Saturday, 20 July 2019

Sunny Fenland!

A small group visit to the Isle of Ely by train

A recent group trip to Ely, suggested by one of the travellers on the Jewellery Quarter visit a few months ago, only took a small number of participants, a universally available date being hard to find at this time of year, but those who went had a really good day. No rain this time, and quite a lot of sunshine. We began a little later than we usually do, taking the 10:00 train direct from Stamford to Ely, a journey of well under an hour but to a completely different world. The train was on time and the ride smooth; although we did not have reserved seats we were able to find seats together easily enough, and once the train left Peterborough we enjoyed the view across the fens, looking out for Ely Cathedral in the distance. Soon we enjoyed the classic experience of curving around the city and watching the changing shape of the cathedral above the trees, with a final view across the marina as well prepared to leave the train.

We walked down to the riverside from the station and found mooring for the excursion boat. The service times were not posted but there was a note inviting a telephone call for information, so I rang and was told the next departure would be in about ten minutes. We went off for coffee, thinking the following departure might be better - for everyone wanted coffee! Boats operate every half-hour. I have taken the river trip before so after coffee and cake I left the others to enjoy their cruise and set off to do some things of my own, starting with a cycle, toy and model shop where I bought a couple of things for my next railway modelling project, a Swiss Alpine layout which would be quite different from anything I've ever built before. I then went to the Ely Museum in the former gaol building, well worth a visit, but it is to close for a while this autumn for improvement works, so bear this in mind if you want to copy this trip! I met one of the others for "lunch", which following the cake of the morning consisted of just a couple of pints of ale ... and then I had some work to do for my religious order while they went off and visited some of the other attractions that the city of Ely has to offer. If you want somewhere to go on a summer day, I can thoroughly recommend this little city with its history, charming streets, grand cathedral (with its unique lantern roof) and river. It is so easy to reach from anywhere by train, too.

The Riverside Inn:
More of a restaurant than a pub
Two of us met again by chance and went for afternoon tea at the cathedral tea shop - tea and cream scones are a very reasonable price here, and excellent quality. All of us then attended Choral Evensong at the cathedral: during the summer the cathedral's own choir is on holiday but the services that week were sung by a visiting choir from Tucson, Arizona and this was beautifully done. We then set off for dinner together by the riverside. Normally I have pre-booked the evening meal for group outings, but with such a small group I thought it was safe to chance finding a table as the fancy took us, and we decided to go for fish and chips at The Riverside Inn, with a bottle of house white wine between us. The others had ice-cream, too, but after a cream tea I did not feel the need to join them!

And so to the train home, and during this otherwise uneventful trip back it transpired that the postponed trip to Canterbury might happen this autumn - see the Come with me! page for rudimentary information. We happened for some reason to start talking about aircraft and fell into conversation with a young Portuguese resident of Peterborough sitting near us who is modeller of vintage aeroplanes. A great thing about train travel is the people you meet - and even on a short journey entirely in ones own country it is possible to meet some very diverse and interesting people. Travel broadens the horizons if not the mind, and nowhere more so than in the fens.

Friday, 12 July 2019

So we meet again, Mr Bond

Another train trip to London, with a secret mission!

As I have mentioned before, we do seem to go to London rather a lot at present, but it has come to a peak this summer when we managed to have just one complete day at home between visits to the capital. Fortunately the weather was sunny and warm and we managed to wash and dry our clothes before setting off again.

This trip was a while in the planning (unlike the hastily-arranged one from which we'd just returned) and began with a message before Christmas from one of my London-based offspring to the effect that they'd like to give us a present which would require us to be in London for a night and needed to consult our diary. Meanwhile another sent me a link to Secret Cinema asking if it was the sort of thing that might interest me as a present .... putting the clues together I wondered if they were both thinking of the same thing so I suggested that they speak to each other. The result was two VIP tickets on an available evening in July to a Secret Cinema immersive screening of the James Bond film Casino Royale. I cannot say anything about the location of the event for fear of spoiling it for others who attend, but I shall describe something of the experience. However, there was another (welcome) complication first!

Our son who had first suggested the Secret Cinema event found himself and his family invited to a baptism abroad and offered us the use of his house in London for a week, although unfortunately it did not quite cover the night needed for the screening so we had to add a night in a hotel, but it did make another London break which would give us a chance to visit some more of the less well-known places we had begun to see on our visit a couple of months earlier. Once the dates had been decided, fitted in between the Windsor steam train booking and the Secret Cinema booking, with the day at home and a haircut (!), I was still able to book cheap Advance First Class tickets on LNER to London  and off we set.

The luggage was interesting: the weather forecast was warm and dry, starting with some hot, sunny days, but as well as the summer shirts, shorts and other lightweight things I also needed evening wear for the immersive Casino Royale evening, and my wife needed a suitable dress for it. I had never travelled with evening wear before, but it might be good practice for some of the tours we are planning for the next couple of years.

