Thursday 11 May 2023

Tulips In Amsterdam

By Train to Amsterdam for the Tulips

Ever since Eurostar started their through service to Rotterdam and Amsterdam we had thought of making this trip. Yes, we could have travelled to Amsterdam any time we wanted by changing at Brussel Zuid, but the start of the direct service gave us the nudge to get on with it. A pandemic intervened, prevented travel for a while and made it difficult for a while longer, but eventually we were in a position to plan a visit to the Netherlands by train. As a native of south Lincolnshire, born in the former County of Holland, I was keen to visit Amsterdam in the spring, ideally the first week of May, at the likely height (depending on the weather) of the tulip season. Until recently the (now) District of South Holland in Lincolnshire had shared tulip production with the Netherlands and Spalding had been the centre of the industry with a show ground at Springfields and an annual parade of decorated floats. Spalding and South Holland now concentrate on food production and tulips are largely the preserve of the Netherlands, although daffodils are still grown in Lincolnshire. Missing the sight of tulip fields and regretting that Springfields is now little more than an "outlet centre," I wanted to see Amsterdam and the Keukenhof Gardens, so, threading my way between King's Day in the Netherlands and the Coronation of our own new King in England, I made the arrangements to spend two complete days in Amsterdam by rail. One day would be spent tripping out to the Keukenhof, the other would be unplanned so that we could do whatever felt right on the day.

I booked the trip with Planet Rail. I had never used them before but have seen them on social media and thought it would be worth a try. I had looked at booking direct with Eurostar, who also book hotels, but Planet Rail were somewhat less expensive and offered a hotel in a more suitable part of Amsterdam city centre. Planet Rail offer unescorted package holidays without specific dates: I just looked at their website for the package I wanted and telephoned to ask if any suitable dates were available and what the cost would be. It was all very satisfactory so I paid the deposit and waited for the dates to come round. This would be our first international rail adventure of 2023.

Although our chosen train to Amsterdam did not leave St Pancras International until 11:04, we decided to travel to London by LNER the day before and stay overnight in our usual pre-departure hotel, the Premier Inn, near the station, and spent the afternoon (and a great dinner!) with our family in west London before the good night's sleep that Premier Inn always affords us. The time before Eurostar check-in was not wasted: I had some personal banking to do (paying in a cheque - how quaint is that?) and that gave us enough exercise walking to a branch and back, just neatly taking us to the earliest check-in time.

Arriving soon after check-in opened, we had very little queueing and were soon scanning our printed-out tickets at the gates and having our luggage checked for security: as frequent travellers by this route we are now familiar with the process and sail through easily. There was modest queuing for the passport control as the French border police now have to stamp UK passports and we can no longer zoom through the EU lane ... but it was only a little queue and we were soon sitting in the Station Pantry café to have our breakfast - as soon as the preceding train to Paris had departed there was plenty of space. No sooner had we finished our breakfast than the train began boarding and we made our way up to the platform. There is no rush: everyone has a reserved seat and everyone (well, almost everyone!) is already either waiting or making their way through security and passport control.

Travelling Standard Premier, as we generally do, means that there is a bit more room to manoeuvre in the aisle and more luggage space per passenger, so boarding and taking our seats was a relatively relaxed affair: again, there is no rush as boarding begins at least twenty minutes before departure. Planet Rail had managed to book for me a pair of single seats facing across a table - club duo, I gather it is called - which is our preferred seating the travelling as a couple, and there were small luggage racks nearby that just took our cases nicely. Altogether the atmosphere in these coaches is very relaxing and pleasant and we soon felt at home. The first few miles were in tunnel under east London, with a brief flash of daylight as we passed through Stratford with its unused international platforms, then we were out into Essex as the light meal service began before plunging under the Thames and emerging once more in Kent. 

The train slowed for the Channel Tunnel and then soon stopped at its first calling point, Lille Europ. There were stops also at Brussels and Rotterdam before we arrived at Amsterdam Centraal. Beyond Brussels there was another drink and a snack; having had beer (a London craft ale) and coffee with the light lunch I opted for wine with the snack (which was only a very small bag of mixed nuts). When the stewards came to clear away my empty little wine bottle they left me a full one but I could not see myself finishing another couple of glasses of wine before Amsterdam and I kept it in my hand luggage for later in the tour ...

About four hours after departure from St Pancras, but five hours on the clock because of the change of time zone, we arrived at Amsterdam Centraal and had most of the length of the train to walk to the exit. Unlike St Pancras and Paris Nord we needed to have our tickets handy to leave by the normal barriers at the exit from the platforms and we were soon out, through some building work (yes, they're improving the stations here, too!) and on to the streets of another of the world's great cities. It was a kilometre or so to our hotel, easily navigated using Apple maps on our iPhones, but everyone else seemed to be walking the other way - perhaps arriving at office closing time was not so smart a move ... 

