Tuesday, 21 May 2019

Birmingham with Friends

A visit by train to the historic Jewellery Quarter

Probably NOT real diamonds in this shop window display in
the Jewellery Quarter, but the shop does sell real diamonds!
Birmingham is an easy journey from my home, and a city I have known since I studied there in the seventies, a city with both an interesting past and a lot of promise for the future. A couple of years ago I visited the Jewellery Quarter solo and after the experience of bringing a group to Birmingham for the Christmas Market last year decided to offer them the chance to visit the Jewellery Quarter with me. I wanted to return there myself to see the Museum of the Jewellery Quarter which I had not had the chance to see last time. Seven people signed up to come with me; three bought their own train tickets and left before the shared evening meal and five of us stayed on until the last train home so that we could eat together as we usually do on these trips.

I was able to get a small discount on train tickets by buying them well in advance, and also bought tickets for two attractions, the Coffin Works and a Canal Tour, so that we could be guaranteed places on them. Participants were then free to choose what other activities they wanted to do for the rest of the day.

We left Stamford on the 08:05 train to Birmingham New Street, dead on time out of Stamford and about right for the rest of the journey. Gathering on the platform at New Street we made our way up and out towards Stephenson Street for the Grand Central tram stop - currently the Birmingham terminus of the Midlands Metro but soon to be a through stop as the extension into Broad Street takes shape. For just £1 each we bought tickets to the Jewellery Quarter stop. This bargain fare is available for journeys within Birmingham, and our stop was the last to which it applies. We climbed the stairs to Vyse Street, the main spine of the quarter, and then went our separate ways, agreeing to meet again at the Chamberlain Clock which we could just see up the street at the main crossroads.

I went to the Museum of the Jewellery Quarter, as it happens at the same time as another of my party. There was time to look around the two galleries of self-guided material before the guided tour began. The museum is in two former terraced house which became a jewellery factory and was converted into the museum when the factory closed, and many of the processes of making craft jewellery are demonstrated here - the drop press (which we saw again later at the coffin works), the skill of using a piercing saw, the soldering of delicate components, the polishing. You really have to visit this place for yourself to take in all that is has to show.

The Museum of the
Jewellery Quarter
I was so taken with all that was shown to me that I was shocked when I looked at my watch and saw how little time I would have before the agreed rendezvous at the cross roads, and some of the party would be expecting me in the Rose Villa Tavern for lunch first! So I rapidly replaced my lunch break and had a sandwich in the museum café then ran down to the pub for just a quick pint, in time to gather everyone for the walk down to the Coffin Works.

The tour of the Coffin Works was, of course, similar to the one I had done on my own a couple of years ago so I shall not describe it here, but again the demonstration of how these small Birmingham metalworking factories mass-produced quality goods was fascinating to those who came with me on this trip.

After our tour of the Coffin Works we walked down along the canalside, past several locks, to the waterside by the International Convention Centre where we were due to join the boat for the canal tour. We were a little early and some of us had a very quick walk around the Brindley Place area which is now full of restaurants but which I remember as a semi-derelict old industrial area from my time in Birmingham in the seventies. It is wonderful to see what has been done.

We soon boarded our narrowboat and were taken around some of the coals of the Birmingham Canal Navigation - and past several sites that were still derelict, as well as a lot of new development, too, some of which had changed a lot since my last canal tour. Again, thoroughly recommended if you are in the slightest bit interested in the history or geography of Britain - and the boat has a bar, too!

If you've ever wondered why the mark
of the Birmingham Assay Office is an
anchor ...

After the canal tour one family left to take an earlier train home and the rest of us strolled along the canalside to Gas Street Basin to enjoy a pint at one of the pubs there, then walked back to the City Centre after taking a look at the underside of an aqueduct (Holliday Street) that we had crossed on the boat a short while before.

After the meal at ASK Italian we took the last train home to Stamford, tired and ready for bed on arrival!

I was pressed to arrange another trip this summer. We shall just have to see!


On Saturday I had planned to attend the Market Deeping Model Railway Club’s annual exhibition at Stamford Welland Academy, my local secondary school, and to join the club again after an absence of several years owing to other commitments. But at 4am that morning Lincolnshire Police apprehended four youths who seem to have been responsible for the destruction of almost everything that had been prepared for the show on the previous evening. I had an unwanted free afternoon.

