Wednesday, 9 June 2021

Back on Track at Last!

Booking Train Trips for this Summer

"On the train again" t-shirts etc available on the
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Over the last few weeks, and particularly since the May timetable update, rail services have been returning to normal in most places. It has been good to pass my local station in Stamford and see hourly trains to Stansted Airport (although not many passengers will be going that far!) instead of every two hours to Cambridge, and despite the problems with their train fleet LNER will be running almost a full timetable, too, once the reopening of Kings Cross is complete this week following a major rebuild of the track and platforms.

With the coming of the summer and the gradual easing of lockdown rules I have begun buying tickets for planned trips and have even planned an extra short trip at short notice. It is an exciting time and I cannot wait to get on a train again and write up the experience here - and it is not long to wait now. For now I thought I'd share some thoughts on the current difficulty in planning journeys and buying tickets, using a couple of examples of my recent (and, indeed, continuing) experience.

The ferry docked at Yarmouth
First, I have long had hotels booked in Yarmouth, Isle of Wight and Chichester for my annual summer break on the south coast of England, but travel was still pretty vague then and the hotels offered free cancellation so I was confident in booking them even though it was not certain I'd be able to go. Once the government's so-called "road map" to ending lockdown was published it all began to look more likely. First, LNER advertised Advance tickets covering all the summer, so I grabbed First Class singles each way between Peterborough and London, hoping that the other tickets I needed would gradually become available. Sure enough I was eventually, after many weeks, able to book from Waterloo to Yarmouth via the Lymington Ferry, and then from Chichester back to London Victoria and from Ryde to Chichester. The only outstanding tickets I have not yet been able to buy are the ones to get me from my home in Stamford to and from Peterborough! It is very frustrating, but Cross Country only seem to release tickets a couple of weeks or so before travel, and all my other arrangements hinge on them getting me to either Peterborough or Birmingham. Peterborough, though, is close enough for a taxi to be a reasonable alternative, although expensive and slow compared with the train, or in the daytime I can use the local bus, even slower but cheaper - free for a pensioner! I expect I'll get the Cross Country tickets eventually, but it is one job I have to keep in mind to do.

Second, the short-notice trip. It is just to Croydon to join friends for a wedding to which we were all invited when it was expected to be held last year; not that the wedding is in Croydon, we'll be joining it remotely from their home, such is the state of things these days. Anyway, Thameslink operate a through service from Peterborough to East Croydon so I went to their website to book the tickets and was put off considerably by their warnings that I would need to "reserve space" on the Cross Country trains to and from Peterborough and also reserve seats on the LNER train I'd have to use coming back because the through service does not run on Sundays. There was no clue there about how to do these things. Asking questions of the three companies' social media teams on Twitter came up with all sorts of friendly reassurances (apart from Thameslink who only asked me what date I was planning to travel, something I was not prepared to tell the world on Twitter) but no real information about exactly what to do to ensure that the tickets I bought (which were to be Super Off Peak Returns or something similar - a great bargain) would be useable at the times I needed to travel).

Eventually I took the plunge and, knowing I'd have to use one of their trains to get back, booked the tickets via the LNER website. Bingo! It was simplicity itself ... LNER came up with exactly the same routes and times and the same tickets at the same price, but crucially they also booked the reserved seats on their own train and on the Cross Country trains in both directions. Easy: paid up, job done! How I wish I had started with their website in the first place, but I did not know they'd be involved until I starting looking, and neither did I get that Thameslink's site would be so unhelpful. The moral is that I shall use LNER as my default for ticket purchases in future, no matter with which company I am travelling unless I need to use another site for a particular reason. It was all so simple, and I recommend it to anyone who needs to book a complex route with reserved seats. It is unsure yet whether compulsory reservations will be a feature of post-pandemic life, but even if not, they will be with us for a while yet, I would think.

So, with a file full of tickets and itineraries I am ready for about four or five trips over the next few weeks and months, and who knows what else may become feasible as time unfolds?

Thursday, 8 April 2021

Afternoon Teas I Have Enjoyed ...

Tea by train!