It was sunny and warm now as we plotted our way through the tramlines in Dam Square and across to the street called Singel ("canal," I understand) alongside the oldest canal in Amsterdam where or hotel, the Hotel Estheréa, was located. We checked in and were taken to our room by a porter who also took our luggage and showed us the room. The room was compact (and the toilet and shower were particularly compact!) but well-appointed with plenty of power sockets, coffee machine - which we never used - free bottled water, lots of lights, air conditioning and lots of storage.

We went downstairs where complimentary tea (and other hot drinks) and biscuits were available and then we set off looking around the local area for somewhere for a fairly light but preferably Dutch dinner. We finished up, after a couple of false starts at places either closed or no longer doing food, at a brilliant Proeflokal ("local trial") bar on the next canalside: here we were able to try local food and local beer and had a great time, surrounded by lots of people from many countries all conversing in English because that's the language everyone knows. 

Dinner on the first night

Line of shuttle buses at Europaplein
Wednesday, the first full day, was the day set aside for the visit to Keukenhof. Everything was booked in advance by purchasing online a pair of "Tulip Festival Cards," which were not cards at all, really, but a set of online documents and apps which provided all that we needed for a two-day tulip festival visit: a day ticket for the Keukenhof Garden at a specified time (I specified 11:00 to give us time to get there), a two-day public transport pass and guided tours of the gardens and of Amsterdam for download to our iPhones. The public transport passes had to be collected by scanning the codes on my iPhone at the office, or a machine, at Centraal station before we started, so we allowed a few minutes for that and then caught the Metro to Europaplein where a dedicated bus service was provided to shuttle visitors to Keukenhof: it all ran very smoothly and exactly as described on Keukenhof's helpful website.

At the Keukenhof entrance we simply showed the two tickets on my iPhone for the barcodes to be scanned and we were straight in, greeted on arrival by a magnificent display of tulips. We had timed the visit just right: the first week on May can go either way with respect to the weather, but usually is somewhere within the "window" for tulip blooms whether the season is late or early. As it happened, for 2023 is was just right, a little after the midpoint and with sunny weather, pleasant but not too hot.

We saw varieties of tulip that we have never seen before, some resembling carnations, some roses. Some short, some tall, and all sorts of colours, along with daffodils and narcissi (which are known by the same word in Dutch) and hyacinths, another Dutch speciality. The gardens are laid out on a huge scale and act as a showcase for the bulb industry, just as Springfields used to do in Spalding.

"Lunch" consisted of a big piece of Dutch apple tart at one of the many refreshment facilities around the gardens and by lunch time it was warm and sunny enough to sit outside, whereas our morning coffee had been taken indoors. We visited some of the indoor displays as well as covering all the outdoor ones, and standing by the boundary of the garden we looked out over the colourful fields where tulips were growing, once a familiar sight back in Lincolnshire, too, but no longer.

Following the purchase of gifts at one of the souvenir shops we made our way back to the bus terminal outside the entrance building to queue, briefly, for the next bus back to Europaplein. Buses were there waiting their turn to load and as one filled up the next took its place and the orderly queue moved along all the time. At Europaplein we went to the Metro and used the same pass to board the next train back to central Amsterdam. We had supper in the hotel bar that evening (there is no restaurant but the bard snacks are pretty substantial!), boosted by a salad in our room from the nearby supermarket and the wine I had been given on the train the day before.

That man Gormley gets everywhere

Thursday was the day for which we had no definite plan before we came to Amsterdam and we decided on Wednesday evening that we would visit Lelystad in the Flevoland polder. I had been there on my field course to the Netherlands for my Town Planning degree fifty years earlier when it was very new, and Alison had studied the polders for her A Level Geography, so we both had an interest. Our passes covered the train ride out from Amsterdam (every half hour) but we discovered that we had to pay - using contactless, just like at home, for buses within Lelystad. We tripped out to the coast and looked around at an outlet centre - we were trying to track down a tulip vase as our souvenir - and then strolled along the waterfront and saw the replica ship Batavia. In the distance a river cruise ship was making it way towards Amsterdam, past a vast Anthony Gormley sculpture.

Returning to Amsterdam we looked for a canal cruise and saw a boat just loading near Centraal station with room for us at a decent price, and took our seats. There are numerous operators and routes and they all seem to cost about the same, and this, Rederij Kooij, was the first one we saw, with a boat about to depart, so we did not do any "comparison shopping" but just went for it and were very happy with our one-hour tour with its commentary in four languages.

We visited a Delft Blau shop and bought the tulip vase we'd been promising ourselves! (See picture at the heading.)

