Friday 11 August 2023

This Could Be the Last Time, I Don't Know ...

Holiday by Train on the South Coast of England

Waterloo station in London has seen many an excited departure for seaside holidays on the south coast and the west of England, and in recent years some of these have been mine. The trains themselves are not very exciting these days, and the First Class seating was downgraded at the last franchise award, although it is still excellent value for money if booked in advance. Waterloo is a busy station with many local and suburban services but also with some significant long-distance trains serving several holiday destinations all along the south coast, although it has been many years since it served the Devon and Cornwall resorts. our holiday this year began at Yarmouth, on the Isle of Wight. Fast trains normally leave Waterloo every half-hour on the route to Bournemouth and Weymouth, and there is a simple cross-platform change of train at Brockenhurst in the New Forest, from where a local branch-line train connects with a ferry direct to Yarmouth.

We had used this route twice before and I worked out a schedule that fitted our needs, taking us to London via Cross Country and LNER trains from Stamford, with a change of train at Peterborough, in plenty of time for the 13:35 departure from Waterloo. All our travel was booked in advance as soon as Advance tickets became available, and the hotels both at Yarmouth (very expensive) and Chichester (just expensive) where we were stopping next. I also booked the restaurants for dinner on the Isle of Wight as we have had difficulty finding places in the past. 

The weather had not been good all through July, dull, cloudy, showery, and cool for the time of the year, but on our day of departure the sun was shining when I woke up and stayed out until well after we had left home, making the journey to London much more pleasant than I had anticipated, helped by the trains being on time and clean. I had allowed plenty of connection time at Peterborough and we enjoyed the coffee and biscuits from the "Bike Barista" which are free for LNER First Class ticket-holders. On the train, the 10:50, brunch was served from LNER's Dish menu and I had the blueberry porridge and an orange juice. It really was a very good trip, arriving at Kings Cross on time. At Kings Cross Underground station we spoke to a member of staff to have my wife's renewed Senior Railcard linked to her Oyster Card to gain the Railcard discount on Underground travel in London, then we made our way to Waterloo.

Kings Cross to Waterloo is not a difficult journey by Underground, but the route is not that obvious! We have done it several different ways, and also by bus (takes ages) and many years ago I used to do it on foot. This time, which may be the last time, we took the Victoria Line to Warren Street and from there the Northern Line straight to Waterloo: in both cases a train came into the station as soon as we arrived on the platform, so the cross-town change of station was pretty quick, although the Underground trains were both very busy, for the middle of a weekday in summer. 

Something Funny Happened at Waterloo

The idea was get to Waterloo in good time, buy a simple lunch and wait for the train while eating it. There is a Marks and Spencer Food Hall and that is where we bought our lunch, but there is also a Benugo café (I did get coffee there) and many other food outlets, all of which looked quite good. Tip: go and sit on the balcony overlooking the concourse: it is much less busy and frenetic there, and Benugo is there, too, with interesting views of the activity below.

While eating, knowing I had plenty of time, I looked idly across at the departures board to see if our train was posted yet. Not only was it not there yet, but neither did it appear in the "subsequent departures" section even though several trains timed after it did appear there ... "13:35" was clearly printed on my Advance ticket, and LNER, through whom I had made the booking, sent me the automatic reminder stating 13:35, but there was no 13:35 departure! Live Train Times on the LNER app came to the rescue: I looked up live departures from Waterloo to Brockenhurst and found that it was retimed to 13:30 owing to some alterations to the timetable to reduce the number of trains operating. That was fine, no need to ask anyone for help. Soon the platform for the 13:30 to Bournemouth and Weymouth (also holiday destinations, of course) was indicated and we made our way to platform 12 and boarded.

Delayed, Not Delayed

We left Waterloo station on time, but by Southampton our train was four minutes late for some reason (even though the retiming had given it an extra five minutes ...), and as it made its way through the New Forest the train became later and later, not by a huge amount but by enough to miss the connection at Brockenhurst for Lymington Pier for the ferry to Yarmouth. Disappointing, but not tragic. The next train to Lymington Pier was just half an hour later and was on time, giving us seven minutes to board the ferry, and, of course, the ferry staff were expecting a last-minute influx because they had noticed that not many arrived on the preceding train ... so in spite of a half-hour delay we arrived at Yarmouth exactly on time, but we waited at Brockenhurst station rather than at Lymington ferry terminal. Our afternoon cup of tea was on board the ferry instead of while waiting for it!

We checked in at The George Hotel and Beach Club at Yarmouth, went for a stroll around the town and then took up our reservation for dinner at The Terrace, the rather splendid restaurant above the ferry terminal at Yarmouth. Nothing in Yarmouth is cheap - indeed it did occur to me that this place is similar to Switzerland in the cost to visitors, but it is a very small town and we were here at the peak of the holiday season, so we could not expect a bargain.

Our drinks lined up for dinner!

We did have a table indoors, although the weather was very considerably better than last time, but still not really right for overlooking the harbour. The cocktails, the food (I had fish and chips!) and the beer were great, and we were greeted by a fantastic sunset (see header photograph) as we left. Back to The George, bath and bed ready for the morning.

