Sunday 30 August 2020

Quick! While There's No-one There!

Our first train trip to London since February

Normally, visiting Westminster Abbey is a nightmare, with queues and little opportunity to appreciate the spiritual qualities of the place. I had only been there for services, choosing to avoid visiting it for the history and architecture, both of which are worth a look. But for the moment, in 2020, hardly anyone goes there and in any case the Abbey cannot manage many but desperately needs the income from visitors. So we decided to go while it was quiet, to see the place properly and to do our bit for its upkeep by buying tickets to visit, all pre-booked like virtually everything else in Britain at present. This was to be our first visit to London since all the cancellations in February and we decided to stay one night, have tea at Fortnum & Mason in Piccadilly (they were offering two for the price of one, so it was only expensive rather than extremely expensive) and just enjoy the West End without the crowds.

As a member of Hilton's loyalty scheme I booked a room at the Doubletree Westminster, a few minutes' walk from the Abbey, and First Class tickets with LNER to and from London Kings Cross to connect conveniently with the reduced-frequency trains between Stamford and Peterborough.All was set. Both Cross Country Trains and LNER insist on reservations for travel: with LNER we are given specific seats which we have to use; on Cross Country we can choose any empty seat far enough from other passengers but they will not sell tickets for a train which already has as many as it can take with social distancing. All our train tickets were electronic, held on my iPhone. I am beginning to get the hang of finding them quickly for operating barriers at stations.

The weather forecast was not wonderful: warm enough but wet at times. We took minimal luggage for just one night, one small case between us and walked together to Stamford station. Our train to Peterborough was just a couple of minutes late and our connection to London was easily made, although the temporary "one way" system at Peterborough station really does not work well for connecting passengers. Once the London train was under way I sent to collect our coffee and biscuits from the First Class host, probably not very different from what we would normally have had on such a short trip.

Arriving in London we walked to our hotel in Westminster. A long walk punctuated by a lunch break in a small park, and not quite the shortest route but a more scenic one which took us by the Savoy and along the Embankment. The hotel was having building work done and the main entrance was not in use, so it took us a while to find the way in: it turned out that it only reopened that day after the Covid-19 closure and that we were only the second group of guests to arrive. The restaurants were not open so we would have to have a packed breakfast either in our room or as a take-away; as we had nowhere to take it to we opted to have it in our room and specified a time. We went to our room, unpacked our few things and got ready to go out to tea. The room was looking really tidy and clean: Hilton had been to some effort to combat the virus by extensive cleaning of all rooms. It was looking a bit dated, though, with no device charging points by the bed, unlike our hotel in Edinburgh a few days which had double sockets with double USB points each side of the bed. We wondered if the refurbishment would address this sort of thing.

We set off through the drizzle, which came and went a bit, for the long walk to Piccadilly. By now, tea time, there was very heavy traffic in our street and here-and-there elsewhere, but our route was largely through quiet streets and pedestrian ways, and across St James's Park, all very pleasant. We arrived in plenty of time before our tea booking, and we walked through both Piccadilly and Burlington Arcades and then had a few minutes browsing the goods on offer at Fortnum & Mason before proceeding to the lounge for tea, which compared quite well with the afternoon tea we had enjoyed in Edinburgh less than a week before! As then we had two hours, which was more than enough, and as then we did not need any supper afterwards but rather a long walk ... we even declined the slice of cake which was an option to finish off the meal!

We took the long walk back to our hotel, through the occasional light shower, via Piccadilly Circus, Leicester Square, Trafalgar Square - it felt like the Monopoly board - then along Whitehall and across Westminster Bridge and back over Lambeth Bridge to our hotel off Horseferry Road.

In the morning our packed breakfast arrived and although it was not quite the standard we have come to expect of Doubletree hotels it was all good, and the coffee was excellent. we checked out and left our case at reception to walk the short distance to Westminster Abbey, clutching our printed-out on-line tickets and vouchers for the multimedia guided tour. The queue was minimal and after a quick security check and hand-sanitise we were in and in possession of the devices which would provide us with the guided tour. Photography was not allowed in the Abbey, so this part of the blog will have to go without illustration, but it suffices to say that this building is one of Europe's finest, so do see it if you can. Similarly the history here is amazing: a thousand years of the story of England and her church and monarchy, intertwined, is told here and is better described by others than by me. I recommend the electronic multimedia tour: each talk is short and to the point, it is easy to operate and copes with several languages and is good at reminding us throughout that this is still a working place of worship with a regular round of prayer and praise - although somewhat curtailed at present like all places of worship.

