Saturday, 25 July 2020

Exciting, but daunting

The next few trips by train

Well, over the last week or two I have bought train tickets for our August excursions. One of these trips I had almost decided would have to be done by road, and I really was not looking forward to that, and the other two have had to be cut short because of cancellations and other complications arising from the coronavirus pandemic. They are all long journeys and involve changes of train, and although I have been able to minimise the number of changes I am still concerned that if we miss a connection owing to late running we may not be able to board a subsequent train if it is deemed "full" by social-distancing regulations. I am also, I must admit, not overjoyed at the prospect of wearing a face-covering for a long journey, even though the journeys will be broken by mealtimes when we can temporarily remove them. It is also unclear at present what catering will be offered, if any, on the services we shall be using, so we shall take our own provisions.

Coastway train approaching Chichester
These will be our first train journeys since February and the first long ones since last autumn, so I am looking forward to them immensely even with the foregoing concerns! The first will be our usual trip to Chichester where we shall meet our friends holidaying on the south coast at Bracklesham Bay. We are omitting the originally-planned few days on the Isle of Wight which were going to precede it because of the uncertainty of how we might have been able to get there: these trips require advance planning and there was no way of working out what would be operating and what would not, and if we could not cross the Solent we could not get there - and that was one trip for which I definitely did not want to take the car, too. We can manage that with just two changes, using a Thameslink service right through from Peterborough to East Croydon - slow but simple, and the trains are spacious. We'll do that in Standard Class as there is little to be gained from First.

The next is a family gathering on the Purbeck peninsula in Dorset, and we'll be travelling via Birmingham New Street to Bournemouth by Cross Country Trains and then open-top bus to the hotel. This is the journey we had always planned to do, although I might have chosen to go one way via London and the other via Birmingham, but although much longer the Birmingham route is so much simpler and involves just the one change of train - the reduced frequencies do mean a long layover in New Street but it is at lunch time so we can eat there.

Finally there is Edinburgh. This was to have been a couple of nights before a Royal Scotsman tour of the Highlands, but that had to be cancelled by Belmond, the provider, because although they could manage financially with only half a load, all the rest of the booked passengers were American and would be unable to get to Scotland. So we are just going to spend the weekend in Edinburgh and come home: the Royal Scotsman will have to wait for another year, if, indeed, Belmond is still in business another year. It is all very difficult to plan anything at present.

In the autumn, all being well, we are due to go to Italy with Great Rail Journeys, but who knows? we could be in the midst of a second wave of coronavirus by then, with international travel curtailed. Next year? Well, that is anyone's guess. We'd like to pick up the Scottish rail tour and to return to Le Locle, Switzerland, in the late spring when the lakes and rivers are full, and to visit the Isle of Wight again. The putative trip to the USA is pushed back further and if Amtrak does not survive it may never happen.

Sunday, 28 June 2020

The Mystery of The Prisoner

Why does he drive up The Mall? 

Following my post a few months ago on places in London associated with James Bond, I thought I would write this little piece on another fictional agent, Number Six in Patrick McGoohan's "cult" TV series The Prisoner. While much of the action is in Portmeirion, significant events, including the weekly opening sequence, take place in London and that is where Number Six lives.

Abingdon Street Car Park
There are many, many mysteries in The Prisoner, but one that's always mystified me is the route Number 6 takes in the opening title sequence, from his desk-thumping resignation to his home at 1 Buckingham Place, followed by the sinister hearse. The office of the mysterious agency from which he resigns seems to be a secret location hidden under College Green and accessed via the Abingdon Street underground car park, right opposite the Victoria Tower of the Houses of Parliament (where we see him bidding farewell to Number 2 at the end of the last episode). From there it is only a shortish walk to Buckingham Place, but of course he has his car with him, having driven in from who-knows-where to hand in his resignation, so he needs to drive home, but why that route?

The Prisoner's home in Buckingham Place
My assumption is that this drive home is between two anonymous places in London which we are not intended to identify, and a route is chosen which is long enough for the drama and which shows enough landmarks to place it clearly in London. While the agency's HQ can be placed by the arrival of Number Six's car in a street opposite the Houses of Parliament, his house is altogether more anonymous (although the street name can be read on the corner of the house for those who wish to place it - which is how I found it when I took the photograph!), especially since he arrived from an odd direction for someone driving from Parliament. A significant thing about the house which we do not take in until the very last episode is that its street number is 1. Number Six asks throughout his imprisonment who is Number One, but he answers the question himself when he goes home and passes through the front door with "1" on it, a door which, like those in The Village, opens by itself. 

Tuesday, 23 June 2020

Here's hoping

Will travel be possible again soon?