The day we arrived was very hot and we were fairly tired after our travel, perhaps not assisted by the generous amount of wine we had as our complimentary refreshment on the LNER Azuma up to London! We had left Peterborough at 14:10 after having lunch at Sundays, the restaurant at Peterborough Cathedral, which we can thoroughly recommend - if you're hungry: generous roast dinner for two with drinks for under £25.

On Friday we visited the National Trust property at Osterley Park, walking to Hammersmith for the Piccadilly Line to Osterley, a gorgeous little 1934 station on the Great West Road, then walking round to Osterley Park. One really great thing about walking to these places is the "accidental" things we find on the way, and in this case we stumbled upon a disused station on the Piccadilly Line near the shops at Osterley - now I had always thought the line was built in the 1930s and that the present station was the only one that had ever been here, but apparently not: it was once part of the District Railway. To me it remains a mystery why they moved the station out of the town centre in 1934! Maybe they wanted a higher profile on the new Great West Road?

Osterley House
Osterley House was a "party house," as one of the guides described it. meant to impress guests rather than to dwell in, and it certainly impresses, especially from the front. It was the property of the Child banking family, given to the nation early in the twentieth century and later handed by the Ministry of Works to the National Trust for posterity. It is set in great parkland with some lovely gardens and although some of the house is only available for visit by guided tour much of it can be seen "free-flow" and the parkland is available without charge. We had a great lunch at the restaurant in the stables before our tour of the house and gardens and then made our way back to the station, calling on the way at a little farm shop on the Trust land for some very high quality vegetables and salad - a bit heavy to carry home but worth the effort for the next few days' meals.

Walking back from Hammersmith station we called at a little ice-cream parlour which we'd visited a few years before, just to round off the day. We did not need much supper ...

Isle of Dogs seen from Greenwich. The once-dominant 1
Canada Square (with pyramid roof) now just one of many
tall buildings
On Saturday I had most of the day to myself and set off by Underground and Docklands Light Railway to Greenwich. It had been a long time since I had been that way and I was bowled over by how much development had taken place on the Isle of Dogs: the three towers which once dominated the skyline at Canary Wharf were now surrounded by other towers of similar height, and others were under construction. New flats were taking over much of the land to the south towards Island Gardens. Soon my light railway train plunged into the tunnel under the Thames and I emerged from the underground DLR station at maritime Greenwich. After looking back over the river to see the skyline through which my train had just snaked, I set off to explore the area of the former naval college and other buildings which make up the famous symmetrical layout of the Greenwich townscape. The grounds of the former College, much of it now Greenwich University, were being prepared for a concert that evening, part of a series sponsored by Viking Cruises, and a huge cruise liner was anchored in the river off Greenwich. A varied and impressive line-up of performers was advertised but all I saw was workmen, technicians and caterers setting up for the evening. Many parts of the buildings were open to the public and I made a note to return some time when we were together; for today I would just enjoy the walk through the famous spaces and among the buildings.

I did eventually venture into the National Maritime Museum just to see whether it might be of interest (it was!), for admission is free so a long visit to see everything is not necessary - and there was a great café there and by now I needed some coffee! I looked at one gallery on the East India Company, a subject that has always interested me, how a trading company can find itself governing  nation, and left all the others for a future visit. At least a whole day is going to be necessary at Greenwich, and that's without queuing for the Cutty Sark (which I visited about 53 years ago when more of it was original, before the disastrous fires).

We reconvened late in the afternoon and visited the other branch of the same ice-cream shop as the day before, and then went home to cook our dinner ... another great day was ending.

An Exploration

On Sunday we worshipped at the local parish church and then took the District Line down to the end of the line at Richmond, from where we caught a bus to Ham to visit the National Trust property Ham House and Gardens. Ham House is full of paintings and other artwork and much original décor and was inhabited until the mid-twentieth century and witnesses to the history of the family who lived there.

Incidentally, the CityMapper smartphone app is great for planning public transport routes in areas you do not know: we do know this area to some extent so we did not follow everything it suggested, but it did give us the bus routes to use, in conjunction with information from the National Trust website. On our way to Ham House from the bus stop we passed a signpost pointing not just to Ham House but also to "Foot Ferry to Twickenham", just slightly further away, so after looking all around the available rooms of the house and as much of the garden as we wanted to see (fitting in a decent lunch and yet another ice-cream!), we sought out the ferry landing stage in order to go back a different way.

I do like these unplanned "adventures", especially on warm, sunny, Sunday afternoons. The ferry was small and took twelve passengers but the queue was short and we were taken on the first sailing following our arrival there. It operates on demand and at the time we were there there was a constant demand and it performed a shuttle service at just £1 per passenger.

