Trains and Treks in England
August 21-September 6, 2005
I like to walk and had saved up some frequent flyer miles, so I decided to vacation in England. I signed up with a company that specializes in organizing foreign and domestic hikes. My hike would be a west to east trek from St. Bees Head on the Irish Sea to Robin Hood's Bay on the North Sea. An English trip leader who knew the route well would lead thirteen of us on daily hikes of 10-15 miles. No camping. Each night we would bed down in a B&B. One of the appeals of this trip was the opportunity to see and ride British trains so my chronicle will focus on transport aspects of my trip.
I live in Harrisburg, PA and my departure point was Washington, DC (Dulles). I tried to fly out of Baltimore which is closer, but the carrier, British Airways was full. I checked my duffle bag complete with several sets of hiking clothes along with retractable hiking poles. I wore my boots which I would need in case my checked baggage separated from me. I had a backpack which contained my wet pack and a fleece jacket. I had to remove my steel shank boots for security, but otherwise I went through easily.
To get to my departure gate, I had to endure a ride in a mobile lounge. This is a rubber tired room with longitudinal seating. Passengers stuff themselves into them as one would in a Tokyo subway. The lounge rumbled across some tarmac dodging baggage trucks, aircraft and other vehicles before "docking" at a remote terminal. Passengers streamed out, relieved to be free of the cramped conditions and made their way to flight gates.
During the ride, I noticed major excavations including twin-bore tunnels. A sign tells me that "Airtrain is coming." So the antiquated mobile lounges, fixtures since the 1960s, will become obsolete; replaced by some kind of people mover. The signs did not give any details on the system. It looks to be linear like Atlanta, but, then again there may be some curves. Perhaps at the next DC fest we will learn more.
My frequent flyer miles entitled me to Business Class so I checked into British Airways (BA) Club World Lounge. There was a nice selection of food including hot chicken and asparagus. I decided to eat dinner in the lounge because British Airways' in-flight caterer Gate Gourmet was on strike; and there would be only snack food and beverages available on the five hour flight "across the pond." Boo. Hiss. I was going to miss British Airways tasty continental breakfasts.
Boarding began shortly after 6:00 PM. I was on a Boeing 777 which took off on time at 7:05 PM. I had a mini-cubicle, which featured a reclining chair and footstool. A stewardess gave me a bottle of water and I contented myself by watching an action flick featuring Ice Cube rescuing a kidnapped president of the United States from a high speed train that ran from the capitol building to somewhere out in the country. Go figure.
Meanwhile some hyperactive kid screamed and jumped on his seat for about two hours before finally succumbing to sleep. A guy next to me hacked and sniffled passing his flu on to me four days later when symptoms manifested themselves. Otherwise the flight at 40,000 feet and 600 MPH was quite pleasant.
We touched down about twenty minutes late at London's Heathrow. A very pleasant fellow from immigration stamped my passport. Travel tip: Be straight-up with immigration and customs. Their affable manners, while sincere, are guises to put you off guard. An offhand comment could prove problematic. That's how miscreants stumble.
Instead of a cramped mobile lounge, I had the indignity of a cramped low-floor bus which drove several miles to Heathrow's domestic terminal. I killed two hours before boarding a 737 to Manchester, England. It was a twenty minute flight through a low cloud. A few bumps, but nothing exciting. A cab dispatcher put me in a van which dropped me free of charge at Bewley's Hotel on the Manchester airport perimeter. My room overlooked Manchester's commuter rail which runs from downtown to the airport. EMUs shuttled back and forth frequently.
The next morning, August 23, during breakfast I met my fellow trekkers and the group's guide and his wife, also an experienced hiker. A sixteen passenger Mercedes bus would be our transport and it towed a small U-Haul style trailer with our luggage. With the wife at the wheel, we left Bewley's and headed north.
We took a restroom and snack break at a steam-powered tourist railway the Lakeside and Haverthwaite Railway.
Though the weather was drizzly, the railway was busy. I watched a 0-6-0 tank engine easily haul eight coaches out of the station on a seven mile trip to a lake where passengers could take a cruise, included in the price of their tickets. Back on the bus, we headed for our B&B, the Bower House Inn in Eskdale, our home for three nights.
August 24 began as another dreary day. There is some relief from the rain but not much. We begin our second hike at Ravenglass, the main terminus for the Ravenglass & Eskdale narrow gauge railway (15 inch).
