Wednesday 18 December 2019

Kentish Adventure for Seven

By High Speed Train to Canterbury, again

As if the November trip to Canterbury for my daughter's doctoral graduation were not enough, the long-planned group day out to Canterbury finally became reality in December, so I was there twice within about three weeks. The weather was similar, showery and cold, although not too cold, and there were gaps between the showers. We had not particularly aimed for a winter outing but by the time we had agreed a convenient date that was when it would have to be, and so it was!

When I was a young child I went with my parents to Kent every summer. My mother was from Margate and the only way we could see that part of the family was to have our summer holiday with them, for in those days annual leave was just the one week plus bank holidays. It was fortunate that my mother's family lived at a seaside town, so it was a good holiday, too! I have smashing memories of the train ride from Spalding or Kings Lynn to London (through locomotive-hauled express trains) and mixed memories of the struggle across to Victoria (no Victoria Line then) for the Kent coast trains to Margate, mentally ticking off the stopping places on the way. How different it is today! Main line trains no longer venture into south Lincolnshire or north Norfolk (see my recent post on the East Lincs Main Line) but the other end is so much better: High Speed trains now operate from St Pancras to many Kentish destinations, giving a simple cross-street change of stations in London and then a fast service into Kent. It is still a long way, but it is now easily possible to have a day trip to almost anywhere in Kent from our current home in Stamford, Lincolnshire, or probably from almost anywhere in the midlands.

Our little party gathered at our local station in time to catch the 08:00 Cross Country train to Peterborough. For some reason the reservation slips had not been put on our seats but as it happened most of them were unoccupied, and there were plenty of others nearby for those of us without our reserved seats. At Peterborough we had about half an hour before the scheduled departure of our connection to Kings Cross: I had arranged First Class tickets for that leg of the journey and a handful of the group took up the offer of free coffee and cake at the Great Northern Hotel that comes with First Class LNER tickets at Peterborough. We were soon on our way on one of LNER's remaining British Rail mk4 electric trains, a touch late but still in good time for our Southeastern Highspeed connection in London. Soon the coffee, fruit juice and croissants were brought round by the attentive First Class hosts. At Kings Cross we made our way through the concourse towards the main entrance to St Pancras, directly opposite, and via the escalators and lift to the Southeastern platforms. Our train, eventual destination Margate, was already waiting for us and the swifter-moving members of the party boarded quickly and "bagged" a couple of tables together while I made sure that those moving more slowly found their way to join them. I had to feel sorry for the unsuspecting member of the public who joined us and took up the eighth place at our tables ...

We left London exactly on time and accelerated out through the tunnelled High Speed One main line, emerging briefly for a stop at Stratford and then along the north Thames bank until tunnelling under the river at Dartford and emerging for the stop at Ebbsfleet. The final stop on HS1 was at Ashford where we waited a little longer while the train's pantograph was lowered and power pick-up transferred to the heritage third rail system for the rest of the trip to Canterbury (and beyond to Margate for the train, but not for us). Highlights of the trip (apart from the astonishing speed!) are the view of the Queen Elizabeth Bridge at Dartford, the crossing of the Medway estuary with views of the M2 motorway as well as the Medway towns, and the distinctive Kent countryside on the last stretch between Ashford and Canterbury.

The weather that greeted us in Canterbury was as expected: cold, but not too cold, and damp with intermittent drizzle, but no real rain (yet). I walked with the group into the heart of the city and we all went our separate ways. Most people had come with a list of places they wanted to see, obviously including the cathedral, but I had no real agenda myself, having been here many times and as recently as a couple of weeks earlier! I had thought of travelling by bus to Margate for old times' sake, but the weather was really not very conducive to enjoying a day at the seaside, so although I got as far as the bus station I decided against doing that. There were odd bits of Christmas shopping I wanted to do, and although Nason's department store was already closed and Debenham's was in the midst of its closing-down sale, Fenwick's was still going strong, as were many other shops. Canterbury is also one of those cities where it is a pleasure just to be there and walk the streets and enjoy the architecture. Somehow the day just went by!
I had my lunch at The Old Buttermarket pub opposite the Cathedral Gate hotel where I had stayed on my recent visit: the pub was closed for refurbishment then so it was good to try out now - I could small the fresh paint as I walked in through the doorway! Some excellent cooked meals with decent local ale were on offer and the temperature and the company of other customers were congenial ... and I was joined by some other members of the group, too. We use WhatsApp on these tours to keep track of each other and this was the first trip I had done where every member of the group was using it, and it was very effective. The three of us gathered at this pub decided to meet later at one nearer the station before catching the train back, and I messaged the whole group to suggest an informal rendezvous at The Bishop's Finger 45 minutes before departure, and even single one turned up (all of them before I did!).

