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.