Sunday, 3 September 2017

The Traditional Route to the Isle of Wight

Our location on my iPhone screen
as the catamaran left Portsmouth
Harbour on our way to Ryde
We have had several holidays now on the Sussex coast, sometimes tripping out to Hampshire. We always stay in Chichester and spend at least a day with our friends who rent a bungalow at Bracklesham Bay. Two years ago we went to Portsmouth to visit the Mary Rose Museum and when we saw how easy it was to get across to the Isle of Wight we went back the following day and visited Osborne House - you can read all about it in A South Coast Adventure. Last year I had hoped to visit the Isle of Wight Steam Railway but the industrial troubles on Southern Railway made that impossible to do, so we put it off until this year and made our 2017 trip into a bit of a tour. I managed to plan the whole holiday to require only one journey to be made on Southern, and that could be replaced by a bus trip if the trains were not running! (But the industrial action was suspended and the trains were running with only the normal Southern cancellations.)

As usual we would go one way and come back another and the route fulfilled several objectives:

  • To use the traditional route all the way from London Waterloo to Shanklin with through First Class tickets
  • To be on the Island on a day when the Steam Railway was operating to full timetable
  • To travel back via Salisbury and the scenic route to Bath (we had come this way last year and I wanted to see it from the other direction)
  • To avoid reliance on the dispute-ridden Southern Railway
  • To provide enough time to relax and enjoy the journey
Booking was complex. I needed a hotel room for two nights at Shanklin, a Sunday on the Isle of Wight, a day in Portsmouth so that we could visit the Mary Rose Museum again now that the ship is fully preserved and can be seen properly,  and three nights in Chichester. Given the destination and the time of year I bagged the Shanklin hotel first, then one night in Portsmouth and three in Chichester; I came unstuck slightly in Chichester and we had to change rooms after the first night because three nights in one room were not available in the cathedral guest house where we wanted to stay: small price to pay for everything else falling into place!

Tickets ready at Waterloo.
First Class London to Shanklin:
through ticket just £17.35 each!
I booked the Mary Rose Museum in advance but the best deal for Steam Railway was an inclusive rover ticket which has to be bought from the station at Shanklin and covers the Steam Railway along with the Island Line (the national rail service on the island).

Train tickets for all the main legs of the journey were bought in advance as soon as the Advance First Class tickets went on sale, which in the case of the Waterloo-Shanklin leg was not until a fortnight before we left, a tad nail-biting but we got there. These tickets are very substantially cheaper than off-peak Standard Class ones bought on the day and gave us a much better experience, but because of all the work being done at Waterloo station the timetable was not fixed that weekend until very late and so they could not sell Advance tickets until then either, and when they did there were very few, but I got the two I needed.

And off we went.

The trip began as always with the stroll to Stamford station, on a Saturday morning because we wanted the middle day on the Isle of Wight to be Sunday. We left Stamford at 10:00 and were in Shanklin at tea time, a quick, smooth and simple trip. The usual change of train at Peterborough and then Virgin Trains East Coast, First Class, to London Kings Cross. In the past I've walked to Waterloo from Kings Cross but it's a bit of a trek with holiday luggage so we used the Underground, Northern Line to Bank then Waterloo & City Line to complete the trip. The transfer went so well that we had an hour to spare at Waterloo before our booked train and spent it choosing a packed lunch in the station shops and looking around at some of the other shops. We also had a quick look at the work beginning to open the former international platforms for local use as part of the work to expand the station.

First Class saloon on the main line to Portsmouth Harbour
Our train was announced in good time and we went to board it. Our tickets were valid only for the 13:05 departure but we had no specific seat reservations and went for the First Class section nearer the front of the train so as to be nearest the ferry at Portsmouth Harbour. The SouthWest Trains express train was very smart and comfortable inside and we were delighted with the accommodation. It was fast and smooth and whisked us rapidly through southwest London, stopping occasionally. There were no refreshments included in the fare (and as I had paid only £35 for both of us to travel in some luxury I could hardly complain!) but there was a retail trolley and we bought a half-bottle of wine and some fruit cake to round off our lunch brought with us from the station.

