Monday 24 October 2022

Rome and Campania

A Tour of Italy by Train with Great Rail Journeys

When we returned from last year's Great Rail Journeys tour of Rome, Florence, Pisa, Lucca, Venice and Turin, we immediately booked up this year's Italian tour, including a couple of days in Rome and then a week based in Sorrento with trips out to many historic and picturesque places. We have made many trips both within the UK and on the European continent in the intervening year, trying to make up for time lost in the Covid 19 pandemic, but eventually the day dawned when we left for this exciting Italian adventure. We had tried to revise our Italian language skills after putting so much effort into French for Switzerland and France but I still felt somewhat rusty as I locked the door behind me and set off on a Wednesday afternoon for Stamford station to begin the trip. As it happened we had been home for just a day and two nights since returning from London: it was this trip for which DHL had failed to collect our luggage, so I drove my wife and the suitcases to the station then returned the car to the garage and walked down to join her. 

It did not start as we hoped to continue! We were already starting an hour later than planned because our preferred train to Peterborough had been cancelled, and as it turned out the next one was becoming increasingly late as we waited for it at the station. Having revised our seat reservations on the LNER train from Peterborough to London, I then had to revise them again because of the extra delay. All this alteration was achieved through LNER's smartphone app while on the move. Our tickets from Peterborough to London were included in the holiday and were open tickets, but we felt it was good to reserve seats together. We had just a comfortable interval between trains at Peterborough and then enjoyed LNER's First Class hospitality: sandwiches and hot drinks were offered, but we asked for beer and the kind hostess went and fetched it for us after she'd finished her round. We have almost always found the catering staff on the route to be really helpful in making a journey enjoyable.

In London we spent a night at the Premier Inn opposite the British Library, as so often before taking a train to the continent. After our visit to a brand-new Premier Inn the previous week, this old favourite was now beginning to look in need of some care, but it still provided a clean, comfortable night's sleep before the excitement of the coming day.

Checking out involved posting our keycard in a box by the front door, and we were off to St Pancras International station to meet Catherine, our tour manager and then to scan our tickets at the International Departures gates. Checking in for our train, the 10:22 non-stop to Paris, had just begun and as we cleared the security check and passport controls for both the UK and French border forces the train before ours was announced, so there were plenty of seats in the departure lounge. It was good to see a nice full list of departures on the screens: Paris, Disneyland, Amsterdam via Brussels; the service is certainly picking up again after the pandemic. We had breakfast there, fruit salads bought the evening before and coffee and croissant bought from the Station Pantry near our seats (I can recommend their coffee, by the way - it's the servery on the left at the far end of the waiting area as you enter it from passport control). Soon our train was called, we took our seats and the Eurostar train left from St Pancras on time.

In spite of the early hour (by now about 11:00), the light meal served on the train was lunch, with wine, rather than breakfast as I had expected, but if I changed my watch to French time it was noon which did not feel quite so strange!

We were in Paris Nord on time and were taken by Catherine to board a coach transfer to the Gare de Lyon. A TGV took us to Lyon where we stayed overnight at a hotel near Perrache station, with dinner provided, and breakfast the following morning.

Rome, Sorrento, the Amalfi Coast, Pompeii, Herculaneum and Capri

Thursday, into Italy

After bed and breakfast at Lyon we were taken by coach to Lyon Part Dieu station for our train into Italy. This was a Frecciarossa (Red Arrow) high-speed train and took us as far as Milan in "Business" Class, the middle of three First Class sub-classes on these flagship trains. There was a complimentary drink and snack, and a buffet counter was available for more refreshments, although we did not need this as breakfast was still a recent memory. At Milan we had just a short wait, at the same platform, for a second Frecciarossa to take us on to Rome. We were in the same class and with same level of service, but the train was slightly older and things were not working as well as they should have ... departure was delayed for about half an hour while a technical fault was fixed, but the fixing did not prevent most of the toilets from being out of service most of the time, turning the trip into a game of "hunt the functional loo", nor did it result in the catering staff being able to provide a full service, although it was just about enough to keep us going until dinner. It was not the ideal introduction to international rail travel for some members of the party who had never used it before, no matter how often the rest of us said that we'd never had these problems in the past. One couple spoke about finding a flight home and asked if there was an airport at Sorrento; I was the wrong person to ask, having no idea about airports nor any desire to gain such an idea unless I had to.

In Rome we walked the two blocks to our hotel, the Massimo D'Azeglio, where we had our dinner and a good night's sleep before our first full day in Italy.

Friday, Rome

We had been undecided about the included guided tour of Rome. We had done this last year and wondered whether a repeat would be worthwhile, but as it had been raining last year we decided to join the tour and were glad that we did. Seeing the staggering historic sites in bright sunshine and with a different guide highlighting different things was certainly worth doing and we learnt a lot more, partly because of knowing where we were and being able to piece together the geography of the city. We did, however, have an agenda for the afternoon and left the tour a little before it finished in order to catch the Museo Ebraico (Jewish Museum) before it closed in preparation for the Sabbath. We found the Jewish Museum very interesting. It presented the Jewish religion in way that gentiles like us could easily understand and told us the story of the Jewish community in Rome from antiquity to the present time. The museum is in the basement of the Synagogue and our visit included a brief guided tour of the Synagogue. A terrorist attack there a few years ago killed a child and hurts several people after Sabbath worship and turned a community that had once been largely sympathetic to the Palestinian cause to a much more Zionist position. The people of violence never seem to get that their actions are counter-productive: by argument and persuasion they could have had influential friends but by murder they have made influential enemies.

We had had a decent breakfast, and a coffee break during the tour of Rome, but by now lunch was overdue and we repaired to the same gelateria that we had visited last year, Giolitti, purportedly the oldest in Rome. We needed no more lunch than that. Indeed, so filling and so late it was that we needed no dinner, either!

