Saturday, 2 December 2017

Relaxing at the Spa

The Royal Hotel, Bath, seen at night from the rail station
  1. I needed a rest: it had been a busy couple of months and I was very tired
  2. Last time we came to Bath the Christmas Market was being set up and we thought it looked like it might be worth seeing
  3. We had a loyalty card for the Royal Hotel because we thought last year that we might come to Bath fairly often
  4. There was a certain amount of family history research that required a visit to the Bath record office
  5. We needed something exciting to take our minds off the exciting trip to eastern Europe that we had already booked for 2018
So I booked a stay at the Royal Hotel, Bath; three nights of their Spa Break deal which not only included the room and breakfast at the hotel and tickets for Thermae Bath Spa, but also a Champagne cream tea at the hotel. I then booked train tickets with Cross Country Trains which would give us four days in Bath (three nights) without exhausting us travelling. As usual I booked First Class on the trunk haul between Birmingham and Bristol, with Standard Class from Stamford to Birmingham and for the short hop between Bristol and Bath. Tickets bought online, collected from the machine at Stamford station and carefully stored with our hotel booking confirmation, all I had to do was find a way of living with the anticipation!

Soon enough we were on our way to Birmingham on the 09:05 Cross Country train on a Tuesday morning, bright and sunny although cold - weather which lasted throughout our little trip. I had brought along a small bottle of sparkling rosé to get the trip off to a good start, with two plastic wine flutes rescued from an al fresco reception some time and packed with a small ice-pack. At New Street we simply looked around the shops at the station for half an hour between trains and caught our booked Cross Country train forward to Bristol. To my delight this turned out to be a HST (diesel high speed train) rather than the newer but less spacious Voyager more common on this route. It was a while before the refreshment trolley came round but when it did we were able to have our coffee and order a night lunch which the hostess brought along in due course, included in the cost of the First Class ticket (which, bizarrely, was less that the cost of the Standard Class tickets of the Stamford-Birmingham leg of the journey!).

Although I had reserved seats on the next reservable departure from Bristol to Bath as "insurance" in case the trains were crowded, there was a South Western Railway train for Waterloo at a nearby platform ready to go and with plenty of spare seats, so we boarded that and were in Bath earlier than I had planned. This was a stopping train but with only double track between Bristol and Bath I knew that nothing would be overtaking it so it would be the next arrival in Bath. The hotel is just across the road but our room was not yet ready (check-in was not yet officially under way but they'd have taken us if the room were ready), so they kept our luggage and we set off around the city centre and our first look at the Christmas Market. Novelty gifts purchased at Bath Abbey gift shop, and the Bath record office located at the Guildhall we were back at the hotel to check in and unpack and then we went to the hotel bar to enjoy our Champagne cream tea: thoroughly recommended.

Later we set off for an evening walk around the streets. For the first half of the week the Christmas Market closed at six o'clock so there was not much to see of that but there were the decorations to enjoy and we booked a table for the following evening at the Acorn Kitchen vegetarian restaurant where we had been once before and had wanted to revisit. We are not actually vegetarian, but always enjoy vegetarian food and this place is exquisite, the sort of restaurant worth dressing-up for.

After our cream tea we did not need an evening meal but bought a take-away fruit salad from Marks and Spencer to share back at our room. A bath and an early night were then all that were needed to complete the first day of rest. It is all too easy to try to cram a lot of activity into these breaks, but a large part of what had brought us here was the need to rest!

The Wednesday morning was bright and sunny as forecast and we enjoyed the usual standard of hotel breakfast in the restaurant dedicated to the memory of IK Brunel who apparently designed the hotel itself as well as being the engineer for the railway line across the road. after breakfast we did some leisurely clothes shopping and visited the legendary Fine Cheese Company where we investigated Swiss cheeses (not easy to obtain in England) for Christmas. (They also have a branch in Belgravia, London, if you want to visit without coming to the West Country.) With four weeks still to go we took away the brochure to order the cheese online later, but it was good to be able to sample them in the shop. Life could get expensive if we lived in Bath and could shop here every week! They also have a coffee shop & restaurant attached and we had our "morning" coffee there surrounded by people eating lunch ...

