We did not wait to make breakfast but went straight out into the rain. Yes, it was raining for the start of our holiday. The 205 carried us to Marylebone station which we reached at 7:26, leaving plenty of time for breakfast before our train left at 8:14.
We are travelling on the Wrexham and Shropshire service and our locomotive is appropriately named the Thomas Telford. As we leave the city and run out into the countryside, breaks appear in the clouds and there is a hope that the weather will change for the better.
We are seated facing one another across a table. We have window seats and luckily the reserved seats next to us have remained unoccupied. This is just as well as conditions are rather cramped with old-fashioned fixed arms to the seats which makes it difficult to get in and out.
Having bought our tickets well in advance, we got cheap prices so the idea occurred to us to ask how much it would cost to upgrade to first class. The price was surprisingly moderate because it was the weekend.
So we treated ourselves. We obtained facing single seats which were roomier than the standard class ones. Naturally, we availed ourselves of the included coffee.
We reached our hotel – within sight of the station – too early to check in but they did agree to lock our luggage away, leaving us free to take the bus to town.
At the bus station, Tigger picked up an impressive collection of bus maps and timetables to use in planning our explorations.
Attached to the bus station is a large shopping centre. All the usual suspects are represented and we went for coffee to the cafe at the back of BHS. Tigger lost no time in studying her maps and timetables. For my part I bought some Lotto numbers on the principle that if we won it would pay for the trip and a few more besides.
We now caught the 76 bus to the Ironbridge Gorge, so called because of the iron bridge that crosses the Severn here.
In Ironbridge itself, we had lunch at The Swan, a large sparsely furnished pub, and then set out explore the picturesque town. Despite the uncertain weather, the streets were busy with visitors. The museum and shops and cafes were doing plenty of business.
Ironbridge is a site of key importance in the history of the industrialization of Britain but as industrial activity ceased long ago, the town is now quiet and clean and resembles a museum.
The bridge itself, built in 1779, is even today an impressive structure, robust and yet elegant in design. It no longer carries vehicular traffic but can be crossed on foot. An interesting sight itself, it also affords a fine vantage point from which to enjoy views of the river and the surrounding countryside.
The town is small and runs along the river, separated from it by the main road, but also spreads up the steep slope, in a picturesque configuration.
We did not visit the museum as we had only a short time to spend here. We caught the bus back to Telford and went into the adjoining shopping centre to pick up a couple of items and then took another bus back to our hotel where we checked in and transferred our bags to our room.
We are staying at the Premier Inn close to Telford Central station. Though monotonous in their conformity to a single design, they do have the merit of consistency. You know what you are getting, unlike private hotels which, booked sight unseen, vary from excellent to poor.
After tea and a rest we decided we had done enough for today and would spend the rest of the evening in. We had bought some food while out to make ourselves a picnic supper. A kettle is provided in the room and we had brought our own tea with us so we were all set.
During today’s outing, Tigger collected pamphlets and timetables and we were able to plan where to go and what to see though when we make the various visits will depend on conditions on the day such as the weather.
Sunday, April 4th 2010
Are we going to be lucky today? When we awoke, the ground was wet but the sun was shining.
It seemed a good day to use our rover train tickets and visit Chester. For this we would start by taking a train to Shrewsbury. This town is familiar territory to us (see Shrewsbury 2007) but today we would remain on Shrewsbury station and wait for the Manchester train which calls at Chester.
From the moment we stepped off the train in Chester’s impressive station, we were bowled over by the town. It immediately recalled our experience of Glasgow, not because it resembles that town but because of the density of photogenic subject matter. I think one would need to spend several days here to explore Chester and find out all its beautiful features and make an organized attempt to picture it.
Chester contains many buildings of historic age, all in good condition because they have been lovingly cared for and restored as necessary. The modern buildings have often been designed to resemble or harmonize with their ancient neighbours.
We enjoyed a good lunch at the Pied Bull and then went for a walk on the city walls which date originally from Roman times. Interesting in themselves, they provide spectacular views of the town, the river and the surroundings.
A notable feature of the town is the colourful clock on Eastgate built in 1899 in honour of Queen Victoria and paid for by public subscription.
Reluctant to leave, we eventually returned towards the station, stopping off at the Premier Inn which had a Costa cafe. Over coffee we checked train times and found we could just make it to the station in time for the 17:44 to Shrewsbury, so our visit to Chester ended a little precipitously.
We would have to change trains at Shrewsbury in any case and it seemed a good idea to have supper there rather than to take a chance at Telford, especially on an Easter Sunday. We had already supped at Ask on a previous visit so went there again.
