Wednesday, 24 December 2008

So what makes a Railway Journey Great?

Some years ago the BBC made four series of Great Railway Journeys in which a celebrity (in modern parlance) would travel by train (you might think this an obvious prerequesite but later programmes often abandoned the rails for quite long stretches) mostly outside of Europe though a few were filmed in the UK. Along the way they would interview locals and explore places of interest both on and off the train. Whilst the first series stuck to journeys that fell into the "great" category by virtue of being long distance epics , later episodes did feel a little more contrived and mundane - the Victoria Wood episode "Crewe to Crewe" being an example (no offence intended to Victoria Wood or Crewe).

So for the past few days I've been mulling over what exactly makes a railway journey great - is it the scenery, the people, the train or something more intangible? Drawing on my own experiences over the past year I've come up with the following journeys (in no particular order):

1. London - Berwick (- Edinburgh) - the East Coast Main Line: Frequent and fast (for the UK). Scenic highlights include the Tyne and Tweed crossings and the unforgettable transit of Durham. If you prefer hills stick to the West Coast Main Line.

2. Chicago - Los Angeles - the Amtrak Southwest Chief: Not fast but scenic if you are into deserts - and Grand Canyon stopover possible which is the most scenic location I've ever seen. Staff fairly attentive. Superior restaurant service to most European trains (free to First Class passengers), though not as good as a few years ago. Fellow diners generally elderly Americans, though a young family added interest. Reasonably comfortable if you have your own bedroom and the toilet is working. Can run very late - not recommended if your friend needs to catch the European Cup Final.

3. Los Angeles - Oakland (- Seattle) - the Amtrak Coast Starlight: Like most of Amtrak again rather leisurely but if you are not hugging the Pacific Coast you are running through the Coast Range, to say nothing of the spectacular Cascades further north. Staff helpfulness was a little variable, food was fantastic. Relaunched in June, definitely worth a return trip.

4. Belfast - Larne: On this route you are not just running along the sea but almost in it - north of Magheramorne the line strikes through the sea lough on a series of causeways. One of the most scenic and most unknown coastal routes in the British Isles. Larger stations are pristine, with friendly staff. Trains not up to much but hopefully this adds to the charm for visiting tourists.

5. London - Shrewsbury (- Wrexham) - Wrexham & Shropshire Trains: The best customer service I've ever experienced from a UK railway company, the staff I encountered were invariably polite, friendly and attentive. Freshly prepared food (including proper Welsh teas) brought to your table - and this was in the competitively priced Standard class. Comfortable carriages, not the fastest route to the West Midlands but this gives you more time to enjoy the service. A new but relatively unknown operator proving small really is beautiful. And in case you are wondering I have no financial interest in this or any other train operator (except as a UK taxpayer)!

6. London - Brussels (or Paris) - Eurostar: Fast and efficient, utilising the engineering (if not financial) triumph that is the Channel Tunnel. Not particularly scenic unless black is your thing. Comfortable, food a little expensive given it consists of pre-packaged fare.

7. Cologne - Brussels - Thalys: Something of a sister service to Eurostar, combining the two makes high speed rail competitive with air travel between the UK and western Europe. Again not particularly scenic but very comfortable.

8. Brussels - Luxembourg (through the Ardennes): Definitely on this list because of the scenic nature of the route. The memory of the sun sinking over the snow dusted Ardennes in the short November dusk will linger for years to come. Train is comfortable if basic - no catering, so come prepared.

9. Trier - Cologne (part of the route of the Norderney for example): This mostly follows the Moselle and Rhine valleys and is another highly scenic route. Trains are generally comfortable, punctual and cheap.

10. Deptford - London Bridge: Last but not least - no laughing at the back please. Remember Deptford is the oldest passenger station in London, on the oldest railway in London. Next time you're jostling for space on the 0810 spare a thought that you're continuing a struggle fought for generations past...

So what does make a Great Railway Journey? Looking through this list certainly not just one aspect of the journey. Scenery is a big plus, particularly for me. A decent catering service is great too, as is a bit of history to add interest. Speed is maybe not always as important as it's made out to be - I guess it partly depends on whether the journey is part of your travel experience or just a means to an end. Maybe the most important aspect of any journey - taking my fifth point as an example - is the people you make it with. Whether they are your family or friends, on-train staff or fellow travellers - they really can make all the difference.

Friday, 19 December 2008

Julia Hwang

Returned a couple hours ago from another excellent Sinfonia concert at St Paul's church. We are extremely fortunate to have such a dedicated young orchestra based in Deptford! The final work - an energetic rendering of Beethoven's Fifth - is still resounding around my head, however the evening belonged to young Julia Hwang. Making her London debut the 12 year old performed Mozart's Violin Concerto No.3 to rousing acclaim, then treated us to an additional item - the popular Ladies in Lavender theme by Nigel Hess, incidentally a film I only got round to watching this October. The next concert featuring St.Paul's Strings is on Friday 16 January at 7.30.

