Monday 26 May 2008

Scotland - Day 6 - Final leg

My final hotel was special. Special in that it was the most expensive nights stay I've ever paid for myself. £97 for bed & breakfast at the Belford Hotel. In comparison, the first night at the excellent Regent House Hotel cost £27. The choice was forced on me thanks to Edinburgh Marathon occurring the same weekend. Getting a room anywhere in the city was pretty much impossible, especially since I needed to be within walking distance of the station.

The room was as nice as any commercial style hotel is. Spacious and clean. There were a couple of issues though. The first was that every time I flushed the toilet the handle lost connection to the flush mechanism. So using the loo had to be followed by a call to reception to get someone sent up to fix it. And the shower was, a shower. Hopeless, with a weak dribble coming out of the head. Compared to the pummelling I got in Inverness this wasn't impressive.

My plan had been to make up for the expense by eating my own body weight in breakfast. At least that would save getting lunch on the run home. To be fair, for the first time during my trip, haggis was on offer at the buffet. Good news as I like fried haggis - but not this stuff. I'm not sure what was wrong but it tasted weird. The rest of the food was fine if a bit on the bland side. I even tried a vegetarian sausage but that was like eating compost so it was given up as a bad idea. On the plus side, the teapot didn't dribble.

Oh, and they charge for WiFi - what's that about ?

Hiking (best word for it, think half an hour walk. The hotel is in the back of beyond) back to the station I passed the Drumsheuch Swimming and Turkish Baths company. Perhaps I should have booked there for my ablutions. Excellent building though.

Princess Street is a bit chaotic at present. There are a lot of roadworks in preparation for the new tramway system. There is a lot of pride in this, or at least a lot of stands explaining why it will be A Good Thing. Comparing the street with a vintage photo in a magazine I bought for the trip, there is a lot less traffic already so I wonder how much difference the trams will make. Hopefully this busy street will become easier to cross as it's a nightmare now !

Edinburgh station was very busy. I'd expected it to be quiet on a Sunday morning but apparently it is the place to be. My train arrived and fortunately was pretty quiet. With the seat reservation system not working I just grabbed a spot in the quiet coach and relaxed. The run south was as easy as could be. The weather gradually got worse as we neared Birmingham but I didn't care much. The two lads who had got on at Crewe and sat nearby did though. Their tracksuits weren't going to protect them much and they hadn't brought anything more suitable for the conditions. In fact apart from mobile phones they didn't seem to have brought anything. At one point we briefly stopped in the countryside and one asked me if I knew why we had been held up. I'm not sure why I was thought to be an expert on this or what information I might have that he didn't at that point.

A couple of stations before Brum a mother sat down with her two kids. They were fractious but no problem to me but the boy was slightly unnerving. He was singing a song that started off:

We are the boys.
We know what to do.
Take all the girls.
And flush them down the loo.

He ran through this a couple of times and then added:

We are the strong.
We know what to do.
Take all the weak.
And flush them down the loo.

We are the beautiful.
We know what to do.
Take all the ugly.
And flush them down the loo.

Anyway, once at New Street a quick and damp stroll took me to Snow Hill. I remembered just in time that I needed to buy a ticket (force of habit, I normally have a return half at this point) for the Marylebone bound train that brought me home after an enjoyable trip. Stepping onto the platform I bumped into a friend who was busy packing her boyfriend off onto the train I'd just got off. Strangely she didn't seem to want to chat about my holiday...

To be honest I should have done this years ago as it's a fantastic ride and I've seen some beautiful places and met interesting people. Time to start planning the next one I think.

Scotland – Day 5 – Aberdeen

Leaving Inverness for Aberdeen the countryside was much lusher than had been the case in the north. Although there were still mountains on the horizon the foreground was much like that nearer home. Cattle largely replaced sheep and the typical Scottish stone farmhouses have the sort of tin sheds that you find everywhere else added to the plot.

Arriving in Aberdeen the first impression is that there station is quieter than Inverness. Wanting to drop off my rucksack I hunted down the left luggage office. The surprisingly French porter didn't seem to know where it was and after wandering around the concourse for a while I gave up and headed out. The office is outside. Ignore the signs, it's on the station frontage nowhere near where you'd expect to find it. 2 quid and a search of the bag later and I was heading toward the docks.

The city is built around it's docks like no other I've visited. A couple of minutes stroll from the station and I'm looking at ships. My first impression was “B****y hell those are big !” (I really do think in asterisks to avoid offending myself). What I'd found were at least 5 stories high and that was above the decks. They were so tightly packed in the dock that you couldn't actually see the water. The decks were nearly level with the quayside and you could step on if the high metal fence around the site didn't prevent you getting in.

Having found the docks I quickly found the maritime museum which is excellent. The displays centre around a huge model of an oil rig. With the city economy running with the stuff it's not surprising the museum majors on it. However there is also a health dose of fishing history too, The quality of displays are excellent and I found them really interesting. OK so there weren't that many people in so getting at exhibits wasn't hard. I did manage to get in trouble though when I took a photo of a diving suit having missed the tiny notice at the entrance that said you weren't to take pictures. I really don't know why as you aren't doing any harm and none of the exhibits can hold an intellectual property issues. And if you are going to ban people from pictures, sell more postcards so we don't need to bother. There are some lovely paintings of ships on show and only 2 reproductions are available.

Leaving the museum and heading to get some boat pictures I was shooting through the fence when one of the workers let me in to work a bit more clearly. We chatted boats for a bit, he confirmed my guess that the vessels in dock were oil rig support ships. Despite dwarfing everything close by it was pointed out that they in turn would look tiny beside the platforms at sea. From the model in the museum it's obvious how huge these structures must be. Watching a film explaining the training required for those heading out there I think that I'll not be checking them personally.

Times have changed and the city is still catching up. Around the docks there are dozens of pubs. Proper dives that you can imaging your 1950's sailor or stevedore spending his wages in. The sort of place where Para Handy would have enjoyed a quick dram or two. He'd have noticed that there were a number of business opportunities if you fancy running one or two or more. In fact the whole area looks like it's due for reinvention as the grey warehouses are standing derelict too crying out for conversion into des-res flats. Mind you they won't be too keen if they want to be close to the centre. I took ages to find it. On the way I tripped over the indoor market which is properly scruffy and run down and as vibrant as the best of the, Plenty of haberdashery, mobile phones and a cafe selling Mince & tatties with free tea.

One exit takes you to the main shopping centre but I didn't find this and wandered around for a while, eventually I made it and it's not bad. The best feature by miles is the Disney Cinderella's castle at one end of the street. Not sure why it's there or why they built it from the same grey stone as everything else rather than pixie dust, but it's a nice touch and certainly stands out. The art gallery is pretty nice too. Like the maritime museum it's free to go in, which is always good. Unlike most galleries it's full of modern sculpture. Most of is pretentious rubbish but in amongst the arty stuff there are some really impressive ones. I just can't get excited when an artist has an idea and then someone skilled does the work but gets none of the credit. Some of the work was by local silversmiths – my favourite was the teapot and sugar bowl fitted with wheels. Great cartoony stuff with real humour so often missing in the art world.