Well, I have my "iconic blue" British passport in which Her Britannic Majesty requests everyone to let me through their borders without hindrance. I am not convinced I shall be hindered less than I was with my European Union passport, but this is the new reality and it no use pretending otherwise. I had to renew my passport because the trip to Italy which was to have happened in April was cancelled (well before the pandemic, nothing to do with that) and moved to the autumn, by which time less than six months was left on my old passport: given that we have left the Union and are well on our way to ending the transition year with no real agreement about borders I dare not risk it being so tight. So, I have a passport photo with my lockdown hair style ... or lack of hairstyle.

The real question, of course, is whether it will be of any use. With most of Eurostar's train sets in storage and staff on furlough, and with dire notices from rail companies in the UK only to use their services if absolutely necessary, am I going to be going to Italy anyway, or to anywhere else? Not just my passport, but my Senior Railcard (used just once since its renewal and well short of covering its cost) and my concessionary bus pass are also useless, as well as the hefty balance on my Oyster card. I have my car, of course, and parking is free in many places at present, but with holidays in the UK being encouraged and public transport being discouraged I dread the idea of driving to anywhere worth going this summer. The highways will be jammed, the car parks inadequate. We need to get back on the trains smartish or the nation will choke.

Meanwhile, I am taking the time not only to build the model railways I've been writing about, but also to sort out photographs from many years ago when I took them on film but was far too busy with a young family to sort of decent slide sequences - hopefully I'll publish the less personal ones here and/or on Flickr and YouTube before too long.

Thursday, 21 May 2020

Now I am not travelling

A model railway evoking our trips to Switzerland

I have been to various parts of Switzerland several times over the last few years and decided that it was time to build a model which would include some aspects of Switzerland which had become familiar to us. It would have spiral tunnels, tracks that traversed the same valley two or three times, Kkiosk shops at the stations, Co-op supermarkets, log trains, postal containers ... and so on. I chose the Graubunden canton and the Rhaetian Railway because it had the spectacular engineering works I wanted because it is an adhesion railway, managing entirely without cog mechanisms to climb the hills.

The layout is currently in the early stages of construction, with just one station nearing completion - much more advanced than if I had not been stuck at home! The video below gives you the story so far, and more will follow on my new model railway blog,

When I am not travelling

The attraction of model railways

I have had a model railway of sorts for as long as I can remember, and in adult life, indeed from about the age of six (!), they have been about much more than the trains. I have always tried to make them about journeys and to reflect the joy of travel, my enjoyment of which goes back to toddlerhood when my parents took me to my mother's family in Margate for a week each summer. I expect that like every toddler I did not enjoy every aspect and would have made my parents aware of that, but my memories are all good: it was exciting, both the destination and the journey. I think that is why I am still hugely fond of train travel today, as well as the grown-up belief in railways as (at least potentially, and often actually) a civilised, environmentally-friendly way to travel.

A few years ago, with a hankering for the era of glamorous train travel and a liking for art deco and modernist architecture, I built a moderne fantasy model railway layout with streamlined and Pullman trains and deco and moderne buildings. The video below is a summary of several years' development. I  hope you enjoy it.

Sunday, 10 May 2020

London, World City

The London Transport Museum,
Covent Garden

Less-known places to see in the UK's capital city

Having been forced by the Covid-19 pandemic to stay at home for several weeks I have emotionally missed travelling in general, and in particular have had to cancel three trips to London. Two of them were family visits, on which we usually fit in visit to a museum or other attraction while we're there, and one was a rather special visit to the Savoy on a carving course, but I still have the gift voucher for that and hope to do it another day, when we can travel again. It is hard to take in that I cannot just walk out of my home, buy a ticket at the station and go wherever I like - and while I may be able to get away with that I would find when I arrive that nothing is open anyway. All the events are cancelled, the museums, galleries, preserved houses etc closed, no bars, cafés or restaurants.

So I have no further trips on which to write reports, but it seemed to me that I have been to London so much recently that I ought to write this summary of some of the less well-known places I have visited and which some readers may find interesting. I want to say first, though, that many of the best-known attractions are famous for a reason: they are very interesting and worth seeing. Others I am not so fond of and while I have revisited as an adult a lot of what I first saw as a child, I have not bothered with, for example, Madam Tussaud's Waxworks. The Tower of London, however, was well worth a proper grown-up visit: it may be the world's most-visited castle but so it should be!

National Trust

The National Trust has a number of sites in London and last summer we set out to visit all of them. We did not quite make it, so there is a reserve list for this summer, if we are able to get there, or later.

