Thursday, 16 September 2021

Back Home for Now

 Back to the model railway!

With travel over for a little while I am finally picking up the threads of my Swiss-themed model railway again while I plan the next couple of trips. Progress will be posted over on for those who are interested.

Thursday, 2 September 2021

The Royal Scotsman Classic Tour 2: Scotland's Classic Splendours

Aboard The Royal Scotsman

As we were piped aboard, everyone was offered a glass of Champagne and our coats were taken and hung away in the lobby: with so few passengers only one entrance and exit was needed for this train. We were shown through into the Observation Car which is fitted out like a lounge with armchairs and sofas with a small bar at one end and on open observation deck, like a small balcony, at the other. The observation deck was limited in usefulness for the first couple of days because the locomotive was coupled to it, but once the train was reversed it really came into its own in the scenic sections of the route. I did stand on it to cross the Forth Bridge a few minutes after departure, though, with a close view of our locomotive, Class 66 number 743, a GB RailFreight engine painted and lettered in Royal Scotsman livery to match the train.

Meanwhile our luggage had been taken to our cabins (cruise terminology is used on this train - sometimes even "staterooms" appears) and as the train left Edinburgh we were taken one cabin at a time to our accommodation. We had gained by someone else's misfortune and were changed from the twin cabin originally booked to a double one, having asked from the start if we could have a double cabin if there should happen to be a cancellation which left one free, and someone had cancelled just the night before, just as we were celebrating our negative Covid test. We were now in the very farthest cabin from the Observation Car, with just the service coach and staff quarters beyond us: we should have more exercise than any other passenger! After unpacking our clothes and hanging them in the ample wardrobe we made our way back to the other end of the train where there were drinks and canapés before an "informal" dinner as the train made its way along the east coast through Arbroath and Aberdeen to Keith, where it stabled overnight in a siding. Although a sleeper train, The Royal Scotsman does not travel at night, so no scenery is missed and no sleep is disturbed by movement. The informal dinners on this train are still fairly formal: jackets and collared shirts are recommended and the waiting staff are just as attentive as at the formal dinners. By now, three glasses of Champagne in, I began declining top-ups of wine during the meal.

Like some of the other travellers we went for a stroll around Keith as darkness fell, and we discovered Keith Town station on the "Whisky Line," a heritage railway from there to Dufftown. There was also a distillery. We were to see a lot of distilleries and could be sure that most of them would be pointed out by Les and we passed them on the train ... And so to bed at the end of the beginning.

On Tuesday morning the train reversed out of the siding in which it had spend the night and made its way during breakfast to Elgin where we were met by the Royal Scotsman road coach and our driver for the week, Andrew. We were taken by coach to visit Cawdor Castle which has been in the same family for many generations and is still home to Lady Cawdor as well as an interesting castle in a beautiful garden. Lady Cawdor greeted us over a glass of sparkling wine before we had lunch in reserved area of the public restaurant. It was a warm and sunny day and we had a great time exploring the garden before Andrew drove us to Inverness where the train had been taken to wait for us. Again there was a refreshing drink as we rejoined the train and we sat with others in the Observation Car as we departed towards the north, turning west at Dingwall onto the line to the Kyle of Lochalsh. This route is reputed to be one of the most scenic in Europe and was the reason why this particular tour was chosen from those offered by Belmond on The Royal Scotsman. We had already travelled on all the other routes out of Inverness as well as the West Highland Line to Fort William and Mallaig, so a tour that included Kyle of Lochalsh would take us on a scenic line we had yet to travel as well as taking us to places we had never been.

Odd jobs that needed doing had to be completed on the first part of this stage because we needed to be in the Observation Car through the mountains and lochs of the west. The scenery was stunning but I took few photographs because the low evening sun made effective landscape photography very difficult and I though that in the morning, with the sun from the east, I would be able to take much better pictures. As you'll see, that did not quite work out. Once arrived at the terminus and former ferry interchange at Kyle of Lochalsh we returned to our cabin to shower and change for dinner, and the locomotive was uncoupled from the Observation Car and run round to the other end of the train, giving us a splendid view of fishing vessels in the port as we enjoyed pre-dinner drinks. Dinner on the second evening was formal and I put on the requested dinner suit and bow tie along with most other men on the tour, while the ladies wore suitable cocktail dresses. It was all rather splendid, and the food and drinks were up to the standard we were beginning by now to expect. We went for a brief stroll after dinner but could not go far because it was dark. It would have been nice to walk to, or even over, the Skye Bridge which has supplanted the ferry to the Isle of Skye, but we did not have enough time for that and would not have seen much anyway. However, this may not be our last visit to this part of Scotland, so a visit to the island is still a possibility one day.

The Royal Scotsman departed from the Kyle of Lochalsh very early on the Wednesday morning, retracing our route back to Inverness. I spent much of the most scenic sections of the route standing on the open observation deck, now unencumbered by the locomotive, but photography was now hampered by the mist and low cloud that hung over land, sea and loch alike. It looked wonderful as it was, but the mountains were invisible much of the time. This was quite a long trip in one go and breakfast was served later than usual to give those who wanted a lazy start the opportunity to have one - although it was unfortunate that lunch had to be served early that day in order to fit in the afternoon's activities.

During the morning (at what would normally be coffee time in my world), Les, assisted by Sylwia, the train's own whisky-specialist, invited us to a whisky tasting in the Observation Car and introduced passengers to the world of Scotch malt whisky. Some already knew more than others, but I think we all learnt something - I know I did. The biggest lesson was the enormous difference it makes to drink whiskies from a glass that holds in the aroma rather than the conventional tumbler. So much so that we bought a pair of whisky tasting glasses from the on-board shop before we came home! The train continued through Inverness while we had lunch and then south towards the Cairngorm mountains.

After lunch we left the train at Aviemore to visit Ballindalloch Castle, shown round by Guy Macpherson-Grant the current owner of the castle which, again, had been in the same family for many centuries. The castle is still at heart a farmhouse and the centre of thriving business interests, as it has to be in order to keep going: the present owner's parents did a lot to make it the place it is now, with beautiful gardens for the public to visit. We were also shown around the interior and although some places were closed off owing to work being done to improve the heating system (important in that part of the UK!) we were given a glimpse into the life of the family as well as the history of the aristocracy in Scotland. Fortified dwellings are no longer needed to defend land holdings against enemies and are simply beautiful buildings which are great to see. Quite different from castles in England, the appearance of Scottish castles resembles those in Germany and Austria, with projecting round corner turrets with conical roofs, for example. Just in case we were too hungry to wait for dinner we were treated to tea in the castle's visitors' tea room and then we tried to walk off some of that around the grounds before it was time to move on.

