I can’t imagine anyone has ever travelled between Derby and Yeovil by such a convoluted route as I have managed today, and – either way – I’m very proud. It has been a very enjoyable journey by any measure. This little map from iPhoto showing the geotags of the snaps I’ve taken today give an idea.
As ever, the gory details follow here…
After a night in my own bed, it was an early start after a late night. I hadn’t eaten anything of substance during Monday following the Mason’s Arms breakfast, so I had to have some supper when I got in. It was after midnight when my head hit the pillow and the screeching tones of Vannesa Feltz woke me six hours later. I haven’t had to endure her in over a year, and another year wouldn’t be long enough.
Another beautiful morning as I trundled my case back to the station. A similar head-count to Friday were awaiting the Nottingham train which was bang on time today. Ten minutes later and a swift walk over the bridge for the Crewe train – a single car 153 which is typical of the “Comedy Branch Line”. The female conductor was proudly wearing her Derby175 pin. First stop of this service is at Peartree; the times I have witnessed this I can count on one hand and have fingers left over. One bloke in cycling gear got off and nodded to the Conductor as he did so (obviously a regular), along with another guy, both headed for Royces, I assume. To my absolute astonishment, there was also a passenger waiting to board here. She paid by card for a ticket to Uttoxeter, and I didn’t get the impression this is a daily journey.
Of course, given the time of day, the closer to Stoke we got the fuller the single car service got, though if anyone was standing when we arrived, they were out-of-sight.
Stoke’s First Class Lounge – comfy seats and NSR atmosphere
At Stoke, even though I only had a 20 minute wait, I investigated the First Class lounge and reached the verdict that it was one of the better ones I have experienced. Plenty of everything and drinkable coffee. There was a moderate gaggle of men in suits (all men, now I think about it) waiting to get on in First Class as the Euston-bound Pendolino drew to a stand. There are three First Class carriages and I headed to the very front one as all the rest all looked full already. I plonked myself down in one of the ‘single’ seats and already had a coffee in front of me as we crossed Glebe Street. It was then I noticed the seat was reserved, but, thankfully, no-one claimed it. Even before we’d reached Stone, the very attentive crew had taken my breakfast order (I overhead one of the young girls in the crew exclaim “26 grills!?” referring to the order collected from the Stoke joiners – presumably some sort of record?).
As I was chomping through my Full English (and very nice it was too), we were speeding under the Derby – Birmingham line at Tamworth at 140mph. The staff were spot-on and the customers were well attended-to and happy. At the same time we passed a freight train heading south and another one going in the opposite direction. This, I thought, was Britain’s modern railway operating as it should. This was a feeling which was reinforced a little later around Watford Gap where the railway parallels the M1: The three busy lanes of southbound traffic appeared to be standing still, but then again, from a 140mph viewpoint, I guess it would always look that way!
I have a confession to make at this point: I fear I went outside the terms of my ticket by getting off at Milton Keynes, but I claim moral authority for doing so. There is a prohibition on “boarding or alighting” at various places on several operators’ trains before 10:00. Included in that list are Virgin Trains’ services at Milton Keynes Central and Euston. The principle behind this restriction is that certain long-distance fares are nearly as much as the All Line ticket. For example, a First Class Open Return from Glasgow to London is £426. Do that journey more than once in a week and buying a seven day All Line ticket is a bargain. So, I was OK to travel through to Euston as this train arrived there at 10:17 but I was “prohibited” from getting off at Milton Keynes at 09:46. This restriction is clearly intended to prevent the ban on a pre-10:00 arrival in London being circumvented by changing to a local train. As I said, I claim the moral high ground. Besides, apart from you, who knows? (For the record, my journey on that train alone would have been £118).
Once I arrived at an unidentified station in Buckinghamshire that would incriminate me if I named it, I had an hour to wait. I found a bench in the sun at the town end of Platform 2 and began writing my Tripadvisor review of the Mason’s Arms (which I’ve added to Sunday’s blog). While I had my head down in my laptop, one of several security guards patrolling the station approached me. It was all very friendly, simply enquiring if I was All Right. I suspect they have a healthy paranoia about lone figures at ends of platforms incase they are of a mind to jump. Very sad, but no less true. Once satisfied that Bletchley and Bedford figured in my future plans rather than Oblivion, the chap went off happy.
So I duly boarded a London Midland service for the one stop to Bletchley (it was slightly further than I could have realistically walked, but only just.) There I crossed to Platform 6 to join the waiting Bedford service. Another London Midland train, this time another single car 153. It was 15 minutes before departure and no sign of train crew but the doors were open so I boarded. I was aware of a youth, about 22 going on 13, already aboard. His attire and his music blearing out, unsubtly identifying him as a white rapper. Every instinct I possess told me to sit in the other part of the carriage, so I complied. When someone in rail uniform appeared,our hero called out “Yo! Boss Man! Is dis train goin’ to Bedford?”. On getting an answer in the affirmative, he called out, “Wicked, I’m on Da Right Track” and chucked to himself at his wit. A short time later a black guy with dreadlocks got on, so rapper boy was in heaven. They engaged in conversation and before long were comparing notes on institutions (real or imagined?) in which they had been incarcerated. I Truly Could Not Make This Up.