Awaiting the ferry across the Thames

Marble Hill House
One side advantage to this unexpected detour was that it included a walk through the grounds of Marble Hill House, an English Heritage property on our list of places to visit but which we had not anticipated being able to fit into this trip! We still could not go into it for the time was so late by now, but it is undergoing a bit of work at present and so is best left for another occasion. I knew is was almost opposite Ham House across the Thames but had not know that there was a ferry allowing both to be visited in one outing. from Marble Hill we took a bus back to Richmond and then the District Line home to Hammersmith. I hardly dare mention that I succumbed to uxorial urging to visit the local ice-cream shop one more time! We did not eat much that evening.

Back to Kew, without the queue

The weather forecast for the Monday was not so good, but then it had not been so good for Sunday either, and that turned out OK, so we took a chance on the Monday being similar and decided we should go to Kew Gardens that day, a visit we wanted to make during this stay in London and the price of which had been given as one of my wife's birthday presents. So we booked online before we set off, bother receiving a discount and avoiding the queue which we had suffered on the last visit (although we did not expect it to be so bad this time, a weekday in term time). Kew Gardens is so easy by train, with three gates within easy reach of a station; for us the District Line Underground serving Kew Gardens station was the easiest, and for some it would be Richmond or Kew Bridge (South Western Railway) or the Overground to Kew Gardens. We first visited the Palm House and after coffee walked though the newly-planted area which formed part of an enormous project to categorise plants using data now available from their DNA, and then visited the Princess of Wales Conservatory, which had been closed when we last visited and which had some amazing water-lilies among many other fascinating plant exhibits and a few fish and aquatic animals.

Restored dragon at the pagoda
Lunch was at the newly-opened Pavilion restaurant, enjoyable once we got the hang of how and where to order, great quality food and pleasant outdoor dining area, but not cheap. Then came the Temperate House and a visit to the famous Pagoda, newly opened to the public and with its dragons restored after many decades. A sight to behold, and apparently a brilliant view from the top but I dared not risk my health on such a climb and had to leave that to others. I'll get there one day, I hope.

After a cup of tea and a visit to the art galleries and gift shop it was time to return, via M&S for some smoked salmon to make a light supper, and then rest after a lot of walking. Come to that, we had done a lot of walking every day of this holiday, and although tired each evening we feel a lot better for it.

A walk over Hampstead Heath

Tuesday was the last complete day of of our break before we moved on to our pretend MI6 secret mission to the reopening of the Casino Royale at Montenegro. The weather was just right for our planned trip to Kenwood, which involved a train ride on the London Overground to Hampstead Heath station and then a walk of over a mile across the glorious heath to Kenwood. It was a wonderful walk: I have long wanted to see Hampstead Heath and this walk was such an important aspect of the trip to Kenwood that I had not really given a lot of thought to what we would find when we got there! 

Rembrandt's portrait of the artist
I knew it was a large and impressive house overlooking the Heath (and had overlooked London before the trees grew so high!) but I had not taken in just how significant its art collection is. This is not so much a house as an art gallery with a very important collection of painting by well-known artists such as Rembrandt, Reynolds, Gainsborough and Turner. We were bowled over by many of these magnificent paintings, and what's more were allowed to photograph them. The reason is that the house and its artworks were bequeathed to the nation by its last owner, Edward Cecil Guiness, 1st Earl of Iveagh, and it is stipulated that access should be free of charge - so it is a constant drain on English Heritage's funds but a constant joy to lovers of art and architecture. The Earl, heir to the Guinness fortune, bought it to display some of his art collection and wanted that too continue after his death; his purchase of the house prevented it being demolished for redevelopment when the Murray family who had owned it for some generations, disposed of it on their return to Scotland. Upstairs is another art collection from the Earls of Suffolk, mostly of Jacobean subjects. And housing all this is a house remodelled by Adam! This is a place really not to be missed, and is free to enter as well. If you do not fancy the walk across the Heath, buses do get nearer than trains but I have not experienced these so I cannot comment on them.

We had both coffee and a light lunch (although "heavier" meals are available) at Kenwood and after seeing all we wanted we made our way back over the Heath by a different route to the station and back to our temporary home for dinner. And so began the preparations for moving on the next day, hoping it would not be too hot for comfort in my Black Tie outfit for Casino Royale!

And so the following morning we packed our bags, tidied the house and wrote our thank-you card then set off for our hotel for the next night: Hammersmith & City Line to Whitechapel station then walk round the corner to The Whitechapel Hotel. I had never really been to Whitechapel before and as a one-time town planner was interested to see it in the midst of a transformation from one of the cheapest properties on the Monopoly board to a thriving urban centre. The station is currently a bit of a mess: already an interchange between Underground and Overground it has an Elizabeth Line (Crossrail) connection going in as well - if they ever get it finished - and this is probably part of the reason for the place's attractiveness

Our hotel was a new, boutique, hotel in New Road and we had one of their fourth-floor "executive king rooms", small but reasonably well-appointed. We showered (second shower of the day, for it was hot) and changed into our evening wear ready to meet M, Q and all the rest at a mystery venue in east London. Over the weeks approaching the event we had been sent several email messages couched in suitably secret agent type language hyping up the "importance" of our "mission" and advising us to dress in black, white and our "departmental" colour. We had answered an online questionnaire which purported to be sorting out which department we would be in, and therefore which colour we should wear, but I think everyone with a VIP ticket got Control Department and gold; our gift was a pair of VIP tickets and so we dressed with gold accessories. I had always wanted a gold-coloured pocket-handkerchief so this was my chance to acquire one, along with other bits and pieces in the "mission kit" from the Secret Cinema's online shop.

