Monday, 27 June 2022

Neuchâtel via Paris and Le Locle, part 3: Neuchâtel, city, lake and castles

Value for money

All our travel so far within Switzerland had been free of charge, included in our Neuchâtel Tourist Card, as had been the trip on the lake at Les Brenets. Even the journey from Le Locle to Neuchâtel city was covered because the card was valid until midnight on the last day (hence the shuffling back-and-forth between Le Locle and La Chaux-de-Fonds without having to keep buying tickets!). Knowing that we would be given a new Tourist Card at our next hotel it occurred to us that if we could fit in the intended Lake cruise at Neuchatel on the first evening, it might be possible to take another later in the stay if we so desired, using the vouchers in our new card! In the event, once round the lake was enough in the weather as it turned out, but that was how we entertained ourselves the first evening in Neuchâtel.  

The weather was still sunny and very hot when we arrived and we walked straight to our hotel, the Neuchâtel City Hotel, which was not far and all downhill. Our room was really great, with a huge amount of space and a balcony onto the street with a view of the lake, albeit between buildings. Typical of Swiss hotels, there was no air-conditioning, although a very good electric fan was provided, but this time there was a coffee machine (but not tea!). Having unpacked we made our way down to the port and found the trip boat for which our vouchers were valid and waited a short while for boarding. There were scarily few passengers on board: tourism is a long way from "back-to-normal" here yet and the boat was run with as small a crew as could safely be used. We bought drinks from the bar and sat on deck until the light rain started but it was easy to find a seat under cover when it was raining.

Family history

Back on land, and back in blazing sunshine, we explored a bit and enjoyed on the balcony of our room a salad we had bought at a local supermarket before leaving Le Locle, no substantial dinner being needed after the lunch at the crêperie there. Shower and early night were called-for after the exertions of the day.

We did not get up early on Wednesday and were among the few customers in the breakfast room at the hotel when we went down. After breakfast I went back to the room and started this blog while Alison went off to the local archives office at the Castle to begin some of her research: this was apparently a fairly complex process involving standing outside the right doorway in the castle quadrangle and telephoning a number to be let in - all in French, of course.

We then visited the Galeries d'Histoire together, learning about the development of the city and then walked to the terminus at Place Pury of the "Littorail" (which may be translated, "coastrail") tramway to Boudry by way of continued exploration. There was not a lot there to see, but this is the only remaining tram route (number 5, the others all having been converted now to trolleybus operation) in Neuchâtel, so we thought a ride on it along the lakeside would be a pleasant was to spend a few moments. We came back only as far as an interchange with a bus service that took us up the hill to the district of Peseux in order to see the castle there which is in private hands and so not open to visit but has a distant family connection and we were able to photograph its exterior well enough from the street. From Peseux we caught one of the aforementioned trolleybuses back to the city centre and to our hotel to prepare for dinner. 

The castle at Peseux, in the west of the city of Neuchâtel

We had identified from TripAdvisor a great place for fondue, which is so typically Swiss and yet which we had not yet had a chance to try on this visit. Thunder and rain were expected so we carried our waterproof jackets with us and set off for La Taverna Neuchâteloise where the host greeted us with, "Good evening," as we walked in: are we that obviously British? Maybe he'd overheard us talking to each other as we approached, for he was standing on the doorstep! The fondue was great, and the service very friendly, efficient without rushing us, with Neuchâtel wine, of course, and we determined to return the following day for a raclette, bidding our host, "À demain," as we left. During our meal the rain had come and the rain had gone, but we were able to sit outside throughout because there were a couple of excellent canopies over the outside tables and it remained just warm enough for it to be a pleasant atmosphere around our fondue set.

Thursday was our last day in Neuchâtel and we were down to breakfast somewhat earlier and otherwise began our day in a similar way.  We reconvened late morning and set off to explore the city using a walking tour in a leaflet picked up from the tourist information office, discovering its thousand-year history and including a climb to the ancient castle which gives the city its name (or did when it was new!). After slogging up the hill and having a good look around the castle, as well as enjoying the views from it, we continued the tour through the main shopping street, stopping off for an ice-cream at Suchard (who else?) and finally strolling along the lakeside which is about as near as Switzerland gets to a seaside promenade!

I had found a toy and model shop and popped in to see if I could find anything useful for my Swiss-based model railway and came away with only some bridge fencing. our final excursion was to take the bus to Valangin where we had once before visited another castle with a family connection: we did not feel the need to visit the actual castle again, but the bus ride was quick and simple (and free!) and it would be nice to see the village again and to see how it had fared. We had a beer at the café where we'd had lunch on our previous visit and were pleased to see that the village seemed to be looking more prosperous than before, although, as in so much of England, the shop had closed. After all our exertions we went back to our hotel and prepared for our last evening meal, a raclette back at La Taverna. Heavy rain and possibly thunder were predicted for the evening and indeed it was very much like the previous evening but with much more and heavier rain. The meal was excellent although we did have to rein back the amount we ate and drank. We went for a short stroll along the Jardin Anglais after dinner but soon realised that the rain was restarting and so we returned rapidly to our hotel and started preparations for departure in the morning. We needed to do as much packing as we could so the we would be ready for check-out and breakfast first thing because the plan was to go home in one day.

