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.


  1. Dear Mark,

    I'm glad you enjoyed the Silk Road exhibition in King's Cross. The exhibition will be on in Lewis Cubitt Square until 1 September. More info here:

    Best wishes,

    Christopher Wilton-Steer from Aga Khan Foundation UK and photographer of the Silk Road exhibition.

    1. Thanks for your reply, with info about end date. We walked through the whole thing from London and studied every picture. Most enlightening.