Sunday, 31 May 2015

Rebranding the Railways

Today was going to be an interesting day in terms of railway history.  Three of the Lea Valley Lines out of Liverpool Street were being transferred to TfL, and the line from Shenfield has become a totally new entity, called TfL Rail.  This is a holding brand until Crossrail is finished in a couple of years, as they don't want to use that name yet, apparently.

While changing a TOC doesn't usually make much difference, in this case it will, as fares will be changed to be in line with those charged on the Underground, which in many cases means they will be cheaper.  Moreover, one can use Freedom Passes on TfL lines 24/7, and not have to wait until after 09:30 as you do with other TOCs, so if the Victoria Line should happen to fall over on a Thursday morning we'll still be able to get up to Walthamstow.  And the boys won't have to pay fares until they are 11, rather The Boy having to pay from July, when he turns 5.  So that is all good stuff.

So the Swan Whisperer and I decided to go to Liverpool Street and see if there was any sign of the change in TOC.  We just missed a 35, but caught a 355 into Brixton and then a 133 up to Liverpool Street. 

Platforms 1-4 are now dedicated to the Overground, although the Stansted Express seems to use them as well, and those parts of the Lea Valley Lines that have remained with Abellio Greater Anglia.  But they are branded as Overground and Abellio, and lots of Overground staff were around in case people had queries.  At the moment, obviously, the trains are exactly as they were yesterday, but they will probably have new logos, etc, applied.  New trains aren't set to come into service until 2017 or thereabouts.

Then TfL Rail have taken over platforms 14-16.  We walked the length of the station to have a look.  Once again, the platforms had already been rebranded, and there were plenty of staff, one of whom asked if we needed help.  We said we didn't, but chatted to him for a bit, and he was very helpful and knowledgeable.  He said the trains would be rebranded, but the new trains wouldn't be along until Crossrail came in, again probably in 2017. 

We debated going somewhere on one of the trains, but there wasn't much point, really, as the trains themselves hadn't changed.  But I was impressed that not only the signage was in place, with new notice boards pointing to the relevant platforms and so on, but also the recorded announcements had been changed, and the station itself looked as if these TOCs had been running trains forever. 

We were less impressed, though, with the maps.  There was an up-to-date map in the Underground station, incorporating the new lines, but the pocket maps provided had not yet been updated, and, moreover, were not available on the main line platforms.  The Swan Whisperer picked up a leaflet to read on the bus about the modernisation of the Underground, only to find that it dated from 2013.  You can't win them all, I suppose!  So we came away and caught a 35 bus home.  But definitely 9/10 to TfL for the work they've done.  On Thursday I'll see how and whether they've changed the branding at Walthamstow Central.

Friday, 29 May 2015

Dinosaurs in the rain

There are only two places in London to see dinosaurs, as far as I know - please correct me if I'm wrong - and one of them is the Natural History Museum.  The other, of course, is Crystal Palace Park, and that is where we headed off to this rather wet half-term Friday - "We" being the Swan Whisperer, the Boy and me.

We met the Boy and his father at Victoria station.  The Boy felt, I think, slightly abandoned, but quickly cheered up when I said I'd found a shop that sold cheese and pickle rolls, and would he like one for his lunch.  He would, and also a bottle of freshly-squeezed orange juice, which he made last!  We caught a Southern train from Victoria to Crystal Palace, and, after a bit of confusion where we couldn't find the loos (but the kind station master, or whatever they are called these days, let us use the disabled/baby change one), we set out in the drizzle.  First stop was lunch - we found a relatively dry place to sit under some trees and eat our rolls, and then we walked round the lake, which is called the Tidal Pool (why?  It isn't!)
until we got to the café, where the Swan Whisperer insisted on drinking hot chocolate, and he and I both added an extra layer under our rather thin summer macs.  Then we set off again, and this time we found the dinosaurs!  The Boy was thrilled with them, racing from one set to the next and pointing!

