Saturday, 7 March 2020

Is It a Bus? Is It a Tram?

The Cambridge Guided Busway

I have been unfortunate enough to need and fortunate enough to receive treatment at the Royal Papworth Hospital over the last couple of years, and this month I attended an outpatients clinic at which I was discharged fit and well. The hospital used to be in the village of Papworth Everard, difficult (although not impossible) to reach by public transport, and mostly I had been taken by car for my treatments and consultations, but it has recently moved to wonderful new premises in Cambridge on the Biomedical Campus where Addenbrookes Hospital has been for many years. This is now a cinch by public transport from my home in Stamford: a train ride and a quick bus connection, but we decided to make a short break of the trip and arranged to stay with friends in the village of Over, a few miles outside Cambridge, after my clinic appointment. We used to live in Over which then had an infrequent and lengthy bu route to and from Cambridge, and although there is still an infrequent service which goes through the village, there is a stop a short walk away on the Cambridge Guided Busway which has fast and frequent buses much like a tram service, and rather than take our car we thought we'd give this a go.

This time my clinic was not until 3 o'clock in the afternoon, but we set off for Cambridge in the morning with the idea of spending some time together, including lunch, in the city and then my wife could shop while I went off to the hospital. We would then reconvene for our visit to our friends, letting them have our ETA when we boarded our guided bus.

For once we did not book our train tickets in advance, for this is a local service to us and there was little to be gained by early booking. We bought Anytime Returns between Stamford, where we live, and Cambridge, giving us complete flexibility over our timing and allowing break of journey if we decided (which we didn't!) to visit, say, Ely, on our way home, and for my wife a PlusBus ticket for the two days - I am now old enough to have free bus travel anyway. We bought coffee and biscuits from the trolley on the train when it came through our carriage just after Peterborough.

We spent the journey completing some of puzzles in The Times and gazing out of the window: the amount of water in the Fens was quite astonishing after the very wet winter we have had, but no flooding except in the wash lands that are intended to flood when rainfall is high. Soon Ely Cathedral was in view, and then the gorgeous view of Ely over the marina as we approached the station. Soon after that we were leaving the train at Cambridge and making our way to the array of bus stops to find the next bus into the city centre. There was one within five minutes and although it crawled a bit through the traffic it was not long before we were dropped right in the heart of the city. We had our lunch at the Michaelhouse café which we have visited before and then walked together to where I would take my bus to the Royal Papworth Hospital.

In the city centre the guided buses look just like any other bus on the streets, with route letters rather than numbers, but the stopping points are few with the intention of making them a little bit faster, I suppose. I waited at the stop and my bus came along, next stop Cambridge Railway Station, back the way we had come, and after the stop there I was surprised to see that the very next stop on the information display was Royal Papworth Hospital, and when it left the rail station the bus was on the guided busway and accelerated up to somewhere over 50 mph, feeling much like a tram. It stopped right outside an entrance clearly provided for the convenience of bus users: I was too early to check in for my appointment! No problem: the waiting area not only had comfortable armchairs but also a workspace with table equipped with electric sockets, and a coffee bar, so I bought coffee, plugged in my MacBook and wrote up my previous blog post! After coffee I took my appointment letter to the check-in terminal and scanned its barcode, answered the ridiculous questions about my racial origin etc (who needs to know that?) and went back to continue by writing, but within a few moments I was called for my ECG and that was the end of blogging for today.

My shadow photographing the bus on which I arrived in the
centre of Cambridge after my hospital visit! 
Once I had seen the consultant I went out to the bus stops and tried to ascertain when and where my bus back to the city would be departing. Information posted was just timetables; a map or a simple, "Buses to the city centre and St Ives from this stop," would have been good. Not everyone who comes here lives and Cambridge and knows what is where ... anyway, I was soon aboard a fast bus for the city centre, shared my location with my wife on WhatsApp and was soon reunited with her. We walked to the bus station at Drummer Street and looked for the next guided bus that would take us to visit our friends. The Bus Checker app on our iPhones is very handy for this sort of thing. When using buses in strange places I would not want to be without it. Even so, the stops here had very good live information and I am sure we'd have been OK. Once through the streets and out of town we joined the busway and zipped through the countryside like a train - not surprising, this is a former railway line, just like many a tramway.