2 Willow Road, the home Erno Goldfinger designed
for himself. Visiting by pre-booked tour only

One year ago I reported on a visit to several sites during a short break in London, including three National Trust properties: Thomas Carlyle's House, Erno Goldfinger's House and Fenton House. None of these is likely to be at the top of anyone's To Do In London list but all shed light on the history of England, the history that shapes the England, and especially the London, we know now. I had never thought about Carlyle before I visited his house and although (as a one-time town planner) I did know something about Goldfinger, the visit to his place was a huge eye-opener: ask about his oddly low-profile furniture!
Osterley Park

On another short break last summer we visited two more National Trust properties at Ham House and Osterley Park, rather better known, perhaps, but still not on many people's list of must-do things in London; both rather more the typical National Trust big house and with worthwhile gardens.

To find out more about why the places are interesting and how and when to visit them, please follow my links above to their web pages, and to read about my own visits, follow the links to my blog posts at the start of each of the above paragraphs.

English Heritage

Apsley House (and a tree!)
seen from the top of the Wellington Arch
English Heritage, at one time the Government's own conservation body, has a lot of property in London: some of it is well-known and some isn't. The better-known places include Wellington's Apsley House, and the associated Wellington Arch opposite, which I visited in 2015. These are by Hyde Park Corner, so handy for Buckingham Palace, Knightsbridge and Victoria station as well as Hyde Park, and there is much to learn about the Napoleonic and early Victorian era there. On the same break we also saw Chiswick House with its superb park setting.

Last year's visiting list mentioned above also included a some of the lesser-known English Heritage properties, and we went to see Kenwood in the summer, a much an art gallery as a house, with a wonderful walk over Hampstead Heath to get there. A trip to Marble Hill House will have to wait as there was work being done there which precluded a visit, but we have it in our sights!

Other Museums

London has many famous world-class museums which are on many visitors' lists. For visitors from outside London, though, even the major Museum of London may be unknown, along with its counterpart the Museum of London Docklands. The Museum of London sits on the Roman city wall and explores the history of the city (and quite a lot of British culture besides) and is free to enter (the restaurant is pretty good, too). A trivial fact is that it is the southern end of the A1 Great North Road, for those who like that sort of thing! I have been there several times, for example to an exhibition of the 1666 Great Fire. I went to the docklands museum when they had a display of what the tunnelling for the Elizabeth Line (Crossrail) had unearthed. There is a great play area for young children at the Museum of London Docklands, which must be booked in advance if you want to use it, and a good café.

The Jewish Museum, Camden
There are many small and lesser-known ones that are worth visiting if you are interested in what they are showing - and sometimes we can be surprised about what we can learn about society, history and geography from a museum whose main topic may not be high on our own list of interests.

I found myself with some time to spare in the Kings Cross area once and visited the London Canal Museum which was brilliant and taught me more about the ice industry than it did about canals (because when you've explored Birmingham you know more about canals than London can ever tell you!).
The Canal Museum, Kings Cross

Thoroughly recommended, hard to find, but easy with a map. Not far away to the north of the area is the Jewish Museum in Camden, also recommended, which we visited after the Tower of London (not that it was an afterthought: we keep a mental list of places we want to see and fir them into spaces in our schedule).

Theatres, Shops and Things

London is by far the UK's biggest city as well as its capital and for a long time was the biggest city in the world and capital of an empire so although its history may not be as long as Rome's or Jerusalem's it is both highly significant and, by its sheer size and number of people, contains a lot of things. You would think it already had enough theatres, but there on the south bank right opposite the Tower of London is a brand new theatre, The Bridge, which is such an amazing place it is worth visiting no matter what play you see performed! We saw Julius Caesar there, absolutely brilliant. Don't just look to the West End "theatre land" if you're looking for great drama.

Everyone thinks they have to shop in Oxford Street, and if you want to meet a lot of other tourists (and pickpockets) and buy things you can get in any other city along with tacky souvenirs of London, then by all means have a look. It does have some really good department stores, but then so do Birmingham and Manchester and the Westfield Centres in east and west London. Leading into Oxford Street from the north side is Marylebone High Street, almost devoid of visitors but full of interesting shops of all sorts, including the fashions you may have been seeking among the heaving crowds on Oxford Street. Go on, be different, explore: I discovered Marylebone High Street while wandering around one day last May.

If you want to explore all that I have seen and done in London in recent years, just type "London" into the search box at the top of this web page and you'll see lots of pages - sometimes I am just passing through on my way to France, Germany or Switzerland, but I often stay for a few hours while passing through. There's usually something!

What do you like to do in London? Let me know in the Comments box below!

Saturday, 25 April 2020

So, where does 007 live, then?