When planning the holiday I had left the first full day vague, to put it mildly, thinking that in suitable weather we might visit a beach and just take the day easy, then visit Osborne House (English Heritage) on the next day. The weather forecast, however, showed that the next day, Saturday, was to be the only wet and windy day (Storm Antoni, as it turned out, yellow weather warning throughout the south of England!), so we rescheduled Osborne to the first day, Friday, and left Saturday as the vague day but no longer expected to visit a beach!

On the Rocks and Off the Rails, but Nothing is Wrong

We took a bus to Newport on Friday morning and changed for Osborne House. The wonderful Southern Vectis buses from Newport to East Cowes stop at the gates of Osborne House and so we were soon there, showing our English Heritage membership cards and breezing in. First stop was for coffee and then we toured the house itself. While we have done this several times before, there are often new things to see, and in any case one does not take in everything each time. 

From there we strolled down to the beach, once Queen Victoria's private beach, where we enjoyed an ice-cream, and then we walked through the woods to the Swiss cottage and children's garden plots where the young princes and princesses learnt their life skills under the care of Prince Albert. we took the courtesy bus back to the house and then, having seen enough, walked into East Cowes, which we'd never done before, and from there took the bus back to Newport and thence to Yarmouth. Dinner that evening was at On The Rocks, a "hot stones" restaurant where we cooked our own steaks on hot stones, accompanied by unlimited salad and chips, and glass of Malbec, of course.

We woke on Saturday morning to the sound of rain. We had breakfast on Saturday morning watching the rain as it eased off and came back. By ten o'clock it was much lighter and the sky much brighter and we set off on the 10:25 bus to Newport where this time we changed for the bus towards Ryde, alighting at Quarr Abbey. I had long ago heard of this Roman Catholic Benedictine abbey and on the ferry from Lymington its various facilities for visitors had been advertised, so we thought we'd use this free day to have a look. Quarr is set in beautiful countryside and woodland, near to the ruins of its pre-reformation predecessor which was dissolved by Henry VIII. The abbey is an unusual design in brick, and very peaceful, and for visitors it offers a café, a farm shop and a more general gift shop and plenty of opportunity to walk. Visitors are welcome to attend the chapel services (but to leave the singing to the monks!), although we were not there at the times for any of those. We were in the café when a shower of rain occurred and did not encounter any other wet weather until we arrived at Newport bus station on the way back, but all the bus stops there have shelters so we managed to take cover while waiting for the connection onwards to Yarmouth. By the time we left the weather was dry again, although we did pass through more showers on the way. Back at Yarmouth we returned to our hotel and changed ready for our evening out: this was a meal at Off The Rails, the restaurant with a railway theme located in the former railway station building on the edge of Yarmouth. This was about a ten-minute walk away and, as on our previous two visits, the food was different (I think "quirky" the word for the menu) and both delicious and filling.

Sunday was the day to move on and we said farewell to our hotel at Yarmouth and left for Newport on the same bus departure as on Saturday morning, but this morning was sunny and much warmer, and we had luggage. Even with our cases, which are not huge, we travelled on the top deck of the bus. This ride, scenic as it is, was a lovely end to our three-night stay on the Isle of Wight. We had not explored much the time but we had rested a lot, which was what we needed more than anything. We were making our way to Ryde, by changing buses once more at Newport bus station, a place we had begun to know quite well, for from Ryde we were to cross back over the Solent for the next stage in our week's holiday. Buses to Ryde are "only" every fifteen minutes on Sundays but soon enough we were on our way, past Quarr Abbey where we had been the day before, and into Ryde. We had coffee at an Italian coffee shop we have visited before and then it was time to make our way to the Hovertravel check-in for the flight across to Southsea.

Festina Lente

We had never used the hovercraft before, but when I was booking the train tickets this was the route I was offered. They were open tickets via "any permitted" route but the itinerary I was given was for the hovercraft and its integrated bus link to Portsmouth and Southsea station. So we gave it a try. The Hovertravel website urges everyone with a through rail ticket to book a specific flight in advance and I had done this and had to show my rail tickets and quite the booking number on check-in: we were a touch early and were allowed to board a flight 30 minutes in advance of the one I had booked, since it was far from full. The flight is just ten minutes and the bus is waiting by the terminal at Southsea, but it was straight into heavy traffic. All the time gained in charging across the Solent so much faster than the catamaran we have normally used was used up poking our way slowly around Portsmouth city centre to transfer to Portsmouth and Southsea railway station - the catamaran used to take us direct to Portsmouth Harbour station, but I am not sure that direct trains to Chichester now operate from the Harbour, so perhaps that is why we were sent the long way round via the hovercraft to Southsea. Another "disimprovement" in our national rail network which is now run more for the convenience of the operators than the passengers, it seems. 

We had about forty minutes to wait for our train - perhaps Sunday is not the brightest day to choose to travel - but there were ice-cream parlours nearby so it was not difficult to pass the time! Soon enough we boarded a semi-fast train bound for London Victoria which whisked us swiftly to Chichester station from which we walked to our hotel, the Chichester Harbour Hotel, a bit of a way from the station but very handy for the theatre which we would be visiting in a couple of days' time.