It was fun reacquaint ourselves with Shrewsbury, even though the visit was short.
After our meal, we realized that we had 15 minutes to make it to the station for the next train to Telford. We hurried up the road, then down the hill and then round the corner and… reached the station with minutes to spare. This leg of the journey lasts only about 20 minutes and then a short walk across the car park takes us to our hotel.
While it was good to see Shrewsbury again, today’s triumph was our visit to Chester. We had not been to this town before but wanted to go there. It exceeded our expectations as well as our ability to do it justice in the time we had to spare. We intend to return here at some point and spend more time ransacking it for all its treasures.
A brief visit to Chester is like stumbling unexpectedly into Aladdin’s Cave and being dazzled by the abundance of jewels and beautiful artifacts without being able to make sense of it all. We hope on a longer visit to come to terms with it and understand how it all fits together.
Though it was still cold and at times windy today, the sun did shine and beautified the scene as well as making us feel more cheerful. A good day out, then, and one that increases anticipation for the days to follow.
Monday, April 5th 2010
We have designated today a bus day. It is also a bank holiday with buses and trains running to a Sunday timetable, so care must be taken to make sure we can get back to the hotel!
It is an overcast day with occasional outbreaks of sunshine but so far no rain. We discussed where to go but on arrival at the bus station discovered that the paucity of available services more or less forced a choice on us. I am writing this on a bus to Stafford. That’s fine as it was on our list to visit in any case.
We reached Stafford just after 11 am but as the picturesque Pie and Ale was already serving food, we went in for an early lunch. Afterwards we explored in the usual way. As it was a bank holiday, much was closed.
Stafford is a small town. It has some interesting buildings, including the High House museum which was closed, unfortunately. There is a mixture of old and new as in most towns.
I would like to say nice things about Stafford but, to tell the truth, found it rather lacklustre. Then again, as Tigger said, once you have seen Chester, anything less is bound to suffer by comparison.
By the time we had seen all we wanted to see of Stafford, it was still too early to go back to Telford so we went across the road to Sainsbury and waited in their cafe for the next 481 bus. This bus goes to Telford but on the way stops at Newport which we thought we would like to visit.
Newport turned out to be a pretty little town, well worth a visit. To a certain extent it made up for the disappointment of Stafford.
I was intrigued by these two almshouse buildings, each containing two apartments.
Built in 1657 by a William Adams and governed by the “Worshipfull Company of Haberdashers in London”, they provide, on the left, “for the Benefit of Two Single Men” and, on the right, the same for two single women. I wonder whether the occupants sometimes met in the middle.
This attractive little coffee shop was closed unfortunately, or we would most certainly have gone inside for refreshments.
If you are one of those who wonder why we never see baby pigeons, the news is that I have found one for you.
He or she was lurking among branches at the foot of a tree in the grounds of St Nicholas. I hope his or her parents later came back to take care of their infant.
We again took the 481, this time back to Telford. We had an early supper in the Beefeater next door to our hotel then went upstairs to our room to make tea and sort out our photos.
Tuesday, April 6th 2010
Today was a bus day. We wanted to go to Blists Hill and visit the Victorian Village. We had already been there but then had only a relatively short time to spend, not enough really to get to grips with all there is to see.
We checked the bus timetable and found that a bus should leave Telford at 9:34 and take us all the way to Blists Hill. The departure time came and passed with no sign of the bus. I enquired and found that the timetable we had consulted was valid only for weekends and bank holidays. This was not made clear on the timetable itself. Unfortunately, this sort of problem is likely to arise when you reply on public transport. We found another bus that took us to the gate so in the end we were only delayed by half an hour or so.
Blists Hill museum has existed for about three decades and has been continually growing. Apart from paid staff in the cafes, there are two sorts of people operating on site. Firstly, there are those who have special skills such as blacksmithing, wood turning, horse handling or leather work. These are often men and women who have exercised these crafts in their working lives and now continue them here in the Victorian Village.
The second group and more general volunteers who take charge of the various houses, shops and other institutions and explain them and their operation to the public. These rotate among the various posts. All of these people dress in costume of the Victorian era and engage in various appropriate tasks, such as running shops, making artifacts and so on.
Near the entrance is a Lloyds bank where you can, if you wish, exchange modern decimal currency for facsimile coins of the Victorian era. All prices are posted in both “new” and “old” money and either coinage is accepted.
Some of the buildings were already on the site when it began operations. These include some of the heavy industry such as the blast furnaces and associated railway tracks. Others have been brought from other places, being dismantled and lovingly rebuilt in the village.