Looking for James Bond in London

London is an amazing city. What an understatement is that! The world's most popular tourist destination and with a history of many hundreds of years, one-time capital of an empire on which the sun never set; and yet for me the best bit is not the large-scale "world city" nature of the UK's capital but the many, many smaller aspects of a city in which millions of people live and work, bring up families, shop and drink and dine. I have never lived there and although I am a very frequent visitor there is still much I have not seen and experienced. Britain has many great cities and towns and I enjoy all of them greatly and visit when I can, but none compares with London for the variety and significance of what they contain.

221b Baker Street, apparently
I am hoping to write a little series of posts about London and am starting with one of its literary connections. There are many to choose from: Sherlock Holmes, Paddington Bear, Hercule Poirot, Harry Potter and many, many more. Harry Potter you cannot miss at Kings Cross as there is now a gift shop, and an enormous queue to be photographed with a trolley embedded in a wall, and Sherlock Holmes has a museum at 221B Baker Street where he is supposed to have lived, but I have chosen to look for James Bond as he is much more difficult to find, and the search can be interesting.

Hatton Garden, where Bond's infiltration of the diamond-
smuggling gang began in Diamonds Are Forever

The nearest you get to a large grey building, but far too
recent for Bond's office!
There are many references in the Bond books to locations around the world, and two of the books would take you to Switzerland if you want to go and have a look there! Bond lives and has his office in London, though, and London gets more of a mention than anywhere else. Lets start with his office: it is important to dismiss from your mind the recent films showing the shiny new MI6 building on the south bank: this post-dates Fleming's books by many decades. According to Ian Fleming, Bond's HQ is in the big grey building overlooking The Regent's Park: to go looking for it, choose a warm, sunny spring or summer day and walk around the park looking for a large grey building old enough for Fleming to have known it. While the nearest Underground station is Regents Park, that is not necessarily the best to use, depending on where you are coming from, but it is not far from Baker Street if you're hotfoot from Sherlock Holmes! Now, I don't think there is any large grey office block overlooking The Regent's Park, but a great urban ramble can be had looking for it! What you will see are many glorious cream-stucco neo-classical buildings that will take your breath away, a lot of wonderful open space and shady trees (fans of Diamonds Are Forever will see what I did there) and one of the best zoological gardens in the world.

A blank drawn on Bond's office, how about looking for his home? Fleming gives us his address, so that looks a bit more promising, not just a vague description: we are looking for 61 Horseferry Road. So, out with the A-Z or your smartphone's map app and ... there are two Horseferry Roads! I have visited both, and both a worth a visit, although they are very, very different. Many think the one in Limehouse is the right one, and it is hard to say because, like the rest of this part of London, it has changed enormously since the Bond books were written. The smart marina at Limehouse Basin will have been a working dock in Fleming's time, and the river would have been extremely busy. To see it, take the Docklands Light Railway to Limehouse and walk along Branch Road towards the Thames: Horseferry Road is the road at the end, running parallel to the river one block away. If there is a number 61, it is (now, at any rate) in a very unBond-like block of flats. It is fun to imagine what it was like mid-twentieth century, though.

61 Horseferry Road, Westminster: space for a Bentley here?

So, let's go west and find the other Horseferry Road: this one is much better known, largely because many of us will have heard in various news reports of Horseferry Road Magistrates Court. It is not far from Parliament and is, perhaps interestingly, near the current office of MI5, but although this was also their HQ in the 1930s, they were elsewhere when Fleming was writing the Bond stories. Victoria, St James's Park or Westminster would be the nearest Underground stations: choosing Westminster you get to see the Houses of Parliament and some of the river on your way there (and, if you know where to look, the car park ramp used in the opening sequence to The Prisoner, cult TV series!). It is easy to walk along Horseferry Road and look for number 61, but again it is in a block of flats, but this time perhaps a little more Bond-like. It seems to me that Fleming has deliberately been vague about these places while sounding specific: you feel the London atmosphere in his descriptions but the places just are not there when you go to look. For me, the Westminster one is more convincing than Limehouse: I cannot see a Bentley owner in Limehouse in the 1950s.

There are other places in the capital mentioned in the books, among them Shooters Hill, the A2 out into Kent when Bond drove off in search of Goldfinger, and the place where Drax set up as the target for the Moonraker ... which makes me think that maybe Kent is a good place to go looking for Bond sites, too, and one is definitely there to be seen, at Reculver Towers. Do let me know in the comments of any that you have tracked down, or whether you have different views on Bond's residence and workplace.