My plan was to head off to Edinburgh and I back at the station I caught the train to Kings Cross which was nice an quiet. That could be because it was a proper HST with lots of coaches. Despite being over 25 years old it was still the most comfortable ride I've had all week. That tells you something about modern design and the requirements of operating companies (Thank you John Major).

Out of Edinburgh we passed swathes of what looked like council houses. No stone here, just lots of prefab structure which I don't think will a last quite as long as the older stone ones, but then they were doubtless cheaper to build.

The line hugs the coast for miles and with the perfect weather we could watch the boats heading off to the rigs. Even from a distance they are pretty impressive. Plenty more beach for those who can brave the cold and don't mind black seaweed.

The highlights of the trip involved bridges. On the approach to Edinburgh we crossed the Forth Bridge which is as impressive as it was before. However I think the Tay bridge is pretty good competition. One of the problems with the Forth crossing is that the bridge looks great when you see it from the bank but travelling across apart from the hight there isn't much to see apart from supports blocking the view. On the Tay you are up high and over water but the trip lasts a lot longer. A lot longer. In fact you can't believe how long this bridge is as it seems to go on forever. I managed to forget all about the disaster a hundred years ago too. Nearly.

Scotland – Day 4 – Thurso and Wick

I've always been fascinated by maps, Some place names have me wondering what they are like and I feel the need to make a visit. Years ago I ended up on a tube train heading out to Chipping Ongar simply because it was at the extremity of the underground map and the name was shortened to the amusing sounding “Ongar”. As far as extremities go though, you can't beat Thurso. Try and go any further north in this country and you'll get your feet wet as you've run out of island.

The trip is not easy either. OK so all you do is sit on a train but it's a 4 hour journey. From Leamington I can get to most of the country in that time. A trip of this duration needs planning, especially as the train left at 7:15 in the morning. That's before breakfast so I didn't even get my bacon & eggs !

My heart sank when the train seats were dotted with reserved tickets. The demand wasn't as high as yesterday and I found a berth without trouble but wondered if we were due to be visited by another coach party.

The run out starts quietly enough, the first few stops are the same as the trip to Kyle. We soon diverted to new territory at Dingwall and picked up the coast of the Cromarty Forth for a while, The whole thing got very Scottish at Invergordon. In Nigg Bay there is an oil platform of some description on one side of the train, and piles of barrels from a whiskey distillery on the other. Both of the country's main exports in one place !

Station names provided some fun. I like the sound of Fearn, but loved the way that in the highland accent employed by the on-board tanoy system, Tain sounds like “Ting”. Not all the stations are stops, if you want to get off you have to tell the guard or if waiting on the platform indicate to the driver clearly, he slows down to walking pace on approach in case the brakes need to come on.

As befits a proper traditional branch line, each station has it's own character. Sadly, many are closed and some boarded up as the small number of passengers don't really warrant a permenant staff at each. Others have been sold as private homes and are well cared for. The owners often “accesorise” their homes with platform barrows and other railway ephemera. An extreme case is found at Rogart where a small railway museum has appeared. The are a couple of coaches and a diesel shunter (Trainspotter note: Ruston 48DS, I only know this because I once built a model of one).

On the train were a couple of cyclists who were setting off to John O'Groats and then to Lands End from Thurso. Their bikes were in large cardboard boxes in the cycle section so when they got off their first job involved spanners and some serious assembly. They'd come up from Kings Cross the day before and planned to complete the trip in 12 days including only a single day of rest. Luckily the weather was good for their starting with bight skies and no sign of rain or serious wind.

The coach party turned out to be a group from the RSPB who were looking at a new reserve over 40,000 acres in size in the Highlands. Their talk was of birds they had seen on the trip up and the sighting of a harrier (not the jet powered variety) caused much excitement with binoculars appearing from nowhere as they raced across the coach. Chatting to a couple of them I learned that the forestry industry isn't as “Green” as I'd thought. Apparently the stubbly mess left when the trees are cut down doesn't provide a particularly useful habitat for wildlife and that that trees themselves take all the goodness out of the land. Of course this has to be balanced against the employment opportunities provided in an area where jobs are scarce but land plentiful.

Outside the window we started with fairly flat lands but once we passed through Dunrobin the sea appeared. In the sunshine it really shone. The beaches were either black and rocky or golden sand devoid of sunbathers. For s few miles we traveled along the coast until the half-timbered Dunrobin Castle station was reached and the tracks headed back inland.

At Helensdale the train stopped for a while to wait for another train to pass, Most of the passengers hopped out onto the platform to stretch their legs. 4 hours is a long time and Francesca our catering host certainly did good business with the trolley catering. Her captive audience hadn't all brought mountains of food with them and we all fancied a cup of tea during the run.

After this the landscape became desolate moorland. Although you could see for miles the colours were muted other than the bright yellow flowers on the gorse. This went on for over an hour too - that makes for an enormous expanse of wilderness. On one hand this makes for potentially boring viewing, on the other seeing such a huge area of nothing is strangely affecting.

The first sign of arrival at Thurso is a massive graveyard on the hill. It's recently been extended too which doesn't bode well for the local population. The station is a tradition highland covered train shed structure which our train parked outside of. I suspect had the weather been less than spectacular we might have been inside as the designer intended. That “Welcome to Thurso” sign on the roof marks journeys end and must be a sight appreciated by a lot of travellers over the years, especially those from Edinburgh or even further south.

For a town by the sea, Thurso certainly hides the water well. I wandered along Princess Street and through the town for 20 minutes before finding it. Even then there isn't as much there as I'd expected. OK, so you get a little beach with stones, seaweed and sand but no boats of signs or maritime industry. On the beach I chatted to a lady chucking stones in for her slightly reluctant do go fetch back out. He only had little legs and obviously wasn't too keen on the tiny waves rolling in. Thw ater had the unforatunate effect of giving him a perm too. Perhaps his reticence is because this this isn't a fashionable style for pouches ?

The shopping centre isn't large. The only national chain is a Woolworths (not even a WH Smith) but there is a pleathora of small shops which impart a character than many larger places simply can't hope to match. One thing that makes me wonder is the huge number of businesses involved with hair. Barbers, hairdressers, I would say that at least half the proprietors want to fiddle with the top of your head. Best of all, there is a model shop ! OK so not a big one but that's one more than central London can muster.

After a delicious lunch of lamb sausages and mash at the Bistro on the corner, I wandered back to the station via the art gallery and a couple of charity shops. One thing I hadn't planned properly for was reading matter. My copy of the Scotsman didn't entertain me for the duration so I picked up a couple of second hand paperbacks to do the job properly.