We visited the gift shop and then returned to collect our case from the hotel, bidding a farewell to the receptionist, who was the only other person we met there! She is from Italy which is where we had been going to go this autumn and have rebooked on a date next year.

We then revisited Fortnum & Mason, having noticed the day before that they were offering their knickerbocker glories at two for the price of one ... then we walked that off by going on foot through London to Kings Cross, up Regent Street and Great Portland Street then along Euston Road and taking the signposted walk from Euston to Kings Cross through the middle of St Pancras station. We had a few minutes in the reopened First Class lounge (no refreshments yet, but expected soon) before boarding our LNER train to Peterborough where we changed for Stamford as usual. By then the rain had started but was all right for walking home where hot chocolate made a fitting end to such a day. We had only left the day before but we had enjoyed tea and ice-cream and walked 17 km as well as our object of seeing Westminster Abbey without the crowds. Wonderful!

Wednesday 26 August 2020

A Very Special Weekend!

 By train to a fantastic weekend in Edinburgh

Sharing a bathroom with film stars!
This year makes a special milestone in my marriage, and a year ago my wife and I planned a very special holiday to mark it. We booked short tour of the Scottish Highlands on the Belmond Royal Scotsman, a luxury "cruise" train, to visit the one line out of Inverness which was still on our "to do" list. The tour started in Edinburgh on the day after our anniversary, so we also booked two nights at The Balmoral hotel to ensure that the day itself would be special and that we would be sure to be there for the start of the tour with no last-minute rush. There was so much to look forward to in the Royal Scotsman tour that I had given very little thought to the weekend in Edinburgh that was to precede it, but all that was to change when I came to pay the balance of the fare to Belmond - and I shall come to that shortly. First I really must tell you about the booking of the hotel for the weekend!

The Balmoral is not just any old hotel. It was originally the railway hotel for the North British Railway, later part of the LNER and then British Rail, of course (see Update in footnote). The railway hotels were sold off in the 1980s and this one was bought and refurbished to an exceptionally high standard by Rocco Forte Hotels and is now a very high-end hotel and bookings are made though Grand Luxury Hotels who appoint a Guest Experience Manager to look after guests prior to arrival. Our weekend was to be special so we wanted a room overlooking the castle, and we wanted a good room, and ... the weekend was during the Edinburgh Festival, so, taking all this together, it was not cheap! They asked if a room was sufficient or if we'd prefer a suite: I opted for a room since we did not intend to live in it, just sleep. After my Guest Experience Manager had been appointed I received an email message asking what time my flight was due to arrive and which class of Mercedes I would prefer for my transfer from the airport ... and all this at a railway hotel! I might have known that odd things would happen when the person taking the booking pronounced the city's name "Eedinburrow": it was plain that she had never been there and had no idea how things worked in the UK. I wrote back explaining that the hotel was above one of Britain's most important rail stations and that it would probably take me longer to fly there from Stamford than to go by train. (And even if I had flown, I think the tram from the airport would have been fine by me!)

Everything was booked, then, about a year in advance, but then like everything else in 2020 it all started to unravel with the advent of the Covid-19 coronavirus pandemic. Most of this year's outings in the spring and summer were cancelled and refunded early, but the August ones we hoped might happen. Unfortunately although the Royal Scotsman could run with only 20 passengers, just over half of its normal load, the other 18 still booked on it were American and could not get to Scotland, so that part of the holiday was cancelled. The Balmoral hotel, however, had just reopened and our booking still stood, so as soon as I could get train tickets the holiday, at one-third of its planned length, was still on, and it did cover the date of the wedding anniversary, which was great. Now the "supporting act" became the main attraction and we started to replan the trip around The Balmoral.

Booking the train tickets turned out to be a little more interesting than usual because the outbound ones, on a Saturday, were not released until a couple of weeks before departure, so I had to invest in the return part in the hope we could get there! Otherwise it would have had to be a long drive in the car and an application for  refund for the return train trip. But it all came out all right in the end, although the reduced frequency of trains between Stamford and Peterborough meant that we started this luxury holiday on a bus to Peterborough. But Delaine's buses are very good and all worked well.

