Monday 5 October 2020

Quantum of Solace on LNER

In, out, in, out ...
As I write the UK seems to be heading towards another lockdown and I wonder if Her Majesty's Government really quite understands what "exponential" means, the President of the United States is in hospital with the foreign virus he said would not affect his great country, and foreign travel restrictions look remarkably like some version of the hokey-cokey. We had offered to look after grandchildren in London so that our son and his wife could have some time away to celebrate their tenth wedding anniversary (tin, before anyone asks). They took us up on the offer and booked flights and accommodation and I started looking for the necessary train tickets to do our part, and tickets to a national museum on the Saturday as an activity for the grandchildren.

I found that booking outward travel to London was simple: both LNER for the main leg from Peterborough and Cross Country for the hop from Stamford to Peterborough had their timetables sorted and plenty of tickets available, and LNER had some bargain Advance First Singles, too. But their return times were not yet fixed and I could not book them. I asked for an alert for when the were available and booked immediately but by then Cross Country had sold out of tickets for the connecting service home to Stamford. Their trains were running but reservations for the reduced number of seats on them are compulsory and the Train Tickets app would not sell me tickets on a sold-out train. So we were resigned to a taxi home, the only alternative being to take our car to Peterborough and leave it there for four days, which would make the taxi look cheap. Both are considerably more expensive than two Senior Railcard standard singles. At least it would be as quick, and taxis are easy to get at Peterborough station. That little matter was the only problem, really, and everything else went brilliantly, indeed, better than I had expected, because although we were facing all the issues I allude to in my opening paragraph, LNER did offer a crumb of comfort, to be a bit less Ian Fleming about it!

Looking back: the InterCity 225 in BR days at Kings Cross

On the morning of our departure I made sandwiches and put them with some fruit into a paper lunchbag for a picnic lunch in London, as we have done before during the pandemic. I was anticipating coffee and maybe crisps an a biscuit on the train, as we had had recently both to London and to Edinburgh, so I did not pack drinks. I checked on Cross Country's Train Tickets app that the trains were running to time and we left for the station, found our socially-distanced seats on the train to Peterborough and looked forward to our trip to London. Again, the London train was indicated on time and we were soon aboard. I was surprised to see that it was an old InterCity 225 electric set - our reserved seat numbers suggested that it would be one of the new "Azuma" trains, and it was soon clear that it should have been, for our reserved seats were not together! In any event, one was taken already, but we were easily able to find two together that were nowhere near anyone else, so that really did not matter as it happened. I wondered if perhaps this might be my last ride on one of these venerable trains and cast my mind back to my first experience of one in 1991, twenty-nine years ago!

Best on-board catering for months!
No sooner had the train left Peterborough than our host came round offering ... hot and cold drinks (expected), snacks (expected) and two different sorts of sandwiches (unexpected joy!).  I was not going to say "No" to this: we could eat this offering now, with our coffee, and the picnic I had made could come later when we had unpacked at our temporary home mid-afternoon. This was still not the usual First Class complimentary offer, with paper cups and limited choice, no alcohol (not that we'd have wanted that at this time of the day!) and no hot food, but it was getting there, and far better than what we'd had in August. The food was good, too, and the young lady serving it was both friendly and efficient, as we have generally found not just on this line but throughout the UK rail network.

At London we were in no hurry. We did not have to meet the children from their respective school and nursery until after five o'clock, and we decided to travel by bus from Kings Cross to their home in Shepherds Bush. It is a direct and simple Underground ride but we have done that so many times and this would (a) make a pleasant change, (b) save money - for what that's worth - as I have free bus travel as a senior citizen and (c) would allow us an opportunity to weigh up whether we were ready for the Underground yet as the coronavirus outbreak was beginning to look threatening in London. We used the Citymapper iPhone app to find a suitable route. The app does show the quickest way first, which was the way we normally go by Underground, but also offers a bus-only route as well as walking, cycling, taxi and driving. Despite having suitcases we travelled on the top deck of the bus to enjoy the view, well worth the effort of hauling them up the stairs and with social-distancing we could keep them on thew seats in front without fear that someone might need the seats - buses are running at less than half capacity. Our first bus took us to Park Lane, near Marble Arch, so we rode along Oxford Street which was nothing like as busy as normal and it was the easiest ride we've ever had along there. Crossing Park Lane to catch the connecting bus presented a slight challenge as the pedestrian underpass was closed, possibly a pandemic measure, but there was a signalled crossing just a few metres farther along and we were soon on the next bus which took us along the north side of Hyde Park and Kensington Gardens through some of the loveliest residential areas in London until we arrived at our stop and walked to the house. We unpacked, ate our sandwiches with a cup of tea and then set out to collect children from nursery and school, enjoying a meal together before putting them to bed and crashing out! 