It is quite heartbreaking, As someone who has just spent only six years building a really rather basic model railway I sympathise deeply with those who have lost far more years’ creative work. I have moved home and am struggling to house my layout but cannot bear to dismantle it - how dreadful that there are people who think it acceptable to destroy others’ beloved creations. Theft is understandable but I cannot understand destruction; it looks like they just wanted to hurt people, many too old simply to start again on twenty years’ work. The huge total of crowdfunding gifts will not simply help financially but emotionally, demonstrating a huge amount of goodwill and support.

I did not get to the exhibition to resume my lapsed membership, but I shall be attending the club again soon and will try to take part in its rebuilding and in next year's exhibition, which ought to be outstanding after all that generosity!

Wednesday, 8 May 2019

Tired of London? Not I: I’m Not Tired of Life!

A Week in London by Train

Regular readers will know that I have been to London a lot in the last couple of years. Indeed, apart from actual holidays I have not really been anywhere else much, which may make the blog a little boring, but that is life as a grandparent. This trip, though, has been different. The combination of family away on holiday and my retirement has meant that we could take up their offer of living in their house for a week which they are away, both helping with their security and providing us with a decent break in London.

We are now members of both English Heritage and the National Trust, so having fitted in a week between commitments I browsed the two handbooks for local places of interest and their opening times. If we got on with it we could visit them all, and a couple of other places not in the custody of either organisation, but we probably would not want to do all that. I did a scheme incorporating everything which we could then vary according to the weather and what else we felt like doing. There were two "musts": the Garden Museum at Lambeth (which is in a former parish church where an ancestor of my wife was buried) and Kew Gardens. We also had a gift voucher for afternoon tea at Marco Pierre White's new York Italian (sound interesting!) in Southwark so I get that booked - just one slot on our last day was all that was available - and I contacted a friend to say that I would be in London and he kindly invited us to supper one evening. Trains were booked, bags packed and off we went armed with Oyster cards, Senior Railcards, English Heritage and National Trust membership cards - and a camera.

We travelled as usual with Advance First Class tickets on LNER from Peterborough, which we reached by he short hop from Stamford on Cross Country, standard class. We deliberately had some time in London because I had a haircut booked in Peterborough and by careful choice of trains I did not have to alter the appointment! My wife waited in the coffee bar at the Great Northern Hotel, which passes as LNER's First Class Lounge at Peterborough, and we met in time to get a mid-afternoon train to London. LNER had just introduced a new First Class menu and although we did not get to try the new sandwiches on this short ride we did prefer the new cake and we also had fruit, wine and tea. We travelled straight to our temporary home when we arrived at Kings Cross and found that our family had kindly left us a bottle of Prosecco as a welcome: we did not drink all of it but it was a great start to a week which was to be both relaxing and interesting.

We looked at the weather forecast and adjusted our first few days' schedule to ensure that we at least started with some of the things we definitely needed to do. It looked like I was not going to need the short-sleeved summer shirts I had brought, but the jeans and sweater and waterproof jacket would come in handy! There was not a lot of rain to come, fortunately, but it was going to be cold most days.

Garden Museum
So, on our first morning we caught a District Line train to Westminster and crossed Westminster Bridge to visit the museum of gardening in the former St Mary's Church, just outside Lambeth Palace. The site was chosen for the museum because it is the burial place of John Tradescant (1570 - 1638) and his son who were notable gardeners and established the first public museum in the UK. We had coffee and cake in the museum's café but substantial (and expensive) lunches are also available here.

London Fire Brigade, Vauxhall

Our next visit, continuing the London history theme, was to writer Thomas Carlyle's house, National Trust, in Chelsea. Here we learned a lot not only about the "sage of Chelsea" and his wife Jane but about the rise of Victorian left-wing politics and concern for the poor. Carlyle established a lending library in London and had a huge influence on other writers of his day, including Charles Dickens, who is now much better known. We looked at buses and Underground but decided in the end to walk from Lambeth to Chelsea, a long walk but an interesting one along the River Thames with views of the MI5 HQ and London Fire Brigade HQ at Vauxhall, Battersea Power Station (now being redeveloped), and many other fine buildings less well-known. We witnessed some of the preparations for the forthcoming Chelsea Flower Show, too.

We were well into the afternoon now and the nutritional effect of the coffee-time cake was beginning to fade, so we walked the short distance to the Kings Road, Chelsea and dodging the showers found a craft bakery with a few tables and enjoyed a spicy vegetable concoction with a cup of tea before continuing to Sloane Square for a visit to Peter Jones (John Lewis and Partners) department store in a continuing quest for a red belt for a wedding outfit ... eventually obtained elsewhere later in the week. And so to the Underground and home.