When we were just about to leave the dinosaurs, we met an elderly gentleman who said that in his youth, one had been able to climb on the dinosaurs.  I knew I hadn't been dreaming - I'm sure that in the days when we used to take the daughter there, they had been randomly scattered around the place, and one could climb on them.  In this setting, they are more impressive, but less friendly.  And the Swan Whisperer is convinced that the mini-farm, our next port of call, used to be in the middle of the lake where is now a picnic area.

So, to the farm.  We were prepared to pay an admission fee for two pensioners and a child, but discovered that admission was free (although we did contribute to their donation box at the end).  This was a lovely place, and we saw all sorts of animals, including goats ("Are they for feeding the trolls?" asked the Boy, quite seriously)
and in the Exotic room there was a dragon, which we were invited to stroke.  "Will it eat me?" asked the Boy, anxiously, but was reassured that it wouldn't.  All the same, he was not too keen on stroking it!
The farm overlooked the railway line, so we kept stopping for the Boy to look at the Overground and Southern trains that ran in and out of the station.  He wanted to go on the Overground, and as we still had plenty of time before meeting his father at Clapham Junction, we decided to go up to Surrey Quays and then change.  The Boy made a friend on the journey - I don't know what they were talking about, but they were deep in conversation all the way!

Clapham Junction, of course, is Boy Heaven - all those trains! 
He spent ages just watching out of the window to see the trains go by.  Then we went down to the café on Platform 9 to wait for his father, but the latter had been rather badly held up, so in the end (after half a very large chocolate custard muffin and some milk) we came back to the flat, and I quickly made some Gran's extra-special macaroni cheese for his (and later our) tea, and he was still eating that when his father arrived to take a now very sleepy little boy home!

Saturday, 16 May 2015

Guest post: The re-interment of Richard III

My parents were fortunate enough to attend the re-interment of King Richard III, and I thought regular readers of this blog might be interested in my mother's account of the occasion.  Published with permission.

King Richard III was killed at the Battle of Bosworth on 22 August 1485. He is known to have had an undignified journey to Leicester, and to have been buried in the Grey Friars Church, long since disappeared and mostly built over. On 5th September 2012 a skeleton with severe scoliosis and a battered skull was found in the social services car park in Leicester. The bones were taken to the university, where the careful process of identification began. Although Philippa Langley was convinced that they had found Richard, the scientists were more sceptical and wanted proof, which is where FitzRoy played a very small part.

Richard had no direct descendents, so in order to trace his Y chromosome DNA, the search had to go back up the male line to Edward III, and then down again via his son John of Gaunt, and his bastard son, later legitimised, John Beaufort, Earl of Somerset. Five male Somersets were tracked down from different branches of the family, two from Australia, one from Scotland and two from England. All gave DNA samples, which provided a partial match, and two other families, descendents of Richard's sister Anne, provided mitochondrial, or maternal DNA, more reliable as maternity is a matter of fact, and paternity of speculation. This also provided a match, and taken along with the head wounds, the scoliosis and the position of the bones in the old church has made it 99.99% certain that the body is that of Richard. End of history lesson.

We drove to Leicester on Wednesday, and in the evening went to a press briefing, followed by a dinner given by professor Kevin Schurer, who had led the hunt for descendants of Richard, and also of those who had fought at Bosworth, either for Richard or Henry. He said this was a mammoth task as they weren’t documented as were the descendants. This was great fun, we met distant cousins who we had no idea existed, FitzRoy is a 5th cousin 14 times removed from Richard, so there was a great deal of trying to work out how we all fitted in. The press were very friendly, and not at all obtrusive. After the press left, we sat down to a very good meal. We were at a table with a distant cousin, a Bosworth fighter descendant, two archaeologists involved in the dig, and two members of the university team. We were shown a fascinating film taken by one of the archaeologists who had to record everything at the dig as it happened, with him introducing each day’s progress. 
Thursday morning we took a taxi to the Cathedral, but so many roads were closed, that we had quite a long walk to reach the Guildhall, our meeting place. The streets round the Close were packed with sightseers, and security to get into the railed off area by the cathedral was very tight, passports and invitations to be shown.

