Wednesday, 14 June 2017

Summer Alpine Adventure 1: Via London to Cologne

Last year's proposed trip to the Swiss Alps had to be called off when Great Rail Journeys cancelled the one we'd planned because of too few bookings (that's how we ended up going to the French Riviera in 2016 instead, so no hard feelings!) but we booked again a slightly different tour in 2017 which promised an even better holiday. Great Rail Journeys offer one of their “Signature” tours to Sankt Moritz and Zermatt in the summer, with day trips out to Tirano and other places in Italy and southern Switzerland, travelling out via Cologne and back via Colmar, all First Class and with the services of a tour manager throughout. We booked the tour and asked Great Rail Journeys to book our tickets to and from London and a night in London before the holiday as well.

And so on a Tuesday morning we packed our cases and made our way to Stamford station for the 13:00 train to Peterborough. Our tickets were valid on any train so we just went when convenient and caught the next main line train to London and looked for free seats in the almost empty coach L. There was one other passenger in the half of the coach that we joined, and it was someone we knew, so we moved along and joined her. The catering team seemed understaffed once more but our First Class hostess coped very well. Although she had run out of sandwiches she fetched us copious quantities of crisps, bisuits and cake, and plenty of wine. An odd lunch, but OK for our purposes. Amazing how quickly a journey passes in good company and with two glasses of wine, and we seemed to be in London in no time at all.

We made our way to our hotel, the Ambassadors Bloomsbury, just a few minutes along the Euston Road, and after check-in we went to Sloane Square to have tea and cake on the top floor of Peter Jones department store – it is a John Lewis branch and we each had a voucher for free tea and cake during June. We returned to the hotel by bus to Oxford Circus and walking from there, dodging the occasional shower. It is always a joy to walk through Bloomsbury.

As it happened, our tour manager was staying in the same hotel, as were eight Australian guests who were booked on the same tour. Although we made brief acquaintance on the Tuesday evening we made our own arrangements for a light supper, salad at the nearby Prezzo Euston, and met the whole group for the Champagne reception at St Pancras International station on the Wednesday morning. The Champagne start is one of the features of the Signature tours: we checked in at the Great Rail Journeys office on the Grand Terrace at St Pancras and were taken across to the Searcy's Champagne Bar where Ray, our tour manager, was waiting with the first few guests. Soon all thirty-two were gathered and we were all given our Eurostar tickets and made our own way through check-in and to the waiting area for the train to Brussels.

Soon we were called to board the train and were on our way. Ours was a refurbished original Eurostar set, known as a E300, just like the one we went on to Marseille last year. As we passed through the Channel Tunnel we were enjoying the hot lunch provided in Standard Premier Class, with wine and coffee.

The atrium of the Maritim Hotel at Kiln
The dining room is separate from this huge banqueting area!
There was a change of train at Brussels and we had some time to browse around the shops at the station before we went on to our first hotel at Cologne. Our connection was a Thalys high-speed train which was indicated thirty minutes late. More browsing and back to the platform and we were on our way, but further difficulties meant that half an hour from Cologne we had to be diverted and after a short excursion into the Netherlands arrived two hours late at our hotel. Our tour manager had booked ahead and had dinner put back but it did mean that we had no time to stroll through the city before bed, which was a pity as there are some pleasant walks to be had. 

At dinner we met some of the thirty people with whom we'd be spending the ten days of this holiday, and we slept well in a very comfortable room overlooking the spacious atrium of this huge hotel. Back to the station in the morning and we were on a Swiss express train to Basel where our adventure in Switzerland began. The ride to Basel was an adventure in itself, much of it along the west bank of the Rhine with wonderful views of castles, vineyards and towns as we made our way south. We had seen it from the other direction on our return journey in winter three years before and it was great to see it in the sunshine now.

Saturday, 3 June 2017

Another local adventure planned

Following the recent successful trip to the Grainstore Brewery in Oakham, I am arranging a trip to Spalding this summer for friends and neighbours in Stamford.
  • Train trip to Spalding and Return (standard class)
  • River Trip on Spalding Water Taxi
  • Free time exploring Spalding
  • Supper, probably at Prezzo
It will be on Tuesday 4th July, and travel arrangements are:

Depart Stamford platform 1 at 9.00am with change of train at Peterborough, departing platform 1 at 9.35am, arrive Spalding 9.55am.

Depart Spalding, platform 1, at 9.05pm,
arrive Stamford 9.44pm (last train: do not miss it!)

Return rail fare is £17.00 (£11.20 for railcard holders)

Please sign up by Sunday 4th June indicating whether you have railcard, or contact me via .

If 8 or more people sign up the boat trip will be a special hour-long excursion at £5 to £7.50 per head depending on numbers. Fewer than 8 the trip would be the standard public 35-minute trip at £3.


We have eight people signed up for this trip and will be taking the hour-long "cruise" on the Spalding Water Taxi. There is room for four more to join us. Please contact if you would like to come.

Tuesday, 30 May 2017

Holiday Planning ...

Eurostar trains for Paris and Brussels await departure at
London St Pancras International
Right now I am eagerly anticipating two summer holidays: one is our usual trip to the south coast of England - although we do not do the same things and this year we are visiting the Isle of Wight for a few days as part of this trip - and the other is a Great Rail Journeys escorted tour of Switzerland, similar to the winter one we did three years ago. The Swiss tour is fully organised by GRJ and I simply await my UK tickets to London and the voucher for the hotel they've arranged for us there for the night before the tour itself begins: the tour guide will supply all the other tickets we need.