Travelling home

On the Friday morning we took our cases down to breakfast and bade farewell to the City Hotel, using our Neuchâtel Tourist Cards for the last time to ride the trolleybus up to the station to catch the 08:34 to Geneva. We had over an hour to spare there and I did enquire about changing the tickets for the next stage to see if we could leave earlier but that would have been more trouble than it was worth and we stuck to the original plan: after coffee we made our way to the international platforms as we have done before. Unlike last time there were actually border police at the passport and customs posts on the way through to the international platforms but we saw no-one stopped as we swept through with our luggage and up to the waiting train for Lyon. This was a SNCF (French) locomotive-hauled train on which reservations were not possible and which had only half a carriage of First Class accommodation in which it was a struggle to find seats (should not have lingered over coffee ...) and we had just decided to sit together in Second Class rather than apart in First when someone offered us some seats together that he had "bagged" for friends who seemed not to have turned up. We were soon away from the lakes and into the hills of France, eventually approaching Lyon Part-Dieu where we had a short break before boarding our TGV to Paris. Here we did have reserved seats but although our agent had booked us "Club Duo" vis-à-vis seats again  on this train we found that they were together but one behind the other this time, the seats in that carriage apparently having been rearranged. Oh well, I was intending to be typing this blog most of the way in any case, so perhaps it did not matter too much, but it would have been all the same if we'd been intending to play cards with each other! The TGV got us into Paris Gare de Lyon on time and we walked through to the Metro station, with our tickets ready, to take RER Line D as usual to Gare du Nord but wherever we looked there were no signs for the direction we needed to take. We asked advice from a staff member by a barrier who advised that there was work being done on that section of line today and that we should take line A instead, changing at Châtelet Les Halles to Line B for Gare du Nord. That little bit of kerfuffle did not add much to the time taken but did add quite a bit to the stress levels as we tried to find a route that, for that day at least, did not exist!

The Gare du Nord operation of ticket, passport and security checks is nothing like as smooth and efficient as the St Pancras check and it was stressful getting through there with different ticket queues depending on nationality (why? A ticket is a ticket!) and the automatic gates were not working so we all had to queue for human checks and the issue of revised seat reservations (we had those at St Pancras, too, but the automatic gates issued them). There was only one security scan conveyor belt in use and unlike in London there are no trays so all your possessions come out mixed up with other people's, a right mess, but we all sorted ourselves out and with automated passport checks (plus one person to stamp the passports now that we are not in the EU ...) we were soon in the waiting area having a long-awaited drink. The train, another refurbished E300, started boarding on time and departed on time for the run to London. This went extremely smoothly with the usual light meal served en route and the tunnel under the sea barely noticed. Soon we were at St Pancras International and just had time to pop into Fortnum and Mason for our favourite St Pancras Blend tea before making our way to Kings Cross for our booked 20:33 train to Peterborough. Again we were served a light meal on this train (very light in our case as we did not need much after the Eurostar meal!) and arrived at Peterborough in plenty of time to take our 22:00 connection to Stamford. After all that travelling it was at this stage that it all went wrong! A road vehicle was blocking the railway somewhere near Ely and although our train home had been started back from March and was approaching Peterborough, the platforms there were full of trains that could not continue their journeys because of the blockage: in particular one train for Nottingham had no crew to take it forward and the crew was on its way by taxi from Norwich with the station staff not having been given a clue about when they might arrive ... so we had no idea when our train would be able to go. It was now 22:10 and a strike was due to start at midnight. Taxis, of course, were in short supply as these were needed to take people to destinations in East Anglia beyond the blockage, but we were fortunate to have a son living in Peterborough who was free and agreed to come and collect us by car and take us home. I have no way of knowing whether that was quicker than if we had waited for the 22:00 train to turn up (which may have been just a minute after we had given up), but it got us home and it's always nice to see our family anyway!

With all the little things that had not quite gone according to plan, this trip was more of an adventure than usual, and at times our command of the French language had been put to the test, but we really had a great time. The weather was hotter at the start than I normally like and wetter towards the end (although not too bad), but we did a lot of exploring and thoroughly enjoyed the travel. It was wonderful to be free of the form-filling and testing, too. Lets hope things continue to remain at least this simple for we have two more European holidays coming up and need to ensure that we remain vaccination-compliant for those.

Sunday, 26 June 2022

Neuchâtel via Paris and Le Locle, part 2: Le Locle and Les Brenets

Last Train to Les Brenets

International trains - that is, the trains between Besançon and La Chaux de Fonds - stop at Platform 2 at Le Locle, being the northern end of the platform face opposite the disused station building. The other end of that platform face is numbered 3 and serves the narrow gauge line to the small town of Les Brenets. This is the only place I know personally where trains of two gauges use one platform face and where such a local services is so close to international service. There is an exit up a step stairway for those wanting to go straight to the horological museum, or the few homes up that hill, but the main exit for the town, mercifully for those of us with luggage on such a hot day, is through the subway and down hill into the town centre. Indeed, since our first visit here there is now a short cable railway which took us down in a few seconds to Sidmouth Square in the centre of the town, named after Le Locle's British twin town of Sidmouth in Devon. 

From there is was a short walk to the front door of the Hôtel des Trois Rois where we were booked to stay for the next two nights. We had normally stayed at Maison Dubois itself, my wife's ancestral family home, now a B&B, but this had no space for us on this occasion, so we thought we'd give the Trois Rois a try. Its online reviews are very mixed but I have to say we were very happy with it. There was no air conditioning, but that is very rare in Switzerland anyway, and there were no tea and coffee facilities in the room, but again, there seldom is in Switzerland. The décor and general style were very 1970s (purple featuring strongly, and brown) but contrary to what we had read in reviews it was all in good condition and very clean. Staff were friendly and helpful (although few, as in a lot of places at present) and we were soon happily at home in our room on the top floor where our windows were shaded from the strongest of the sunshine by the overhang of the roof - a great place to be in the weather as its was. The hotel provided us with our Neuchatel Tourist Cards which gave us free travel within the canton from the time of issue until midnight on the day of check-out along with a sheaf of vouchers offering free admission to almost every attraction in the canton, effectively turning the entire canton into a massive holiday camp with everything included in our hotel bill.

