Thursday 25 November 2021

Getting Back to Business at Last

By Train to a Real Meeting with Real People!

It has been a long time, but I have finally travelled to a meeting. Who would have guessed that going to a meeting could be so much fun, could have been a longed-for day out? The meeting was in Lincoln, not far away, and although I went there recently to visit with friends for a day out, I still looked forward to this day out on my own and not only to meeting my colleagues in person, in a room but also to travelling there and back on the improved train services to and from Lincoln.

When looking up train times to suit my meeting time (the ending of which had to be flexible), and allowing for time before and time after the actual business for any opportunities for friendly exchanges, it turned out that the travel both directions would best be done via Newark and LNER rather than Spalding at East Midlands Railway: I would have to change trains at Newark Northgate on the way there but that is never a problem.

On the day all my trains ran on time and the whole thing went very smoothly. I had plenty of time to work on the way there and the way back - this is all voluntary work, by the way, because I am now retired. Even going via the East Coast Main Line route on fast trains the journeys still took longer than driving because of the need to travel via a change of train at Peterborough, but the travel time was useful time and I made sure I had plenty to do on the trip. Further,  being retired I am seldom in a hurry anyway and wanted to enjoy my day out, so I booked First Class tickets for the LNER legs of the journey (but only claimed Standard Class fares on expenses, of course).

USB charging on the train
between Newark and Lincoln

On the way to Newark in the morning I enjoyed coffee and a pain-au-chocolat for my morning coffee break, included in the First Class fare, and kept the included sandwiches for an early lunch in Lincoln (my meeting started at noon!). At Newark I had to cross the bridge to Platform 3 where an East Midlands Railway Sprinter train soon arrived to take connecting passengers to Lincoln. They now use more comfortable, and big enough, trains on this connecting service, making it much more of a pleasure than it used to be.

At Lincoln I had plenty of time before my meeting and chose to walk up the hill rather than take the (free for a pensioner!) bus as I often have. As I have mentioned before, Lincoln is definitely improving, and the walk up the High Street and Steep Hill was great. 

After the meeting I walked back down to the station via the High Street. I had been for ages carrying a fully-stamped loyalty card for Caffè Nero on my iPhone, waiting for the day when I would find myself away from home and needing a coffee shop, so I based myself in Caffè Nero to do my post-meeting paperwork, emailing out to other members of the group the notes and instructions we had agreed. How much simpler and quicker IT has made this sort of administration! 

Off then to the station to await my LNER "Azuma" all the way to Peterborough this time, again in  First Class with tea and cake on leaving Lincoln, with a glass of white wine later before changing trains for the short trip home to Stamford. I was meeting my wife in town for dinner later, so I did not take up the offer of the hot meal on the train, but the cake was just what was needed to see me through to dinner time, and it was the right time of day for that sort of thing.

A few days later I returned to Lincoln for the weekend on personal business and had to travel by car for various reasons. For several days beforehand I had to keep reminding myself that it was no use taking things to do on the journey: I would have to concentrate on driving. It is interesting how used I have become to spending my travel time doing things which are useful and/or fun, but although driving was a bit quicker I had no use for my computer or my books and magazines when I took the car.

Tuesday 16 November 2021

Starting the Christmas Shopping

 By train to Leicester

Stamford, the town where I live, has some excellent shops and we seldom have to leave it for shopping, Christmas shopping included, but one thing we do lack is a department store and when it comes to seeking inspiration for gifts there is nothing quite like looking at a wide variety of possibilities under one roof. In addition there were a couple of things we needed for ourselves which we had failed to find in town, so the time had come to try elsewhere. In the past we had generally visited Peterborough, just thirteen train minutes away, or a free bus ride in my case! But Peterborough no longer has a department store either and the rest of its shops are no better, indeed perhaps not quite as good, as Stamford's. We thought we'd try Leicester which we've never used for shopping although we have been there for days out occasionally.

I booked tickets on Cross Country's Train Tickets app including seat reservations on the outward journey and on one of the busiest trains back just in case we needed to use a busy train, but with every intention of catching an earlier one if we were finished before the peak travel time. As we crossed the bridge to the westbound side of the station to catch our train it occurred to me that we had not been this way togethe since last summer's trip to Dorset with our granddaughter. Such has been the pandemic that the things we had been used to doing, like a visit to Leicester or Birmingham or beyond had just not been happening. So here was our "reset" day for travelling west!

The train was on time and the journey smooth. We had decided that the first thing we would do on arrival was find a coffee shop and have coffee, and behold, opposite the station was the Merchant of Venice Italian coffee shop, so that was where we went, acknowledging the statue of Thomas Cook, founder of the escorted railtour, as we passed. We greeted the staff in Italian as we walked in, having been in Venice not long before, and held a short conversation with one of them. We later found out that he was not Italian but had thought that we were because we greeted him in that language! I am not sure where he was from but we did find out that his colleague was Greek; such is multicultural Leicester! An Italian coffee shop with a William Shakespeare theme run by a Greek ...