We had decided that the second day would be for Hampstead. There were three places on our list there but we thought that two per day would be all we could expect to do and we chose Fenton House and Ernö Goldfinger's house at 2 Willow Road, within reasonable reach of Underground and Overground stations respectively. A walk across Hampstead Heath to Kenwood, English Heritage, would have to wait until later in the week, or another trip.

We caught the Overground to Hampstead Heath and used our iPhone maps to navigate our way first to 2 Willow Road, National Trust, the middle of a row of three modernist houses and the home of the Hungarian born architect Ernö Goldfinger. It was his first building and provided two homes to rent with his own in the centre. It was intended to showcase his style in order to attract clients, but the Second World War intervened and it was a long time before he could do any more work. For a thirties building it was a very new concept, and looking at it now you would take it for fifties or sixties, so popular did the style become in later decades. Photography was not allowed, so I cannot show it to you and you will have to make your own way there: it is a small house so pre-booking is recommended.

Art deco flats in Finchley Road
We walked from there to the main street in Hampstead and had lunch at anther yummy café then made or way on towards Fenton House, National Trust. The main interest here for us is the garden, and for many it would be the porcelain (including much Meissen) and a collection of ancient keyboard instruments. We walked from there down through Frognal to the Finchley Road and caught a Jubilee Line tube train to Neasden ... Neasden? Yes, it is the nearest station to Ikea, and we had a couple of small things we wanted to get from there - and by the time we got there it was tea and cake time, too, and hot drinks are free to those with Ikea Family cards! Shopping done, and with no time constraints we treated ourselves to a bus ride back into London, an interesting trip down roads we have driven so often but not had time to see properly. We finished up at the "wrong" end of Paddington station and it had started to rain - but actually had I known Paddington a little better it would have been OK, for a new entrance had been just around a different corner from the one we took: anyway, the Hammersmith and City got us home and the rain had stopped!

What an adventurous day it had been - a lot of walks and transport routes we had never done before, finding our way with the help of mapping apps on our iPhones and making great use of the Citymapper and Bus Checker apps. A little supper and a lot of sleep followed!

The next day was a Saturday and I went out on my own for a walk with my camera. The first thing I did was to go to Paddington to see if there was a better route than the one we used in the rain the previous evening: I left the train at Paddington Underground station and within seconds was standing outside in the bright sunshine on a canal bank, with yesterday's bus stop a few yards to my left - duh! The canal was full of narrowboats and there were stalls and displays all along the bank: I had stumbled upon the Caraway Cavalcade, a canal festival for the bank holiday weekend. It was a pity it was so cold: the Pimms and the ice-cream were not selling at all well! I did buy a Sussex Sausage for lunch, though ...

After spending a little time photographing the gorgeous Little Venice with its canal basin full of colourful boats and surrounded by trees with cream-coloured stuccoed buildings peeping through, I then set off for a walk along the Regent's Canal with no particular destination in mind but with perhaps the notion that I might get to The Regent's Park. There was an occasional shower of rain but by the time I reached the entrance to the park, adjacent to the zoo entrance, there was bright sunshine and it was so warm that I took off and carried my waterproof jacket.

I walked across the park and took some photographs of Art Deco buildings around Baker Street and the historic Baker Street station itself before taking the train back "home". A cup of tea and then out together to shop at Westfield (we needed groceries but I somehow ended up with a new pair of shoes as well ...)

On Sunday we attended a local church in the morning and then set off by District Line Underground train to Kew Gardens. There was a bit of a queue (I know, I know) to get in which we could have avoided by advance booking but we had not done so because of the uncertain weather. We had lunch at Kew Gardens (where we happened to meet some friends we had not seen for a while, uttering what a small world it is) and explored some parts we had not seen before. Neither of us had been for many years anyway, and there was much to see. We especially enjoyed the Rhododendron Dell, most of the rhododendrons being in full flower at the time of our visit. When we had walked enough we left about an hour before closing time and made our way back to the station: the platform was packed but a District Line train soaks up a lot of people and we all got seats. Kew itself is worth seeing as well as the Royal Botanic Gardens, and picturesque place with a rather attractive little station and some interesting local shops.

The original ticket windows at Wembley Park
Metropolitan Railway Station, now giving a little of the
Underground's history
On Monday I set off on a photographic trip around north London to capture a few more Art Deco buildings, notably the Underground stations at Rayners Lane and Harrow on the Hill, together the former cinema at Rayners Lane and the original Metropolitan Railway station at Wembley Park. Once back at Baker StreetI went for a stroll through Marylebone. There are some amazing shops in Marylebone High Street but the street is remarkably quiet: round the corner in Oxford Street there are throngs of tourists and yet they do not venture into the side streets. Weird.