It's All About the Lemons!

Saturday, Sorrento

We left our suitcases at the hotel and they were labelled by Catherine to be taken to our next hotel, and after breakfast we walked with everyone else the two blocks to Roma Termini station, a huge and stylish terminus, where we awaited and then boarded the Frecciarossa high-speed train bound for Salerno which took us as far at Naples. This time the journey went very well: it was more-or-less on time and everything seemed to work properly. From Naples we were taken by road coach to Sorrento and this part of the journey introduced us to the complexity of the area: the peak of Mount Vesuvius presided, now serenely, over the whole region, and there was some wonderful coastal scenery, but volcano and sea alike were constantly shrouded in mist in spite of the sunshine. There was grandeur and there was poverty, new construction and demolition. Over the forthcoming week we would get to know it all quite well.

Our coach, struggling with traffic, was a little late arriving at Sorrento and we had about half an hour to find lunch before our tour guide was to introduce us to Sorrento. She was already there when we arrived, though, and had expected to get straight on with the tour. By the time discussions had been had about this we were left with just a few minutes for the lunch we had not yet even found, let alone started. It was all fairly chaotic under the attempted leadership of the local guide who seemed too have no skill in decision-making nor in communication - mirroring the events in the British government which were a constant talking point among the participants on the tour! We did get a swift guided tour of the city centre after lunch, and it did include the promised samples of limoncello (with a resolution to return to the shop to buy some of what we had sampled), but everyone was glad to have left our guide behind and be taken to our hotel, the Majestic Palace, where we unpacked our cases as we would not be moving on again for several days.

Dinner was taken at Villa Crawford, a Christian hospitality centre a few minutes' walk from our hotel, and was very good. A bonus was the Saturday evening firework display just along the coast, presumably at Sorrento's seafront, which we could see from the glazed dining room at Villa Crawford. The walk to and from there was good exercise at the end of a day of travel.

Sunday, the Amalfi Coast

It was an early start on Sunday morning, with a coach taking us after breakfast to a little harbour at Massa Lubrense where we boarded the Minerva, which took us on a day cruise around the Amalfi Coast. The boat paused at interesting coastal scenery and historic sites and docked first at Amalfi itself where we had some time to explore. First stop as ever was for coffee, and in this case gelato, and then we walked around the town, or perhaps I should say up and down the town for it is built into a very steep hillside towering over the bay, the houses, shops and other buildings looking as if they are clinging onto a cliff face. With their colours and complexity of projections and height variations these buildings give a wonderfully chaotic appearance from a distance and feel like a vertical maze within. It must be a wonderful place to live, provided you're fit!

We rejoined the Minerva in Amalfi harbour and were taken back round the coast to Positano which we had seen from the sea on our way to Amalfi. Positano is very similar in the way it seems to cling to the cliffs and again we enjoyed a walk around this town, this time having a drink at a waterfront bar before rejoining the boat for the final leg of the cruise, back to Massa Lubrense.

All of the places we were visiting are popular tourist resorts and are well provided with facilities for visitors at typical tourist prices, and occasionally they become very busy. They are not for everyone, but they are popular for a reason and we loved visiting all these places. If you're looking to get away from the crowds to a quiet place, then such a trip is not for you: we do do such trips but this was not one of them. We relied on the boats, the restaurants and the trains and you don't get these if you're one of only a handful of visitors in a summer! But we saw some beautiful coastline and some amazing coastal towns the like of which we have never seen before. On the way back to Massa Lubrense we passed the island of Capri, which would figure later in our week's itinerary.

Dinner that evening was at a rather special pizzeria where we were shown and taught how to make the perfect pizza dough and then chose the topping for the pizzas we were to eat - they did not make them with the dough we had just made, though, for it has to prove for a day before use. Wine was served with the pizzas and it was a lovely rounding off to what was the busiest day of the tour.

Monday, Herculaneum

On the Monday morning we were taken by road coach to Herculaneum (Ercolano), one of the towns estroyed by the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in AD79, the deadliest volcanic eruption in European history. Herculaneum had been rapidly overwhelmed by a pyroclastic flow from the volcano while its people were gathered in boathouses behind the beach awaiting rescue. The intense heat killed them instantly and buried them and all that they had in a thick, hot, custard-like mud which preserved most of it just as it was. Timber scorched and charred but remained largely in place and the interior decor of the buildings was preserved by the exclusion of air by the dense coating of mud. Once set, the coating of volcanic mud became like mortar and so when the town was discovered in the 18th century the work of excavation was extremely slow and difficult. Much has since been done both to recover what is there and to interpret it to visitors, but much will remain buried because it is underneath modern Ercolano which makes excavation difficult at best and probably impossible. It is well worth seeing; it helped me that some time ago I had seen a TV programme about the disaster and had a rough idea in my mind of what had happened and what I could expect to see.

For lunch the coach took us on to an agriturismo, a working farm that also provides facilities for visitors and sells its produce on the farm. It was a farm unlike any other I have ever seen, on a steep hillside and occupying quite a small area but very intensely productive. The coach was unable to descend the steep and narrow road to the farm, but a couple of shuttle buses awaited us on the roadside to take us down and then bring us back after the lunch and demonstrations. We were served lunch (again with wine; they do seem to drink a lot of it in this part of Italy!) and then were shown how the cheese we had eaten (mozzarella) was made. We were then taken to another shed and shown how limoncello is made and after a little sampling we bought a couple of small bottles to take home.

The farm also produces olive oil, which they store in repurposed beer bottles! They try to be an organic, environmentally-responsible farm, but I am not sure about standards of animal welfare on such a small farm on such difficult terrain. Still, an interesting visit and good to see an effort being made.