And so off to the shops, including Blunts shoe shop near the station and coffee shop, an enormous footwear emporium (this one run by Asian people) with more shoes, boots, slippers and sandals - plus some bags, socks and stockings - than you can imagine. Then to John Lewis, now sadly absent from both Peterborough and Birmingham. There is one in Cambridge, but I think Leicester is nearer and unless you especially need books or academic dress then the rest of Leicester's shopping is probably more useful than Cambridge, too ... and the station is in the city centre, no bus required. The weather forecast had been for rain all day; we never let that put us off and had set out in mackintoshes and hats but in the event there was the faintest drizzle from time to time and I never really needed the hat which ended up in one of the shopping bags for the whole day. Our experience has generally been that we should never let the weather interfere with our plans unless the Met Office issues a warning - it is seldom as bad as forecast.

We achieved all that we needed to do in plenty of time and decided to return to the Merchant of Venice for lunch and then take the next train home, the 15:12. Lunch was great, with suitable Italian dishes and drinks, and then, laden with rather more baggage than we brought with us in the morning, we made our way to the station. Arriving at the station we were disappointed to see that our train was rather late - it did not really matter much except that we were stuck there on the platform just waiting for it. Still, at least Leicester is a fairly busy station with trains coming and going, so it was not too boring. The delay to our train slipped a bit more and a bit more, but then it started making up a little bit which was heartening. We never did find out what the problem had been: it was not mentioned in the announcements (which are automated on East Midlands Railway stations) nor by the train manager on board, and all the other trains had been on time. I cannot remember when I last travelled on a late train with no apology or explanation, probably the 1970s when most trains were not equipped with public address systems! It was not ever so late, about 12 minutes by the time we got to Stamford, and we were an hour or two earlier than we might have been anyway.

It had been a good day, and we decided that in future, on the odd occasions we needed a city for shopping, Leicester will be the place for us. And I noticed that in the event that we need to stay, there is a Premier Inn very near the station.

And now to start writing the Christmas Cards!

Friday 5 November 2021

Lincoln: A New Start for Me

Azuma at Peterborough, where we changed for
Stamford on our way home
A Day Out by Train with Friends

I have not been to Lincoln for a couple of years, whereas before Covid and retirement I used to visit about monthly. In those days there were few trains and I had to drive as often as not, and the rail journey was often longer and more complex than a short trip to ones own county town ought to be. During the lockdowns and "stay at home" advice of the last couple of years some significant improvements to the rail services have taken place and there has also much much work done to the city centre at Lincoln, and to Lincoln Cathedral, too. When some friends were staying and we were looking for somewhere for a day out together Lincoln came to mind: it is a place where I had lived many years ago, and before that a place where I and one of the friends had spent a few days when we had not known each other for long, so there were some memories to be stirred. Tickets were booked using the LNER app, choosing trains that would take us out by one route and back by another and would give us plenty of time in Lincoln while allowing us back to Stamford in time for a restaurant dinner. All of us having Senior Railcards the total fare was just under £100 for Anytime Day Returns, although where possible we did have seats booked on our chosen trains. Had we become bored or the weather become rough we could return early (but not late if we wanted our booked dinner!).

(This was to be an easy-going, relaxed day out, so I did not take my camera with me and any illustrations you see here are from my earlier collection.)

We left Stamford on the 09:56 Cross Country train to Peterborough and although our reserved seats were not all adjacent (the Cross Country algorithm does seem to leave something to be desired) we did manage to find a table for 4 for this short leg of the trip. This service neatly connects with an East Midlands Railway departure from Peterborough to Lincoln, part of the improved offering from this company since I last travelled that way. Although there had long been a train at about this time, it had always been a short, single-coach train which might be able to take everyone at Peterborough but was always grossly overcrowded when it reached Lincoln. The service also used to start late in the morning and finish early in the afternoon, of little use to most potential passengers - and although that did not affect us on this trip it was the main reason for me having to use my car in the past. We were surprised to find that our train was not just a bit longer than before, but consisted of four coaches and although there are no seat reservations on this route it was easy to choose a table together with a window to open for anti-viral ventilation as well as a view of the countryside. We were blessed with gorgeous weather for the time of the year, late October, with lots of sunshine and no rain (although the forecast until that very morning had not been so optimistic).

The first part of the ride to Lincoln took us up the East Coast Main Line as far as Werrington Junction, retracing the steps of the last couple of miles of the trip from Stamford, and then we set off across the Lincolnshire fens on the route through Spalding and Stamford towards Lincoln. This section is marked by distant and not-so-distant spires and towers of town and village churches among the clumps of trees that mark those places, including Deeping St James where we also once lived and Crowland, the historic Abbey of St Guthlac. Soon the train approached Spalding where two of us had grown up, but apart from the area immediately around the station all now unrecognisable, so much has the town grown. There were enormous new houses being built well out of the town centre and we wondered where on earth the people to live in them would work and shop, there being little in Spalding itself these days.