Lansdown Crescent
Sunset from Landsown

Back to the room with our shopping, and then I went to photograph architecture at Lansdown on the north side of the city while my wife visited the record office to seek details of her ancestors. From Lansdown there are great views (in autumn and winter when the leaves are away) over the city and while I was there I was fortunate to see a wonderful sunset before walking down among the evening peak traffic: if there is a city in the world where the private car is an efficient form of transport, Bath is not that city!

Parsnip & Hazelnet Soup: fantastic!
We dressed for the evening and made our way to the Acorn Kitchen restaurant and enjoyed another wonderful meal well up the the standard set last time, although this time we did not need a third course. On our way there we checked with Thermae Bath Spa when might a good time to visit on the following day - never having been there after dark we thought it might be good to do that this time, but with the Christmas Market on the spa was likely to be busy early evening. As our ticket allows two hours, which is extended if we take time out for a drink or snack in their cafeteria, we would need to be in and changed by 18:30 to get best value from our tickets - when to start queuing in order to achieve that is hard to determine, but we decided to have a look at the queue at about 17:00 and see how it is going.

On Thursday morning we had success in finding ancestral monuments both in old St Mary's churchyard (where we had looked before and failed!) and in Bath Abbey, and we photographed addresses where we had reason to believe family members had lived, and we visited a great café, Boston Tea Party, for which we'd been given a discount voucher by a marketer in the street the day before and where we seemed to be the only people without a baby ... the coffee and cakes were great though. We then made our way back through the maze of the Christmas Market - and finally bought something from one of the stalls - and returned to the hotel to rest and to warm up before our visit to the spa.

For the visit to Thermae Bath Spa we pared our belongings down to the minimum: hotel key, credit card, admission tickets, clothes. Bath robe, towel and flip-flops are provided, so swimwear was all that we needed to take. We had decided to visit in the evening to see the spa after dark, our previous visits having been in mornings, and we knew that the trade-off for this would be that we would have to queue to get in.  It was cold, but we fell into conversation with others in the queue and the hour soon went by, helped by an introductory video in the windows, and the feeling of warmth once we entered the building with about 20 minutes still to go. When the spa is busy, new guests are let in as those already inside leave so that overcrowding is prevented. Admission is by wristband which opens the turnstile, locks the lockers and clocks up the cost of food and drink bought in the cafeteria which we then pay for on the way out (hence taking the credit card!). Once the wristband is handed in at the end of a session, another person can be let in. It is as perfect a system as I can imagine for ensuring the everyone gets a changing cubicle, a locker and space in the pools.

New this year is the "Wellness Suite" which replaces the former four steam rooms. It includes two new steam rooms, one with a Roman theme and one with a Georgian theme, as well as an ice room (which we did not use!), a sauna and a dark room with twinkling "stars", a video art installation on a cosmic creation theme and half-a-dozen loungers on which to relax. The last of these did nothing for me, but the steam rooms were very good and my skin felt better for days afterwards. We did venture into the roof-top pool once, essential, really, when visiting after dark. The water is so hot (this being the UK's only hot-water spa), but we knew that the air temperature was not much above zero so it was quite an act of will to leave the pool - straight down to the steam room to warm up!

We had a light supper at the Springs restaurant within the spa - not cheap but very good - and a final visit to the steam rooms and the Minerva Pool; we did not feel the need to visit the roof-top pool again as the air temperature was forecast to have dropped another couple of degrees by then! And so it was time to leave and wend our way back to the Royal Hotel where we fell for the advertised Christmas cocktail menu ...

