Sunday 27 June 2021

An Actual Seaside Holiday by Train!

High Speed Train to the Kent Coast for a Short Summer Holiday

"I'm on the train!"
Last weekend we took our first train trip of 2021 when we went to Croydon to join a wedding celebration, and this week we took our first seaside holiday of the year. 

We had been to Bath on a road trip as soon as hotel stays were permitted (and suffered terrible traffic congestion as a result), but this was a proper holiday by train to a coastal resort and although the weather was not playing ball when we left home we still had a great time with some warm sunshine while we were away. It was hard to believe that just a week ago I was in shorts and t-shirt but now I was definitely in jeans, heavy shirt and jumper for the journey, but was able to shed some layers as the days passed - mercifully I had brought one short-sleeved summer shirt with me.

Socks still match mask 

The hotel, in Broadstairs, was booked a couple of months earlier, when the "roadmap" towards the ending of lockdown was published: had we been able to end restrictions on 21st June as hoped, this trip would have begun on the following day; as it happened we still had the social-distancing rules and compulsory face-covering on trains, but it was still a good trip. The hotel was recommended by our neighbours and we had driven past it the year before when we had a short break in Kent by car. We decided then that Broadstairs looked like a town best visited by train, and when the opportunity arose we took it. LNER tickets to London (First Class as we usually do) were booked well in advance, and tickets from Stamford to Peterborough and from London to Broadstairs followed as they were released. The LNER and Cross Country tickets were electronic downloads which I printed at home and the Southeastern ones for the final leg of the journey were printed card tickets which I had to collect from the station.

Real coffee in a mug, and a glass for the water!
After a leisurely morning of packing and preparation we strolled into town and caught the 10:57 train to Peterborough: the latest timetable revision has given us trains that are broadly hourly but which arrive and leave at a variety of "about the hour" times rather than the "clock face" departures we had become used to having. We arrived in Peterborough on time and made our way over to where the LNER train to London soon arrived, in good time for an on-time departure. We declined the offered sandwiches as we had a picnic lunch with us, but the coffee was very welcome, served with biscuits, and we were so pleased to see that freshly brewed coffee was back, in the china mugs which have been a feature of First Class travel on this route through several different operating companies: far nicer than the instant-coffee-in-paper-cup of the pandemic era! And it was served from trolleys by the familiar friendly LNER First Class staff: the pleasure of rail travel was returning, and we look forward to the day when staff can dispense with their plastic aprons and we can all take off our face-coverings and smile at each other again!

I had allowed plenty of time in London for lunch before taking the train on to Broadstairs. Had all restrictions been lifted I had thought we might visit one of the station restaurants - there is quite a choice of them between Kings Cross and St Pancras stations, as well as lots nearby. But we instead retired to the First Class lounge at Kings Cross to eat the Waitrose salads we had brought with us. After an hour at the lounge we made our way across the road to St Pancras to find our train onwards, the 14:12 to Margate, a Southeastern high speed Javelin train. The only special things about these trains are their high speed (they are Britain's fastest domestic trains) and their stunning appearance: no catering, and no first class, but they are comfortable and do their job well. The ride is good, although the scenery ends as the train leaves St Pancras and heads into the tunnel that takes the High Speed One line under east London and towards Essex. The first stop is at Stratford and then back into tunnel until we emerge into the urban-edge sprawl on Thameside Essex, glimpsing the Queen Elizabeth Bridge (with its slow-moving traffic)) before plunging into tunnel under the Thames and into Kent, stopping at Ebbsfleet (a park & ride station for north Kent) and Ashford on High Speed One, with a brilliant view of the Medway estuary in between, and then turning east towards our destination. Now on ordinary tracks our Javelin was still travelling pretty fast and stopped in Canterbury and Ramsgate, heading north into Broadstairs, our seaside destination, a smooth ride and on time.

