Monday, 24 February 2014

Back from Switzerland

Just back from the most amazing trip of my life and will be posting about it as soon as I have the chance! Here's a photo to start with:

The Bernina Express winding along the Albula Line

Tuesday, 11 February 2014

Le Weekend à Paris

Number one son having moved temporarily to Fontainebleau for a year for study, a weekend visit was needed: the only time he would be free to see his parents. Various complex personal and work issues decided the dates and outward time for us and the bookings were made. For many years I had been saving Air Miles (which recently morphed into Avios)  and we decided to use these to pay for the international leg of the trip between London and Paris: we would have a weekend from Friday evening to Sunday afternoon in Paris and visit Fontainebleau for the day on Saturday. Having to travel out on Friday evening made it very expensive and I had to contribute some money as well as Avios to pay for the tickets outward, but the journey back was not so expensive and the Avios agent was even able to offer a promotional premier class upgrade cheaper than the expected standard class fare. Now to book the tickets to and from London (the local ones in France would wait until we were there). This was complicated by Alison having a training course in London on the day of departure. By booking well in advance I was able to get her a first-class seat on an early train to London, and then a standard super off-peak return for me and a standard super off-peak single back for her. Then her course was cancelled ...

My "reserved" ticket is on the
window seat ...
That, dear reader, is how I ended up spending a day in London on my way to Paris, not to waste the first-class ticket I had bought! Unlike almost all the other trains from Stamford to Peterborough, the 07:19 is a through train to Norwich operated by East Midlands Trains, and it makes a brilliant connection to London at Peterborough. No first class, and my reserved seat was occupied by a sleeping young woman from somewhere before Stamford, but there were plenty of free seats and my trip was easy enough without waking her. 

My East Coast express arrived after a few moments at Peterborough and I occupied my bargain-priced first-class seat towards the front of the train. The full English breakfast is not available south of Peterborough (there is not enough time to cook and serve it!) but the orange juice, croissant and coffee were a very welcome addition to the cereal I'd had at home. Yogurt was also available and a few other bits and pieces had I wanted them. As I walked the short distance along the platform at Kings Cross it was interesting to think that two hours ago I was still at home, not yet even left for the station in Stamford. Quite amazing.

Coffee at the London
Transport Museum!
Our daughter took a day off work and we spent the day together in London. 

We visited the London Transport Museum and sought out some buildings to add to my architectural photograph collection and then made our way to meet Alison at Kings Cross after work. 

A quick drink all together at The Parcel Yard (the bar at Kings Cross), then we bought our M&S sandwiches at their shop at St Pancras for our picnic supper, and then we were off to check-in for the Eurostar non-stop to Paris Nord. I think the Avios office needs a new printing machine for its tickets: ours were barely legible and the automatic check-in gates would not accept them and the staff checking then manually struggled a bit, but we got there in the end. For travel via the Channel Tunnel we have to pass through x-ray scanners and pass all our metal bits round via the conveyor belt with our cases. More of a palaver in autumn and winter when wearing coats, scarves, gloves etc! As it was a short trip we had very little baggage and we were soon through to the waiting area. 

The shopping and international arrival and departure areas at St Pancras is “downstairs” in the area that was originally built for the storage of beer barrels from Burton-on-Trent and has been adapted very nicely indeed, although it does make the departure lounge a little dark. We were soon called for our train and made our way up the travelator to the platform, carefully turning to the train for Paris rather than the one for Brussels on the opposite side, and taking our reserved seats in a standard class coach.

Leaving on time as usual we were soon flying through Kent and then northern France and in to the Gare du Nord. For our outing to Fontainebleau the next day, we needed to be at Gare de Lyon, and having gained experience on our way through Paris on a previous trip we were much more easily able to get there this time and we had booked through a hotel immediately adjacent to the station. The usual good bargain we have had via, we had a great room for a decent price. It was room only this time so when we got up in the morning we bought coffee and croissant at the station and had our breakfast on the train to Fontainebleau.

If your only experience of trains in France is the TGV and Eurostar you may have a rose-tinted view of French trains. The outer-suburban Ile-de-France line which we had to use to get to Fontainebleau used duplex (double-decker) stock very similar to the run-down RER trains which we used the night before between the two Paris terminals. It is all very basic and like much of Paris defaced here and there with graffiti. You do enjoy a great view of the city and the countryside from the upper deck, however, and on this route there is some countryside to see. Occasionally, if you are lucky, there is a longer-distance train of decent stock on the route, but only a few times a day. Tickets are bought from a machine at the end of the platform, and these are undated and have to be validated by another machine before boarding the train: I forgot to do this on the way out but the ticket inspector (they go round in threes on this route!) took pity on the poor foreigner and just scribbled the date on it to stop me using it again. 