On Tuesday I went for a fairly lengthy walk around Holland Park, within a very short distance of Shepherds Bush Green and yet very different in atmosphere. I walked along the side of the park itself to Kensington High Street, different again, and then used my senior citizen's Concessionary Travel Pass to take a bus back to where we were staying. In the afternoon we set out on some errands and then in the evening had dinner with some old friends in Marylebone. We were amazed how quickly time passed and it was midnight when we arrived on the platform at Baker Street station to go home, and a train was waiting, with only about half-a-dozen other passengers on board! We were home just a few minutes later and, midnight having passed, were already on our last day.

The only activity on our last day was a booked Afternoon Tea at Marco's New York Italian restaurant in Southwark, a Christmas gift from our nephew. Very good it was, too, an interesting New York Italian take on an English tradition which worked amazingly well and was thoroughly enjoyed. We can recommend it, but also need to warn that advance booking is essential because it is very popular - this afternoon was the only time in the week that we could fit it in with the restaurant.

And so home: after our tea we had a little wander around Borough Market and bought some Swiss cheese (getting in the mood for a forthcoming holiday in Switzerland!) and caught our Jubilee Line tube train from London Bridge, collected our luggage and set off home via Kings Cross and Peterborough as usual, enjoying the new LNER "garden wrap" with a glass of wine on the way out of London. We really must go north some time and enjoy the new hot food menu ... and our friends in Marylebone are moving to Berwick-upon-Tweed.

Wednesday, 24 April 2019

Here and There for Easter

Getting Around Without the Car

St Mildred's, Addiscombe, partly prepared for
the commemoration of Jesus' last supper
on Maundy Thursday
My first Easter since retiring as a parish priest presented an immediate challenge and an opportunity - and it was hard to know what do with our first chance to go away for Easter for forty years! Ironically the last time we did go away for Easter it was probably to the place where we now live, to visit my parents. We looked around at which cathedrals might be offering the sort of services we would like to attend and had eventually settled on York. I had got as far as choosing a hotel and noting when the train tickets would be available, but plans were changed when our friends invited us to stay with them "some time in the Easter Holiday", and with the late date this year the best time seemed to be the Easter weekend itself, and is he is a priest that solved the "where do we worship" question, too.

We planned to travel on Maundy Thursday, attend their church that evening and on Good Friday, spend Saturday with our daughter who lives nearby, Sunday with them (including the Easter Day church service) and leave on Monday via our eldest grandchild's birthday party. It happened that we saw all of our children and grandchildren somehow last weekend as well as our best friends. But this is a travel blog, and how we got to all these places during one of the busiest times of the year for leisure travel is what I need to write about here.

Our original plan, with Easter eggs and birthday presents to carry as well as four nights' luggage, had been to drive down but the more we thought about the practicalities of driving to west London on Easter Monday and crossing the Thames on Maundy Thursday the harder I worked on a method of packing the gifts for travel by rail! It the event it worked well: I simply took the small suitcase which slides over the handle of my wheeled case for some of the gifts, and we had a shopping bag for the rest. The very warm, dry weather helped a lot, eliminating the need for thick sweaters and waterproofs. By the time all this decision-making was done, it was getting a bit late to buy Advance tickets, but on the other hand we need not be too fussy about when we travelled, so I was still able to get First Class singles each way at a very decent price. All we needed was tickets to and from London: our travel around the capital was by Oyster card.

As usual, I booked standard class singles between our local station and Peterborough from where we travelled First Class to Kings Cross. We travelled over lunchtime and were plied with the usual included sandwiches, fruit and cake with wine and coffee on our way there.

Our friends are in Addiscombe, Croydon, and so from Kings Cross we walked across to St Pancras - there was a little bit of shopping to do there - this station is a great shopping centre in itself - before getting the Thameslink train down to East Croydon. The new twelve-coach trains on that route are so spacious and we have never struggled for a seat; they even have displays showing how busy each coach is, so that no-one needs stand if there is room somewhere. Some say the seats are uncomfortable, but I found them very comfortable - but perhaps I like seats a bit harder than some. The central stretch of Thameslink through central London is never fast, but one does get to see some great sights, especially from Blackfriars station, then the train moves on quickly from London Bridge to its next stop at East Croydon where we left it to make its way down to Gatwick and Brighton.