After Thurso it makes sense to visit Wick. Surprisingly this feels like a slightly bigger town even though it isn't. It too has a Woolworths and a Wetherspoons plus all the same shops you find 30 miles away. In out of the way places like this, local chain stores emerge. There is a travel agent that I've seen in a few but never in a larger area where presumably the national chains take over. Local charities seem to pop up in both places too and if I'm being fair, make up a significant percentage of the shops. Mind you, it's a long way to go for a major centre so they probably provide a very useful service to the community recycling goods that you can't easily acquire locally. The highlight of the visit was the discovery of a new variation of the famous Empire Biscuit. This version has toffee in the centre instead of mock cream. A discovery of this type can't be underestimated. It's like finding a new shape for the wheel. The lady in the shop told me they are very popular too. Mind you, at 3pm there were more of these than the conventional version, make of that what you will...

Students of architecture would love the stone built buildings. You don't see any brick here. There is a similar air of solidity to may of the structures, especially banks. I doubt you'd see that nowadays but 100 years ago the institutions wanted an air of permanence and that meant proper materials.

It's often sad that the journey back is shorter than the one out. This did seem the case even though the trip from Wick involves running back to Thurso on the way. Perhaps it was because I buried my nose in one of my books, a slightly trashy sci-fi novel which in a pounds per page was excellent value. I was pleased to have planned ahead enough to bring refreshments too as no trolley passed through the carriages this time. Surely a missed opportunity.

Sunday 25 May 2008

Scotland – Day 3 – Kyle of Lochalsh

There is an old photograph somewhere that is responsible for this trip. It shows Kyle station in the 1950's with the sidings full of fish vans and a steam train in the platform. Since seeing this I've always wanted to go and have a look even though times have changed. The fish vans and steam engines are a memory but I hoped the station retained some of it's charm.

The train from Inverness leaves late in the morning so I had time to find a bit more of the city. There is a fantastic if expensive second hand bookshop in a converted chapel just off the centre. I'd already had a stroll down to the docks, which proved of little interest as the maritime stuff is hidden in an industrial estate, so sadly there was only 20 minutes or so to spare and this place needs several visits ! Handy they have a café on site in the balcony for the serious browser I suppose.

Anyway the big surprise on reaching the train was that nearly all the seats were already reserved. A coach party would be joining us further up the line which left hardly anywhere for us casual users to sit. I grabbed a table at the end of the coach and signalled to a couple coming along that there were seats at this end of the train. They sat down and promptly started moaning about the state of the railways. Now this is a raw nerve for me as I feel that rail travel has been badly served by politicians from all sides but especially those who decided to privatise them. I rose to the bait and then thought better off it. The lady was proudly telling another passenger how she had read in the Daily Mail of someone being fined £1000 for standing in first class when they didn't have a the right ticket so I think they might have been somewhat bigger fans of John Major than I am. Deciding that discretion is the better part of valour, I did the sensible thing and headed off down the other end where the bike rack is. In fact the view was so good that I stayed put even when the guard offered me a spot in First Class.

Scottish station names are great. Where else do you find anything as lyrical as “Muir of Ord” ? OK, it's a bit grim once you get there but the name is nice.

Once past the entrance to the Caledoninan Canal the scenery starts out flat and wild. This continues for some miles but eventually this gives way to mountains an valleys. These are still wild and scrubby, useless for anything other than grazing for hill farmers. The sheep don't seem used to trains as they and the new born lambs gambol away as soon as we pass. There are also a few wild deer who also don't like our passing much, but they are more dignified as befits their status in Scotland.

At Dingwall the coach party were loaded on the train. Judging from the accents they were from the London area. Several started moaning before they even sat down and very few paid much interest to the world outside other than to get excited when they see their coach on the road alongside the track at one point. Presumably the trip was to Kyle and the train was just a novelty rather than a serious means of getting to a destination.

The best scenery is from Strathcarron onwards as the line joins the water. It snakes alongside the cliffs hanging on grimly at some places. The view across the estuary is fantastic even if the trees make it difficult to photograph in places. You'll have to imagine looking over the water and small islands to the mountains in the distance. It's like a God ran down the check-list of interesting scenery and ticked the lot.

At Duncraig, Mark from the Friends of the Kyle Line (President: Charles Kennedy MP) pops up and tries to flog a pack of information along with entry to the museum in the station. The coach party weren't that interested but I paid my £3.50 and received a certificate, letter and information poster in a plastic wallet.

At the station, which is a typical Highland wooden structure albeit a bit longer than usual, the is a tiny museum and gift shop. The Friends are trying to restore the signal box at present as well as being committed to promoting the line and trying to keep it open. Over the years there have been many attempts to close it down. Hardly surprising as all the scenery must come at a terrifying price to First Scotrail. Luckily for us all attempts have failed and nowadays it would be very difficult to find an excuse. This won't stop the accountants though, so I wished the Friends the best of luck.

Beside the station, where the fish vans would once have stood is an enormous pile of wood. We'd passed through forests full of tall, spindly pine trees. It has to be remembered that these are as much a crop as wheat is elsewhere. The trees grow and are harvested. The few branches that exist (close planting means there is little greenery other than at the very top) are removed, the trunk saw into prescribed lengths and the the logs are carried down on lorries to the harbour where they are shipped out. This traffic used to go by rail and still does in some places but here it's boats.

Kyle isn't a large town but at least half of the shops cater for the tourist trade. One of the busiest is Herbert's Place, the local chippie. I had promised myself that I would get a proper chip-free healthy meal but the lure of that seaside tradition was too strong. I wasn't the only one either, plenty of people were sitting looking out over the water at the Isle of Skye. Anyway, you should always support any business with a pun in the title shouldn't you ?

The shop was busy so I did a circuit of the town after sticking my head in the door thinking it would quieten down once the rush of new trippers had died down. That happened, but not much. It was funny being behind a Yorkshire group when the request for a bread cake (bread roll) had to be translated for the proprietor. The lady then decided she didn't want chips as they didn't have any “scraps” either. Now I like crunchy bits in my chips but surely they are the icing on the cake rather than the main body of the feast. Some people are just too picky.

Anyway, I munched my delicious lunch sat on the breakwater watching a lorry driver unload his logs at high speed. The whole process took less than 5 minutes using the crane built on the back of the lorry. Afterwards, on the recommendation of Lonely Planet, I washed my hands at the local toilet which is home to the largest collection of whisky bottles in any public convenience – but then that's not much of a record in my experience. Still there was plenty of decoration lovely out up by the attendant so I suppose this counts as an experience.