I know, I look more like I'm commuting to
work than going on holiday, but we like to
wear our best outfits for the journey so as not
to crush them in the suitcase. Anyway, it's all
part of the "updated retro" style of our holidays!
On the train to Portsmouth again.
Before long we had our first fleeting glimpse of the sea as the train crossed a creek onto Portsea Island and made its way along the final stretch all through Portsmouth and onto the pier at Portsmouth Harbour.

Walking along the platform the ramp down to the Isle of Wight catamaran was right in front of us and we strolled down: there was a short wait for the catamaran departure and a comfortable waiting area with a café bar where we had cup of tea before boarding. We showed our train tickets which included the crossing on the WightLink catamaran and sat down for the short trip across the Solent. The forecast rain began at this point and visibility became poor (but not unsafe!) and we waited under the canopy at Ryde Pier Head station for the little ex-Underground train that would take us the rest of the way to Shanklin. It soon came and with several other luggage-bearing holidaymakers we trundled our way down the east coast of the Isle of Wight, in our case to the current end of the line at Shanklin. Nothing much to see through the wet windows and we walked to the Channel View Hotel - only about a five-minute downhill walk - with hoods up. Not a good start, but this was the only bad weather we had on the Hampshire half of the holiday.

When we added it it all up we reckon we paid around £75 for the two of us to get to Shanklin from Stamford, and it took an effortless, unhurried seven hours from our door to the reception of the hotel. I reckon that compares pretty well to driving and queuing (and paying) for the car ferry. Standard Class travel would have cost even less, of course, but with First at those prices, why on earth would we go Standard? Or drive?

View from our window on arrival
View from our window next morning!

The weather on the
Isle of Wight!

Our room was not advertised as having a sea view (which costs extra, apparently), but I was quite happy with this view of the sea!

The rain subsided and we went for a walk along the seafront and then inland to the old village, where we had dinner at a restaurant chosen from Trip Advisor, and from reading the menu outside and made a mental note of another restaurant to use the following day. We did not get very wet although the rain came and went a bit, and our jackets dried out well enough in our lovely hotel room which actually had coat hooks, not that common a feature.

On the Sunday morning we were down to breakfast in good time, waited service here with some buffet items. Brilliant view out to sea from the breakfast room, but facing east on a bright, sunny morning meant we could not actually look out much because the sun was straight in our faces ...

Island Line train preparing to leave Shanklin for Ryde
Isle of Wight Steam Railway train at Smallbrook Junction
Off to Shanklin station to buy our Island Liner tickets which gave us the run of both island railways for the whole day. First off to Smallbrook Junction where the Steam Railway meets the electrified Island Line. The ride on the ex-Tube stock was a lot more interesting than on the gloomy afternoon the day before: we could see the sea in places, the countryside and towns in others. It was warm and sunny when we got off at Smallbrook and went over to the platform where a steam train already stood waiting. No queue for a ticket, we just showed our Island Liners and went to find a seat. The ancient suburban coaches (also from London but much older than the 1938 Tube stock we'd just used!) had separate compartments with a door each, and finding a compartment to ourselves proved impossible, but two seats together was easy enough. This train took us straight to  Wootton at the other end of the line. Had we chosen, it would have been possible from here to catch a bus to East Cowes or to Newport, but although there would have been time for a little wondering we decided just to go for a brief walk and catch the next train back, thus we would have ridden behind both the locomotives in steam that day and on both sets of vintage coaches. The dark green Southern Railway livery looked really great on a sunny day and the whole railway was full of atmosphere.

Between trains at Havenstreet - you'd also be between trains
if the trains were both here
We got off the next train at Havenstreet (or Haven Street as its station name boards read) which is the main station on the line where the preservation work is done and the visitor facilities are. We had a glass of beer and watched the trains for a bit, avoiding the "Railway Folk" who were there to add a bit of extra entertainment for children, but it is a long time since we last needed that facility (although the time will come again when the grandchildren are not much older!). We then visited the museum, the carriage works and the gift shop (gifts for the aforesaid grandchildren) and had coffee and cake - there was an ice-cream in there somewhere, too, but I can't remember when we had that - and caught a train back to Smallbrook Junction. Everything at Havenstreet and throughout the day was of the highest quality and I cannot recommend the Isle of Wight Steam Railway highly enough: it is one of those good days out that will stay with me for a long time.