You may like to see:

Wednesday, 22 April 2020

There'll Be Bluebirds Over the White Cliffs of Dover

"Sailors" buying tickets for an "essential journey" on the
Severn Valley Railway at a forties weekend
I write in my fourth week of confinement to my home, save for the essential daily exercise (which is in fact rather less than daily because we have found plenty to do at home and don't always drag ourselves out!) and the essential occasional delivery of groceries etc to a relative in his nineties who is not going out at all. As the so-called coronavirus "lockdown" continues I am really missing the freedom to travel, even if only to the next town! By now three trips to London for various purposes have not happened, a wedding next month will not be happening, and Easter in Canterbury did not happen, and nor will the planned group outing to the brewery at Wainfleet All Saints.

Worst of all is not knowing whether our special tours planned for later in the summer to mark our fortieth wedding anniversary will happen: nothing has been cancelled yet and all bookings still stand for the time being, but no-one knows whether that will continue to be the case. meanwhile I have no idea when I shall be able to book Advance rail tickets and no inclination to make firm plans for any further trips. There is still a booking for a tour of Italy in the autumn and I hope that is far enough in the future to go ahead, but who knows? If there is a second wave of the Covid-19 outbreak then perhaps autumn tours will also be at risk. Ironically, that tour was supposed to be happening right now but had already been postponed for other reasons!

So I am stuck at home, neither travelling nor enjoying my time planning any travel except in the vaguest sense of thinking about where to go and when "when all this is over," as people keep saying, reminiscent, so I understand, of wartime! Our mental list, which I really must get round to writing down, will have to be ticked off a bit faster once we are able to leave home again, and I fear that the railway service will not be quite the same - how sad that so much investment will leave travel companies, like every other business, with little or no income for so long. What will train travel be like "when all this is over"?

One thing I have been doing, and much quicker than I imagined possible, is constructing my new model railway layout which is a reminder of holidays in Switzerland and based upon the RhätischeBahn in Graubunden canton. I hope to write separate series of posts about that in due course. Meanwhile, I thought I would write a piece now on the (vague) plans for where to go when this is all over - bearing in mind that it could be any time of any year and that the UK and other nations will not necessarily open up together and that "Brexit" may yet complicate things. I have just applied to renew my passport because although it does not expire until next March I may need to have six-months' validity beyond a travel date after September ...

United Kingdom Vague Plans

Whatever else we do, there must be a holiday in Britain some time, surely? The current plans for the summer stand for now, with hotels booked in Edinburgh and Chichester and on the Purbeck peninsula in Dorset, and a Royal Scotsman tour of the Scottish highlands. No other train tickets have been bought but I would now be thinking about it, and whether I should also book a hotel on the Isle of Wight, as we have done the last few years, to precede Chichester. Indeed I am thinking about whether I should book that hotel - provided that I can cancel it again if necessary. And should we drive to Dorset in case the trains are not back to something like normal? Meanwhile, though, we can begin to plan next year!

A priority next year will be to book again anything we have not been able to do of our Ruby Wedding celebration tours, that is the Royal Scotsman and the country hotel in Dorset with all the family, but we do not yet know if we shall need to do that! Otherwise, we have yet to visit the English Lakes, easy with a change of train at Birmingham New Street for us, and we'd like to go to Liverpool, for which I had already begun basic gathering of information. I am also beginning to miss Cornwall, so it is time to go there once more, perhaps trying the refreshed Night Riviera service, assuming it resumes after all this is over ... And local trips to East Anglia and Lincolnshire will be back on the impulse-travel list!

Europe Vague Plans

Assuming that the Italy trip in the autumn is OK, we can plan other trips to the continent, but if that is cancelled we shall rely on Great Rail Journeys to come up with something similar for next spring, again, assuming the business is still operating then.

We were also intending to return to Le Locle in late spring to enjoy the lake at Les Brenets when it still has plenty of water in it from the Jura meltwater and to do a little more ancestor research. So that would be the trips "hung over" from this year. Otherwise we should like to return to the French Riviera and I think that would be a fitting celebratory tour when this is all over, an emphatic return to normal - but it remains to be seen, of course, whether there is enough demand for travel for all that still to be available.

I do hope that the railways will be able to bounce back. Less commuting, maybe, as people learn to work from home when they can, but if people can also learn to enjoy the world as it is with fewer cars on the road and fewer aeroplanes in the sky, then just perhaps the railways and buses can come into their own, once we have the confidence to sit near strangers again. A world of just five weeks ago seems almost as remote now as the 1940s ...

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.

Do sign up on the right to receive updates from this weblog, and take a look at some of my other online publications and social media pages, too, listed among other websites also in the right-hand column of this page. Above you'll find links to my pages with (I hope!) helpful information for those who'd like to try train travel but have not done it before.

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!