Sunday 27 October 2019

London Never Ceases to Amaze

It started as a short visit to daughter and grandson in Orpington, although we did take a slightly different route by way of a change, but on the way back we popped in on an exhibition at ExCel and that's where it became amazing, as I shall explain shortly!

For a year now Thameslink have operated weekday half-hourly through trains between Peterborough and destinations in Surrey and Sussex, using a new tunnel to reach their subterranean platforms at St Pancras International inserted of terminating at Kings Cross. The trains go on to the usual Thameslink central London stations including London Bridge, which is the station from which we depart for Orpington. They stop at several stations between Peterborough and London, so they are not for those in a hurry, but it does mean there is less fuss crossing London,  with just one change of train.

We booked the tickets just a day in advance, Super Off-peak Day Single, standard class, a reasonable price. Catching the 14:00 train from Stamford to Peterborough we had plenty of time at Peterborough to go across to platform 1 where the London train was already waiting - the Thameslink trains start and end their journey here. There was plenty of space on the train: they are twelve coaches long and it was easy to find a seat where we could keep an eye on our luggage and enjoy the ride. The seats are firm but comfortable, similar to a good bus seat. We had plenty to read and the trip soon passed. We barely noticed the station stops until we got to London and had to get ourselves ready to leave the train at London Bridge.

We were going to use our Oyster Cards for the rest of the trip to Orpington, so we had to go out through the ticket barriers using our tickets to London, and then come back through again using our Oysters to ensure that we paid the correct fare for the journey. That took just a few seconds and we caught the very next train to Orpington, just a few moments after our arrival at London Bridge. Orpington was the train's first stop, so it was a quick and easy journey, then we walked down to the Premier Inn where we had a room booked for the two nights we were staying. All three trains were on time and our room was ready for us, and after unpacking we walked to our daughter's home for our little grandson's bedtime and our dinner. We spent the next day together and the third day, Saturday, it was time to leave. We had the day to ourselves and the plan was to speak some time in London. It so happened that there was an exhibition at ExCel (with a convention for those who wanted it) for those interested in family history research, RootsTech, and we had obtained free tickets for the exhibition only by email before leaving home. We were unsure how interesting it might be, but in fact it took my wife all the time we had to spare, while I stayed for some of the time as well.

So it was that on our return trip we alighted at London Bridge as usual but then took the Jubilee Line Underground to Canning Town where we were to change to the Docklands Light Railway to get to the ExCel Centre. The Underground train was packed, even though we had let the first one from London Bridge go without us (just one minute before) as it was so full. Some other passengers were in interesting costumes although the only one I recognised was a Jedi knight. Was there something on at ExCel, people were pondering, but I did not think RootsTech would draw such crowds, nor in such interesting clothes, although in London you can never be sure ... As we changed trains at Canning Town, people were being guided, in their hundreds, to the platforms for the DLR for what sounded like "Commicon", and several of them were interestingly attired. We began to realise that there was indeed something else on at ExCel - not a surprise as it is a big place and quite capable of mounting several events at the same time. The DLR train we boarded was an extra added to the schedule to help with the crowds, terminating at Prince Regent station for Comic Con, for so the comic convention was really called. Leaving the train at Prince Regent we were greeted by a Stars Wars fanfare from the public address system and herded off the station, urged not to take the time to touch out our Oysters as it would cause congestion. At the entrance to the exhibition centre, as the Comic Con visitors went their way to another door, there stood meeters and greeters in RootsTech t-shirts and we found ourselves in the right place. I have a feeling I would have been equally happy at either event, to be honest, possibly even finding more of interest at the other (it being so much bigger and more varied), and would not have been out-of-place in ordinary clothes for by no means everyone was dressed up, probably about half.

At the end of the day we made our way by the Docklands Light Railway to Bank station where we walked through to Monument station for the District Line to Kings Cross for our train home. This is probably not the quickest way to go but we had plenty of time in hand and the District Line is so much more pleasant to use than the Northern Line tube, especially at the Kings Cross end. We actually went via the shops at St Pancras for we had run out of Fortnum & Mason's St Pancras Blend tea and visited their shop to buy some more - they only sell it at their St Pancras shop! For the return trip we were booked on a fast LNER train with Advance First Class tickets as far as Peterborough, so at Kings Cross we were able to use the First Class Lounge to await its departure, with a very welcome cup of tea. The train left just a touch late and was quite full. We were served the usual light refreshments: sandwich, drinks (not alcohol at weekends), crisps, cake, biscuits.