Sunday afternoon is an unfortunate time to arrive in a small town (even one that is the canton's third largest!) because the choice of where to eat is more than somewhat restricted. The Trois Rois currently offers only breakfast (its restaurant is available to let if anyone fancies a go ...) so our often-tried technique of booking dinner at our own hotel for the first night would not work there. We went for a beer at the Casino (a cinema and restaurant rather than a gambling den) and then after a train ride to La Chaux de Fonds and back (just because we could!), we walked off round the town and discovered that, contrary to its website's information, the crêperie at the Lion d'Or was open, so pancakes it was, then! On the terrace, under a parasol. Parfait! And so to shower and bed, tired but happy.

The train to Les Brenets at the platform at Le Locle

Monday morning was just as hot and sunny. We had earmarked it for the lake cruise at Lac des Brenets and in order to leave some of the day for other things were aimed to take the 10:00 cruise departure. This outing would also be our last chance to ride the little electric train through the mountain from Le Locle to Les Brenets as it is to close next year and be replaced two years later with an electric bus service using part of the same route but then serving more of Les Brenets than the train is able to do. We took the lift up from Sidmouth Square and arrived at the platform at Le Locle station in good time to board the little train and travelled the few kilometres to Les Brenets and just as last time, we walked down to the lake shore through the village and exchanged our vouchers for tickets to ride the lake cruise. We were disappointed to see that the water was no higher than last time we came: it had been a very dry year and the people who run the boats were anticipating that within two or three weeks they would be unable to operate until the water returns next spring. Very disappointing for us, but even more disappointing for them: few tourists now, and nothing much to sell them when more begin to arrive in the summer! Even on the day we were there the 10:00 departure was cancelled due to low demand, so we went for a stroll and had coffee and caught the 11:00 instead, by which time there were still only about eight of us on board. The boat cruises the lake and the River Doubs which forms a lengthy part of the border with France but with the river so dry there is effectively no border; you can just pick your way over the boulders of the river bed. We took the easy way, though, and crossed the footbridge to France, had a brief look through the souvenir shops and returned to Switzerland to go and look at where the waterfall should have been and then took the 12:30 boat back to Les Brenets and the taxibus back to the station. It was a lovely walk through the woods (reminiscent of Dovedale in Derbyshire) and we were glad to have done it even though there was no more water in the river than last time. I took few photographs because it all looked just the same as on our previous visit. Perhaps next year or 2024 ...

Back in Le Locle we went back to our hotel, left my camera and collected our swimwear. On the edge of the town is an open-air swimming pool and we caught to bus there from the bus station near our hotel - Le Locle is a small town about the size of our home town of Stamford, and yet there are frequent local buses to every part of town all day long: you just don't get this in England. The pool was just amazing: once we had paid at the turnstile (reduced price for pensioners!) we were in a huge area typical of a town park, with a large swimming pool in one corner. The pool was divided into three: half of it was Olympic size and 2 metres deep throughout; the other half was again halved with a very deep diving pool one end (boards at 5 metres and 10 metres high!) and a shallow pool the other, only 0.8 metre. Not a frequent swimmer and not having swum for some time I was torn which pool to use - the idea of swimming 50 metres entirely out of my depth did not appeal to me: 25 metres is more my usual length before I take a rest. So I swam in the shallow pool although it was really only just deep enough for me and, of course, it was hard to swim lengths because it was popular with children who kept popping up or jumping in (or just jumping!) everywhere. No matter, it was good to cool down on a hot day. Dinner that evening was a superb pizza at the Casino.

After our sweet crêpes on Sunday evening we had resolved to return to the Lion d'Or for a savoury crêpe at Tuesday lunchtime, the crêperie, like most other restaurants in Le Locle, being closed on Mondays. Before lunch we checked out of the hotel, asking them to store our cases, and went for a long walk, beginning by taking a bus out to the edge of town and then walking through woodland up the steep slope to an agricultural settlement where there was a tenuous family connection to investigate. The footpath through the wood was marked on maps and was just about discernible on the ground but it was plain that not many people had walked this was recently and we were pleased that the knee-deep grass and plants did not include stinging nettles nor many thistles; it all added to the adventurous feel of this trip! We walked back down along a lane between farms as far as the outskirts of Le Locle where we bought chilled drinks from a supermarket before walking into town and having lunch at the Lion d'Or as planned. Then it was time to retrieve our luggage and go to the station to begin the next stage of the trip.

Actually, it was not quite that simple because after we had passed it we thought how good it would have been to have looked down from the train and seen where we had walked in the morning ... so we got off the Neuchâtel train at La Chaux-de-Fonds and caught the next train back to Le Locle (only a couple of minutes), looked out properly and stayed on board to be taken back to La Chaux-de-Fonds where this time we had to change trains to continue to Neuchâtel, emerging from the air-conditioned train once more into the blazing heat and light at Neuchâtel station.

Saturday, 25 June 2022

Neuchâtel via Paris and Le Locle, part 1: by train into Switzerland

Almost normal international travel

Since the last time we visited Le Locle we have wanted to return in the hope of seeing some water in the lake at Les Brenets and the reputedly dramatic falls on the Doubs river. We also wanted to visit Neuchâtel, the cantonal capital, where another (!) castle connected to my wife's Swiss ancestors had been identified and where the local records office is located. The revisit was delayed by pandemic precautions, but we finally took the plunge and booked hotels and travel for the middle of June 2022 and we were successful in one sense, in that by the time we left home all the travel restrictions had been dropped in the UK, in France and in Switzerland for those who are vaccinated against Covid-19. The only document we needed in addition to our passports and tickets was a vaccination certificate, available through the NHS app on our smartphones: no passenger locator forms, no test results. Although official websites still mention masks on public transport there were very few people wearing them and no-one asking us to do so: I kept a stock of high-grade masks in my case but never needed to use one.

