2019 - East by North
As we somewhat belatedly realised, 2019 marked the quarter-century of SMRS sleeper trips, possibly some sort of record if anyone keeps tabs on such things. And to be frank, the itinerary was chosen more on the basis of 'there's some interesting stuff in East Anglia which we haven't seen' rather than on trying to derive a route to celebrate 25 years of messing about on trains. To go so far northwards in order to come back and go east does not at first sight seem the most logical option, particularly as the initial movement was a couple of hundred miles south to the big metropolis at the southern end of the sleeper service. However we have not got to where we are today by being logical, so we pressed on regardless.
The start (for four of us plus one support staff member) was from a fairly sunny Southport, bound for Liverpool Lime Street and the promise of significant rainfall on and off for most of the week. The lone supporter was Frank's significantly better half, aiming to visit a friend in Norfolk and monitor her husband's erratic movements around the country from a safe distance. Richard materialised at Lime St and took the lead in searching out the first objective of note, the Virgin First Class Lounge. This had been moved yet again, and required some perseverance to gain access, as the hi-tech Secure Personal Customer Access System Mark IV did not consider us worthy of its rather impersonal attention. Fortunately its minder was available to overrule it and release the door lock. We then turned our attention to worrying about whether it would ever allow us out again.
The journey south passed with no incidents of note, and we arrived on time at Euston. The weather had worsened considerably on the way, so the default option of lunch at the Doric Arch was an obvious first choice. Malcolm was already there, saving seats. Indeed it was tempting to make it the only decision of the day, but somehow we convinced ourselves that at least some exercise was needed, and a plan gradually evolved. This was to take the Tube to Ladbroke Grove to visit the Museum of Brands. Nothing to do with racing cars but all about how products are advertised and sold, from Victorian times to the present day. A good choice for a damp day, although better weather would have allowed full advantage to be taken of a pleasant-looking garden to the rear of the building. Dinner was in a local gastropub, the Elgin, after which we declined the offer of staying for the quiz night and returned to Euston, to find the brand-new sleeper carriages awaiting us.
First impressions were positive, although it was noted that space was perhaps a little more limited than before, no doubt because of the need to accommodate the all-in-one shower and toilet compartment. The latter facility did not function at all after the hours of darkness, leaving us to wonder if it was a designed-in feature to avoid sleep disturbance, or a systems failure. That it was accidental was the more likely, particularly as we discovered later that the following Wednesday's Glasgow sleeper was terminated at Stafford due to an unspecified technical issue. The unfortunate passengers had to endure the rest of the journey on a bus.
However we avoided such horrors, and had both a reasonable night's sleep and a passable breakfast, which kept us going until the all-important second breakfast at one of Glasgow's two Wetherspoons. This was located only a few minutes walk from our base for two nights at the Premier Inn on Argyle St. The establishment itself looked a little careworn, but no doubt slowly climbing up the senior management's to-do list, as adjacent properties had the facelifts completed and a better class of clientele migrated from the city centre. The lift was novel in requiring a keycard for full-featured operation, without which it would go up and down but not stop at the floor you pushed the button for.
The main target for the day was the Transport Museum at Riverside, warmly recommended by Richard as he disappeared off to the Kelvingrove Museum, one stop earlier on the Subway. This particular transport system was a new experience for some if us, drawing comparisons with some of the smaller, older rolling stock on parts of London's underground. The museum itself was excellent, with a wide variety of exhibits displayed in imaginative and novel ways. Highlights were the car and motorbike walls and the (model) ship conveyor, with an honourable mention to the tall ship berthed alongside, all with free admission. Meanwhile Richard kept us up-to-date with texts recording his cultural discoveries, including a Salvador Dali and and the Mackintosh tea room. We regrouped back at the hotel and rounded off the day at Wetherspoons' steak night.
Wednesday saw us back at the aforementioned establishment for breakfast, after which we walked the short distance to Central station for the train to Balloch, changing at Dalmuir. The objective was the Maid of the Loch, the last steam-powered paddle steamer to be built in the UK. She was actually constructed on the Clyde, then deconstructed into railway-wagon sized portions for transport to Balloch and reassembly, hopefully with all the sections in the right order. After service as a pleasure cruiser on Loch Lomond she had been neglectfully moored for 20 years or so, until a group of enthusiasts bought what remained and set to to restore her to former glories. This was in full swing as we arrived, with various parts roped off from the public. However enough was accessible to make it a worthwhile visit, not to mention the cafe on the top deck.
