Train (not) in vainWritten by Roger Holliday Claudia Fischer | | firstname.lastname@example.org
We’re on a train, traveling between London and Edinburgh.
It’s the 11 a.m. out of King’s Cross Station.
Our carriage is First Class —in every sense. Liveried in blue and grey, comfy, uncluttered and quiet. We have reserved window seats with a good-size table between us for reading, writing (forget the ‘rithmetic!) and for holding the coffee cups, cookies and bottled water which come courtesy of National Express, which operates this north/south section of the British railway system.
The journey to Edinburgh, scheduled for 4 hours and 20 minutes, departed right on time and runs up the eastern side of this currently sunny “sceptered isle.” Outside temperature is 10 degrees — several centigrades lower than last week, when Britain was basking under positively balmy Springtime skies.
We’re in a particularly happy mood. Not just because we love riding the trains — even the much-maligned British ones — but also because we have a full Scottish week of touring ahead of us with stops at picturesque outposts such as Inverness and Oban. Our train rides are all paid for and unlimited, thanks to an eight-day Britrail Pass; $455 for seniors. Our lodgings in each of the cities are all booked and confirmed.
OK, so they’re only ‘bed-in-a-box’ budget digs like IBIS and Premier Inns and Easy Hotels (offshoot of the EasyJet operation) but at least they won’t break our bank at an average of $75 per night — not bad for expensive Britain. And anyway, we’re only staying a night or two in each as this trip is strictly business, researching hotels and attractions, reacquainting ourselves with a part of Britain we haven’t set foot in for a decade, and getting ready for a more extended stay in September.
Time passes so sedately on a train — we’ve just gone through Peterborough — several daily newspapers to soak up, favorite columnists to laugh with and an ever-changing panorama of fields, farmland, forests and seascapes, plus the chance to re-live — with the help of a digital camera “diary” — some of the things we did in our London week.
Like, for example, staying in the North London hill village of Hampstead. Taking a two-hour stroll of this ancient enclave with a guide from London Walks — the pioneering guided walks company — and hearing about the amazing cast of characters who have clogged these streets since its first mention in the Domesday Book 1,000 years ago. Names like Keats and Constable. Dickens and Dick Turpin. The Du Mauriers. John Harrison of Longtitude clock fame. And more recent sojourners like Peter O’Toole, Judy Dench and Boy George!
Then there was a special tour of the Houses of Parliament arranged for us by a former schoolmate who is now a member of parliament, a lawyer and a novelist (no, it’s not Jeffrey Archer). That was followed by a pint of Best Bitter on a boat overlooking the River Thames, Big Ben and the lit-up London Eye.
Sundays are always special times to be Londoners, even temporary ones. And this one was certainly no exception, with thousands celebrating St Paddy’s Day via parades, music and clogging in Trafalgar Square and thousands more watching a big rugby match against the French.
We opted instead for a brunchy stroll through the East End markets of Spitalfields and Petticoat Lane, filled with all manner of bric-a-brac, collectibles, clothes and food, then sat outside, people watching, munching on Ozzie burgers and french fries. And, then, to top it, England unexpectedly wallopped the French in the rugby match. Brilliant.
The next day was all about nostalgia. With a tour of a typical British public boarding school — Tom Brown meets Harry Potter — where this particular scribbler spent some formative years.
Another day, we took a quick trip up to Cambridge and joined a delightful tour of this ancient university town, where learning was launched in the 14th century. As the students were on Easter break, the colleges and quads were uncharacteristically subdued. But punts were out on the river, and King’s College chapel as spectacular as ever.
We capped off the week with a visit to the city of Bath, a spa and health resort since Roman times. where water still springs from the earth’s core at 49 degrees. People from around the world still come to take the cure and enjoy the sights of this limestone colored gem.
The free 2-hour city tour, conducted by one of 60 volunteer guides, took us round the many highlights and concluded with the buying of Bath Buns and Bath Soaps for hostess gifts for visits still to come.
“Ladies and gentlemen, the train will shortly be arriving in Edinburgh …”