Just as with the Cross Country trains the previous weekend, the catering was minimal, so we took a packed lunch for the journey. we were supplied with coffee, biscuits, crisps and water with our First Class booking, but not the usual hot lunch that we had hoped to enjoy before the pandemic changed everyone's plans. This was by far our longest trip so far on LNER's "Azuma" Intercity Express Train and we thoroughly enjoyed the ride in spite of having to wear face-coverings and forego the usual standard of luncheon. We were required to sit in the seats reserved for us, chosen by LNER to ensure social distancing, although this had to be changed by our train manager because someone else had "stolen" our seats: she could check which ones were available and ensured we would not be disturbed again. This ride up the East Coast Main Line is one of my favourites, with a fast, comfortable train and some incomparable views, especially of the Northumberland coast but also including Durham, the Tyne at Newcastle, Berwick-upon-Tweed and some magnificent stations, too, at York and Newcastle.

We arrived at Edinburgh within a minute or two of the advertised time and made our way up to Princes Street to the hotel, at number 1 Princes Street. As we approached the front door with our cases, a concierge approached and asked if we were checking in - we must have looked like Balmoral guests ... we checked in and went to our room, the cases having been taken away to be brought up to us. We had booked one of the better rooms in the hotel but were given a free upgrade to a better one still. As I mentioned, this had been going to be Edinburgh Festival week but, of course, that was cancelled and so presumably the hotel had many spare rooms available. They knew we were there for a special anniversary because when I had called to book a table for dinner on the Sunday they had asked if it was for a special occasion, so it was very good of them to let us have an even better room. When we opened the door we were amazed by the room which was not only spacious and well-equipped but was right at the top of the building in one of the corner turrets with the most fantastic view long Princes Street as well as up the the castle. I could not have asked for a better room.

We unpacked and made our way down to the Palm Court where we had booked (everything has to be booked now) afternoon tea; just as we were leaving our room a basket of fruit was delivered by the house staff - all part of the service here! We had booked the tea as a substitute for dinner and went for a fairly late tie for tea, at 5pm. We were welcomed into the Palm Court and shown to a suitable table in the typically pleasant atmosphere of traditional palm court within the atrium of this hotel built on a square plan. Elsewhere in the hotel is a poster from inter-war days showing the Palm Court as it was then, and it is quite recognisable today. There was a choice of tea and an option to begin with a glass of Champagne,
which, naturally, we did.  We each had our own choice of tea, poured from a great height into personal teapots so that it was cool enough to drink immediately, and a plate of savouries which included a haggis tart, the first of several haggis-based dishes we would have over these two days. Two hours was allowed for afternoon tea and we used most of that, consuming two pots of tea each in spite of also having Champagne and water. Although each item in the meal seemed to be small, there was plenty to eat and we were well-filled. We did not even need to start on the basket of fruit in our room before bed-time! At the end of the meal we were given a small tin of tea and a couple of chocolates each to take away. The chocolates survived until the train home on Monday, and we started the tea at our first tea-time at home on Tuesday - having run out of our St Pancras Blend tea it was good to have something special again.

We went for a long walk after tea, to the other end of Princes Street, back around the castle and along The Royal Mile to Holyrood and then back to the hotel.

On the Sunday we had originally had nothing planned, but before we left home had managed to book a visit to the Scottish National Gallery for the late morning, all attempts to get tickets for the National Museum of Scotland having failed. These venues were both free-of-charge but needed booking for space reasons during the pandemic. We started the day with a great breakfast at the hotel - again booked in advance by completing a form left in our room at turn-down - and then made our way via a shop or two to the art gallery just along Princes Street. It is a small gallery but with a wide selection of styles and artists, including the universally-known Monarch of the Glen by Sir Edwin Landseer which was amazing to see for oneself rather than printed on a biscuit tin!

The breakfast was intended to last all day until the special dinner booked for the evening, so after our time at the art gallery we went straight on to our next activity, booked the day before, a visit to the Royal Botanic Garden. It was drizzling all the way there, about a half-hour walk, but dried up as we arrived. There was an occasional shower during our visit but nothing to spoil it. We were there to enjoy the gardens rather than study botany, and of all the botanic gardens we have visited, this is the best for that, for the layout and landscaping is superb. Do visit here is you're in Edinburgh, but try to choose better weather than we had! It is hard to do it justice in a photograph: you have to be there.

The third course, Orkney Scallop
We returned to the hotel via Harvey Nichols, for there was something we needed that we had been unable to source anywhere else, and it is not every day that we are in a city with a branch of that particular emporium. Showering after the day's weather and dressing for dinner we made our way down to another of the hotel's restaurants, named "Number One" after the hotel's street address, for the seven-course table d'hôte tasting menu that we had booked before leaving home. This would be our special meal for our anniversary.

