The end of Day Two and all is going well. This Blog update is brought to you from the fine City & District of St. Albans. Other than speeding through it on the train on countless occasions, I’m sure this is the first time I have visited the place. What I have seen so far has really impressed me — though The Lower Red Lion is definitely playing a big part in that assessment.
As usual, you can read all about how I got here after the break….
I was up way before the alarm and even though I dawdled through the streets of Inverness as the place prepared for the day ahead, I was still at the station an hour before the train was due. It’s a sunny day with just a hint of cloud, the makings of a lovely day, I’m sure. Inverness station was middling busy with a Wick service about to set off for the Far North and an Aberdeen not far behind. The stock of the Up Highland Chieftain was gently ticking over at the far end of the station, and as the nine members of the catering crew made their way through the station forecourt it was vaguely reminiscent of Virgin Atlantic crew going through Terminal Three at Heathrow.
I occupied my time tinkering courtesy of ScotRail’s free and unbelievably fast WiFi. The free WiFi in the Premier Inn is deliberately crippled – understandably so as to get guests to upgrade to the paid tier. The platform barriers were opened and folk started wandering onto the platform but the doors remained locked until about quarter of an hour before departure. There was quite a crowd on the platform but once we boarded the train seemed relatively empty. That’s probably as well as many of the seats are reserved. I found myself what I consider to be pole position which is reserved – but conveniently not until Edinburgh.
Right time departure. Bring on the coffee and bacon themed edibles.
Three guys sitting in the bay up and across from me celebrated the departure by cracking open a couple of tinnies. 07:55 – that’s Olympic standard boozing. For the rest of the journey, one of the blokes kept producing booze for his mates from what was surely Mary Poppins’ bag. Bottles of Corona and cans of cider were being opened at a prodigious rate right up to Edinburgh. The fact that amazed me the most was how long they held out before needing the loo!
Breakfast service was amazingly efficient (well practiced, clearly) and a full cooked breakfast (fried egg, 2 x bacon, sausage, mushroom, tomato and black pudding) with a couple of slices of toast, was very welcome.
It was a great journey through stunning and wildly varied countryside. Snow capped mountains around Aviemore; glens, moors and verdant river valleys. A veritable geography field trip of U shaped valleys and glacial erosion. Almost wall-to-wall sunshine was the icing on the cake. I was in a bad position for photography – not only was I looking into the still quite low sun, but the window is filthy, meaning the camera wants to focus on the crud on the window, reducing the stunning landscape to mere bocage. I’d noticed while waiting to board that if the leading vehicle had been through a washing plant lately, it barely made a dent on the coat of grime (oil or debris from a previous problem with the power car??).
By Stirling the coach had about filled up but the single unreserved seat on the opposite side of my table remained vacant until I alighted. The catering crew worked really hard — barely had an incoming passenger’s bum touched the seat than their breakfast order was taken, and arrived very soon after. I’d managed two coffees but decided not to overdo it (a decision partly due to the fact it isn’t good coffee!)
Edinburgh Waverley. By any measure, what a station. I think it is because of its sheer sprawl together with the internal walls and buildings which hide most of the station that it’s impossible to grasp its scale and complexity. This isn’t my fist visit, but I’m struggling to recall ever spending much time here. I dropped in at M&S to grab a picnic for my trip to Tweedbank. It’s a 57 minute ride with a six minute turn round at the other end – should be long enough to step off and take some snaps to show I’ve been there.
I eventually found Platform 8E (it’s well signed, so it wasn’t difficult – but it underlines the point about much of Waverley being hidden from the rest of the station). A two car 158 was burbling away in the platform with 15 minutes to go to departure. The doors are open but I chose to take in the sunshine on a platform bench. I’d better board so I get my “special seat”…
Once clear of the Edinburgh hinterlands, which took about half of the journey time (and which makes sense) it was a right rollicking ride through yet more gorgeous countryside. The railway is a fascinating mix of old and new and it shows the different attitude of Victorian and modern engineers. So many cuttings and banks which the original builders thought perfectly fine are now reinforced with huge stone gabians at their bases to reinforce them. It was also interesting to note that while large sections are single line, where new bridges have been put in, they appear to support future expansion to double track. Tweedbank station is grossly over provided: two ten car platforms! They clearly anticipated a lot of excursion traffic — which I hope proves right. Given the gradients of the line — it’s a long slog up to the summit in both directions — I can see why it is causing reliability issues for the stock as it’s clearly a punishing route. The return journey — after the briefest sojourn in the Borders (notably and regrettably not long enough to contribute to the local economy) — was equally as enjoyable. Perhaps even more so knowing a bit more about what was coming up (albeit on the other side!)
Back at Waverley I took brief refuge in the First Class lounge — to make use of the loo as much as anything, though I did grab an orange juice for the sake of it. An unnecessary walk around the station as I’m sure I’d seen the 14:30 Kings Cross showing as going from Platform 19 and headed toward that side of the station. I then noticed the departure board saying it was off Platform 2, so carried on nonchalantly around the block.