The view of the City from our train at Blackfriars
At East Croydon we discovered that the tram service was disrupted by work on the tracks but the trams were operating as far as Addiscombe, so we were able to arrive in good time by the expected route. When we left the tram, staff were there at Addiscombe tramstop to advise through passengers on where to go for their replacement bus for the rest of their journeys. I was able to ask about what we should do on Saturday, when we were due to take the tram to Beckenham Junction en route to Orpington to visit family. You can read the solution in a following paragraph. The trip to Orpington became a bit of an adventure, but Transport for London arrange these things so well that it all ran very smoothly.

Worship on Maundy Thursday and Good Friday was suitably moving and evocative, preparing the way for the celebration on Sunday, and apart from that we did little but enjoy our friends' company. On Saturday we were due to have lunch with the family in Orpington with a restaurant table booked for 12:30, and with a replacement bus to catch it was hard to predict how long the journey would take, so we left with plenty of time in hand, just to be safe. The bus arrived fairly soon after we arrived at the stop and although it called close to every tramstop on the route it stopped nowhere else and made quite good time - not as fast as a tram but not too bad, and it interesting to see from the top deck so many streets we'd only seen from our car before. The bus took us as far as Birkbeck where we transferred to the tram for the last short stretch of the journey to Beckenham Junction. I had checked the timetable in advance, and at the station checked that the trains were all running to time, so I knew that we now had over twenty minutes before the train to Orpington, so we took a little walk around the town centre at Beckenham. We had driven through here so many times and thought it looked nice, and now we were able to see it properly - it was good to have had the time to do that: there is more to travel than just arriving quickly.

We were soon on our way again through the leafy outer suburbs and arrived at Orpington with plenty of time for morning coffee (at 12:00 noon!) at Caffe Primo in the High Street after the walk from the station before we met the others for lunch at the brilliant A Mano Italian restaurant, a little way along the street.

While we were there a little extra trip was slipped into the day's schedule involving a bus to the edge-of-town shopping centre to the north of the town. The great thing about cities, and especially London, is that we can get anywhere without needing our car, even when the trip is a last-minute idea. So convenient was the bus service that after a very brief wait we were taken to the shops and then afterwards were able to take another bus from there to our daughter's home for the exchange of Easter presents - we were transporting several of the rest of the family whom we would be seeing on Monday.

So far, so good. By train, tram and bus we had taken all the trips were needed and things were going really well. From the stop near the house we took a bus straight to the station and boarded a train back to Beckenham Junction to begin the "interesting" trip back to Addiscombe. When we walked over to the tramstop at Beckenham Junction, however, the trip began to look even more of an interesting adventure, for the service was suspended because of damage to the overhead electric supply. As ever, TfL managed the matter very well and staff at the tramstop advised us to take a train to Birkbeck from where the replacement bus was still running. We went back to the rail station to find a train about to leave: touching-in with our Oysters we dashed onto the train and I think we were probably at Birkbeck quite a bit sooner than the tram would have been! Once there the rest of the trip went much the same as the way out - and we were there in time for the Easter Eve service which we had not been sure we would be.

The empty tomb of Easter morning
Easter Sunday was Easter Sunday: church and chocolate, Champagne and sunshine; and not much more. We did complete the jigsaw puzzle that had been on the go since before our arrival!

And so home on Easter Monday via the fourth birthday party in west London ... we were given a lift by car to East Croydon station, although we did notice that the tram service had begun running again, so we could have gone that way if we had chosen to. There was a train to London Victoria due within a couple of minutes and our idea was to take the District Line Underground from there to Hammersmith, which was near where we needed to be. Unfortunately I had omitted to check the status of the Underground lines and discovered that the District Line was suspended in that section for Bank Holiday engineering work, so we had to go via two of the deep-level tube lines, changing at Green Park, which has some long walks. Had I realised we could have gone a different way. Still, it was yet another adventure!

After the party there was a short family gathering and then we made our way home the usual way via the Hammersmith and City Line, which was working normally, and LNER from Kings Cross. There was a weekend menu in First Class, so no wine with our sandwiches, but that was just as well healthwise, given the weekend we'd just had! The train was a little late getting to Peterborough - signalled in behind a stopping train through Huntingdon - so we missed our intended connection to Stamford, but fortunately there was a another less than half an hour later. I am discussing this matter with Network Rail because that train from London is so frequently delayed that I do wonder about the practicality of the timetable. We'll see how that goes, but in any case we had a great time with family and friends and some enjoyable rides by train, tram and bus. We felt no temptation to try the car in London again, for delays and disruptions are no less likely to occur with the car.