On our final morning we checked out and left our luggage at the hotel while we had a final walk around Bath city centre, visiting a few interesting shops and posting our international Christmas cards, then we retrieved the cases and went to the station neatly in time to catch the 13:58 train to Bristol, arriving on the platform just as the train approached. A slight setback then occurred as I was stunned by a blow to the head while walking towards the train ... my head had struck a metal box (apparently housing train starting push-buttons) projecting from a roof stanchion. I picked myself up and made my way to the train, surrounded by much fuss and care from other passengers and platform staff. I ensured that the staff were aware of what had happened and then settled onto the train. On arrival at Temple Meads I reported the matter because by then it was clear that some minor bleeding had occurred, and after first aid and very kind care and attention from GWR staff I went on my way. No concussion, no lasting damage, but that box does need to be removed or the space under it rendered impassable so that no-one else suffers a similar accident: if I'd been shorter I'd have walked under it, taller and I'd have seen it, but at my height the top of my head hit it.

And so we walked into Bristol city centre which is good in parts! We chose a less scenic route in and a more scenic one back - not really through choice but because we did not know the best way. Like many places, there has been a lot of redevelopment along waterfronts lately and especially near the station it is looking very promising with some lovely urban walks to be had - even when wheeling suitcases, and even after dark. We had a very pleasant light meal at the House of Fraser store's Zest Café. We saw in Bristol some very similar Christmas Market stalls to the ones we had seen in Bath, though rather fewer of them. Someone is making a fortune out of supplying the timber chalets for these events!

We had a very pleasant pint of Tribute in the station bar (Bonaparte's) before boarding the 18:30 to Birmingham, again a HST (possibly the same one we'd come on: it creaked just the same). A very hospitable First Class host immediately offered us hot drinks and cake which were very welcome. At Birmingham we bought a snack supper at a kiosk and soon found our way to the platform for our connection to Stamford where the train was already waiting and although for some reason the reservation labels had not been applied, we found two seats together quite easily and had a smooth and easy ride home. There is something special about travelling in the dark - I would not want to do it all the time but it is an interesting experience occasionally.

It was a really good few days rest with the usual great feeling after a visit to the hot spa. Straight back into the thick of Advent and Christmas preparations ...

Tuesday, 28 November 2017

Chelsea Girl

A second trip to family in London in a few weeks, this time to bring granddaughter home with us, meant booking another train trip. With only a few weeks' notice, the scope for affordable First Class tickets between Peterborough and London was limited and we had almost an hour in Peterborough for our our connection, but we needed a trip to John Lewis anyway, so we planned that into the trip during our train change there.

We only had a short time in London before meeting our young charge from nursery and we spent it taking a bus to Sloane Square, having lunch in the top-floor restaurant at Peter Jones (also a John Lewis branch, of course, but we no longer needed to visit the shop itself!). We then had a stroll along Kings Road before making our way to the Underground to get near enough for the walk to the nursery. Off to Kings Cross we made ourselves at home in the First Class Lounge before boarding the train back to Peterborough and the connection home to Stamford.

Not much to write about really, but I want to make two points in addition to the fact that London is really not far away from anyone on or near a fast railway line: one is that there is always something to do or to see in London. Just visiting Chelsea is a pleasant way to spend a day, so rather than just nipping down, collecting child and nipping home we spent some time simply being there. The other is that, like our last trip a few weeks earlier we had a full catering crew on the trains in both directions and received the full advertised catering offering for our First Class fares, and the drinks and snacks supplies in the Lounge were also fully stocked. This really ought not to be news, but the catering situation on Virgin Trains East Coast has been so dire lately that getting the advertised food and drink has been a lottery, and now the odds seem to be rather more favourable at last. I'd still prefer my sandwiches on a plate - I do not think you can ever call a cardboard box "first class" even with a celebrity chef signature on it - and I'd like more variation in the sandwiches offered, but it is great to round off the day with wine or gin and tonic.