The Royal Scotsman coach took us back to the train which had moved on to the station at Boat of Garten on the preserved Strathspey Railway, our own locomotive having been replaced by a restored Class 31 diesel, one of my favourite locomotives which I can remember from childhood and some of which are still going strong sixty years later. As usual we were welcomed back to the train with drinks on the platform and then before dinner we went for a short stroll around the village, and then canapés in the Observation Car were followed by an informal, but still excellent, dinner in the two Dining Cars at the platform at Boat of Garten. After dinner we were entertained with songs by Davy Holt, who also gave us a brief history of Highland life and was amusing as well as informative and quite moving even for those of us who had heard much of the story already.

In many respects the Thursday was the most exciting day of the tour with activity from the start. After breakfast we left the train at Boat of Garten and were driven by coach to the Rothemurchus Estate where a variety of country pursuits had been lined up for us. Some went for a country walk (which I gather was more of a saunter than a hike), some for a drive around the countryside, some fishing and some, including me, clay pigeon shooting. I had never fired a shotgun, although I had grown up in the countryside where many members of my family had them - fairly essential in agriculture - and I thought this would be a great thing to try. We were divided into two parties between two instructors and taken to the firing range where we were given a selection of moving targets to try to hit. I found the least difficult to be the one that was coming towards me; concentration on the job in hand, as ever, was key to doing a good job, and that was quite hard with a lot of new stuff to remember. I can imagine that this sport could easily take over ones life - I am sure that if I tried again I'd hit the target a bit more often and then keep trying to improve, and then maybe try air rifle target shooting and before you know where you are I'd never be at home ... so it is as well that I live hundreds of miles away and am unaware of anything more local (although I am sure there must be lots but don't tell me about them!).

Back at the house we reconvened with those who'd undertaken the other pursuits and by log fires (! in August) we met our host family and enjoyed some coffee and their home-made cakes (mercifully small pieces, for one is not exactly ravenous after a Royal Scotsman breakfast) and the coach returned us to the train now waiting for us at Kingussie station on the Highland Main Line. 

Lunch was served on the train as we made our way south through Blair Atholl and Pitlochry to Dunkeld. At Dunkeld we left the train again and Andrew picked us up in the coach for one last time to take us to by far the largest castle of the week, Glamis Castle, childhood home of the late Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother and probably the most beautiful castle I have ever seen. The way the visit was arranged for us was particularly good: we drove up the main driveway with the castle ahead of us, looking like a fairy-tale; the coach took us to the front door, not the usual tourist entrance, where we were met by a piper who piped us into the castle where we all stood with a glass of whisky to toast the piper with the traditional Scots toast, "Slàinte Mhath" (pronounced "slanje-va"), we each took a sip, the piper took a gulp! During the tour of the interior we heard a lot about the supposed haunting of the castle be several ghosts but saw and heard nothing of any of them ... There was some free time to explore the grounds after we said farewell to our guide (this time we did not meet the current owner of the castle for he was away), and then the coach took us to the ancient capital city of Perth where our train was waiting for us by a side entrance. 

The finale of the final day was the formal dinner followed by more musical entertainment as the train moved on to Dundee. As ever, drinks and canapés were served before dinner and this time I swapped the endless round of Champagne and whisky for a vodka martini - I sometimes make these at home and wanted to see how a professional version compared - and could not believe it when I was asked if I wanted is shaken or stirred! I asked for shaken, of course ... I am not sure I believe in the "bruising" theory of shaken vodka and anyway when you're standing there in evening wear it just sort of seems to fit!

We woke in Dundee on the Friday morning and moved off at breakfast on the short final leg of our tour, the highlights this morning being the crossing of the Tay and Forth bridges.

From the outside platform of the Observation Car the crossing of the Forth Bridge was a whole new experience, and soon after this we were passing through Princes Street Gardens and rolling into Edinburgh. Some people stayed with the train for the next tour, some headed to hotels in Edinburgh for a few more days and some, like us, caught trains home. We had our luggage taken to the Balmoral and had a coffee break at the Scottish Royal Academy café overlooking the Gardens and then collected our luggage and waited in the First Class Lounge at Waverley for our train home to be prepared. The journey back by LNER was up to the usual standard, comfortable and on time with a light lunch from the Deli menu being served, and we made a connection to Stamford which I had not dared to hope we might make. The train to Stamford was amazingly busy; we had no seat reservations for I had reserved them on the next train thinking we wouldn't get this one, and space for holiday luggage was tight, so we stood in vestibule for the short ride to Stamford.

Having heavier luggage than usual we tried the system for crossing the line at Stamford using the barrow crossing instead of the footbridge and it worked very well: we lifted the telephone handset and spoke to a signaller who let us through the gate and across the track as soon as it was safe, and then we called back as soon as we were over to let him know that we were safely across. It had been a brilliant holiday and no other train will ever be quite the same as The Royal Scotsman. It was definitely not fast and it didn't take many passengers so the fare was definitely not low budget, but it was the opposite of "no frills"! Frills was what it was all about, ideal for the celebration of last year's ruby wedding anniversary.


My photographs are now available on Flickr for those who wish to see them!

Saturday, 28 August 2021

The Royal Scotsman Classic Tour 1: getting there

Weekend in Edinburgh by train, take 2

Last year we celebrated our Ruby Wedding Anniversary. Among other things we planned a tour of the Scottish Highlands on the Belmond Royal Scotsman but unfortunately that fell victim to the pandemic (specifically to the impossibility of the foreign tourists, who had taken all the other places on the tour, being able to get here), so that holiday was truncated to (a very splendid) weekend in Edinburgh and a similar highland tour booked for this August instead, again with a weekend in Edinburgh to start it off.

The Royal Scotsman check-in is done at The Balmoral Hotel and last year I booked a couple of nights there in a special room in order to begin our special celebratory holiday in style, but this year we thought we'd try somewhere else so that we were not trying to emulate the wonderful time we'd had at The Balmoral last year, so I booked a couple of nights at the Hilton Edinburgh Carlton, just round the corner: it would still be a great room in a great hotel but would not just be a repeat of what we had already done. 

Like so many other trips this summer, booking the train tickets was a bit protracted as I waited for Advance tickets for the various sections of the journey to become available, but in the end all was booked and we just had to wait for the time to come. Fortunately we had our south coast holiday and our short break in London to enjoy so that we were not just pacing the room waiting for Scotland. Nevertheless, there were preparations to be made! Two of the dinners on the Royal Scotsman were to be formal and required traditional evening wear, so I had to check that my dinner suits were clean and pressed, ditto the dress shirts, and for the informal dinners on the other two evenings a jacket ("with or without a tie") was still needed, so I had to ensure that something suitable was also available for those. Then in Scotland in August it is anyone'e guess what the weather will be doing so a wide selection of daywear would be required to cope with anything from hot sun to pouring rain and cold: while we'd had cold, wet weather in England this August, it was not so in parts of Scotland. Thus our usual size of suitcase would be inadequate, especially for Alison's evening dresses. Before we went to London for the short break we had our larger cases out on the spare bed, the cases usually reserved for long European tours, and prepared most of the outfits we'd need, because we would be home for just one complete day before leaving for Edinburgh, so there would be little time to prepare and pack between the trips.