(On board the Statesman train)
Afternoon tea has become trendy in recent years and is marketed as an English (or British, I am not sure which) tradition. While a cup of tea and perhaps a piece of cake or a couple of biscuits has indeed been a tradition for as long as I can remember, with the "cream tea" an occasional special treat, I am fairly sure that the concept of the afternoon tea has developed and spread relatively recently.

At the very least an afternoon tea should include tea (well ... there are some who take coffee or even a cold drink) and scones or cake, but the better teas include small sandwiches, scones with clotted cream and jam, and cake. Some include sausage rolls or some other such savoury treat along with the sandwiches. These are often served on a three-decker plate, although this is not essential and the courses may be brought separately, or on several plates. Sometimes sparkling wine is an optional extra, or even gin (but the only time I ever tried to arrange a G & tea the firm offering it went bust and we did not get it).

I list below the afternoon teas that have made it into this weblog, that is those we have taken during a rail adventure: indeed the first on the list, the North Yorkshire Pullman, was the very reason for taking the adventure. There have also been teas enjoyed in Stamford, accessed by walking to Burghley House on one occasion and The George Hotel on another. There are now other places in town offering afternoon tea, so maybe we shall have to try those once everything is up and running and we are not away ... but they cannot appear here, of course!

Click on the headings to read the full story of the adventures:


The North Yorkshire Pullman

This was the biggest afternoon tea I have ever had, as well as being delicious. The scones were enormous and I made the mistake of helping out my wife by eating half of her scone, with the result that I was unable to finish my piece of cake - the only tea in this list that I could not finish.

Bucks Fizz was served at the start of the tea which was taken on board a restored Pullman carriage on the steam-operated preserved North Yorkshire Moors Railway.




Marco Pierre White's New York Italian in London


Possibly the weirdest tea in this list, sort of English tradition with an Italian twist via the USA. Not as filling as some, but very nice indeed. Like the North Yorkshire tea above, this one was a gift and we would probably never have discovered it if we had not been given the voucher. Well worth discovering, but not quite what you expect - not that we knew what to expect!








Fortnum and Mason, London

We took advantage of a two-for-one offer on afternoon tea at this famous London store during the pandemic of 2020 when shops and restaurants were open but struggling for trade and having to restrict numbers of customers. This brought the price of the tea down to very expensive from the extremely expensive that it normally is. There was, however, an unlimited amount to eat and drink from the tea menu so although I did not leave anything on my plate there was more I could have had if I had wished. As in North Yorkshire, no dinner or supper was required after this tea! Even the long walk back to our hotel did not work up another appetite. Delicious, and an experience everyone should have at least once.

In passing, I ought to mention that we did once enjoy tea at The Wolseley in Piccadilly, having been given a gift voucher for it, and that was similarly very good and nicely served but the atmosphere, despite the staff's best efforts, was of rush and haste simply because the demand is so high and people are coming in and going out all the time. Fortnum and Mason, at least when we went, was more calm and unhurried.

The Balmoral Hotel, Edinburgh


The Balmoral Hotel in Edinburgh is one of the best hotels we have ever used, and probably the best we have used in Britain, and the afternoon tea offer is fitting to that status. The booking is for two hours, which sounds like plenty for a tea, and it is, but there is so much and it is so enjoyable that the time passes very quickly. We opted for a glass of Champagne and there is an included glass of water as well as a wide choice of teas. There is a selection of savouries and some interesting sandwiches as well as the scones and cakes. The atmosphere in the traditional palm court was calm and unhurried (although I cannot say whether it would have been so outside the pandemic when the hotel would have been busier). Again, no dinner needed that day.


The Royal Hotel, Bath

A cream tea with Champagne was included in a hotel/spa package at The Royal Hotel in Bath. As dinner was also included, it is as well that this was a simple cream tea and not one of the multi-course afternoon teas described above. Two (relatively small) scones each with jam and clotted cream, a pot of tea and a glass of fizz - a lovely addition to a relaxing day. All high quality stuff and served in the bar, so to make it relaxing it is important not to choose a busy time - this bar is used by people waiting for trains at the station across the road, especially after work, so at 5.30pm it can get too busy to find a table, and certainly to relax. But then, maybe that is a bit too late for cream scones if you have a dinner booked for the evening! Treat this tea as a (slightly late) substitute for lunch and all fits in nicely!