Once in the Guildhall, passports and invitations once more, FitzRoy had to join his processional group, the DNA donors. There were nine different groups, so a lot to be sorted out. The hangers on like me were escorted to the Cathedral at 10.15, once again producing identification, and shown to our seats, to be joined by our spouses when they had processed in. We were very lucky to have seats in the second row just in front of a television monitor, so we could see all that was going on. Our seats were up level with the tomb, behind the side screen, and we could see through it to a certain extent. The service began at 11.30, but there was so much to look at that it didn’t seem too long.

I don’t really know what to say about the service. It was dignified, simple and moving, and the music lovely. The Archbishop of Leicester preached on reconciliation, and the Archbishop of Canterbury preached about Moses taking Jacob’s bones to Israel, not quite sure why! After it was over, those us lucky enough to be invited made our way to St Martin’s Hall where a buffet lunch was laid on. The Duke and Duchess of Gloucester were there, and also Princess Sophie of Wessex. We met lots more interesting people, including another cousin who was there because his ancestor had fought at Bosworth alongside King Richard. The treacherous Stanleys were also represented, brave of them to come!

Next stop was the King Richard III visitors centre. Quite the best part was in the new extension built out into the car park with a glass floor over the trench where he was found, the outline of the bones being cleverly projected in lights.

After that another long walk to the taxi, and back to the hotel quite exhausted. The whole experience was wonderful, the atmosphere buzzing, and two days that I will never forget.

Tuesday, 12 May 2015

May Holiday: Days 9 and 10 in the sun

The weather on the Sunday couldn't have been a greater contrast to the previous Sunday in Sens, where it had rained all day.  Today, we needed sunblock!  It was a lovely warm day.  I went out after breakfast to the Carrefour City, which is open on Sunday mornings, and stocked up on what we needed for picnic lunches for Sunday and Monday, and then we went out for a scenic drive to Lac de l'Orient, one of the five big artificial lakes in France used for flood control - and, of course, for sailing, fishing, etc. 
There was a pretty stone pier, so we walked out to the end and back again,
and then drove off to find somewhere quiet and attractive to have lunch, which we did. Unfortunately, after that I fell asleep, and missed most of the rest of the drive, and being able to add ideas of where to go.  We got back to Troyes in time for a cup of tea, before heading out for a final walk round the town, to look at the Cathedral,
and the Hôtel-Dieu (now part museum and part part of the university):

Neither of us was starving hungry, so a crepe and an omelette, respectively, in a café on the main square did us excellently, and so back to the hotel for the final night.

Next morning, I was actually allowed to drive, for once, and drove the first 120 km or so towards Soissons, which we had decided to look round before heading home.  We stopped at a hypermarket and bought some fruit, and ate our picnic lunch in the car before heading into town proper, which was very pretty, with the usual cathedral and market hall (closed, naturally, on a Monday - we were delighted to find we didn't have to pay for parking!).

We would have gone for a longer walk, but I started to get a blister and begged off, so we decided to drive to Calais via a small town with beautiful walls called Coucy-le-Chateau-Auffrique, which was lovely, and worth it, and then, a slight but minor mistake, to shop at the Cora outside Cambrai.  This turned out to be very slightly out of our way and, fatally, we spent ten minutes more than we should have doing our shopping, which meant that, although we were not going to be pushed for time to make our crossing, we were not going to have time to eat in the Buffalo Grill first.

So we drove straight to the Eurotunnel terminal, hoping to get an earlier crossing as we were 50 minutes early, only to find that there were "perturbations du service" due to a freight train's having broken down earlier.  It was gradually restoring itself to normal, but there was no hope of an earlier crossing, and we weren't at all sure whether we would get on at our booked time of 20:20.  So we went into the terminal building, now know as the Charles Dickens Terminal, and found, to our relief, there was another place that served food apart from the usual burger joint (which has been McDonald's and Quick over the years, and is now Burger King), and we had a pie, mash and peas, which was lovely, but shockingly under-seasoned, and I couldn't find the salt and pepper until I'd finished!  Nor, alas, could I find the coffee ices (Café Zero) that I knew they sold in W H Smith's there until after I'd bought and paid for my Solero!  Oh well, that was good, too, and then finally they called our crossing, and a couple of hours later we were home, having, on balance, had a lovely time. 

