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.)