Saturday 15 June 2024

Tour of the French and Swiss Alps by Train, part 1

Away at Last!

It was not until we settled into our seats on the train to London that we took in how much we had missed travel since our last trip in autumn last year. Sitting at our "club duo" seats in LNER's First Class and browsing the menu it almost felt like we had come home from a long absence rather than the other way around! The familiar rattle of the catering trolleys being pushed into the coach and the friendly hosts taking our order brought back many memories of past train trips as the countryside slipped past. Late spring and early summer is a brilliant time to travel in England: the greenness of the landscape is just fantastic, especially after the wet weather we had had this spring. The cold drinks came first and we both ordered rosé wine but there was not quite enough left in the bottle on the trolley to pour two glasses, so I volunteered to have white … and the host placed the rosé bottle on our table so that we could finish the last half-glassful between us! We ordered the homity pie, a delicious vegetable pie which came with a “bean salad”, and meanwhile the crisps for a starter and the lemon and elderflower pot for dessert were delivered off the trolley. By the tine we arrived in London all of this had been consumed and we knew we’d need no supper that evening. 

We were on our way by train to London early on a Friday evening ready for a very early start on Saturday to check in for the 08:01 Eurostar train for Paris on our way to Switzerland on another Great Rail Journeys adventure. This one was new to the Great Rail Journeys catalogue, because it uses a train service which had only started a couple of years earlier, the Golden Pass Express which we were to use between Montreux and Interlaken. We had never visited Montreux before, or anywhere else on Lake Geneva, nor Chamonix in France which was included as a day trip by train in this tour. We had never really visited Interlaken, either, although we had changed trains there often enough, and although one of the day trips from there was something we had done before it still included lots we had not. Amazingly with a mix of four- and five-star hotels and First Class rail travel, this tour was not particularly expensive and I did not hesitate to book it as soon as I saw it advertised the previous year. It has been something to look forward to through all the health issues that have dogged me over the last several months, culminating in (yet another) cardioversion just two days before we left home. 

In London we stayed at the Hub by Premier Inn beside Kings Cross railway station. We have used this place once before: it is a touch cheaper less expensive than a proper Premier Inn, but to my mind is still very poor value. The room was very cramped and inconvenient and although this time we did at least have a room above ground (last time we were two floors below ground!) it was till very claustrophobic. We shall probably not use it again: the Premier Inn in Euston Road is also better located for St Pancras station and far more pleasant for just a few pounds more. 

We went to bed early but did not sleep especially well before we were up early and off to St Pancras International railway station to meet Richard our tour manager before going to the International Departures ticket gates to begin our continental rail trip. The station was extremely busy! Train travel has definitely resumed now and we look forward to more services being reinstated. After showing our tickets at the gates we were soon through the security checks and then showed our passports at both UK and French Passport Control - unusually it was the French controller who smiled and spoke to us and not the British one, very odd. Seeing that the preceding train to Paris was just boarding, we thought that if we made our way straight to the café area we might get seats at a table there for our breakfast: this turned out to be correct and while my wife looked after the luggage at our chosen table I went off and bought a couple of black coffees which we drank with the fresh fruit salads we had bought from the Little Waitrose at Kings Cross station before we went to our hotel the previous evening. Before long the boarding of our train was announced and we were off on the travelator to the platform to board the train.

We were in coach 3, towards the rear of the train, and our section of the coach was where the wheelchair spaces were located, separated from the rest of the coach by a partition with a couple of private coupes, so it was a cosy area with just nine people in it, and around our table of four there were just us and one other couple on the Great Rail Journeys tour, so we had met the first of our travelling companions already. Before long our Eurostar E320 train slipped out of the platform and began accelerating along High Speed One towards the Channel Tunnel and on to Paris. A continental breakfast was served soon after leaving, as usual in Standard Premier Class on a morning departure. We had finished breakfast by the time we emerged in France, and for some reason the train slowed down and even stopped briefly causing us to arrive a few minutes late in Paris. This was not a concern as we had about three hours to change stations and have lunch before travelling on. As always with Great Rail Journeys we were taken across Paris by coach to Gare de Lyon; if we had been travelling alone we'd have used the RER or Metro, but it would be hard to keep a group together that way. At Gare de Lyon we bought a salad lunch at Monop' Daily as we so often have and ate our lunch outside in the sunshine while we awaited the departure of our train, a TGV Lyria direct to Geneva.