As we left the train at this traditional little station, a sign at the exit directed us to "Beaches and Town Centre, 5 minute walk," to the left and we followed it. It didn't mention the flight of steps down to the street! These required us to carry our rolling luggage, but never mind: in the days the sign was written everyone was carrying their cases all the time, so we tried not to be spoilt 21st-century brats ... and although it seemed more than five minutes to our hotel it probably wasn't: that was just the excitement building! 

The Royal Albion is a traditional hotel in the Shepherd Neame brewery's chain, updated and enhanced by some up-to-date features. Our spacious room was beautifully decorated in the current trendy grey and reasonably well-appointed, with plenty of power points and storage and a comfortable bed. As requested, it had a sea view. In fact it had a very good sea view because it was on the third floor - more carrying of luggage required as the hotel is traditional enough not to have a lift!

After unpacking we went for a short stroll around the immediate vicinity of the hotel and then returned for dinner which we had booked at the hotel restaurant for the first evening. The meal was excellent, with local produce and, of course, Shepherd Neame's local ales. We had a table in the restaurant's glazed section overlooking the terrace with the beach beyond. It was quite idyllic from where we were, but, as yet, pretty chilly outside! Although still early evening when we completed our meal we returned to our room and I spent a little while beginning this blog post then reading a book before retiring to sleep, unaccountably tired - my theory being that we had had such a busy few weeks that now that we were on holiday with an opportunity to rest, our minds and bodies were taking that opportunity!

When we finally awoke the following morning I popped out to the nearby Costa to buy take-away coffee because our hotel reservation did not include breakfast and we did not need a big hotel breakfast after the previous night's dinner. We had brought a few things with us for a very light breakfast but I was disappointed not to be able to buy a croissant at Costa, so that had to wait until later in the day when I could find a better coffee shop. After breakfast we set off along the esplanade and out along the coastal path towards Ramsgate. Ramsgate is about two miles from Broadstairs and it is a very pleasant walk, away from roads most of the way and away from busy roads all of the way until the town centre. We had in mind coffee at an Italian coffee shop we discovered on a road trip here last year, but were open about what we might do for lunch, anticipating perhaps a light lunch and then a more substantial dinner back in Broadstairs in the evening. However, on the way to Ramsgate we had a stroke of luck that transformed our plans: one of our sons sent me a personal message about something unrelated to the holiday and having replied, I sent him 15 minutes of our live location just as a bit of idle chatter and he replied with a restaurant recommendation in Ramsgate - I had no idea he'd ever been there, but he had and we followed up his advice. The restaurant was the Royal Harbour Brasserie which we looked up on Trip Advisor over our Italian coffee (and croissant!) and to my enormous surprise turned out to be located at the tip of one of the harbour breakwaters, looking most unlike a restaurant!

Even when we approached the entrance it still did not look like the sort of restaurant to receive such a recommendation from my discerning offspring, or a visit from us, but we ventured up the steps to the entrance and gingerly went in to find a welcoming bar area with welcoming staff and a glorious seafood menu and wine list, with seating inside and outside. We booked a table for an hour's time and went off for a walk around Ramsgate. This old port town is well worth a visit, packed with history and still very interesting in spite of recent economic difficulties, and some of the newer enterprises like this Brasserie, and Wetherspoons redevelopment of a seafront pavilion as the largest pub in Britain (!), are lifting the town out of the doldrums - as are the new flats being built along the seafront.

Returning along the harbour wall to the Brasserie we enjoyed a great lunch and although I was disappointed to miss the swordfish, the last portion of which had just gone to another diner, the traditional cod and chips did not disappoint. Although the air temperature was not especially high that day we sat outside in the sunshine and there was amazingly little wind considering that we were, effectively, some way out into the sea, so we felt very warm. It was an idyllic way to spend a lunchtime on holiday and we were so glad to have discovered it in such an unlikely way - without that chance conversation on the way it is doubtful that we'd have walked out along the breakwater and it is absolutely certain that we would not have climbed the staircase and entered the restaurant!

