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

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