Two days before our trip began a freight train had collided with a tractor on an occupation crossing near March (which had disrupted our journey home from London), and the recovery and track repairs were still going on, but fortunately Cross Country Trains had managed to get the timetable back to normal between Stamford and Peterborough so our outward journey was not affected. Connections between our local trains and services to Edinburgh are a bit too tight for comfort and we were not in a hurry so I built in some slack with an extra hour in Peterborough: LNER had resumed their offer of free coffee and cake at the Great Northern Hotel for passengers with First Class tickets so it was easy to while away the time there with The Times Quick Cryptic crossword puzzle before going to platform 4 to await the LNER Azuma train to Edinburgh, the first time we had headed north since last year's shortened trip.

As ever, the ride with LNER in First Class was comfortable and the staff were attentive and helpful. We did not have the coffee, having had that at the Great Northern Hotel, but had fruit juice and biscuits in the morning and then sandwiches and wine for lunch when the time came, north of York. By the time we came to the best scenery, in Northumberland, the weather was not great but the mist and rain did clear for us to have a good view of Lindisfarne and of Berwick-upon-Tweed. One more cup of tea and the Scottish capital was almost upon us, a very light drizzle awaiting us (this was August 2021, after all) as we left the train.

Leaving Waverley station on the south side was simple enough (using the lift to the footbridge because of our larger-than-usual suitcases), but the closure of the stairs up to North Bridge meant a bit of a detour with even more steps up, but even so we were very soon at our hotel and were checked in. I had booked a "King Executive Room" which sounded more comfortable than most, and it was. It also included, and I did not take this in until check-in, access to the "Executive Lounge", of which more later. I had asked for a street view and we got one, but it was not the main street, North Bridge, but Market Street, where we had just walked with our luggage, with the glass roof of Waverley station beyond.

After checking in and unpacking enough for two nights (and our best clothes to reduce the creasing!) we strode off to The Balmoral: one thing I had booked the same as last year was our Afternoon Tea in the Palm Court at The Balmoral. This time we did not have the Champagne but we did drink quite a lot more tea. The meal is a fixed price and is for up to two hours - I booked 5pm, the latest time that allows the full two hours and late enough for it to count as our evening meal - and unlimited tea and/or coffee is included in the price. It is hard to imagine anyone requiring any more food than is provided, or needing another meal after it. It is simply wonderful, even without the Champagne, and highly recommended (advance booking recommended, too) if you find yourself in Edinburgh. The surroundings of the Palm Court and the attentive staff add to the experience - you may have seen them all on the TV series broadcast by Channel 5 earlier this year.

A little walk after tea and then it was time to write the start of this blog post and get ready for bed, catching up with such reading as had not been done on the train. 

After a good night's sleep in the king bed we went for the included breakfast in the hotel's dining room, a Marco Pierre White restaurant like one we'd visited for afternoon tea once in London (only more spacious) where the full buffet breakfast was on offer, the first we'd come across since the stat of the pandemic. It seemed really weird sharing serving spoons etc and we sanitised our hands before and after helping ourselves to our breakfast elements - we were very much aware of the necessity of keeping clear of infection, in spite of our vaccinations, because we had to have a negative Covid test to board the Royal Scotsman, and we had our test kit ready for use later in the day - it had to be within 24 hours of check-in for the train. It was a delicious breakfast and the staff were really helpful. Had to have haggis, of course, with the cooked course.

Last year we had been unable to visit the National Museum of Scotland but now advance booking was not only available but required and I had booked our admission long ago to ensure that the Sunday would be the museum day. We spent some time there and caught up on things we had not seen when we visited the city a few years earlier, plus the temporary gallery on the Galloway Hoard of Viking age treasure which was absolutely fascinating.

We returned briefly to our room and then set off again to the National Trust for Scotland's Georgian House which we'd seen before, many years ago, and had booked in advance to visit again this time. memories fade and exhibits are updated, so sometimes a revisit is worthwhile especially as National Trust members because we can visit as often as we wish at no cost. There was some commotion in the street outside because the official residence of the First Minister of the Scottish Government is next door and a couple of dozen people were holding some sort of anti-mask protest. I do not know whether she was at home but for her sake I hope she was able to get some peace on a Sunday afternoon in her own home. The Georgian House gives a wonderful glimpse into the world of Georgian society and the history of "new town" Edinburgh, "the Athens of the North", and was to us especially redolent of Georgian houses we have lived in at various times. Knowing that there was a gastronomic experience to come during the week, our "dinner" that evening consisted of the included refreshment offering at the Executive Lounge at the hotel. This was really rather good, the sort of thing that used to be on offer in First Class on East Coast trains a few years ago: a light hot meal with snacks and drinks (including wine), at no extra cost.

It was a relief to do the required Covid19 tests and get a negative result, but then there was still a difficulty sleeping because, two years after planning this trip and one year after we were supposed to have done it, we finally looked like we would be on our way in the morning! But we did sleep and after another good breakfast we made our way to the Royal Scotsman check-in at The Balmoral Hotel where our luggage was taken away and we met our tour manager Gerry and one or two other passengers including Les, an "ambassador" from the Scotch Malt Whisky Society who on the tour with two society members visiting distilleries while the rest of us were doing the classic Royal Scotsman tour and who would teach the rest of us all we wanted to know about whisky. In due course we were taken with the other passengers (about two dozen) to the platform at Waverley station where a piper was waiting to pipe us to the waiting train. At last, two years after first booking this trip it was about to begin!

Thursday, 19 August 2021

Paddington and Kensington

Red London buses seen through the trees
looking west from the Marble Arch Mound
A Few Days in London by Train

With the general easing of coronavirus restrictions we and the rest of our family had begun to travel again a bit more, and we were offered the use once again of our son's family's home in London while they were on holiday elsewhere in the UK. There were a couple of exhibitions we wanted to see (nothing very intellectual, I'm afraid!), and this gave us the opportunity to see them in a leisurely manner and to fit in a few other bits and pieces while we were there. Rail tickets and exhibition tickets were duly booked and a very simple itinerary typed out and filed with the ticket print-outs ready for the day. By the time the trip was to take place all the fuss over the Marble Arch Mound had blown up and we thought we really needed to see this, so I booked tickets for that, too; by then there was no cost but tickets were still required for crowd control. So, armed with all this paper we packed our bags and set off. We travelled very light for this trip: no suitcases, just a modest-sized backpack each and no camera bag for me because I decided to use this short trip as a trial of using just my iPhone camera, which has higher resolution than my Olympus DSLR, although less control over the image.