We had done these tasting menus before: lots of small courses which can be accompanied by matching wines, but we opted on this occasion simply to start with a single glass of Champagne and then have a bottle of a light red wine which would go reasonably well with the whole meal. A glass for each course has always left us feeling that we've had too much alcohol before we have finished the meal.
Before the seven courses started we were brought "something to nibble," an amuse-bouche, and some bread and butter (both bread and butter the chef's own recipe and made to order - nothing from a factory here) as well as a glass of water, and the bread and water were topped up as the meal went on.

Three fish courses and a single large ravioli brought us eventually to the beef which was served with three vegetables and potato, but these were unrecognisable as they were presented, each of them delicious and, amazingly, filling. The beef, Highland, of course, was superb.

We opted not to have the optional cheese course and went straight to the two desserts, again, small, delicious and plenty. Espresso coffee rounded off the meal nicely and we retired to our room well-satisfied.

On the final day we were not due to leave until the 16:00 train, so we arranged to check out at 15:00 and had a final attempt, unsuccessful, to obtain admission to the National Museum and decided to go on a bus tour of the city instead, having been plied with a leaflet by Bright Bus on our first evening. It has a stop opposite the museum and runs every fifteen minutes so we went to the stop and waited for just a few moments. With our senior discount the fare was just £9 each for hop-on, hop-off travel on the tour bus all day. The rain held off and the open-top bus took us round a lot of the city with an informative commentary, and it interesting to see from a higher vantage point some of the places we had walked on the first evening. We left the bus near the castle and walked down through Princes Street Gardens, which had been closed for the previous two days, always a great place to be, and then made our way back, checked out and walked round the corner to the station for our train home.

Again we had a great ride along the Northumberland Coast and were plied with coffee, tea, biscuits and crisps from the First Class host at the end of the train (no trolley services anywhere during the pandemic) and took our own salad dinner bought from Mark & Spencer earlier in the day. Things went slightly awry at Newcastle Central when some passengers had to be refused boarding because they refused to wear face coverings, currently a legal requirement, and we left there five minutes late. This was slightly troublesome because we had a very tight connection to our train home at Peterborough. Some of the time was clawed back, however, and although we were a touch late getting into Peterborough it was easy enough to get over to platform 7 and board our train home. Unbelievably some people near us on the train south of York all claimed to be exempt from the face covering rule and although the train manager had to give them the benefit of such doubt as there was, he did check their tickets and ordered them to leave as they were not in their booked seats - indeed they were travelling First Class on standard tickets.

All in all we had had a wonderful time. Not as wonderful as we had expected when we first booked it a year ago but wonderful anyway. It was just a weekend but it was a great weekend. It had been expensive but we had what we paid for and felt we'd had excellent value. The hotel and the art gallery had only been open a matter of days after closure because of the coronavirus pandemic and yet we were served brilliantly by capable and dedicated staff, and at the hotel in particular felt like valued customers - which we probably were, given the number who must have cancelled. No foreign guests, no Festival. We were fortunate that The Balmoral was still trading. 

We shall try to take our Royal Scotsman trip next year, and we hope we can stay at The Balmoral again before we take that train.


I have now posted a brief description of our previous stay at the then North British Hotel in 1984: you can see it at Back in Time for a Break in Edinburgh! It was all very different then.

Thursday 20 August 2020

Five Meet in Dorset

An old-fashioned family adventure by train, bus and ferry

If you want an adventure holiday and enjoyed Enid Blyton’s stories when you were young, The ideal place to stay is a hotel in a time warp in Dorset, a turn-of-the-century house which has been a hotel since the mid-twentieth century, where Enid Blyton used to stay during the period when she was writing many of her children’s books and when she conceived the Noddy stories. The Knoll House Hotel is in unique landscape on the Purbeck peninsula in Dorset, southern England, less than five minutes walk from Knoll Beach which, like much of the coastal landscape of the area, is owned and managed by the National Trust. It makes a great base for exploring on foot, by bicycle, bus or, if you must, by car.

We took our family there as part of the celebration of a significant wedding anniversary; we were eight adults and five young children, in three family suites and our own sea-view double room, coming from several different directions. We went, of course, by train and bus and on this occasion took one of the grandchildren with us on our adventure, the other four going with their respective parents by car. We’d had the hotel rooms booked well in advance but booking the travel and activities was greatly disrupted by the coronavirus pandemic of 2020. For a long time it appeared that we may well have had to drive and there would be little to do other than visit the beach and go for walks. Just in time the restrictions began to be eased and I was able to book train travel and then even book an exciting family outing for one of the days.