We also had to choose a time to start and we went for 18:15, a bit after the 18:00 opening but, we hoped, early enough to see and do all that was available, and we had to adopt an alias, a person we were pretending to pretend to be (!), and we went as Jacob Bolt and Jenna Buckingham (all the available names began with J & B). We were given a meeting point at a station in east London, which is how we chose Whitechapel as a place to stay, and so when the evening finally arrived and we were all dressed in evening wear fit for a casino, with gold accessories, we set off by train for the rendezvous station which, being top secret, I cannot tell you even now. As the journey wore on and passengers came and went we saw a smartly-dressed couple, he in a purple bow tie and she in purple gown so we had an inkling that they were going the saw way ... and then I saw a couple with matching green accessories, then red, then another green ... no more gold, though. When we got off the train the platforms awash with people in evening wear with coloured bits and pieces and as we made our way to the street there was no way this was a secret gathering as scores of us joined a long line of people being led through unlikely streets to a secret cinema. There are no photographs for we were not allowed the use of cameras or telephones during the evening, our smartphones sealed into pouches for the duration of the event!

At the ticket check we were ushered into a small entrance labelled "Gold Club Members Only" and were given a pack of things including our vouchers for a meal and for two drinks, then we were shown inside. I cannot give you all the details of what we experience, but I can say that the team put on a very good show of pretending that we were on a mission. We could participate as much or as little as we liked, and there was a "world" to explore as this vast space contained all sorts of scenarios with appropriate food and drink available in each one. We had, of course, martinis in the VIP Club bar (where we met M and Q) overlooking the airport, but we had our meal in Madagascar ... As the grand "reopening of the Casino Royale" was interrupted by an event I cannot tell you about the "mission" was "suspended" and we moved into our seats for the showing of the film. Our two-person VIP seats had goody bags on them and bottles of water, and drinks were served at our seats to order - I had to pay for these as we had used our vouchers by this stage - and as the film was shown, various parts of the action were also acted out in the auditorium. At the end of the film we could have stayed on for further drinks had we wished, but we took the train back to our hotel, late enough as it was. At the station the platform was heaving with people from the Secret Cinema: we had arrived in a phased manner but most left at the same time. An almost empty train came in and it left jam packed! People boarding at intermediate stops were amazed that there was standing room only on a train after 11pm. Back to our room, third shower of the day and bed. What an amazing evening it had been!

Waiting for the food! Fortum & Mason
And so home. The following morning we dressed and packed in a leisurely manner and made our way by Underground back to Kings Cross St Pancras and had our breakfast at Fortnum & Mason at St Pancras. this was not the cheap option, at about four times the price of breakfast at our hotel, but it was a very special treat at the end of a great week, and it was handy for the train home.

Workspace in the First Class Lounge at
London Kings Cross
We went over to Kings Cross and tried out the newly-refurbished First Class Lounge which was a huge improvement on the cheap, flimsy and, frankly, silly makeover which Virgin Trains East Coast had done a few years before. There were many comfortable places to sit and the space looked much more efficiently used, so I expect that they also fitted in rather more waiting passengers than before, as well as accommodating in more comfort. We went for a cosy little space for two, but there were larger spaces for larger groups, tables and chairs for those who wanted them, and partly-screened carrels for those who wanted to work or study, with plenty of power outlets and USB charging sockets.

When our train, the 12:30 to Newcastle, was called it turned out to be a diesel High Speed Train instead of the expected electric train so all the seat reservations were in unexpected places but the train staff had done their best and we were directed to our seats efficiently and caringly. A sandwich and wine were served before we changed trains at Peterborough and made our way home. As we went to bed after an evening unpacking and tidying away it was hard to believe that previous night we had been at the Casino Royale with James Bond ... we had, hadn't we? Or had we?

Saturday, 6 July 2019

The Royal Windsor Steam Express

LNER 4-6-0 "Mayflower" with The Royal Windsor Steam
Express at Windsor & Eton Riverside

Pullman-style service and steam haulage from London Waterloo

Our daughter and her husband both had significant birthdays this summer and their combined birthday treat was to be a day in Windsor, travelling there by Steam Dreams' new-for-2019 express from Waterloo, Pullman dining class. We combined it with a couple of days visiting them (and our baby grandson), all by train (with a hint of bus!). The weather was extremely kind to us and all five of us had a great time.