Guided bus from Cambridge bus station arrives at
Swavesey bus stop
We were met by car at the bus stop (or is it a station?) at Sawavesey and driven the short distance to our friends home, handed over our gifts from Lincolnshire and enjoyed their hospitality, and the following morning, after a filling breakfast with them we made our way through the village on foot, streets once familiar when we lived there but now fading in our memory, and then walked to the station bus stop and awaited the next bus through to the rail station in Cambridge for our train home. Not all buses go to the rail station; some, like the one on which we had arrived, terminate at Drummer Street bus station, so we needed one that would go through. Route diagrams and information at the stop made this simple, and we showed our respective passes and boarded. We soon worked out as we approached that rail station that if we hurried we would catch a train home that was scheduled to depart within five minutes of our bus arriving - easy: no need to run, just keep going purposefully!

The train was not crowded and we had good seats together and resumed our Times puzzles as we sped home. The refreshment trolley came to us just as the train left Cambridge: great! We realised that it was four o'clock and we had had no lunch, so filling had our breakfast been, but it was fading now and we were able to enjoy sandwiches and drinks from the trolley at a very reasonable price. We thanked the host for being so timely, although it was, of course, simply good fortune that he was there just at that moment! And so to home: after all that we had done we treated ourselves to a taxi home from the station this time, and it was good to be back and with the prospect of no more appointments at this wonderful hospital, having been made well by their world-class expertise.

An Interesting Exhibition ... and an Interesting Way Home

Rail Excursion to a Unique Exhibition

We travelled to London a couple of weekends ago on "grandparent duty," looking after two of our granddaughters while their parents went away for a night. It was unfortunate that it was a weekend when Kings Cross station was closed for some of the upgrade work on the East Coast Main Line, so we had to find a different way home - getting there on Friday was normal, but returning on Saturday evening was another matter. Although we did not need to be there on Friday before the end of school, we took the opportunity to visit the Tutankhamun exhibition at the Saatchi Gallery while we were in London, so we set off during the morning with the 09:00 to Peterborough, where we had time for our complimentary hot chocolate at the Great Northen Hotel coffee lounge before taking a LNER train to Kings Cross, on which we enjoyed our coffee and biscuits before arrival in London.

Before going on to Chelsea for the exhibition, I had one little task at Kings Cross, which was to connect my new Senior Railcard with my Oyster Card, so that my discount would apply to my travel in London (for the three year's of the railcard's validity) as well as my travel to and from London. It took a few moments to find a free member of staff to do that for me, and then we were on our way to Sloane Square. There we had our lunch in the top-floor restaurant at Peter Jones department store and then walked to the Saatchi Gallery, about four minutes away along the Kings Road. We had timed tickets and arrived well within the half-hour "window" of our ticket time and had to queue (in the rain!) for the security check. Security was tight, for this exhibition was of some of the striking artefacts from within the tomb of King Tutankhamun, being shown for the last time outside Egypt where a new museum is being built to hold them in perpetuity. The gallery was very firm about limiting what we could take in and we had to have minimal weekend luggage in what I think of as handbags (including gifts for the children!), but it did mean that we were pretty swift in getting about! Just as well, not only did it take us a while to get into the exhibition, but there was a lot of it and it was fascinating. I learnt a lot about the politics of ancient Egypt and about the twentieth-century search for the tomb. The exhibition is well worth seeing, whether your interest is in art, ancient religion, history, geography, or just seeing something amazing that you may never see again!

Leaving the exhibition we made our way to Hammersmith, met one granddaughter from school and one from nursery and spent the evening and next day with them, hampered by weather from time to time but very happy to have the chance to spend time with these two, whom we cannot get to see all that often.

Saturday evening came and with it our son and his wife and relief from our duties, and we set off for home, a journey that would be taking an hour or so longer than usual: an adventure on a line we had never used before!