At Smallbrook we went back to the Island Line and could have used it for the rest of the day to
explore the east side of the island, but there is more to life than squeezing every last penny out of a rover ticket and we just travelled as far as Sandown and walked to the seafront there, from where we could see Shanklin along the bay. We decided to walk along the promenade which was well-maintained all the way along the beach to Shanklin, joining where we had walked the previous evening. The tide was well is, so walking on the actual beach was out of the question, and even with a calm sea we did have to dodge the spray in places!

We made our way back to our hotel and enjoyed a swim in its small swimming pool, and then went out for dinner at the restaurant we had identified the night before in the old village, telephoning first to reserve a table, which turned out to have been wise as it was very busy (this is a Sunday!) and some people did have to be turned away.

There was no planned agenda for the Monday provided that we ended up at Portsmouth by bedtime, so we had a leisurely breakfast and checked out. The hotel kept our luggage for us and we took the bus to Ventnor, which had been the next station along the line before it was truncated at Shanklin.

At Ventnor we first visited its small heritage museum where we discovered that this had been a small, poor, fishing village before it became a health resort for those suffering from the respiratory diseases of the industrial era, and then the railway came and became a more general holiday resort. The railway has since gone and town has suffered somewhat from the shrinkage of its tourist business, like so many other English resorts, but it is picking up again now. We had a fantastic ice-cream at a place called Crave a few doors down from the museum and after a walk along the seafront, coffee at the art deco Winter Gardens pavilion then caught our bus back to the hotel.

Reunited with our luggage we now walked to the station for the last time on this trip and bought two single tickets to Portsmouth Harbour for the next exciting stage of our holiday.

Monday, 28 August 2017

Summer Alpine Adventure 5: Sunshine and Rain

When I began writing up this tour, I expected it to need three episodes to take all that we had packed into the eleven days without (a) taking an age to write before I publish the first bit and (b) boring my readers, and myself. However, it was so action-packed that one of the other customers on the tour asked the tour manager on about the third day, "Do we get a holiday at some point?" and so after four episodes I find myself writing a fifth. I really must get on with this, because I've since been on another holiday - a rather interesting one which I am raring to write up - and a day out which is worth a few words.

So, where was I? Yes, the day trip to Italy! A reasonably early start was required from Zermatt because before we could go anywhere else we had to travel back down the valley to the main line at Brig. Here we had a few minutes to spare before our international main-line train to Domodossala and we had a little wander around this place where we had stayed for three nights on our last visit to the Swiss Alps. Little had changed and it was great to see it all again. Our train was a regional one, nothing very special, and although we were in First Class accommodation it was fairly spartan and not air-conditioned, although the windows did open very wide. Off we set and before long were in the Simplon Tunnel on our way to Italy. The train was signal-checked in the tunnel, tantalisingly close to the end but very dark and very hot, but eventually we were on our way. This is still mountain territory and although we were on a standard-gauge main line there was still a spiral tunnel, although you do not really notice it; so many tunnels and this is just another one. We arrived in a baking hot Domodossala and made our way to the bus station across the road where a coach waited to take the whole party to Stresa on the western shore of Lake Maggiore. I had been disappointed that we had to take road transport on this trip but it was a very smooth and comfortable coach and got us to Stresa reasonably quickly, and straight to the quayside for the boats to the various islands on the lake.

The brochure had described the boat trip as a "cruise" but in truth this was large motor boat providing a fast ferry to Isola Piscatore, a small island consisting almost entirely of restaurants, clearly intended for foreign visitors at mealtimes, just like us. We had brought a packed lunch, however, bought from a bakery at Brig station during the train change, and sat eating it watching the boats on the lake. It was warm hot and sunny and an almost idyllic place to sit.  We set off on a walk around the island (a few moments), visited the church and the market stalls along the lake shore (carefully watching our bags and pockets) and met the rest of the tour for the ferry back to Stresa. Some of the party had used the restaurants for a rather more substantial lunch than ours and perhaps when presented with a wide selection of Italian restaurants that is a reasonable course of action, but we prefer not to have too many huge meals per day. We'd had a great day out, but it was the one thing on the trip that looked like a mass-produced experience: it stood out amidst the very high standard of the rest of the tour.