The original plan was to stay the whole afternoon but looking at the timetable I realised I could grab an earlier train and get some time in Plockton. This little village is best known for being the place the TV series “Hamish McBeth” was filmed at years ago. They don't seem to mention this anywhere and I don't blame them – once you get over the fact that the station is 20 minutes walk from the village – it's a beautiful little place. A row of stone cottages around the edge of the bay. There are no less than three red telephone boxes, one of which is high up on a hill. Just the thing for the visitors of whom there are many judging by the tourist friendly shopping available. Most of the shops do other things but one little on in the middle of the row seems only to sell tat, and not tat unique to Plockton, so I guess this doesn't open in the winter.

The return train was a lot quieter than the one out. The coach party had been bussed off at Kyle, possibly over the bridge to Skye in the manner of Americans “doing” Britain. They missed the scenery which had changed as the sun moved around. I'll admit the fresh air and gentle motion of the train meant I missed a bit 'cos I dozed off but it was worth it.

More pics, with captions, on Flickr

Thursday 22 May 2008

Scotland – Day 2 – Edinburgh to Inverness

Nothing beats a good breakfast on holiday. To make things better, the owner of the hotel offered to give me a shout when the spawns of Satan (TM) had finished throwing food at each other. There is no need for decent people to be stuck in a room full of kids and I'm sure the teachers will appreciate the lack of witnesses while they controlled them. Besides, breakfast means sharp objects will be to hand and it would be such a shame to get blood in the fruit juice.

Anyway the food was good and well cooked, the tea was nice and I got Frosties as cereal. Let's face it, it's not food for grown-ups but sometimes you have to live a little. For a real rush there were even sugar cubes complete with proper tongs - how posh is that ! For the mechanically minded there was even a dumb waiter device added its clunks, groans and flashing lights to the morning atmosphere.

With time to kill before the train I walked along Princess street window shopping. Being used to Midlands townscapes the solidity of the imposing stone built s
hops with carved names is a startling contrast. How they manage when the business changes I don't know as those signs are there for centuries. Mind you some of the shops appear to have been there since William Wallace so perhaps it doesn't matter. There is an air of permenance an an attitute that says these things are just so. After all, the Queen might drop in at any minute and you would want her to feel at home wouldn't you ?
At the other end of the street, in more ways than one, there are the souvenir shops. None of these seem to employ anyone who looks that Scottish. I especially liked one owners tartan turban along with his Chinese assistants mini-kilt and biker boot combo. Quite how I resisted buying a set of mini bagpipes is something I don't understand but something my neighbors will be eternally grateful for.

Back at the station I arrived early and bagged a seat next to the bike rack on board. This might not sound like a winning move but it is a seat on its own, had space for my rucksack beside it and best of all gave me two whole windows free of passengers heads to see the view.

Soon after we set off the train appeared to be flying. How we had managed to get up so high over water confused me until I spotted a bridge on my right. We were on the Forth Rail bridge and it is fantastic. Although the image is iconic you simply don't realise how high or long the structure is. On one side we had the suspension bridge
carrying the road crossing, on the other a pair of huge ocean going tugboats looked like models. Had the train stopped at Queensferry station I would have been very tempted to get out and have yet another look. As it was a quick glimpse appeared as we rounded the bay at Burntislast. Sadly this was too quick for me to get a photo and even if I had, the covers for the legendary painting obscured some of the massive pillars which didn't help the view.

On the train we all settled into our seats. Simon our “catering host” turned up with his trolley to sell us drinks. He was so tall he had to duck down through each doorway he passed through. I suspect that catering hosting isn't his dream job due to the slight air of embarrassment that followed him as he navigated the bags
littering the aisles but he did OK and had a better success rate than many others I've seen doing this job.

The scenery defies description. Streams with wide stoney beaches where the water has meandered over time, scrubby hills with gorse and the odd cow, waves of pine trees, we had the lot. Isolated houses popped up occasionaly and I wondered who would chose to live so far from any form of civilisation. Often there was little in the way of farm building on the plot either. In May I was really surprised to see so much snow on the hills too. Not enough for skiing perhaps but more than we see in central England most winters.

If I thought the houses were isolated, we passed the most remote chicken farm in the world as well. It suddenly appeared from behind some trees looking for all the world like a wartime prison camp in miniature. Those who have seen the film "Chicken Run" will have an idea what I mean. The owner or carer for the birds was a mystery though as we were miles from anywhere. Mind you, I didn't see any chickens either so perhaps they had dug a tunnel and escaped already...

The stations are lovely and almost Alpine in design. Signs in E
nglish and Gaelic which is nearly as tough to read as Welsh. Aviemore is oddball though. On one side there was a pleasant enough building, on the other a set of run-down structures with faded paint (antiques people would call this patina) that belong to the Strathspey Steam Railway. Judging by the amount of un-restored rolling stock they own it's a young line and one that can't reply on many local volunteers either. A steam engine (BR liveried J94 for gricers) was outside the brick built shed and being readied for use. The weirdest feature though, was the buffet on the proper station. Who deiced that somewhere this remote was the place for Roosleap, the down under eating experience ?

To entertain us on the run, we had a toilet. Not that exciting you might think, but far from easy for most of the users who waited outside for the door to open or looked for a door closing button once they had finished. One girl even tried to haul the door back into position, thinking perhaps that the designer meant this to be the way things worked. I'll be honest and admit that I got tired of trying to explain the door to people very quickly and just let them get on with it. Since most were
elderley Americans with weak bladders practice soon made perfect.

My companions at the entertaining end of the coach were Cameron who was heading up to see family and Heidi taking here incredibly well behaved 6 month old son to see Grandad. We chatted away every so often and Cameron advised me that his sister runs a B&B in Inverness and then backtracked as I misunderstood thinking that he was trying to sell me accommodation !

On arrival my plan had been to head straight to the guesthouse but the Victorian Market diverted me. It turned out not to be an indoor market but an odd shopping centre with souvenir shops rubbing doorways with a purveyor of vacuum cleaner spares.

Inverness isn't a very big city, in fact it's smaller than many large towns. The Winston Guest House is about 5 minutes from the station and that includes crossing the river Ness (no sign of the monster). I haven't seen the inside much yet as my bedroom is at the bottom of the garden. Not a shed but a little building with 4 or 5 rooms all nicely appointed. The owner showed me around and probably didn't need to tell me that he'd had the floor in the bathroom replaced a few days ago. I will tread carefully.

As usual, more pictures in Flickr.

Wednesday 21 May 2008

Scotland – Day 1 – Leamington to Edinburgh

Trips like this are best started gradually. Although I was heading for the top of the country my intention was to break the journey into nice easy sections. First, I had to catch a train to Edinburgh.

Because of the unique way that train tickets are sold in this country (Thank you John Major) there was a saving to be made by traveling to Birmingham and then on the Scotland's capital. That first leg was easy and pleasant with the train rolling through the Warwickshire countryside in ideal traveling weather – sunny but not too hot and with a hint of cloud to make the sky interesting.