I am booking the English holiday myself: hotels booked in Shanklin, Portsmouth and Chichester and train tickets booked so far as I can, but for some reason Advance tickets for Saturdays this summer are not (yet?) available between London Waterloo and Shanklin, so there is a bit of a gap in the travel arrangements! Yes, I can pay for an off-peak single but the Standard Class fare then costs a lot more than the Advance First Class tickets I was hoping to buy. It is something to do with the engineering work taking place at Waterloo in August and the timetable not having been settled yet, and the best SouthWest Trains can say is to keep looking every couple of days ...

Local Southern Trains service on the Coastway route
ONE DAY, just maybe, we shall have another holiday on the south coast when there is no messing about by any railway company. So far we have had one Underground strike making it hard to cross London, one Southern Railway strike making it hard to get back from Brighton to London in time to get our train home and impossible to visit the Isle of Wight that year, and now non-availability of SouthWest trains from London to the Isle of Wight this year - and I had carefully planned an itinerary that did not involve any Southern trains! We cannot blame a rail company for Hurricane Bertha that afflicted the weather four years ago, though ...

Wednesday, 17 May 2017

Pinned Pictures

Have you seen my "Travel" board on Pinterest, at It is partly plans for the future and partly memories of the past!

My last trip to Switzerland. Next time I'm going in summer to see how different it is.

Monday, 17 April 2017

Barging Through London

Some years ago we were taken to dinner at a gastropub at Kings Cross called The Fellow. Why, I wondered, is it called that? I found out, or at least I think I did, when I visited a small museum around the corner when I had a couple of hours to spare in that part of London at the weekend. It all began with a party in Croydon ... perhaps I need to start at the beginning, if I can find it.

A little while ago we were invited to a surprise birthday celebration in Addiscombe, Croydon, south London. It was on Good Friday night, not ever so convenient but we managed it OK: I booked a night at a new Hampton by Hilton hotel close to East Croydon rail station, and booked Advance First tickets to London; we would use our Oyster cards to cross London to East Croydon, a trip we have done many a time to visit the friends whose party we were attending. After the Good Friday worship in Stamford we caught the 13:00 train to Peterborough and changed to the 13:28 to Kings Cross. The weekend menu was being served in First Class, presumably because of the public holiday, and although we would not expect lunch so late into the train's journey it had not been especially busy and our hostess found us some sandwiches to go with the coffee which was on offer. we have found that the Virgin Trains East Coast staff really do try to make our journey as good as they can.

At Kings Cross I had a little job to do: my Senior Railcard had been renewed and I needed to get the new card connected to my Oyster card in order to resume enjoying the discounts on London travel - I had forgotten to do this when I renewed the Railcard in January and had been paying full Oyster fares  for a while - although fortunately I had not travelled in London all that much. This meant queuing at the ticket machines in the Underground station and then getting a member of staff to connect the cards for me: a quick little job but slightly annoying that I could not do it myself online before I went. Then from the Underground (where I only went to do that administrative task - I did not need a train), the short walk across to St Pancras for the Thameslink train to East Croydon, which was arriving at the platform just as we arrived: could not have been a quicker connection. The new trains in use on this route are far more pleasant than the ones they replace, with wide corridor connections which allow easy access down the length of the train, and comprehensive information displays showing the next stop as well as which coaches have most space and where the toilets are located. The seats, while still fairly high-density local-journey seats, are reasonably comfortable and well-spaced, with plenty of luggage space.

Thameslink trains are currently not going via London Bridge but trundle rather slowly through south London until eventually they arrive at East Croydon. Short walk to hotel, check in, telephone to see when to arrive at party venue. All good so far, half an hour to party, so just time to get ready, walk to tram stop and get to Addiscombe. Again, Oyster for the tram and we are there exactly on time.

(The friend whose party we were attending, having turned 60 and living in London, now has a free Oyster card for off-peak travel in the capital, whereas we only get a discount, and have to buy the Railcard - and remember to renew it - to get that. London is a great place!)

Breakfast room at the Hampton hotel: self-
service hot breakfast in a canteen-style space
After a good night's sleep and the slightly odd "hot breakfast" at the Hampton by Hilton hotel, we checked out and were on our way. I had allowed bags of time before the train home in order to allow for any possible problems in getting back to Kings Cross, but in fact all went very well indeed and we had a couple of hours to spare. A few moments on the internet with our iPhones tracked down the London Canal Museum, just a few moments walk from Kings Cross station: a visit of about one-and-a-half hours was recommended and this seemed to be exactly what we needed. No café on site, but we'd had a good breakfast and there would be tea on the train, and snack in the First Class lounge at the station if we arrived there in good time.

The London Canal Museum is worth a visit. The recommended time is about right. It gives the history of London's canals and indeed the nation's canal system, explains all the various types of boat and how locks work, how the canals and local river navigation fit together and the lives of those working and living on the boats: apparently the men operating the boats are called canal fellows ... according to a looping video show at the museum. Hence the gastropub of that name has a horse's face as its logo, presumably a canal tow horse? The museum is in a canalside former ice warehouse and the opportunity has been taken also to show the story of the ice trade, and an ice well is a feature in the floor: this has to be seen to be believed. Outside the glass doors at the back (or is it the front?) is Battlebridge Basin, with several private boats moored a couple of metres above street level.

Back to Kings Cross and a drink and snack in the lounge, and on our mid-afternoon train back to Peterborough for our change for Stamford, with tea, sandwiches and cake which passed the journey nicely and kept us going into the evening, fresh and ready for Easter Day in the morning.