Back in Stresa we had an hour or so before the coach back to our return train and we enjoyed a walk around the town and bought some souvenirs to take home for friends and family, and, of course, an Italian ice-cream!

At Domodossola station we boarded the train to find our empty takeaway cups exactly as we had left them on the tables when we arrived that morning: not only had the train patently not been cleaned (not a big deal: it had only been a short trip), but had not been used by anyone else either. It must have stood there, in the heat, at the platform, all day! We were soon back in Brig and on our metre-gauge cog-railway train back to Zermatt, and an evening meal in the comfort of our wonderful hotel.

The following day was a free day and we had been planning to go back to Domodossala to take the Centovalli railway across to Locarno on the north-east shore of Lake Maggiore. We had done it before in poor weather and wanted to see it in sunshine. A day like the one we had just enjoyed at Stresa would be really great, and Locarno would be in holiday season with everything open and available to enjoy. The weather forecast was not wonderful but we went to bed hoping that all would turn out well ... but no, the forecast in the morning was no better and the day was already murky. Given that even with our half-fare cards it was quite an expensive trip and that the visibility may be little or no better than last time, we decided not to go to Locarno and spend the day exploring on foot around Zermatt instead.

We walked out past the cable-car terminals which were taking some tourists high up into the mountains: one route went to a ski resort where it was possible to ski even in summer, and another went over the border to Italy. These cable-car routes work just like bus or tram routes and there are interchange points up in the hills where it is possible to change cars for other destinations. We were not tempted to pay the fares and see the world from even higher, but it was fascinating watching the cars coming and going as we walked along the roads and footpaths were the village was being expanded and more and more homes were being built. The road on which we eventually found ourselves walking uphill is a toboggan run in winter and a road when passable! Lower than that was a route for the electric bus service to and from Zermatt village centre.

After a good walk we repaired to a bar-restaurant for a drink (hotel breakfast - minimal requirement for lunch!) and sat outside in the sun looking across at the Matterhorn. From our table we could see the trains of the Gornergratbahn making their way up and down the mountain, crossing the valley in which we sat. Mental note made that this looks a great place to eat, too, and TripAdvisor seems to agree. We were just leaving, having decided our route back into town, when we felt a few spots of rain. The a few more and a heavy
shower began. There was a bus stop with a timetable, I checked and a bus was due, then I realised that the crowd standing across the road in the church porch was the bus queue! We joined it and boarded the bus. I paid the fare, forgetting in my haste and relief that we were entitled to travel free with our pass. Never mind, it was not expensive and it was dry. And an experience to travel on one of Zermatt's little electric buses! By the time we were back at our hotel a few moments later the rain had stopped and the sun was shining again ... and we were still wet! We spent the rest of the afternoon, as planned but maybe not quite so soon, in the hotel swimming pool, which was excellent, and ate our picnic "dinner" on our balcony, preparing to leave Zermatt the following day, when rather better weather was forecast.

Departure for the next stage of the tour was rather more leisurely than we had been accustomed to. There was no rush and we were able to pack at our leisure and make our way down to the station. Before then, however, there was the spectacle of the Corpus Christi procession which passed the entrance gates to the hotel. I thought how little my own parish would be noticing this important festival (although there would be a service in church) compared with the way that Zermatt people could not miss it! Almost all of us on the trip went down to watch the procession.

Our cog train took us back down the valley for the last time and we changed trains at Visp, buying provisions at the station, and bought the main line train for Basle where changed to a local stopping service into France for an overnight stop at Colmar.

Colmar is a beautiful town which looks more German than French and is well worth a visit. It was very hot when we stayed there and we were grateful for our hotel room's air conditioning. We had time to explore the town both on the evening of our arrival and briefly on the morning before we left.

Our train from Colmar was a little late, and we had one simple change of train at Strasbourg to catch the TGV for Lille were we changed for the Eurostar to London and thence home. It was the first time we had caught the Eurostar from Lille and we did have a little time to explore. Again, Lille is a place worth visiting and one day we must programme a little time there into one of our own European tours.