The first part of the TGV journey is unremarkable apart from its high speed, soaring across France down towards Lyon. Here I began typing the first paragraph or two of this blog post, and paid a visit to the buffet bar for drinks. We were with the rest of the group, some two dozen others, on the top deck of a duplex First Class coach and it was all very comfortable. The journey came into its own once we left the high speed line and started wandering towards Switzerland. We were threading our way through the hills where the Jura and the Alps come together and where France, Switzerland and Italy start to share mountains and lakes, and it is all very pretty. At Geneva we were changing trains to take an Interregional service to Lausanne where we were to stay the first three nights. We had changed trains at Geneva before but had been travelling in the opposite direction and taking a French train out of Switzerland. As with going the other way, however, there was no passport control at the EU border (although the facilities were there) and no customs check (although, again, the facilities were there, and we did see someone having their suitcase searched but no-one even looked at us).

Lausanne turned out to be a very interesting city to visit, although it was not originally planned to be part of this tour. We were supposed to be staying in Montreux and for many of us on the tour, ourselves included, Montreux was part of the attraction, but for some reason the hotel there was not available and Great Rail Journeys had booked the Lausanne Palace Hotel for the group instead, a better hotel, apparently, but not quite where we had expected to be. The itinerary otherwise remained the same, although it was not quite as efficient and convenient, but I think we can put up with that as a trade-off for the standard of the hotel. Getting to it from the station was fun: it is a very short walk to the station from the hotel, but the walk to the hotel from the station would be up a very steep hill so we travelled just one stop on the Lausanne Metro. The hotel minibuses took our luggage (and had room for four passengers, too) and we were handed public transport passes for the city which the rest of us then used on the Metro, alighting at Lausanne Flon station opposite our hotel. Well, I say opposite, but it was still four storeys below the hotel entrance, but there is a public lift from the Metro station to the street and we eventually all made it up to street level and were checked into the Palace Hotel. Our room was fantastic. This was a five-star hotel and was well-equipped: unusually for Switzerland there was a coffee maker in the room and the minibar was free to use (although the only alcoholic drink there was beer, but still a great part of the standard offer). By the time we had sorted out our luggage (brought up to our room by the porters) and showered it was time for dinner at a hotel restaurant and then bed. It is always helpful when dinner on the first night is included in these packages especially on Saturdays (busy) or Sundays (half the places closed), and dinner at the Lausanne Palace was great!

On Sunday morning we set of to explore some of the city centre of Lausanne, taking the Metro just two stops to the opposite side of the ravine in which the city's shopping streets are located, from where we were able to cross a bridge to Lausanne Cathedral. As it happened we were there between the Sunday morning services and were able to pop in to look at the building. We did not have time to stay to worship as there was a programme of activities for the rest of the day, but we did spot a likely restaurant for a fondue and kept that in mind as a possibility for the evening unless something even better turned up. We walked back through the quiet Sunday morning shopping streets to our hotel and met the rest of the group for the first group tour. As we were not now staying in Montreux our capable tour manager, Richard, arranged for the group to take an earlier train than necessary for the included tour of the Château de Chillon. The ride along the shore of Lake Geneva (Lac Léman in the local language, French) was wonderful with an almost continous view of the lake, with hills beyond and a series of towns, villages and vineyards between the railway and the lake. At Montreux railway station, standing at the platform was the train would be taking later to Interlaken, the Golden Pass Express, looking very splendid.

Montreux, billed as "stylish Montreux" in Great Rail Journeys' publicity, was a lovely place to visit, especially on the waterfront. Some of the party were excited by the statue of Freddie Mercury along the promenade! We bought a take-away salad lunch from the local Micros supermarket and sat by the lakeside to eat it in the warm sunshine. It was an idyllic time, and like most of the group we opted to walk along the lakeside footpath to the Château de Chillon rather than take the train (the plan, had we been staying in Montreux, had been to take the trolleybus there, apparently). We all arrived eventually at the entrance to the Château for the booked guided tour in which we learnt the fascinating history of this building, built on a natural rocky island just off the lake shore by the Savoy family to claim duty on traffic on the lake and conquered by the Bernese a couple of centuries later. While we were being taken around the interior the rain came, and came heavily. By the time we were ready to leave, mercifully the rain had almost ceased, and soon did cease. We made our way to the nearby pier from where a paddle-boat took us back along the lake to Lausanne, with a view of "stylish Montreux" and a few other places where we docked on the way. the weather by now had turned quite good again and we were able to sit on the forward deck with a super view of the surrounding hills and mountains. Most of us then used the Metro again to return to the hotel. We showered and changed and made our way back to the restaurant we had discovered in the morning and enjoyed our classic Swiss cheese fondue with Swiss wine served by attentive staff at the Café L'Evêché, after which we returned to the hotel, with help of the Metro, through the rain which had returned, but was OK for the short times we had to be outside. 