The result is not only picturesque but also educational. The role players are very knowledgeable and can tell you a lot about the period and the people they represent. I learnt quite precious details both on this and our previous visit.
What strikes you is the evident pleasure that the enactors derive from this activity. Several we spoke to have been pursuing this activity for 30 years. This all helps to create a very positive atmosphere.
It is like a meeting of two eras. The inhabitants of the village are ready to explain but without being aggressive. They converse and do not talk down to you like lecturers. They listen to what you say and answer your questions willingly.
Getting away from Blists Hill proved even more difficult than getting there. We found that by the time we were ready to leave, the bus that had brought us had ceased operating for the day. (Shades of Cornwall.) We decided to walk down into Coalport where, we thought, there would be more choice of buses and perhaps somewhere to wait, such as a cafe. In the event, both hopes were dashed.
In the end, we went into the YHA in Coalport and asked if they had any information about buses. The lady at reception was very kind and helpful. Unfortunately, the news was that we would have to walk back the way we had come and continue past the Victorian Village to Madeley. This would have been possible but it would have been a long walk on top of another long walk on top of a day spent walking about so, when the receptionist offered to call us a cab, we are happy to agree.
The cab took us to Madeley where we were able to take the 44 bus back to Telford bus station and change there to a 481 that carried us to Telford Central station and our hotel.
All in all this was a good day, despite the problems with transport, and it was good to renew our acquaintance with the Victorian Village. We have “passport” tickets that give us access also to the other museums in the Ironbridge group, so we have plenty of reasons for returning to Shropshire in the future.
Wednesday, April 7th 2010
Today is a train day. The only uncertainty was how early we could travel with our rover tickets. We walked down to the station and while I bought coffee and muffins for breakfast, Tigger went to enquire. Apparently, we can travel on any train after 8:45. We crossed over the bridge to platform 2 and a few minutes later boarded the 8:52 to Shrewsbury.
It had rained in the night and the sky was still overcast but along the way I saw a few distant sunlit views so perhaps things will improve. At Shrewsbury, we changed to a train for Holyhead. Today’s trip will take us into Wales.
We did not spend long in Holyhead itself. In fact, we barely left the station which combines with the ferry terminal.
Linguists wishing to compare the Cornish Pensans, meaning "holy head", with the Welsh may be disappointed to learn that the Welsh name, Caergybi, does not have the same meaning. "Caer" means "fortress" and "gybi" is the mutated form of the name of the local saint, Cybi.
We planned to bunny-hop back the way we had come and so took the 13:23 Bangor train. The weather had improved and the sun was now shining, albeit between clouds, but it was still cold.
We left the train at that station with the (artificially) long name. We there took a bus to Menai and changed again for Beaumaris.
Beaumaris is justly renowned as a pretty town with beautiful views of the mountains across the Menai Strait. By now we felt it was time for refreshment and went for tea and teacakes to the Bulkeley Hotel.
Now run by a chain, this hotel was built in a previous age as an elegant resting place for genteel holidaymakers. In the corridor to the coffee shop were display cases filled with interesting objects and small library, presumably for the use of guests.
The possible disadvantage of this otherwise pleasant setting is the noise of low-flying aircraft from the nearby RAF base.
Having taken a stroll along the main street, we again took a bus, this time to Bangor. At the bus station we found another bus to take us to the Pier.
Bangor Pier impresses both with its understated elegance and with its beautiful surroundings. By now the sun was shining continuously showing up the sea, the mountains, the buildings, harbours and boatyards clustered along the water’s edge at their colourful best.
Right at the end of the Pier is a round tea room surmounted by a dome – reflecting the smaller domes on the kiosks – where we hoped to have a cup of tea and perhaps a slice of cake. Unfortunately it was closed.
The Pier too was on the point of closing so we walked back along its length to the bus stop and returned to Bangor bus station and from there took another bus to the train station. Here we waited for the Crewe train which would take us to Chester where we could change.
From Chester we travelled to Wrexham where there was nearly an hour’s wait for the Birmingham train that calls at Telford. It was now quite cold so it seemed best to find a pub and wait in the warm.
Wetherspoon’s Elihu Yale was about 5 minutes away, a barn of a place but with some interesting astronomy-themed decorations. After coffee and crisps we returned to the station for the 21:37 Birmingham train.