Saturday, 9 May 2015

May holiday days 7 and 8: Bulles de Troyes

Yesterday morning, after breakfast, we went for a walk round the town, enjoying the sights and the half-timbered buildings.
Then we went back to the hotel to change into skating kit and have practice ice before a late lunch. After a short rest, it was time to get ready to go to the free champagne tasting, but the minibus was full so we got the address from the driver and went off with a carload of friends.  The satnav found the place very easily, but being France, it was a matter of "hurry up and wait".  However, we were let in at last and told all about how they make champagne, and finally we got to taste the delicious fluid.  However, after two samples, I had had enough, and the noise was getting to me, so I went and sat in the car and fell so sound asleep I was confused when I woke!  Meanwhile the draw was going on, and the SW drew us to skate last, which was great.

We went back to Troyes with our very tired friends, who had driven from Guildford that day, and ate a fairly quick meal with them in the local Hippopotamus, before a quiet evening.

This morning, after breakfast it was time to get ready for our competition, which went very well. I haven't been able to stress about it at all, and although we made a couple of silly mistakes, on the whole we skated well and were delighted with our Bronze medals. The rest of the day was spent watching our friends skate, and cheering on Team GB.
And then off to the gala dinner, which was delicious, but finished late!  And so to bed, with a whole day left before we head home.

Thursday, 7 May 2015

May Holiday Day 6: And so to Troyes

We had to leave the hotel by 11:00, and the Ibis in Troyes wouldn't have wanted us before noon, so we didn't hurry, and, once we had packed, just read for a bit until it was time to go. A last trip to the supermarket, and a fill of petrol, and we were off, driving cross-country and avoiding the motorway.  The journey didn't take long, and the satnav delivered us to the hotel with no problems.

First order of the day was lunch, then I had a nap and the SW went out to see what he could see. Then he came back and we had a cup of tea, and then we discovered that neither of our laptops wanted to connect to the Internet here, although our tablets and phones didn't have a problem.  Oh well.  Quick email to my boss to explain, and then we went out; first to the rink - just round the corner - to register and pay, and the usual wondering why there were two skaters with the same name from the same club, and was this right?  It is right, and can be confusing although they shorten their names differently, so it's only a problem at comps.  Then a walk to look at some of the sights of the town, including the Seine, and a quick drop into Monoprix for some shower gel I wanted. The SW has seen a restaurant earlier that he thought looked nice and within our budget, so we went there and it was!

And then back to the hotel and we are watching "The Great Escape" on French TV before the election results (no, we are not going to sit up all night).

Wednesday, 6 May 2015

May holiday day 5: Sens in the sunshine

Dinner last night was appallingly mediocre, hopelessly under-seasoned. I don't think the cook had ever heard of salt and pepper, never mind anything else! The puds were nice, though.

It was cold but clear, this morning, so we went into Sens to visit the market hall, which was faintly disappointing, as there were very few merchants there. I expect it is fuller at weekends.  Nevertheless, we bought a very nice melon, some Tomme de Savoie cheese and two quiches, which were delicious when we had them for lunch a bit later!
We then went for another walk around the town, enjoying the quiet streets, but saddened by the number of empty shops - it looks as if France hasn't recovered from the recession the way the UK has.  One of the things we saw was the house of Jean Cousin, a sculptor and painter who had been responsible for much of the Cathedral.
 There is a statue of him in the park which looks at first glance as if he is doing something Very Rude Indeed, but on closer inspection, he is just holding a paintbrush.
 We headed back to the hotel via the supermarket for a delicious lunch of quiche and salad, melon and the end of the strawberries.  Followed by a nap, at least for me - I don't know about the Swan Whisperer! Then I did some work, and after a cup of tea we set out again.