Dinner was at Villa Crawford again that evening. No fireworks this time, but another great meal.

Tuesday, Capo di Sorrento

Tuesday had no included activities and we were free to plan our own day. We had thought of visiting the national archeological museum in Naples where the discovered artefacts from Herculaneum and Pompei were displayed but consulting the internet revealed that it was not open on Mondays or Tuesdays, so we put that plan back to the next free day and decided to explore our local area instead, beginning with a walk into Sorrento from our hotel in Sant Agnello, about a kilometre or so. We took a route through quieter streets near to the sea, and although the hotels and villas obstructed the view of the sea for much of the time we had splendid view of the town and its harbour from one clifftop. We were soon in the town centre where we had met our guide on the day we arrived, and we had coffee at the same place where we had lunch that day. We walked around the town, amazed at the underlying landscape which includes a deep ravine leading down to the harbour - we would see this in close-up on Friday when we came to take the boat for Capri.

After this exploration, guided by reviews on the internet we visited a gelateria near the railway station and sustained by this set off on an adventure to find the ruins of a Roman palace at the tip of a promontory at the edge of the town, Villa del Capo di Sorrento, "Bagni della Regina Giovanna". We began with a bus from the road above the station, just a short walk from where we had the gelato: this saved us having to walk the winding main road with minimal footpaths. The availability of bus route and departure information on smartphone apps has transformed our ability to get around in strange places: even the Maps app that is included in the iPhone operating system these days has sufficient functionality for navigating local bus services. From the bus stop there was a long, mostly downhill walk to the Villa, and we often passed people coming the other way in swimwear, and/or carrying towels or just very wet; when we arrived at the Capo we saw many people, presumably mostly local, sunbathing and swimming, including some who were swimming back to the boat at anchor a few metres from the rocks. There were stern warnings to follow the path around the headland and we did our best to do this, and in one place were diverted through the Roman villa because of a rockfall. We saw lizards and even a snake basking in the sunshine; I have no idea what variety of snake it was but we gave it a wide berth, just in case. 

We are used to Roman ruins in the UK, of course, and if this one had been in England it would have been a major conservation project and quite famous, but here there are so many: it was signposted from the highway and there was an information board there (in English as well as Italian), but nothing else.

Walking back up to the road we were glad to find that the bus stop for the Sorrento direction had a seat. We had about ten minutes to wait until the next bus back to town and were soon joined by a handful of other passengers, falling into conversation with an American father and son who had asked for our advice about the bus service; they had walked up from the town but had not enjoyed the lack of sidewalks.

Back in town we looked around some more shops, bought some gifts from the limoncello shop we had visited on the first day in Sorrento, and then sought somewhere for dinner, choosing to eat at "AZZ" which was offering a fixed-price lasagne and wine deal. Perfetto! From there a fast walk back to the hotel helped to dispel the day's diet of gelato and pasta ...

Wednesday, Pompei

Having arrived in Sorrento by road coach, on Wednesday we finally got to use the trains we had seen and heard passing our hotel. The group walked to Dell Agnello station, just two blocks away, and the narrow gauge Circumvesuviana railway and waited for the Campania Express for our day trip to the ruins of Pompei. There are two types of train operating on this line: the frequent Circumvesuviana trains, some local, some semi-fast, between Naples and Sorrento, and the Campania Express trains which are faster and considerably more expensive (and so far less crowded) but operate only four times a day. Our tickets were for the Campania Express and as we waited at the single platform of our local station we saw one of the usual trains, jam packed, on its way to Naples and thought the extra money well worth it. 

Eventually our train came in on its way towards Sorrento at about the time it was supposed to have left Sorrento and be picking us up to go the other way. The train manager suggested we board it, although going the wrong way, because we would be able to sit in relative comfort rather than stand in the sun. We took this advice and sat waiting at Sorrento while the crew fixed a problem with the train door: this will have been what caused the later running, and repairing it was making it later still, but eventually we left and had a good ride to the station at Pompei Scavi, the excavation. In spite of the considerable supplement for travelling on the Express, it was not exactly Pullman Class, with hard seats and no carpets, but it was cool and we did all get a seat. Access was restricted to one door so that tickets could be checked on boarding to ensure everyone was entitled to use the train. It looked just like the others, with no headboard or branding, so the train manager stood by the one door shouting, "Campania Express" at every stop.

The visit to the excavated city at Pompei was all you might expect. Unlike the pyroclastic flow which had encased Herculaneum in thick, hard material, Pompei was covered in volcanic ashes which preserved it in a different way and had made it easier to uncover. There was also a larger area available to excavate, and it was a larger town anyway. This was a wealthy town and there were fine buildings and big houses. Some of what we learnt overlapped with what we had heard at Herculaneum, but much did not. We saw homes with their impluvia for collecting and storing rainwater, their triclinia for dinner parties and courtyard gardens; we visited the baths and a theatre, and, as at Herculaneum, a selection of shops. The forum at Pompei was large, with a couple of temples and the basilica (a courthouse in Roman times, not then a church). Again, some buildings were simply conserved, a few were restored to give an impression of what they would have been like in their day. For many of the group I think this was the highlight of the holiday, but by the end of our guided tour most of us had been on our feet for long enough and we went straight to the cafés and restaurants for lunch and then off to the station for the Campania Express back to Sant Agnello. After some time to relax, shower and change we walked out to dinner once more at Villa Crawford.