At Peterborough we had to take a rail replacement bus service to Stamford because the railway line was closed for maintenance work, but I had known this when booking the tickets and had taken it into account when planning the journey. Not as quick and simple as the usual train, but it was a very comfortable coach rather than an actual bus and gave us a smooth ride to the station in Stamford where those going further would be able to take the waiting train to Birmingham while we we set off across the Meadows on our walk home.

Sunday 20 October 2019

A Short Break at Short Notice

By train to Bath, with a special hotel deal

An email message arrived a little while ago from The Royal Hotel in Bath, whose loyalty scheme I joined about three visits before. I was offered, for about the usual price of two nights' bed-and-breakfast, two nights with bed, breakfast and dinner, with a bottle of wine at the dinner. A cream tea on one afternoon was also part of the deal. The dates were restricted: it was clearly an offer aimed at filling space during the relatively quiet time between the summer holiday period and the forthcoming Bath Christmas Market. I have received this offer a couple of times before and had always been unable to take them up on it, but now that I am retired it was possible to go for it at last! I asked if they could include tickets to Thermae Bath Spa and they said they could, but they could only sell full-price tickets and I could do it more cheaply by buying them at a discount price from the spa myself, so I took that advice. They had no standard rooms left at the advertised ("from ...") price but I was happy to take a better room for a little more money. We have stayed in several different room at this hotel and have never been unhappy yet, but it would be interesting to see what their superior rooms were like, at a bargain rate.

From the hotel phone call I moved onto the Cross Country Trains website where I sought decently-priced conveniently-times trains. As we were only having two nights away I went for relatively early trains there and late trains back, and was able to book Advance First Class for both legs of the journey as far as Bristol, and then just day single Standard Class for the short trip between Bristol and Bath. I paid the small fee to have paper tickets which I collected from the station when I was next there. I am not a fan of having tickets on my iPhone: when two are travelling together, electronic tickets are much more of a palaver to show when asked, and one of these days I'll drop my phone or something and the tickets will become invisible. I do have a lot of things stored on my phone, it's true, but I have physical copies of them elsewhere, too!

Changing trains at Birmingham:
the amazing architecture of New Street station
On a Tuesday morning we set off for Stamford station, a last-minute check on live departures on Cross Country's app revealing that there had been a signal failure at Cambridge and our train, the 10:05 to Birmingham, was cancelled. It did show that an additional train had been put on in its place but that, to, had been cancelled. We went anyway so that we could take anything that might be going but that we could go somewhere nearby for coffee if there was going to be a wait for the next train. The station staff could not tell us what might happen, although it was clear that there would be no 10:05. He was not confident that there would be a 11:05 either but I was much more optimistic: surely they would terminate eastbound trains early and send them back to Birmingham - or they would soon acquire a heap of trains at Peterborough or Ely! Sure enough, over our excellent cup of coffee at Gooch's Coffee Shop I checked Live Departures again to see that the 11:05 was on time, having started at Ely. After coffee we returned to the station and resumed our journey. We had Advance tickets, normally only valid on the booked train, bit, of course, we were allowed to use them on the next train in these circumstances; our seat reservations did not apply, but we were easily able to find seats together. In fact we had a very smooth and easy journey after that, just an hour late (which was not really important to us on this occasion). The Train Manager endorsed our tickets so that we could demonstrate to his colleague on the connecting train to Bristol that we had missed our booked connection because of a cancellation on this leg, although in the event he just took our word for it anyway.

Again, the journey was smooth and easy, and lunch was served on the way (no wine on these trains, but good sandwiches). At Bristol we took the next train to Bath Spa, which was a GWR InterCity Express Train bound for London, our first ride in one of their new trains. I have to say I found it very comfortable, although I have heard much criticism of the seats. They are, of course, just like the "Azuma" trains of LNER but with different décor.

Mushroom risotto with peas
At Bath we walked across the road to the hotel and checked in. Our room was excellent! We decided that when booking in future we would always ask for this room (although not in summer because it faces south and would easily overheat on a sunny day). It was on the third floor and overlooked the station ...

