Saturday, 28 September 2019

Another Group Outing Booked

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

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

Thursday, 5 September 2019

Rhatischebahn Research Trip

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

Fact-finding in Switzerland for a model railway layout

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

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


Leaving London by train

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


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

The train to Davos


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

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


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


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



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

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

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


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



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

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


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


First Class travel on the Rhaetian Railway!






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

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


Tuesday, 3 September 2019

The State Rooms at Buckingham Palace

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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