Oliver Cromwell at Hove

70013 Oliver Cromwell
Originally uploaded by fred pipes
My latest trainspotting expedition was much closer to home - Hove, Actually. The Cathedrals Express, organised by Steam Dreams was to pass through Preston Park and Hove on its way to Portsmouth on 30 July, so I popped onto the train at London Road, and changed at Brighton for Hove. It was due around 11.30, pulled by 70013 Oliver Cromwell. The Britannias (what we called Brits) and Clans along with the one-off Duke of Gloucester (see my blog account of seeing 71000 Duke of Gloucester here) were the last namers to be built (92220 Evening Star, was named thus as she was the last ever steam loco to be built - in 1960 - and already earmarked for preservation). Oliver Cromwell was built at Crewe in 1951 and when regular BR steam ended, she was one of the locos chosen for the final farewell mainline steam trip, The Fifteen Guinea Special (so named because of the inflated price for tickets) which ran on 11 August 1968 between Liverpool Lime Street and Carlisle, via Manchester. 70013 has recently been overhauled at the Great Central Railway and returned to live steam in May 2008. So, in she steams to Platform 1 at Hove (video here) looking extremely clean and shiny, we all took some photos and off west she went, heading for Worthing and beyond, due to return about 8 o'clock. I was kindly offered a ticket by a bloke on the platform who'd been badly let down, but it was Chrissie's birthday do that afternoon and the BiG meeting later on, so reluctantly I declined.


A wet weekend in Wales

Princess in the bar
Originally uploaded by fred pipes
My third coach trip weekend with Newmarket was to a very wet and windy North Wales. It was a day longer than the previous ones, but that meant that two days of holiday were sandwiched between two whole days of monotonous tedium (or was it tedious monotony - I did warn you in my top tips page) - early mornings, motorways, traffic jams and motorway services. Maybe it's a light and shade thing, you need the tiresome days to make the other days more exciting.

So on Friday 17 July, after a 6.30 start and a taxi to Madeira Drive, a group of us travelled by minibus to Crawley to join the main coach. On board was our Tour Guide Will, with a voice like Richard Wilson's in Tutti Frutti. After pick-ups in Sutton and Croydon, the coach made its way through central London. Three hours later we were in Brixton, caught in road works, and four hours later we were in South Mimms services for our first stop. After stops in Norton Canes (tea £1.95 - but they had free wifi!) and Chester services, we eventually arrived at our hotel, the Westminster, in rainswept Rhyl.

Now the photo on the brochure looks like it's in its own grounds, but it was cunningly shot from a tiny strip of flowers and palm trees on a wall by the bus station. Inside it was faded grandure, with food to match. My single room was tiny, despite paying a single supplement, overlooking the back so I was able to watch a couple of baby seagulls on a flat roof try to stay alive in the wind and rain. I thought one of them only had one leg, but it was probably trying to preserve heat! I know how it felt - I should have packed a scarf and wooly hat.

Day 2 (Saturday 18 July) started with a good hearty breakfast brought by chirpy scouse waitress: porridge, scrambled egg plus beans on toast. Then it was off to Llandudno to drop off those not going on our excursion. It would have been nice to have time there going up the Great Orme on the cable railway, for example, but no time even for a quick dash along the seafront. First stop was Caernarfon and a few minutes to buy a paper, look at the castle (there was some kind of military display going on) and then it was on to the Welsh Highland Railway to catch the 11.35 to Beddgelert (it doesn't yet join up with Porthmadog).

Joy of joys, the train came in pulled by a K1 Garrett, the first ever, built in Manchester to Mr Garratt's patent no. 12079-1909, and shipped out to Tasmania and thence to Wales. Now, I've never really liked narrow-gauge locos much - until now - this was a full-size loco on 2ft-gauge wheels! Half way along the line, at Rhdd Ddu, we saw another Beyer-Garratt coming the other way, this time a much bigger 2-6-2+2-6-2 (built 1937) in 'photographic grey'.

We alighted at Beddgelert and I had time for a half of dark mild in a pub with a Welsh name (the chap at the bar and the barmaid were also talking Welsh, so I hope they weren't being rude!) before we set off over the Llanberis Pass for views and a stop at Snowdon base camp at Llanberis. There was some kind of race going on by very thin lanky people up to the summit and back, but I spotted the Lake Railway train in the station so legged it and got on for a short ride to Penllyn and back pulled by the dinky No. 1 Elidir, a Hunslet 0-4-0ST. The youngish driver put a couple of baked potatoes into the smokebox for his tea. We saw a steam boat in the lake too.