After unpacking we went for a walk into the city. I was keeping an eye on the shops for a new raincoat since my ancient M&S trench coat had worn out a couple of years ago, and we saw just the thing in a shop in Bath city centre. Trying it on it fitted wonderfully and was just what I needed - a deep breath was needed when paying for it because the shop turned out to be Gieves & Hawkes - although the cast will probably last me the rest of my life so is actually good value and an excellent investment when I stop to think about it.

We soon returned for the first of our included dinners! It is a sign of how popular the restaurant is that even though I booked the dinner times only the day after I booked the room the latest time I could get was 18:45. The restaurant is open to non-residents and is well-regarded. We had the run of the à la carte three-course menu with wine up to £23 (which was almost all the non-sparkling wine on the list), but any extra sides would be added to our room bill - but even these were only £2 a time and we decided to share some mixed vegetables. A walk up three flights of stairs is just what is needed after a three-course dinner with wine, and fortunately that was available to us! We only used the lift when we arrived with our luggage and when we left with our luggage on the last day, so we made sure that whatever else we did or didn't do, we were not short of at least some exercise! We had a fairly early night after all our travelling and the early dinner, looking forward to our visit to the spa which we had scheduled for the following morning.

Thermae Bath Spa
After an excellent night's sleep we had slightly less for breakfast than is often the case when staying at hotels: it really did not seem long since the three-course dinner ...  Then we went along to the Thermae Bath Spa prepared to join the usual queue. We had downloaded The Times to our iPhones using the hotel's excellent free WiFi so that we could do the Quick Cryptic crossword puzzle while queuing ... but there was no queue. We walked in through the door and waited for one person to finish paying and then it was our turn. Sure enough, 10% discount applied (I think that is a mid-week reduction but I am not sure), and we were handed our towels, robes and flip-flops for use in the spa, along with the wrist-bands that operate the lockers and are used for charging us for anything we may buy and any time we take over the allotted two hours (half an hour is added free to allow for changing into and out of swimwear, so it is two hours pool time. Further time is added if the café is used). So after about three hours altogether in various hot spring-water pools, steam rooms, ice room (did not spend much time there!) and the café - for the usual Prosecco - we left feeling very fit and well. It was a sunny day and the daylight on the rooftop pool was dazzling bright when facing the sun, but unlike last time we were there there was no visible vapour rising into the frosty air and we were not terrified of leaving the hot pool when we had had enough!

Why there are no photos inside the spa
We decided that we really needed no lunch between the hotel breakfast and the forthcoming dinner, and we also decided to take the included cream tea early in the afternoon on the last day, after checkout, in lieu of lunch. That would do nicely until the snack on the train heading back towards Birmingham. I had left the schedule empty on the last day so that we could decide what we wanted to do depending on the weather and what we saw advertised, and what we decided to do was to return for another spa session on the last day!

So, back to the hotel for dinner, then sleep and after packing we checked out and left our luggage, returned to Thermae Bath Spa at pretty much the same time as before, but with a coffee break instead of a Prosecco break (the Prosecco had been a mistake, really: caffeine a more appropriate drug at that time of day, although I always say that sparkling wine is the only alcoholic drink that can be taken before noon). After the spa session we returned to the hotel for our cream tea and then had one little task to do, to buy cheese from the amazing specialist cheese shop, before returning for our luggage and taking a convenient train to Bristol to begin the journey home.

Bath Spa station
We had a little while to wait at Bristol and went to Bonapartes bar on platform 3 to await our departure. Although it had a clutch of Cask Marque certificates and four or five real ale pumps, none of them had any ale under them and I was offered some gassy stuff or other, from a tap, which I declined and ordered two halves of Stella Artois: at least that is supposed to be fizzy and cold. It was reassuringly expensive (well, expensive anyway). Our train came, more-or-less on time, and we had a good journey as far as Birmingham. No First Class host on this train, but the Train Manager served us with hot drinks, sandwiches and biscuits and we did not go hungry.