Thursday, Napoli

On Thursday, the other "free" day, we went with another couple from the group to the National Archeological Museum at Naples. We caught the same Campania Express train as on the previous day, but this time it was more-or-less on time, and at Napoli Garibaldi station, keeping our possessions close to ourselves in response to the signs warning of pickpockets, we made our way to the Metro and bought tickets for the one-stop ride to Cavour on Line 2, the quickest way of getting to the museum. With coffee at a street kiosk with seating we were soon on pour way into the museum. The Herculaneum and Pompei displays are on the top floor and as well as showing some of the items found in the ruins of the two cities there is a scale model of Pompei as it now is and a video explaining the disaster and showing what it had probably been like. We had lunch at the museum restaurant, which was very good.

I left the others to study other things at the museum and went for a walk around the city to see what it was like. I must say I was not impressed. I never came across a streetscape that I liked; everywhere was untidy, dirty and unattractive, with rubbish bins, often surrounded by rubbish, simply standing in the street. The traffic was heavily congested and drivers impatiently sounding their horns almost continually. Naples must be the only city in Europe which looks better with cruise liners in its docks. On top of the pickpocket warnings and the low standard of the Circumvesuviana trains the whole place has the atmosphere of film noir - like Gotham City in the darkest Batman films. When I was buying Metro tickets for the return journey a clear attempt was made to steal my credit card but I try to be aware of my surroundings and take all the precautions I can, ignoring attempted distractions, and managed to avoid any loss. It was a close-run thing and quite scary. 

The museum had been good. The city in which it is located will not be getting another visit from me, though. It was a relief to get on the good old Campania Express with its friendly crew and be taken back to Sorrento - we stayed on to the terminus there and had dinner in the town centre, this time a pizza so enormous that even though I had been hungry when I got there I was unable to get near to finishing it. Coffee and back (on foot) to our hotel room for a good night's sleep after washing away the dust of Naples.

Friday, Capri 

The cruise to Capri was one of the activities on this tour that I found most exciting in prospect, and in retrospect it lived up to expectations. We began with a coach ride down to the harbour in Sorrento, into town and down through the narrow ravine that would split the city but for the many bridges that cross it. There we were taken to the fast ferry that took us over the strait to the island of Capri. Each of us had a return ticket for the funicular railway to the higher part of the island. We opted to have coffee by the harbour while the queue for the funicular dissipated a little and then we rode up to the top station, by a little town square. From there we walked up to the peak at which is the ruin of Villa Jovis, a palace of Emporor Tiberius, now surmounted by a church with a stunning modern statue, of Mary, on a column.

Capri, once away from the busyness of the quayside, is a beautiful island. One can hardly call it "unspoilt" in the conventional sense because it is fairly densely populated, but the human hand has been kind to Capri and the built environment is in itself beautiful, as if the town were within a huge garden. Where we walked there were no proper roads, just narrow pathways which we shared with occasional small electric vehicles making deliveries.

Not only was Villa Jovis interesting (yet another Roman palace ...) but the views from it were stunning, back to the Italian mainland, and in particular to Sorrento and the tip of the Sorrentine peninsula where we had passed by boat on our way to Amalfi and Positano earlier in the week. On the way back down we called at a bar beside the way for a drink and a snack, and then farther down the hill the almost compulsory gelato! We explored more around this upper part of the island and then, as the time to leave drew near we took the funicular back down to the quayside and explored the harbour a little before meeting the group and boarding our booked boat back to Sorrento. 

Our dinner on Friday evening, the last of the Sorrento evenings, was at a restaurant in town, o'Parrucchiano, apparently in the premises of a former seminary. This was a particularly excellent meal in relaxed surroundings and with a chance to say thanks to Catherine for her leadership during the whole tour. 

And so to bed, our main cases packed ready for sending home by courier the following morning while we start the journey back to the UK.

Saturday and Sunday, the journey home

After an unhurried breakfast and taking of our overnight case we were taken by road coach to Naples (well, you wouldn't want to rely on the timekeeping of the Campania Express when you've a Frecciarossa to catch!), and then boarded our high speed train to Turin, via Rome, Florence and Milan, the way we had come. This train changes direction three times on this part of its route, so "facing or back to direction of travel" is a rather meaningless concept! As we neared Turin, so the Alps came into view, competing for altitude with the clouds.

We were picked up from Turin Porta Nuova station by coach and driven to the Lingotto hotel. At a fairly busy time this took a little while, although travelling alone I would do this on the Metro in about ten minutes: with a group this would have been difficult to organise. The hotel is located in the former Fiat factory and very proudly tells its history. It was also well-appointed and comfortable, so it was a great pity we were there only one night, entirely in the dark. Maybe I'll have to visit Turin again one day and enjoy it properly. Dinner was at the hotel dining room, but breakfast had to be taken before the breakfast room opened on Sunday morning, for we had to leave before dawn to be taken to Turin Porta Susa station (much quicker on a Sunday morning!) to take the TGV to Paris. The hotel provided coffee pots and a packed breakfast, some of which I ate in the reception area and some of which was taken later, at normal breakfast time, on the train.

This was a brilliant ride through the Alps, although rather slow until well into France where we joined the high speed line to Paris. Near us on the train under a blanket snoozed a young lady whom I met at the buffet counter later. She had boarded the train even earlier at Milan, having travelled there from Rome: no wonder she was snoozing. It was a lengthy journey during which much of this post was written, but there was a decent buffet service and it was a very enjoyable journey. Some slept after their early start, I think.

In Paris we were taken across town to Gare du Nord for the Eurostar train back to London. This was quite a quick transfer on a Sunday and we had bags of time at Gare du Nord. We bought a salad lunch from a small supermarket at the station before checking in for the train. I never find the ticket, passport and security checks at the Paris terminal go half as smoothly as in London, and one officious young woman, having told me to empty my pockets before going through the metal detector, raised her voice to me and repeated the instruction after I had passed her (because I had already emptied them and so could not comply), so I raised my voice to her in order to tell her so. In retrospect I might have added that she ought to have said, "please," as well. The policeman standing by the scanner smiled as he said I need not remove my watch ... It all adds to the fun of travel, but so would polite. smiling, pleasant security staff. It is almost as if they expect 99% of passengers to be terrorists.

