Thursday 23 November 2023

How to Visit Frankfurt Without Leaving the English Midlands

Day Trip by train to the Birmingham Frankfurt Christmas Market

We have visited a number of Christmas Markets since we began our "adventures" by train a few years ago.  There were the real German ones on the Great Rail Journeys Christmas Markets Rhine Cruise, the big local one in Lincoln and those in Bath and Bristol. I had also taken a group by train to the Birmingham one a little while ago, but it was so cold that day that I did not see much of the Christmas Market that time! The Birmingham Frankfurt Christmas Market lasts almost two months (Lincoln's, now ended, was just two days but was very much bigger), from the beginning of November until Christmas Eve, and occupies New Street and Victoria Square in the heart of the city of Birmingham with German-type stall selling German and German-influenced gifts, food and drink. There is a more locally-inspired market in the Cathedral grounds with smaller stalls selling local crafts, food and drink, and some of the shops join in the Christmas theme or the German theme as well. My wife had never been to the Birmingham Frankfurt Christmas Market but has always been a fan of German culture, and so, Birmingham being an easy trip by train from our home in Stamford we decided to visit it this year. My adventures are having to be a bit simpler at present for health reasons, so a day trip with no change of train fitted the bill nicely: it is quicker and easier to visit Birmingham, several counties away, than to visit our own county town of Lincoln!

Looking at the train timetable and the peak and off-peak fares, it seemed that a good day out, giving enough time for all we wanted to do, could be had by taking the 10:07 train     to Birmingham, returning by the 15:22: if we stayed later than that, the next train on which an off-peak ticket could be used would be the 18:22, three hours later. Looking at our diaries, there were not many days when we could do it! In between our voluntary jobs and our family commitments, and not wanting to leave it to near Christmas we thought that this Tuesday would do nicely and so we kept the date free. I did not actually buy the train tickets until the day so that we could change our minds if the weather forecast were poor.

All was well and we set off for the station. Although I could have bought the tickets at the ticket office for a trip like this, the last two times I had been to the station the ticket office had not been open and so I used the Cross Country Train Tickets iPhone app which gave me our tickets on my smartphone. We had to remember to take our Senior Railcards with us! In the event the ticket office was open, a corollary of which was that the waiting room was also open and heated, which was just as well because the weather in Stamford turned out to be both colder and damper than expected, and the train was late. It had been delayed by "operational issues" around Cambridge or Ely and the slippery rails made making up for lost time impossible. You could hear and feel the wheels slip as the train pulled away from each station. There did not seem to be a catering trolley on the train, but our intention in any case was to have coffee in Birmingham.

Like all east-west lines in central England, this is not a fast line (and not a straight one, either!) but the trains are quite quick, when they can get a grip, and comfortable and the time soon passed. Fifty years ago I used this line to and from university and it was much slower and less comfortable then. We were soon in Birmingham, and New Street station is right in the thick of things in the city centre, so we were straight into the Birmingham Frankfurt Christmas Market. 

We walked along New Street towards Victoria Square, looking cursorily at the stands we passed while seeking an indoor café for our morning coffee. We ended up at Albert's Schloss, and Alpine-inspired restaurant beyond the Town Hall: we had sen this place when we visited Birmingham in the summer but had not been inside. Seeing the menu and enjoying the service and the "German" and "Austrian" atmosphere we thought we'd have to return some time for a meal, but today we wanted to eat from the Frankfurt Christmas Market - it would have to be a frankfurter, wouldn't it?

We looked around the food and drink outlets in Victoria Square and decided where our frankfurters would be bought at lunchtime and then walked off to the Cathedral grounds where there were smaller stands selling more local things, and we bought a glass Christmas tree decoration from a local craftswoman before returning to Victoria Square for lunch, "serenaded" by a singer singing many of the usual Christmas pop songs. It was all very atmospheric, and although it did remind us of our time in the real German Christmas markets a couple of years ago it was a very English interpretation! After our sausages we moved on to gluhwein. The bar we chose served gluhwein in very good glass mugs, for which we had to pay a hefty deposit, so it was much easier to drink than in thin wine glasses too hot to hold. We could take our time drinking it and then we moved on to New Street, buying some chocolate-covered marshmallow on the way. 