Tuesday, 9 April 2019

The West Highland Statesman

The Statesman crossing Glenfinnan Viaduct in the
care of 47593 Galloway Princess

Return to our first destination, this time in Pullman Class

I had long wanted to return, hopefully in better weather, and hopefully in better health, to Fort William where our rail adventures began. Each year Statesman Rail offers at least one excursion that serves my home town of Stamford and I was so pleased when the catalogue arrived and I discovered that this year it was a weekend visit to the West Highlands. Even better, this was just after my retirement so I was free to take a long weekend.

Booking was duly made (I was amazed that Statesman Rail didn’t ask for a deposit, and we paid in full on their invoice weeks later) and in due course we set off, on an April morning, departing from Stamford at 05:25 (yes, getting up at 04:15 to catch a train!) for an arrival at Fort William at 20:20. We travelled “Pullman Dining” Class with a window table for two, all meals included along with Buck’s Fizz, coffee, mints, etc etc, and Champagne before dinner. The fare included a bottle of wine between two on the outward journey and unlimited supplies of spring water. A case of “Never mind the destination, enjoy the catering!”

Leg-stretching during the layover at York
The train was interesting: 1970s vintage intercity coaches painted in Pullman livery and reupholstered, and we were hauled by a green Brush type 4 of 1960s vintage, with a blue one attached at the rear.

We boarded just a couple of minutes late at Stamford station: the train is far too long for the platform and we were ushered into one entrance of Pullman Car Helvellyn, shown to our seats and helped to put our luggage onto the overhead racks. Tea and coffee were soon served but the first sitting of breakfast was not served until after a few more stops when enough passengers had joined the train, beginning with Buck’s Fizz and working through porridge and the full English to croissants and coffee. During all this the train took a rather interesting route through the Midlands, towards Leicester but turning north at Syston to join the northbound Midland Main Line through Loughborough to Sheffield then across to Doncaster where we joined the East Coast Main Line to head towards Scotland.
Our vintage diesel locomotive had a top speed of 90 mph which was on the slow side in their seventies heyday when they hauled secondary express services on this route and now is very plodding beside the 125mph trains that normally work that line today, so there were occasional stops to allow “proper” trains to overtake us. There was a forty minute break at York where we were able to take a short walk while the train had its water tanks replenished, ensuring that we could still use the toilets and wash basins all the way to Fort William. 

We were treated to the usual scenery of the East Coast Main Line but at a lower speed than is normal today, so we were able to enjoy it better - when not distracted by the constant flow of food and drink, that is, and in spite of the fairly gloomy weather. There is a wine allocation of half a bottle each on the outward trip, and we had our bottle delivered in time for luncheon because it would go so well with the chicken pie that was served for luncheon, and with the supplied water as well, the wine would suffice for dinner also, on top of the champagne which was to precede it. This trip was all about food and drink! After dinner, miniatures of local single-malt whisky were distributed to each Pullman traveller and we kept ours for later.

We passed through Edinburgh and then west towards Glasgow and along the north bank of the Clyde then turned north onto the West Highland Line which took us eventually, past Faslane nuclear submarine base, along the “bonny, bonny” bank of Loch Lomond, and over Rannoch Moor to Fort William. Our train looked a bit out of place alongside the two Sprinters and four coaches of the Caledonian Sleeper with which it had to share this tiny station! The weather was varied but over this line was misty throughout, shrouding many of the mountain tops and bringing darkness forward an hour or two.

We walked the three minutes to our hotel and were the first to check in, a whole trainload of people behind us. Unpacked, we soon set off on an evening walk around the town, the only real exercise of the day since walking to Stamford station in the morning, other than the short toddle round York station. There is not a lot to see in Fort William at night be we did walk along the loch side (Loch Linnhe - information that came in handy for a general knowledge crossword puzzle in the Sunday Times the following day, as it happened).

After our very early start we retired to bed much earlier than usual, after a tot of the aforementioned local whisky, and were soon sleep, despite some noise from the room above.
Very little time seemed to have passed before our alarm sounded nearly ten hours later, but we were soon up and dressed and enjoying a buffet breakfast in the hotel, up to the usual standard we have come to expect.