Although the train isn’t busy finding an unreserved seat was. Whilst it’s non stop from York, there are folk to get on at Berwick, Newcastle and Darlington as well. Tea was produced in the form of a fancy hot sausage roll – it’s Curry Thursday on Virgin East Coast, but I politely declined the chicken variety of said food. I might try one (or two) of their Hop on Board ale (4.0%) later. A very tasty sausage roll it was too.
It is only as I look across and see the A1 clinging to the coastline between us and the North Sea that it occurs to me that all four legs of today’s journey parallel single digit A roads; the A9 from Inverness, the A7 out into the Borders, the A1 Great North Road of course, and later, the A6 back northwards. (I know that’s the sort of trivia Jim will appreciate!).
What a belting afternoon it looks like out there. The vivid yellow gorse which proliferates on the lineside in this area sharply contrasts with the impressive blueness of the sea. The Mediterranean it isn’t, but at this range and behind the double glazing of a Mk4 carriage, it looks very appealing!
As expected, on leaving York the coach I am in is almost full. I’ve decided to go with continued coffee supply rather than switch to beer. I have high hopes for the Lower Red Lion in a bit. I know that a running commentary on the weather can be a bit tiresome, but it is part of being British. South of York the blue skies took a distinctly grey – tending toward stormy black – hue. Looking back North I can see the sun doing its best to pierce through, but looking southwards it’s a different picture. We could be getting wet. I texted Nick to alert him to the fact I was speeding through his county as the train passed Bawtry. At 125mph with only a brief easing of speed over Newark Flat Crossing, the journey is eating up the miles.
My weather prognostication turned out to be complete rubbish – as we sped through Peterborough it was a lovely sunny evening — again.
I have to be honest and say that after the really high standard set so far, the rest of the journey south of Newark was a bit, well, boring. Uneventful would perhaps be a better word, ‘boring’ is a bit strong, but I hope you get the idea. Arrival at London, on the other hand, was anything but. I started paying attention again as we got within the commuter belt. The line into Kings Cross is one I have read lots about but only rarely travelled. It was entertaining to try and spot landmarks I was aware of. We were barely out of Gas Works Tunnel when the Train Manager smugly announced we were two minutes early. By the time we crawled to a stand at the buffer stops and the doors unlocked it was about Right Time. (Not that I’m suggesting trains should screech to a halt at the very last second, of course! Even if Panda might like to have a go?).
At the risk of sounding like a country bumpkin — which to be fair I suppose isn’t an unreasonable label, really — the area in and around Kings Cross was a ZOO. A mass of humanity swirling and mixing in a thousand different directions. Considering that anywhere else 18:50 would probably be considered the back end of the rush hour, it was still bedlam. I lingered a little to take it all in. The ongoing weather report is that the sun was back out and it was a lovely evening.
I headed over to St. Pancras and scanned the departures. I was earlier than planned and well timed for the 19:06 to Bedford which is first stop West Hamstead then non-stop to St. Albans. Perfect. It was a novel experience for me to go downstairs to the Thameslink platforms — something I can’t imagine ever having cause to do otherwise. I happened to be having a conversation with the (off duty) Route Controller by text at the time, and I think his experience of the peak time Thameslink service meant he had his fingers crossed for me! At least I was on one of the old, far less troublesome than their replacement, units. In any event, 20 minutes later I was part of the impressive flow of humanity trooping out of St Albans City Station, mostly at the end of their long working days, presumably.
I was aiming for the Lower Red Lion and Siri did her best to guide me. All-in-all she did a good job but it strikes me that the routing algorithm fails to take into account gradients. I am fairly sure I was directed up a not insubstantial hill into the shopping area and back down again, when an easier route around on the level should have been possible. The fact that the Met Police helicopter was loudly hovering immediately overhead (it wasn’t me, honest, guv) didn’t help either. Suffice to say, once I arrived at the Lower Red Lion, I not only understood its name, but was urgently in need of freshening up! Fishpool Street is a really old and quaint part of St Albans, in the shadow of the cathedral. (No, sorry again, I didn’t know St. Albans had a cathedral. I know it has an abbey as the station I will be using tomorrow is named after it). The Lower Red Lion was chosen for its listing in the Good Beer Guide and, other than being the furthest accommodation from the relevant station of the whole trip, is otherwise looking perfect.
Evening meal was a splendid bangers & mash and beer includes Tring Side Pocket and others I’ve yet to note the name of!
Addendum: Lower Red Lion beer list…
- 3 Brewers (St Albans) – Classic English Ale (4.1%)
- Tring – Side Pockets for a Toad (3.8%)
- Dark Star – Festival (5.0%)
- Hadham – 18ct Golden Ale (3.7%)