Saturday, 5 August 2017

Home from another trip!

I am now home after a brilliant trip to the Isle of Wight, Portsmouth and Chichester. A blog post will follow in due course, and meanwhile my Trip Advisor reviews are available by following the relevant Helpful Link for Adventurers on the right >>>>

Wednesday, 2 August 2017

Summer Alpine Adventure 4: Glacier Express, Zermatt and the Matterhorn

Provisions being loaded into the kitchen of the Glacier
Express during its reversing stop at Chur
A feature of our Great Rail Journeys holiday this year is that it includes the complete route of the Glacier Express, all the way from St Moritz to Zermatt, the two Alpine resorts in which we stayed on this memorable adventure. We had done the whole route before, but in bits and pieces, only using the Express itself between Brig and Chur, so it was good to see it in one go.

Our party was all accommodated in a First Class car at the rear of the train leaving St Moritz, although there were a handful of other passengers in the same coach. The first part of the journey was back along the way we had arrived from Chur, some of it the same way we had travelled as far as our change of train on our free day, too. At Chur the locomotive was coupled to the other end of the train and hauled it in the other direction, retracing our journey for a few kilometres before taking the line straight along the Alps towards the east.

It is impossible to do justice to the scenery on the route of the Glacier Express; it is a journey you simply have to experience yourself. After leaving the line on which we'd arrived we traced the Rhine gorge for some distance, totally different from anything else we'd seen, and then with the familiar twists and turns we climbed up into the Alps. At Disentis the Rhatische Bahn locomotive was taken off and a Matterhorn Gotthard Bahn locomotive with cog-wheels was coupled onto the train to take us the rest of the way: this route is a collaboration between the two railways.

Soon tablecloths were brought and lunch was served. It so happened that we were waiting to cross an oncoming train in a passing loop overlooking a high-altitude lake as we were eating. A cooked meal was included in our holiday and we bought our own drinks, in our case an appropriate wine, and after the meal the Grappa liqueur which is worth having just for the joy of watching it being poured from a great height by a skilled waiter.

There was another brief pause in the journey at Andermatt and from the station there we were able to watch another Glacier Express train climbing up the way we had just come down, shuttling across the Alpine mountainside and weaving in and out of tunnels, the railway and the Oberalp highway criss-crossing one another in the landscape. Far beneath our feet was the Gotthard Tunnel taking a railway line north-south under the Alps, and a little to the west the Gotthard Road Tunnel on highway 2 which crosses the middle of Switzerland, north-south.

The tables were cleared and we descended into Brig, where we had begun our winter holiday in the Alps three years before, and then, turning south at Visp, the cogs were engaged once more as we began the climb to Zermatt. We were running out of words to describe the scenery, but in many ways the best was yet to come as we made our way to the Park Hotel Beau Site in Zermatt and then, after checking in stepped onto the balcony of our room to see the stunning view of the Matterhorn presiding over the village.

Zermatt had been a poor agricultural village until the penchant of rich young aristocrats, mostly British, for mountain-climbing was established just a century or so ago and the village decided to make an industry out of welcoming its visitors. Hotels were founded, railways and cable-cars were built and people came in droves and spent their money, and plenty of it. Outside the village is the settlement where the mostly foreign workers live who keep this expensive tourist attraction functioning, and the car park where everyone has to leave their cars, for internal combustion-propelled vehicles are not allowed in Zermatt.

We do not count ourselves among the rich, the young or the aristocracy, but with a little willpower and some savings is is possible for commoners of more limited means to enjoy a good holiday in Zermatt, at least with the resources of Great Rail Journeys to get a decent deal. On our first evening we just had to stroll down through the village on the route we had walked on our day-trip to Zermatt in winter, simply to see how it looked without a metre of snow having fallen the night before. Unfortunately the sky was not quite as clear this time, so our view of the Matterhorn was not as good as before, but it still, as always, looked stunning.