And so our first, brilliant, day of this Swiss "adventure" came to an end. We had visited a cathedral and a castle in two different towns and enjoyed a traditional Swiss supper and we were staying in a wonderful traditional Belle Epoque hotel. We looked forward eagerly to what more new experiences the subsequent days would bring, beginning with the Mont Blanc Express, back into France for the day!

Monday 3 June 2024

No Such Thing as a Boring Train Journey

East Midlands Railway class 170 at Lincoln
A very familiar route to a very familiar destination

It all began with the Bishop of Lincoln's car being stolen ... Newly appointed, Bishop Stephen arranged to visit all the parish priests ("vicars") in his new diocese before his diary became too full, just to get to know us all, but on the day he was due to visit Stamford the programme fell apart because his car was stolen and he needed the day to sort things out regarding that. New arrangements were hastily made with him visiting some in the town as planned but several weeks later, and some others visiting him in Lincoln, as by then it was becoming hard for him to clear a whole day for visiting. Unfortunately the new dates coincided with my radiotherapy and I could not be available to visit or be visited, so ...

Eventually, long after everyone else had met the Bishop I set off to Lincoln to go and see him. We had actually met before because he had been our interim bishop for a few months during the vacancy and he had installed me as an honorary Canon of Lincoln Cathedral, but we had not had the "tell me about yourself" conversation that he wanted to have. It had been a long time since I had been to Lincoln, and I had not been on many train rides recently either, so rather than just rush off to Lincoln, see the Bishop and rush back, I decided to go in good time, look around the city for a bit, have lunch and then attend the meeting before returning late in the afternoon: I would make it a day out.

I even bought my ticket at the station. I like to do this if the ticket office is open and it is a simple enough journey. It is good to talk to the booking clerk and build a proper relationship over the years. And so I sat on the station awaiting my train to Peterborough, which, as with all the trains on this day, was on time. Changing trains at Peterborough I had a few minutes before my train left for Lincoln, and in my wallet was a free coffee-and-biscuit voucher which I had received last time I passed this way with LNER - they give them to First Class ticket-holders who ask for them, and when I was given mine the Bike Barista who honours the vouchers was not open so they said I could use them any time in future. This time I was travelling Standard Class with two other train companies but the voucher was, of course, still valid once issued. Carefully carrying my coffee and wafer to Platform 2a I waited briefly for the train doors to be opened and found a suitable seat with a table at which I could get some work done on my way to Lincoln. These trains are so much better than the ones that used to be used on this route: comfortable seats with enough legroom and tables big enough to work on.

Lincoln trains often share a platform at Peterborough
with Thameslink trains through London

It is amazing how quickly time passes when you're concentrating. In no time the train was stopping in Spalding and then slowing and stopping while awaiting a platform at the junction station in Sleaford - the timetable is so slack on this train service that the trains often run early and have to wait here and there. At Sleaford a few more passengers boarded the train. It is busiest between Sleaford and Lincoln, and emptiest between Spalding and Sleaford, neither of which is surprising, really, but now that there is a full day's service between Peterborough and Lincoln, with better trains, stopping at these large market towns the number of passengers overall seems to be on the rise and the two-coach units fill well but I have yet to see one overcrowded like the single-coach ones sometimes were north of Sleaford.

And before I knew it I was hastily packing away my things as the train approached Lincoln: I could not afford not to be ready because this train was not terminating there but going forward to Doncaster so I had to get off smartly.

And so into the city centre. I was keen to see how it had developed since I had last been there with time to look around. Almost all the shops in the redeveloped Sincil Street area were now filled with a mixture of established local traders and new upmarket shops. This really was now the place to be whereas it used to be very much a secondary street with down-market shops. The covered market hall has also now opened but was not trading on the day I was there unfortunately so I was not able to visit that. I made my way to a small Italian bar I knew just off the High Street and had my lunch there before going to the bus station to take a bus up the hill to go and meet the Bishop.