At New Street our departure for home was waiting at the platform, without its engines running, and we boarded in plenty of time. A driver boarded and made several valiant attempts to start the engines, watched by ominous-looking people in overalls on the platform, before the train was declared failed and we were asked to get off. This is where it all unravelled and Cross Country Trains did not make a very good start at dealing with customers: there was no clear plan about how they were going to get us on our way, and for those of us going beyond Leicester (like us) this was the last train of the day. I asked platform staff and was advised to join the train to Leicester, due at another platform in half an hour, and then ask at Leicester - experience tells me they would have ordered taxis, or they may have had a bus put on by then, or even dug out another train and crew. However, after about fifteen minutes it was announced that our train would be departing from the extreme end of the platform we had just left! They had found another train that could be used and there was enough space for it at the platform. We were urged to join it quickly so that it could get away as soon as possible, but the announcer did not seem to realise that it had passengers aboard who had to get off first, so our very haste actually slowed things down as people at the back blocked the way off for those arriving.

The replacement train eventually left almost thirty minutes after our original train was supposed to have departed and the journey actually went quite well in the end, just rather later than planned. A few minutes were made up and we were not too late getting home. I was impressed by the way things were eventually worked out and the problem was solved, but not at all impressed by our unnecessary trip to platform 10 and back, and the worry about how long it would take to get us home from Leicester: while the managers were working out a plan we should have been advised to wait until they knew what would happen. In the event there had been nothing to worry about, but we had been given something to worry about anyway! It was very similar to the situation at Stamford on our departure: the staff on the ground seem to take a pessimistic view of what the railway management are able to achieve when things go wrong, bit my experience in all our travels has been that problems are usually tackled very well - if only the information could be given to passengers, even if it is only, "we're working on it and will let you know shortly," that would make a huge difference.

See my previous trips to Bath at

Wednesday 16 October 2019

Adventures by Bus

Stagecoach Gold bus. Stop buttons, reading lights and USB
sockets are on the back of the seat in front of most passengers
I have always liked travelling by bus. I suppose it takes me back to childhood when every journey anywhere always had to start that way, and probably end that way, too. The vehicles were very different then and buses always carried conductors to collect the fares and look after the passengers. From a practical point of view, it is good to be able to do things while travelling (which I cannot do when I drive my car) and I get a great view from the bus - even single-deckers are higher than most cars. You can read about some bus rides as part of my rail adventures in this blog.
Before we moved to Stamford we did not have a railway station within walking distance, so many of our trips then began with a bus to and ended with a bus from Peterborough. I used to use buses quite a lot then, even for local shopping, even though we were then a two-car family: it is part of the way I prefer to live, only using my car when I really have no other option. On days off I sometimes took a round trip on a rover ticket, visiting both Peterborough and Stamford to do odd tasks and enjoying the scenery on the way. Most bus companies offer “day anywhere” rovers which provide a cheap day out if you’re at a loose end.

Since I acquired my senior concessionary pass the incentive to use buses has grown by the fact that it is free at any time of the day within Lincolnshire, and after the morning peak anywhere else in England. Unlike most day rover tickets it is not restricted to just one bus company.
A couple of recent trips are worth describing (I hope!) for readers’ interest.

The Long Way Round to Kettering

 One Saturday I needed to go to a function in Kettering. Now Kettering is about a 45 minute drive from my home in Stamford but on this particular day the car was not available to me because it was needed elsewhere by the family. I had time to make the trip by bus but only just, and even then I had to use a train for part of the way back because bus services no longer go on late enough. I enjoyed the ride and was in no hurry, but it would have been all the same if I had been!

My bus to Kettering, a Stagecoach Gold X4, was due to leave from Peterborough Queensgate bus station at 13:12, so I left Stamford on Delaine’s 12:00 service 201 which would give me about half-an-hour between buses in Peterborough. I took a packed lunch with me which I intended to eat while sitting at the bus station. Going into Peterborough my bus was delayed by roadworks and then again by cars queuing for access to city-centre car parks - this city desperately needs bus lanes, and I do not understand how it can call itself “environment city” when it is choc-a-bloc with cars! Anyway, in the event I did manage to make the connection but had to eat my lunch while queuing to board the bus rather than in a civilised, leisurely fashion.

The Stagecoach Gold bus was very comfortable and had on-board WiFi and USB ports for device-charging, being intended for lengthy journeys. I sat on the top deck and spent some time catching up on reading some documents I needed for later in the day, combined with some gazing out at the countryside and the towns. The way we passed through Oundle was amazing, a circuit of the town in some residential streets, following Peterborough-bound bus through the market place. Although this is a limited-stop inter-urban route it plainly serves as a local bus service for Oundle, too. In due course the bus arrived at my stop on the road into Kettering - whatever else this service did it dropped me right at the end of the street I needed, and I could not have asked for better than that.