An hour in Brum allowed me to pick up lunch including the obligatory muffin (chunky chocolate) with time to kill in the New Street coffee concession. I'm not au-fait with all these places and foolishly ordered large hot chocolate. Quite why anyone would want a bucket with a handle full of drink escapes me. I'm slightly ashamed to admit that I still managed to finish it all.

My booked seat was free, as was the seat next to it which had been reserved for the same journey apparently. Presumably the quiet train made the original owner decided to sit elsewhere. At least my rucksack appreciated the comfort. There certainly wasn't any need to crowd together at this point. Despite the space, an elderly couple who sat in front of me weren't happy. Mrs Oldear kept ordering her husband off to find better seats – I had plenty of leg room so I wondered what the problem was. He would trot off down the coach and come back and report on the seating situation. She would consider the report and then send him on another sortie, usually just as he had sat down. She seemed to have an obsession with Coach F and kept encouraging him to go and find it. Presumably this is Narnia for the older traveller. Eventually seats were found there and they headed off, never to be seen again.

Running north was made more interesting for me as the train was routed through Bescot depot. To most people this is just endless tracks full of wagons and plenty of rusting locomotives for the train spotters to get excited about. To me it's a fascinating display of the lesser spotted parts of the railway system in all their colours. I wouldn't claim to know what most of it does, but that doesn't matter, you are seeing a side the railway people usually keep for themselves. Ominously though, this diversion had made us 15 minutes late.

The first sign that we were making progress was when we reached Warrington. To many people it's where they live. To me it is proper 'op North and should be celebrated by a donning of flat caps and releasing if whippets - strange how some place names conjure up images in your mind when you have never been there. Arriving in the station the only visible landmark is the giant Unilever building with it's tangle of pipes and tubes carrying vital fluids around the plant. Between towns I enjoyed being able to see out of both sides of the carriage at the same time. The impression of the train snaking and twisting through the countryside.

Preston arrived and all that snaking stopped. We waited in the platform. And waited. The our train manager (remember when they were called “guards” ?) announced that there was a problem with a freight train further up the line. We sat there along with several other trains and after an hour “Trish” first told us we were about to go and then had to tannoy again that she'd been mislead and we weren't. Preston is a nice place and I was comfortable but eventually the novelty wears off. As our stay was an indeterminate length no-one could get off and explore so we had to sit like puddings awaiting our fate.

After just under 2 hour we started again. A couple of miles down the line we passed the errant train. It was shunted in a loop – the solution appeared to have been to use another freight train to push the broken one down the line.

For some reason it hadn't occurred to me to get some writing down while sat in the platform, preferring to read a book instead, I did try once we left but bumpy track and impressive scenery conspired against me. As we rolled through the lake district around Oxenholme anything other than gawping was out of the question, for me at least. The lady on the other side of the isle was oblivious to it all and worked solidly on her laptop all the way through. That's fine, she probably makes the journey regularly, but I seemed to be the only one impressed. OK, it's just lumpy country but it's certainly beautiful.

Sadly because of the delay our train was to terminate at Carlisle. Apparently a train to Edinburgh would leave 8 minutes later from another platform. We arrived but the onward transport was a myth. The next train north was 45 minutes away.

Still, it was a nice day and I had a pleasant stroll around the block. In this instance around the castlelated red stone building just outside the station entrance. While the rest of the passengers hung around the platform it seemed silly not to go and have a look around. The train hadn't arrived when I got back, but the platform was certainly busy !

As expected the train was far too short for the number of passengers waiting (Thank you John Major) but I was lucky (!) enough to grab a spot in the vestibule by the shop. Far less smelly than those by the toilets I find...

A kind of “blitz spirit” was borne of the hardships that come from spending an hour stuck at the end of a coach. The scenery passed us by largely unseen thanks to some twonk in the design office who decided that oval windows too low to see out of when standing, were a good idea. However my companions; an American living in Edinburgh, Scottish student who lives in Stoke on Trent, young mother and surprisingly well behaves 2 year old and quiet lady who spent half the time applying skin cream, chatted away and made the best of it. Explaining spa water to the Yank he pondered the fact that the indication of oil in Texas was sulfurous water, just like the disgusting stuff found in Harrogate.

Edinburgh arrived and my first stop was the travel centre to try and collect my “Freedom of Scotland” ticket for the rest of the week, I ordered this 7 days ago and despite receiving an e-mail confirming purchase, never got the ticket. A call to the customer care centre yesterday and I was promised the ticket would await at Edinburgh. It didn't and the travel centre staff sent me to the Scotrail office as they didn't deal with these. The Scotrail office sent me back to the travel centre as they didn't deal with them either. I bought another ticket. Thank you John Major. (Update: on my return I had recieved and e-mail which was sent sveral days after I got to Scotland, saying that due to a fault in thier system they couldn't accept bookings for railrovers on-line.)

Off to the hotel, booked a week ago. My heart sank when I had to wait in the lounge while they sorted out the bookings. A few minutes later and I was off to another hotel because the first (where I had booked) was full but they had arranged for a room for me at the same price around the corner. Which is why I am sitting in the Regent House Hotel typing this. And wishing it wasn't also home to a party of school children, Apparently, even under Scottish law you aren't allowed to bludgeon them no matter how often they bang doors our should at each other...

More pics in my unruly photostream on Flickr

Monday 19 May 2008

Off to Scotland

The Plan

Tuesday 20th May
L/Spa to B'ham
B'ham to Edinburgh

Wednesday 21st May
Edinburgh to Inverness

Thursday 22nd May
Friday 23rd May
Inverness to Kyle of Lochalsh
Kyle to Inverness

Inverness to Thurso
Thurso to Wick
Wick to Inverness

Saturday 24th May
Inverness to Aberdeen
Aberdeen to Edinburgh

Sunday 25th May
Edinburgh to B'ham
B'ham Moor St to L/Spa

Lets see what happens...

Saturday 10 May 2008

Bridgenorth via Kidderminster and the Severn Valley Railway

It's probably fair to say that Kidderminster isn't high on most peoples lists of dream holiday locations. I have wandered through the town centre in the past and it's no more interesting than any other downbeat Midlands town whose industrial base has largely deserted it. However there is one attraction that many of the competitors would love to have, Kidderminster is home to the Severn Valley Railway. Perhaps it is a peculiarly British eccentricity, or an example of “people power”, but when railway lines were closing in the 1950s and 60s, enthusiasts started banding together to buy and re-open them. Up and down the country railways that the powers that be decided were unnecessary have found a new lease of life providing entertainment for both travellers and operators.

My trip started with a run through central Birmingham past endless amounts of industry both live and dead. The highlight was probably West Bromwich Albion's football ground which appears to be a giant marque – the sort of thing you see trade stands in at outdoor events but on a much larger scale. I'm assuming some football goes on in there but since I don't follow the beautiful game I'm not sure.