According to established tradition, that evening we met our friends for drinks: it is their holidays, for many years spent at nearby East Wittering, that have drawn us here each summer to join them for a day at the beach and an evening at the theatre. The reason why this could be the last time is that they had just (last week) moved to Chichester and will no longer be taking their holiday at East Wittering. This year they were doing it, one last time, as it was the easiest thing to do with having only just unpacked their possessions. We shall doubtless continue to visit, but not as a summer holiday in the same way. Dinner the first night in Chichester was at Côte, only because that's where we went the very first time we came and we've been there on the first evening ever since!

Our first full day staying in Chichester was spent exploring. We took a bus to Arundel which we'd only visited together once before, over thirty years ago! The obvious way to Arundel would be the train, but it was fun to try the bus, an infrequent service and so needing thought and discipline (though good to have the train in mind as a back-up in case we decided to stay longer). It was a very pleasant ride through the Sussex countryside and we visited the splendid Roman Catholic cathedral there and wandered among the shops, having lunch at a very individual place called Green & Coal. The bus back took a slightly different route through some different villages and then we had a relaxing evening, with a takeaway salad in our room.

The Hills Are Alive

The second full day was the day we were booked at the theatre (The Sound of Music this year), with a pre-theatre dinner booked at The Bell at 5pm: the dinner arrangement has become earlier and earlier over the years as we've feared missing the start of the play - although last year we were served so expeditiously that we had time to kill before the theatre! That still gave us some time, though, and in indifferent weather we took a bus to explore Midhurst, a few miles to the north, where we've never been before. No longer on the railway, Midhurst has a half-hourly bus service so we had no need to plan our travel. Among other things we discovered that the administrative centre (and the information office) for the South Downs National Park is right opposite the bus station in Midhurst and we picked up lots of information for potential future visits. We had coffee and croissants at the local bakery, served by the French owner of the business and his Italian assistant - good coffee, good pastries and a chance to speak French and Italian!

Back in Chichester we changed and prepared for our evening out ... Now we have been enjoying musicals at Chichester Festival Theatre for many summers and have seen some fantastic productions, but I have to say that this year's The Sound of Music was the best we have seen. The performances by some of the child actors, some of them in their first major production, were superb. Before the theatre we had dinner (if you can call it that when starting at 5pm!) at the Bell Inn, opposite the theatre, as we have for several years.

The following day, weather much improved, fortunately, was our day at the seaside, so we set off for the bus stop, via Tesco to purchase a contribution of wine towards the day's catering. Our bus ride to East Wittering was much quicker than we have ever experienced before, with less heavy traffic, and also we had a double-deck bus for the first time and so had a very different view of the countryside, and West Wittering as we passed through it, than in previous years. We walked from the bus stop to our friends' holiday home and so began our probable final visit to East Wittering. We walked along the beach, we ate and drank with our friends, we walked again, visited an inn of the shore of Chichester Harbour and an ice-cream shop on the beach at East Wittering and spoke of old times spent together. After what seemed all too short a time we were driven back to our hotel and prepared for the following day's train trip home.

Homeward Bound

Having breakfasted in our room for three mornings on fruit salads from M&S, we pushed the boat out with breakfast at The Ivy on our final morning. We packed our cases and checked out of the hotel, asking them to keep the luggage until we were ready to catch our train. We had booked a table at The Ivy along with all the other bookings when the holiday was planned, but I don't think it would not have been difficult to find a table on this morning if we had not booked. It was warm enough to sit outside on the pavement: the restaurant faces north so it needs to be a warm day as the sunshine does not reach the outside seating until late in the day. After a really great breakfast I visited an exhibition at The Novium Museum on JRR Tolkien's Middle Earth fantasy novels and the art, music, TV and film adaptations from them, and then it was time to collect our luggage and make our way to the railway station to begin our journey home. 

We had booked Advance First tickets for the 13:09 train to London Victoria, but because of an overtime ban this train was not running and we opted to take the 12:39 instead, running half an hour ahead of our schedule rather than half an hour behind. We did not need lunch after the late an substantial breakfast, and in London we went straight to Kings Cross (easy on the Victoria Line from Victoria, and all step-free, so easy with luggage, too). We had coffee at Notes, which we had visited once before, many years ago when it was surrounded by building sites, and then waited in the First Class lounge at Kings Cross until our train was ready to board.

The train journey from Kings Cross to Peterborough went smoothly but by the time the catering trolley reached us we had to take our food and drink with us to eat later as we were almost in Peterborough. Not to self: travel in coaches M or L next time rather than K - that way the food will come sooner! At Peterborough we popped to Waitrose for milk and then caught the connection, on time, for Stamford and walked home. It was a lovely, warm, sunny evening and the town was full of people enjoying themselves, many of them having a drink after work. We'd had a great week and it was good to be home: washing on, LNER supper consumed at home, shower and bed. Now the question is: was this the last time? What will replace this staple of our summer holidays?