We walked the length of New Street, studying the stalls in much more detail now. These are much bigger than the stall you find at most Christmas markets and sell a wide range of goods as well as a lot of German and German-inspired food and drink. We had all we now wanted to buy from the market and were close to the Bull Ring shopping centre, so we paid a brief visit to Selfridges and Marks & Spencer and then it was time to make our way to New Street station to take our train back to Stamford. We bought take-away coffee at the station and it was just as well because there did not seem to be a refreshment trolley on the train home either! If these facilities are not reliable they will be underused because we shall all make other arrangements and buy little if anything from the trolley on the train. We found some good seats together again and had a comfortable ride home, leaving Birmingham on time but arriving in Stamford a couple of minutes late.

It had been a really good day out and we needed very little for supper after our small but sustaining "German" feast at lunchtime. The train to and from Birmingham really is very convenient for us and everything is so close to New Street station that a day out is so easy. We really must do it again.

There is, of course, no other city like London, but when I look at Birmingham now it is so much more London-like than it ever was fifty years ago when I was studying there and it felt like an overgrown market town. I am not sure that the city has caught up with its own new image, though, and it does not live up to its Second City status as I think it could. I intend to return in the spring or summer to hear a concert at its world-class Symphony Hall and, if it is open after its repairs and refurbishment, visit to world-class Museum and Art Gallery, too.

Birmingham Pins

Monday 20 November 2023

Leicester Feels a Bit Closer Than It Did

A train trip we now do rather more often

The train operating companies, and indeed the Government, talk about "changed travel patterns" since the pandemic as a reason an excuse to adjust cut train services, but for me there are two reasons why my travel patterns have changed since the pandemic: one is that train services have been cut and I cannot travel on trains that don't run (!) so I have to travel at other times or even, if I cannot change my timing, drive my car (which makes them think I am not travelling and reinforces the cut). The other is that some shops did not reopen after the lockdowns, among them our nearest department store, John Lewis in Peterborough. There are now very few shops in Peterborough that are any use to me at all and for major comparison shopping I now have to look to Leicester, so my "changed travel pattern" now includes getting a train to Leicester and back for shopping rather than to Peterborough and back - a much longer journey at a higher fare, so the Cross Country train operating company does rather better from me than it did ... Fortunately the withdrawn train services do not affect a day trip to Leicester.

The starter!
Most recently my wife and I took the train to Leicester to visit John Lewis in order to research induction hobs in preparation for a kitchen refurbishment at home. We caught the 11:07 Cross Country train from Stamford to Leicester and walked straight through the city centre to the department store where we had some excellent advice from a young salesman and made some notes (basically photographing the information labels on the devices that interested us!). On previous shopping trips by train to Leicester we have had coffee and/or lunch at the Merchant of Venice restaurant opposite the station, but this time we discovered that they had opened another branch at the other side of the city centre, near to where we were shopping, so we tried that instead for our lunch. It had the same quirky atmosphere, an Italian restaurant and coffee shop with a Shakespeare theme, even down to having a table with swinging seats in the front window - which we just had to try after using them at the original branch.

Main courses
The walk back to the railway station was essential to walk off the lunch, the starter for which was as big as some main course: it was as well that we were sharing the starter.

And so to the train home. The train rides each way were unremarkable, which for a trip such as this is all we require, really. Cross Country have acquired more centre cars for the Turbostar trains they use on this route, so there is now usually plenty of space, and although the trains are beginning to show signs of wear after a busy life the seats are still comfortable, the heating and air conditioning still works well and the refreshment trolley service is still operating. Timekeeping could be a bit better but the trains are often on time and seldom more than a couple of minutes late, so it could not be a lot better.

And now today the kitchen refurbishment begins. We have not actually chosen the induction hob yet because we need to take advice from the kitchen fitter once he has the worktop removed and can see how much clearance he has above the built-in oven below where the hob is to be installed. But at least we know what the range is and where to order it once the decision is made. The gas fitter arrives this afternoon (pity: it should be on a Monday morning that the gas man comes to call ...) to disconnect the gas hob. Then as soon as we approach the end of our energy contract we can have the gas supply removed and stop paying the standing charge. This will be the first time in my life that I have been without a gas connection.

Monday 6 November 2023

Delays and Cancellations - and that's just me ....

Severn Valley Railway

By this time of the year I usually have a few winter trips arranged and one or two in the summer and autumn of next year, too. This time I only have one booking in the diary, a Great Rail Journeys escorted tour in Switzerland by way of celebrating my forthcoming 70th Birthday (although it will take place some months after the date, which is just as well in the circumstances). I write from a Thameslink train on my next adventure, for which I bought the tickets on departure, and we are planning a visit to the Birmingham Christmas Market but do not yet have a date. The vagueness in the planning is a result of some medical issues I am currently experiencing, but the way forward is now a little clearer and I hope that some plans will soon take shape. I have been a little cautious about announcing any group days out until I know my own availability and until the industrial relations in the rail industry become more stable, hopefully soon.