I sat towards the back of the train and through the door that lead to the drivers cab I could see the track we had just travelled over. Quite why this view is so appealing when there are perfectly good windows in the side is something I accept but don't understand. Perhaps it's the fact that it's so often denied to us that matters. As a bit of an enthusiast I suppose I like to see the equipment that makes the railway work, for a while anyway, a bit like seeing behind the scenes in a theatre.

A mystery appeared on the skyline at Rowley Regis – two large communications towers on the horizon. Thanks to the haze they were a little indistinct but I'd certainly like to know more. A dig around on Google Maps hasn't enlightened me. Since we are talking about pretty substantial structures I would have thought they would be obvious on the satellite view but no.

Passing through Old Hill there is a golf course. Nothing special except it appears to be in a back garden. It is complete with rough, fairway, green and flag, all the builder needed to add was a bunker or two and the job would be complete. Perhaps this is a new idea – separate holes at different locations. To play a round you catch a bus and get off at different stops to tee off for each hole. Taking a different bus could give a different course effectively each time. Perhaps I should patent that idea ?

From Stourbridge Junction the landscape changes from buildings, via a burst of red sandstone in a cutting to rolling countryside. One minute you are in Birmingham and its environs, the next to the sound of choirs singing “Jerusalem”, the English country with hills and trees and everything.

Kidderminsters' proper station is a couple of platforms with a building picked from an uninspiring catalogue. Next door is the Severn Valley's much more imposing attempt. Brick built with towers, a sweeping approach and a proper ticket office you'd not be blamed for thinking it had always been there. The effect is helped because it is surrounded by buildings that are a lot older. The town was a big producer of carpets and also hosted the weekly livestock market so goods facilities were important and these buildings survived. One warehouse houses a railway museum full of signs and memorabilia. Admittedly on a weekday out of the holiday period I was the only visitor and the lady looking after the café wasn't doing great business but it's free and well worth the visit.

Being out of season there are only four departures to Bridgenorth, my intended destination. I'd missed the first but after half an hour the next train puffed into the station. Enthusiasts will want to know it was pulled by a GWR 0-6-0 Pannier Tank locomotive. Everyone else will just say it was a steam train. A line like this is staffed mainly by volunteers. Not being paid seems to affect their pride in the job as the coaches were taken away and washed before we were allowed to board. That care and attention plus the well presented uniforms that everyone wore spoke of a pride that has long since been beaten out of public life in other sectors.

Now when you take a traditional steam train ride in Britain you expect to see many things from the window – hills, sheep, cows, abandoned cars etc. More of a surprise was the sight of water buffalo followed by elephants. It is possible that some farmer had decided that cattle were too much trouble and wanted something with more meat on its bones but more likely that that section of line runs past West Midlands Safari park. I had to look this up which indicates someone is missing a trick with the advertising – a banner on the fence might get them a few more visitors.

Puttering through he countryside this way is very restful. The gentle sway of the coach, the noise from the engine and the clickety-clack of the wheels is enough to lull the passenger to sleep which is a pity as the view are not spectacular but pleasant in a very English way. The railway manages to do more than simply re-create the technical aspects of the line, it also recreates the atmosphere of the 1930s. Each station is immaculately presented with “set dressing” of luggage and ephemera. Some might see this as a Disneyfication of the past but I like to think it's more than this. The timetable is adhered to but in an unhurried and unpressured way. Post was being sent up the line by handing it to the guard and all the staff talk to each other like old friends, which of course many of them will be.

On reaching Bridgenorth everyone piles off the train and heads across a modern and surprisingly high footbridge which dumps you at a roadside. I followed the signs to the cliff railway as most of these trips seem to involve one so why break the habit ?

The town is on a very steep hill hence the funicular, one of the few not at a seaside. The line is crammed in between buildings and would be easy to miss if you weren't looking for it. The ride is quick and not in the least bit scary. I love the design of the cars which are bubble like rather than the Victorian boxes found elsewhere. 90 pence buys a return to the town, which considered the other option seems a bargain. Tickets come out of a proper machine set in the office desk. The only problem is that they are torn in half for each section of the trip so you don't get a souvenir !

The trip from Kidderminster is just over 16 miles but you might as well be in another world when you reach the centre of town. Yes there are a couple of chain stores, the ubiquitous WH Smith & Woolworths, the rest are the local shops beloved of tourists if not townspeople. The centre is dominated by the town hall which hosts markets in the arched area underneath. At one end of town a castellated gate provides a traffic obstruction. Quite how these survived the 1960's rush for road building I don't know, but I suspect the tourist office is glad they did. It's this sort of thing that give a destination like this atmosphere and makes it worth coming. There isn't a town square as such, just a wide main street with the market hall and lots of parking in the space that would once have been home to cattle on sales days.

Regular readers of this blog will be pleased to know that there is a small indoor market. The highlight is undoubtedly the second hand book stall which is huge and home to a wide variety of titles, not just pulp fiction but proper books you would be really pleased to track down. The rest of the market appears more like a down market department store with each area owned by someone else. With so little space to play with I doubt that they could do anything else. Mind you, the butchers selling local delicacies at the front was very tempting...

Under the side of the town gate I found one of the most unexpected shops I've found ever – an importer of weird American foodstuffs called Americalicious. Without teh Interweb I seriously doubt that the owner would stay open for more than a week but when I went in he was busy parcelling up goodies to dispatch around the country. Most of the display seemed to consist of Hershey products but as anyone brought up on a diet of Cadbury products knows they are an abomination. I settled for a packet of Jell-o and some Kelloggs Fruit Loops. Reading the nutritional information on the side explains so much about the size of America today – the main ingredient of each product appears to be calories.

After taking in both model shops (three if you count the one that specialises in die-cast collectibles) and an antique centre that used to be a garage, I decided I needed food before the return trip. Since I hadn't picked up a newspaper I headed to Smiths, the only newsagent as far as I could tell, and then to the Swan pub on the other side of the road.
Waiting at the bar to order the landlord was saying farewell to someone. He explained that the lady had worked in the pub for 28 years and the previous day had been her last with them. I asked what she did and he said, “She was the chef”. Now that's not a good thing to hear when you are about to order lunch but apparently they had a replacement and everything would be fine. Sadly the traditional toad in the hole had sold out and I didn't know what the next two over enthusiastically offered options were so I plumped for a mixed-grill affair. This arrived after about 25 minutes and looked OK. However I suspect the new cook is still finding his feet. The chips were both hot and not cooked properly, the bacon seared but surprisingly pink. The beer was nice though even if it wasn't a local brew.

After this I had to waddle back to the station fairly quickly to catch the train. I made it with ten minutes to spare and settled down in a compartment coach. These have long since disappeared from the real railway and I for one miss them. I understand that people could get up to mischief when hidden away but if you were in a quiet one, it meant a peaceful journey as noise and trouble didn't travel. Neither did heat though and the other passenger sharing it with me decided to go and find an open coach as this was too hot – vintage coaches offer no air conditioning !