For this sort of trip, and for the holiday a couple of weeks ago for which we travelled via London, the 10:57 departure from our local station in Stamford, Lincs, is ideal. It makes an easy connection with an 11:29 LNER train to London at Peterborough, allowing enough time for moderate late running (which has not happened yet) but not involving a great long wait. Our coffee break is spent on the train to London with the complimentary coffee and biscuits or cake in LNER First Class ... normally, but on this occasion the steward came toting cold drinks (including wine) and crisps and biscuits only, apologising profusely for not having any hot drinks and explaining that he had no kitchen on this train, although not saying why. I took an apple juice, crisps and biscuits but really wanted coffee, so at Kings Cross we bought it from the Caffè Nero kiosk and repaired to the First Class Lounge to enjoy it!

On our way to our temporary London home we visited the aforementioned "mound" at Marble Arch, travelling there by bus from Kings Cross, having bought a picnic lunch from the Little Waitrose there. We ate our lunch beside Marble Arch and although surrounded by watching pigeons we were not bothered by them, nor by the occasional spots of drizzle. We were slightly early for our booked slot at the Mound but it was not a problem: the welcoming staff at the entrance told us we did not need tickets and they did not look at them, inviting us to go straight in: I was not sure how they were expecting to prevent overcrowding, but it turned out not to be a problem and we just walked up, looked around and took photographs (being careful not to lose iPhone over the precipice!) and walked back down again. 

What did I think of this addition to London's tourist attractions? Well, I am glad to have been and I enjoyed seeing the views from the top, although in summer most of what you see is trees (not a bad thing in itself, of course), and the planting on the mound itself was quite interesting (it is NOT fake grass as some have said, but alpines and other small plants). But we did not pay anything: it is free in August. I cannot say what I'd have thought if I had paid because I understand that when people are paying they will come down by a different route through the interior of the Mound where there will be other attractions, a gift shop etc., whereas we come down the way we went up and all these things were closed. I must say I cannot see why it cost the reputed six million pounds; I am not an expert but I'd have thought that one or two million would have been plenty for a fairly small project like this. Yes, it was good fun, but I am not sure it was worth what the council tax payers of Westminster will have paid, nor what the visitors will be paying - but you'll have to judge for yourselves. If you've been, do let me know your views in the comments.

The Regent's Park, Tuesday
We continued our journey on foot from Marble Arch across the northern edge of Hyde Park and Kensington Gardens, stopping for tea at the little café by the Italian Gardens, and then soon after we joined the street pavement we caught a bus which took us close to our son's road in Shepherd's Bush. After unpacking we walked to the Westfield Shopping Centre where we had a few little jobs to do, including buying food for our dinner! After dinner I was able to join the online meeting of the Market Deeping Model Railway Club just as if I were at home - something only made possible by the pandemic which has forced us to have virtual clubnights. We slept very well after all the walking we had done, although there was much more to come ...

On Tuesday morning we set off by bus back the way we had come, but instead of walking to Marble Arch after morning coffee at the same café where we had taken afternoon tea the day before we turned north and made our way towards Paddington station, from where we walked through to Paddington Basin and Little Venice then turned east to follow the Regent's Canal. We were taking a scenic walk to our next engagement: Paddington, the Story of a Bear, and the British Library. The route took us a way I have been before and a little further, and where the canal turns left towards Camden we turned right and southwards along the Broad Walk of The Regent's Park to Marylebone Road and into Euston Road to the British Library, a total of well over two miles. We arrived at the British Library in good time and made our way to the small but interesting exhibition about Michael Bond's creation of the Paddington Bear stories and the various interpretations of the character in pictures and on TV and film.

La Fromagerie, Marylebone

We bought a snack lunch from M&S at St Pancras station across the road and ate it there while watching people arriving on one of the very few international trains currently operating into London before setting off on another stage of our canalside walk, towards Camden Lock. The stretch from Kings Cross to Camden is totally different from that around Little Venice and The Regent's Park, but just as interesting, and when we emerged into the world of Camden Market we were amazed at how many people were around, quite a lot crowding unmasked into a relatively tight, although largely outdoor space in a viral pandemic. Given that many of them were quite young, the proportion fully-vaccinated will have been very small, and the whole place felt quite unsafe. Back on the canal towpath we were in a very thinly-populated space with more fresh air and walked on until we came to the place where we had left the canal in the morning. There we climbed up to the street once more and followed much the same path as we had in the morning, stopping for tea at a café in The Regent's Park, just before its early closing time - the opening hours are very much shorter than usual this year. Instead of bearing eastwards towards the British Library, this time we continued south and then turned west along Marylebone Road to Marylebone High Street, a very pleasant street to walk and with much more interesting, although much smaller, shops than the famous streets like Oxford Street, to which it leads and where we needed to be for our bus home. In a small side street we found an amazing cheese shop and bought some lovely Swiss cheese for supper on that and the following evenings.

On Wednesday we spent much of the day at Kensington Palace, which has been developed a little since we last visited, and we were particularly interested in the current exhibition Royal Style in the Making which describes the design and making up of the clothes of the royal family, including some well-known outfits which are on display there. The tickets to the Palace includes the exhibition, and timed ticketing ensures that there is little crowding. Our tickets gave us a half-hour "window" in which to arive, but amazingly there were people queueing for half an hour for the start of the half-hour slot: we explored the gardens then arrived twenty minutes into the window and walked straight in with no queue ... Funny old world. We repaired to Côte Bistro just off Kensington High Street for a proper lunch with a view to needing only a snack (finishing up the Swiss cheese!) in the evening. Good move: for a chain Côte does remarkably good French cooking, and sitting on the pavement quaffing chilled wine in a London side street is a brilliant way to pass a summer afternoon - even this summer, which is not exactly a hot one.

We walked back the mile-and-a-half or so to our temporary home via a number of quiet residential street just a block or two away from Kensington High Street. It is staggering how peaceful and green London can be once you are away from the main thoroughfares.

And so to the journey home: we took the bus to Oxford Circus and walked to Kings Cross through Fitzrovia and Bloomsbury, again through quiet streets, though here more commercial, medical and academic - and right past the tower we still call the Post Office Tower, although it long since ceased to have anything to do with the Post Office. We bought salads from M&S at St Pancras and had them as lunch in the First Class Lounge at Kings Cross before boarding the 14:06 LNER train for Lincoln, on which we travelled to Peterborough, continuing lunch with the "Deli Menu" and a glass of wine. At Peterborough it all unravelled as we learnt that a train had collided with a tractor on a level crossing near March and services on our line home to Stamford were suspended. I am not clear why they could not operate as far as Peterborough from Birmingham, but they didn't and the requested buses did not seem to be available but a very hard-working and kind LNER employee drafted in a fleet of taxis and got us on the move. As our booked connection would have involved a bit of a wait anyway we were not very late getting home, as it happens, just a few minutes. I have to say that on the whole this sort of situation is generally dealt with very well, but there was certainly a lot to sort out at Peterborough that day with several significant destinations affected. Meanwhile, at home there was a lot of watering of the garden to do, although the rain that came later did give me a hand with that!