In another sense we were unsuccessful, in that the water level in Lac des Brenets was no higher than in our  previous trip which had been much later in the year. We shall have to try again in an April! Indeed, in many ways there were little disasters all through this trip but it was still immensely enjoyable and full of delights and surprises. I am typing this paragraph several days into the adventure and it is the first time I have had the time to switch on the MacBook to do so - we have packed in so much. Until this morning (Wednesday) it has been hot, very hot, and now with light rain and temperatures "only" in the mid-twenties, it is a bit cooler and I have decided to take morning easier, sitting on the hotel balcony and writing up the adventure so far, while I can still remember it!

We left home on Saturday morning and that was when the "little disasters" began to happen! Our first train, Stamford to Peterborough, was on time, but it was very busy. As we had a lot of luggage (by our standards) we decided to stand in the spacious vestibule rather than squeeze into available seats with cases all over the place - there were seats even though several people were standing. We noticed that the train after ours was cancelled, and after that was the two-hour gap in Cross Country's "temporary" timetable. Not good, although it did not affect us, fortunately. The first little disaster was that when we went to wait in the coffee lounge at the Great Northern Hotel in Peterborough, which is what passes for the First Class Lounge there, staff shortage at the hotel meant that the lounge was unavailable. We sat in the easy chairs in the hotel lobby until it was time to go over for our train: the lack of coffee was not such a big deal because we knew we'd be served coffee on the train. The train was on time and although busy, again, we had our reserved seats and there was plenty of space on the luggage racks. The breakfast menu was still on offer but as we were planning an early lunch in London we took only coffee and a satsuma, with the biscuits and loafcake wrapped as a snack for later in the trip if required.

The second little disaster was that by Hitchin the train had slowed to a crawl: a points (and possibly signal) failure at Stevenage had caused problems and by the time we picked up speed again had lost 25 minutes which meant we were just a tad late for our midday luncheon appointment. It was, though, a great joy to see the family on our way through London and enjoy lunch together in one of the many new restaurants between the stations at Kings Cross and St Pancras. It was a very warm, sunny day and time passed all too quickly before we parted company at St Pancras as we made our way into the throng of international travellers waiting for trains to the continent. 

We were rather early and had to wait our turn to join the queue for the ticket barriers, priority being given to ticket-holders for the preceding train to Brussels. An hour before our train's scheduled departure we queued for the barrier, scanned our tickets and went through for the baggage scan - all over in a moment once we were through the barriers. I do wonder if the station is short-staffed because it seems to me that there could have been many more barriers open at such a busy time provided that there were enough security staff for the baggage scanning to keep up with the incoming passengers. In any case we were soon nodded through the vaccination pass, UK passport control and French passport control and into the waiting area. We were among the first few through, and the Brussels train was already loading so there was a huge choice of seats in the waiting area. Great.

The next little disaster was that, for what ever reason, it seemed to be taking a long time to get everyone through the checks - announcements said it was because of Covid precautions but really there weren't many - and we had been promised that the train would not leave until everyone was through, so the train left St Pancras over half an hour late. It was a refurbished E300, one of the original Trans-Manche Super Trains, and never made up any of the lost time. Normally this would not have been a big deal but on this occasion we had dinner booked at Le Train Bleu restaurant at Gare de Lyon in Paris and, taking into account that France is an hour ahead of the UK, time was a bit tight. I do not think we had ever been late on a Eurostar service before and had come to regard it as completely reliable (statistically, I think, it is 95% on time, so we are probably not alone in seeing it that way). There was the usual light meal served, and we did not consume all of it, knowing that dinner was coming soon. The buffet bar on Eurostar trains sells Paris Metro tickets in carnets of ten, so to save time struggling with the ticket machines in Paris I went and queued to buy our tickets in advance there: these would see us both ways on this and our next trip and still leave us with tickets to spare. a great investment.

On arrival at Gare du Nord we made our way swiftly to the Metro and too RER line D to Gare de Lyon. The heat was striking as we descended from the Eurostar train, and even more so on the RER station. It was on the RER train that we met the last British person we would speak to for many days, on his way to work in Italy from his home in England. Yes, things are getting back to normal! On arrival at Gare de Lyon we went straight to the restaurant to explain that we were running late and asking if we could delay our dinner while we went to our hotel to check in and change. They were really relaxed about that and said we could be as late as we wanted, they were not busy. So good; we could have been on time but would have had our luggage with us and been a sweaty heap after lugging it through Paris at 39 degrees! It was hotter in Paris than in Cairo on that day.

I had, I thought, booked the Mercure hotel next door to Gare de Lyon, but had done so through the Trains Europe agent who booked the train tickets, and he had mistakenly booked a different Mercure just a couple of blocks away, but we did not find this out until we had queued for ten minutes at the wrong hotel, which was the next little disaster! An understandable error: both hotels had "Mercure Gare de Lyon" in their names! In the event, though, once we had found the hotel in which we actually had our reservations, we were very happy with it (except that the lift had broken down and we were on the fourth floor ... next little disaster ... but the kind receptionist helped us cary our stuff up to the room). In future I shall book this hotel if we need a night or two at this side of Paris, so I was glad to have stumbled across it. But four floors up in 39 degrees I can do without! 

The room was air-conditioned (yay!) and we washed and changed and walked, free of luggage to Le Train Bleu and settled to a great dinner in great surroundings. It was all lovely, but in very hot weather my appetite is greatly diminished and in spite of the best French cooking and the relaxed (although hot!) atmosphere I could not manage the whole of my main course and declined the dessert. Alison just had to have the crêpes Suzette, though, with flaming Grand Marnier (just to add to the heat)! The staff were lovely and looked after us as if we'd been there every week! Like everywhere else, I think they were just delighted to have customers - not just because of the pandemic, but there were also major building restorations going on all around their restaurant.