After lunch we popped into Waitrose for a prepared salad for our supper in our room that evening, the need for a restaurant dinner in Broadstairs having been eliminated, and then we walked back to our hotel by a different route, taking us inland and along a variety of streets - there is no countryside between the two towns other than (briefly) on the coast.

After night had fallen we went for a stroll along the promenade in Broadstairs, very attractively lit with strings of coloured lights and spherical lanterns and with the full moon over the sea. It had been a really great day, sunnier than expected, and we had walked many miles, seen a lot of coast and historic town and enjoyed a fantastic lunch. Now it was time for a long and deep sleep in preparation for the following day's planned walk to Margate, more than twice as far and on what was expected to be a warmer and sunnier day. We slept like a pair of logs after all the exercise of the day, but soon ready for another like it, boosted by another Costa coffee and light breakfast of our own devising. 

This time we set off northwards from Broadstairs, along the promenade to start with and then the clifftop past Kingsgate Castle and the North Foreland Lighthouse down to Joss Bay where we stopped for our morning coffee before continuing towards Margate along the north coast of the Isle of Thanet. 

In the distance as we passed Cliftonville (where I spent many a childhood summer holiday) we could see our destination, the Turner Contemporary where we hoped to have our lunch in the excellent restaurant. We made a reservation for a suitable time and then took a short walk along the seafront and through the streets to return for lunch and visit the gallery. Just as the previous day, the lunch menu was short but wonderful and this time we went for three courses and would not be needing a meal later. I then visited the current exhibition at the gallery, The Tourists: Ellen Harvey & JMW Turner (this is all free of charge, registration for social-distancing and contact-tracing being the only requirement at present).

Our walk around Margate was restricted this time to the town centre and Old Town, having visited by car just last year. I used to come here a lot as a child, where my mother was born and brought up, and in those days it was a thriving holiday resort, but the seaside boarding-house type of holiday is now completely out of fashion even for those who prefer to stay in Britain rather than fly abroad, and Margate's economy has suffered greatly. The commercial centres of this town and of Ramsgate, it seems to me, have also suffered from the development of a shopping centre at Westwood Cross, central to Thanet but unrelated to its towns. All the main shop seem to be at Westwood, and the centres of Margate, Broadstairs and Ramsgate are effectively relegated to the role of local centres. We studiously avoided setting foot in Westwood Cross and spent our money in the towns (mostly on lunches, it must be admitted ...).

We took a bus back to Broadstairs at the end of the day.

The next day, Friday, was our last, but I had booked a train at 16:01, so we had a good chunk of the day still in Broadstairs. By modern high speed train services this really is not far away (indeed, it is quite feasible to have a day trip to the Thanet resorts from Lincolnshire now, as I did to Canterbury a couple of years ago), so three nights' stay meant three days' holiday, and four would have been feasible with an earlier start, but we preferred the more leisurely start. After the usual do-it-yourself breakfast with Costa coffee (and, to my surprise, a croissant this time!), we packed our cases and checked out of the hotel, asking them to keep out luggage for us until departure time. We walked again along the coast, but this time along the back of the beach, towards Joss Bay where we had stopped on our way to Margate; for some reason the café was not open, but we were returning straight to Broadstairs anyway and had our morning coffee there. Lunch was at Posillipo, a genuine Italian restaurant next to the hotel: they have a branch in Canterbury which we had visited before and greatly enjoyed, and eating here was part of our plan from the start. I had the most amazing pizza bianca, white pizza with mozarella and cream (!) in place of the usual tomato paste, absolutely delicious and thoroughly recommended. I regret I did not quite finish it and certainly had no room for a second course.