The following day was a school day and after taking the children to their usual day-time places we had the time to ourselves. We did not fill it with activities, saving ourselves for the day out with the children the following day, for which we had tickets booked for the Natural History Museum. These are free of charge for a national museum but booking is required to keep numbers down for social-distancing purposes. (Last time we went we had to queue for over an hour to get in; this time we would queue only because we got there before the gates opened!). We had a parcel to post, little gift shopping to do at the Westfield shops and some preparation for the children's evening meal, and we spent some time doing some overdue "housekeeping" on our MacBooks, too!

It turned out that the easiest and probably quickest way to get to South Kensington for the museum was by bus from Shepherds Bush, so we wrapped ourselves up in rain gear (which turned out to be unnecessary) and set off for the bus. amusingly, when you walk onto a bus with a child in a buggy an automated announcements firmly tells you to stay with the buggy throughout the journey: Big Brother may not be watching you, but the bus robot certainly is!

Visiting the London museums is always worth doing, and with the pandemic measures in place is actually easier than it normally is, but you do have to be prepared for a few disappointments for some of the galleries cannot be opened safely at present and constant vigilance is needed to ensure that social distancing is maintained, which can be rather tiring, plus, of course, face-coverings are needed. But we had a great day and, as always, must return one day to see things we missed. We took the same bus route back, again through some very pleasant residential streets as well as the familiar Kensington High Street and past the church where both these children were baptized. All of us were tired and all went to bed early by the standards of each of us!

After lunch on Sunday the children's parents came home. Theirs had been an adventure unlike ours, for their planned holiday was in Istanbul and no sooner had they landed there than Turkey was taken off the UK Government's list of safe places which would require them and the children to quarantine for two weeks if they stayed on as planned, so they swapped to an earlier flight and came back to England after just a day in Istanbul, spending their first night back in an airport hotel (far too late to go anywhere else, and we were in their bed!) and then having a night's holiday in London - well, it is the world's favourite holiday destination and just because you live there that doesn't mean it is not worth seeing - then came back to spend a little time with us before we headed home.

We knew the homeward trip was going to require a taxi from Peterborough, and we had booked the train from London as late as we reasonably could in order to allow for flight delays from Turkey, for a flight that was no longer relevant, of course! We left in good time for the 20:00 Newcastle train on which our Advance First tickets to Peterborough were booked, and we decided to give the Underground a try this time, taking the Hammersmith and City Line to Kings Cross St Pancras. It was fine (but then it usually is on a Sunday evening), but were disappointed to find that the First Class Lounge at Kings Cross closed earlier now and we had to wait on the concourse for the hour we had allowed before catching our train. Boarding began twenty minutes before departure, though, and we started making our way towards the platform (which was indicted on the Live Departures on my iPhone before it was announced) even before that, so it was not too long a wait. This time the train was an "Azuma" and our seats (the same numbers) were together. Again, the kind host brought our meal which we greatly enjoyed on our way home. Apart from do-it-yourself teabag tea in a paper cup instead of brewed tea in a china mug this was little different from the usual weekend offering. We are getting there, but I look forward to wine on weekday evenings!

And so to our taxi and the ride home to Stamford. With a traditional taxi there is no fuss: our luggage comes inside with us and we are separated from the driver by a perspex screen. Sanitizer before and after, masks still in place from the train ride anyway, and we feel safe enough.

I just ought to mention that we only made this trip at all at the last moments because although I had booked it a couple of weeks earlier I developed a cough a few days before scheduled departure. I thought it was just a cold but ... the later I leave a test the later would be the result and the later, if it turned out to be Covid-19, I would start isolating and protect others, so I booked a test online on the Monday afternoon and drove over to the drive-in test site at Peterborough, very impressed with the faculty and the efficient way it all worked. I would not have been so impressed if I had not had a car, though, for no walk-in tests were available and no home testing kits, so only motorists could be tested. Anyway, the negative result came in during my sleep on Tuesday night, well within the 24-48 hours I was given to expect a result. Life was back on, and it is amazing how after just one day in isolation it took a little while to get back to being able to sit near my wife again!

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