We ate our purchased salads as we awaited the boarding of our train, the last we would take as part of the group. This saw us through to the light meal served on board as we approached the Channel Tunnel. Watches adjusted we emerged into early-evening Kent and soon under the Thames into Essex as darkness fell. Then we were in the tunnel under east London (where only a couple of weeks earlier we had been sampling bagels!) and it was time to pack away my MacBook and say fond farewells to those with whom the adventures of the last ten days had been shared. 

Across the road at Kings Cross, LNER trains to Peterborough were not quite as thick on the ground as on a weekday but we waited a while over a cup of tea in the First Class lounge and took a Newark train which had plenty of space for us and enjoyed a last drink and nibble to round off the holiday. This train did not make a good connection for Stamford and we decided to take a taxi home as the cost could be offset by not buying two single train tickets nor taking a taxi home from Stamford station, so although it did cost us more it was not as much more as it might seem at first thought. I had decided when booking the holiday to ask for UK rail tickets only from and to Peterborough since that is substantially cheaper than all the way from/to Stamford and we do not need First Class on that short extra stretch: further, on those occasions when we can use a bus, we no longer have to pay for it at all!

And so home. Some washing to do, but not much because most of it is with DHL, to be delivered to us next week. I don't think I shall be needing my shorts and short-sleeved summer shirts before then ...

Thursday 13 October 2022

Adaptable Travel Plans

More Strike Dodging in London

800 Years of the Franciscan Third Order 

I had long been committed to a day in London on Saturday 8th October. It was the nearest weekend date to St Francis' Day, 4th October, in the year that the Third Order of the Society of St Francis is marking eight centuries since St Francis founded an order for those who wanted to follow his principles of Christian living while living an ordinary family and working life. Each year members of the order renew their lifetime pledge on or near 4th October, and for this special year it was decided that where possible we would meet for this purpose in larger numbers at four national venues rather than in our local groups and areas. For me, the most convenient cathedral was Southwark, on the South Bank of the River Thames near London Bridge.

Grandparent Duty

Before I'd had a chance to buy train tickets for a day in London, my wife and I were recruited by our son to look after our grandchildren in London while he and his wife went abroad for a short holiday, and our time in London would include my day at Southwark - and the children would go to a concert with Granny and her sister that day. It all fitted perfectly, and on the weekdays when the children were at school, we would have time to explore London, again.

Before booking our tickets I was at a Franciscan meeting and booked tickets on behalf of five other members of the order who would be travelling from Kettering on 8th October, and within ten minutes of paying for the tickets the news came through that the next rail strike had been called for that day ... here we go again!

Nevertheless ...

I advised my Franciscan brothers and sisters that there was no need to cancel their travel plans yet and as soon as East Midlands Railway came up with their strike day timetable it was clear that the day could go ahead, albeit with slightly altered timing. For ourselves I was also confident that we could travel, although there was also a strike planned for the day we were to arrive in London and collect the grandchildren from school after their parents' departure, but to give the whole family peace of mind we arranged to travel a day early and check into a nearby hotel so that our presence was guaranteed. On the Saturday my sister-in-law was able to travel to London early enough with Thameslink and return on her planned LNER service after the concert and lunch with the children. 

After All That, A Great Few Days in London!

We set off from Stamford on the 17:55 Cross Country train to Peterborough which connected neatly into the 18:30 train for London Kings Cross. Having booked it on the day I booked Standard Class this time, which, normally being able to book well in advance, I seldom do. Standard Class on LNER's "Azuma" trains is very comfortable in my opinion: the main thing is that there is plenty of legroom. A corollary of the extra space is that the seats are rather thinner than anything before and some say that this makes them too hard, but I have not found them so myself.

We decided to try out the "Eat at Your Seat" service, even though I could actually see the buffet counter from where I was sitting, and we ordered a can of Hop on Board ale and two glasses. It's quite a complex system but it works very well: orders obviously go to a central point somewhere and are then relayed to the buffet counter on the train where a member of staff prepares the items and then brings them along. The train was not especially busy (even on the eve of a strike day) and the hostess who brought us the drink was able to chat with us. When she heard about the difficult day we'd had (don't ask ... it's enough to know that a luggage collection for a forthcoming long journey never happened in spite of a day of frantic phone calls), she disappeared into the First Class section for a moment and returned with a gift of more ale and some crisps and cake - the refreshments we would normally have had when travelling First Class. How very kind, and typical, I might add, of LNER staff.

We arrived on time at Kings Cross, and having had to travel so late (because of the phantom luggage collection!) we took the Underground straight to dinner with the family and then went along later to our nearby hotel for the night before our duties began. We were staying at a brand-new Premier Inn at Hammersmith, very handy and the usual Premier Inn standard, although the air-conditioning in our room was not working properly when we arrived and although the staff kindly fixed it, it was a while before our room was cool enough. Nevertheless, we'd recommend this place for anyone needing a room in west London. We did not have breakfast here, but waited until we knew the children had been taken to school and then went on to our son's home and had breakfast there, saying farewell to them and leaving our luggage as we set off for our first London day. The idea had been to leave them in peace to say goodbye to their children, then we would meet the children from school later - just as we'd have done if we had travelled on the day.