We left Stamford, with our four year-old granddaughter, on a Friday morning, the first dull day after several long, hot, sunny days ... such is the way things work out! We were travelling First Class on a CrossCountry train for Birmingham New Street. There were no bargain tickets to be had but at least we had our Senior Railcards and the little girl went free-of-charge; I wanted First Class to make sure of enough space around a table, and electric sockets, especially since I was following pandemic advice and using electronic tickets on my smartphone which needed to keep its charge for a long time while sharing our location with the rest of the family. It all went very well and we had the First Class section to ourselves.

Owing to the reduced timetable we had over an hour to spare at Birmingham New Street so we went into the Grand Central shopping centre to find a cup of coffee between trains, and I have to say I was shocked to see how deserted it was. The John Lewis store there is among those the company has decided not to reopen and some other shops were also not yet open; about half the cafés and restaurants were closed and yet the one we used, Giraffe, had only a handful of other customers. So little activity in the very heart of the Second City was a sobering reminder of the dreadful economic impact of the pandemic. We went back to the station and had our picnic lunch that we had brought with us and then made our way to the platform and boarded our train to Bournemouth. Travelwise this was the most exciting part of the trip for me, for I had long wanted to go this way, through the south midlands from Birmingham, through the New Forest and along the south coast to Bournemouth where we were to take a bus for the final stage of the journey. 

This train ride begins with the slow wander through the edge of Birmingham, Coventry and Leamington Spa in order to serve the airport and National Exhibition Centre at Birmingham International, and then heads down to Oxford and Reading where the train changes direction to take the line south through Basingstoke to Southampton and then Bournemouth. Although the train service is less frequent, the trains are longer and there is no difficulty keeping a decent distance from other passengers: Cross Country does not sell more tickets for a train that the train will be able to take safely. A limited amount of on-board catering has now been reintroduced and we were able to enjoy coffee and biscuits included in our ticket price. Further items were available for payment if we had wanted them, but currently only snacks. It all worked very well and both the trains to Birmingham and onward to Bournemouth were on time. We had a very pleasant journey.

Our little companion was excited to see the aircraft at Birmingham International Airport (plenty on the ground, none in the air at present), and I enjoyed the New Forest countryside, and the short run along the Great Western main line between Didcot and Reading. There is an enormous mix of landscape and cityscape, fast main lines and meandering single-track branches on this route, ending in the impressive station at Bournemouth. Many years ago, trainspotting at New Street in my student days, I used to hear the announcements for these trains which in those days went straight down to Leamington Spa without the detour via the then non-existent International station and went on beyond Bournemouth to Poole, and I always wanted to try this route for its variety and for the length of it. It was never fast but it was always a useful route, and I remember seeing whole carriages reserved for Saga Holidays, filled with people like I am now ...

The view from the open-top bus as we dock at Studland. A similar bus for
Bournemouth is waiting to board.
At Bournemouth we left the train and sought the adjacent bus station. First mistake was leaving via the wrong exit and not seeing the expected bus station head of us; second was crossing to the right exit via the stepped footbridge, not having noticed the ramped subway which would have been much easier with a child and wheeled luggage! Anyway, with only fifteen minutes to go until the departure of our bus (although there was another half and hour later, so it was not critical) we still had plenty of time to get to it, board and pay our fare. Fortunately the thunder and rain which had been forecast only a few days earlier had pushed back until much later and we were able to ride on the top deck of this open-top bus, the Purbeck Breezer, More Bus route 50. This route has a stop right outside the Knoll House Hotel and named after the hotel, so it was as good as a taxi: we boarded it and asked for the Knoll House Hotel and that is where it took us. It is a long ride and an interesting one, right past the popular Bournemouth beach, though the town centre and through the leafy and very expensive residential areas of Branksome and Canford Cliffs, descending right into Branksome Chine, then along the rim of Poole Harbour to Sandbanks (probably the most expensive residential land in the UK) where the bus boards the chain ferry for Studland, the last couple of miles of our journey being through the dunes and heather of Studland before reaching the Knoll House Hotel where the bus stops right opposite the entrance. We were delighted to be met by all the rest of our family who had arrived earlier (they all live nearer than we do) and had all come on this occasion by car (and for some, had endured quite a slog of a journey, although it was quite reasonable for those from London). We reckon we had had the best views of the sea, and especially the ferry crossing, though, from the top of our bus. And all were to enjoy an open-top bus ride the next day.