So we set off after church on a Sunday, the 14:00 train from Stamford (which is only the second departure towards Peterborough on a Sunday, the first being just an hour earlier - obviously a Puritan timetable that assumes we all go to church!). Soon we were in London after a quick and simple change of train at Peterborough, another experience of LNER's new class 700 "Azuma" train: having got to grips with adjusting the seat we found this rather more comfortable than our first ride a couple of weeks earlier. We had a couple of little shopping jobs to do at St Pancras (handy, there being such good shops there) before going to the basement platforms for our Thameslink service across London to London Bridge - again all quick and simple - where we took the next departure for Orpington. All trains on time, all with space for us and our luggage and all clean and tidy. We travelled First Class on the trunk haul from Peterborough to London and were served coffee on this part of the trip. Through London to Orpington we used our Oyster cards and then to our daughter's home for dinner I had free bus travel from my Lincolnshire County Council senior citizens' bus pass!

A word about luggage. We normally use wheeled suitcases, as described on my page about luggage, but as this was only two nights and hot, dry weather was expected we each took a small backpack instead, which worked remarkably well. I travelled in the lightweight summer suit I had decided to use for the Pullman trip to Windsor, so all I had were shorts, two clean shirts and underwear, and sandals, together with shaver, toothbrush etc..

After dinner we walked back into town and checked in at the Premier Inn in Orpington, the town's only hotel, which opened just a short while ago and saved us a lot of difficulty when visiting family in this area. There was the usual Premier Inn standard of room: spacious and pleasant without being luxurious, and we had a great couple of nights there. The middle day was spent doing odd jobs at the family home and having lunch in town (The Orpington restaurant and record shop - yes, really - is to be recommended for quality and service, and no, I am not paid to say that!). Then came The Big Day.

The Royal Windsor Steam Express runs three times a week, all on Tuesdays: morning, late morning and afternoon. We were booked on the late morning departure from Waterloo at 11:15. We could not afford to miss it, of course, so we travelled into London in good time and although there was some problem somewhere that made some of the trains from Orpington to London rather late it did not really affect us because we simply got on a late one running at about the time of the one we were intending to catch. The trains go on from London Bridge and we alighted at Waterloo East, which has a short bridge connection to the main Waterloo station. We were in good time and enjoyed drinks at a café on the concourse before queuing for the platform; all these Steam Dreams specials go from platform 19.

Platform-end photographers await
the steam express at Waterloo
We were in plenty of time and I went to the end of the platform intending to photograph the train arriving. That's when the only problem of the day arose: after our train was supposed to be there, a service train came and occupied the platform, and then left again and then we were informed that because it was late we would all have to board as quickly as possible so that it could depart with no further delay - although frankly the best photos would be had at Windsor anyway, but the delay was a bit annoying with a young baby in the party.

We took our seats at tables dressed with linen cloths and fine cutlery, and as soon as we boarded the train was off, chuffing lightly out through the London suburbs among the local electrics, and the light meal was served: orange juice, Champagne, a very nice little granola yogurt and a cooked main course of mushrooms with sauce on toasted muffins, followed by coffee. Once clear of junctions and frequent stations the train sped up and the exhaust beat was more audible with less background noise. The staff were great and looked after us well. All to soon we were at Windsor & Eton Riverside station and that part of the trip can to an end. But the visit to Windsor was just beginning!

We had a great day but it loses a lot in the telling, so I shall not bore you with the detail, but we had a stroll over the river and around Eton, and then back into Windsor through the shopping streets with a brief peek at the Castle, and our grandson had his first go on a swing in a public park. The strange timing of meals was capped by ice-cream sundaes ...

And so to South Western Railway's service train back to Waterloo. We were quite impressed by the standard of accommodation on this train which is very much a local service: comfortable seats, charging points for our smartphones, free wifi on board. And the train was clean and on time. To round off a great day we arrived into the former international platforms at Waterloo, recently converted for local use, a bright, airy end to the day out.

But our travels were not yet over and after bidding the family farewell we made our way back to Kings Cross for the journey home, having had our luggage with us all day - that was why we wanted backpacks rather than cases this time! Waterloo to Kings Cross is awkward, and my younger days I used to walk much of the time, but it is a long way after a heavy day. We took the Northern Line tube to Euston and then walked from there to Kings Cross. The First Class lounge at Kings Cross was closed for refurbishment so we were given access to a room at The Parcel Yard pub, but it was not ever so relaxing there and refreshments were minimal. Still, the train was soon ready and we took our seats on another "Azuma", connected to Stamford and walked home at the end of another exciting adventure by rail.

Friday, 5 July 2019

"Never at Home"

The train takes the strain!

I am currently writing up a very exciting trip to Windsor and this will be swiftly followed by my upcoming visit to London (again - more historic places that are less well-known), and meanwhile this summer's holiday to the south coast of England will soon be upon us, and then a fact-finding tour of the Engadine in Switzerland. It's all "go" for us at the moment.

