2006 - Return to the South-West
Pulling rank in the gutters of power
It’s not often that one gets a Royal Summons. For most people it’s never, but the SMRS is not most people, nor even a most Society. Six weeks and counting to the 2006 sleeper trip, and one pulls out for the most trivial of reasons. Apparently some amateur gardener, name of Charlie Windsor or some such, had asked if the royal personage could be allowed to make an exhibition of himself, and of his hostas, alongside the begonias for which our member is rightly famous.
I must confess my first response to this withdrawal was of indignation – how dare he do this! How inconsiderate! Where are his priorities? Doesn’t His Royal Hosta consult His diary before issuing an Imperial Command? How could He not know when the sleeper trip was – didn’t we have a Court Circular issued so that every duke, dignitary, nob and flunky knew when not to arrange garden parties and suchlike?
Pleas for clemency fell on deaf ears – either your man turns up with the greens or bang goes his OBE, was the dismissive reply from Private Office. And don’t think the Tower of London is just for show either. Beneath the touristy facade lurks a deeper, darker level of dungeon just made for troublesome oiks like you. His HRH-ness was inspecting the manacles only last week, so get digging.
In the face of such regal imperatives our humble horticulturalist felt he had no option but to tug the knee, bow the forelock and submit to higher, or at least taller, authority. Despite dark mutterings about Getting Some of Me Mates to Go Down South to Mr Fancy Pants and Sort Him Out Proper, the resignation letter was signed, the deposit monies adjusted and the sound heard of size 10 (fireman’s, retired) boots stomping off to the greenhouse, spade dragging along behind.
For a moment fantasy took over. It was fate that reduced us to be the Famous Five, of Enid Blyton fame. Perhaps we were to solve some long-running crime that had baffled the Force, maybe another Beast of Bodmin, or the Great Tram Robbery of Seaton, or even the Phantom Imbiber of Beer. Then reality kicked back in, as it tends to do all too often. Who would be the odd man out on the sleeper, to take pot luck with a stranger sharing their cabin? Or would they get it to themselves, and be the envy of their friends? Would we consume more beer in five-man rounds than in six?
And so we were five.
There and back again in twelve easy steps
The organisation of the trip, like the well-oiled machine it was, clicked into gear around the Ides of March, with an extended and leisurely debate over destinations. A strong contender was a route back to Mull, with an overnight stay on the island to allow participation in some of the less bloodthirsty of the local sports, such as eagle dodging, seal ducking and whale surfing . However the realisation that Cornwall had escaped a visit for a good eight years swung the balance southwards, and it took a mere mention of the trams at Seaton to seal the decision.
A chance encounter between our exhibition manager and a representative of the Bodmin and Wenford Railway led to a promise of favoured visitor status at Bodmin. [Are these meetings really chance? – discuss.] Our thoughts then turned to the coast, for it would be at least nominally summer, and our buckets and spades were well overdue a trip to the seaside. Dartmouth looked nice, and, imagine our surprise, we could get there on a preserved railway from Paignton. All the while we considered, beer was never far from our thoughts, until some mental giant made the obvious neural connection [beer = Beer = Pecorama = not really that far from Paignton = very near to Seaton = trams]. And so we were decided.
Booking of trains and accommodation proceeded along familiar, well-worn lines. Virgin offered their usual incomprehensible pricing and illogical timetables, with Mozart symphonies heard in their entirety whilst waiting for Customer Service to serve our particular customer, whose call was valuable almost to the point of providing someone to answer it. A host of landladies expressed their eagerness to accomodate six, sorry only five now, adult males in their home-from-homes ('Are you with the sewage convention? – we’re fully booked that week').
The only hitch was Paignton, where so many ladies thrust their wares in the direction of the Society’s hapless booking clerk that he quite forgot which one he had eventually settled on, metaphorically, so to speak. A study of the list was not promising. At least fifty to choose from, with no clue from the memory as to which one it might be. Back to the phone, grateful for the foresight in subscribing to Telewest’s Talk Unlimited payment plan. In the event, the correct one was struck only fifth time lucky, and it wasn’t even on the list. I am available for lottery number predictions.
As to personnel, it looked for a while as if we would, for the first time, field the same team two years running. However the Middle-Aged Pretender put paid to that novel circumstance. Yet another reason to vote Republican.
The Famous Five Experience Beer
The first anomaly in the timetable involved going north from Wigan in order to progress southwards. One might be forgiven for dismissing this as yet another example of the idiosyncracy of Virgin Trains. The truth however was more prosaic, our chosen train ran non-stop from Preston to Euston, in a shade over two hours, so the diversion seemed well worth the effort. On top of this the female train manager told jokes, and responded to our complaint over buffet prices by explaining that women had both the foresight and the organisation to bring their own lunch. Gender was also apparently a factor in the need for at least one (male) passenger to try to get off at Wigan rather than enjoy an uncovenanted awayday to the capital.