At the end of the day I caught the bus back to Peterborough from the opposite side of the road. This time it was about ten minutes late leaving, but the timetable allows some slack at Corby and the driver also managed to make up some time between towns so that we arrived at Peterborough Queensgate bus station on time. By this time, however, the bus service to Stamford had come to the end of its working day; there are no bus services into the evening in Stamford. The train service goes on for several more hours, though, so I walked across to the rail station and bought a single ticket home to Stamford and travelled back on the train. Total fare, then, for the day's adventure was that of a single for a short train journey at Senior Railcard rate, the bus fares being zero for me as a concessionary pass holder.

Going for a Ride

Free entertainment for senior citizens: bus rides for fun! It is quite possible to set off by bus for an adventure not knowing where you will end up, but with services finishing early in the day in most places (see above!), it is a good idea to have the bus times with you to ensure you get home. Our local operator, Delaine Buses, publishes pdf downloadable timetables on its website, and it is easy to keep those on a smartphone and refer to them as needed. I began my little round trip with the 203 service towards Spalding and got off at Deeping St James where I used to live. I was not sure how much time I wanted to spend there and when I consulted the timetable I realised that there was a bus to Peterborough due from the opposite side of the road in about two minutes, so I thought I'd move straight on with that. Ominously, the bus passed on its way from Peterborough at about the time it should have been at this stop on its way back. It turned up going the right way about fifteen minutes late, having been held up by roadworks in Peterborough. I rode right through to the Queensgate terminus and spent a little while in the shopping centre before having lunch at the brilliant Pizza House in Colgate. Do try it if you are in Peterborough at a mealtime; run by an Italian family this restaurant has been there since I worked in Peterborough in the 1970s and has recently been enlarged by taking over the shop next door to its original premises and knocking them into one.

Market Deeping Market Place seen from the front of
the top deck
After lunch I caught a city bus to a trading estate which I wanted to visit and from there awaited a bus towards Stamford. The roadworks were playing havoc with bus running and the first Delaine bus to come along was for Deeping; a quick look at the timetable on my phone showed that I could connect there for the next bus back to Stamford from Deeping, so stopped the bus and boarded it, spending a pleasant while in a little café in Market Deeping chatting to someone I used to know there long ago. Soon it was time to get my last ride of the day. This bus was the one that schoolchildren use to get home from The Deepings School to Stamford or the villages in between, and there were many children aboard, all of them extremely well-behaved. I was very impressed.

I must plan a proper trip and take a picnic, on a warm sunny day it can be a great day out and the buses stop in some lovely villages on the roads between Stamford and Bourne or Stamford and Peterborough, some of them still having pubs. Even if paying for a rover ticket it is amazing value for money, and for those of us who are old enough, it is a very cheap day out indeed!

Friday 11 October 2019

Exciting Trip for Next Summer

Scotland again, but by a very special train this time

I have just taken the plunge and booked a trip through the Scottish Highlands on Belmond's Royal Scotsman, a very special trip to celebrate a special wedding anniversary next summer. I have also booked a couple of night's at the Balmoral Hotel (formerly the North British) adjacent to Edinburgh Waverley from which the tour departs, and our actual anniversary will be spent there, leaving on the Royal Scotsman the day after.

The trip takes in the Kyle of Lochalsh line, the only line out of Inverness that we have yet to travel, so it all fits in nicely. I look forward tremendously to the experience, and to writing about it afterwards.

Meanwhile there will be other journeys and experiences, of course, beginning later this month with another visit to Bath for a session at the Thermae Bath Spa and just to take life easy at the Royal Hotel. We are taking up a special offer of inclusive dinner with wine at no more than the usual bed-and-breakfast rate - and in all our trips to Bath we have never actually had dinner at the hotel before, so that, too, will be a new experience and will make the trip more relaxing, although less adventurous. It is a measure of how popular the hotel restaurant is that I had trouble booking a table several weeks in advance! Also adding to the relaxing feel of the trip is that I have been able to book reasonably-priced First Class seats with Cross Country as far as Bristol. The whole three days will feel like pampering, but at a budget price! I'll write it up as soon as I get the chance.

In December I have the group outing to Canterbury, too, which should be a grand day out.

Nothing is sorted out for next spring yet, and no beach holiday for the summer, so there is some planning yet to do.