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.

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