The Statesman left bang on time at 09:00 to take us forward on the reminder of the West Highland Line to its terminus at Mallaig. This is possibly the most scenic line in the uK, and although we have been there before it most certainly bears a revisit, especially on our excursion train which paused for a few minutes on Glenfinnan Viaduct to allow us to to photographs. Many lochs, Islands, deer and mountains later we had short time at Mallaig (and on a cold Sunday a short time is more than sufficient) before boarding for the trip back to Fort William - we were taking this trip just for the scenery, although it also included coffee and lavender shortbread on the way out and a light luncheon (salmon steak!) on the way back.

The Sunday afternoon was free in Fort William, and the volunteer-run West Highland Museum, normally closed on Sunday, kindly opened on this Sunday so that Statesman Rail customers could visit. If you’re confused by all the Jameses and Charleses and what a Jacobean is, then this is the place to sort out your mind. You may wish to take notes, though ... It was interesting to learn that the sort of tartan worn is more to do with location that with clan membership, though, for it depended on what dyestuffs could be produced from local plants. A stroll up a hill for a view over the loch and we returned to our room for a cup of tea and then dressed for the only dinner we would have at the hotel, five courses with wine, all included in the cost of the trip. We met some very nice people at our table and were the last to leave, straight to bed!

The last morning was Monday and the best weather was forecast, so after our breakfast we started a spectacular scenic trip back towards Glasgow, Edinburgh and home to England. Words struggle to describe the landscape with its rocky rivers, green hills and snow-covered mountains caught by the sunlight. All the mist had gone and we saw a whole series of views that would grace a few hundred calendars and chocolate boxes, as the coffee and Danish pastries were served. The Statesman paused for half an hour at Rannoch station for a little stroll and an opportunity to photograph both the scenery and the train.

Rejoining the train we were served with water and asked for our choice of wine for luncheon, choosing a Merlot to go with the Aberdeen Angus beef on the seven-course “Taste of Scotland” menu. The spectacular scenery continued for some time, including a horse-shoe curve and many a snow-capped peak. During a pause at Crianlarich the pre-lunch Champagne was served which was eventually followed, one course at a time over a long period, by an amuse bouche, an Arbroath smokie fishcake, highland broth and Aberdeen Angus beef by which time we were speeding along the north bank of the River Clyde towards Glasgow. Just the cheeseboard and pudding to go, with coffee and petit fours ...

We seemed to crawl very slowly through the Glasgow suburbs and then sped to Edinburgh, enjoying the urban splendour of Princes Street Gardens with the famous Castle towering over us before following the Northumberland coast down to Newcastle and Durham. With better weather than on the northbound trip we were able to see Holy Island from our train. We were early into York where there was once more a layover for topping up the coaches' water tanks and we were able to go for a short stroll: there was one of LNER's new "Azuma" trains which we were able to peer inside, so new that its smart livery had not yet been applied and the tables inside were still wrapped in paper!

Back on the train there were hot sausage rolls for supper and then the end-of-term feeling as passengers started leaving from Doncaster onwards, down through the Midlands via Sheffield, Chesterfield, Loughborough, Melton Mowbray until we left the train at Stamford at one-o'clock on Tuesday morning. Straight home to bed ... a fantastic weekend. We had little more than sit on a train for three days, but did take the opportunity to walk whenever we could. The Statesman Rail staff were amazing and we were really well looked-after. Pullman Dining Class is not cheap, but the experience was wonderful. There are two other classes which make the weekend affordable for those who do not want to spend so much, but we paid for no extras (half a bottle of wine each was perfectly sufficient for us!) and there were actually more benefits than mentioned in the advertising: a tin of points, a whisky miniature, a tin of shortbread and, on the way home, the usual Statesman Rail gift of a little box of chocolates. People had come from all over the south of England stay overnight in Peterborough and get up early to catch this train! I'd recommend the experience to anyone (although regrettably not wheelchair users), worth saving for.

Friday, 1 March 2019

Aaaarrrggh! Ahoy There, Shipmates!

Taking Children by Train to East London

Last autumn we visited the V&A Museum of Childhood in Bethnal Green while in London for T&T's cocktail masterclass in Shoreditch. We noticed then that the museum was well on the way to opening a special exhibit on pirates as seen in children's books, films etc and resolved to bring our two pre-school granddaughters to see it as soon as we had the chance. We finally got the chance in February when our London-based granddaughter came to stay for a weekend; the locally-based one was always with us on Mondays so we planned to take them to the exhibition together, return one to her home in London and then bring the local one home on our way home. Simple! Although nothing is ever quite that simple when dealing with little children, of course, but it did all work nicely and we all had a great day.