It was a lovely chat: we had both waited a long time for it, and it was good to be working together. Apart from my unpaid voluntary ministry in one of the Stamford parishes I also have one other ministry working directly for the Bishop across the diocese, so there was plenty of practical stuff to talk about as well as getting to know each other as colleagues.

I had a brief meeting afterwards with my Archdeacon who kindly drove me back to the station, and then I was on my way home.

Returning meant a very tight connection at Peterborough, so tight that it was not shown in the online journey planners; they reckon that four minutes is not enough time to change trains at Peterborough (and it probably isn't if you're not familiar with it), but as I have said, the trains on this route often run a touch early and today was such a time. The train was stopped briefly at a signal while awaiting a platform at Peterborough but arrived in good time for me to make my way over to the correct platform for my connecting train to Stamford, which was just approaching the platform when I got there, also on time. Had I missed it, there would have been the alternative of taking the bus from the nearby bus station, but that would, of course, have been very much slower. Every train was on time, everything smooth and easy, a lovely day out, and dinner at home with my wife.

When I've not been able to travel much this year it was a joy even to undertake such an ordinary trip, one that I have done multiple times before, and to see that in spite of all the criticism currently directed at our railway system, there can be times when everything just works perfectly. Nothing was late, nothing was out of order, nothing was uncomfortable or inadequate. And now, for my next trip, Switzerland. Watch this space!

Tuesday 28 May 2024

Changed Travel Patterns

If no-one's travelling by train any more, what are all these people doing here?

I had to go to a meeting at Bulwell near Nottingham this week and, as usual, decided to go by train. It may have taken a little longer to get there than it would have taken to drive, but two factors made up my mind to use the train: the first is that I very much prefer rail travel, which I find more relaxing as well as interesting, and the second is that it gives me the opportunity to get things done during the journey, more than making up for any extra time it takes. I can do things on the train, and if I have more than a few moments at junction stations when changing trains, I can do things, then, too. And life in generally civilised, with tea and coffee reasonably available, toilets available, seats comfortable, and I don't have to drive.

I have started writing this in a waiting room at Leicester station while awaiting my connection home to Stamford. Some would have you believe that "owing to changed travel patterns" far fewer people are travelling by train these days, but frankly you would not get many more people, seated anyway, in this waiting room. And there are scores more waiting out on the platform. It is not crowded, but it is busy, busy enough. People are travelling, and they are travelling by train. The only reason fewer are using this route is that there are fewer trains to use! The real reason, which you seldom see quoted, is that there are not enough drivers to run the full pre-Covid timetable, at least, not without short-notice train cancellations cause by illness etc.. That's a good reason: Covid made it hard to do driver training and it will take a while to catch up, but I do wish they'd be honest. If there are changes in travel patterns it would be the reduction in travel-to-work peak travel, and yet the gaps in our local timetable are not in the morning and evening commuting times but mid-morning eastbound and mid-afternoon west bound, just at their most inconvenient for some of my usual journeys, resulting in bus and car use when I would definitely have used the train.

These issues did not affect my journey today, though, and all went very well indeed, with every train on time, no train overcrowded and all connections comfortably made. Indeed, one connection was so comfortable that I was half an hour ahead of schedule and found myself "forced" to enjoy a coffee and croissant to soak up the extra time at Nottingham ... I seem to remember exactly the same thing happening last year but I dare not rely on it and start an hour later, just in case things don't go so smoothly and I end up late! Whether I am driving or travelling by train I always travel with plenty of slack in the schedule to ensure, as far as humanly possible, a timely arrival.

And so I arrived at my meeting in good time and spent a good day with colleagues learning about the interface between psychology and theology in cases presented as "possession", but this is a travel blog and not a religion blog, so we'll skip over that! After a good lunch and a later cup of tea it was time to make my way back to the railway station for the journey home. I had about ten minutes to wait for the train at Bulwell station and in spite of it being mid-May the weather was very cold. I had only a raincoat to wrap around me for warmth and was glad when the train arrived and I could warm up on board. This train was reasonably full without being crowded and took me to Nottingham where I waited another few minutes for the next train to Leicester. This was a Midland main line London train, but unlike the one that brought me from Leicester in the morning it stopped at most of the stations in between. I was, however, engrossed in some work and was suddenly aware of arriving in Leicester and having to gather my things together quickly to change trains once more for the last train of the day, home to Stamford. 