A last stroll along the seafront and it was time to collect our cases and walk to the station. We had had a fabulous time, but the holiday was not quite over yet. I have always maintained that when you travel by train the journey is part of the holiday, and although the time on the train was relaxing (I was reading, and sorting out my photographs, among other things), I had allowed a couple of hours in London on the way back, too. The intention had been to have tea at Fortnum and Mason while at St Pancras station, but we discovered the previous week that they have not yet reopened the café space there, so we decided to go for a walk around the developing Kings Cross area and then have a cup of tea at the First Class lounge at the station before boarding our LNER train. Coal Drops Yard had opened at Kings Cross since our last time there, and that was interesting enough, but what made the exploration a real treat was an outdoor exhibition of photographs sponsored by the Aga Khan Foundation and based on the historic Silk Road. It highlights the work of the foundation and is fascinating in the way it describes the various cultures - with an emphasis on Islamic cultures - of the nations along the Silk Road. I do not know how long it will be there, but it is well worth having a look - allow an hour - if you have the slightest interest in history, geography, human society or photography!

We tore ourselves away and took the cup of tea we had promised ourselves and then took our allocated seats on board the 19:30 to Edinburgh, first stop Peterborough. The complimentary hot drinks trolley came by and I declined a hot drink having just had tea, but when the cold drinks came there was not fruit juice ... but the good news is that they had wine! Wine has returned to the First Class menu! Gradually normality is returning. This was the first week for wine and brewed coffee - and the passenger numbers are picking up, too, so let's just hope that infection rates are not picking up too much as well. With all the numbers and with so much drink to distribute, the food did not come by before Peterborough, so I cannot comment on that. We did not need it after our Posillipo lunch, of course, but I think they would have fetched us a sandwich if we had been depending on it, because I saw one being taken to someone else.

And so to the connection to Stamford and the walk home over the meadows and through the Friday evening sociability (best avoided when tired!) of Stamford town centre. The 2021 summer holiday season had got off to a cracking start for us and this blog has finally come back to life. More to come, gradually, of course.

Monday 14 June 2021

Real Train Ride to a Virtual Wedding

Our first train ride for months
Our first stay with friends for even more months
Young friends married at last

"I'm on the train"
So we have finally made it onto a train. Not the most exciting train, nor in itself the most exciting destination, but it has been good to celebrate with friends the marriage of mutual young friends, even though it was via the internet from a ceremony several miles away with just a few guests actually present, rather than the full church we would all have attended in person last spring. At least being together we could make more of it than sitting at home alone in sunny Stamford. It is also a delayed New Year celebration since our friends usually stay with us at New Year but, of course, that did not happen either.

It is important for socks to match face-covering ...
Booking this trip was a bit of a trial until I hit on using the LNER website to do it, for that site arranged all the required seat reservations, but it was not the most obvious company to use for the booking since we were travelling with Thameslink for the trunk haul from Peterborough to East Croydon, since that offers a through service (not quick, but simple, avoiding a change in London). Once the tickets were bought, everything was simple, though. Thameslink does not offer electronic ticketing, so although I bought the tickets from LNER I still had to collect paper tickets from the station before leaving - not a problem as the paper tickets are neat and easy to use, with no fiddling with a smartphone at ticket barriers or printing huge tickets at home and finding somewhere to carry them safely. I bought Standard Class tickets this time, which meant that we could have flexible arrangements (subject to the requisite seat reservations) at a good price, the return fare being only £1 more than the single.

The weather was hot and sunny and we needed minimal luggage. Even though attendance at the wedding was to be remote, we had decided to dress as for a wedding, so I packed a tie (although with a short-sleeved shirt) and took an unlined linen suit, which in order to avoid crushing it in the luggage I wore on the journey. With a Panama hat as well, I felt like an extra from a Poirot episode, but it did keep me cool and meant that I'd be properly dressed for the main event.