Shortly after three o'clock, our group had finished our hike, which included an assault on 1,200 foot Muncaster Fell. The weather had cleared and that lifted our spirits as we had completed nine miles. The end of our walk brought us to Boot, the other terminal of Revenglass & Eskdale. A train was in the double track stub end terminal. The engineer ran the locomotive (a tank engine) onto an armstrong turntable, a quick turn around and the engine was at the head of the train for the return to Ravenglass. Schedule was tight so I didn't get a consist count, but there were at least five passenger cars.
The crew didn't waste any time. This seven mile line was running four trains that day! It is single track with passing sidings at intermediate stations. The train serves a transit function as a number of passengers took advantage of stops near caravan (trailer) parks. Our group did not ride the full distance but alighted at Irton Road for a half mile walk back to the B&B.
By August 27, my flu was in full swing. I may have had pneumonia as I did not have the lung capacity that I felt was normal for me. The weather was still dreary so I took a hiatus from hiking. Our group leader began the day with a tour of the Grasmere. I had lunch in the town and then went to a bus stop for a ride into Keswick (pronounced Kessick) where the B&B was.
Taking land in England for highways is a complex matter because there are issues regarding grants to landowners by long-dead kings. There can also be strong proscriptions against removing trees. Farmers have clout too. In East Anglia, I learned from our group leader that because the soil was so rich, the ministry of transport found paying farmers for land would be prohibitively expensive. Instead the ministry, which was building a six lane motorway, opted for a cut and cover project which enabled farmers to farm on the roof of the new tunnel!
In quaint and historic Grasmere, hometown of poet William Wordsworth, the streets are narrow. Bus stops have pull-offs so buses can load without impeding traffic flow. Furthermore, most stops have shelters (some made from native stone) and a posted timetable. A double decker bus arrived on time at 1:34 PM. I paid the driver the requested fare of four pounds eighty. ($8.69 at current rate)I felt that was expensive for a twelve mile ride. But, hey, gas is expensive in England ($7.00 per gallon).
I did not need exact change. The driver has a console where he punches in the fare and that unlocks a drawer where he makes change. The console prints a receipt.
August 30, our group sets off on its next hike directly from a new B&B at a place with an interesting name of Newbiggin-on-Lune. The B&B is on a sheep farm which includes an abandoned railway line. Back in the 1960s, British Railways hired a Dr. Beeching to make the nationalized railway system economically efficient. Sound familiar? Beeching took a meat axe approach to branch lines, some of which are returning to service as tourist lines. Our guide informed me that there are over 100 tourist railways in United Kingdom (England, Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland). Not too shabby considering the country has a population of 60 million.
On this morning, our group began its hike on one of these abandoned lines, starting in the sheep pasture. Constructed in the Edwardian era, the right-of-way has impressive civil engineering. Hand-laid limestone abutments adorn hillside cuts. A spectacular stone arch viaduct (60 feet high) crosses the river Lune. After three miles, we leave the line (a road bridge is gone) and head cross country to the town of Kirby Stephen.
BritRail serves Kirby Stephen , but the station is about a mile outside of town. While hiking across a hill, I spy a DMU zipping along followed by a covered hopper unit train hauled by BritRail's freight operator, English, Welsh and Scottish Railway. I bought a sub for lunch in Kirby Stephen. It was a delicious 8 inch baguette filled with chicken and bacon. We hiked nine miles in the afternoon.
September 3 was a very pleasant day. My flu symptoms had abated, but I still had a nagging cough. After a twelve mile hike over gentle hills, the group leader offered a trip to the historic town of Whitby (from whence the famous Captain Cook sailed) or a ride on the North Yorkshire Moors Railway.
I was the only railway person so the group Leader's wife drove the other hikers to Whitby, and I got another train ride. This is an impressive operation staffed primarily by volunteers.
The route is 18 miles from Grosmont (pronounced growmont) to Pickering. My train was eight cars powered by a 2-6-0 tank engine. In the cab was a driver (engineer), fireman, and brakeman. The brakeman handled the coupling which involves a link and pin arrangement between buffers. There's no turntable so southbound from Grosmont, the engine runs forward. At Pickering, the engine does a run-a-round and returns coal bunker first.
Coach appointments were clean and well-maintained. I sat in a compartment with two three section nicely upholstered seats facing each other. A British railfan and his wife occupied the window seats, but I still had good views from the corridor side. The railfan told me and the trek leader that the railway was now offering steam-powered commuter service from Pickering to Whitby, but the website makes no mention of this.
Before departure, one of the railroad volunteers trundled a trolley (push cart) from which he hawked candy and soda. I noticed yellow and caramel dining cars on an adjacent track elegantly appointed with crystal and white tablecloths ready for dinner train patrons. A whistle sounded and the tank engine chuffed out of the station. Four quadrant gates cleared the main road through Grosmont. When the train is not running, these gates block the track. When the train wants to pass, the gates swing out and block the road. There's no way a driver can get around them!