Tuesday, 23 February 2021

Revising The Plan!

 The One Way Road Out of Lockdown?

As the year has progressed so far, two things have become clearer than they were on 1st January. One is that within the UK there is a reasonable chance of something like a normal summer with holidays as usual, so our planned trip to the south coast and to Scotland are looking more sure than I had hitherto hoped.


The other is that travel will not be a great deal freer until the end of June, and international travel remains an enigma because we cannot predict how the pandemic will progress in other countries whose vaccine programmes have not been as swift as our own. So our hoped-for trip to Switzerland in June is looking so unlikely that I have stopped planning for it and will revise my schedule to put it back to next June instead (it was already postponed from 2020). There is still some hope that Italy in the autumn and Germany next winter will be possible if the vaccination programmes in all the relevant countries proceed well, and I shall work on the assumption that these trips are on.

It is looking like the proposed group tour to Cambridge in July can go ahead, provided that the train service has resumed something like normal operation by then, and we can start day and short-stay trips within England in July, too. There will probably be some excursions by car before we can resume rail adventures, but we'll try to make those to places not on "The List". Places like the Thermae Bath Spa are unlikely to open before rail travel becomes available anyway.

Now, then, to plan some more rail adventures to try to make up for lost time: it was always going to be a race to get everything done while still fit and well, and now we have to stay fit and well for two more years to get it all in!

Tuesday, 16 February 2021

Back in Time for a Break in Edinburgh

A Rail-Hotel Package Holiday in 1984

Our train Edinburgh Waverley

I started these "adventures" in 2011, as I tell in my first blog post the following year, but if I think back I have really been doing them for very much longer, having hankered after them longer still but not having the resources to fund them until the early eighties.

In 1984 I took a short holiday in Edinburgh with my wife and young son, then my only child, a baby. The previous year when we were a couple expecting our first baby we had been to York and thought we'd venture farther this time. We went in the autumn half-term holiday because my wife was a teacher, and we booked the package by telephone with British Rail's Superbreak package holiday scheme, rail travel and British Transport Hotel booked together at a reasonable price. For a small extra sum we could travel First Class: we had done it the previous year to give my pregnant wife the space and the reclining seat, but although that was no longer needed we thought it was such a good deal we did it anyway. In those days the long-distance HSTs, branded Inter-City 125, had a buffet car and a restaurant car and we decided to travel over lunch time and treat ourselves to a meal on the train, too.

The original Mk3 First Class seating: very 1970s!
The MaxPax coffee was also very 1970s and has
thankfully been long abandoned now.

We lived in Grantham at the time, so we had through trains to Edinburgh from our local station. After all this time I do not remember a great deal about the journey apart from it being very comfortable and comprising the usual great views from the train, especially north of York. As ever when travelling with a young child we were kept busy. We had a pushchair which folded flat and fitted reasonably well on the luggage stack, a shared suitcase (no wheels in those days: I carried the luggage!) and a shoulder bag which contained all the baby care equipment with the changing mat rolled round it as the outer cover. All very neat and compact.




Waiting for lunch
Lunch in the restaurant car was north of Newcastle as we travelled along the gorgeously scenic Northumberland coast, and the restaurant car staff were very attentive and loved that we had our little boy us. The only other passenger I remember being there at the time (there could have been others, but I only remember this one!) was a man travelling - or at least lunching - alone, and from his accent he was clearly from North America and was enthusing loudly about having been recommended to see the 'Fifth of Fourth" while in Scotland ...  The ticket inspector came along and he refused to show his tickets until after he had finished his meal, and while I understand that one may not want a meal disturbed, it was not difficult for me to reach into my pocket and show our tickets when our turn came, and to show them on demand is part of the conditions of carriage, but the inspector was not going to argue and resolved to ask him again on his way back through the train.

