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.