Never have I been so happy for a journey to start and for a 153’s unreasonably loud engine to drown out the conversation.
At one of the many stops on the line to Bedford (another ‘first’ for me, and the whole point of being here), a boy and a girl in school uniform got on and sat just in front of me. They were comparing notes on a chemistry mock A level paper they’d just sat. Talk about the ridiculous to the sublime! The Bedford – Bletchley line has recently been re-signalled so arguably has lost a lot of its one-time charm. Nevertheless, it is a survivor, as most of the east-west routes in the northern Home Counties disappeared under Beeching, the “preferred option” being for passengers to travel via London. Our white rapper friend is a case in point of why this line survives, as I heard him say he was going to Corby.
On arrival at Bedford I jumped on an East Midlands Trains service into St. Pancras which was just pulling-in (half an hour before the one I’d planned). There was just me and another guy in First Class and somewhere a bit south of Luton the Train Manager appeared, looking a bit flustered and apologising profusely that we’d had to wait so long for service. I declined the offer of a coffee, unthinkingly saying “I’ll be getting off in a minute”. I really didn’t mean it like it sounded, but in any event that set him off on another round of apologies for “taking so long”. After seeing how hard the Virgin Trains crew were working between Stoke and Milton Keynes earlier, I’ve taken back any negative comment I may have made about on-train catering staff having a cushy number, though I still think the TOCs should pay them past arrival time to give end-to-end service.
The advantage of a lunchtime arrival at St. Pancras is that — unlike in the morning — no-one seems to be in too much of a rush, so it was a fairly sedate disembarkation and wander down to the Tube. I christened my new Oyster Card and got a Northern Line train to London Bridge and the Jubillee Line across to Waterloo. This was really people-watching heaven with humanity in all its shapes, sizes, colours and inclinations on display. For example, a small gaggle of young adults were filming themselves doing skateboard tricks at the top of one of the escalators (hang on, think about that one, skateboarding on an escalator!?), and no-one seemed to bother them – officialdom or passengers. They moved aside when any ascending users got to the top.
I topped up my caffeine level in the usual way, supplemented by one of SB’s quite delicious orange & lemon muffins (Note; orange AND lemon, that’s two of my five a day!), consumed while standing on the mezzanine level watching the aforementioned humanity wander by.
The South West Trains service to Weymouth is half-hourly, formed of five car Class 444 EMUs which are fairly new and agreeably comfortable. Being early afternoon and so frequent, it wasn’t a crowded service. A catering trolly wandered past as we were still in the shadow of Battersea Power Station (figuratively speaking, I was on the lefthand side, so didn’t actually see said landmark!) but I was still full of Starbucks coffee. It wasn’t to be seen again and I gather it got off at Bournemouth. As a aside, and I’m not really sure why, but the announcement at Basingstoke amused me; “Change here for Reading, The Midlands and The North”. I guess that’s covering a lot of bases.
I was very impressed with the mural painted on the wall at Pokesdown. As the thing itself suggests; “Search: Pokesdown Station Mural” and click ‘images’.
Otherwise there’s not much to say about the rest of the journey. All in brilliant sunshine. I did think to myself that the LSWR mainline seems to have an inordinate amount of mature trees lining it and wondered if that was a deliberate policy at some time. The result in the modern era is severely limited views for the passenger, and presumably serious adhesion issues in autumn?
Old memories were rekindled from Bournemouth onwards. Poole, Wareham, and even good old Wool – home to cousin Tim and his wife Jan for at least 35 years.
At Weymouth I had half an hour to wait for the First Great Western service bound for Bristol which would take me to Yeovil. The sun was still beating down and there was quite a crowd on the platform; the aroma of suntan lotion was almost overpowering! Among the crowd were a group of a dozen or so work colleagues from Trowbridge who had been to Weymouth for a beach jolly — a team-building piss-up. [er, sorry, I think that should read ‘exercise’?] Again, this was deduced from over-loud conversations. Their presence made for a raucous but not at all offensive or unpleasant atmosphere on the train – quite a contrast to Lancaster, for example.
It was quite a day for wildlife: I’d seen a pair of baby foxes sunning themselves near LNW Junction at Derby this morning, various hawks and things, a bird I’ve yet to identify that was a bit larger than a blackbird with a yellow back-end and a reddish/brownish front-end, and best of all approaching Yeovil, something which had the body-shape of a small fox but was light grey. Any ideas anyone? (I won’t accept “albino fox”).
The Pen Mill Hotel has provided extremely positive first, second and third impressions. The beer choice is limited; Sharp’s Cornish Coaster (at 3.7% it is, to quote Jim Taylor, “not worth putting your coat on for”) and Doom Bar. I’m approaching the bottom of my fourth Doom Bar, as you may be able to detect in my typing and/or turn of phrase. Excellent room, good food, friendly staff and interesting clientele (in the most positive meaning of the word ‘interesting’).