After an excellent dinner and a good night's sleep we were ready for the next day's adventure, to climb the Gornergrat by train and to enjoy a guided tour of Zermatt. We also planned to visit the Matterhorn Museum in the village, so although we were not off to too early a start this time, there was still a lot to pack into the day! The party walked down to the Gornergrat Railway terminal and boarded the next train to the summit. Last time we had done this on our own in free time in Zermatt but this time it was included in the tour. One of our party was an experienced geography teacher and author and gave us a most informative lecture on the glaciers we could see from the summit of the Gornergrat, an unexpected and worthwhile addition to the programme. We had not seen these on our winter visit, being deep under snow.

We did not avail ourselves of the expensive refreshments at the hotel on the Gornergrat and made our way back down to Zermatt a little ahead of the party then met them again for the guided tour, which took in both the English church (founded mostly for climbers!) and the local Roman Catholic church. Each was interesting in different ways.

We learnt something of the story of Zermatt and how it became the holiday resort that it is now. After tea at our hotel (tea and cake served every afternoon at no extra charge) we went to the Matterhorn Museum which taught us about the first ascent, how it ended in disaster as four members of the seven-man team died on the way back down, and how that tragedy started Zermatt's fame and fortune.

Another wonderful dinner and an early night, because we had another early start in the morning for the next excursion on our tour, a trip through the Simplon Tunnel to Italy and a visit to a lake island.


Wednesday, 19 July 2017

Summer Alpine Adventure 3: Geography and Social History

Last time we visited the Alps, we spent one of the "free" days exploring the resorts of Klosters and Davos in the winter holiday season and we decided that we ought to return to Davos and see it in the summer. We left early in the morning in order to allow time for some activities at St Moritz later in the day, and in order to make the most of the day we made sure we also made the most of the breakfast at the hotel before we left! Making our way down to the station we took a train bound for Chur and changed trains at Filisur for Davos. This meant another thrilling ride on the Albula line with the train winding its way up and down valley sides between St Moritz and Filisur, where the three platforms provide a convenient interchange for passengers to and from all the destinations on the lines that converge at that junction.

In Davos we went straight to the Schatzalp funicular railway that we had used last time and were soon on our way up the mountain. This time we only stopped for coffee at the restaurant where we'd had lunch before, and we drank our coffee outside overlooking the town in the valley below. After coffee we walked further up Schatzalp and looked at the wild flowers and grassland that had been snow-covered ski slopes on our winter visit. This time no-one was toting skis, but there were several people with mountain cycles enjoying the slopes another way.

We eventually made our way back down on the funicular railway and with another change at Filisur arrived back in St Moritz early in the afternoon. When we boarded the St Moritz train at Filisur we discovered one coach fitted out for young families, with simpler seating and a built-in indoor play area on a railway theme: what a brilliant idea! We left it for those who needed it and went and sat in a more grown-up coach!

From the station in St Moritz we walked along the lake shore following the signs for the Engadiner Museum which we intended to visit. We were also going to walk around the lake later, so this would be one stretch we would already have completed ...

The Engadiner Museum, which would actually have been a very short walk from our hotel had we started from there, was well worth a visit. It tells of the social history of the Engadine valley before tourism changed it into what it is today, each room being a recreation of typical regional design with artefacts rescued from demolished farmhouses throughout the region. There was only one other visitor there when we looked around: information for visitors is displayed on a iPad which is supplied with the admission ticket and we were able to share one and use the loudspeaker in it as there was no-one to disturb.

As one might expect in a place like this, there was much emphasis on keeping warm, and every room had its stove of one design or another. On all our visits to any part of Switzerland we have always been struck by the enormous stoves in each home!

After an hour or so at this fascinating museum we looked briefly around the shops in the town centre - it had a similar range of upmarket clothes and jewellery shops as, say, Chelsea, many of which had not yet opened for the summer holiday season after closing at the end of the winter holiday season, but critically the Co-op supermarket was open and we bought provisions for a light supper on the balcony of our hotel room overlooking the lake.

After eating we set off back towards the museum and then resumed our walk along the lake shore, the very lake on which we had seen a racecourse set up on the ice on our last visit! Leaving the urban part of the lake we walked along the wooded side opposite the town and looked back at our hotel, and then continued to the short section we had walked in winter three years before and finally back to the station where we just managed to grab a hot chocolate at the café before it closed and then returned to our hotel for a shower and bed. Another great day, but a lot of activity! We needed a rest ...