Sunday, 15 August 2021

Always More To Do on the Isle of Wight

 Isle of Wight and Chichester by Train

Last year's intended return to Yarmouth and West Wight had to be postponed  because of travel uncertainty, and so we did it this year, followed as usual by a few days in Chichester to visit of friends holidaying at nearby East Wittering. Unlike last year, train services were almost back to normal this summer, with Covid-19 restrictions being lifted following the effective NHS vaccination programme, and it was much easier to book travel, although I booked the hotels way back at the height of the pandemic, ensuring that free cancellation was available, anticipating that demand for UK holidays might be high this summer with foreign travel being difficult. We opted for four nights on the Isle of Wight and three nights in Chichester, our friends having kindly booked theatre tickets for one of those evenings!

It had been a while since I had arranged a trip which included more than one destination and involved several activities, and I have to confess that I was quite nervous about it. This was probably partly because the long gap enforced by the pandemic meant that I was out of practice and the confidence gradually built up by experience had waned somewhat, but possibly more due to the additional complexities wrought by pandemic precautions still being taken by many organisations - the need to book in advance for many more activities than normal, and the reduced capacity of, for example, restaurants, meaning that advance booking was almost essential. As restaurants etc vary in the way they take bookings, an evening was largely taken up in the week before departure with online and telephone bookings to ensure that we should not go hungry during our holiday.

Then there was the weather ... we had had some glorious sunshine and hot, even very hot, weather before we went, but the poorer weather started on the day we left, with the forecast looking even worse for the four days we were due to be on the Isle of Wight, although rather better for Chichester. Packing required layers: I took sandals but wore shoes for travel. I took all short-sleeved shirts but packed a jumper as well. I took shorts but wore jeans, and so on: an unlined, light jacket but also a water and wind-proof jacket with hood. Jumper and both jackets could be used all together if the worst happened temperature-wise, but in August if the sun shines, even if the air temperature is low for the time of year, it still feels hot, so we did not anticipate too bad a time provided that, and it was quite a provision, the rain was not too persistent!

Even for a whole week's holiday we still managed to pack everything in one small case each (the sort that air travellers call "carry-on") together with a small backpack each. I included a fresh shirt for each day as well as spare shoes and sandals. Off we went on a sunny Thursday morning to catch the 10:57 train from Stamford station. As I crossed the meadows I overheard a young child asking her father, "Why does everyone have a suitcase?"! The train, on time, took us to Peterborough where we had just a few moments before the 11:29 to London Kings Cross, on which we travelled in First Class on cheap Advance tickets. We were plied with coffee and with food, so an early lunch was therefore taken.

In London we took a bus to Waterloo for the next stage of the journey. I had allowed lots of time in London in order that there would be no difficulty in the event of travel disruption in case railway staff had to take time off for self-isolation etc, but in fact everything went smoothly and on time at every stage and we therefore had a leisurely journey with plenty of breaks! Bus travel if not the quickest way from Kings Cross to Waterloo, but it did not have to be ... and with the departure point for the service having moved (unknown to us) from St Pancras to Euston we had a longer-than-expected walk to board the bus in the first place - all good for the exercise we needed following the laziness of lockdown.

We sat on the concourse at Waterloo, with takeaway coffee, waiting for our train to be announced, the 14:35 to Poole, and fell into conversation with a lady also travelling to the Isle of Wight for a holiday. Soon the platform was indicated for our train and we boarded the nearest coach and chose our seats. The First Class sections of these trains are less spacious than they used to be but the seats are still very comfortable and there is plenty of legroom, big tables and a decent view from the windows. Luggage space is not as good as one would like for a holiday train, but not too bad and we easily managed with our cases between seat-backs and backpacks overhead. The train was very fast, whisking us through south London without stopping and on though Surrey and Hampshire with just a few brief halts. The stretch through Southampton and the New Forest was the same way we went last year on our way to our family holiday in Dorset, but this time we changed trains at Brockenhurst for the shuttle to Lymington Pier. Another passenger from our part of the train was taking this route for the first time and was asking our advice: she, too, was on her way to the Isle of Wight for her holiday. It all felt very old-fashioned and traditional, although no-one was carrying a bucket and spade. We had only been that way once before ourselves but the connection is very simple, across the platform and wait just a few moments for the four-coach electric train that runs the few miles via Lymington Town to Lymington Pier. Again I had arranged plenty of time before the next ferry departure and we sat and enjoyed a cup of tea at the terminal before boarding. 

The rain started just before we boarded the ferry and continued all the way across the Solent, giving the distant view of the Isle of Wight through the ship's windows an oil-painting quality as we approached the terminal at Yarmouth, but as we disembarked the rain stopped and sun shone as if to greet us as we stepped onto the island! We checked in at The George hotel and unpacked in our room on the top floor overlooking the harbour then went for a short stroll around the town. Dinner was booked at the hotel the first evening and was wonderful, with plenty of local produce.

When planning the itinerary with the help of the National Trust and English Heritage iPhone apps I came across one place we had never been and looked like it merited a summertime visit, Mottistone Manor Garden (National Trust), between Freshwater and Newport. It is on bus route 12 which is one of those half-a-dozen services per day bus routes so the visit had to be carefully scheduled, and we went on the Friday, the first full day on the island, taking the regular bus (number 7) to Freshwater and changing there, after a short walk around and our morning coffee break, to the number 12 for Mottistone. 

Above: "The Shack," the architects' office and
rural retreat of Lord Mottistone, now displayed at
Mottistone Manor Gardens
The gardens were stunning and well worth seeing, and the short history of the manor was interesting, too, the 2nd Lord Mottistone having been an architect (responsible for the 20th century restoration and conversion of Eltham Palace for the Courtauld family). We had lunch in the tea garden and enjoyed the views over Freshwater Bay from the higher parts of the gardens then caught the bus back. The bus ride (top deck, of course) there and back were an important part of the enjoyment of the day, with spectacular coastal views - so much so that I'd recommend taking a ride on the number 12 even if you don't visit anywhere. 

Left: a small part of the front, lower, garden. This has to be seen to be believed

We rode back to Totland on the bus and then walked down to the beach and walked all the way to Yarmouth along the beach and then the coastal path, pausing for a cup of tea at the Fort Victoria Country Park. It had been a great day so far and we had walked many miles and seen a lot of sea, fairly rough sea for there was a brisk wind but even though temperatures were quite low for the time of year we were kept warm by the fairly constant sunshine.