And so back to our hotel and a good night's sleep with, I think, no further little disasters but an exciting day, and indeed several days ahead of us.

It was, then, Sunday morning when we returned to Gare de Lyon, calling on the way at a small Monoprix supermarket to buy take-away salads and fruit for lunch. By the time we had walked through to the correct part of the station ("Hall 2") and bought our coffee and croissants the TGV to Besançon had been announced and so we took our seats and had our breakfast on board awaiting departure. Fas at Trains Europe had done a great job with this reservation: a "club duo" pair of seats aligned with the window on the upper deck of a duplex carriage - just the perfect seating for a couple on this sort of trip. The first time we went to Le Locle we had come on this train travelling Second Class on the lower deck and it was a great experience, but this was even greater. After a suitable interval I went to the bar car to buy coffee - there did not seem to be an at-seat service on this train - and soon after coffee we arrived at Besançon TGV station where we had to change trains. 

That first time we did this we had been surprised to find that the local train waiting for us had been a through train to Switzerland which required no further changes, but this time it was as shown in the timetable, a connection to Besançon Viotte (the town's main station), where we had to change again for Le Locle. It was all very civilised and straightforward, although with temperatures still in the thirties and with luggage to handle it was as well not to rush - and we did not need to, the connections being very well timed. So we settled into our seats on this strangest of international trains: a three-car stopping train, second-class only and the only diesel-powered train we had used since leaving our local train at Peterborough, the rest having been electric throughout. No disasters this day: everything had been on time and had worked exactly as planned! We stepped off the train into the heat at Le Locle's international platform and so began the next stage in our adventure!

Well into the trip from Besançon to Le Locle, just after Gilley station. The train the turns and makes its way to Morteau, the French watchmaking town, before crossing the Swiss border to Le Locle and termination at La Chaux-de-Fonds.

Wednesday, 15 June 2022

Good times, bad times ...

 Travelling with confidence in spite of it all

It is all rather difficult. Just as I have planned and booked many new trips, both self-arranged and Great Rail Journeys packages, so the unsatisfactory labour relations in the UK railway industry has spilt over into strikes which will add to the general difficulty posed by some companies dragging their feet with rebuilding full timetabled services following the pandemic restrictions.

This blog has always looked on the bright side, though, so I shall make light of the difficulties here just as I have with making my own travel plans. The strikes are not solid walk-outs of indeterminate duration, but pre-announced specific dates, so it will often be possible to work around them, although perhaps not quite so simple where international trips are concerned, since it is only UK firms that are likely to be flexible about the issues. We shall see, if it comes to it, which, so far, I hope, it has not.

On the subject of international travel, the really, really good news is that there is no longer any Covid-19 test requirement for travelling to any of the European countries I am planning to visit, nor any locator forms to complete, which is just going o make everything so much more of a pleasure than it was last year when paperwork abounded and we lived in constant fear of not being allowed to go somewhere because we had forgotten to fill in some online form (it was nearly all online, OK for me but really tough on some people - one old couple had bought their first smartphone just to complete their passenger locator forms!). We'll need our vaccine certificates and may have to wear face coverings on trains in some countries, but that's all, and it's really not difficult to comply with that.

So we're off again soon and I've a drawer (and smartphone!) full of tickets and a file of Great Rail Journeys confirmation letters! First up is a visit to the Swiss canton of Neuchatel: we are returning to Le Locle to have what will probably be our last ride on the branch line to Les Brenets and a cruise on the lake there in the hope it will contain more water than when we visited later in the year a few years ago! We shall then go on from there to stay a few nights in the city of Neuchatel itself before travelling home via Geneva. Our outward journey is planned as a bit of a treat: we shall overnight in Paris and have dinner booked at Le Train Bleu, the spectacular art nouveau restaurant at the Gare de Lyon. I look forward to writing you my full report on that!

Later we shall take our usual short holiday in Chichester where we have theatre tickets booked as has become our tradition, before going on to Knoll House Hotel near Swanage in Dorset. All the rail tickets are booked but if there should be a strike we can do this trip by road instead - albeit rather more slowly in summer holiday traffic. We do hope to go by rail, which is so much more relaxing and includes the marvellous open-top bus ride from Bournemouth station to the hotel via the Sandbanks ferry.

Later still in the summer we visit the Atlantic coast of France, the Bordeaux region. I have never been there before and am looking forward enormously to that, and then in the autumn we return to Italy, to Rome again before travelling south to Sorrento and the Amalfi Coast. Other, shorter, trips will probably be fitted in, too, and there is much planning to do, including contingency plans to cope with strikes.

Friday, 20 May 2022

Shakespeare Adventure

Anne Hathaway's Cottage
Train Trip to Stratford-upon-Avon


I have long wanted to undertake a rail tour of the English west midlands, and Warwickshire in particular. Warwickshire has some wonderful, softly-rolling countryside and spectacularly gorgeous towns and although I have passed through by road and by rail many times I have never really stopped there. In the event this year we went not for a tour but to stay in one town which repays a decent amount of time (and money!) spent there: William Shakespeare's birthplace and burial place, Stratford-upon-Avon. The rail station is handy for the town centre and all the Shakespeare-related sites are easy to find and accessible on foot. If you get on with it, it is possible to "do" the Shakespeare stuff in one day, but we wanted a longer break and to get to know the town properly, so we booked three nights in a town centre hotel with a rough plan of what we would do, flexible enough to cope with the variable weather of an English springtime.