When I remarked on her Unicorn
ticket clipper, the nice train
train manager kindly made these
two special tickets for my senior
(four years old!)
granddaughters. How kind is that?
And so came the time to make our way to the station for the journey home. It was already dark, so there would be little to see. This time we took a local stopping train to Ashford where we changed for the Highspeed train to London. Ashford International is a convenient interchange station but it is not really an interesting or exciting place to wait for a train, and in the cold and drizzle all we wanted was a train! I did buy a hot chocolate from a buffet counter on the platform, which was warming and pleasant. Everyone was chatting excitedly about what they had done and seen on their day in Canterbury and I briefed them on the next stage of the journey: from Kings Cross we were to travel on one of LNER's new ten-coach Azuma trains, made of to five-car sets couple together, so it was vital to board the correct coach, or, at least, one nearby in the correct half of the train. Again we were travelling First Class and we had time to wait in the lounge at Kings Cross while the train was prepared. Slightly distressing, the escalator down to our platform was out of order, so we had to take two turns to get the whole group down via the lift. We did have reserved seats, which were reserved, so there was no hurry to get to them, but with some of the group having mobility issues I was a bit on edge until everyone was in the correct coach. I could have done without one couple announcing that they had lost their tickets and railcards at this stage ... later found in a hat, of all places, fortunately before they were required for inspection. This was by far the most complex of these day trips I had arranged and everyone had six ticket coupons plus separate compulsory reservation coupons for some legs of the journey, so it was very easy to get tickets confused. I may have to reconsider my policy of giving everyone all their tickets at the start of the day ...

The usual snack meal available to short-journey passengers was served on the way back to Peterborough and we arrived just slightly early there so that even with some mobility difficulties we all managed to catch the very tight East Midlands Railway connecting train to Stamford rather than having to wait half an hour for the usual Cross Country train. We made our way over the footbridge at Stamford and said our farewells - the walk home allowed me the chance to relax and thus soon to sleep after an exciting day out with half-a-dozen friends.

I have to say that we met some wonderful train staff and station staff throughout this day. I don't think I have ever enjoyed the company of so many cheerful and helpful railway employees in one day. All our trains were either on time or so nearly so that it made no difference to us, and all were clean and had enough space for us. Given the amount of time we spent on the railway, these aspects mattered to our enjoyment of the day, and they certainly contributed to it. Some members of the party do not often (or ever) travel First Class, so it was an introduction for them - I did emphasise that it is inexpensive because of boring three months in advance which cannot always be done. Whether it is affordable otherwise is a decision which each of us would have to make depending on our means and other calls on our funds.

Where to next? Well, it is probably time to organise another party in a brewery ... See my Come with me! page for details of how to join us.

Saturday 14 December 2019

By Train to the Trains

Full-size exhibit!

The Warley National Model Railway Exhibition

Model Railway Exhibitions vary enormously. There are local club exhibitions held in village or school halls all over the country, bigger ones run by bigger clubs in exhibition centres or at places like racecourses (some of these are commercially sponsored and are quite large as a consequence), and then there's this one, the Warley National. It is Warley club's exhibition but is held in Birmingham at the National Exhibition Centre in one of its large exhibition halls. In spite of the size of the hall, it was crowded when I visited this year and must have had a huge number of visitors. (The whole NEC had rather masculine slant since the other major show there, taking two large halls and some other spaces, was a motorcycle show - there are ladies interested in motorcycles and model railways but they are heavily outnumbered by men!)

So the morning after coming home from Canterbury I was off to Stamford station for a train to Birmingham New Street where I would change for Birmingham International for the NEC. I had through off-peak tickets and went for the 09:05 train, feeling that an early start would be a bit much after the travels of the two previous days. By Nuneaton the three-car Turbostar train's seats were full and there was a large crowd waiting for the train, almost all of whom had to stand, for few left the train there. The guard apologised for the crowding which he attributed to the strike by West Midlands Trains staff, taking place every Saturday for several weeks, which was diverting passengers onto other services, although I could not see how it would put many onto this one.Still, that was how it was and when I arrived at New Street I was cautious about what sort of service I might find to International. There was a handful of West Midlands Trains services operating, but on the line I needed, so I boarded a Virgin Trains London-bound Pendolino which was due to stop at Birmingham International; so had several others, but although the vestibules were packed like sardine cans, there was a lot of standing space completely empty in the interior of each coach, so that was where I stood, excusing my way through the crowd just inside the doors. It is a swift ride to International and then I excused my way back out, then followed the throng up the stairs and eventually to the exhibition hall.

MDMRC members operating Woodcroft
The ticket windows for the exhibition were right in front of those entering from the car parks, but from the station could not be seen without asking the way! The queues for paying by card were immense, but by gathering together enough cash I was able to join one of three much shorter queues and soon paid and was inside.