Friday was the only day for which we had not made a booking for dinner, wanting to be flexible so that we could perhaps go somewhere in Freshwater or Totland ... bad idea in 2021. After washing and changing following the day's exertions we returned to Totland by bus to see if either of the seafront restaurants we had seen there earlier had a table free for dinner. Neither did, so, becoming rather hungry by now, we returned to Yarmouth ... None of this was costing us anything in bus fares because I travel free anyway on my pensioner's pass and my wife was using the Southern Vectis bus company's new "tap in, tap out" system which capped her fare at the Day Rover rate, reached while travelling back from Mottistone earlier in the day. Walking towards the town centre from the bus station, the first restaurant we saw was The Terrace which had some indoor seating (all taken) and a lot of outdoor seating (almost all available) overlooking the harbour at first-floor level, over the ferry terminal building. It would have been an idyllic spot (and probably packed out) were it not for the aforementioned brisk wind, now a very strong wind. We were offered blankets and promised swift service and that they would do their best to make it as good as possible, and they did. We had a great time, paper menu weighted down (just!) by water and beer bottles. It was great fun, and the food and drink were good, too. I don't think I've ever dined out wearing a coat before, not even in Switzerland.

Cocktails at Off The Rails

The weather forecast for Saturday was not good: the wind was expected to be much the same but there was expected to be rather less sun and some rain from time to time. Undaunted we set off for an expedition to Osborne House (English Heritage), for which I had already booked tickets in advance: these were free of charge to us as English Heritage members but required to ensure that there was no bunching of arrivals. We travelled on bus route 7 in the other direction to Newport and changed there for route 5 to Osborne. Many of the island's bus services go to and from Newport bus station, so a change there will reach almost any destination (we could even have come to Mottistone this way but the idea had been to see Freshwater and the coastline). We have been to Osborne several times before and did not need all day there, but it was great to see Queen Victoria's beach again and to take a lengthy walk around the extensive grounds. We visited the house itself briefly and paid special attention to the little exhibition about the way Victoria and Albert celebrated their birthdays at Osborne, which was new to us. We did get caught in some of the expected rain, but we also got caught in more than expected of the sunshine which coincided nicely with our time at the beach. And so back to Yarmouth via Newport to get ready for dinner at Off The Rails, a quirky restaurant in Yarmouth's former railway station. Through the week Off The Rails does not open in the evenings and only offers dinner on Saturdays, so I had booked Saturday dinner there well in advance to ensure that we could eat there: we sat on former railway carriage seats, next to a pile of suitcases and surrounded by vintage and quasi-vintage railway signage. I ordered the "Firebox," which was smoked mackerel with toast and salad (we discovered the Isle of Wight tomato on this holiday - how have I avoided them before?).

Sunday's outing, which had also had to be booked in advance, was to the Isle of Wight Steam Railway which we had last visited about four years previously. Partly because of coronavirus fears and partly because of the current temporary closure of the Network Rail Island Line for track improvements the timetable and ticketing on the Steam Railway have been simplified for this year and based on the assumption that everyone would start from their main station at Havenstreet (to where a shuttle bus operates from Ryde and where there is a car park. But we had to start at Wootton, the only station served by bus, so I had had to make the advance arrangements by telephone in combination with the website - quite a palaver but it worked. Again we left Yarmouth on a bus to Newport and changed there for a Ryde-bound bus as far as Wootton Station. We had left plenty of time in case of delays but there was no hold-up and we had time for a stroll into Wootton before returning to await our train. I had to speak to the guard to be let into a First Class compartment because although our online booking included travel from Wootton to Havenstreet the reserved space on a specific train was for the 14:33 from Havenstreet, for which I had to obtain our tickets at the the Havenstreet ticket office, that at Wootton being closed.

The First Class compartment in the vintage coach was just wonderful, with deep upholstery and splendid moquette, slam doors with droplights held by leather straps. We were taken to Havenstreet in luxury and then I made my way to the ticket office and became a real ticket-holding passenger (!) and then we had our lunch at the station refreshment room before exploring the Train Story museum, right up-to-date with the recently-withdrawn 1938 tube train which had been in service on the Island Line until January this year. These were to be replaced by new trains made from old District Line coaches this spring after some track and platform alterations had been completed but there has been considerable delay in getting the new trains into service and the Island Line remains closed which among other inconveniences has removed the rail connection to the Steam Railway at Smallbrook Junction. We were able to board the 1938 unit no 007, on which we had ridden several times while in service on the island, and watch a video about the new trains which are, eventually, to replace it.

Soon the time came to board our vintage steam train at Havenstreet for the round trip which would get us back to Wootton for the end of our outing. With all the vintage sounds of guard's whistle, slamming doors, locomotive whistle and hissing steam, we set off towards Smallbrook Junction in our beautifully restored First Class compartment. At Smallbrook the locomotive was detached and ran round to rake us in the other direction, non-stop through Havenstreet to Wootton. For most people their round trip would include the ride back to Havenstreet, but we had already done that part and so, after a pleasant ride through the countryside to the traditional steam railway sounds, we left the railway and waited for our bus back to Newport where we explored the town centre for a while before taking the next bus to Yarmouth.

Dinner that night was very special, at a restaurant called "On The Rocks" (not to be confused with Off The Rails). The menu was very simple, a big piece of meat, fish or halloumi served uncooked on a hot stone, with unlimited salad and fries and a wide choice of drinks. The meat, fish or halloumi cooks on the table and is eaten straight from the hot stone and if the salad or fries run out, the staff bring more. A great experience and thoroughly recommended. Very popular and again was booked before we left home. And so to bed on our last night at Yarmouth ready for moving on the following morning for our annual visit to Chichester.

On Monday morning we took the now-familiar bus number 7 to Newport and changed there for the bus to Ryde Esplanade from where we walked to the pier head for our catamaran to Portsmouth. There the usual waiting space and cafeteria were closed and being used simply as queueing space once boarding began: we all had to hang around the concourse with simply a coffee machine for refreshment. It is a good thing that we had not relied on taking lunch here, as we had considered. I did not understand why Wightlink and Costa could not get these facilities back to something like normal, especially as passenger numbers were still not back to normal levels. There was also a short panic when I saw a notice that space on the catamaran had to be reserved in advance, but although I telephoned the number given for this and was sent an email confirmation of our spaces on the next departure, when I showed the train tickets at the barrier the inspector did not ask to see the reservation - we had through Day Anytime rail tickets from Ryde to Chichester which stated on them that we could travel on any service that day; clearly Wightlink did not take through rail passengers into account when devising their policy on reservations.