First I booked the hotel through, choosing the Hotel Indigo, historically and locally known as the Falcon Inn, much extended to the rear but still with a Tudor frontage on Chapel Street in the town centre. This allowed free cancellation in case of very bad weather. Then much nearer the date I booked the train tickets, Advance Standard Class tickets between our home station in Stamford and Birmingham New Street and then Anytime Standard Class tickets between Birmingham Moor Street and Stratford-upon-Avon. Advance research showed that an open-top sightseeing bus was available that would visit all the places we wanted to see and provide a commentary. River and canal trips were available and there was no shortage of places to eat and drink, including the hotel where we were staying. In addition, some friends had recommended the Edward Moon restaurant, just along the street from our hotel, and we determined to visit that on one evening.

The train to Stratford-upon-Avon

It is always exciting to get the suitcases ready and begin choosing our clothes for a trip - and much flexibility was needed on this trip because of the expected weather: one wet day but mostly warm, sunny weather, and particularly warm on the day we were to come home. I did wear a long-sleeved shirt the first day, which was not so warm, and even a tie, plus a light raincoat over my light jacket: layers, but none of them especially thick, so these could be peeled off if the day turned out warmer than expected!

So off we went to the rail station at noon with our packed lunch and boarded the train for Birmingham. It was wonderfully sunny and the raincoat saw no action after the walk to Stamford station. The refreshment trolley soon came by and we bought Prosecco to get the holiday off to a good start. What could be more relaxing than gliding swiftly through the sunlit springtime countryside with a (albeit plastic) glass of sparkling wine? This was not quite the standard of the Pullman service on our previous trip, but was more than OK and went well with the lunch we had brought.

As the train approached Birmingham it was interesting to spot the work being done to construct the new high speed line from London which would pass to the east of Birmingham with a line across to a new terminus at Curzon Street, on the site of the original city centre terminus of the London & Birmingham Railway; this line would approach the city centre parallel to our own approach from Nuneaton and Coleshill and I knew there would be sites (and sights) to see from our train. Much work had been done, and much, much more was still to be done - I look forward to following progress each time I pass this way over the next few years. I shall personally have little if any use for High Speed Two, but it is intended to free up capacity on other north-south routes for more stopping trains, so maybe I shall benefit from that - although that would be more likely if the eastern leg were still in the project plans.

In Birmingham we walked through the Bullring Shopping Centre to Moor Street station where we waited for our connection to Stratford-upon-Avon via Shirley, which was on time. Unlike our train from Stamford, this much more modern train had USB charging points for our smartphones and more detailed information displays, although I soon had enough of the announced warnings and minding the gap and getting off carefully at every stop. The countryside on this leg of the journey was leafier and hillier than on the first leg, so greener but with less to see. Once outside the city we were in the territory of tiny villages with request-stop stations and fantastically pretty farms, and then before long the train arrived in Stratford-upon-Avon and we made our way onto the platform and, navigating by smartphone, found our way to the front door of the hotel. 

The Falcon Inn (or Hotel Indigo)

It took a while to locate the reception counter which was by the back door, where the car park is, off a side street (never mind the front door, eh, only losers come on foot ...), inadequate signage and a non-intuitive route making what should have been simple into a complex mission! However, once signed in by the obliging staff we were taken to a fabulous little room overlooking the site of William and Anne Shakespeare's marital home, the New Place. Timber-framed and with lattice windows it was just the atmosphere we wanted, but with modern conveniences in including a refrigerator with complimentary fizzy drinks and bottled water as well as real milk for our hot drinks. The fridge was handy, as we had decided, given the dinners we anticipated enjoying, not to include breakfast in our booking but rather to buy items from local shops and have a light breakfast in our room. 

We went for a stroll around the town and took in the atmosphere, deciding to begin the activities in the morning at the Visitor Information Centre by the river, which was also the terminal for the tour bus. Rain was expected in the morning, so taking the tour bus may be an activity for later ... then we prepared and went to dinner as we had promised ourselves at the recommended Edward Moon restaurant: so good it was that we decided we would return for our last evening, too.

The Royal Shakespeare Company and the River Avon

We had not expected the opportunity to see a play while we were in Stratford, for they tend to book up fairly well in advance, but when we went to the Visitor Information Centre and asked about things to do on wet days we were recommended a guided tour of the Royal Shakespeare Theatre and so we did see the theatre although not a play. I queued at the box office in the theatre but although I was but third in the queue I had time to create an online account, log in and buy the tickets using my smartphone before I had even reached second place in the physical queue! Tickets safely filed on the phone we went off for coffee and found a genuine Italian deli and café not far from our hotel and had coffee and pastries there while we awaited our tour time. It was raining lightly but nothing beyond what a raincoat and umbrella could deal with, and by the time we had finished coffee the rain had stopped and we went to see Shakespeare's birthplace, having bought combined tickets from the Information Centre to cover the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust's three currently-open sites, of which this was one. The other two, Shakespeare's New Place and Anne Hathaway's Cottage, requiring some outdoor activity, were best left until the reliably dry day to follow. 

We returned to the Italian café for a light lunch and then we returned dry to the theatre. The original, Victorian, theatre had burned down in the 1920s and was eventually replaced by the present stunning art-deco building designed in a competition by Elisabeth Scott. It is the first major building in Britain designed by a female architect. The tour included the new costume department in a former scenery store across the road; this was a working theatre department and the staff were going about their business of creating costumes for forthcoming productions. 

After a mug of tea in what was now quite bright weather outside a floating café at the canal basin, we took a short boat trip from the nearby mooring, cruising along the very pleasant Avon with a recorded commentary which told us about many of the places we passed - including the theatre we had recently visited.

That evening we dined at The Woodman restaurant in our own hotel: this was a very high standard of both food and wine and was very much enjoyed: we went early and without a booking and they were just able to fit us in before a later booking, so we were fortunate to have had the chance to eat there.

