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.

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