The crossing went smoothly and on time, and the on-board system for disembarking passengers without undue crowding was very good. We then had about twenty minutes to wait at Portsmouth Harbour for our Southern train to Chichester, which departed a couple of minutes late but encountered no further problems and arrived on time. After checking in (a little early) at the Chichester Harbour Hotel and unpacking we met our friends for a drink at the excellent Park Tavern just around the corner from our hotel. Bath and bed and ready for another day.

On the Tuesday morning we contacted some other friends who now live in Chichester and went to join them at their home for morning coffee, then we went our separate ways until later afternoon. Tuesday evening was the theatre booking, and four of us met for a very early dinner (5.30pm!) at The Bell Inn and then joined two others for the well-reviewed performance of South Pacific at the Chichester Festival Theatre - the fourth time we have been to the summer musical at this superb venue. It was great to be in a theatre again: to my surprise all the seats were taken although mask-wearing was urged and most people complied.

Wednesday was our day at the seaside at East Wittering and we travelled there as usual by the local bus service, and as usual were delayed in the dreadful Chichester traffic but arrived eventually and after coffee and a brief visit to the beach had lunch together before a walk towards Bosham, taking the ferry from Itchenor across a part of the enormous (but scenically and naturally splendid) sprawl of Chichester Harbour. Good exercise and lovely countryside before a pint of local ale at the pub in Itchenor before returning to our hosts' holiday home at East Wittering for an evening together with dinner.

Our train home was booked for Thursday afternoon so after checking out we left our luggage at the hotel and visited the Novium museum to read about Roman Chichester and North Bersted Man, the most elaborate Iron Age warrior burial ever found in Britain. We then bought provisions and sat in the Priory Park for a picnic lunch in the pleasant summer sun before collecting our cases and taking the train home via London after a great week's holiday. 

Again we had allowed plenty of time in London before taking our LNER train from Kings Cross, and we crossed London by bus and bought some tea in Fortnum & Mason at St Pancras before going to wait in the First Class Lounge at Kings Cross until our train was announced. The new "Deli" menu, with beer, made a good light supper on the way to Peterborough where we had a little while to wait for the train to Stamford. Having spent the week largely avoiding showers we were disappointed that as we approached Stamford the rain started; by the time we had sheltered under the canopy at the station to put on our jackets and put up the umbrella, though, the rain had stopped and the jackets just made us rather hot as we walked up the hill out of the town centre to our home! It had been a brilliant week, sometimes because of the weather but often in spite of it, and we are already looking forward to the next couple of trips and hoping that the Italian and German ones booked in autumn and winter can take place.

Monday, 19 July 2021

The Best Laid Plans

Summer Sunday Trip to London 

With the gradual easing of lockdown restrictions we have been able to see many of our family whom we had not seen for several months, but our son and his household in London, with no garden, we had seen least, and so some arrangements were made for this summer and we set off yesterday, Sunday, the eve of "Freedom Day" when the remaining legal restrictions were due to be lifted, to visit them. But it did not quite work out as planned, even though the plans were only a few days old. Our daughter-in-law had a cough and was awaiting the result of a Covid test, so it was uncertain whether we could visit at all, but on the morning of the visit her negative result arrived. In the meantime, however, their younger child's nursery had told them that the little girl must isolate as a contact at nursery had tested positive ... so we only met our son and the older child for a picnic, not being able to go to the house.

This has been the problem with unlocking - is it actually saving the economy and bringing some certainty to business when infection levels are so high that random self-isolations are making it hard to plan anything at all, even as minor as Sunday lunch with Granny and Grandpa?

As far as travel was concerned,  getting out of Stamford on a Sunday morning always means driving because the rail service starts very late on Sundays. This particular weekend was when the line between Stamford and Peterborough was closed while engineers built the new junction at Werrington to connect the new "dive under" to the Stamford Line tracks, so there was no rail service at all on our local line. So we drove to Peterborough, a trip short enough for our plug-in hybrid car not to need any petrol, being within range of the battery. We also got to play with the new (to us) car park payment system at Peterborough station! At the barrier on the way in we did not have to do anything but pause while the Automatic Number Plate Recognition system read our car number plate then opened the barrier. Parking on a Sunday morning in the pandemic was a piece of cake, and then I made sure I read the notices about payment so that I knew what to do when we came back later on! There were several options, but it seemed to me that the simplest in our circumstances was to use my credit card contactless on the way out. There was no ticket to lose, no faff at ticket machines. no need to remember our own number plate (and having bought the car at the start of the first lockdown we are not really familiar with it yet!), and, most important to me, no need to use a smartphone app - although the LNER app is one option for those who prefer it. If you think buying a train ticket is complicated, to me as a very occasional driver and parker of cars paying for parking these days seems far more complex than paying for train tickets. The app you need varies from car park to car park and the ticket machines are complicated and do not often use the same English that I do. And if you think that is complicated, you should try electric car charging ... but that is another story.

We had allowed bags of time to get to Peterborough because you never know what sort of hold-ups there might be (none in this case) and how much time might be soaked up parking the car and fighting the ticket machine (minimal and zero respectively, see above), so we had some time to wait for our booked LNER train, time we occupied with our usual Sunday routine of the Sunday Times General Knowledge Crossword puzzle. We were booked on a specific train in order to take advantage of low-price Advance First Class tickets in each direction. Our trains both ways were LNER's "Azuma" class inter-city express trains and on the morning trip to London we were treated to coffee and the weekend breakfast menu, although having already had breakfast I just topped up with a pain au chocolat with my coffee and a bottle of water for the sweltering day which lay ahead. Our booked seats turned out to be the pair with no window, but there was no-one in the table seats immediately in front of them and no further station calls for this train, so we consulted the First Class host and moved into those seats, still well-enough distanced from other passengers, and we were all wearing face-coverings, of course.

We knew in advance that from Kings Cross the Hammersmith & City Line was not operating, and that several other lines were suffering from sudden closures because of unexpected self-isolating staff, so we took a bus to our chosen rendezvous point, which was Kensington High Street. Buses are not quick, although perhaps they are not so slow on Sundays, but we do get to see a lot. We actually travelled by bus only as far as Hyde Park Corner and then walked along the South Carriage Ride of Hyde Park and along the souther edge of Kensington Gardens to reach our destination. This part of London is just a joy to visit on a summer day and there were lots of people, walking, sitting and cycling. We met our son and senior grandchild and then bought the components of a picnic from the Whole Foods Market in what had formerly been Barkers department store, opposite St Mary Abbots church, and returned to Kensington Gardens together for our picnic, followed by coffee in a side street café where the crowds were much thinner. Altogether it was fairly easy to keep a safe distance from others, with just a little care, and we were very happy throughout.