Bus Tour and more Shakespeare Sites

We were waiting at the stop for the first tour bus of the next morning, in bright and sunny weather, if still a little chilly. Once bought from the driver our tickets were valid for the whole day (two-day tickets are also available) and we could join and leave the buses, which are every twenty minutes, as often as we liked. There was an interesting recorded commentary, although part of the interest lay in its having been recorded many years previously thus now being somewhat inaccurate in places! The bus wound its was through the streets of the town, most of which we had already seen, and then set off to Anne Hathaway's Cottage on the edge of Stratford and for which the multi-site tickets we had bought the previous day were valid, so we left the bus here and visited the cottage. It is actually an ancient farmhouse and much bigger than the word "cottage" would suggest. It was Anne Hathaway's home when she lived with her parents before she married William Shakespeare, and where he will have visited her during their courtship, so not only is it not a cottage, it was not hers, either, but it was her home before her marriage.

We had coffee there before leaving Anne Hathaway's Cottage and decided to walk back into town, a much shorter route along footpaths than the road which the bus had to take! We visited the parish church in Stratford-upon-Avon where William and Anne Shakespeare were both buried along with several other members of the family, inside the building just in front of the Holy Table. We also visited the site of Shakespeare's marital home (the "New Place"), demolished by a subsequent owner and now an open space with Shakespeare-related artworks and a display about his home and family in the house next-door. Worth a visit, and included in the multi-site ticket, but obviously not as informative or redolent as the buildings which are still standing.

After lunch at the Boston Tea Party restaurant, we went back for another trip on the tour bus and this time stayed on board for the whole trip around which filled in more of the Shakespeare story, including a drive by the childhood home of Mary Arden, William Shakespeare's mother, which has not yet reopened following the Covid-19 pandemic closure. It had been a lovely day, the sunshine more than making up for the drizzle of the previous morning. A few more photographs were taken, and soon it was time for our last dinner in Stratford, back at the Edward Moon.

On our last morning we checked out earlier than originally planned and caught an earlier train from Stratford-upon-Avon, having decided to allow enough time in Birmingham to eat lunch there rather than buy a picnic and eat it on the train. This worked well: we had our morning coffee in Esquires coffee shop opposite the station entrance and then travelled back to Moor Street, this time on the route via Solihull and beginning with the deeply rural single-track section to the triangular junction at Hatton and finishing in the heart of Birmingham. We walked across to New Street station to seek somewhere different for lunch and finished up at Leon with seats overlooking the station concourse. After a little time around the Grand Central shops we made our way to the platform and boarded an early afternoon train home to Stamford. Again the weather was brilliant and we were back in good time for an early tea so that I could cycle over to the Stamford Welland Academy where I joined my friends and colleagues in the Market Deeping Model Railway Club in preparing for our annual exhibition (the first in three years) which began the following morning.

Monday, 2 May 2022

Llandudno Victorian Adventure

Pullman Service Excursion Train

It had been a while since we had had the chance to travel on the Statesman train. One trip had been cancelled and then came the pandemic, but finally we booked this year the Llandudno Victorian Statesman, to visit the lovely North Wales seaside resort of Llandudno on the Saturday of their Victorian Extravaganza weekend. As usual we booked Pullman Dining Class on the Statesman, with guaranteed window table for two. On these excursions for us the enjoyment of the ride is an important part of the day out: with only four hours at the resort the time taken to get there and back really matters and on this train the Pullman Dining option provides drinks, a cooked breakfast, morning snack and a good dinner which certainly pass the time while travelling. A picnic or a snack from the buffet car would not have quite the same effect. People were amazed that we would visit North Wales on a day trip, but by rail, and especially on an excursion train, it s really easy and relaxing. If you're used to driving everywhere, yes, it must seem like a bit of a trial, but here we sat in our reclining seats, read our newspapers, enjoyed the refreshments and the sunlit countryside, followed the interesting route and arrived ready to explore Llandudno. 

The train started at Ely and was scheduled to depart from Stamford at 07:35 on a Saturday morning. Arriving at the station we fell into conversation with two other couples who both lived in nearby villages and had driven to Stamford for the train. Neither had been on a Statesman excursion before and we were able to enthuse about how good the service is, and warn them that breakfast would not be served the moment we sat down! The train arrived in Stamford on time, hauled by a pair of vintage Class 47 diesel locomotives, one in blue and one in the original two-tone green livery. Our coach, B, was near the front, and when we found our reserved seats we found ourselves right opposite one of the couples we had met on the platform - the other people were elsewhere in the same coach. Our window seats for two were at a table for four which had been set for just the two of us, so we had a large table and two spare seats - handy for our tendency to spread out our things! There is a dress code for Pullman Dining Class and I wore my Golden Arrow cufflinks and tie clip which I thought were a touch of rail travel glamour. It was good to see all the passengers making some effort to fit in, which is not always the case. No-one seemed to be dressed in Victorian costume to fit the destination, although some verged on Edwardian ...

Statesman Rail had cleverly arranged the reservations so that we were never disturbed at intermediate stops by boarding passengers looking for their seats, and the catering was provided in time to suit people's boarding (and, eventually, leaving) times. Breakfast was preceded by a refreshing Peach Bellini, standard on Statesman's Pullman Dining Class, and there was a choice of melon or porridge and then fish or English breakfast. There was a scheduled 20-minute wait in a lay-by loop at Melton Mowbray while we were overtaken by the service train to Birmingham and then we were off again through Leicester to Nuneaton where the last passengers were picked up and we joined the West Coast Main Line as far as Crewe. After a short wait at Crewe we were on the line along the Dee estuary and the North Wales coast, and travelling quite fast for a vintage train, overtaking everything on the A55 expressway until stopped at Llandudno Junction ready to take the short branch line to Llandudno. Meanwhile our stewards took the wine order for the evening meal: there was an included allowance of £21 per couple for a bottle of wine, and a number of perfectly decent wines at this price, but anyone who wanted something else from the extensive wine list could buy it by paying the additional cost. We were quite happy with French Merlot for the lamb dinner that we had noticed was on the evening menu.