Both girls stayed the Sunday night and we were due to catch the 09:00 train from Stamford station on the Monday morning. I shall not bore you with the difficulty of having two such young children to stay while the hall, stairs and landing of our new house were being painted, but as you may imagine were slightly nervous about the project. Come the morning, one little girl was happy to bound out of bed and get ready for an exciting day; the other wrapped herself in her duvet and was hard to budge! With not leaving until the 09:00 train we did have enough time to get them both ready and set off for the station, taking two buggies although both girls are capable of walking but it was going to be a long day and we thought they would need help - and it's easier to look after them when they're strapped into their seats, too.

There was plenty of time between trains at the change at Peterborough, partly because we felt we needed to allow for any difficulty and partly because we wanted the best price on Advance First Class tickets: it would be easier to care for the children in the more spacious accommodation of First Class. Things went well and we used the time to buy something in Waitrose and then use the lounge at the Great Northern Hotel, as LNER's First Class ticket-holders can do. Unfortunately when we got back to the station our train was indicated as "Delayed," one of those sinking-feeling notices which tells you little and invites you to panic. I asked at the counter and was told that there had been a signal failure somewhere north of us but that trains were now running again and ours would only be about twenty minutes late, which was bearable. We went a long way round to our platform and waited in the waiting room: there is always something going on at a junction station like Peterborough, so it was not difficult to entertain the children.

We found a vacant table for four and settled in - there is no requirement to use the seats we had reserved, which were a fall-back in case of a packed train but did not make allowance for the two non-paying little ones. The train staff were really good with the little girls and made sure that they had juice to drink when we had our coffee and the Train Manager brought them each an activity book and crayons which whiled away the rest of the journey for them (and for us, helping them with them). This took me back to my childhood holiday journeys when the first stop was at the WHSmith kiosk to buy similar things for me and my sister!

From King Cross we took the Circle Line round to Liverpool Street - this was all fully-accessible and the children could stay in their buggies for this part of the trip. At Liverpool Street we changed to the Central Line for the one-stop ride to Bethnal Green; being a deep-level tube the Central Line meant using escalators and smaller carriages, so one of us took both children by the hand while the other carried the baggage (including one folded buggy) on one of the buggies. There is always baggage when travelling with small children, even on a simple day out like this one.

The Museum of Childhood is a short walk from Bethnal Green station. I'd recommend the museum to anyone: it is not just for children, and indeed the older you are the more it might mean to you. Admission is free as part of the Victoria and Albert Museum, and there is an excellent cafeteria. Indeed we began with lunch, meeting our daughter there with her baby son. So, three cousins together, which was rather nice, and the girls got to see their auntie.

The pirates display was a small and simple temporary exhibition suitable for all ages but aimed at children mainly. As an adult I was interested in the explanation about how these murderous thieves came to be stereotyped with the familiar garb so beloved of children's toys, games, books and films; the children spent a long time playing in the play area with its miniature ship, treasure chests etc and hats, coats, hooks and eye-patches.

Soon it was time to leave and make our way back to Bethnal Green tube station, catching a train straight through to White City for the short walk to the senior granddaughter's home. One child fell asleep on Granny's lap on the Central Line, the other didn't quite nod off on Grandpa's lap. So tired after a great day out. We did hit a slight snag at White City, where the train terminated: I stepped off the train through the sliding doors as usual, with luggage and both buggies, while my wife got the children ready to leave the train; the driver announced that as it was terminating everyone still on board should leave, but by the time Granny had got the girls to the doors, they slid shut. They were not trapped on the train as the doors the other side slid open to let passengers enter from the other side - they left the train and hailed the driver as he came down the platform. He came over the bridge and used a key to open the doors for them so that they could join me and we left together. A slightly scary moment but soon put right by the usual helpful attitude of the staff, although the driver did admit that it had been his fault to start with - he had no way of seeing that there were still passengers on board and needed to give them longer.

We had tea and played with Lego and then left one granddaughter with her parents and baby sister (by now having seen all four grandchildren in one day - although not all together), returning to Kings Cross via the Hammersmith and City Line with the other.

Again allowing plenty of time between trains we spent a few minutes in the First Class Lounge at Kings Cross then caught the Lincoln train back to Peterborough. Having been well-fed already I declined the sandwiches and simply had a can of Hop On Board ale by way of refreshment. We were met on the platform at Peterborough by the remaining grandchild's parents and said our farewells, then had our complimentary hot chocolate at the Great Northern Hotel before catching our train home to Stamford and treating ourselves to a taxi back to our new home and back to the chaos of a house with its circulation space all disrupted. And no children for the first time in three days!