A couple of stops down the line I was joined by two of the volunteer “explainers” from the Engine House museum on the line. This is a new attraction which aims to showcase some of the lines locomotives and put them in context. This all sounds very worthy and I wonder how many of the tourists will care when someone tries to explain why an exhibit matters when all they want is for their kids to use it as a climbing frame. Anyway, the volunteers were talking about a recent diesel gala. Apparently they find that not all enthusiasts are equal, even amongst the “anoraks” some are weirder than others. People sniffing in diesel fumes and sighing in the same way a wine taster does are definitely considered to be on the lunatic fringe !

Neither seemed to know why an ITV outside broadcast van was parked up in Arley station but we were all impressed when the dish unfolded itself from the roof, spun around and started hunting for a signal. The high-tech contrasted with it's surroundings and the coal powered train we were riding on. That coal made its appearance as we trundled through a long tunnel later on in the form of sparks flying by the windows. You don't see them in the sunlight but would certainly notice it if they hit some dry undergrowth nearby.

We made it back to Kidderminster in time to find crowds of kids being disgorged from the main line stations doors as the returned from school. Fighting my way through the crowds I made it on to the a train that turned out to be running straight through to Leamington. As we rumbled off it was interesting to compare the two trains – I was in a carriage that rattle because of the engine under the floor. All around were plastics and metal. The seat was comfortable but not luxurious. The journey would be punctual but impersonal. By contrast my steam trip had seem me wallow in seats surrounded by wood and fittings that were certainly not vandal-proof. The windows opened so I could stick my head out. It was a different age.

Sunday 4 May 2008


Wales is a foreign country whose people there speak a strange, scrabble-defying language.

My experience of the natives has, along with many other English people's, not been all that positive. Several years ago I stayed a few nights in Builth Wells for a training course. Walking down the main street on the Sunday evening I had abuse (I think) shouted at me in Welsh just because I looked English. Unfortunately there are some very pretty bits of country and a lot of interest in this dark land and as I want to take my VeeDub there in a couple of months I thought it would be a good idea to have a day trip to Wales to acclimatise myself.

Playing around with the ever unfriendly Network Rail Journey planner, I worked out that in a day it is possible to travel to Aberystwyth and back in a day. That's about as far west as you go in Britain without getting wet feet. Better still, if I bought my ticket in Birmingham the price dropped from a whopping 48 quid to around half that – even allowing for the trip to Brum. More research in a handy edition of the Lonely Planet guide to Great Britain showed that the town had a cliff tramway and pier. That's enough for me, I was sold.

The train out of Birmingham New Street was interesting. Announcements before we started were telling us that it would split during the journey with the rear half going where I wanted and the front travelling up the Cambrian Coast line to Tywyn. As a bit of an anorak I realised that the end that had been the front to New Street would be the back when it left, unlike half the other passengers to general confusion and panicy scampering along the aisles and back again.

The journey starts unremarkable enough heading out through Wolverhampton and Shrewsbury. I enjoy the Black Country scenery of canals and derelict factory buildings in a macabre sort of way. It's interesting to speculate what they once produced and imagine the proud owners standing in front of gleaming new premises. For some reason my mental picture has the owner dressed in tweeds and everyone wearing bowler hats with workers in flat caps. I knew I was on the way to Wales though - the guard called me “bach” when returning my ticket after checking it. We were heading for holiday territory too, the carriage carpet was from the traditional B&B section of the catalogue judging by it’s lurid design.

I settled down to enjoy the journey. Birmingham New Street to Abber takes around 3 hours, plenty of time to struggle with the crossword and read a book. To make the experience complete I picked up a muffin from the baker next to New Street’s ticket barrier. Like a good boy I eschewed the double chocolate option, plumping for the much healthier Banana and Toffee version. This surely counts as one of my “five a day” doesn’t it ?

Along the way there are sights to be seen. I was amused to see that when we pulled up in Wellington station, over the top of the building there was a Boots sign visible !

Welshpool station is a mystery too. The old station is on the other side of a main road from the railway. I’m assuming that years ago the line was rationalised and the station site reduced allowing space for the road. I’m sure the local council approved wholeheartedly. As it is the building is still in fine shape and now operates as a shop. Apparently it sells Hornby model railways amongst other things.

Normally I like to spend a long train trip stuffing my face, listening to music and reading a good book. The reading had to stop after Newtown though - the scenery was simply too good to ignore. We travelled through valleys between brooding mountains and across fast flowing rivers. The weather was kind - soft sunlight with just a hint of cloud to cast ever moving shadows in the hillsides.

After an hour of hillsides the scenery opened out at Dovey Junction. Here the line splits with track heading off up the Cambrian Coast line. At this point the view out of the window becomes completely compelling. You simply can’t take your eyes off it and my book was completely forgotten.

All good things have to come to an end. In this case that means Borth. Borth is a seaside town whose popularity is obvious due to the huge number of mobile homes that seem to cover the entire town. Those covering the hills looked like a giant wave with the white roofs glittering in the sun. What is it about the British holidaymaker that wants to visit a place where every building has wheels yet never moves ? One thing a rail user doesn’t get to see though is the real sea. You are far too inland for that even if there caravan infestation didn’t get in the way.

Aberystwyth station is nice. It’s actually home to two railways. The Network Rail’s and The Vale of Rheidol. The later had the distinction of being home to British Rail’s last steam engines which ran into the late 1980s when the line was privatised. I’d managed to pick a day to visit between two operating days so there wasn’t anything much to see, but with only 4 hours to kill a ride would have been out of the question anyway. Exiting the station I notice that the prominent sign on the build proclaims it is a Wetherspoons Free House rather than where you get trains. Railway enthusiasts will also be amused by the presence of an hotel called Beechings opposite. Don’t ask, it’s not that funny.

The sea is a five minute stroll from the station. I’ll be honest and say lounging on the beach wasn’t what I’d come for - good thing too as it’s a combination of shingle and stones. No soft sand for the Welsh obviously.

I started with the cliff railway on Constitution Hill at the north end of the town. The ticket was issued at the office from an over complicated computerised system that smacked of someone in the councils IT department getting involved. Why does the guy in the office have to type in the number of passengers ? Surely a couple of rolls of tickets would be more authentic and reliable ?

Anyway, I clambered aboard the car which differs from other funiculars in that it is open and had tiered seating. After a short wait the ride to the top of the hill started and I began to regret my choice of seat. Sadly I’m not great with heights. Ladders defeat me but buildings are OK as long as I have something solid nearby. The view from the car was, disconcerting. There wasn’t anything between me and the view. For the first few minutes I sat very still in the seat. It didn’t help that once track became visible this didn’t look like it had been maintained since the line opened (H&S Note - I’m sure it is regularly checked and is fully in accordance with all appropriate rules and regs. That’s what I kept telling myself anyway.) which was, according to the other car as it rattled past, 1896. The ropes hauling us up didn’t look very thick ether. Still, the views were spectacular with a panorama of the town available to those with open eyes.