One tip for grandparents and other carers of toddlers: retaining surplus napkins for a future trip with a child does pay dividends when they knock over their fruit juice on the table! It is much easier to care for a small child in First Class, too, where there is more space both for them and for other passengers.  Travelling before the evening peak meant that we had a choice of table seats and could avid crowding other passengers.

Wednesday, 22 November 2017

Another Royal Visit

Apart from our holidays and a few work trips (and these latter have been very few this year) all our occasional travel seems to have been to London lately, largely because of our desire to visit our family there, and also because, frankly, London is well worth visiting! I do not know how overseas visitors fit in all that London has to offer: I have been going there for about fifty years now and still find it fascinating. The current habit is to do just one thing, occasionally two, then go on to our family visit and then home. On a recent trip to London the "one thing" was to see the "Diana: Her Fashion Story" exhibition at Kensington Palace. We had been to Kensington Palace once before but things change and with this exhibition to see as well, there was plenty to occupy us until meeting our granddaughter from nursery at tea time.

It was essential to book tickets in advance for the exhibition (there is no charge other than admission to the Palace) in order to be sure that we could go on the day we had arranged to visit, so these tickets were booked and the train tickets bought well in advance so that we could secure inexpensive First Class tickets for the East Coast Main Line leg of the trip: this time we planned to return as late as we could, the 21:00 train from Kings Cross which connects neatly at Peterborough with the last train to Stamford at 21:59.

The day dawned wet in London, in accordance with the weather forecast. It was dry enough in Stamford as we made our way to the station and we had an easy ride to Peterborough and then First Class to London, with some breakfast goodies still on offer: croissant, yogurt, orange juice and coffee. There was a number of options for completing the journey to Kensington Palace, the entrance to which is well inside Kensington Gardens and not especially near any bus stop or Underground station, but the easiest way, we decided, was Circle Line via a change of train at Edgware Road: you need to watch this a bit as the next train southbound from Edgware Road needs to be determined from the information displays over the platform - either District or Circle Line will do for Bayswater which was where we were heading. From Bayswater station it is an easy walk along  and across into Kensington Gardens, with our hoods up against the steady rain - passing Queensway Central Line station on the way!

There was no queue to extra the Palace, just a bag search and, as advance ticket purchasers we were waved through to show our print-at-home tickets. Once inside this was just a visit to the Palace with entry to the exhibition included, and it was clear that they were catering for long queues to enter the exhibition. Whether it was the rain I do not know, but there was no queue at the time so we opted to "do" the Diana fashion story exhibition first and then drift around the rest of the premises. Of the exhibition I would say it is great for anyone who is interested in:
  • fashion of the 80s and 90s
  • Diana, Princess of Wales
  • The Royal Family
  • Celebrity culture
  • The use of dress to make a statement
I was mildly interested in the way the princess' attire changed as her role first developed and then changed again with the break-up of her marriage. To see first-hand dresses that we had all seen in the newspapers and on TV was also quite interesting. Some effort had been made to stage this show, because on her death her clothes were auctioned for her charities, so collectors had had to be approached to loan them for display. 

The rest of the visit to Kensington Palace consisted of a tour through several parts of this great house learning about the history of the UK and its place in the world alongside stories of the Royal Family down the ages since William and Mary, our only joint monarchs, made this palace their home. Away from the public parts of the house, it is still a royal residence and the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge live here with their children - as the Duke mother, Diana Princess of Wales, had done.

We had both morning coffee and lunch in the cafeteria at the palace and after we had seen everything it was time to go to the nursery to collect our granddaughter, take her home to her parents and enjoy the evening with them. The nursery is in west Kensington, not far from Olympia station, and we decided to walk, the rain having stopped now: although a bus from Kensington High Street would have done some of the route, I am not convinced it would have saved any time. Out through the south-west corner of Kensington Gardens we walked past the two defunct art deco department stores, Barkers and Derry & Toms, and the wonderful St Mary Abbots parish church and on towards Olympia then through the streets to our destinations.