We accompanied the others back to their front door but could not enter, of course, and then spotted that although the Hammersmith & City Line was not operating, the Circle Line apparently was, because we saw trains passing and the local station open. that would do: we went to the station  and took the next train to Kings Cross St Pancras. There was plenty of space to start with and although mask wearing (still compulsory) was patchy we were OK for a while. Someone sat opposite us and kept taking his mask off and on but there was nowhere else to move where everyone was masked so we were reliant on our vaccinations and our own masks. Gradually the train filled up and our neighbour left his mask on, as did most others - interesting. Transport for London will be requiring face coverings even after the legal requirement is lifted because London's transport does get crowded and there are parts of London where vaccination take-up has been poor (not where we had just been, though).

We now had an hour to spare at Kings Cross and we spent it in the First Class lounge and enjoyed a salad we had bought at the Waitrose beneath it, before making our way to the train when it was ready to board, using the bridge over the platforms once more - this had been closed on our recent trips. Again we had our socially-distance reserved seats but this time a pair facing each other across a small table, our favourite arrangement. The complimentary refreshments on offer included wine (which I have never known at a weekend before, but I remembered that I would have to drive home so I declined that and accepted the cheese and pickle sandwich and another bottle of water.

The car park at Peterborough worked beautifully: I did ensure that I had my credit card to hand and at the barrier simply "showed" it to the card reader and drove out. We took a scenic route back to Stamford and arrived home to plug the car in ready for duty the following morning having used no petrol and emitted no exhaust.

It was a good day out. In spite of the difficulties a summer day in west London is never going to be bad, and neither is day with children and grandchildren, even in reduced numbers, and, I have to say, a trip in First Class with LNER is almost a guaranteed joy as well! Just as well, as we have quite a few more coming up, including Edinburgh in a few weeks' time when I am hoping that the catering will be better still. It is already so much better than last summer when we all lived in fear of getting near other people and touching anything that someone else may have touched. Looking forward to next month's trips, and just hoping that plans do not have to change too much!

Saturday, 17 July 2021

Day Out in Cambridge

A group outing by train

At last I have been able to take a small group on a short "adventure" by train. Myself, four regular adventurers and a new subscriber to my list gathered at Stamford station on Saturday morning for the 09:54 train for Stansted Airport, which we left just over an hour later at Cambridge. Just as with my recent personal trips we found it hard to use the "socially distanced" seats we had been allocated because we wanted to travel more-or less together: two members were a married couple and did not need to be apart at all, one of our seats was taken anyway (none was labelled), and none of us, all vaccinated, felt the need to have a whole seating bay each. But there was plenty of space and, occupying the general area of four of our allocated seats we managed to seat reasonably close without taking too much risk: "one metre with mitigation," I think it's called - face-coverings (still compulsory in any case), not directly facing, and speaking only quietly. I'll let you know in a fortnight if any of us is ill ...

A pleasant surprise was the arrival of a refreshment trolley after a few moments, and we celebrated by buying coffee and biscuits (we know how to live ...) which also meant, of course, that we were allowed to unmask temporarily in order to enjoy them. As I said, I'll let you know if any of us is ill!

Across the Cambridgeshire Fens we noted that there was not as much flooding of the wash land as there sometimes is, so more land was visible. We passed the beautiful view of the city of Ely, with the boats moored close to the railway and the city rising behind the riverside, surmounted by the cathedral with its unique lantern roof and single west tower. And so into Cambridge over the River Cam's boat race stretch, and an arrival on time at Cambridge station.

We made our way together to the exit and ticket barriers and scanned our tickets to exit the station - because I had bought these tickets using the Cross Country iPhone app (for some reason the website was unable to take my money) I had electronic tickets which I had printed for everyone to take their own. Getting the whole party through the barrier with me having all the tickets on my iPhone was not something I'd want to experience!

Outside the station we went to the line of bus stops and sought a bus heading for the city centre. This is slightly awkward, although I cannot think of a way that it could be improved: there are several stops for several services and it is hard to decide where to wait because most, if not all, of the buses go to the city centre. One sat there but showed little sign of being ready to move off, so when another came up at another stop looking as if it might go first, we all boarded - all of this happening in a matter of seconds, as it does with the frequency of buses here. All but one of the party had senior bus passes and can use any bus without payment. The one remaining member paid her fare for a day ticket and that was when we realised that this bus was not one of Stagecoach's "Citi" services which serve most of the city and so her return ticket would not be useable on most of the buses back to the station - but we would find a solution to this matter. The bus took an interesting route to the city centre, rather further round than most buses but not much longer in time, and the party gradually left the bus as we arrived at the places they wanted to visit. The last of us left at Silver Street in order to visit places around Kings Parade.

Enormous sausage roll!
As on all of these group outings now, we were all members of a WhatsApp group and were able to share location and inform each other of what we were doing. I scouted the proposed lunch venue, Michaelhouse, where I had been before, and discovered that it would be quite suitable for the group so I was able to confirm that we would meet there as planned. I was amazed at how busy the city was. There were still hordes of young people and several family groups visiting Cambridge. In spite of the pandemic it looked as teeming as ever, albeit with face coverings and restricted access to most premises. Some wanted to visit Kings College Chapel but that was fully booked until two days' time. We met at one o'clock for lunch at Michaelhouse and had a very enjoyable meal. Some of us then took a stroll along The Backs and in Silver Street consulted the timetable for the bus that our youngest member would be using to return to the station! We then repaired to the Anchor public house where we had to check in and be shown to a table where our order was taken and the beer eventually delivered. The pub was not crowded and would never be as we would not have been let in if there had not been a table (duly sanitised) available for us.

Cambridge's weird platform arrangement!
I had some shopping to do at John Lewis: now that their shop in Peterborough is closed, Cambridge has one of Stamford's nearest branches of any department store and there is nothing quite like them for browsing for the things you need. I then strolled around to Christ's Pieces (I love the names of locations in Cambridge!) and sat and enjoyed a takeaway coffee in the afternoon sunshine before taking the bus back to the station, having heard from all the rest of the party that they were either already at the station or were on their way. Although it had been quite a short day out, it had been a tiring one, especially for the older members of the group, and we had a lengthy wait for our train home rather than making a last-minute dash for the station just in time to catch it. Some sat in the coffee lounge; I watched the trains. I was interested to see that the direct trains from Cambridge to Brighton would make a neat connection with trains from Stamford ... hmm.

Our train home was on time and again there was plenty of room for us although the reserved one-person-per-seating-bay seats had to be ignored. We raced back across the fens in the evening sun and were soon at Stamford and dispersing across the town to our various homes. The day had been a successful restart of the group outings and there had been much discussion on the way back about where we might go for the next one. Unfortunately these are still quite hard to arrange at present with the Covid restrictions, but something will be advertised soon to those on my mailing list.