The three young families had family suites at the back of the hotel, with bedrooms for the adults and the children, with cots for the youngest; this hotel is very much set up for children's holidays and we think that in its early days the children and their nannies were sent here while parents went elsewhere! We had a double room at the front with a balcony overlooking the sea beyond the hotel's extensive grounds, and once we had checked in and unpacked all of us gathered for drinks and then dinner together. With four children under five and one only five there was not much time in any one meal when all thirteen of us were at the table at the same time, but nevertheless throughout the whole weekend of dinners and breakfasts we had a really great time together and I can thoroughly recommend this place for such a gathering: the hotel is used to doing it (there was one group of nineteen people) and the staff are brilliant at coping. After dinner the two over-sixties went for a stroll down to the beach and then retired to bed to be ready for the following day's adventure.

The need to book everything in advance as the nation eases out of the pandemic "lockdown" meant that the weekend could not be spontaneous, and so although I was able to leave Sunday unplanned for the beach or a day out by bus, for example, the programme for Saturday's outing to Corfe Castle had to be tightly planned, often with virtual crossed fingers, in order for it to stand any chance of working. I booked timed entry to Corfe Castle, a National Trust site, for all of us and then attempted to book a Swanage Railway steam train ride from Swanage to Corfe Castle and back but their tickets could not be released until the Wednesday before the planned weekend ... it was a bit-nailbiting but we managed it and I booked two compartments so that the family could travel together. All seats were allocated to individual passengers to ensure social distancing and waiting and boarding were carefully managed both at Swanage and at Corfe Castle to keep people apart as much as possible.

So we all (well, one toddler was asleep so some had to catch us up later, but that is another, boring, story!) gathered at the bus stop on Saturday morning and awaited the open-top bus to Swanage. This section of the route is quite a ride: there are many overhanging trees and some bends and hills and it is an exhilarating trip! At Swanage there is a good, though short, view of the beach before the bus turns towards the town centre and terminates right outside the preserved railway station building. Although I had booked in advance I had to take the email with my booking reference to the ticket office to collect the actual tickets which authorised the party to go onto the platform. The children were all given souvenir tickets by the gate staff which was rather sweet. We watched the train come in hauled by a Battle of Britain class pacific, a huge locomotive for a line and a train like this, then we watched the locomotive uncouple to run round to the other end of the train before we found our reserved compartments and settled ourselves onto the train.

We steamed to Corfe Castle station arriving at a good time for lunch. It was not the warm, sunny day that I had dreamed of while planning the trip but it was dry and not cold, and we followed the advice posted on lamp-posts through the village to picnic in a park off one of the streets, which really worked quite well. We had been to this place a few times before and never discovered the picnic site, but during the pandemic the local council is keen to prevent too many people congregating in the main square outside the castle entrance. We had packed lunches provided by the hotel and then all made our way to the castle itself. As with all National Trust poverties at present this was booked in advance and we simply had to give our names to be admitted (well, my name, as I had booked and paid). We all learnt a lot (well, the younger adults did, but I had a very thorough visit here a few years ago and to me it was a revision session!) and the children enjoyed clambering over the ruins and hearing about the dungeons and the medieval way of life. As usual, from the castle we saw trains coming and going on the preserved railway line below. The weather remained murky throughout, but not cold and with very little rain.

Tea and coffee were consumed before we left the castle, and some of us visited the National Trust shop on the village square and then we made our way in good time to the station, taking the opportunity to visit the little museum there while awaiting the steam train back to Swanage. A slight hitch occurred here when both our reserved compartments turned up occupied by couples who had boarded at the train's starting point at Norden and had not read the reservation information on their tickets: the train's guard turfed them out into their proper places and we took ours - considering that the reservations are part of the Covid-secure regulations on the line, these people were clearly not obeying the government's advice to stay alert.

At Swanage there was time to watch the train, the last steam train of the day, reversing out of the station to its overnight servicing. Two trains were operating that day, the other hauled by a class 33 vintage diesel service, which we saw passing Corfe Castle a couple of times and which will have been making its last run 40 minutes after ours, by which time we were ensconced on the top deck of the next Purbeck Breezer bus back to Knoll House Hotel.

