2012 - Scotland, England and France
A new management team and a new look to this year's sleeper trip. For the first time two countries were visited, a new sleeper route traversed and, a bold move this, spouses were permitted, nay positively encouraged, to join in.
It all started when Richard promoted the delights of the Garden of England as a venue for the discerning railway tourist. There were indeed a number of preserved lines in Kent worthy of a visit, and it was not too difficult a mental leap to propose a trip northwards to Scotland before venturing south-east, so as to incorporate the essential sleeper element. Jim then expressed a desire to visit not one, not two but all three routes between Edinburgh and Glasgow, and your webmaster modestly suggested that a trip to the county of his upbringing could be well rounded off with a trip under the Channel to foreign lands.
And so we had our concept, and a small, energetic committee rapidly turned it into a fully-fledged Plan. The masterstroke was to include for the first time the option of inviting partners to join us in an excursion to Paris, only partly to avoid the accusation of enjoying ourselves in foreign activities which we might not wish to share with said partners. In reality of course, their presence would rejuvenate a tired, travel-weary party and ensure the maximum benefit from the latter stages of the trip. And so indeed it turned out.
The six-strong party made their departure following the usual mid-morning route to Wigan and its Station Cafe and thence northwards to Preston. We then entrained for Edinburgh, which was reached on time but in the sort of weather that seems to be the hallmark of this somewhat damp summer. I blame the water companies for declaring a drought in the Spring - a temptation of fate which brought forth the inevitable response from the climate gnomes. Surprisingly, the Waverley station alterations noted during last year's trip were still in full swing, to the confusion of a fair slice of the travelling public.
Fortunately Jim's built-in RPS (Real-ale Positioning System) took us unerringly to the nearby Halfway House for second lunch and a planning session for the afternoon. This involved seeing how many different ways we could get by train from Edinburgh to Glasgow, or vice-versa, until the supply of will-power, time or tickets ran out. We managed three trips before deciding our cup of pleasure was full, and somewhere along the line we surfaced briefly amongst all the scaffolding to survey the pig's ear that is the current state of Edinburgh's new tram system. One day it may all be sorted out and may even be magnificent, but for the time being I pity the poor city rate-payer.
The Glasgow to Euston sleeper was a first for us, but after internal fortification at a convenient Wetherspoons we boarded successfully and were untroubled by border guards, passport controls or visa examinations as we crossed the border southwards. Whether such freedom of movement will remain come the independence vote is another matter, but at least the current economic crisis means that adoption of the euro north of the border seems increasingly unlikely.
At Euston we breakfasted at a convenient, if somewhat incongruous, Ed's Easy Diner and progressed the short distance eastwards to that marvel of Victorian architecture, St Pancras station. After a good stare at all the lovely stone and glass we embarked on a Quite Fast Train for Gillingham. Unfortunately it only went quite fast for quite a short distance, but speed is not of the essence on these trips so there were no complaints. Following best practice from previous trips we secured our home base at the King Charles hotel via taxi, before venturing the short distance downhill to Chatham Dockyard.
Now a dockyard might not seem an obvious port of call for railway enthusiasts, but SMRS celebrates diversity, and in any case the displays included the remnants of a once-extensive rail system, not to mention a small but fully-functioning micro-brewery, complete with sales outlet. Admission was courtesy of Hilary's husband's credit card, carefully husbanded by Hilary for that very purpose, and good value it was too. The exhibits included a relatively modern frigate and submarine as well as sailing ships and a large collection of RNLI lifeboats. One highlight, apart from the brewpub, was the Ropery, where a remarkably well-preserved foreman from 1750 or thereabouts gave an informative and entertaining tour of the rope making house. This included audience participation in a re-enactment of the process, in which we modestly took the leading roles.
By late afternoon, with the rain starting to fall, we had had our fill of things naval, and returned by taxi up the hill to the hotel and a local restaurant.
Next day we took the train again to Canterbury, where a short-ish walk across the city centre took us to our hotel, the characterful Millers Arms, complete with mill stream and weir. After a rapid baggage-drop we went into tourist mode and headed for the cathedral. Not a cheap option, but it dominates the city both physically and spiritually, and has to be seen. The gift shop, as all others of its type, sported not only a wide range of cathedral-themed knick-knacks but also some of a unusual railwayana, in particular canvas bags with assorted modelling motifs. At least two were admitted to be purchased.
After a mainly liquid lunch we turned our attention north, travelling by bus to Whitstable along the approximate line of the Canterbury and Whitstable Railway, closed sixty years ago. There we paraded along the sea-front, admired the eclectic collection of chalets, curio shops and seafood stalls, and partook of the local cuisine, some with more gusto than others. Back to Canterbury on the bus, followed by evening meal at the hotel.
Overnight, after a chance discovery of a Hornby Visitor Centre leaflet we plotted another diversion, to the Mother Ship (as it was rapidly christened) in Margate. In the clear light of Sunday morning it became clear that the train route was not an option, but our enthusiasm was undimmed and a local taxi driver was commissioned to take us forth. The Centre turned out to be well worth the visit, with a wide range of historical models of all types, a genuine nostalgia-fest for us modellers.
By lunchtime we were back in Canterbury for the train to Shepherdswell and the East Kent Railway. This is a small railway on a limited budget, running diesel and electric multiple units on part of the line used for the now-defunct Kent coalfields. Added attractions included a pleasant cafe, a miniature railway and a model railway. This last is run by Walmer Model Railway Club, who occupy a restored Stanier LMS carriage in return for keeping the layout running during opening hours. After an enjoyable afternoon playing trains of various scales we entrained again for Folkestone for a two-night stay.
Wednesday morning saw us on a bus going a short way down the coast to Hythe for the Romney, Hythe and Dymchurch railway, one of the key objectives of the trip. This is an 18" gauge railway built by a member of that well-known endangered species, the eccentric millionaire, initially for his own pleasure but now doing a useful service for residents as well as visitors. The route runs for thirteen miles past many a back garden and some rustic Kent scenery, ending up at Dymchurch amidst an ocean of shingle beach.
This outpost on the teetering edge of civilisation boasts a pair of nuclear power stations, a pair of lighthouses and an air of slightly decayed weirdness. The houses resemble holiday homes, but some at least seem to be occupied permanently. By whom we dared not ask.
On our return to Folkestone we attempted to locate the Leas Cliff Railway, a water-driven funicular of some antiquity. Unfortunately we were in possession of faulty location data, and took a bus to the wrong type of cliff on the edge of town. By the time we had recalibrated the various mobile electronics of choice and found the item only a few minutes' walk from where we were staying, it had closed for the night. For once our reputation for creative diversionary routing had come unstuck - it just shows you can't have enough detailed (and accurate) pre-planning.
Next day we entrained for Ashford and then found a bus to Tenterden, home of the Kent and East Sussex Railway. This took us, by DMU, to Bodiam and its famous castle. Assuming you have heard of it, of course. An interesting sideline at the station was a small museum dedicated to the hop-pickers who used to descend on the hop-farms of the area in days gone by.
After a quick look at the famous castle's famous ruins we somehow gravitated to the nearby pub, to test the quality of the hops in their beer. Some of us were satisfied at the first pass, whilst others declared themselves unsure of the quality and needful of more testing, even if it meant returning on a later train. Such dedication.