We were due to arrive in time for dinner on Friday evening and so left Stamford on the 15:54 train for Peterborough which, like several other trains on this route on that day, seemed to have left Birmingham eight minutes late and never managed to recover the time, but we still managed to catch our Thameslink connection to East Croydon, due to arrive at 18:14. It would have been possible to do it 30 minutes quicker within the ticket validity by taking a fast LNER train from Peterborough and changing at Stevenage into the previous Thameslink train which the LNER one would overtake on the way there - but we opted for the slower and simpler way of using one train right through. It did feel a bit slow as we stopped at all the stations as far as Stevenage, but then the train ran fast to Finsbury Park before taking the link to St Pancras International and then the Thameslink route through central London, with views of St Paul's Cathedral and the City skyscrapers from the stop at Blackfriars station, then of Southwark Cathedral and The Shard on the approach to London Bridge station. After London Bridge we ran fast straight to East Croydon where we left the train and made our way to the tram stop. For some reason the automatic ticket barrier was not happy with our tickets but the human ticket collector looked at them and let us through. 

This was our first use of the Croydon tram system for a very long time and we had to remember to touch in with our Oyster cards before boarding the tram - which was just about socially-distanced enough - and then remember whether or not it was necessary to touch out on arrival (it isn't). By now it was peak travel time on a Friday afternoon, and yet the transport system was not crowded, such has been the effect of the pandemic.

We walked the short distance to our friends from their local tram stop and over and after dinner caught up with almost a year's news before retiring (later than usual) to bed ready for the wedding the next day.

The couple had sent us all the link to the wedding and so we arranged chairs round a desk with a large desktop monitor, changed into our wedding clothes and waited for the ceremony to begin. Just like those really present in church we saw the bridegroom and best man take their places and have a last-minute chat with the priest, and the camera turned so that we could watch the bride enter. We cannot pretend that it was like being there but given that we could not be there it was a pretty good substitute - a good deal better than having nothing to do with it at all, which might well have been the case ten years ago when the internet was slower and software less well-developed. The sound quality was probably the least satisfactory issue, but still pretty good in the circumstances - desktop computers were not made for this!

We enjoyed sparkling wine and canapés after the wedding, no waiting for photographers for us! The afternoon was then spent strolling in a park a short tram-ride away. 

Sunday morning we attended church: the service was also live-streamed on YouTube, and for those who are interested I copy the video link below:

After lunch we took a tram back to East Croydon station for a train to London, slightly earlier than we needed for our connections home. The trip home was slightly more complex because there are no through Thameslink trains on Sundays, so our first train  was to London Victoria from where we caught the Victoria Line to Kings Cross St Pancras. With a little effort it was quite simple to maintain social distancing on the tram and on the train and Underground. At St Pancras we used some of the time we had gained by visiting Fortnum & Mason's branch at the station to replenish our supplies of St Pancras Blend tea which ran out a couple of months ago and cannot be bought anywhere else, even on line. 

Over at Kings Cross we had a rather more prosaic take-away tea on the balcony while we awaited the boarding of our LNER train to Peterborough. Reserved seating is compulsory at present on LNER trains to ensure social distancing, but we found ourselves sitting among a lot of other people so I do not know what went wrong with the system, but it was easier to keep a distance on the trains where we had a free choice of seats. No matter, we had a timely and smooth run back to Peterborough for our connection home to Stamford, also on time. On a baking hot day we were grateful that all our trains (apart from the Underground) were air-conditioned, and that we had minimised our luggage - although, of course, it was the predictable hot weather which had enabled us to reduce the luggage we needed!

Soon we were walking home among the people enjoying the hot weather in Stamford at the many outside bars which have sprung up during the pandemic, and then throwing open our windows to cool the house before bedtime. It had been a good way to resume our travels: short and simple, and with a visit to great friends we had not seen for ages, and the joy of a wedding, too! Now that we are back in the habit, we can travel with confidence on the trips we have booked over the next few months. It remains to be seen whether the international trips planned for the autumn and winter will happen as scheduled, but they are currently still in the diary.

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
Shop page
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?