By now it was the evening peak for travel home from work and the platform was quite full, as was the waiting room in which I began work on this blog page. When the train came in from Birmingham about the passengers already on board got off and then most of those of us on the platform got on: it is amazing how well these trains soak up huge numbers of people, for everyone had a seat and indeed there were just a few to spare. But it was busy, far from the "no-one is travelling any more" of government ministers. As with all the train this day, this one was on time and I was soon back in Stamford at the end of another good day. Not the most exciting adventure I've ever been on, rally rather workaday, but when you have travelled as little as I have been able to do this year it was good to get out and good to travel by train once again. Six trains, all comfortable, all on time, and not a bad price, either, for an Any Time Return, albeit with my Senior Railcard discount.

Friday 17 May 2024

A Lovely Day for a Train Ride

It was "one of those days,*" as they say

It was one of those mornings, anyway!  I had a meeting to attend in Southwark and had booked my train travel in advance, taking advantage of the cheaper tickets to travel First Class between Peterborough and London Kings Cross. A Standard Class Day Return would get me to and from Peterborough at the beginning and end go the day, and my Oyster, linked to my Senior Railcard, would do for the local travel in London.

There had been a lot of rainy and cold weather but it improved a few days before the trip, and although showers were forecast at home in Stamford, it was still warm and the weather in London was forecast to be sunny and dry. It looked like being a lovely day for travel and I dressed in T-shirt and a very light, unlined jacket, although I did pack a foldable-up umbrella in my shoulder bag! 

As I waited in very light drizzle at Stamford railway station for the 07:56 departure towards Stansted Airport the train was indicated to be on time, and my LNER app assured me that my connecting train at Peterborough was also on time. 

Everything was looking great. The train came in and along with a host of other people (many of them commuters to Peterborough or Cambridge at this time of the day) I boarded and took a seat for the short ride to Peterborough. As soon as everyone was aboard the Train Manager announced that a broken-down freight train ahead of us was blocking the line and that we would wait at the platform in Stamford until that train had been rescued ... several updates later the "Thunderbird" locomotive moved the stricken train onwards and we were free to go, some 50 minutes late. Needless to say, I had missed my connection to London, but I consulted the LNER app and found that there was an alternative connection a few minutes after our likely arrival at Peterborough. It says something about the general reliability of our trains, contrary to popular belief, that I had never before been in the position of missing a train for which I had a train-specific Advance ticket, so I put the system to the test on arriving at Peterborough. I went straight to the customer service desk by the ticket barriers and explained my position, and the helpful person at the desk wrote me a note, stamped with the LNER stamp showing the date and time, allowing me to use my ticket on the next train. Simple! And I would be only about 40 minutes late into London, which was within the "slack" time that I had allowed, so I could relax and enjoy the rest of the day ...

Railway-wise the rest of the day went pretty well. Although I had no seat reservation on the train I caught there was no shortage of available single First Class seats, and the train was a British Rail InterCity 225 set, one of my favourite trains, of which there are very few still operating. Sitting back in comfort I was offered breakfast, choosing the bacon roll to supplement the cereal I had had before leaving home. Orange juice and coffee accompanied this nicely. By now the drizzle had stopped and the sun was shining: it really was now a lovely day for a train ride. The journey was punctuated by a series of phone calls (themselves occasionally punctuated by passing through the tunnels north of London) from my wife about the breakdown of our washing machine. It was one of those mornings, after all. One thing led to another in respect of the washing machine and I don't want to bore myself typing it out, nor to bore you reading it! Suffice it to say that our conversations did not entirely solve the problem.

Last time I attended one of these meetings I walked from Kings Cross to the venue in Southwark, but my health condition this time meant that this was not such a good idea, and in any case the delay to the journey would have left insufficient time for that anyway. I popped over to St Pancras International station to buy my packed lunch from Marks & Spencer  and to buy a refill pack of St Pancras Blend tea from Fortnum & Mason - our favourite tea, which had run out. I was pleased to note that F&M were now using sustainable compostable bags instead of the heavy plastic ones they used to use.