Although staying in west London, much of our expected activity was to be in east London, and we began on the Wednesday with a visit to the newly renovated and extended Museum of the Home, formerly known at the Geffrye Museum, at Hoxton. We took the Hammersmith & City Underground line to Liverpool Street and a bus from there which took us almost to the front gate - although unfortunately the front gates were closed because high winds made the trees on the garden a bit of a risk, so we had to retrace our steps and then go round to the rear entrance, which is actually now the main entrance anyway. First we had coffee (naturally, we were well into the morning by now!) and then visited the museum at some length: there is much more here now than there was, although the "rooms through time" exhibit showing the changing lifestyles of middle class families through the furnishing and decor of their living space remains central, and fascinating. To me as a non-Londoner the stories of various different modern immigrant families were probably the most interesting aspect of this museum, especially in the context of a museum accommodated within a building financed in large part by the slave trade. I like the way it makes no secret of that foundation and seems to have found a way of coming to terms with it: we cannot change the past no matter how evil some things have been.

It's All About the Bagels

The next day we visited the Museum of London, travelling again by Underground as far as Barbican this time. We have been there several times before but wanted to return one more time before it closes for a while for its move to new, larger and historic premises at Smithfield, where it re-opens in 2026. There was not a lot to see that we had not seen before, although these places always change a bit over time and memories fade so return visits are always a good thing, and there was also a display about the forthcoming move which was worth seeing. Lunch was a short Underground ride and a walk away in Brick Lane, Bethnal Green, at one of two beigel shops just a few doors away from each other. I had always wondered why my mother-in-law, brought up in Bethnal Green, persisted in calling bagels "beigels" and now I knew why: it appears to be a quasi-official East End word for bagel. Anyway, today we had ours from The Beigel Shop which claims to be Britains first and best, one salt beef with mustard and gherkin and one soft cheese and smoked salmon. 

On Friday we visited shops in Oxford Street seeking a black suit for me (I seem to go to a lot of funerals these days ...) but I am going to have to order it on line, I think. We arrived by Central Line at Tottenham Court Road station and left at lunch time on the new Elizabeth Line from the same station, changing at Whitechapel to the London Overground (this stretch is the former East London Section of the Metropolitan Line) to Shoreditch High Street in order to return to Brick Lane - now that we knew whereabouts in Brick Lane we needed to be - to try bagels from the other shop, Beigel Bake. The queue was even longer than the previous day at The Beigel Shop. Both shops have queues at mealtimes, and both open every day, all day, without exception (presumably as takeaway food shops they even remained open during the lockdowns, but I imagine the queues at 2 metre spacings must have occupied the whole street!). We bought the same types of beigels as from the other shop so as to compare them, but forewent the mustard on the salt beef this time. After lunch we strolled through Bethnal Green and popped into St Matthew's Church, completely rebuilt after being destroyed by the extensive bombing of the area in the Second World War, then travelled back west by Underground Central Line from Bethnal Green as far as Holborn from where we walked to Covent Garden to buy some gifts from the London Transport Museum Shop and then off to collect the grandchildren for their dinner.

Saturday was my day at Southwark Cathedral. I met my sister-in-law from her on-time Thameslink train at Kings Cross and brought her back "home" and then we all set out together via Hammersmith on the District Line, with the children, Granny and great aunt getting off at Sloane Square for their concert at Cadogan Hall while I stayed on the train to Monument from where it was a short walk across London Bridge to the Cathedral. The highlight of the day for me was a talk from Thomas Vellacot, CEO of WWF in Switzerland, on the urgent need to be more aware of the environmental catastrophe currently overtaking the world. He had come by train from his home in Zurich, aware that flying was a major contributor to that catastrophe. There are many little things we can do to contribute to conserving the world, but it is useless to do these unless we attend to the big things, notably burning far less fossil fuel and destroying far fewer habitats: washing hotel towels less often is fine, but in itself far, far too little! At lunchtime I went to the famous Borough Market to buy something to eat and ... one stall without much of a queue was, believe it or not, a Brick Lane Beigel stall! So for the third day in a row I had a Brick Lane Beigel for lunch, soft cheese and smoked salmon this time. I do not need another bagel now for a very long time.

There was a bit of an issue with signalling on the District Line in the afternoon as I was going home to west London, affecting all the sub-surface network and therefore also affecting Granny and the children going home from escorting auntie to Kings Cross. With no District trains shown in the departures display at Monument I took the first Circle train with a view to changing at Edgware Road where, if my hunch was correct, I'd have to wait a while and finish up on the train carrying the rest of the family. That is more-or less how it worked out, although I had not anticipated that their train would be diverted onto the Circle Line and we'd all be waiting there together for the next Hammersmith and City train home. All a bit of an adventure, really! I never mind that sort of delay when there is a work-round. It is when I do not know how long the delay will be and do not have the information to inform a decision about what to do that I begin to be concerned. 

On Sunday I walked to church while the grandchildren baked biscuits with Granny and then Mum and Dad arrived from their holiday and we all had lunch together at a new pub-restaurant, The Broadcaster, at Wood Lane, adjacent to the former BBC Television Centre. Then we picked up our luggage and booked Standard Class LNER tickets using the excellent smartphone app and set off for Kings Cross. LNER delivered us to Peterborough with their customary efficiency, and the train for Stamford was also running to time on this occasion and we were soon home and unpacked. The next, rather more exciting, adventure would not be far into the future, though!

Saturday 8 October 2022

Some Practical Little Journeys

Train trips to events official and personal

Sometimes I travel for fun, sometimes because I have to be in other places to do things of varying importance. Either way I always try to travel by train or bus whenever I can (or walk or cycle for short journeys), for all sorts of reasons I have been through elsewhere in this blog. 