At Fontainebleau the station is on the edge of the town and is served by a connecting bus service from the adjacent bus station. We paid our fares and boarded. As with London and some other places in the UK, the stops are announced in advance and shown on a display, so we were able to find where we needed to get off - tracking our progress on our smartphone maps, too - and Ed and Katy were there to meet us and take us to lunch. The main attraction in the town is its chatêau and we spent some time looking around the grounds (apparently the building is unfurnished so there is not a lot to see inside) and also looked around the town. Ed showed us the university where he is studying and then after supper at their flat we walked back to the station for the train to Paris. Some of their friends from London had also joined us for the afternoon and we travelled together back to Paris. This time we all validated our tickets. And so to bed, tired after a heavy but brilliant day. Did not feel the need for a night club …

Sunday morning in Paris found us strolling through the city with our minimal baggage towards Gare du Nord. There is a pleasant walk to be had beside the Canal St Martin which goes in more-or-less the right direction. Not to be done if in a hurry or carrying lots of luggage, but on a nice day as good a way as any to see something of Paris. The canal is still in use but we saw no boats on our Sunday stroll. We arrived in very good time at Gard du Nord and actually looked at the place! We had never done that before and had simply passed from les grande lignes to the Metro or RER and vice-versa, but arriving on foot from the street we could see what a grand building it is - not like the stunning St Pancras but certainly fitting as a main terminal in a capital city. It has always been the terminal for trains to England, but now there is no transfer to ship to cross the Channel. At the British end, of course, the terminal is quiet different: although St Pancras is probably the grandest London station, until recently it served trains only to the English midlands and Sheffield (with a few through to Glasgow in the past, but these were withdrawn long ago, very much duplicating the service from Euston). Victoria had always been the station for the continent until the Tunnel opened with its first terminus at Waterloo (not very diplomatic for trains from France and Belgium!) and now at St Pancras.

We checked in for our Eurostar train to London and waited to be called. At the Paris end the waiting area is above the platforms but otherwise the procedure is much the same as at London. 

There are “duty free” shops beyond check-in, but this is a bit of an anachronism in these days of the European Union (we don’t have them our end). The aftershave was a good price, though, at one place so I bought enough to keep me going for some time!
Eurostar Standard Premier "Light Meal"

As I mentioned, our trip back was in Standard Premier Class, which is tourist first. (The very highest class is Business Premier which uses the same coaches but has more flexible ticket validity and possibly better food and dedicated waiting rooms with shorter check-in time.) We had the usual more spacious seat and included “light meal”. It was interesting to see what this would be, and it turned out to be drinks, bread and cheese with a yogurt. All very nice and very light. Top-ups of drinks were offered, and second pieces of bread. We took both! Our next Eurostar trip is on our package holiday to Switzerland and will be Standard Premier in both directions and we’ll see whether the offer varies. When the second round of drinks came round the staff were offering top-ups of tea and coffee but my travelling companion asked about wine and they replied, “Yes, that is allowed” so we had more wine. The glass is fascinating: it is wider than it is high, so there is little chance of knocking it over.

All the way back it was dark and we had no idea when we were in the Tunnel, but we were very soon in London and made our way over the road to Kings Cross for the next convenient train to Peterborough. We arrived there with some time to spare before the connection to Stamford so we repaired to the Great Northern Hotel bar, as has become our custom in these circumstances, for a pint and some of their delicious thin chips. And so home. A day in Fontainebleau, with two nights at a base camp in a comfortable hotel in Paris. 

Midweek this could probably be a bargain break, and I would thoroughly recommend it. Some really cheap fares are available on Eurostar: having to travel on a Friday evening jacked up our outward fare quite a lot, but if this can be avoided a short break in Paris is as easy and cheap to do as one in, say, Edinburgh. And about as quick!

Saturday, 8 February 2014

Parish Adventure/Pilgrimage to Canterbury

Aboard the train to London
Parish News readers' outing to Canterbury is now planned for 31st May, a few days after the feast day of St Augustine, the first Archbishop and the feast day of the Visitation of the Blessed Virgin Mary to Elizabeth.

The fare should be about £90 per person (less for railcard holders) and the provisional itinerary is as follows:

  • 07:50 Convene at Stamford rail station
  • 08:00 Depart Stamford by CrossCountry train
  • 08:15 Arrive Peterborough
  • 08:40 Dep Peterborough by East Coast train, First Class
  • 09:35 Arr London Kings Cross and walk across road to St Pancras
  • 10:42 Dep London St Pancras by Southeastern high speed train
  • 11:38 Arr Canterbury West
  • Free time in Canterbury: suggested activities will be published later
  • 16:25 Dep Canterbury West by Southeastern high speed train
  • 17:21 Arr London St Pancras
  • Time to enjoy facilities at St Pancras and to have supper; cross road to Kings Cross
  • 19:30 Dep London Kings Cross by East Coast train, First Class
  • 20:19 Arr Peterborough
  • 20:52 Dep Peterborough by CrossCountry train
  • 21:05 Arr Stamford

In order to get all this at such a good price it is vital to book well in advance and I need an accurate list of who is coming and what railcards they hold by midnight on the last day of February. There is a sign-up list in church (one name per line, please!) or you can email me your name and telephone number with a note of what (if any) railcard you have - and don't forget to bring it on the day! Once it is all booked I'll invoice everyone for the actual fare, send suggestions for the day in Canterbury, and take soundings about the proposed meal in London on the way back.

High speed "Javelin" train at St Pancras
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