At the top of the hill there is a café, playroom, Frisbee golf (?) and camera obscura - the largest in the world and of course, shut. Looking along the coast makes you think the builders of the town weren’t very clever, there is proper tourist friendly sand on the beaches in the next bay. Thanks to the joys of mobile phones I also found out all about one persons brand new car in English and Welsh and the appointments of a woman who needed to understand she was on holiday. I suppose as offices go, this one at least had decent views.

Back in town, the pier is to be honest, rubbish. It’s not very long and contains a pub and amusement arcade. I tried a few machines and all I won nothing except some tickets which the office wouldn‘t redeem as I didn‘t have enough. Each was as valuable as cash in Zimbabwe at present. There didn’t seem to be a way out of the back of the building to see the sea either. I’m assuming a chunk fell off the back of the structure once, either that or the builders ran out of cash before getting very far. Where the obligatory theatre ?

While the pier disappoints, the harbour is much more appropriate to a seaside town. If you are around in the morning there will fresh fish aplenty. Judging by the number of pots, fresh lobster is on the menu too. Aberystwyth boat club does good business too judging by the number of sailing boats moored up. Not many relics either - I doubt there were more than half a dozen vessels that wouldn’t be seaworthy. Maybe they are hidden away somewhere. The lifeboat station houses an inshore boat so presumably the sailors manage to stay out trouble most of the time too.

To complete my joy I found an little indoor market when walking back past the attractive ruined castle. Not exactly busy, one of the stallholders was dozing behind her stand, I suspect this might be because the goodies on offer were best described as “stuff” - the sort of thing you might buy but wouldn’t miss if you left it behind in the hotel. Mind you, it is possible to have your laptop valeted, a service I’ve never seen offered before.

Presumably because of the extra trade provided by the local university, the shopping centre is pretty good. All the usual chains are there along with a few odd-balls. One street even has two model shops - more than there are in the whole of London. What it lacks is the traditional seaside tat shop with rubbish souvenirs. If anyone fancies a business opportunity then there it is. Judging from the number of guest houses there must be customers.

Fish and chips on the beach (OK, shelter on the prom) came courtesy of the dolphin café. A proper slightly run down establishment a million miles away from any homogenous chain outlet. The fish was good and crisp with nice batter, chips a bit soggy. Not enough vinegar either. Nice smell of seaweed from the shore though. That’s proper seaside.

Back at the station for the last train back to the midlands, the platform was pretty busy. My fellow passengers were mostly students heading away for the weekend. Our two coach train was 10 minutes late and once on board the crew announced it was playing up and so we’d have a new train waiting at Machynlleth and shouldn’t get too comfortable.

The scenery was just as amazing on the return trip. Just outside Dovey Junction we passed a man fishing from a rowing boat in the river. Rather than a rod he used a net in the same manner as a trawler. I assume a huge catch wasn’t planned or those oars were going to need some serious pulling. It didn’t seem fair to the fish either.

Machynlleth arrived and we disembarked for the new train. Despite the advice of the crew, the students were too stupid or lazy to walk far and crammed themselves on the first two coaches. The grown-ups walked further and spent the rest of the trip luxuriating in mostly empty coaches, most of us having a table to ourselves. If the beauty outside had been switched off I might have typed rather more of this on the train than I did. As it was, reading and watching the hills roll by seemed more appropriate.

The journey’s entertainment didn’t stop with a change however. Outside Telford we were held up by engineering works and it was announced the train would terminate at Wolverhampton and we’d need to change again for Birmingham. The lady behind me, who had been talking to the guard about her options for getting to Chipenham on the already delayed service sighed loudly. I commented that she would need to take up Ariva trains offer of a taxi ride mentioning that I was unlucky enough and all I was aiming for was Leamington Spa.

At this point the guy on the table opposite piped up. Next to him sat a large gentlemen obviously from eastern Europe. Apparently he was heading to Leamington too and needed some assistance. The visitor called Christian was in the country for a week laying concrete. His wife Erika lived in Leamington Spa and he was heading back from Shrewsbury to meet her.

I’ll be honest, being stuck with a Romanian with a poor grasp of English (better than my Romanian though) for the remainder of the journey on a rail network set to “messy” didn’t appeal that much but there wasn’t a lot I could do. Wolverhampton arrived we sprinted over the footbridge to a train into the city which was a good start. Once on board I checked the timetable and discovered that our train from Brum to Leamington left Snow Hill station at 10:15pm, 40 minutes after we arrived. The walk takes 5 minutes, so I was going to have to look after Christian for that time. It hardly seemed fair to just sit him in the waiting room if his visit wasn’t that long.

In Birmingham we wandered across to check the trains were running and there wasn’t the chance of an earlier one. The entire return journey was going to take 5.5 hours - 2 longer then the run out at this rate. Sadly my timetable work is excellent and we had time to kill. Christian needed a drink - “juice” he said - so I though we’d try the pub 2 minutes walk from the station. After all our visitor might as well see a traditional British Inn, even if it was a Wetherspoons. I walking in past the bouncers but they stopped my new friend for wearing a tracksuit. Sad really, it was in better condition than my grubby jeans, still, dress codes are dress codes and we wouldn’t want downmarket inner city pubs would we ?

There was a handy newsagent still open. It’s next to the bus stops and not the nicest area of town but Brum at night isn’t bad and Christian was built like a brick outhouse. He came out with Iron Bru - I didn’t like to say the only way that counts as juice is if RSJ’s are classed as fruit. Still you do get plenty or iron and I assured him it was a popular Scottish drink.

Back on the station the train had arrived early so I dived on and sat down. Looking back I’d lost Christian but I assumed he’d made a trip to the toilet so didn’t go hunting for him. A few minutes later he turns up with a women in tow - his sister-in-law who he’d bumped into heading for the same train ! She thanked me for looking after him and related his problems with the rail network, London to Shrewsbury accidentally via Sheffield had apparently been his introduction to our trains on his arrival in the country. They chatted away in Romainain and at some point also spoke to his wife to explain just why it was taking so long for them to be reunited.

We bade each other farewell at Leamington after what turned out to be a longer day than I had expected. Aberystwyth is a journey worth 28 pounds of anyone’s money if the weather is kind even if you don‘t get off the train. I know this country is home to some of the best scenery in the world and today I felt I had seen a chunk of it. The main thing I seemed to miss was Welsh people. I doubt if more than a third of the people I spoke to were native and those that were were friendly. Good news for my return trip later this year.

More pictures can be found on Flickr