We drove up to Bray-sur-Seine, and then the SW said he fancied seeing Provins, so we started off in that direction, but ended up going to Coulommiers, in the hope of finding a factory making the eponymous cheese, which we love. Far from it - we didn't even see a cow! We thought the latter might be abundant in Brie, where we were, but not a bit of it. We did see some Charolais, but they are mostly beef. And for the most part it was arable, with oil wells!  And rainbows! So what do they make the cheese from?

We discussed heading into Paris for the evening, but decided it would be an expensive drive and an even more expensive dinner, so we didn't, but drove back to Provins, and then to Montereau-Faute-Yonne, where we had dinner. We wished we'd eaten in Provins, where there was a plethora of restaurants, and in Montereau there seemed not to be many, but we found a Chinese, which was lovely. And so back to the hotel for a final night.

Tuesday, 5 May 2015

May Holiday day 4: Fontainebleau in mixed weather!

The weather today has been very varied; the one constant is that it has been windy!  We decided to go to Fontainebleau, although we learnt that it would not be open for visiting today, being Tuesday, but we thought we might be able to look round the grounds and so on.  So we drove there, stopping at a random E Leclerc to get rid of breakfast coffee and to buy some strawberries, fresh milk and cherry tomatoes, and then again at Pont-sur-Yonne to look at the eponymous bridge.  Unfortunately the SW braked rather hard and I hit my finger against the door handle, which hurt and hurt!  It's okay now, but it was very stiff and sore for some hours, and I badly wanted an ice-pack for it.

The satnav, for once, let us down and stranded us in the middle of nowhere, but we finally found our way to Fontainebleau, and parked to see what we could see.  Unfortunately, I hadn't taken a cardigan with me, and although I had my coat, I got really chilled.  Plus two long walks in as many days meant I really didn't want another one, so I sadly went back to the car after taking a few photos, and let the Swan Whisperer get on with it. 

We drove around the town, seeing the Chateau from several different angles, and then moved on.  Google had recommended we visit the Loing valley, so we decided to do just that, and went to the town of Moret-sur-Loing, which was very pretty indeed.  And we saw where the Loing joined the Seine - the two rivers were different colours, which was interesting.

After which we drove down beside the river to Montigny-sur-Loing, stopping en route at a nature reserve where we had some lunch and where the Swan Whisperer went for a walk (again).  I read for a bit, and when he came back, so did he.  We then decided to drive down to Nemours and Montargis before heading home, and I'm sure it was a lovely drive, only I fell asleep and didn't wake up until it was time to reset the satnav at Montargis to take us back to the hotel.  But what I saw of it was lovely - a very pretty town.  Most French towns are pretty; it's such a shame they tend to have the hideous commercial centres on their outskirts (although very useful for a cheap meal or the loo, to say nothing of shopping). 

We are now back at the hotel, and plan to eat here later.  I had some work to do, although we decided not to hold our regular Tuesday meeting as two of us with slow Internets makes Skyping impossible!  So the SW has gone out for another walk.  We are not far from a TGV line, and it is rather fun to watch the trains.  One of the towns we went through had a huge goods yard, of the kind you simply don't see it in the UK any more, and we thought how much our Boy would have liked it!  Maybe when he is older, if he still loves trains....

Monday, 4 May 2015

May holiday day 3: Villeneuve-sur-Yonne in the sun

I suppose because most of the French had gone back to work today, the weather was absolutely glorious, a complete change from yesterday!  Bright sunshine and warm enough just to wear a t-shirt with no other layers.

We set off about 9:30, and our first stop was Carrefour again, this time to buy tissues (I have really bad hay fever this year, or maybe it's a cold, but I think hay fever), some plastic bags to nick food from breakfast in, and a 3-way adapter so we can have more than one thing at a time.  That done, we set off for a little village called Véron, just outside Sens, and home to FranceMotorhomeHire, a company which does exactly what it says on the tin, run by English people.  Who couldn't have been more friendly and helpful.  We explained that the Swan Whisperer had just retired and that we were looking to buy a motor home sooner or later, and they were very helpful as we discussed the pros and cons of having one registered in France and keeping it there, or in the UK and keeping it there.....  and what sort of vehicle we might want.  I like their basic vehicle, but would feel very daunted driving one.  We might hire one of theirs sometime to see what it is like.