This has been one of our less than gourmet days. We started with coffee and muffins at the station kiosk, and lunched on cheese and onion toasties and muffins at the Pumpkin on Holyhead station. For supper we had thought of stopping off at Wellington in looking for a restaurant but we suspect that at this hour of the night we would be unlucky so we will go straight to Telford. It looks as if we’ll dine in the hotel room on tea and a slightly squashed fruit loaf that we bought in the supermarket the other day. Perhaps we will make up for it tomorrow.
Despite the slight creakiness in the transport system, we managed to cover a lot of ground. Ynys Mon, or Anglesey, was impressive, and we think that on another occasion we may return here to stay a few days, perhaps spending a couple of nights in the well sited Bulkeley Hotel in the beautiful town of Beaumaris and a few night elsewhere to compensate for the price. It was a pleasure too to walk again on the elegant Bangor Pier and to admire the views it provides.
Thursday, April 8th 2010
It was sunny today when we peeked around the curtains for the first time. Will it stay like that, though? We made our way to the station, bought breakfast at the kiosk and boarded the 8:52 to Shrewsbury.
"How do we get to Stoke from here?" enquired Tigger at the information window.
"I would drive, personally," was the humorous answer.
The standard way would be to take the Birmingham train, passing through Telford where we had come from, and changing at Wolverhampton. However, this route was barred to us as our rover tickets would not be valid south of Telford. Instead, we took the Manchester train and changed at Crewe.
The first-time visitor to Stoke-on-Trent may think that it is one big town whereas it is more a collection of towns or urban centres, often known collectively as "the Potteries". For this reason, said visitor may be surprised that Stoke itself seems a small and rather understated place for so large a reputation.
We were advised to take the bus to Hanley, which plays the role of "town centre" and which, we were told, would be more interesting than Stoke. We took a bus but without being too concerned about where it was going. As we had no particular goal in mind, one destination was as good as another.
Thus we arrived in Newcastle-under-Lyme. Here we had lunch and a little look around before bussing on again, this time to a small town called Stone. I cannot say much about these places as we did not stay long. Nothing particularly seized my attention but we may just have missed the interesting parts.
The next bus took us to Stafford but fortunately we were spared a long stay by getting off one bus and immediately getting on another, this one destined for Lichfield. Practically the first thing we discovered in Lichfield was the Garrick or, rather, its cafe bar called the Green Room. Here we rested and refreshed ourselves with coffee and cake. Delicious it was too.
We now undertook a walking tour of the town. I was impressed: it made up for all the lacklustre scenery of the earlier part of the day.
Lichfield has some beautiful and historically interesting buildings and monuments. These include the famous three-spired cathedral which at least on the outside (we did not go inside on this occasion) is beautiful as well replete with fascinating details.
Our walk eventually brought us to Lichfield City station. We soon discovered that travelling back to Telford would require a somewhat complicated journey. For a start, we needed to travel from Lichfield City to Lichfield Trent Valley and take a mainline train there.
At Lichfield Trent Valley there were no departure boards, making it difficult to plan our next move. Fortunately, however, the ticket office is manned until midnight and we were able to get advice from the clerk who drew up a 4-train itinerary for us. In the event, Tigger spotted a way to reduce this to 3 trains which had the added advantage of getting us to Telford sooner.
We covered a lot of ground today. While the travel itself was fun (if tiring in the end), some of the town visits were disappointing. This is unavoidable because you cannot know what a place is like until you have been there. On the positive side, Lichfield made up for the earlier disappointment and we shall certainly go there again if the opportunity arises.
Today was noteworthy for another reason. The sun shone all day and although it became chilly again in the evening, during the afternoon we enjoyed a springtime warmth. Has the weather turned at last? We await tomorrow’s conditions with interest.
Friday, April 9th 2010
Once again we breakfasted at the station kiosk and took to 8:52 to Shrewsbury. It is not so sunny today as yesterday but there are plenty of blue spaces in the clouds so perhaps it will improve later. At Shrewsbury (the preferred pronunciation in this part of the world is "Shroosbury") we changed trains. I was feeling quite sleepy and dozed for much of this stretch though I did notice when we crossed into Wales at Y Waun (Chirk).
We disembarked at Llandudno Junction just after 11 am. There we found that we had just missed a train for our destination and that there would not be another until 13:33. Leaving the station, we cast about to see which way to go for the town centre. We struck out up the hill and soon came to a row of shops and cafes. We chose one of these – Coffee Junction – which turned out to be a good choice as we were here able to have a pleasant early lunch.
Llandudno Junction is quite small so we returned to the station to wait there for our train.
The train ride to Blaenau Ffestioniog is a delight in itself. The views from both sides of the train are breathtaking. The town itself, overlooked by rocky hills, is small and picturesque.