Sub-tropical Southwark!
So, not wanting to walk so much this time I took the Underground Northern Line direct to the Borough station from Kings Cross St Pancras and walked the short distance from there to my meeting. In days gone by I'd have used an A to Z Atlas for this walk, but nowadays the Maps app on my iPhone does the job, and with the walk set up on that my Apple Watch prompts me at every turn. It really is brilliant. And the weather remained sunny and warm, a lovely day for a trip.

It is as well that I enjoyed the trip, because although the travel was now going well, we had not yet finished with "one of those mornings", for when I arrived it transpired that our convenor who was going to chair the meeting and had the agenda was unable to be present: she had injured herself in a fall and was not well enough to travel. Enough of us had enough information between us to have a worthwhile meeting, but not quite as worthwhile as we had been hoping. Our last meeting had been remote on Zoom, so it was in any case good to be together and we did accomplish enough to justify being there. I declined the coffee and biscuits, having had coffee and a bacon roll already. We had our packed lunches together as planned while continuing our discussion, but once this was over and our brief report agreed we felt that it was time to disperse, about an hour earlier than we had planned. I was glad to have the extra time because it had been going to be a bit tight to catch my train home and now I would be able to take it much easier.

I walked back to the Borough station; it is one of those few Underground stations to have lifts rather than escalators, and just as on my outward journey the lift was very quick and efficient: no hanging around waiting. There were some delays on the Northern Line but a train came soon enough, the delays showing more in crowded trains than in longer journeys, but after a couple of stops I found a seat. Sometimes the sunflower lanyard gets you a seat, sometimes it doesn't.

Back at Kings Cross St Pancras with time in hand, and tea already bought, I decided to take a little time taking photographs and video of St Pancras International station which I could file and use to illustrate my blog posts describing international train journeys when I quite often find myself not in a position to take good pictures. Then I made my way across to Kings Cross and ... at first I felt it was still "one of those days" when I saw the entrance from the concourse to the First Class lounge was barricaded, but I thought it might be worth trying the entrance off the bridge across to the platforms and yes, that was available. I presume the lift from the concourse must have been out of order, but there was no notice advising of the alternative entrance, or, at least, not one I noticed. Relaxing with a cold drink I waited for my train to be announced, the 15:30, the one through train per day to Glasgow, which was surprisingly uncrowded, in First Class at least. Now I was expecting a decent dinner at home later, so I was fairly abstemious with the on-board catering and just ordered the crumpets - these would have been great with tea but the hot drinks are not served until later (too late, indeed, for those leaving the train at Peterborough) so I took the offered cold drink, rosé wine on this lovely warm sunny day. It was all very good. Incidentally, when booking my seat for this train journey I chose a seat towards the rear (the London end) of the First Class section, for that is where the at-seat service begins on an Azuma and if my journey is short it does help to be among the first to be served so that I am not still eating when leaving the train! Avoid Seat 1, where it still exists, if you want a view; Seat 2 is great.

And so to the change of train at Peterborough. It was no longer a lovely day for travelling, for there it was raining steadily and quite hard at times. I sat in the platforms 6/7 waiting room and did a few online jobs that needed attention. The train to Stamford, like the one from London, was on time and I shared my location with my wife who kindly came to meet me at Stamford rail station to drive me home. By then the rain had stopped, but with my recent health issues I was glad to have a ride home.

In spite of all the issues it had a been a great day. I have not been out much lately, and to take a train ride on such a lovely day (south of Stevenage, anyway!) was good in itself. To have met my friends was also good in itself in spite of the absence of some, including our convenor. There are more short train trips to come soon, to Lincoln and to Nottingham, but then the next big one, to Interlaken! Hopefully they will happen on a lovely day for a train ride ...

* "when nothing seems to go right"

Tuesday 26 March 2024

Travel Plans for 2024, at last!

More Railway Adventures Await

Well, the King and the Princess of Wales have both told the world about their cancer diagnosis, and so perhaps it’s time I admitted to my own as an explanation of why it has been so quiet on this weblog recently. I am just coming to the end of four weeks of radical radiotherapy during which time I have not been able to travel and have not liked to make many plans in case the side effects prevented me from going. Now, as I am in the last couple of days with side effects not too bad, my head is full of possibilities for when the weather improves! Coinciding with the season of Lent has meant that the dietary deprivations have not affected me as much as they would have at Easter, and the rainy weather has reduced the annoyance at not being able to travel.

