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.