We stayed at the North British Hotel, immediately adjacent to the station at Edinburgh, then with an entrance directly off the station. We had a cot in an alcove in the room but our little one after such an exciting day found it hard to sleep. I transferred him back to his pushchair, reclined flat and tried pushing him round the hotel to lull him to sleep - the North British is built in a square around its palm court so I could walk him round and round while his mother tried to rest. I cannot remember now how the story ended but I do know we all had a reasonable night's sleep in the end! We have since returned to this hotel, now called The Balmoral, and it is a very different place, but one can still walk around the square!

It was in Princes Street Gardens on this holiday that our son had his first ride on a playground swing, and we walked up to the Palace of Holyroodhouse and visited The Georgian House in New Town, a National Trust for Scotland museum. We have lived in a couple of Georgian houses and thought it would be interesting to see what we could learn here - and it was amazing how similar this place was to the house in which we were living at the time, and even more so to the house in which I had lived with my parents before my marriage.


On one morning I went off on my own to explore, and I decided to take a local train to North Queensferry, which would take me across the Forth Bridge, giving me a great view of the famous Firth of Forth which had been extolled by our transatlantic travelling companion on the way there. In those days it was possible to see through the driver's cab at the front and rear of diesel multiple units and so I saw not only the Firth but also a fantastic view of the Forth Bridge now only available to train crew. Two bonuses on this little trip were (1) the presence of a submarine in the Firth, and (2) an airliner landing at the airport as I passed the end of the runway.

I don't remember the ride home at all, so presumably it was all fine. There were more of these trips to come over the next two or three years until we moved to Cirencester and lost our connection to the railway for a while. I'll have to see if I can dig up more photographs and more memories!

Some photographs of my trip over the Forth Bridge and back 


















Sunday, 31 January 2021

Just Don't Call It a "Staycation": Holidaying in the UK

Taking the Train for Your Holiday

To read the newspapers in Britain at the moment you would think that holidays in the UK were a new idea. Perhaps they are for London-based journalists! But for various good reasons around the pandemic and the travel uncertainty arising from it, there are likely to be many more of us in Britain taking our holidays in Britain this year, and the newspapers are full of "advice" about "staycations" - although how many journalists are qualified to give this advice, considering they feel the need to call them something other than a holiday, I am not sure. So, having taken lots of these holidays in the recent past (and the distant past, too, come to that!), I thought I'd write some advice myself. I hope my readers find it helpful. You can find some ideas for destinations on my page, "UK Holidays".

Traffic

Now at first it is easy to think that the greater number of British people holidaying in Britain will be balanced by the far fewer numbers of foreign visitors holidaying here, but I am not so sure about that. First, a lot of foreign visitors visit London (it is the most popular tourist destination in the world), and I suspect that few of us will take our main holiday there: we shall go the coast or to the lakes or forests, moorlands, etc.. Second, foreigners will tend not to bring their cars (some, from Europe, will, of course, and some will hire them when they get here), whereas most British people will tend to drive. Putting all this together, I predict that roads to the coast and rural resorts will be more than busy: it was already bad enough four years ago for me to declare that we were never going to Devon or Cornwall by car ever again, and if more are heading that way this year then I hope they have a LOT of patience. That is why I would recommend travelling by rail for UK holidays, and the advice I am offering concerns making the arrangements for train travel.

Booking

Cross Country's retro ad a few years
ago isnpired me to book a seaside
summer holiday by train!
One thing the newspapers have been hot on is the need to book in good time, because everyone else will be doing the same. Anticipating this, I have already booked hotels for our summer breaks, one in England, one in Scotland, so you can't get in front of me how ever soon you book: but you may need to hurry to get in front of each other! Look for hotel and B&B bookings that allow free cancellation so that if circumstances change and you need to back out for a reason not covered by your travel insurance (yes, you do need it for holidays in the UK unless you are happy to take all the risk yourself) your costs will be minimised.