Knoll House's restaurant served yet another great meal. We all agreed that the food at this hotel was excellent, far better than we had expected from the description "family hotel", and the sort of meal you would expect for a special-occasion restaurant meal. Drinks and other extras were charged-for, but the basic dinner was included in the room rate and it was altogether a very good deal indeed. We went for a stroll along the beach at sunset with one of our sons, by which time the view across the sea was a little clearer and the Isle of Wight was visible, along with three cruise ships resting at anchor, unable to operate because of the pandemic.

On the Sunday nothing had been planned and the weather forecast was fairly dire. However, we did agree to go down to the beach mid-morning and after delaying it for half an hour because of heavy rain we did venture out, encountering occasional light showers but remaining reasonably warm (although those who went into the sea were not as warm as those who didn't!). I spent much of the time shuttling off to the National Trust coffee bar watching the morning coffee for the three groups arriving at different times dictated by the sleep patterns of the youngest children ... I think all the adults got their coffee in the end. The first trip to the shop also included plastic buckets for building sandcastles, and one of these went back partly filled with shells from the beach. This really was a very traditional family beach holiday and it was great to enjoy it all together as one big family. At lunch time the younger generations enjoyed a bar meal together at the hotel while we made a snack lunch in our room out of what was left from our packed lunches of the previous two days! There was plenty for the two of us.

In the afternoon each household followed its own agenda, ours being a walk to Studland village across the fields from the hotel, following a signposted bridleway and footpath. From the village we walked down to the beach: this was South Beach, a small, fairly secluded beach for the village, but with a fair number of visitors even though the car park was closed. We walked northwards towards Middle Beach, which segues into Knoll Beach, by means of which we could return to the hotel. We set off encouraged by the sign that Middle Beach could not be reached at high tide, for the tide, although just beginning to come in, was still very low. However, getting to Middle Beach was not exactly a breeze even at low tide, involving scrambling over uneven and slippery rocks and chasing some very muddy sand and fairly stinky seaweed, too. But it was fun, if not easy! After all this effort, actually to land on the sand at Middle Beach still looked like defeating us when we encountered the works being done to repair erosion, but by sidling along a retaining wall we were able to gain the path up to a promenade behind the beach, coming across a handy tea room in the process where we stopped for tea before completing our walk back to Knoll Beach and the Knoll House Hotel, ready for the pre-booked family swim in the little indoor pool (there is a larger outdoor one, too, but this had not been open when the booking was made). Then we just had time to prepare for our last hotel dinner and a final stroll before bed.

Travel money seller in Bournemouth tries
desperately to draw attention to himself
at a time when no-one is going abroad.
On our last morning we all had breakfast together and said our farewells, some of the children reluctant to leave! With one granddaughter we waited for the 09:35 Breezer bus back to Bournemouth via the Sandbanks ferry. The rest of the family was leaving at about the same time by their different ways and we all kept in touch on the way home. None of the children seemed to want to go home, apart from the very youngest who had spent the whole weekend being carried or strapped into one sort of seat or another. We took a bus rather earlier than we needed to catch our train at Bournemouth and had a coffee break before the train, but with the coffee shop on the station being closed we found ourselves in the McDonald's opposite, the already cheap drinks being reduced by the government's "Eat Out to Help Out" subsidy - not that we were looking for a bargain. The train journey home was much as the one out, with our packed lunch supplied by the hotel, having been ordered the evening before, and a rather shorter wait at New Street. It seemed no time at all before we were collecting our luggage and donning our rainwear for the walk home through the darkening weather, with the distant rumble of thunder, arriving just in time before the rain began. It had been a great weekend and the whole family seems determined to do something like it again. For us it was a demonstration that rail and bus adventures can still be done, although the feel is very different without the usual catering, with less frequent trains and with the need to book absolutely everything in advance.

Wednesday 5 August 2020

Back on Track at Last

Chichester and the "Costa Geriatrica"

Travel finally got back under way this month, with my annual short break in Chichester by rail. I was quite nervous about booking it, with different Train Operating Companies applying varying rules to keep staff and passengers safe from Covid-19, as well as being out of practice with buying tickets - besides the issue of reduced services and short-notice changes to them.

Face coverings are compulsory on public transport in England

I booked using Cross Country’s train tickets iPhone app but was not offered an electronic ticket, presumably because Thameslink and Southern cannot cope with them, so I had to collect paper tickets at Stamford station. The hotel, the same as last year’s, had been booked for many months and I had called to check that all was well with that before I started buying tickets. I had feared I might have to drive and I had not been looking forward to competing for road space with everyone else taking holidays in England this summer, but the railways were beginning cautiously to welcome people back and we gave it a go.