As we approached Llandudno the Train Manager came and spoke to everyone in turn to ensure that we should all board the correct train home, for there were three charter trains in Llandudno that day: ours would be at Platform 3. When we arrived one other charter was already there, with carriages in the same brown and cream colours as ours (although a little older), with a pair of Class 20 vintage diesel locomotives. Before exploring the town, therefore, I had to go and photograph these engines while I had the chance (just as well, because when we returned later to take our train home this one was just pulling out). One of the locomotives was in the stunning red London Transport livery and was named John Betjeman after the poet. Then off into the town!

Llandudno station is well-located for the town centre and the beach, although we would not be using the beach today! I was keen to ride on the Great Orme Tramway and as this could not be booked in advance and was likely to be popular (not least with other people from the Statesman train) I thought we should do this first so as not to risk too tight a schedule later on when catching the train home was becoming critical. Alison had downloaded and printed a map showing the location of all the Victorian Festival attractions, and this was also a helpful guide to the layout of the town centre, but our iPhone maps were most helpful for general navigation, and we soon found the tramway terminus, Victoria Station. There was a queue, but the trams are quite commodious and it was clear that the one just arriving would take almost everyone in front of us and that we should therefore be among the first on the next departure. Although the timetable specified a tram every twenty minutes they seemed to run as soon as they filled, which must have been about twice that often. These trams seem to be cable-hauled and pass one another at a passing loop and so can only leave when both trams are ready to go. Each also has a trolley boom on the roof (well, two, actually) and there are poles alongside the track but no overhead wire: I must look up the story of this tramway and see how they are powered and why there is disused electrical kit ...

At a halfway station (called in English "Halfway Station") we had to leave our tram and board another for the rest of the trip up to Great Orme Summit, passing the winding gear for both sections of the tramline between the trams. All of the equipment at the halfway station seemed to be new: a lot had clearly been spent on renewing this Victorian transport system. We were soon on our way again, and again passed another tram at a passing loop half-way to the summit station from Halfway Station (are you still with me?). The weather, which since Crewe had been becoming murkier and windier, was now very windy, quite cold and threatening to rain. by the time we emerged at Summit Station we knew we should not be staying long! There are some walks to be taken and, we were told, some great views, but we could see none. There is a cable car up here as well as the tramway, but the cable cars were not operating because of the wind.

After a short walk round the Summit Complex (little more than a cafeteria with a long queue) and the Visitor Centre at the tram terminus, we queued briefly for a tram bound back down the hill. Once more through the Halfway Station's change of tram and again down into the town. Some amazing views of both the hilly (mountainous?) countryside and the grand sweep of the bay with its terraces of hotels are available from this steep route down from the hills and through the narrow streets. Well worth a visit. It might be even better in summer when perhaps a ride up and a walk down might be in order. 

Back in the town we walked along the seafront (did not fancy a walk on the pier: we had done our "windswept and damp" for the day) and then made our way into the shopping streets which for this weekend also doubled up as funfair: one end vintage and one end modern. We started at the vintage end, lured by the wonderful smell of hot oil from the numerous steam engines of various types, mostly showman's engines, of course. A fleet of vintage (not Victorian!) buses was providing a free bus service to another site in the town, but we did not explore this. More important after our excursion to the Great Orme was a mug of hot chocolate at Fortés! Then a final walk around the fairground, the steam engines - we even saw a steam bus - and the shops and it was time to head back to the station to get the train home. 

At the station, at Platform 3 as expected, was the Statesman with its two vintage diesel locomotives now at the opposite end ready to haul it back to Ely.  Gradually we all found our seats on board the train ready for the return journey, eagerly anticipating the delights in store. The eager anticipation was enhanced by the freshly set tables, each provided with a bottle of water and the bottle of wine that we had ordered as the train approached Llandudno on the outward journey, together the appropriate glasses for the water and the wine, and for the Champagne to be served as an appetiser before the meal. As usual for the Statesman train, the dinner napkins had been folded artistically ..

Some effort was made to match the food to the destination, and there was Welsh lamb and there were Welsh cheeses. This was a very good meal, with canapés to accompany the Champagne, a starter, the lamb main course, cheeses and a dessert.  For us, half a bottle of Merlot with a shared bottle of water lasted through the meal and was a good accompaniment to every course. Coffee and petit fours rounded it all off very nicely and we were approaching Leicester by the time we finished. I assume that passengers for Nuneaton and Hinckley were served earlier or faster than we were! Once the tables had been cleared every passengers was given a small box of chocolates to take home as a souvenir and before long, as darkness began to fall, we found ourselves on the final stretch towards Stamford station and were home before 10pm.

It had been a great day out. The weather at home had been much better than in North Wales (but it so often is!), but it was still April and at least we were spared heavy rain and extreme cold. I would recommend Statesman Rail excursions to anyone, especially if you can afford Pullman Dining Class: it is a relaxing way to see somewhere new and, as so often with any train travel, the travel is part of the fun. They run to a variety of places all through the year, with a wider selection of calling points to pick up passengers - it's an easy, although not especially cheap, way to take an adventure by train. Some of the people we met were travelling by rail for the first time and were taking this trip to see if they might enjoy a longer trip in the future. I hope they did enjoy it, and I would encourage anyone to look around and see what other touring companies have to offer, too, in the UK and in Europe. (And no, I am not paid to say any of these things: I just like to spread the word that, in my experience and opinion, leaving the car at home can actually enhance a day out or holiday.)