Soon we were off across the fens again to Sleaford, with a slight hold-up on the approach to the station because of the constricted access since tracks there were reduced some years previously. More people joined the train here than left it, and the four coaches were beginning to look more of a necessity than a luxury. Many more joined us at Ruskington and at Metheringham, now well out of the fens into gently rolling hills, and the train was nicely full without being crowded when we arrived on time at Lincoln. A pleasant ride through sunny Lincolnshire, and now to explore the city. It was great to be back, and I was looking forward to seeing how the city centre improvements had progressed since I was last here.

We started "uphill" around the cathedral and castle and made our way down, so the first thing to do was to visit the bus station, opposite the rail station, and take a bus up to the cathedral. These run frequently are are not too expensive and do save the effort (and time) of climbing one of the steepest streets in England!

From the Cathedral bus stop we went to look at the foundations of the Roman east gate, preserved in front of The Lincoln Hotel - fresh from a holiday in Rome it was good to be reminded that we have quite a lot of Roman remains here in England, too, even if ours are several centuries younger than some of the Italian ones! Strolling around East Bight we followed the course of the Roman city wall and saw more fragments of it in private gardens and then arrived at the north gate which is still in use by modern traffic, although somewhat reduced in grandeur, most notably by lorries not quite small enough to pass through. As we walked down Bailgate we reminisced about how things used to be: much was the same, and the pub where I used to recover from philosophy lectures had not changed much. We visited the site of St Paul's church, supposedly founded by St Paulinus in the early years of English Christianity, and then went to the Castle. No tickets were left to visit the buildings, but actually that was OK: it would leave us with plenty of time to see the rest of the city, and entry to the grounds is free so we spent a little time there and then found some lunch in one of the cafés on Steep Hill (yes, that is the name of the street!) before moving on to the Cathedral. One snag with visiting on a Monday as we did is that some bars, restaurants etc are not open for lunch on Mondays and with a table for four required we did have to queue for a few minutes, but only a few.

I know Lincoln Cathedral very well, partly from living in its precincts for nearly three years and partly from having taken part in its services from time to time over the last forty years, but my friends do not know it half so well, so it was good to show them around, and we did not need to join the guided tour ... What I had not seen before was the new visitor centre and education facility which had been built, with grant funding, on the north side of the Cathedral, partly in buildings formerly part of the cathedral school. The centre was not completely finished but had been partially opened for the half-term holiday for children's activities, and the new café was also open for our afternoon cup of tea, replacing the tiny coffee shop that had opened by the chapter house four decades ago.

When we had seen everything we wanted to see at Lincoln Cathedral we began the walk down the hill, stopping on the way to see the places that had mattered to us many years ago, and popping into the model shop to buy just a few more HO scale figures for my Swiss model railway, then doing just a little more shopping before exploring the Sincil Street area. This is now known as the Cornhill Quarter and a good deal more pleasant an area it is, although with many of the good local shops still present, and a cinema added. The Cornhill Quarter is immediately adjacent to the bus station, rail station and multi-storey car park and forms a great entrance to the city centre. There is still some work to do, but it is now much further advanced than when I last saw it and already looking great.

It was now time to make our way to the station and await our train home. Checking the departures we were not surprised to see that we needed to cross the bridge to the far platform, but as we crossed we were pleasantly surprised to see that the train, this time a LNER "Azuma" inter-city set, was already on its way from the siding to the platform and within a few moments of arriving the doors were unlocked and we were able to board, easily finding our reserved seats around a table for four. Much more spacious than the train on which we had arrived at Lincoln, this one took us back to Peterborough via Newark and the East Coast Main Line. As soon as it left Lincoln I went to the café-bar and bought a round of white wine to round of the warm, sunny day we had enjoyed together - I bought the last of the white wine, so I hope no-one else wanted any! While I was at the bar, the rest were watching the University of Lincoln slide past the window, and then were amazed to find that the Cathedral was also visible from the left side of the train, having been on the right side when we were at the station! There is quite a loop to get from the former Central station to the Newark line which was served by a separate station until a new link was constructed late last century. By the time we stopped at Newark darkness had come and we watched the scenery no longer. LNER took us smoothly to Peterborough for our Cross Country connection to Stamford, all on time and just right for dinner at the Cosy Club!

It had been a simple day out and yet a really good one: the weather was better than one dared hope
in mind-October, all our trains were clean, punctual and spacious enough, we had good company (well, mine was good: I have to hope the others felt the same!) and enjoyed all that we saw and did.