Meanwhile there are two exciting plans that I do already have for some train travel this year: a Great Rail Jouneys escorted tour to Switzerland, including the new Golden Pass Express, which was booked before I had the diagnosis and is well after the side effects should have disappeared, and an independent trip to Venice, returning as far as Paris on the Venice-Simplon Orient Express, booked recently but with confidence that I should be fit by then. In anticipation of the Venice trip, I was given not one but two Lego Orient Express kits for my birthday! I shall be able to make up a train with four coaches instead of the standard two … And building it is something I can be doing on those afternoons when the post-radiotherapy fatigue sets in. I hope that on the Swiss trip I shall be able to visit Meiringen and the Reichenbach Falls, still on “the list” at present.

We have also been invited to visit our friends in Chichester for a theatre evening, so although the train tickets are not yet booked that is definitely another adventure to look forward to. And I can now begin planning a few more! There are so many possibilities that have been put off by one issue or another, and it’s also time I saw some of my family: where to start is going to be the difficult decision!

Thursday 15 February 2024

Don't Drink and Drive!

A Christmas Party by Bus

Each winter holiday some friends come and stay with us for a few of the twelve days of Christmas, arriving soon after Boxing Day and returning on or soon after New Year's Day. The last couple of years we have all travelled together to a relative's home in Helpston, a village between Peterborough and our home in Stamford. (The Helpston which was the home of the poet John Clare, very popular in these parts.)

We go for lunch which is a drawn out affair with plenty of fun ... and no-one wants to be "Des," the designated driver, but that is fine because there happens to be a bus service between Stamford and Peterborough which serves Helpston, and, indeed, stops very close to the end of the road where our relative lives (not so close to our house, but that is not a problem because we do need exercise with all the feasting that happens at that time of the year). Indeed, I have long maintained that one of the big advantages of using public transport is the incidental exercise you get compared with the "door-to-door" service expected of car travel: I do not need to spend time and money on gym membership!

This year our local bus company, Delaine Buses, has slightly improved its Saturday timetable by adding one more service at the end of the day to match the weekday service, which made a difference to us because on those days between Christmas and New Year the Saturday timetable was being used every day on our route and so we were able to return home an hour later than we have done in previous years. As I have often remarked concerning service changes: if a bus or train runs we shall use it; if it doesn't we can't! Our bus out to Helpston was pretty busy (well, five of us helped!), and the last bus back was fairly well loaded, too. This is a popular route linking several villages to Peterborough and to Stamford, and a pleasant ride, too, during daylight. (I am sure it could stand an even better service, with later buses and peak-time frequency enhancements, but this is something that Delaine do not seem to do.)

We had a great time and we returned home happy and content - with no-one concerned about their driving and without having to cram five of us into the confines of our car. Four of us travelled free of charge on passes of various kinds, too, which was a bonus.

Tuesday 16 January 2024

Three New Homes to Visit - and a Couple of Great Exhibitions

Well, R2D2, fancy seeing you here!

Trains here, trains there ...

As I mentioned in This Could Be the  Last Time ..., my friends who lived for years in Croydon have moved to Chichester. My wife and I had an invitation to visit them and see their now home, and we arranged a mutually convenient date for the diary. Meanwhile, our son in west London had moved with his family to a house just a few streets away from where they used to live, and we had, of course, an invitation to come and see their new home, too. By bringing forward by one day our trip to Chichester we were able to call on them in London on our way home! Great. Time to look at some train times and book some tickets.

The fastest way to Chichester remains Cross Country to Peterborough, LNER to London Kings Cross, Underground to Victoria then fast Southern train to Chichester, but much the easier way, and the way we chose because we were not in a hurry, was to take Cross Country to Peterborough and then Thameslink straight through to East Croydon from where a Southern train would take us to Chichester. It was a smooth, easy journey and we travelled Standard Class on through Super Off-Peak Single tickets, but we had a “cunning plan” for an even better journey! On the other hand, because these included Southern, electronic tickets were not available and we had to pick them up at the station: I did not risk buying them at the station because so often our local ticket office is closed