I managed a quick look at the Snowdon Mountain Railway, but although there were two steam locos in the shed, the engine I saw setting off was a diesel No. 11 Peris. Then it was back in the coach to Rhyl and the hotel. They'd booked a lady singing entertainer so I retired to my room and Casualty 1909 (running late cos of the golf) on the tiny telly perched high in the corner of the room.

Portmeirion, north Wales

On Day 3 (Sunday 19 July) we drove straight to Portmeirion, a colourful Italianate village built by Sir Clough Williams-Ellis between 1925 and 1975. It's best known as being The Village in cult tv drama The Prisoner, starring Patrick McGoohan (with whom I share a birthday!). It's like Charleston Farmhouse on acid, with statues and wall paintings everywhere. And the houses are not just facades - people actually live in them! It's basically a long road that sweeps downhill to the estuary, with squares large and small off it. I had a cappuccino (a hefty £2.45) in Battery Square, but did get to read the Indy and write a couple of postcards in the drizzle. Of course I visited The Prisoner shop but didn't buy a No. 6 badge.

The coach then took us to nearby Porthmadog and I had a pint of Dark and Delicious (Carvedale Brewery) whilst admiring Princess, the world's first narrow gauge loco (1863), on static display in the bar. Then the train came in pulled by push-me pull-you loco 0-4-0+0-4-0T No. 10 Merddin Emrys, the oldest operating double Fairlie on the Ffestiniog Railway (it was built in 1879). The trip to Blaenau Ffestiniog is quite breathtaking, starting with The Cob, a long causeway, out of Porthmadog, then climbing up into the mountains, including the spiral loop at Dduallt. Spotted Blanche coming the other way at Tan-y-Bwlch.

At Blaenau Ffestiniog we crossed the line to take the Arriva diesel back to Llandudno Junction along the Conwy Valley Line, via Betwys-y-Coed (which looked a riot with all its miniature railways and trams) and Conwy Castle. The wind had dropped so I had a quick walk round the town, which apart from a nice Art Deco cinema (now the Apollo bingo hall) near the station, has little to recommend it, sorry. Back at the hotel, they'd booked a Frank Sinatra tribute act so I retired to my telly and emergency tins of Mackeson and hip flask.

On Day 4 the sun was out for the first time and it was time for the long drive home, revisiting Norton Canes and South Mimms motorway services on the way. This is probably the last coach trip like this I will take - the getting to and from the location are just too tedious to justify coach travel, I'd much rather take the train and join the coach trip when I get there, if that's possible.

Railways visited:

  1. The Welsh Highland Railway: the best locos in my opinion and I will deffo go back when the line is completed.

  2. The Llanberis Lake Railway: very scenic and enjoyable, but one to tick off.

  3. The Snowdon Mountain Railway: only caught a glimpse, but would love to go back and let the train take the strain to the summit of England and Wales's highest peak.

  4. The Ffestiniog Railway: well worth a visit, with very unusual double boiler locos and magnificent scenery.

  5. The Conwy Valley Line: not a heritage railway as such, but reasonably scenic.


Gorgeous books

I have far too many books. If I ever win the lottery I'd like a modernist minimalist flat with warehouse/library attached. Until then I have too many books for my bookshelves - and I keep buying more! But is it me, or are books getting more gorgeous? Is it the improvements in printing technology, nicer paper stock, or sadly just more available cheap labour in the far east? Whatever, books just get more beautiful. I'd like to tell you about three that I've bought recently - I'll save the most expensive one until last. Although they are all illustrated books, none of them is what you might call a children's book. The first is Rice's Architectural Primer (Bloomsbury Publishing, 2009). I saw Matthew Rice on BBC Breakfast and liked that he'd brought some of his original artwork in, manhandled I must say in rather a cavalier fashion by presenter Charlie Stayt. The book is a chunky hardback with pictorial covers with lots of colour images of annotated architectural features, with quirky humorous additions, like people smoking fags in doorways. He's a sort of modern-day Osbert Lancaster, and his watercolours are not too perfect! What I like about the book, is that the text is not just in black - key terms are in brown, the sign of truly full-colour printing. The second book is George Sprott: 1894-1975 (Drawn & Quarterly, 2009) by the cartoonist Seth. I first came across Seth when he supported Chris Ware at a talk at the ICA in 2004. I'd never heard of him and was kicking myself that while I was in a long queue to get my Chris Ware books signed, Seth was doing beautiful drawings in books people had brought along for him to sign (the ICA shop had already closed!). I spotted his latest book in the window of Dave's Comics in Sydney Street and bought one for Paul Cemmick's birthday, then ordered my own from Amazon. It's a giant book (35.6 x 30.5 x 1.8 cm) with a hardback quarter-bound cover with silver blocking. I love Seth's clean lines, and (unlike Chris Ware's perhaps) his comic books are very easy to read. The last book in this selection was the most expensive and if I tell you it cost £160, you'll think I'm rolling in it or spending the kid's inheritance! Eric Ravilious: The Story of High Street (The Mainstone Press, 2008) by Alan Powers et al is a limited edition (750 copies) facsimile of High Street, a children's book of shops with text by J M Richards and 24 lithographs by Eric Ravilious (1903-1942). Although the original book was not a limited edition, the destruction of the lithographic plates during the Blitz meant that only 2000 copies were ever printed. This edition includes not only the original shop fronts and text of High Street but also two essays and lots of other illustrations, preparatory drawings and sketches, many of them seen for the first time. I fell in love with Ravilious after seeing his originals at the old Towner Art Gallery in Eastbourne (I haven't visited the new gallery yet). The book is lavishly printed, cloth bound and comes in a slipcase - I really need a pair of white cotton gloves to read it! Worth every penny.