We began with the usual Hammersmith & City Underground train to Kings Cross St Pancras but this time instead of turning right for Kings Cross main line station we turned left for St Pancras. We had First Class Advance tickets for a Nottingham train and were travelling as far as Leicester where we were to change trains for the last connection to Stamford. We arrived in good time because we have to allow time for delays on the Underground but there were none and we had time on our hands - fine, we thought, we'll go the the First Class lounge as we normally do at Kings Cross, but we discovered that East Midlands Railway does not open its lounge at weekends like LNER does next door. We were already beginning to get an idea of how much less we were likely to get for our money on this route ... and we went to look around the shops. I had looked in advance at what the included catering would be and so we bought some salads from M&S at St Pancras to ensure that we would have something for supper, and then we saw that our train was boarding and made our way to the platform.

Since the big rebuild of St Pancras station, only the international trains now use the original, famous train shed; South Eastern and East Midlands trains only penetrate as far as the half-way point where the main entrance now is, under the new flat-roof extension, and East Midlands Railway seems to marshall its trains with the First Class accommodation at the north end of the train, so having walked a long way to the platform we now set off to the far end of the platform for our coach. We did wonder whether there might be crowds using these trains with the adjacent main line being closed for the weekend, but it was OK. In the coach with our reserved seats there was a little spare space, but the next coach was almost empty and so we decided to sit there instead and as soon as we were under way I went to the buffet counter to collect our refreshments, having found out from the website that at weekends there is no trolley service but we could show our tickets at the counter for our included refreshments, which turned out to be tea or coffee and biscuits, and a bottle of water, served with a smile by a very friendly bar host. The train itself was comfortable, smooth and swift, a classic British Rail High Speed Train.

The use of a different route home would have been really interesting in the summer when we could watch a different slice of the world sliding past our window, but now, in the winter darkness, there was nothing to see! Even the station names could not be read at the speed we were travelling (not up to East Coast Main Line speeds, but still pretty fast) and we only stopped once before Leicester so progress was hard to gauge, too. Soon enough we arrived on time at Leicester where we waited half an hour for our connection to Stamford for our home. Amusingly there were announcements about trains to and from London being busier than usual because of the closure of Kings Cross, but, of course, so would trains towards Peterborough be busier, but no-one mentioned that! And Leeds, and York, and Doncaster .... Our train came, we boarded it (Standard Class this time) and went home to Stamford. An unremarkable, and not too crowded, journey with Cross Country Trains and we were soon taking our familiar walk homewards across The Meadows at Stamford, with the steeple of All Saints' Church floodlit before us and welcoming us home.

Thursday, 5 March 2020

Across the Mersey

Ferry Across the Mersey, approaching "The Three Graces" of
the instantly-recognisable Liverpool waterfront

Under the River by Train

Liverpool, one of Britain's greatest cities and at one time second only to London, has always been on my list of destinations for an adventure. I have been there a handful of times but never explored it properly, and recently I found myself there once again for a brief visit (by car, for several reasons, so not recorded in this blog) and while there started compiling a list of things which will have to be on the itinerary when we go there properly. And I did manage to get in one very short little adventure by train by myself, and the story of that can be told here!

I first visited Liverpool as part of a field course when I was studying Town Planning in the mid 1970s. At that time there had been several dock closures and the city was fairly depressed but still reasonably vibrant. We did tour the dock and saw much activity still going on, and in some free time I visited the historic waterfront and there were crowds boarding the Mersey ferries to cross to Birkenhead, the ferries then still playing a major rôle in the conurbation's public transport. Like the riversides of London and Newcastle, Liverpool's has changed much and yet in some ways has changed little. The "Three Graces", its distictive, instantly-recognisable waterfront office buildings, are still there, opposite the passenger ferry quay, and the ferries still operate, although now more for fun than necessity because, under construction when I visited in the seventies, the underground railway system now takes most of the cross-river passenger traffic, much quicker and more efficient but less exciting.

For my little adventure, I went across to Birkenhead by train, largely to visit the waterfront on the Wirral side; I had only ever been on the Liverpool side so far. I was aware from reading notices on my seventies visit that the improvements to the local railway system were basically a loop around the city centre and a link across it, joining up some suburban routes directly with connections to others, and that there was a selection of city centre stations at which I could board a train which would take me under the Mersey to Birkenhead. I had also heard that Birkenhead Hamilton Square station was interesting architecturally, and on the map it seemed to be the one that is served by every train across the river, so that made it my destination station for the adventure.