Meanwhile a recent road trip did include a day exploring the magnificent Severn Valley Railway, so I'll take the opportunity of my current train ride to bring the blog up to date with a description of the day on the SVR.

The Severn Valley Railway Adventure began with the Market Deeping Model Railway Club's annual summer lunch party at which a raffle was held and my ticket was drawn. One of our members had a couple of shareholders' First Class Freedom of the Line ticket vouchers left which he would be unable to use and had given them as a prize in the raffle, and they were still available when I went to claim my prize ... 

We were staying in a Premier Inn in former industrial premises in the centre of Kidderminster and walked across the town centre to Kidderminster station on the Severn Valley Railway on a sunny autumn morning, via breakfast at Caffè Nero. The idea was to catch the first SVR train of the day to the other end of the line at Bridgnorth and then wander back to Kidderminster on various trains, ending with the penultimate train of the day in order to allow some slack in case of a problem: with our car parked in Kidderminster we had to be back there in order to get home. At Kidderminster we went to the ticket office window of the Severn Valley Railway station with our Freedom of the Line vouchers which were converted into First Class tickets by the simple process of stamping them with the date. The first train of the day according to the timetable was at 10:00, but while I was having the tickets stamped an announcement was made that there would be an additional train at 09:40: experience had shown that he first train of the day was overcrowded so by adding an extra one twenty minutes earlier they were more easily able to cater for the crowds - a Good Sign. We boarded the train, composed of 1940s-50s maroon coaches hauled by a BR standard steam locomotive, the sort of train that would have been the latest technology when I was a toddler travelling with my parents! We sat in the buffet car (which was not serving: we'd have had to travel in the scheduled 10:00 train for that, but we'd just had breakfast so that was OK) and we almost had the space to ourselves.

At Bridgnorth I watched the locomotive run round the train for its (unscheduled extra) trip back to Kidderminster and then we walked into the town to explore. There we had coffee and visited the local museum. We had been to Bridgnorth before and did not need to see much, and had plenty of time for what we did do! Back at the station there was time to buy a pint and crisps before boarding our next train: the plan was to visit most of the stations on the line by travelling back and forth, also using most of the vintage trains that were in use that day. One of the great things about the Severn Valley Railway is that it has several complete rakes of coaches of more-or-less matching vintage and style, so it is not simply a steam locomotive with random coaches. We drank our beer and ate our crisps on this train, which took us to Arley, a two-platform country station on the river bank.

At Arley we had (just!) enough time for a country walk to see Victoria Bridge, an impressive cast-iron bridge which carries the Severn Valley Railway over the River Severn, which we remember seeing used as a Scottish bridge in the film The Thirty-Nine Steps.

Back at Arley station we caught the next train back to Highley, a delightful country station where for those who have more time there is an opportunity to visit the locomotives and other historic items on display nearby. Here there was a short shower of heavy rain for our visit, and the station is not blessed with a lot of shelter, but there was just enough for the crowds awaiting the next train, and the rain soon stopped. From there we took the train to Bewdley, where we had allowed ourselves a bit of time to explore. Being honest, arriving at 15:47 the exploration consisted almost entirely of selecting a place for tea and cake and consuming it (The Courtyard Bar - stunning cakes and friendly service, and on the Severn riverside). I could imagine that in summer this would be a glorious place to spend some time at the riverside bars and restaurants. We walked back to Bewdley station to await our last train of the day, back to Kidderminster.

It is a short ride from Bewdley (once the southern terminus of the Severn Valley Railway until the station at Kidderminster was built), past the West Midlands Safari Park with some of its exotic animals visible,  to the SVR terminus at Kidderminster. We had had a wonderful autumnal day out which had mostly felt like summer, if a little cool, and with just one short shower. The Severn Valley Railway was as busy as ever, with a decent service of interesting vintage trains and good service at its many refreshment facilities, and the Severn Valley countryside and the town and villages were wonderful to visit. I thoroughly recommend a visit to the Severn Valley Railway: by rail to Kidderminster it is an easy day trip from much of England and Wales, or makes an easy day excursion from Birmingham (trains from Moor Street or Snow Hill) as part of a longer break.