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.

If you live near Stamford, Oakham or Peterborough and are interested in joining me on some of these day trips, please see the "Come with me!" Page.

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 Marble Hill House was almost opposite Ham House across the Thames but had not known 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, both 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.