We had booked dinner at the only time we could get (17:00 - very early indeed for us) at a recommended restaurant serving typical Dutch food, so we were soon back at our room getting ready to do out. I had hod no lunch and needed the tea and biscuits at the hotel to keep me going ... and then off by tram to Moeders (Mothers) for our early dinner. This was an enormous meal. How come the Dutch keep so slim? It must be all that walking and cycling, I suppose, and we did a fair bit of walking after this meal.

First we took a tram to the other side of the city centre and had a look around the Jewish quarter. This was not a former ghetto like that Jewish area in, say, Rome, and neither was it the location of Ann Frank's house. But it was an attractive part of the city and pleasant for an evening stroll. We walked back to our hotel, dodging events taking place in Dam Square and then had a good night's sleep ready for the trip home tomorrow.

We left on Friday, but not until after noon, and before our 11:00 check out we went on another walk, this time around the Museum Quarter, although we did not have time to visit any museums, and all were very busy in any case.

Catching Eurostar at Amsterdam is much like taking any other train: you scan your ticket at the same ticket gates as everyone else and go to platform 15, a platform used by other trains as well as ours. The only difference is that there is a dedicated waiting room equipped with security scanners and the passport controls for both the Netherlands (on behalf of the European Union) and the United Kingdom. Once through those checks we were able to wait in the departure lounge, which did not really seem quite big enough for the number of passengers waiting ... perhaps this service is more popular than the company anticipated? In due course the train arrived at the platform and we all poured out of the waiting area to join it. Again we were travelling in Standard Premier and there was no rush. Although it also made calls at Rotterdam, Brussels and Lille we were never disturbed: I think seats must be allocated in blocks for each boarding point, which must also make it easier for staff. In this direction the light meal is not served until after Brussels, which is rather late for lunch, and I wished I'd bought something to tide me over. There was a cup of coffee and a small bar of chocolate, very nice but not very filling, soon after leaving Amsterdam. Lunch was most welcome when it did arrive!

This time, as an afternoon meal, a specially-decorated cake was included to celebrate the coronation of King Charles III of England, which was to take place on the following day - a rather nice touch.

There was a track fault somewhere on the high speed line to Brussels and so we were diverted onto ordinary tracks and lost over twenty minutes, some of which was made up by reducing as far as possible the stop at Brussels Zuid, requiring the crew change to happen very quickly. A little more was made up elsewhere but we were still late into London. This did not affect our plans for the onward journey, though, as I had allowed plenty of time.

There was some further delay on arriving at St Pancras because a travelator from the platform to the exit was closed for maintenance and everyone was having to use one escalator; being late, our train was swiftly followed into the station by another from Paris whose passengers also needed the same way out. It took a while it was safe and simple enough with everyone being patient. (We have been known to be off the train first and out to the exit before anyone else was off the platform, but we were in no hurry this time and had been travelling right at the rear end of the train, again!

We had left Amsterdam in gorgeous sunshine, as it had been for most of our time there, but on the way back rain began quite early and continued, on and off, for most of the way. In England there was only intermittent drizzle in London as we waited in the First Class Lounge for our LNER train back to Peterborough. We were taking the same evening service as a few days earlier on our way back from a visit to our friends in Croydon, the 19:06 bound for Lincoln. We know this makes a good connection for Stamford at Peterborough. Again, a light meal on the train and we were soon at Stamford where, although it was not now raining, we took a taxi home from the station: with our luggage this felt like a good way to end the trip.

It had been a highly successful trip: we had seen the tulip fields and the gardens and we had started exploring Amsterdam. We had tried out the through service and found it excellent, but I shall remember to take a snack on board for the return trip next time - and there will be a next time because we really have to explore Amsterdam properly now that we have found out how easy it is to get there and back. Next time we need not go at the height of the tulip festival and will visit some of those museums, booked in advance like the Keukenhof was this time.

Monday 1 May 2023

Fetch and Carry by Train

A Simple Start to Ease into This Year’s Rail Adventures!

Every year I tend to have a few bigger trips lined up by March or April and this year is no different. Two are Great Rail Journeys escorted tours, chosen and booked as soon as they were advertised to “bag” them and get a start made on the calendar for 2023; one is a Eurostar visit to Amsterdam which we promised ourselves when the through services began and now are finally taking, and one is to the Isle of Wight and Sussex which we have been doing each summer for the last eight years - and this will probably be our last. One more is a few days in Birmingham with friends.