Later we left for home, taking the Underground from Goldhawk Road station to Kings Cross where we had just a few moments in the First Class Lounge before our train began boarding and we were off home with the usual hospitality of Virgin Trains East Coast - although I have to say I did prefer having a choice of sandwiches on a plate rather than the current cardboard box of the same sandwiches every time I travel: a celebrity chef signature printed on the box does NOT make a packed meal classy! A quick change of train at Peterborough and the last walk of the day across the Meadows to our home.


Tuesday, 21 November 2017

Adventure Planning

I have now added a page on planning complex rail trips: please select the tab above to view.

If you have not seen them, there are also pages with advice on changing trains, on affordable First Class train travel and on packing your case for train travel.

I hope new travellers find them useful and encouraging.

Sunday, 22 October 2017

To Chichester via Portsmouth

On a lovely afternoon we boarded a train at the charming little station in Shanklin, bound back to the mainland for the rest of our summer holiday. Some effort has been made to make the stations on the Island line redolent of the past - appropriately given the great age of the former London Underground tube stock of which the trains consist. It was all rather "retro', as also, I suppose, is taking a summer holiday by train, but we hardly ever take our car on holiday at all these days: the once-desirable "freedom of the open road" is no longer available on the congested roads in England and even in our Jaguar we do not really find road trips enjoyable in the summer. On the train, though, the journey is definitely part of the holiday, not just a means of getting to it.

We passed now-familiar places for the last time this summer as we made our way to Ryde Pier Head for the catamaran to Portsmouth. At Ryde St John's Road the little train trundled past its brothers and sisters stabled in the sheds there (this was once the terminus, and passengers for the mainland had to carry their luggage from St John's Road to the pier!) and then we were through the tunnel under the town and out onto the pier - a tube train at sea.

There was a short wait at Ryde Pier Head for the catamaran, and we had time for a snack lunch
overlooking Ryde seafront. We could see the hovercraft plying its way between Ryde Esplanade and Southsea - that is the very fastest way back to the mainland from the Isle of Wight, but we were heading for Portsmouth Harbour which is some way from Southsea, so we waited for the catamaran and were soon boarding and off across the Solent into the harbour. A short walk across the road and we were checking in at our next hotel, the Ship Leopard, overlooking the waterfront and the harbour station.

The Ship Leopard advertises itself as a "boutique hotel". I'd never stayed in one of these before and it was much as I expected, really: small, and with small rooms. We were only staying one night and not intending to unpack and our little room was perfect for the job. I think they have bigger rooms for longer stays! We had a drink outside on the pavement, just a little Prosecco with some nuts, sitting in the sunshine and enjoying the world passing by, but bus, train and ship as well as on foot. A stroll into Gunwharf Quays shopping area for some shopping and then dinner was interesting. We turned up at one place for just a drink and were never served, but we moved on to Carluccio's by which time it was time to eat as well, outside, overlooking the harbour. Lovely. Friendly, helpful service, too, even though they were busy.

After a good night's boutique sleep we went downstairs for what was billed as a "gourmet breakfast" which turned out to be much like any other breakfast in a modest-sized hotel: very nice, tasty and plenty of it, but not superior to many others. Still, it set us up for the day, which was what was needed. We checked out and, as usual, the hotel staff kindly looked after our luggage until the time we were expecting to leave Portsmouth. Our reason for stopping off here was to visit the Mary Rose Museum: this would be our first visit since it became possible for visitors to stand in the same room as the wreck of the ship and really look at it first-hand.
All the good stuff we had seen two years before about its story and the artifacts recovered were still there, but it was special to walk through the air-lock and stand looking at Henry VIII's flagship, sunk in battle in the Solent whose waters we had just crossed. A visit is recommended.