Wednesday, 19 June 2019

I’ve Been Expecting You, Mr Bond

Alpine horn for the tourists at Schilthorn: cut-out of James
Bond disguised as Sir Hilary Bray lurks behind!

A week by train in the Bernese Oberland

Ever since our first visit to the Alps five years ago we have wanted to return to visit some places we had not then had time to see. I had begun to think about spending a week at, say, Interlaken, which would enable us to trip out to The Schilthorn and Jungfraujoch plus any other places that might come to mind, and when I opened my latest Great Rail Journeys catalogue I saw the Inclusive Jungfrau tour which provided all that we needed and more, with seven nights in Grindelwald (and, bonus, a night in Colmar on the way there, a place we had wanted to revisit after a short stop there on a previous trip). A visit to Jungfraujoch was included, as well as visits to Röthorn and Schynige Platte, and there were two free days on one of which we could arrange to visit Schilthorn, so we simply booked the Great Rail Journeys package, with a night in London before departure, and waited for the date to come!

It was an early start from London St Pancras International so we did not have breakfast at our hotel but went straight to meet our tour manager Stephen at the Great Rail Journeys office at the station. Once through check-in we had coffee while we waited for our train to Paris, and then enjoyed the light breakfast served on the train (as usual we were travelling Standard Premier Class, with a light meal included). There was supposed to be a coach transfer from Paris Nord to Paris Est but it was a tight connection and an easy walk so Stephen decided it would be quicker simply to walk between the stations rather than find the coach, load the luggage, struggle through traffic and unload the luggage again, so we had a little exercise between stations in Paris before continuing by TGV to Colmar.

At Colmar the weather was almost as hot and sunny as on our previous visit, but we had both the evening and the following morning to enjoy this delightful little city, well worth seeing. And I am pleased to say that the Grand Hotel Bristol, conveniently opposite the station, was much improved on our previous visit.

We left Colmar earlier than planned so as to travel on a TGV straight through to Basel where we changed trains for Interlaken. Because we had started early we had a couple of hours at Basel and as well as enjoying coffee under the trees at a pleasant pavement café also had a walk though the city centre to a river bridge, a bakery supplying our needs for lunch.

From Basel we took a train through to Interlaken where we connected to a mountain railway train to Grindelwald, at the foot of the Eiger. We stayed with the rest of the group (forty including the manager, the biggest group with which we’d ever travelled) at the Romantik Hotel Schweizerhof, and I would recommend it to anyone. Our room was huge and stylish, reminiscent of a James Bond film set! We had a view of the Eiger through our patio window, a walk-in wardrobe, double bath (!) and separate shower and a control panel for lighting and window shutter that took a few minutes to learn! We were going to be there for a week so we unpacked and made ourselves at home.

Unlike any previous Great Rail Journeys tour we had done, we were supplied with a packed lunch each day by the hotel, so days out did not have to include a search for lunch; and after dinner, sleep and breakfast we picked up our little paper carrier bags and made our way through the village centre to the cable car station for first exciting excursion, to Grindelwald First. For me this was a bit of a test run: the planned trip to Schilthorn would involve several cable cars, many of them very high above the ground and very long, so this little trip to First would reveal how comfortable I would be with cable car travel. Fortunately it was fine, although in terms of the experience itself it was disappointing that there was dense fog - or cloud if you prefer - nearly all the way up. There was not a lot to see from the peak, either, but we did do the Cliff Walk around it even though the scenery was nowhere to be seen, and we enjoyed coffee before travelling back down to the village, eating our lunch in the cable car on the way. In the afternoon we discovered the local church and the local museum and browsed around these. Dinner at the hotel and bed, ready for the first Big Day tomorrow!

Approaching Schilthorn by cable car
"Tomorrow" was Day 4, Friday, the first of two free days, and we had planned that if the weather was suitable we would visit Schilthorn, one of the highest peaks in the region and from which great views could be had (in suitable weather) and which appeared as "Piz Gloria" in the James Bond film, "On Her Majesty's Secret Service." After taking invaluable advice from our Tour Manager we set off for Grindelwald station and bought our travel tickets for the day, out via Kleine Scheidegg and Stechelberg and return via Mürren and the short route via Zweilütschinen. All we needed was three tickets, all of which we were able to buy at the station using our half-fare passes supplied as part of our holiday package.