Train Travel

While I have booked accommodation for my summer holidays, I have not yet booked travel, because even in normal times train tickets with seat reservations are not usually available until three months before the travel date, and in the current changing circumstances the train companies can have no idea what trains they will be running by the summer holiday season, so it is not worth even thinking about tickets just yet. But what I have done, and what I recommend for anyone thinking of travelling on holiday by train, is set up on the relevant companies' websites an advance ticket alert which will cause them to send me an email message to tell me when Advance tickets are available for my chosen dates. I could probably book open tickets now but (a) they are relatively expensive, (b) the trains I eventually choose may be too busy for me to get a seat and (c) in the current pandemic-dominated world it is anyone's guess what trains will be running.

One advantage of buying Advance tickets early in their availability is that First Class travel is usually available at a really good price - like London to the Isle of Wight, including ferry, for under £20 First Class one way - and on most lines Advance tickets come with seat reservations so you know you will get on the train you have chosen. They can only be used on a specific train, so some planning is needed, but then if you usually fly abroad you will be used to having to catch a specific flight. But rail travel is much less faff than flying: you don't have to be there ages before departure; you keep your luggage with you so when you arrive you're free to go; you can take food and drink with you and you can see things out of the window all the way!


I have written articles elsewhere on this website about Luggage and about Changing Trains, and if you are not used to rail travel, then please take a look at both of these pages. Which brings me to the question of planning ...



Planning and Preparation

Inverness: hotel next to station
Planning the travel needs to be part of the early planning of the whole holiday. I usually start with an idea of whereabouts I want to go in the country and then look at accommodation and train route together so that I do not end up needing to hire a car or taxi to get from the station to the hotel, as if I were on one of those inconvenient holidays by air! Sometimes we stay right next to the station, usually within reasonable walking distance, and now-and-again we use a bus or a boat (!) to complete the trip - it is all part of the adventure of travel. Take this summer's planned trip to the Isle of Wight: we are booked at a hotel right beside Yarmouth Castle, about a minute walk from the ferry terminal, and our train will take us right to the ferry - it is an official connection and the train tickets will be booked to Yarmouth. We did the same trip two years ago and it worked like a dream. When we went to South Wales a few years ago we soon found that our options were very limited: unlike North Wales, few of the southern resorts are on a railway route, but we did have a great time in Tenby!

View from our bus on board the ferry at Poole
While I would encourage anyone not to be afraid of changing trains to reach their destination (the Tenby trip involved several changes), sometimes it is more convenient to minimise changes at the cost of taking a little longer, especially if changing stations in London can be avoided, no matter how convenient the Underground makes this. From our home in Stamford, Lincolnshire, we often travel via Birmingham (which is on a direct line from Stamford) when travelling to the south-west, or sometimes even to the south coast in Dorset or Hampshire, which takes longer than going via London but just needs the one change at Birmingham New Street, the hub of the inter-city rail network. We did this last year when we went to Studland Bay.

Unless you do go, as we often have, to a resort with the station right there, then the trip will probably be completed by bus or some other means. This used to work when I was a toddler with my parents going to Margate (everyone went on holiday in Britain and by train in those days, unless they were very rich, and even they probably went by train!) and it still works now but needs a tad more planning. The Studland Bay trip last year was brilliant for this, with a bus right from Bournemouth station taking us to the door of the hotel, and it was an open-top tour bus, too, with some wonderful views along the way, including the ferry across Poole Harbour! When we have been to Dartmouth, which we have done twice, the last leg of the trip was by steam train to Kingswear and then ferry across the River Dart. All part of the adventure.

Adventure

I don't buy the "door-to-door convenience" angle of car travel, especially for holidays. Yes, I have a car, and it is a good car and it has its uses (it is questionable whether those uses are frankly a good enough reason to spend all those thousands of pounds buying and maintaining it, but that is a whole other discussion!), but unless one is mobility-impaired there is no need to travel between doors, and for us when we go by train the adventure starts when we walk out of the door and trundle our cases to the station, pockets full of tickets. We know our train times and our meal arrangements and we look forward to what we shall watch going by our windows. We can drink wine and/or beer if we like, the loo is a short walk down the carriage, and if we are held up someone else will sort it out, but hold-ups are rare. We get exercise on our walks to and from the stations, and we do not have to park the car. Some will say the they need the car when they get to their destination, and I know that those who fly abroad often hire one when they get there, but although we are open to hiring a car we have never yet done so, always having found that bus services are more than adequate for our needs - but then for us walking is an important part of our holiday. In the autumn, just before the second UK lockdown, we revisited Studland Bay by car. We parked it at the hotel and never used it again until we left - all our local travel was on foot, boat and bus, and on the way back we were held up by a serious accident on the M1 ... train delays are nothing compared with this.