Manchester Festival

While I've been glued to the live feed of the 4th Plinth, I've been missing the Manchester Festival, which looks like a lot of fun. Sadly, I've only seen bits of it thanks to The Culture Show on telly. Kraftwerk at the Velodrome was a masterstroke, tho the Olympic cyclists apparently nearly didn't have bikes! I really would have loved to have seen Jeremy Deller's Procession on 5 July, re-imagining the Whit Walks and carnivals of my youth with Stockport boy racers, a replica greasy spoon (Valerie's Cafe from Bury Market, which I'm embarrased to say I've never patronised), Peterloo descendants, unrepentant smokers and the Shree Swaminarayan Gadi Pipe Band from Bolton. Music played a big part, with horse-drawn hearses lamenting lost clubs: Hacienda, Wigan Casino (but no Twisted Wheel, as Terry Christian pointed out on the tv), and the parade ending with a steel band playing Joy Division's 'Love Will Tear Us Apart'. Wonder what he'd conjure up for a Brighton parade?


Top ten coach trip tips

Coach trips can be great and also exasperating. They have good points and bad points in about equal measure. Here are my thoughts. Five good things about coach trips:
  1. They're cheap. Add up the cost of travel and accommodation (plus any attraction tickets) and you can't beat them on price.
  2. They're convenient. Once you're on-board, you're driven everywhere more or less door-to-door. And you can visit places not usually accessible by public transport, ie out-of-the-way heritage railways.
  3. You're looked after. There's a Tour Guide and driver on hand to fix things and impart information. You're not alone!
  4. They're sociable. Especially if you are single. There's a community spirit on a coach trip with everone sharing the experience, but few 'Guardian readers' seem to go on them - expect Daily Mail type views sometimes from the older participants!
  5. Scenic views. Coaches can go (sometimes with difficulty) where trains can't, and there are often stunning views to be seen.
Five bad things about coach trips:
  1. You have to get up early. The start is usually at the crack of dawn and you have to get to the pick-up point (usually by taxi, which is an extra expense). There will then be an hour or so of pick-up stops before you get going. Each day will start early too.
  2. You'll see a lot of motorways and motorway services. The driver has to take rest breaks and the passengers need 'comfort breaks'. Motorway services are a rip-off, with extortionate prices for drinks and food. Take sandwiches if you can! You'll also inevitably get caught up in road works, so take an iPod!
  3. The hotels are rubbish. They are often in the back of beyond, near a motorway exit. Having said that, they are mostly comfortable and clean. The food is of limited choice and not exactly gourmet style, but there is always a veggy option. Dinner is usually at a set time; there will be a stop for you to find your own lunch.
  4. The itinerary can be unpredictable. You can spend relatively short amounts of time at interesting locations and excessive amounts of time at relatively boring places, but this is obviously subjective. I like steam railways and go on steam railway holidays, but often all you get is a single journey on part of the line (a round trip is always prefereable) and no time to visit the sheds/museum etc.
  5. You have to tip the driver and Tour Guide. And I never know what to give. A couple of quid each seems to work ok, pressed into their hands as you are leaving the coach!
Coach trips are intense experiences and can be tiring, despite mainly sitting down all day. I treat them as a recce opportunity. If I see somewhere I like then I may go back there at some point in the future and spend more time there - though I haven't yet done that. What do you think? Do you have any coach trip top tips? Notes: I have been on two weekend coach trips so far. The first was Rails Peaks and Fells, and this year's was to the North Yorkshire Moors, both with Newmarket, who advertise in local papers. I have also been on several day trips, usually with Worthing Coaches:

Give me 31 Days...