Safely and promptly delivered to the metropolis, we sought further safe haven in the Head of Steam, a hostelry conveniently located at the entrance to Euston station. It also overlooked the bus stop, close study of which revealed several fascinating facts. Firstly the very latest double-deckers have outside handrails on the top front nearside corner, no doubt to facilitate cleaners swinging from bus to bus without the need for inconvenient ladders or awkward abseil ropes. Secondly all buses, of whatever vintage, carry in addition to the route number a small plate recording their tally of cyclists shot down in traffic combat. And thirdly, whilst all buses contribute to traffic congestion, it takes a bendybus to really tie it up in knots.
After a short intermission to synchronise watches and load up everyone's number into the ubiquitous mobile phones, the party departed to Paddington to reconnoitre the departure arrangements for the sleeper, including the location of the all-important First Class Lounge. With surplus goods deposited in the left luggage we then split up, for such diverse diversions as the Science Museum, the Natural History Museum, an open-air swimming pool, and the nearest pub to watch the world cup match of the day.
After regrouping for dinner at a nearby steak house we attempted a survey of Hyde Park, but the relevant authorities had clearly received a tip-off of our intentions and set all the gates and turnstiles to exit-only, to better protect the reputation of London's premier play park. So it was back to another pub (the Mitre) and another world cup match (Switzerland against Ukraine).
The First Class Lounge was just that, a first-class place to lounge and be looked after by an attentive steward before boarding the sleeper. Some experimental video was undertaken, with all the hallmarks of professional filming- multiple retakes, a director with a robust command of the English language, and actors who forgot their lines, quarralled over who should get the best parts and threatened legal action to secure their just rewards. It remains to be seen whether such hard-earned footage acquires the cult status it so clearly deserves.
The night passed (reasonably) uneventfully, the only events of note being an untimely sounding of the fire alarm in the early hours, and a complete failure on the part of all members to stand to at 0530 hours to salute the crossing of the Prince Albert bridge at Saltash. At least, being a south-bound sleeper there was no shunting at Edinburgh to tempt members out on to the platform, there to wander around in unsuitable night attire, higher brain functions barely ticking over.
Penzance arrived on time, giving us the best part of two hours to explore the harbour and the breakfast options of Sullivans diner. Not for the last time the loals failed to guess our true intent, enquiring as to whether we were perhaps twitchers? Twitching perhaps, but not at the excitement of bird-watching. Virgin Trains took us rapidly back to Bodmin Parkway, where we stood with a small group of like-minded folk to await the first train of the day on the Bodmin and Wenford Railway. It arrived pulled by a real live-steam GWR Pannier, which proceeded to demonstrate its traction qualities over some challenging gradients to Bodmin General. There Tony changed into his Sir Topham Hat of Ribble Railway persona (one of several kept carefully in his software wardrobe) and blagged a visit to the footplate. He claimed later it was an unsolicited invitation from a driver who recognised the cut of his jib with no words being necessary. We didn’t believe it either.
The choice between proceeding to Boscarne Junction before or after lunch was really no contest - the culinary aspects of any sleeper trip are of equal importance to the railway matters. After a short visit to the workshops we departed northwards again, this time bound for Paignton via Plymouth and Newton Abbot. Our destination did not endear itself to our critical faculties, 'the Rhyl of the South' was one comment. A touch hard perhaps, but the Southport of the South it certainly was not. The lack of taxis at the station did not help; after a considerable wait we ended up using the same taxi twice to get all the party to the B&B.
Next morning, after another pub meal and another world cup game, we entered the station to seek out the preserved line to Kingswear. The Manor locomotive and observation car were immaculate, the coaches less so, and the number of passengers surprisingly large. Not one but two pensioner coach parties. We deployed our younger members to outrun the zimmer frames and pensioner buggies and stake a claim to an entire SMRS compartment.
The trip was a scenic one past beaches and seascapes. On arrival at Kingswear we held back to allow the first wave of tourists to engulf the Dartmouth ferry. This was a short and slick operation, by seamen who gave the impression they were just itching to open up the engines well beyond their normal slow-ahead-both and see just how big a bow wave they could create on either bank of the Dart. The rendezvous point was the station building, which we later learned was built without the inconvenience of a railway to attract passengers bent on messing up its clean seats and tidy waiting rooms. Some minor problem over bridge-building rights apparently.
