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.