Give me 31 Days and I’ll Give You a Dramatically Better Blog… Guaranteed; just embarking on a 31-day course to improve my blog! First task is to write an elevator pitch to describe my blog. So, here goes: 'A journey into the mysterious world of semi-retirement'.

Time Team America | PBS

Time Team America | PBS: looks like there's a US version of Time Team...

LMS Patriot Project

The LMS-Patriot Project Home Page: no LMS Patriots (or Pats as we used to call them) were saved for restoration, so the idea is to build a new one, like the built-from-scratch A1 Tornado or the Atlantic Beachy Head currently being built at the Bluebell Railway.


North Yorkshire Moors

My latest Coach Trip was to the North Yorkshire Moors, again mainly to spot trains. Like on the cult reality tv show, a coach trip is a temporary, mobile community, that no sooner forms, but is cast adrift. I was greeted 7am on Friday morning down Madeira Drive (having spent a fiver on a taxi) not by a coach, but a swish Mercedes taxi, a 'feeder' to whisk me and a couple of Worthingites off to Reigate to rendezvous with the coach proper (which started off in Kent). With driver Terry and Tour Guide Andrew we did another pick-up in Staines, then it was up the M40 to Oxford services (surprisingly pleasant with water features, bullrushes and coy carp). On coach trips, you see a lot of motorways and their rip-off services!

Lunch stop was at Bakewell, in the Peak District, and it was raining. I sampled a Bakewell Pudding (they don't call them tarts in those parts!). After a very quick wander I settled in The Red Lion for a pint of Black Sheep. Shame Peak Rail wasn't operating on Fridays, but I think I did spot a plume of smoke in that general direction. Then it was off to nearby Matlock Bath, basically a long street full of cafes and amusement arcades by a river. I half fancied the cable car to the Heights of Abraham, but they were miles away (in retrospect I could have gone there using my bus pass!). There can't be many cable cars in the UK, must check! So, on to Days Hotel on the outskirts of Wakefield, by the motorway, and a strange meal of mushroom and stilton pudding - very peculiar taste in a very hard crust - and a selection of overcooked veg.

At 8am on Saturday we headed off to the North Yorkshire Moors Railway and Grosmont station, where an East Lancs 'micky' 45407 The Lancashire Fusilier was waiting to take us off to Pickering, via Goathland - a village that features in hit tv programme Heartbeat, and also in Harry Potter films. Passing Grosmont shed, we spotted the star of the NYMR, A4 'streak' 60007 Sir Nigel Gresley. Also copped GWR 0-6-2T 5600 Class no. 6619 and 'micky' no. 45212 in the sheds as we steamed by - shame we didn't have time to explore further. We'd just missed 75029 heading out to Whitby, but spotted S&DJR 7F 2-8-0 no. 53809 at Levisham on the other line. Then it was back on the coach for 4 hours in York. By this time the sun was out and it was back to the heatwave. I got a bus to the NRM and, after a coffee and sandwich, and a glance at Mallard, the 2nd streak of the day, searched around for the re-streamlined Duchess of Hamilton. And there she was. I approached from the back of the tender, and she looked magnificent in crimson and gold. I never in my wildest dreams imagined I would ever see a streamlined semi - the most beautiful locomotive ever built. Then it was back to the Minster on the road train and a pint of Liberty at the Lion and Lamb. Popped into the art gallery quickly (nice Lowry of Clifford's Tower), but it was too hot for sightseeing. Dinner that night was a very acceptable leek and potato tart.

On Sunday it was another 8am start, this time to Leeming Bar, for a ride on the Wenslydale Railway. Unfortunately steam doesn't start until 18 July, so we were pulled by a Class 47 diesel no. 47703 Saint Mungo. The ride was very scenic (but not quite as scenic as the NYMR) and we travelled all the way to Redmire and back to Leyburn, where we rejoined the coach to our lunch stop at Harrogate. No cheese! I was disapointed not to get to visit the Wensleydale Cheese Museum (with its Wallace and Gromit exhibit) at Hawes and couldn't find a whiff of cheese anywhere! At Harrogate I thought Bettys (no apostrophe required) was too posh and pricey for the likes of me, but stumbled across an amazing Wetherspoons in the old Winter Gardens, where a pint of Ruddles was £1.29! Then it was the long trudge back, with two motorway services (Grantham and South Mimms) to stop at. Luckily David Devant and His Spirit Wife was on my iPod to keep me company and help pass the time. And the feeder taxi driver very kindly gave me a lift to my door.