I think we have great holidays, not in spite of leaving the car at home but partly BECAUSE we leave the car at home. We see, hear and smell our surroundings, we actually LIVE in the places we visit and are not sealed off from them; travelling on the same buses as shoppers and business people in the towns we visit, and walking through the countryside, experiencing nature - people pay for safari holidays in remote places, but with our network of public footpaths you can do your own British safari all on your own - and get the bus back to your hotel.

Don't be misled by the newspapers' put-down of UK holidays as an inferior thing called a "staycation" as if it were not a real holiday. I do have holidays abroad (although usually still by train!) and have two booked for later this year, but they are not superior to the English, Welsh and Scottish ones, they just need a passport as well as a ticket, and different money, and different language. But all are great fun, wherever they are, and I reckon more fun without the car.

Do have a browse through the summer holidays I have blogged on this website: they are all my own experiences, paid for out of my own pocket and completely unfettered by allegiance to any company or product. and do ask questions in the comments, here or on any other page, and I shall try to answer.

Saturday, 2 January 2021

Planning for 2021 ... if you can call it planning

Train trips for the new year

At this time of the year I usually have a four or five firmly-booked trips for the coming twelve months, plus several trips in various sages of planning, including couple of group outings for which I would be consulting my mailing list members about dates and other details. For 2021 it is all different, of course: I do have two holidays booked, but they are two of the holidays that had been booked at this time last year but did not happen and are now booked for the same two months this year instead. They are fairly confidently booked because they are n late summer and mid-autumn and therefore might actually happen, although we thought that last year, too. These are our (no longer) 40th wedding anniversary tour of the Scottish highlands on the Belmond Royal Scotsman and our long-planned Great Rail Journeys grand tour of Italy, postponed twice so far.

It's a long way down to the boat in autumn!
We also hope to revisit the Swiss canton of Neuchatel to continue some ancestor research (we have found another castle near the city of Neuchatel!) and to explore the city itself for the first time. That we should like to do in early summer while there is still a worthwhile amount of meltwater feeding the lakes so that we can see Lac Brenets with rather more water in it than last time! But we do not know whether we shall be able and permitted to travel to Switzerland then. I ought to have had my Covid-19 vaccination fairly early in the process, and my wife not much later, although neither of us is first or even second priority, but what travel restrictions will be in force by May or June we cannot predict. Currently, in England's "Tier 4," we are not supposed to leave our home without a legally-defined "good reason," and there is no end-date set, so we cannot plan anything at all, but while we can reasonably hope to be free by May I am disinclined to invest much money or time in booking anything much. Although Booking.com and some hotel groups keep trying to offer me special deals on rooms and catering, there is no point in taking up the offers until I know it will be legal to travel. Almost all my travel is for leisure purposes or for visiting family and friends and none of these is permitted at present, (and all of my foreign travel is for leisure).

I don't need my love for travel
rekindled: I just need my freedom to
travel given back to me!

So, apart from building my model railway I am finally making "the list" an actual, documented, list of trips to take over the next twenty years, in order of priority in case we are not fit for that long, of course! I am creating a spreadsheet with twenty pages, a column for each month and two rows within each column. Each cell after May 2021 will contain an outline plan for a trip, with more detail being added as the plans are advanced. If this all this works well I hope to make a blog post one day describing it in detail - it will necessarily be fluid, of course, as ideas arise and opportunities come and go. The Great Rail Journeys catalogue arrived with this week with a couple of escorted tours I'd quite like to do, for example, which might bring forward some of the destinations planned for next year ... if we dare book them!