And so back to the Ship Leopard and their other speciality: tea and cake! Nice timing after the breakfast ... then with our luggage returned we made our way to the station to catch a train on the Chichester for the rest of our holiday. My plan had been to book a pair of First Class singles but the next fast train with First Class accommodation had been cancelled (here we go again, Southern Railway even without a strike) so we had standard class tickets and travelled on the slow train (which is still fast enough) and arrived in Chichester in ample time to check in at our Bed & Breakfast in the cathedral grounds. Our room for the first night was small and with virtually no view, but we were due to move to a better room the next day - I had not been able to get one room for the three nights we needed, so popular is this place. As always we were made very welcome here.

After settling in we met our friends (now traditional on our first evening in Chichester) we made plans to visit our friends in their holiday cottage by the coast on our last full day there, when the weather was expected to be reasonably good. That left one more day, the day following our arrival, which was expected to be rainy for much of the day. We can't complain: this was our fourth holiday here and the weather had generally been excellent, and so far this year in Shanklin and Portsmouth it had been warm and sunny most of the time. We had already arranged with the bed & breakfast house staff to move to our better room during the morning of that second day.

Before we had come away on our summer holiday our friends whom we were due to visit at the coast had contacted us to say that they and other family members were thinking of seeing the new production of Fiddler on the Roof at the Chichester Festival Theatre and wondered if we'd like to join them. We had already offered theatre tickets vouchers as a birthday present to one of them, so instead we bought the tickets for this performance and made plans to meet them all at the theatre. We spent the day in the city; shopping, blogging (!) and having a light lunch together. We also met some other friends whom we had not seen for a very long time and who happen to live in Chichester but had usually not been available when we were there (on holiday, presumably!) but were there this time. By the time we had had tea with them it was time to change for the evening at the theatre and await the taxi that would take us there - it was not far but we did not want to sit in wet clothes through the play.

The taxi driver was really good and not only refused a tip but rounded down the fare as well! I think he was embarrassed by the time it had taken owing to some road closures in the city.

The play was brilliant. It opened in Chichester and was off to the West End next, thoroughly recommended. Chichester Festival Theatre is also recommended, a great place to watch drama and within easy walking distance (when it's not raining hard) of the city centre but with a large car park for those not so handily placed. We walked back afterwards, the rain having stopped, and had our dinner in our usual venue, the Côte Brasserie in South Street.

The next morning we were off on the bus to East Wittering for our day by the coast. We met our friends at the shops there and went back to their wonderful, quirky holiday let formed from two ancient railway carriages. Other members of their family were also on holiday on that section of the coast and we had a long walk along the beach (a bit too windy for sitting on the beach as we had done the previous year) to visit one daughter in a flat a little way to the west, and also had drinks with the other couple we'd been with at the theatre the night before. It is really great to be part of this annual family gathering on the south coast. (I may run out of things to write about, though, as the years roll past!). Dinner together and then a lift back to Chichester and our holiday was almost done.

The following morning we were up, packed, breakfasted and checked out reasonably early to catch the one through train of the day to Bristol (we had come on the one in the other direction last year). While not overcrowded, the train was a bit of a disappointment: it was composed of a high-density set intended for short urban journeys, not a long cross-country one, and the aisles were not wide enough for a trolley so there was no catering, whereas last year we had enjoyed a gin-and-tonic coming the other way. We were travelling this way for the scenery, which was spectacular in places even though the weather was not very special this year. One day we must take a day or two travelling this route, staying here and there on the way: we do not have to rush by just because we're travelling by rail!

Lunch on the train. A fresh sandwich on a plate!
We had time between trains at Bristol to have some coffee and boarded our train for Birmingham, travelling First Class. The catering on this service was also a bit hit-and-miss: nothing for us until a First Class host joined us at Cheltenham and nothing at all in Standard Class. As ever, though, the ride was smooth and the arrival through leafy Edgbaston into Birmingham was very pleasant. A change at New Street and we were soon back in Stamford, walking home across the Meadows with some great memories of another great summer holiday.