I began by making my way right across the hall to where I knew my fellow members of the local Market Deeping Model Railway Club were exhibiting our layout Woodcroft which I had been helping to restore and repair after the notorious vandalism of our own exhibition in May.

By the time I had chatted to my friends there it was lunch time and I went to one of the many street food type kiosks around the hall for something to eat and then, after some searching, found somewhere to sit and eat it!

Then a long walk up and down the hall trying not to miss any of the layouts, which varied from tiny one-person shunting or loco shed scenes to huge, multi-operator complex systems with lots of trains moving at the same time.

A Rhatische Bahn station in HOm gauge
I also needed to look at some trade stands and did come away with a few bits and pieces for my planned layout based on the Alpine Rhatische Bahn. I even bought some snow ...

When all was done I paid a final visit to my local friends and then wended my way back to the station to begin the trip home. Again, of course, there were fewer trains than usual because of the local strike, but I did manage to get a Virgin train to New Street before very long, and even to sit down this time. At New Street I had a short wait for my Cross Country train home, but it was time for tea anyway, so I bought something suitable and awaited the boarding time for the train. It was busy, but not overcrowded and before long I was at home unpacking the newly-bought items for the planned layout, the magazines and book I had bought (the book from the Swiss Railways Society, which I joined this year) for technical advice on the Rhatische Bahn and on modelling Swiss railways in general, and the advertising material I had taken from companies whose products may be useful when building commences.

It was a tiring day, but very useful and very interesting. I hope that soon I shall be there exhibiting, either the club layout or even perhaps one of my own.

The Last Graduation

By High Speed Train to Canterbury

From the first primary school events in which our first child participated, as parents we have always supported our children and celebrated their achievements whenever we could. And so, thirty years on we found ourselves attending Canterbury Cathedral to witness our youngest receiving her doctorate. An occasion not to be missed, and, wedged in between many other diary commitments, we could not extend the visit into a proper holiday, but we did enjoy the trip - and a surprisingly good hotel room. It is worth mentioning the hotel in some detail, actually, but first, the journey there.

We packed after breakfast and with no hurry set off to Peterborough on the 13:00 Cross Country train from Stamford, which makes a very handy connection with the 13:30 LNER train from there to London. We had Advance tickets throughout, giving us affordable First Class travel between Peterborough and London, and enjoyed our sandwiches, wine and cake on that leg of the journey. There was plenty of time at Kings Cross to stroll across to St Pancras for the SouthEastern High Speed service on to Canterbury. We took a few moments to look around some of the shops at St Pancras, and by the time we reached the platform to board the train it was a struggle to find two seats together! We shall not make that mistake again: I had not realised how popular this high speed service had become, even between peak times. We did get seats, though, together, right at the front of the train. Many stood. We had a long walk along the platform at both ends of the journey, too, but it was a fast, comfortable ride. There is nothing special about these train except the speed: no First Class, no refreshments, but they do deliver what they promise and we were in Canterbury very quickly. I shall be going there again quite soon and look forward to using this service again; next time it is just a day trip, now quite feasible with this quick service and quick change in London.

Which brings me to The Cathedral Gate Hotel. Our large, comfortable double room with two armchairs and en-suite bathroom with bath and shower cost just £90 for the night, including an excellent continental breakfast with fresh croissants. There are some snags with this hotel if you are mobility-impaired, but if you can ascend and descend stairs and don’t mind going outside on a roof-level walkway to get to and from your room it is amazingly good, friendly, efficient and comfortable.

We asked at reception for advice about restaurants and for that first evening we tried Posillipo, a genuine Italian restaurant off the city centre where we were able to try out our fledgling Italian language skills with the waiting staff (the menu was in Italian, which helped). I ought to mention that we are learning some Italian for a trip to Rome next year, not just for eating pasta in England! Posillipo was again excellent value: terrific food and service at low price; they have restaurants in Faversham and Broadstairs, too, if you want to try other places.

The following day was the graduation ceremony in the cathedral and I attended with my son-in-law while Granny looked after their little boy. Graduation ceremonies are not the most entertaining events but it was amazing to see all these young (and some older) people receiving degrees of one sort or another and to hear the topics on which doctoral theses had been composed.

Afterwards we went for coffee (I’ve never had coffee with someone in doctoral robes before!) and after the disrobing we all visited Chapman’s, a seafood restaurant which our daughter had booked conveniently near the rail station. We thoroughly recommend this restaurant, too, but unlike the previous evening’s one it was not such a bargain.

And so back to the station and the High Speed train to London, a short visit to the shops at St Pancras and the a wait in the First Class lounge at Kings Cross and the 21:00 LNER Azuma to Peterborough for the connection home.

I was not at home for long, though, because the following morning I was off to Birmingham... but that is another blog post!