Recently I have taken a trip to Lincoln for an event at the Cathedral where our Acting Bishop wanted to thank those of us who continue to provide ministry in our retirement. The value of retirement ministry was illustrated when I arranged a meeting in Lincoln on the same day, planning to go straight from the meeting to the cathedral service, which was followed by a sandwich lunch (I walked in to the service just as the Bishop was starting it!). Fitting in the meeting before an 11:00 event meant that I had to leave Stamford much earlier than usual. It was tempting to drive, but I had so much I wanted to get done and driving the car seems such a waste of time even though theoretically it would get me to Lincoln nearer to the time of my meeting and in less time, and would enable me to leave whenever I wished. The ability to get things done won out, though, and I booked train tickets to leave Stamford on the 06:57 after a hurried breakfast.

This gave me a simple connection into the 07:31 East Midlands Railway service to Lincoln via Spalding and Sleaford. I said Morning Prayer on the train to Peterborough and then worked the rest of the way, partly on preparation for my meeting and then making my way through a rather full email inbox - retirement has not stood in the way of busyness! I arrived in Lincoln in plenty of time before my meeting and had a cup of coffee at the Grand Café at the bus station before taking a bus up the hill to my meeting.

I had a good time catching up with old friends and making new ones over the lunch after the cathedral worship and then it was time to walk back down to the station. I had booked Anytime tickets and had seats reserved on a 15:27 departure, but was ready to leave well before then. There was a LNER Azuma standing at the station bound for London with a stop at Peterborough, so I boarded that and was taken smoothly and swiftly back to Peterborough, this time via Newark and Grantham. The reason this train was not shown as an option for travel to Stamford is that it would have connected with the one westbound train per day which Cross Country is presently not running between Peterborough and Stamford: a "Covid Keep" I'd rather lose! There is now a much better service than ever between Peterborough and Lincoln, but it is of limited value to Stamford people because of the gaps in the timetable, one each way, on our local line. Anyway, it worked for me because I knew there was a bus that I could use to fill the gap, and being old enough for free bus travel it did not cost me anything - but it did not leave until just before the train, if running, would have arrived in Stamford, and it was very much slower than the train. Still, it worked and I was still home in reasonable time and had had a good day's work and play.

The other recent short trip was to Nottingham with my wife to attend the funeral of an old acquaintance. Again it was tempting to take the car but in the end we decided to travel by rail which would allow flexibility to have drinks with friends afterwards if appropriate and to travel together for part of the way back with those from farther away whom we knew to be travelling by rail. Getting there turned out to be much quicker than anticipated: our train to Leicester was on time, but the services from there to Nottingham were running just a touch late, two or three minutes, which made it just possible, if we hurried, to get a connection half and hour earlier than planned, and it was also a quicker train, non-stop to Nottingham. We had planned plenty of time in Nottingham for coffee and a tram to the church for the funeral, but after the coffee we actually had time to walk to the church, and even to take a detour through the arboretum which was rather pleasant, and still be in plenty of time. We met one friend there, and another couple arrived a little later on a train from London.

Afterwards, when memories had been exchanged over food and drink we made our way back. This time we joined our three friends on the tram which took us straight to Nottingham rail station. One was taking a Cardiff train from there, and the rest of us boarded the next train for London which was calling at Leicester. There we left our London friends and awaited the train home. There was almost an hour to wait, so we left the station and enjoyed a cocktail (buy one, get one free!) at The Merchant of Venice, the Shakespeare-themed Italian café-restaurant almost opposite the station, which is rapidly becoming our usual stopping place in Leicester. Trains between Leicester and Stamford are not especially quick, the route being a "pasting together" of what remains of several former branch lines, but it is a useful line and they are fast enough for our purposes. Again, they suffer from the gaps in service that I mentioned above, but for us these do not matter on this part of the route because we never travel out in the afternoon or home in the morning: it is when we are going out towards Peterborough or Cambridge and returning in the afternoon that the gaps are an inconvenience. Perhaps when the strikes are over and people have the confidence to travel again (and Cross Country employs enough drivers!) the full timetable will operate once more and we'll be able to travel when and where we like.

Thursday 6 October 2022


A Surprise Party in London

Some months ago I helped a relative to arrange a "birthday bash," as she called it, which happened about a month ago. Celebrating a round-numbered birthday, she wanted to take a group of six female relatives and friends to London for the day, with lunch on a river boat and then a show at a West End theatre. I said I could book those things for her and if we could settle on definite travel times she could easily afford to take the group on LNER in First Class on Advance tickets. They were not seasoned rail travellers (which is why I was making the arrangements for them, I suppose!) and accustomed neither to advance booking nor first class travel. After a lot of online browsing, especially for lunch trips on the Thames, I was able to make all the bookings for them. It was to be a September Saturday and it was some time before evening tickets for the return leg of the train journey became available, which was slightly unnerving when everything else had been booked and paid-for. I was also very nervous about the river trip because it was booked through a third-party website which was not really up to the job. For example, you could only book up to six places and I needed seven, so I had to book three and four; then one bunch of tickets did not arrive (it was all emailed) so I had to telephone and they were resent ... and there were several other issues too boring to detail now, but it did mean I spent some time praying that the women would get their lunch.

The chosen show was "Six!", about the wives of King Henry VIII. This was at a theatre near Charing Cross, and the river boat departed from and arrived back at Tower Pier, so travelling between them on the District Line was easy, and likewise straightforward Underground journeys were available from and back to Kings Cross, and I advised them to take contactless credit or debit cards to travel by Underground. All was in place and I agreed to be available by telephone in case any advice were needed. It should have been OK, though, because my wife was one of the guests and knew London well, and when we were last there we had deliberately visited Tower Pier and checked on where the relevant riverboat should be docked on the day - Tower Pier is quite a complex pier with several moorings for many different boat services.