Anyway, after that we drove down to Villeneuve-sur-Yonne, which was absolutely lovely - an old walled town by the (rather flooded) Yonne.  We stopped at the tourist office to ask about parking, and they kindly gave us a brochure about the town which described the best route to go and see the sights.  But I do wish we'd taken one in French - the English version had obviously been done by Google translate, and was, in parts,  utterly incomprehensible!  Which, I suppose, in some ways added to the enjoyment! 

We had a lovely walk round the town, and by the time we'd finished it was nearly lunchtime, so I suggested we drove up into the hills above the town, on the very minor roads shown on the atlas, where it looked as though there might be some nice places to stop.  And, indeed, there were.  The only snag was, when we found a nice parking space,  at the entrance to one of the forests the French are so good at, we also found we'd forgotten the bread!  So Plan B was put into action and we drove sadly back down into the town of Joigny to an Intermarché we had passed en route to buy bread, but as there was a bistro there, we decided to have lunch there, and to have a picnic meal this evening.  So we ate - I had an omelette, and stupidly ordered chips with it when I could have had salad or green beans, as the omelette itself had potato in it, and I couldn't finish the chips.  But it was very nice!  Potato and bacon, I think.  Anyway, we bought some bread, and some  yoghurt for supper pudding, and then had a very pleasant drive around the minor roads in the area, which is very hilly.  The main crops appear to be oilseed rape, barley and wheat, but there were vines on the hills above Joigny and Villeneuve-sur-Yonne.  And so back to the hotel, where I did some work, but the Internet connection is a bit flaky.  The Swan Whisperer has gone out for a walk, and I am catching up!

I have uploaded pictures to Facebook (having got a WiFi code for my phone to do so), but Google is being slow about knowing they are there, so I'm not posting any on here today.  

May holiday day 2: Sens in the rain.

Yesterday was a very wet day. It rained. All day. Until bedtime, when the skies cleared and there was a beautiful full moon.

However, we are not made of sugar, so after a late breakfast, we set out to see what we could see.  First of all, we went to the local Carrefour, which is open on Sunday mornings, to stock up on bread, cheese and sausage for lunch, and then we went off into the town. It was quite difficult to find a parking space, as most of the usual ones are taken up by the Fair, which I shall come to in a minute, but we finally found one just outside the Cathedral gardens, which were lovely (my phone isn't connected to WiFi just now, so I can't show you the photos; they will upload when next it is), and we wandered round them and round the Cathedral, and then went to explore the Fair, which was being held over the Bank Holiday weekend. If you look at a map of Sens, you will see that it had a ring road on the line of the old city walls, much of which appears to be a car park normally.  This was all covered with the Fair, which reminded me of the Ideal Home Show, but not so well organised into areas. Everything was on offer, from sweets to bathroom suites, via quad bikes, cranes and beauty creams!  Great fun, and a funfair round the north side.

We finally found the car again, and then came back to the hotel for a late lunch and, I regret to say, slept and read our way through the afternoon. We found a creperie in town to have supper at (very nice!), And then back for a relatively early night. With, as I said, clear skies and a full moon.

Saturday, 2 May 2015

May holiday, day 1

As you will know if you are friends with me on Facebook or LiveJournal, the Swan Whisperer retired on Thursday, after over 37 years with the same company.  We had been going to go away next Thursday anyway, so I thought we had better go at once, and we are spending a few days in Sens before moving on to Troyes on Thursday. We set off at 11:00 am, and had a really quite easy journey, although it took a long time.  A picnic lunch on the train, and one stop for a leg-stretch, and we arrived at the hotel at about 19:25 local time, after a run that took us to the outskirts of Paris and round "Le Francilien" outer ring. The hotel restaurant isn't open at weekends, so we got back in the car and drove into Sens, and found a Buffalo Grill for dinner. And now back and full of steak and wine! Yum!