An added bonus was the fully-restored Steam Slipway, used to haul large vessels such as the Maid of the Loch out of the water for inspection. This consisted of a large double-acting static steam engine housed in a brick building at the top of a slipway. The engine powered a winch connected by cable to a large carriage which could be lowered down into the water for the vessel to float onto, no doubt with many a 'left hand down a bit' and 'dead slow ahead' commands from a master concentrating hard on the job in hand. The engine was not fired up on the day of our visit but we were made welcome (knock twice and ask for Colin) and given both a descriptive brochure and a viewing of a video describing the Maid's use of the slipway in the early stages of restoration.
The day would not be complete without a loch cruise, despite the weather turning a little damp. Jim had found a pub serving a particularly more-ish oatmeal beer, so he opted for the two-hour cruise. The rest of us made do with just one hour on the water, courtesy of Sweeney's Cruises, and then retired to the pub to try the beer for ourselves, several times. After a brief tour of the adjacent shopping mall we were reunited at the train station and returned to Glasgow, this time for an excellent meal at an Italian restaurant.
The weather forecast for Thursday was not promising, with large black clouds apparently lying in ambush for us as we proceeded south. Undeterred we set off by taxi for Glasgow Queen St and arrived in time for the 8.15 to Edinburgh, one of many such trains full of commuters. Waverley was if anything even busier than Queen St but with the advantage of seats available while we waited for the train to Peterborough. We now had the benefit of first class, with food and drink provided gratis. The promised deluge did not materialise, just normal intermittent rain and latterly the odd patch of blue sky. Another change saw us on the road to Norwich, whose station is one worthy of the name.
The hotel was not far but uphill, which slowed us a little, but we eventually arrived at an establishment with a smart exterior but a somewhat faded interior, rather like sleeper trip participants. However the staff were welcoming, and we settled in for three days and four nights of fun and frolics. Top of the list was dinner, eventually achieved at a busy and a labyrinthine Wetherspoons in the centre of town. The route we took was through the scruffier part of the city, full of entertainment facilities we might have been interested in if only we were a half-century younger.
Friday saw an improving weather forecast, and after a Grab n' Go breakfast, which we consumed before actually going anywhere, we set out for Bressingham, via the train to Diss. A brief search for buses was not encouraging, but a taxi was available with the necessary seating, albeit a little cramped in the back. Fortunately it was a fairly short ride, although Richard expressed his views on the vehicle by throwing himself out of it onto the pavement, completely disregarding any injuries suffered. Exiting with style was the somewhat belated claim.
Bressingham Steam was a transport extravaganza, with a variety of travel modes available for our pleasure. Two separate narrow-gauge lines were open for business, and a large engine shed held a number of standard-gauge exhibits, not to mention traction engines and static engines. There was also an indoor 16mm track, but luggage restrictions did not allow us to bring any locos with us. However we did meet one of the small group who ran it. Another feature was a large funfair galloper, which we dared each other to try. The experience was generally positive, although comments were made about only one stirrup and no safety belts. Just to round it off, there was a Dad's Army museum, a rival to the one in Thetford, and arguably more extensive and detailed.
Adjacent to the steam museum was Bressingham Gardens. These were created by Alan Bloom, who clearly felt a duty to make full use of the nominative determinism inherited by his surname, and to get stuck in to some serious floral design work. The results were both extensive and pleasing, allowing Malcolm to reveal hidden depths of gardening knowledge. This extended to actually naming plants that the rest of us could only classify chromatically, such as 'Oh look, nice red flowers'.
The return taxi was a somewhat larger vehicle, to avoid any further dismounting incidents. Back at Norwich we opted for a Chinese meal, at a restaurant reputed for both the quality and quantity of their food. Both aspects were supplied in full, to the extent that doggy-bags would have been of some value, had we had the energy left to request them. An early night was called for, both to aid digestion and to prepare for the big event at the North Norfolk Railway.