A few weeks before the trip one of the rail unions announced the date of the trip as a strike day which was bit of a pain but I advised the party-goers to wait to see what services would be run. It would not be impossible to continue the day, albeit with some adjustments and with less contingency time than I'd normally allow. In the event the death of Her late Majesty Queen Elizabeth II led to the strike being cancelled but also the introduction of the possibility of London being jam-packed with people visiting her body lying in state. At that stage it could even have been the day of the funeral for all we knew. Theatres helpfully announced that they would continue their programmes but with a minute's silence, so that was OK, and none of the organisations involved had written to cancel anything, so the trip was back on, exactly as planned with slightly more nervousness about the arrangements because of the possibility of crowded transport and streets.

A couple of days before the trip we had a phone call. One of the invited friends had caught Covid and was unwell so she had to pull out. All was paid-for and so I was invited to take her place. I was cautious about accepting a place on what was essentially a girly day out, and yet it was (a) a pity to waste the seventh ticket and (b) probably not a bad idea in the circumstances to have me along for technical assistance. In any case I'd enjoy the train ride and the lunch, and the show was pretty good, too, although not something I'd have chosen, but as an unexpected gift it was great. I now know slightly more about Henry VIII and have resolved to study that period a bit more ... Three of the ladies were family anyway, including my wife, and the other three were friends whom I had not met before, and I had a great day and am very grateful for having been included.

The day began with us all meeting at Peterborough rail station by car: weekend car parking at the station is reasonably-priced and several of the party lived some way from the railway. I drove so that I could pick up the birthday girl on the way and I could easily forego intoxicating drinks for long enough to drive her and ourselves home afterwards.

Our LNER Azuma train from Peterborough to London was on time and our reserved seats gave us a table for four, a table for two and one seat behind that, which I took, being a "reserve" guest! On this train the simplest complimentary menu was being served which provided us with a good light breakfast to start our day. For most of the party this was their first experience of First Class train travel and I was so pleased that it all went well for them. 

We were soon at Kings Cross station in London and made our way to the Underground station. I don't know what local people consider the best way to the Tower from Kings Cross, but for this party I had recommended using the Circle Line: it is a long way round for a short journey but it is simple and requires no change of train nor a long walk. Arriving at Tower Hill Underground station we walked around two sides of the Tower to access the pier and with plenty of time in hand stopped for coffee at one of the many coffee shops nearby. I strolled down to the riverside to check things over while the ladies finished their coffee and was fortunate to see Tower Bridge open to allow a sailing vessel to pass through, and I just managed to take a photograph as the bascules began to fall ready to allow road traffic to cross - no time to take up a good position or to adjust the zoom, but I got the photograph - it is the one at the head of this post.

The time came to make our way to the pier: the company asks customers to arrive in plenty of time to get everyone aboard before departure. To my great relief there was a man with a clipboard inviting people with lunch booking to come to him and be directed to the right mooring for the trip, and when we reached the front of the queue there seemed to be some confusion about the size of the party, with the crew wondering if there should be three more of us. I am sure this had something to do with the glitch on the website and one bunch of electronic tickets failing to arrive and having to be reissued. Whatever, the birthday girl was invited aboard to choose tables for the seven of us and we were all duly seated and the boat trip was under way. I bought a bottle of sparkling wine to share, opened and poured in a bizarre, behind-the-back manner by our young waiter, presumably to entertain (or impress?) the ladies. It was a good start to the meal which was served efficiently but with a friendly, personal service which I think would be hard to beat, and for mass-catering (this was a large boat) was of an excellent standard.

The boat ride gave us some great views of the river and of London as far as Westminster and Limehouse  and we were soon back at the Tower ready for an afternoon's entertainment. One interesting feature of the ride was the comprehensive view we had of the long queue to see the Queen's coffin: we never lost sight of it all along the south bank of the river, past all the familiar landmarks far as Southwark Park.

We made our way back to Tower Hill station and caught the next District Line train to Embankment, walking up to Strand where our theatre was located, but there was still some time to pass before the show, and the idea was to visit a bar for a drink or two in the meantime. It actually took us some time to find a suitable place which would not become overcrowded with an additional seven people, but after searching all around Covent Garden we eventually settled on The Nell Gwynne, a traditional, small, London pub in a narrow alley just along from the theatre. The only spaces were at the bar and we really only just fitted in but it was so right to visit a place so redolent of old London!

And so to the the Vaudeville Theatre and the musical lesson in Tudor history. It is entirely a musical and has been very well reviewed and a great production for the ladies to enjoy together: a reminder that the only reason these six are famous is that they were at one point each married to King Henry VIII, but they were, of course, all real people with lives of their own. We could probably not name, unless we are historians, the names of any other queen consorts through history, but we know these six!

After the show we made our way via the Piccadilly Line back to Kings Cross for a drink at The Parcel Yard (as much hot chocolate ordered as ale!) and then some of us waited in the First Class Lounge while others scoured the shops at the station. We all gathered in the lounge in time to go together to the train for the journey home, enjoying LNER's usual hospitality with a final drink (soft now in my case because of the drive home) and a sandwich. At the station car park all I had to do was touch my credit card to the machine at the barrier as I drove out and my account was debited for the weekend daily charge - automatic numberplate recognition had clocked my arrival and ensured that I paid the correct amount, no ticket being necessary and no fuss. Brilliant.

Everyone seemed very happy with the day, and as well as feeling really grateful for having been included (while extremely sorry for the friend who had been too ill to go), I was also relieved that after all the uncertainty it all went very well indeed. The overcrowding did not materialise; indeed, Kings Cross felt less busy than usual (not that that prevented us having to take a big detour in a one-way system even more stringent than at the easing of lockdown!). A grand day out for the birthday girl.