Birkenhead Hamilton Square station, with
ventilation tower for the tunnel
The underground line that crosses the Mersey loops around Liverpool city centre, calling at James Street in both directions and going one way via Moorfields, Lime Street and Central, each of which connects to other lines. I left my wife (only for a couple of hours!) at a museum near Lime Street and caught my train from there. The underground platform has a very similar ambience to London’s Underground stations and the trains are about as frequent, although much shorter, and I was soon on my way. Making my way to the surface by lift at Hamilton Square I emerged just a few moments later into quite a different world, much quieter.

I ambled down to the riverbank towards the Birkenhead Woodside ferry terminal (I have no idea why it is called Woodside: there is no trace of a wood, but plenty of water) and there happened to be a ferry about to depart, so I took a few photographs (one of which heads this blog post) as it cast off and crossed to the Liverpool side. Then I ordered coffee and cake and sat in the café at the Woodside terminal leafing through tourist brochures I had picked up there and decided that when we do the full Merseyside adventure it is going to have to be several days long in order to pack everything in, including the Manchester Ship Canal cruise and a heritage tram ride to the Wirral Transport Museum, whose vintage tram service has a terminal right by the Woodside ferry terminal, and that, too, must be on a future itinerary. Before catching the train back to Liverpool I took a short stroll in the direction of the museum and found it well within walking distance of Hamilton Square. A last look across the Mersey to the Liverpool skyline and it was time to head back to the city as my free time drew to an end. Every train in the Liverpool direction calls at all the stations on the city centre loop, and this time I travelled as far as Liverpool Central, handiest for the rendezvous with my wife. We enthused together about a future trip and agreed that we should indeed need several days to enjoy all that there would be to do.

Saturday, 1 February 2020

Making an Exhibition!

The Market Deeping Model Railway Club of which I am a member often exhibits a layout at exhibitions around the East Midlands and beyond, and I volunteered to help operate its "Canons Cross" 00 gauge layout at the Festival of British Railway Modelling this month at Doncaster Racecourse. The way it worked was that four members drove to the venue on Friday with the layout packed in two cars and stayed over the exhibition weekend in a local hotel, then two more members travelled to join them on each of the two open days of the exhibition. I opted to attend on the Saturday and booked train tickets with LNER from Peterborough to Doncaster (just £5.75 each way, Advance Standard Class with my Senior Railcard) and with Cross Country from my local station to Peterborough and back.

Some dreadful weather, Storm Ciara, was threatened for the Sunday but Saturday was expected to be OK (although a cold start), and I set off from home for the 07:19 East Midlands Railway train bound for Norwich which I left at Peterborough to meet another club member to travel together on the 07:53 Leeds train as far as Doncaster. We'd had a rather scary email message a couple of days earlier from LNER saying that our booked service would be operated by a 5-coach Azuma train instead of the planned 9-coach InterCity 225 so there would be no seat reservations and it may even be that we may not be able to board at all so our tickets would be valid on the following train (just 5 minutes later, but stopping several times whereas our planned train was non-stop between Peterborough and Doncaster). In the event our little train came in from London with a couple of dozen passengers on board and just another couple of dozen waiting at Peterborough, so we found ourselves sharing a coach with about two other people! As we boarded the buffet counter was right in front of us so we bought coffee and and pastries for breakfast and took our seats, talking club business, as you do, all the way to Doncaster. I had heard many comments about the hard seats in Standard Class on these trains but I was very happy with mine and would recommend them wholeheartedly. Even in Standard I was able to keep my smartphone charged with a socket by my seat and had plenty of space to myself.

The express arrives at platform 2 at
Canons Cross, Southern Region BR
At Doncaster we walked round the corner to the bus station and asked about buses to the racecourse. While there are many service buses that would take us close to the venue, there was a service numbered 101 which was direct to the racecourse for the event and which was about to leave, so we hopped on board and were taken, the only two passengers, straight to the front door. Visitors were already queuing for the opening, still half-an-hour away, but we went straight in and explained that we were exhibitors and needed to have our passes, which our colleagues who'd arrived the previous day had ready for us. and so began a thoroughly enjoyable day of operating model trains and chatting to visitors at one of the nation's larger model railway shows. I had never operated this particular layout before and was given plenty of instruction by my more-experienced colleagues and had a really great time. When you realise what an effort it is to remove a steam locomotive from an arriving train, take to be turned, coaled and watered and then returning it to its train, compared with driving an electric multiple unit in and then just driving it out again you soon see why the full-size railway has done away with steam traction!