This being the weekend, we were treated to a proper, sit-down breakfast the the hotel, to fortify us for the day ahead. The main feature was the Mixed Traction Gala, featuring a large variety of steam and diesel locos of varying vintage. This was reflected in a timetable of some complexity, which was already nearly 25 minutes in the red by mid-morning. However the sun shone and there was enough vehicle movement to keep everyone occupied, up and down the line. The highlight was a ride in the three-car heritage set, which featured the coach used in the Titfield Thunderbolt, but without the well-stocked bar of the original. Fortunately there was a bar in our last train of the day, a fish-and-chip special. The price included a beer, so we felt an obligation to indulge.
The last day was also train-filled, this time with narrow-gauge railways. After a short mainline ride to Wroxham we visited the Bure Valley Railway, a 15inch gauge rail-replacement enterprise on the trackbed of the original line to Aylsham. It bore some resemblance to the Ravenglass and Eskdale Railway, although with wider, more comfortable coaches and some impressive engines. A significant discount on the fare had been arranged, courtesy of a certain Peter Mills of the RER, although this took a while to filter through to the counter staff at the booking office.
The journey was a pleasant one through scenery that might well be considered as strong evidence by any members of the Flat Earth Society that might venture this far East. Whether they would risk the journey would be a matter for conjecture – they might balk at the significant risk of falling off the edge of the world, which everyone knows is just up the road between Great Yarmouth and Lowestoft.
After dodging a couple of badly-timed scattered showers, we returned to Wroxham and visited the adjacent preserved signal box. This was a large structure that originally served parts of both the branch line and the main line between Norwich and Cromer. Apparently the first act of preservation was to move the whole thing a few yards back from its original position, to improve the sighting for the new-fangled colour light signalling that had replaced the old signals. The restoration work took the box back to its heyday in the early 1900s, with a large and impressive set of levers, interlocking devices and various other period paraphanalia. The ground floor was given over to an excellent information display telling the story of the signal box and the line it served.
A walk back through the village took us to Wroxham Broad, full of weekenders playing boats on a crowded section of water. Our destination was the Barton House Railway, an idiosyncratic, not to say unusual, 7 ¼ inch garden railway line. Access was by boat from Wroxham Bridge, fending off a large group of swans intent on taking full advantage of said weekenders and their endless supplies of stale-but-still-very-edible bread. The boats, of which there were two, took us to a small jetty upstream, where we disembarked and bought tickets for the railway. A confusing set of options were presented, involving a choice of standard or first class (the latter with free use of cushion) and of all-inclusive or pay-as-you-go.
There were several lines to choose from, a loop from the jetty to the main garden area, a circuit of the lawn, and a drive-your-own out-and-back mainly intended for children. The cafe provided some excellent cake, after which we felt fit enough to visit the museum, containing local railway artifacts and an excellent model of part of the local railway system.
Rumours of a real-ale pub in the vicinity encouraged us to return on foot to the village, via boatyards full of 'no public access' signs, in the middle of which was The Shed, a rather ordinary-looking structure containing the sought-after hand pumps and a handful of local drinkers. We took advantage of the facilities and then navigated back to Wroxham station, fully intending to dine at the adjacent Smokehouse establishment. Unfortunately it was fully booked, so we changed tack, took the train back to Norwich and visited the Coach and Horses, a burger specialist pub near the hotel.
Monday saw us with another Grab and Go breakfast, part of which was consumed in situ and part carried off to supplement whatever lunch awaited us on the train to Liverpool Parkway. A second breakfast was clearly called for, and satisfactorily delivered at another local Wetherspoons, The Queen of Iceni. As Jim remarked, another Boudicca, to supplement the cruise ship of that name we had embarked on a couple of sleeper trips previously. The train was a crowded two-car unit, but we benefitted from reserved seats, if not from the rather minimal luggage space. At Thetford we were rejoined by June, ready to receive reports on Frank's behaviour over the week. To avoid any possibility of an embarrassing domestic incident we glossed over the worst aspects and gave a (mostly) positive account.
Thus ended our 25th sleeper trip, as enjoyable and successful as all the others, which is remarkable in itself. During the final evening we discussed the format of future excursions, including the need to balance itineraries using the sleeper as a means to reach far-flung parts, with those where it is more a prelude to visiting another part of the country. The desirability of encouraging other members of the club to join us was also agreed. Next year may therefore see a return to our roots, with a trip to Fort William and the Jacobite. Or it might be something completely different.