The view from the terrace
We set off on the next train to Kleine Scheidegg and changed trains there for Lauterbrunnen. We had been this way five years ago in winter and it was interesting to see it in June: not much different, really! Once we had climbed out of the valley from Grindelwald there was still plenty of snow until we descended the other side through Wengen to Lauterbrunnen, where we caught the connecting bus to the cable car terminal at Stechelberg. Here we started the long climb to Schilthorn. There were three changes of cable car on the way and each time we just had a few minutes walk, with a huge crowd of other people, and then continued onto the next stage. One change was at Mürren where would be leaving the cable car on our way back. The views on the climb were great, but nothing compared with what awaited us at the top. From Schilthorn it seemed that we could see most of Switzerland! We could certainly see the Jura mountains in the northwest (which we had visited twice on other occasions), and Mont Blanc in France to the southwest, and the huge stretch of the midlands plain looking north and east. The great bulk of the Eiger and Jungfrau hid the southeast from our view. It was said that you could see the Matterhorn from here but that did elude me. It was a very slightly misty day, but not far from perfect for the panoramic view.

Looking down on the 007 walk of discovery - a bit
snowbound for us
We ventured into the revolving restaurant which had been the set for Blofeld's base in the film, but we did not eat there, having our packed lunch from the hotel. Beneath was a number of 007-related displays which we visited but which were not the reason for our visit - although without the finance from the film the restaurant might never have been completed and the cable cars would not have survived so we would never have been able to visit at all! I am a bit of a fan of the film, actually, as it is one of those which fairly closely follows the book (apart from having Bond drive an Aston Martin instead of his Bentley).

Going back down we were bogged down in the crowds and twice had to wait half-an-hour for cable cars, but this cannot be helped if we visit a popular place on one of the the few days with good weather! We left the cable car at Mürren and walked through this cliff-top village to the rail station at the other end. On the way we visited a gift shop where we bought our souvenir (a gift for ourselves!) for the holiday, a fondue set - quite reasonable prices, unusual for Swiss resorts. We boarded the train and travelled to the other end of the line at Grutschalp where a waiting cable car took us down the cliff to Lauterbrunnen. From there we returned to Grindelwald by the shortest rail route for a shower, change of clothes and dinner with the rest of the group. I was hailed by one of the men, "I've been expecting you, Mr Bond:" four of the group had been behind us in the cable car queue on the way down, but we had not spotted them!

The train stops at a viewpoint on its way up
through the Eiger
On the Saturday was the inclusive trip to Jungfraujoch on the famous Jungfrau railway which actually climbs up through the Mönch and (the north face of!) the Eiger, to the highest railway station in Europe. Again there were lots of people (and we actually met a young couple who had been beside us in a cable-car queue the day before!) but this time we had group reservations on the trains so there was no problem with travel. We began with the train to Kleine Scheidegg again and this time crossed to the Jungfraujoch platform to the dedicated group travel area from where we were escorted to our carriage. Only the first part of the journey is in the open air, and all of it climbs steeply; soon were we in the tunnel and then the train stopped at an intermediate station for five minutes, the sole purpose of which was for us all to leave the train and look out through windows cut into the rock of the mountainside. (If you look at the north face when the sun is low and shining in an appropriate direction you can see the light glinting off these windows).

The view from the terrace of the
High Alpine Research Station
Back on the train we climbed up to the underground station at the "Top of Europe" and made our way through the pedestrian tunnels into a large sunlit space with a gift shop, coffee bar and the start of a suggested tour through all that the Jungfraujoch had to offer. Unfortunately a panorama viewpoint was closed for improvement work (indeed the station was full of contractor's plant as well, so we did not have the best introduction as we left our train, but there is not much space up there!). There were active things to do outside, but for me the main point was the view across Switzerland once again. We tried to see the Schilthorn where we had been the previous day, but cloud kept intervening and we never did see it. The view down over the Aletsch Glacier, still covered in snow, was breathtaking.

Aletsch Glacier
Speaking of which, we had to move slowly and carefully at these altitudes with thin air! No rushing about possible. There was an "ice palace" with sculptures made of ice - incredibly difficult to photograph - and much else to occupy our time until it was time to gather and make our way slowly to our train back down. Only in Switzerland have I ever experienced altitude ear-popping on a slow train!

From Kleine Scheidegg we went back to Grindelwald and dinner. Day 5 had come to an end, and with it the sunny weather. The rest of our time was to be murky and damp, but still exciting and rewarding.

The locomotives on the Brienz-Rothorn line are angled to
keep their boilers horizontal on the steep gradient
Sunday was the Feast of Pentecost and was a public holiday along with the Monday after it, but the tourist attractions were still open, although many shops were closed. Yet another mountain ascent awaited us, although this time the train itself was part of the attraction, for it was steam-powered and climber steeply up from its terminus opposite the main station at Brienz to the top of the Rothorn. We had to travel to Brienz via a change of train at Interlaken, following the coast of Lake Brienz. After a short wait we took our reserved seats on the Brienz-Rothorn train and were pushed up the steep gradient by a powerful little locomotive that made a great deal of noise with each exhaust blast. I had experienced nothing quite like it in all my years of train travel (going back to the days when steam trains were normal).