Monday, 20 October 2008

S stands for Shelters

One of the great things about living in SE8 is simply walking out your front door and stumbling into history. Since moving here a few years ago I've been fascinated by Deptford's wartime past in particular. It's a subject I will certainly return to in future posts. In the meantime a posting by Deptford Dame has reminded me of these photos I took last month of local air raid shelter signs.

Above is the very well preserved example on Frankham Street (just off the High Street).

Sadly what I assume was a similar sign on the building opposite has been erased at some point.

Below is the example on Comet Street (opposite Elgar Close):

And one which thousands of people must pass every day - but how many have noticed it? This one is right on the High Street by the Deptford Project:

I'm sure these aren't the only ones around Deptford and its environs - please let me know of any others.

Friday, 17 October 2008

High Culture in Deptford

It's the first concert in the St. Paul's Sinfonia season tonight. It should be a most enjoyable evening...

Sunday, 12 October 2008

Mad Dogs and Englishmen...

In which I spend a day in Salisbury, encounter a Lay Canon in the form of Robert Key MP and am bowled over by Orthrus reincarnated en route to Old Sarum...

I started off at Mompesson House, a National Trust property with a fine collection of drinking glasses... apparently it was also a film location for Sense and Sensibility.

Popping into the Cathedral I recognised the local MP, Robert Key, acting as an usher. Turns out he was made a Lay Canon in April and I must say it was nice to see an MP actually serving his local community - whilst I'm sure they all do this in one form or another this was a particularly visible act.

Continuing on foot to the hill fort of Old Sarum - basically where Salisbury used to be before the Normans saw sense - things started to go awry. Walking through a nature reserve minding my own business, two dogs combined into a two-headed Orthrus ran full tilt into me! I'd swear it was deliberate - they made no attempt to avoid me - I was upended, bruised and grazed but at least the canine pair enjoyed it. Their master appeared and was quite apologetic, as he should be - if I'd been a child or OAP the situation could have been much more serious... dog owners please keep your charges under control!

Undaunted I did reach Old Sarum eventually and was reasonably impressed by the views to be had from the top...

Saturday, 4 October 2008

Queen Elizabeth 2 visits Belfast

The ship that is. I'm away from Deptford for a few days and was lucky enough to get tickets to view the first and last visit of Britain's most venerable liner to Belfast.

Despite the typically appalling weather the wait was worth it. Below you can see the QE2 being gingerly manoeuvred into her berth.

Open House 2008 - Woolwich Barracks

Hmm, a week since my first post, I'll try and do better... on Open House Sunday I bussed it to Woolwich to take the Woolwich Barracks tour. Although the Royal Artillery may have left (though the King's Troop seem set to return in a year or so) the Guards regiments formerly housed at Chelsea will move here - indeed the parade ground is being extended for rehearsals of Trooping the Colour.

The Royal Garrison Church of St George was also open - or what remains of it after it was hit by a flying bomb in 1944. Whilst I can sympathise with the decision not to rebuild it, the obvious weathering of the fine murals of St George was a cause for concern. Clear perspex panels would surely help to ameliorate this.

Saturday, 27 September 2008

Open House 2008 - Waldron Health Centre

One of the best things about London in September is the OpenHouse weekend - this year it was 20-21 September. On the unusally warm Saturday I visited the rather impressive (though still not fully operational) Waldron Health Centre opposite New Cross station. Arriving just before the first tour at 1 it was clear no one had told the security guard to expect visitors! Fortunately a Lewisham PCT guy turned up after a few minutes and started the tour himself - the architect from Buschow Henley had been delayed by a tube closure. We started in the spacious main reception and moved upwards floor by floor.

As I'd long suspected the Centre is a proto-Polyclinic, currently serving 20,000 patients but with the potential for 50,000. For those interested in PFI and all that it's an example of a LIFT. When Craig the architect caught up with us he pointed out the awnings which should extend automatically on warm days (but hadn't) and explained why some doors opened out onto a gaping void (the money for Juliet balconies had run out). The most striking aspect of the Centre - its parquet cladding - gives it "the quality of an oversize piece of 18C furniture" according to the architect.

Via typical consulting and treatment rooms we ended up in the top floor admin area (with a rather nice roof terrace and views toward Canary Wharf). As a patient here myself I can confirm the building is light years better than the old Waldron Health Centre, which was not dissimilar to a prison visitor's centre.

The Press Release (issued on the opening of Phase 1) and Buschow Henley site give more information...