It's uphill all the way to Goathland on single track with passing tracks at stations. The tanker struggles with its load but maintains about twenty miles per hour speed. Goathland is the setting for a popular British soap opera whose name escapes me. The British railfan told me that filming was in progress during the week. We pause to wait for a northbound steam train which was running late. Now it's down hill for us, and the train coasts along at a fair clip.
At Newton Dale we meet a vintage diesel with three or four cars in tow. There's little delay, and we're on our way again. At Pickering I watch the engine run-a-round. BritRail does not serve Pickering so North Yorkshire Moors is the only train service. Residents have to make do with buses to get to a railhead. At 4:45 PM a conductor wearing a jerkin (reflective vest) slams some coach doors, blows a whistle and waves a green flag. Without a whistle acknowledgement, the last train of the day chug chugs out of the station. The ticket window shutters and the gift shop locks up. Very quickly, the platform becomes deserted. In the distance a lonely whistle blows for a grade crossing.
September 5 dawns overcast, but soon clouds roll away and sun warms the air. This is the end of our hike. We have walked about 130 miles and seen some beautiful countryside. This morning, I am aboard the Mercedes bus with my fellow group members heading for the historic city of York. First stop is the magnificent railway station.
My duffle has wheels and my backpack is on my back so I walk into the huge train shed whose gigantic arch roof covers at least eight tracks. Easy-to-read monitors keep you appraised on when and where trains will appear. While waiting for my 10:06 AM express to London, I observed the comings and goings of intercity diesel and electrics as well as a plethora of married pair DMUs.
At 10:03 AM, Great North Eastern Railway (GNER) train set pulled into the station. It is resplendent in navy with red pin striping. There are bullet nose diesels at each end with six or seven coaches, a diner, and a bistro car. Like Amtrak, there's nobody around to point the way to the right coach.
"You need to get on," said a conductor from the vestibule of one car who had detected my frantic look. Time was short, so I schlepped my stuff on board. Slam went the door behind me. No Amtrak-style sliding doors here. As the train glided out of the station, I manhandled my duffle (backpack on my back) down narrow aisles til I found the right coach and seat. Fortunately, there was plenty of overhead storage space as well as racks in the bulkheads.
A conductor came by, looked at my ticket, sniffed imperiously, and walked on. I never saw him again nor did he issue a seat check. The express was "cookin.'" I estimated speed at over 100 MPH. With four stops, we made the trip to London in two hours and fifteen minutes on a route mile distance of over 200 miles. It was thrilling to experience the rush on express tracks as we passed local trains pausing at small towns. English Welsh and Scottish freights were out and about too.
I didn't buy anything in the bistro car because the selection was limited and expensive. You could also buy refreshments from a woman pushing a trolley through the coaches.
After a gentle stop at 12:21 PM, I alighted at London's King's Cross station. Travel tip: Watch your step when getting off a train. Even if the platform is high level it does not align with the car. Once on the platform I trundled by duffle to a taxi queue. One of London's 'black cabs" took me to my hotel. I would have preferred to walk, but getting to my hotel required crossing numerous streets and alleys. Besides the weather was warming up, and I didn't feel like working up a sweat.
Travel tip: London cab drivers pass a rigorous exam to obtain their licenses. They know the city very well. They are courteous and helpful, and greatly appreciate tips which help offset the high cost of gasoline. A cab ride is expensive; two pounds eighty ($5.06) just to get started. My hotel trip-a mere jaunt in center city London-was about $25 including a 15% tip. My cabby earned it too as he ducked into and out of numerous alleyways to take the most direct route.
After a restful night, I was back at Heathrow. Once again, I endured the indignity of compression into a low floor bus. This bus full of "sardines" arrived at the airport perimeter where BA parked the 777, nose toward perimeter fence, which would take me to Dulles. Boarding went smoothly, and soon BA flight # 217 queued on a taxiway. There were seven planes ahead of us. Flying time was seven hours-two hours longer than eastbound due to headwinds. Gate Gourmet and BA had settled their differences, so I had a nice luncheon at 39,000 feet.
At Dulles, a mobile lounge docked with the 777 directly. The driver exhorted us to move to the rear of the lounge as he wanted as many people as possible inside. Once crammed full of people, the lounge headed to immigration. I passed through international formalities quickly and 2.5 hours later was back home savoring my English hiking and railroading adventures.