I decided just to go to Chichester this year for the few days we had already booked at the Chichester Harbour Hotel and not take the originally-planned few days on the Isle of Wight first; when I was booking, the ferries to the island were still uncertain and I did not want to end up needing to drive in order to get to an operating ferry. The simpler, the better. All ready to go, packing for the first time in ages and struggling to remember what I normally take, I woke on the morning of the trip to discover that a problem on Thameslink’s line through central London was causing major problems and we may have to cross London between termini by Underground, whereas we’d booked through London by Thameslink to minimise changes and avoid the crowds. By the time we boarded our first train at Stamford, wearing our face coverings, the problem had been fixed and Thameslink trains were running through London again but many trains and many staff were out of position and so we were over an hour late leaving Peterborough, having had to wait for a driver.

Some of this time was clawed back by our train missing out some stops north of London and we made our connection fairly smoothly at East Croydon as advised when I booked the tickets, but an hour late. It did not really affect our plans, and we still had time to unpack and have a cup of tea in our hotel room before setting off to meet our friends, socially-distanced in a pub, our first visit to a pub since February. I was impressed by the lengths to which the landlord had gone to keep customers safe and keep vital transmission to a minimum, but I don’t know whether he’s making a living from the number of customers he is getting.

Dinner was at the hotel restaurant in the first week of the government-sponsored half-price eating-out offer. It was nice to have money off the bill, but service was a bit slow as the poor waitress struggled to keep up with all the people she had to serve with just one barman for help.

The following day we went by bus (again, our first for many months) to East Wittering to join friends on their beach holiday as we always do. The morning was warm and sunny, the afternoon, spent on the beach, less so, and windy, so shorts were exchanged for jeans, and jackets added! A Spitfire flew past a few times, and a Chinook helicopter seemed to be engaged in some sort of exercise on the Solent which was interesting to watch. After dinner we returned to Chichester and our second night at our hotel. Social distancing was not quite so easy that day, but we had exclusive use of a towel for washing, were outside as much as possible and touched no-one. Tough, but we are becoming used to it now.

A drafty afternoon on the beach!

Before we left home I had sent a message to my scattered family to tell them we’d be away in Chichester for these few days, and one son wrote beck to say that he his family were in Worthing and could we meet up. This fitted rather well because the theatre trip originally planned for the third evening had been cancelled and we had been contemplating a trip along the coast with Worthing the most likely destination! Some things were meant to be, so to Worthing (well, West Worthing, actually) we went, had coffee on the seafront and then joined family for lunch at their Air B&B, which was wonderful, and then we all went to the beach together, with no need to wrap up warm this time! I must admit I quite liked Worthing, and not really in spite of its "retirement home" image, either, but rather, now that I am retired myself, because of it! There is a lovely new block of retirement apartments near the beach with all the usual shops, a café and a pub nearby and on a bus route .... but I digress! We travelled to Worthing and back by Southern Railway and the trips went well both ways. There was just enough space on the trains for us to keep a decent distance from other travellers, and plenty of space on stations, but we needed, as the government advises, to stay alert.

Returning to Chichester we bought snacks in town to have in our room for supper, having eaten so well at the family barbecue at lunchtime.

On our final morning we made sure we had a substantial breakfast, with the intention of not taking lunch with us on the train but waiting until we arrived at home to eat. The journey is really quite quick, but there is no catering on Thameslink trains even in normal times and with no substantial break in the journey there is no opportunity to buy anything once we start. I do think Thameslink are missing an opportunity here with such a long route, although perhaps not at present. The train never really filled up even on the London section, and I was shocked at how few cars were in the station car park at Peterborough: we are a very long way from being back to normal yet.

All three of our trains were on time on the return journey and both changes went very slickly, at Crawley and at Peterborough. The weather was beginning to warm up, with temperatures well over thirty degrees forecast for the next couple of days, and as well as preparing dinner, watering the garden was a priority for the evening when we reached home!

We enjoyed our break but I am really looking forward to the day we can stop wearing face-coverings on buses and trains. And it was not improved by the phone call from Great Rail Journeys while we were on the beach informing us that our escorted tour of Italy in October has had to be cancelled as so many others had dropped out. That means that all of my trips managed by others have now been cancelled and the only ones still taking place are ones I have arranged myself. Interesting ... perhaps it is time to plan another group outing! And meanwhile I need to claim Delay Repay for compensation for the late arrival on the outward journey.