We have not done a railway “adventure” since last autumn’s trip to Sorrento and quite frankly we are a bit out of practice! General busyness along with the wave of rail and other strikes has kept us at home apart from the few day trips and family gatherings which I’ve reported here. Looking forward to the forthcoming trips to Amsterdam and to the South of France would just be too exciting without something else to occupy our minds! Fortunately we had a good reason to pay a short visit to friends in Croydon who are moving soon and downsizing: I was able to broker a gift from them (of some clergy robes they no longer need) to another acquaintance who could use them in one of his country churches, and so we arranged a couple of nights’ stay with them to fetch the robes and to visit their present home for the last time. They are moving soon to Chichester and that move is the reason they’ll no longer be taking their holidays near there and so our annual trips to join them will be ending this year.

St Mildred's Parish Church, Addiscombe
Hoping that no strikes would disrupt our plans, I booked Advance First tickets between Peterborough and London Kings Cross and then, once I was more confident that Cross County’s trains between Stamford and Peterborough might be operating (i.e. the day before we travelled!) I booked Standard Class returns for that bit of the trip. Per passenger mile that is the most expensive leg of the journey…

We had some family duties to carry out in the morning of the day of our departure, and our hosts had things to do, too, so we did not leave until noon. We had a large suitcase with our own stuff for a couple days in uninspiring weather plus gifts for our hosts and with enough space spare for the robes we were transporting back to Lincolnshire. 

Although our train out of Stamford was some ten minutes late (no explanation given, but looking at Live Train Times online it seems to have been late since shortly after leaving Birmingham), this did not affect our journey at all and we easily made the connection at Peterborough into our pre-booked LNER train to London. This was a five-car "Azuma" train from Lincoln and there was plenty of space in our First Class section. The simplest "Deli" menu was on offer and this provided the light lunch we needed, departure from Peterborough being on time at 12:30. We were soon in London and had a little shopping to do (there are some great shops at St Pancras, across the road) before making our way down to Croydon. We were in no hurry, knowing that our friends were busy. When we were ready to go we made our way to the "basement" platforms at St Pancras for the next Thameslink service to East Croydon. This was on time (although with such a frequent service the concept of "on time" is not all that significant!) would get us there at 15:17, so I sent a WhatsApp message to say we expected to arrive at our friends' home at about 16:00.

The Brighton or Horsham Thameslink trains stop at all stations through the central London "core" and then after London Bridge run non-stop to East Croydon, the whole journey taking just about half an hour, much of which is spent imitating an Underground train through central London, complete with automatic doors! At East Croydon we made our way up the ramps to the tram stop, where we had just three minutes to wait for the next tram. We were very soon at Addiscombe, the stop for our friends' home and would have been half an hour early getting there! I had grossly over-estimated the amount of time it would take to get from the station to their house: the tram was there for us just as soon as we had touched-in our Oyster cards, it was not delayed and the walk from the tram stop at Addiscombe was only a matter of three or four minutes. Thus we had twenty minutes or so to spare around the shops at Addiscombe, which turned out to be very useful as we picked up a handy collection of Lego bricks in a charity shop, ideal for the next visit of the senior grandchildren ...

We had a great time with our friends and after a couple of nights packed our luggage complete with the items we had come to fetch and set off home after lunch on the third day. The tram took us back to East Croydon station where we happened to arrive just before a Thameslink train was due in, so we went straight to the indicated platform and waited just a few seconds as our train arrived. Our train from Kings Cross was not due to leave until 19:06 (I had allowed plenty of leeway, not being sure of timing when I booked, and this train has some advantage - including reasonable fares - as will become clear), and we filled the time with a museum visit; there is never a shortage of things to do in London and quite a lot is within easy reach of Kings Cross and St Pancras stations. We had already visited both the Canal Museum and the Jewish Museum between trains, and even the British Museum and the British Library are close to hand, although it would take a lot of changes of train to see all of what they offer, and this time we visited the Foundling Museum, chronicling the history of Coram's Foundling Hospital which gave a fascinating insight into some of the profound social problems of Georgian London as well as revealing the great humanitarian effort of individual good people to solve them. 

After spending some time in the First Class lounge at Kings Cross we took the 19:06 Lincoln train, another five-coach Azuma but this time quite busy. The staff did a fantastic job of serving everyone's refreshments efficiently but in a polite and friendly manner and we were on time at Peterborough, a perfect journey. One advantage of this train is that it connects at Peterborough with the once-a-day East Midlands Railway service to Nottingham via Stamford, so there was not long to wait before our train: indeed, it was already at the platform waiting for its crew and we were able to board long before departure time. Again the train was on time and we were soon home and I shall now be able to contact my local colleague to come and collect his new vestments from me!

This was the easiest, smoothest and best train journey I have had for a long time. There were simply no problems: even though the first train was a few minutes late it did not affect us and all the rest were on time, clean and tidy with, where appropriate, full catering. Fares have risen somewhat this year and I was not in a position to book ever so early, so it was a bit more expensive than I have been used to but it was quite acceptable - I could always have booked Standard Class if I'd needed to get the price any lower.