We had many visitors watching us and as the day wore on the numbers thinned dramatically just before closing time and this was a good opportunity to have a look at other layouts and the trade stands before it was time to head back to the station for the train home. Having an Advance ticket meant that I had to await my booked train (you have to sacrifice something to get such a cheap ticket!) so I saw two other trains to Peterborough leave before my own ... a good reason to have a pint of real ale from the neat little Draughtsman Alehouse on platform 3, sitting outside and watching the trains go by. There were many services I expected to see, to Leeds, Sheffield, the north, north Lincolnshire and south Yorkshire, but some surprises, too. One train, from York, was going to London St Pancras International, which I had not expected to see: it was an East Midlands Railway service via Sheffield and Derby and although not a quick way to London provided some useful journey possibilities on the way; another was to Southampton Central - not a destination I expected to see at Doncaster: it just goes to show how far you can get with no or just one change of train.

I used the Seatfrog app for the first time. This allows ticket-holders to bid in auction for First Class upgrades to their Standard Class tickets, and I won an upgrade for just £10. Given that the train was again lightly-loaded I am not sure I needed First Class, really, but I did once more share a coach with just a handful of other people and had very personal attention from the First Class host. This was one of the trains that stop at all the intermediate stops but never less I was soon in Peterborough where there was just a short wait for my Cross Country train to Stamford.

It had been a brilliant day in the company of some good friends and lots of appreciative strangers and I had had some great train rides as well.

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Friday, 31 January 2020

First Class from Lincoln

I do not travel to Lincoln as often as I used to do before I retired, but I have kept some interests there and occasionally have to attend meetings in the city. When I had to go this week I booked my tickets in advance so that I could use LNER’s new service between Peterborough and Lincoln, and I even managed to book First Class for the return leg, still saving money on the route I normally used to use via Spalding with East Midlands Railway. Not quite as quick, but I was hoping for rather more comfort than the single-car trains with insufficient legroom used on the other route.

On the way top Lincoln I was travelling Standard Class on one of LNER's legacy electric trains and I bought some lunch at Peterborough station while awaiting my connection. I had to change trains at Newark Northgate on this leg of the journey, so one more change that I used to have to make going the other way: through trains to and from Lincoln by LNER's route are only two-hourly, whereas the little East Midlands trains are slow but hourly. I was pleased at Newark to see that the connecting train to Lincoln, also provided by East Midlands Railway, now had two coaches and consequently was not overcrowded as they often used to be. As this train was going forward from Lincoln to provide the next service towards Peterborough via Spalding I could see that the shortage of coaches on that route was at last being addressed. I need no longer worry on that score if I chose in future to travel by that route.

My train arrived just a little early into Lincoln, as they often do, and I walked across to the bus station to ride up to the Cathedral and then walk round to my meeting, arriving nicely in time.

Early evening  at Lincoln Central
When my meetings were over and it was time to come home I walked down the hill to the station, having plenty of time before my LNER through train to Peterborough. Lincoln station was very busy with people going home from work, college and shopping, with a variety of local and regional trains going to all sorts of places, and not a single-car train in sight! Nor a "Pacer" unit with four-wheeled coaches; every train had improved beyond what we used to see here just a few weeks ago, and then, to cap it all, in came my train to Peterborough, a London-bound LNER "Azuma".

This was a brand-new class 800 5-car set operating a route which has been beefed-up from just once a day to five times, and I had a First Class ticket this time! The train cruised smoothly away from Lincoln station and into the night and I began catching up on email etc which had not received attention during my meetings, and before I knew it the train was stopping at Newark. I had been able to choose my seat reservation when I booked, and I had a single seat with table towards the end of a coach, very peaceful and convenient for the entrance, the luggage rack (which on this trip I did not actually need) and the toilet.

At Newark the diesel engines were switched off as the train was transferring to electric power for the rest of its run to London. On leaving Newark the at-seat catering trolley made its way through first class and I was served sandwiches and white wine - I was to dine at home later so I did not need any more than that, but I do hope the cooked meal was available for those going all the way to London (and I have no reason to believe it was not).