The ticket we had purchased entitled us to a boat trip on the Dart, so we embarked on an hour-long cruise, complete with running commentary delivered with well-practised style and neatly-phrased wit. Houses occupied by the Dimbleby family and the late Agatha Christie were but two of the highlights, along with a castle and assorted harbour defences.
We returned whence we had come and departed east to Exeter, running the gauntlet of the Dawlish sea wall in the process. It was noticeable that the driver speeded up somewhat at this point, no oubt wishing to minimise exposure to the effects of global warming on wind and wave.
Another taxi to another B&B, followed by a variation in the itinerary for which our sleeper trips are famous. Well, at least known. An evening excursion to Exmouth by the local train, a half-hour trip at a bargain price of £1.80 return, provided we stayed together. We promised the conductor we would, assuming no run-ins with the local constabulary.
Thursday was the first bus of the trip, from Exeter to Seaton via Beer. We phoned ahead to secure authority to pay an early call on our chosen B&B to deposit excess baggage. The need for this had become clear on the journey, as although the bus passed within a few hundred yards of Pecorama the final gradient would have been a severe test for a pedestrian under a full load, particularly in the steadily-increasing temperatures. So tiffin and regrouping at the B&B, itself requiring a modicum of climbing effort to reach, was a welcome respite.
We were then able to enjoy the full Peco model railway experience as unencumbered tourists. The highlight was the excellent miniature railway, running amongst well-tended gardens and with cunning use of spring-loaded points to maximise the scenic effect. A parked Pullman coach provided a civilised location for afternoon tea, although two attempts were needed to partake of cream scones and ditto cakes. The first was thwarted by the need to wash up from the previous customers before more food could be served, a problem familar to students world-wide.
We returned via Beer village, resisting all temptations to consume alcohol therein, and thence along the cliff-top to Seaton, amongst views of shore and sea reminiscent of East Kent, complete with collapsible cliffs and pebble beaches.
The next morning, refreshed after a carnivorous dinner at the George and a excellent breakfast from our landlady, we embarked on a day-long exploration of the trams. These were relocated from Eastbourne in the 1960s, and were roughly two-thirds full scale. This meant that they looked big enough for amply-sized adults but actually weren’t, particularly for such crucial manouvres as ascending the spiral stairs to the top deck. However the views achieved were well worth the effort, as was the cooling breeze.
Whilst the machines lacked the sophistication of their bigger Blackpool brethren, the charm factor was significantly higher, with the added satisfaction of knowing that a branchline trackbed was being put to better use than as a mere cycle track. A stop-off at the half-way point at Colyton allowed access to a nearby free house and to inspection of an original Gentleman’s Open-Topped Platform Convenience. The French term is pissoire, from which we get the English word lavatory.
A chance encounter in the George the night before (or, from previous experience, perhaps not so) with one of the tram engineers moonlighting as a barman, paved the way for another workshop visit. For this Tony adopted his well-practised role of club diplomat, negotiator and reluctant guarantor for our good behaviour. In truth it was too hot to do much else, whilst maintaining a 20-minute service with 40-year-old equipment looked quite a challenge in any weather.
Rampant capitalism was however not far away, in the form of a proposal to relocate the workshop further down the line and use the land thus released for bijou holiday homettes. It was pleasing to note that the tram company was not rushing to take the developer’s largesse, but was sniffing cautiously all round it before taking the plunge.
We finished off with an exploration of a long-gone and apparently long-forgotten landmark, Seaton station, which had suffered the same fate as so many branch lines in the 1960s. No traces could be found, the area now being used for some rather nondescript industrial buildings.
By late afternoon the sun was still at high noon, so two of our party decided liquid refreshment was the only answer, and went for a swim from Seaton’s shingle beach. The rest of us encouraged them with pieces of said shingle tossed languidly in their general direction, without being too specific as to the exact aiming point.
The last evening of the holiday was celebrated with a meal at the local Indian restaurant, preceeded for two lucky members by use of their en-suite bath for their second total immersion of the day.
Next morning we bid a fond farewell to our hostess and caught the bus to Exeter from a convenient, i.e. downhill, stop. A short walk to Exeter Central and an even shorter ride to Exeter St Davids for the second of two Newcastle trains that departed in quick succession.
Just what the hurry was to get Geordie holidaymakers back home we never found out, but the train was on time and half-empty, so we took the opportunity regardless. Working air-conditioning was a welcome bonus, as was a brief glimpse of the Blue Pullman at Birmingham. The quickest of changes, across the platform to a Glasgow train ready and waiting, and we were nearly home. Back in time to watch England lose, in fact. Shame.