Again we climbed up to where there was still snow. The snow was staying longer this year than usual and many normally-open walking routes were still closed - this is June - and some mountain railways only started operation this week. From the peak we could look down on the line and see other little trains making this way up and down. It was cold and damp and many of us went down on an earlier train than the one booked because walking was limited and the views restricted by the mist and rain.

We were among the "advance party" on an early train back and so had an hour to spare in Brienz, where we walked along the promenade on the lakeside, then up through the town and past the shops - grateful that it was a Sunday and we could not spend any money! Amazingly both the greengrocer and a hardware shop had wares on display outside with no worry about theft. This is an amazingly honest part of the world. The town was preparing for a yodelling festival, but we would be long gone before it began.

The day out ended with a cruise along Lake Brienz from the mooring by the rail station in the town where we met those who had stayed the course at the mountain-top. Our Tour Manager had been given a free upgrade to First Class for us all on the lake steamer, and so we sat on the upper deck (under cover!) and enjoyed a glass of sparkling wine - pushing the boat out, as they say, at Swiss prices - as we travelled in style back to Interlaken Ost for the train home to Grindelwald. It had been a really great day out in spite of the cold and rain at the mountain-top. I would not have wanted to miss the train ride up there nor the views when we could see them, and it was not so cold or wet down by the lake.

The train at its mountain terminus
 On the Monday came our last mountain railway of the holiday. I don't think I've ever travelled on so many, or such odd, railways in one holiday before. We began by travelling towards Interlaken again but this time leaving the train at Wilderswil, just outside Interlaken, to take the mountain railway to Schynige Platte. Like the train to Rothorn, this one had trains of just two coaches pushed up the hill by a locomotive in the rear, but this time they were electric locomotives and considerably quieter. They were antiques nonetheless and the ride was amazing.
The Alpine Garden
Schynige Platte is worth visiting for itself, as well as for the views from the top. We could only see well for the first ten minutes after leaving the train, and this was the first time I had been able to study the territory in which we had been staying for a week and which I had visited five year before on a day trip. We could see the valleys of the two branches of the river which come together at Zweilütschinen, each with a high cliff along each side. On the high plain between them sat Kleine Scheidegg and Manlichen and on the west clifftop was Mirren; beyond the cliffs on either side and in the distance beyond the plain were the enormous mountains that surround the whole Jungfrau region which we had been exploring on this fantastic holiday.

Looking back up the valley
There are many walks available from the station around the mountain top, but again with little to see and a cold rain we decided not to wander far and spent our time looking at the Alpine Garden and its little exhibition before going back down on an earlier train and then travelling back to Grindelwald the long way round via Lauterbrunnen and Kleine Scheidegg, back in time for dinner. It was so misty that at Kleine Scheidegg as we changed trains we could not see the Eiger!

A Neuchâtelois farmhouse at Freilichtmuseum Ballenberg

The next day, Tuesday, was our last complete day in Switzerland and was a free day. We had no agenda for the day when we set off from England, but while in Brienz we had found out about an open-air museum not far away at Ballenberg which had a collection of about a hundred historic buildings re-erected there from various parts of the country when their removal was required. The two areas we are most interested in, Neuchâtel and and Graubunden Cantons, were not well represented, but it still sounded like and interesting place to visit and so in the morning we set off once mare for Grindelwald station. Again, they were able to sell us tickets for the whole day, including vouchers for entry to the museum at a reduced price for train travellers; the travel tickets included the bus from Brienz to Ballenberg and back and well as the train to Ballenberg via the change at Interlaken Ost. It is all so much simpler in Switzerland than at home: even though a variety of public and private bodies provide the transport it operates as one system so changing to bus or cable car is exactly like changing trains, with through tickets available.

Although a free day, the hotel still provided the packed lunch again and we ate ours during our time at the museum, which was like a long country walk punctuated by visiting the old buildings, some of which were just as they had come, some restored extensively, and some re-purposed to display artefacts or bygone ways of life, crafts etc.. The rain came and went, but we had a great day before taking the bus back to Brienz then the trains "home" in time to shower and change before our last dinner at the hotel. Back to our splendid room to pack ready for the morning's (fairly) early start, for we were returning to London in one day.

International trains at Paris Nord
LNER "Azuma" at London Kings Cross
The trip back via Paris went well apart from a twenty-minute delay to our Eurostar to London: it came in late and left late, and the carriage numbers were wrong, too, so staff had to redirect us to the right part of the train - chaos but once aboard it was a good trip with the usual light meal. We had booked a hotel room in London for the night just in case we were late and could not get the last train to connect for Stamford at Peterborough, but on reflection it would have been cheaper to take a taxi from Peterborough than to stay overnight in London! However, staying did mean that we had an opportunity to visit family in London for a good part of the day before travelling home at our own convenience, having the flexible tickets which Great Rail Journeys had provided for us. Icing on the cake was that our train to Peterborough was one of LNER's new class 800 "Azuma" sets which it was nice to try; our first class 800 ride.

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.