Although Azumas are no faster than the older electric trains in terms of top speed (both are capable of 140mph and restricted to 125 mph by line speed limits), the acceleration is far superior and departures are always quite a thrill; further, any delays are normally made up with very little difficulty and early arrivals are common, until the entire fleet has been updated and the timetable is rewritten to take the better performance into account, that is!

It was a good run and well worth the effort of booking in advance to grab the First Class journey home for less money than I usually pay for Standard! With East Midlands Railway promising a better timetable for its Lincolnshire services from December 2020 and the possibility of one or two more LNER services to Lincoln as well, the county is finally getting something approaching a decent train service. There will still be scope for more improvements, of course, with better trains to Scunthorpe, Grimsby and Cleethorpes badly needed, but whether anything can be done about the east Lincolnshire coast and Boston is another matter.

Wednesday, 15 January 2020

Exploring Cambridge

Day out by train with friends

Our friends who stay at New Year most years were able to stay a little longer than usual this time, and we were glad to have the extra time together. What to do with the extra day? I thought a day out on New Year's Eve, home in time to get ready to see in 2020 would be the best way forward and suggested a day in Cambridge: it is just over an hour away by through train so it is well-suited to a short day out and while we have not been there for a while (other than hospital appointments, but that is hardly the sort of adventure we like to plan!), our friends do not know it well at all. The suggestion was eagerly accepted and off we went mid-morning on 31st December.

We all had Senior Railcards so I had to gather us all together at the ticket office to buy the tickets. The others all needed PlusBus tickets, too, since a bus ride is almost essential in Cambridge to get from the station to most of the places we'd need to go - I have a Senior Citizen's concessionary pass and do not need to pay for my bus travel. Our outlay was reduced a bit by a rail travel voucher I had been sent in compensation for a delayed train earlier in the year, which was nice.

Our train to Cambridge turned up just about on time but was only two coaches. We did not all manage to sit together for the whole journey but we were able to sit as couples, and once passengers thinned out a bit at an intermediate stop we were able to sit around a table together - had we planned the trip a day in advance we could have reserved our seats, but even then it is a matter of whether four together would still have been available.

Arriving at Cambridge we made our way to the bus stops where a fast (i.e. non-stop; they're still subject to Cambridge's traffic queues!) service was about to leave, and we were soon at Emmanuel Street in the heart of the city. By now it was certainly time for coffee, possibly time for lunch, and we began by making our way through the Grand Arcade shopping centre towards the Michaelhouse café where we have enjoyed refreshments before. At this time of the year it was not especially busy and we did decide to have lunch in the interesting surrounds of an ancient church which is now 90% restaurant with just a small area set aside for prayer. As always the food was excellent and the prices reasonable.

We then set off to visit places which would interest our friends, mostly colleges and churches. There were, not surprisingly given the day of the year, some disappointments with places that were closed, but there was quiet a lot we did see, too, and we took a walk behind Trinity College and along The Backs. After visiting Little St Mary's church we made our way to The Eagle public house (once, like a pub we have visited in Oxford, called The Eagle and Child; interesting ...) famous for being the watering hole of those who discovered the structure of DNA.

Cambridge is one of those towns, Like Bath, Stamford, York and (of course) London, where it is a joy simply to be there and walk around the streets. And so we did! And eventually it was time to take a bus back to the station to await our train home Being New Year's Eve the service ended early, but that was fine by us; we wanted to be home to get ready to see in the new year, and in any case it is tiring visiting a city in this way. We caught a train which on most working days would have been packed but was not so bad on such a day and we all managed to sit together around a table for the whole of the trip home. It had been a great day out and the Champagne, kindly provided by our friends, was waiting in the fridge ready to toast 2020 while we watched the London fireworks on TV.

What might 2020 bring in terms of our travels? Well, we have a trip to Italy booked with Great Rail Journeys, and a tour of Scotland with Belmond Royal Scotsman (a bit extravagant, that, celebrating our fortieth wedding anniversary; we all not be spending that amount on a short break again), and so far our south coast summer holiday consists of a hotel booking in Chichester and nothing else! There is much more to plan yet, but proposed alterations to our house will keep us grounded for a few weeks. You'll just have to subscribe to this blog to follow where we go next!

Happy new year!