We left Stamford on the train to Peterborough just before noon, taking a packed lunch with us. Connecting with Thameslink at Peterborough is simple, and because trains are half-hourly there is not a problem even if there are delays, unless they are very substantial, because there will always be one soon. As it happened we caught a train earlier than we anticipated because a late one was standing there about to depart when we got to its platform, so on the "bird in the hand" principle we boarded it. When we take these trains we always travel in the rear coach from Peterborough, because there is a First Class section there which is always (well, whenever I've been there, anyway) declassified for Standard Class ticket holders, and our cunning plan was to move to that section as soon as the notice went up on the information display to show that it was so. And there we sat in First Class comfort on our dead cheap tickets and enjoyed our packed lunch, there being no catering at all on these trains in spite of the long distance they cover (all the way to Horsham!). a corollary of this dodge is that if you have paint for a First Class ticket on Thameslink, go to the front of the train southbound because if you travel in the rear you'll have to mix with hoi polloi like me on super off-peak standard dead cheap tickets!

So we rushed down to London. Even these stopping trains have fast top speeds and do miss the suburban stations in London. Then the train takes the new tunnel across to the "basement" platforms at St Pancras International and crawls through central London stopping everywhere until London Bridge, affording some great views along the River Thames from Blackfriars, where the station now stretches right across the bridge. After London Bridge the next stop is East Croydon where we were to change trains. The friends we were visiting in Chichester used to live in Croydon and here is where we used to transfer to the tram for the last couple of miles to their former home. Now we did not even have to change platforms because the train to Chichester followed ours into the same platform. At least, it would have done but for the signal failures that had caused our train to be late and were leading to congestion at such a busy junction. In the event a few other late trains had to squeeze through before our connection could get in, but it was only three minutes late in the end and hardly a big deal. The wait for it gave us time for coffee in a platform coffee bar, which had been a factor in the plans, but what I hadn't bargained-fr was the 50p surcharge for decaffeinated coffee, on top of the expensive London price. In many cafés there is no surcharge at all, and where there is it is usually only 10p. Still, it was good coffee, freshly made and we sat and enjoyed it until our train came in. The trip down to the south coast is always a pleasure, very different scenery from our home area, and as we pass Arundel and see the castle and cathedral on the hill we know we are somewhere very different: indeed, Arundel Cathedral looks more like those across the English Channel in France than any other English cathedral, Anglican or Roman Catholic. Then along the flat coastal plain to Chichester where our friends met us at the station and took us to their new home, much the size of our own, into which we moved five years ago when I retired.

At Chichester Cathedral there was an interesting art installation, Peace Doves by Peter Walker, made up of fifteen thousand individually handmade paper doves which are suspended above the Cathedral’s historic Nave. Each dove contains a message of peace, love and hope, written by local community groups, schools and members of the public. All white, they are uplit by violet lamps and are quite captivating as they hover over the nave.

We enjoyed our friends' new home, meals out and drinks by the sea at Felpham (a bit breezy even in the south in October, so the visit to the beach was short!), and we also visited their daughter's new home at Havant. Everyone seems to be on the move. 

On our last day in Chichester I visited an exhibition at the Novium Museum which displayed the toys, books and posters which were associated with the Star Wars films. This made an interesting addition to the Star Wars costume and merchandise exhibition I had seen at Peterborough Cathedral just a few months before.

Soon the time had come to wend our way home from Chichester, but first, the too-long delayed visit to our son's new family home in west London!

We were driven back to Chichester station on our last morning and caught a train to London Victoria, beginning much the way we had come - this is probably the service we had used between East Croydon and Chichester on our way down - but there was no need to change trains to get north of London this time. It was Saturday morning and you can never be sure what Underground lines are working at weekends, but all was well in the direction we were going, and by changing stations at Hammersmith we were soon in the familiar streets of Shepherd's Bush for they had not moved far and their nearest Underground station was still the same one, the children at the same school, but a lot of work to be done to get the house into the great condition that they'd left the previous one. To get a house with a garden in London, though, some compromise is necessary.

After lunch with the family we left by our familiar route (albeit with a longer walk to the Underground) of Hammersmith and City Line to Kings Cross, LNER First Class to London and the Cross Country Trains connection home to Stamford. Not the most exciting trip to write about, but exciting for us to see our friends' new home and our son's new home, with Chichester Cathedral's Peace Doves and the Novium's Star Wars thrown in for good measure, together with some very pleasant train rides.