the English mainland and a number of other blockhouses and batteries along the Isle of Wight northern coast. They are often considered follies as they never fired a shot in defence of the realm, but when you look at the formidable firepower available they probably did an excellent job for centuries simply by being there: the real folly would have been on the part of any enemy captain who tried to get past them! These defences were erected after a French invasion of the island, and there was never another. Yarmouth Castle was designed to defend against a land attack also, in case an enemy landed from another direction with a view to establishing a base on the island and disabling the sea defences. It is fascinating to visit, and its history is intimately tied in with the one-time governor of the island whose home there is now The George hotel in which we were staying. We looked down from the castle walls on our breakfast table, and what was once the front entrance to the castle, with the Tudor arms over it, now faces into the hotel garden. We were there two hours altogether, including some time looking over the harbour (when the ferry was not obstructing the view!) and learning about local shipwrecks in a display in one of the rooms in the castle.

The castle's coffee shop is no longer open but we made a final visit to Off The Rails for coffee and cake to keep us going and then took a trip on the Island Coaster, another tour bus service by Southern Vectis, which lasted most of the rest of the day! This took us back down the west of the island to The Needles (but not onto the actual headland as the Needles Breezer had done) and then along the dramatic south coast of the island all the way to Ventnor and then back up though Shanklin and Bembridge, terminating at Ryde. It was not fast; it was not meant to be. This was a ride for the scenery and it was well worth it. We saw both coast and countryside that we had never visited before. After a very good fish and chip dinner at a restaurant on the seafront at Ryde we travelled back to Yarmouth on ordinary service buses with a change of bus at Newport. Southern Vectis provide an excellent service throughout the island with a range of helpful tickets which make getting about both simple and inexpensive. I now have a senior citizen's concessionary bus pass, but still have to pay for my wife's travel, and the Vectis 24-hour Rover ticket meant that after the afternoon's travelling there was still enough validity to get her to Ryde the following morning for the next stage of our holiday. (I did have to pay a fare for myself for the Island Coaster - reduced for a senior citizen - because as a leisure service it is not covered by the pass.)

And so after checking out of The George after breakfast on Sunday we set off by bus with our luggage, changing in Newport again, for Ryde. As it happened we boarded a bus to Ryde immediately after arriving from Yarmouth, and were well ahead of schedule. I had allowed time for lunch in Ryde but we did not need any after a good breakfast, and we had had our fish and chips the previous evening, so we went straight to the pier head on foot and boarded the catamaran that was just docking as we got there. It was a lovely sunny day so for the first time ever we travelled on the "sun deck" of the boat and arrived in Portsmouth two hours ahead of schedule. A Southern train was about to depart calling at Chichester so we hurried to board that and probably broke the record for travelling from Yarmouth to Chichester, if such a record exists, all by sheer chance!

Chichester is a wonderful little city (similar to our home town of Stamford, but rather bigger), and we very much enjoy spending time there. After checking in to the Chichester Harbour Spa Hotel we met our friends for an early-evening drink and then went for our evening meal at the Côte brasserie where we have eaten at least once every time we have been here (why? well, for no other reason than that it was the first restaurant we visited when we first came here five years earlier and we rather liked it!).

The following day, Monday, was our day to join our friends at the coast at Bracklesham Bay after the usual good hotel breakfast. A four-per-hour bus service operates there from Chichester and we had a great day with them both on the beach and walking on the edge of Chichester Harbour.

The view from our hotel room in Chichester,
across the rooftops to the Festival Theatre amid the trees.
On Tuesday we went our separate ways for the morning and early afternoon, although we met for coffee at noon. I explored the western edge of the city where on the map I had seen some evidence of a disused railway line; as a former planner I do like to explore these bits of urban history. Although a footpath/cycleway followed a course which looked like it might have been a railway line, that was only clinched when I found a line of disused telegraph poles. It didn't merit any celebration but it was good to feel right!

Tuesday evening was booked for a musical at Chichester Festival Theatre, the third year we have done this with our friends, and was the usual stunning performance we have come to expect. We are already thinking of 2020.

Wednesday was an empty day in the schedule. I had toyed with the idea of a visit to Goodwood House but this was complicated to book and with much walking involved it depended on good weather, which was far from assured. So that was put aside and we visited the wonderful open-air Amberley Museum, a collection celebrating and remembering Sussex life through industrial and other artefacts and set in a disused limestone quarry. It includes historic buses, a narrow-gauge railway, workshops, a garage, a museum of electrical devices, another collection of TV and radio equipment, a print shop and lots of other exhibits including the limekilns once the centre of activity of the site. The entrance was right opposite the station and so the place was easy to reach and easy to find. We stayed there for most of the day and I took dozens and dozens of photographs.

A mine entrance at Amberley Quarry, as used in the James
Bond film A View To A Kill as Zorin's Mainstrike Mine
For the third time this year we came upon a James Bond connection, as much of the action of the film A View to a Kill was filmed at a mine entrance on the museum site, and there are still two tipper wagons carrying the livery and logo of Zorin Industries. After a visit to a local pub and a stroll along the riverside at Amberley we took the train back to Chichester for our last night.

We were not scheduled to leave until mid-afternoon on Thursday and in the morning after checking out we left our luggage at the hotel and walked the couple of miles to Fishbourne to revisit the site of the Roman Palace which we had seen several years ago on a previous visit. Knowing what to expect we learnt rather more this time and also enjoyed our walk in the sun. We returned to Chichester by bus in the afternoon (no lunch needed after hotel breakfast!), collected our cases and made our way to the station for the journey home.

The trip home from Chichester should have been a simple one: through train to London Victoria, cross London at our leisure (I had allowed two hours) then LNER First Class to Peterborough and a change for Stamford - with enough time during the change to pop into Waitrose for milk. It finished OK but it was not a good start when our first train was several minutes late and was then terminated early at Horsham so we had to travel on the following train. Nevertheless we had time in London to travel from Victoria to Kings Cross by bus (never quick, always interesting!) and still had refreshments in the First Class Lounge before getting our on-time LNER train with complimentary light supper. We took a taxi home from Stamford station at the end of a long day and unpacked rapidly ready for the next exciting instalment of our travelling lives, to follow soon! (And I have applied for delay repay for the Southern Railway section of the trip, which amounted to a half-hour late arrival at Victoria.)