Of note were the Old Post Bookshop and De Niro’s Cafe which offers a range of vegetarian dishes and where we had a delicious meal.
We then waited for a bus. This turned out to be a double-decker and front seats were available upstairs. We enjoyed a white-knuckle ride down to Porthmadog.
This seems to be a pleasant and lively town worth exploring when we have more time. The plan was to bus back up to Blaenau and catch the 20:23 train. Unfortunately, we missed the bus that would get us there in time. The only solution was to call a cab to take us back up the hill.
Ironically, we arrived just ahead of the bus we had missed but now had plenty of time to catch our train. Accordingly, we did another circuit of the town and then retired to the Queens Hotel to wait out the remaining time.
The 20:23 took us to Llandudno Junction where we transferred to the Crewe train. If we had gone all the way to Crewe, we would have had to follow a somewhat roundabout path to get back to Telford. So, hoping for the best, we got out at Chester and looked at the timetable. The last train for Telford would leave at 21:28. Time now: 21:23. A sprint to platform 2 got us to the train just in time. If we had missed it, we would have been in a bit of a pickle.
Tigger often asks me what I consider to have been the highlight of the day. The answer today was easy: the visit to Blaenau Ffestiniog. It is a pretty town in beautiful surroundings, well worth seeing and spending time in.
Saturday, April 10th 2010
Today we return to London. The process of getting ready to go includes packing: use it, pack it. When ready, we will ask the hotel to look after our bags so that we can go out for a final bus ride and walk.
In my experience, all hotels will store your luggage for you for a few hours on your final day but not all have adequate facilities – they may suggest you leave it in the lounge or some other public area. Premier Inn, both when we arrived and today cheerfully accepted our bags and locked them away. This was just one way in which this hotel has been helpful during our stay.
Where should we go for our last brief outing before taking the train home? We had passed through the town of Wellington several times on the train on the way to Shrewsbury and thought we would now take a look at it and have breakfast there.
Unlike the train, the 55 bus takes about 45 minutes to reach Wellington bus station from Telford station. We walked around the streets, taking photos and keeping a weather eye out for breakfast.
Getting breakfast turned out to be more difficult than expected. Most cafes were still closed or serving snacks only. We found a cafe in the market advertising a vegetarian breakfast but when we asked for this, they responded in a very off-hand manner, saying they couldn’t serve us as they had run out of vegetarian sausages. In a way, it was a relief as the place had an unpleasant smell to it.
In the end, we found Masti, which presents as a coffee bar cum cafe during the day and turns into an Indian restaurant in the evening. We have noticed that a lot of eateries these days pursue a similar dual existence. For example, we have eaten in a cafe near Waterloo that is a cafe during the day and a Thai restaurant in the evening. If this formula works and helps them survive, good luck to them.
Wellington has narrow streets like a medieval town and a market with covered and open sections but it stops short of being picturesque or of having a character of its own. Tigger described it as a "twenty-minute town", i.e. one that takes 20 minutes to explore and to which you never return.
We caught the bus back to Telford, allowing plenty of time. After yesterday’s adventures we wanted today to go smoothly. We found ourselves back at the hotel with a little over an hour before our train, so we repaired to the Beefeater next door to pass the time with coffee and the books about the region that Tigger had bought during our stay.
Aboard the train, as we had promised ourselves, we upgraded to first class. At weekend rates this is affordable as a treat. The buffet staff remembered us from our trip to Telford and made us feel welcome. The Wrexham & Shropshire is a rather nice railway service: all rail travel should be like this!
For the sheer number of places visited and the relative ease of getting about, this has been a successful trip. While I cannot imagine anyone coming to Telford for the sake of Telford itself (I’m sorry if that hurts anyone’s feelings but I think it is fair), it does provide a good springboard for visiting places of beauty and interest in the region, including North Wales.
Telford is well supplied with bus routes and the railway station, though small and at first sight limited, provides easy access to the wider network.
The rail rover ticket that we bought this time gave wide coverage but had Telford as its southern limit, barring us from some routes that would have made our travel more efficient on some journeys, though it did give us access to Wales. Next time – and we do think there will be a next time – we will buy a ticket that covers southern part of the region as well – though without Wales – as this will make travelling around easier.
Visiting Wales reminded us of the delights of that country too, prompting us to plan a trip to Wales in the near future.
I think my favourite outing was to the Blists Hill Victorian Village. There seems to be something that draws me to that period and culture. I certainly hope that we can visit this beautifully constructed and continually developing living museum again.