Tag Archives: public transport

From Somerset to Germany by train

In the chilly Spring, following the late snowfall, a Continental holiday sounded like a good alternative to the usual wet British summer.  On impulse, I decided on a visit to Regensburg.  Our fellow tourists in China had been a group of Bavarians, and they’d recommended this city.

I have to say, I’d endorse that.  For the atmosphere of Old Europe – the cobbles, the tiny alleyways leading to the river, the baroque architecture – it’d be hard to beat, though I admit my experience is limited.  Night life looks cheerful and varied too; mainly around the theme of beer!

I booked a hostel for a few days in July, and considered the journey.  It didn’t seem enough of a challenge to fly; I wanted to see some of Europe from ground level.  I’d never been on the Eurostar – I decided to get the train.

Booking the trip was difficult.  Our upload speed here is so poor that security checks time out before completion, so I have to pay for orders by phone.  None of the budget train companies have an effective phone line for this; you’re routed around in a circle back to their website.

Eurostar did eventually answer their phone after a long wait and confirmed that they did take payment on that line.  However, I had to check the rest of the travel first, so called Deutschbahn.  I expected yet another recorded information line, but was pleasantly surprised when the phone was answered after two rings by a helpful lady who spoke perfect English.

I bought a ticket, including the Eurostar, for about £200 return.  There were a couple of seat reservations – which turned out to be important – and exchange fees in there too.  The tickets arrived within the week, carrying a stern admonition not to lose them.

It’s always useful, or at least comforting, to carry photocopies of important travel documents like these.  Your travel insurance may be able to help if there’s a problem.

Somerset is a bit disconnected with public transport, as well as the internet.  The most chancy part of any journey is the bus from the end of my road to Bristol, where international travel begins, so I never cut it fine with timing.  Booking on the 6.13am Eurostar had saved me nearly enough money for a cheap hotel in St Pancras, allowing the trip to London to be made in a leisurely fashion.

This time, however, it wasn’t the 376 bus which let me down, but Great Western railway.  I was warned the previous day, by email, that trains would be disrupted and it would be good if I went another day.

temple meads train timetable trouble

I had to go to Bristol tiresomely early, and got on a very crowded train to London Paddington.   However, as part of the research for my adventure, I’d read ‘Infrastructure‘ by Brian Hayes, and was soon diverted by observing the complicated arrangements of wires, poles and boxes whose functions I was learning.

railway infrastructure

Navigating the oppressively hot Tube to St Pancras, I arrived an hour early for check in at the European Hotel in Argyle Square, a couple of minutes walk from the station when you went the right way.  I had lunch under the shade of the trees in the little dusty park opposite while I waited.

Once I’d left my luggage in the tiny room, I walked to the British Museum, not far away.  There was an interesting exhibition of ethnic art, mainly from sea-going communities, but the place was packed and the air conditioning inadequate.   The streets were depressingly litter-strewn as well, and the bins not emptied often enough.  For a major tourist destination, London could do with some work!

st Pancras International July 18

It was much cooler the next morning at 5 o’clock when I headed for St Pancras International.  The check in for the Eurostar resembles that for air travel; you’re advised to start the process an hour before departure.  Although manual check-in was quiet at this time of day, it had been quite crowded the previous afternoon.

With Deutschbahn, the ticket is a Fahrkarte.  The other official bits of paper are only the Reservierung, reservation slips – make sure you have the right one ready!

The Departure lounge had only one cafe-bar, and probably not enough seating for busy periods.   Boarding begins about 20 minutes before the train leaves, when there is a terrific rush for the right platform – pointless as all seats are reserved!

Eurostar destination board

It was difficult to find the right coach, as their numbers were shown on a digital display which one needed to be looking directly at.  From the side, it seemed to be a plain metal insert of some kind.

The train was quiet at this early hour, speeding through the waking countryside.  A brief glimpse of the sea, then we plunged into a dark and featureless tunnel.  Emerging into daylight, it was difficult to believe that this was France.  The pylons were a different shape, and the sea was behind us.

Brussels Zuid and Midi

I’d been a bit worried when planning my journey that trains to Germany left from Brussel-Zuid, while the Eurostar arrives at Brussel-Midi.  They’re right next to each other.  Exit the Eurostar platform towards ‘Correspondances’ and that takes you to the Brussel-Zuid end of the station.

Find your train on the departure board.  It’s useful to know the train number, which should be on your ticket.

destination board at Brussels Zuid

I headed for Platform 5, but this soon became so crowded with passengers and trains for Paris Nord, that the Frankfurt train was relocated to Platform 3.  Luckily I’d been chatting to a Belgian lass, who tipped me off, as I wouldn’t have known from the announcements.  Keep a close eye on those destination boards for last minute changes!

Platform train info Brussels Zuid

Your train vanishing from this helpful platform display may be another clue that it’s not coming!

There was more trouble in store for me at Frankfurt, where I accidentally got off at the Frankfurt Main (Airport) stop.  A main station in Germany is, of course, a Hauptbanhof; ‘Main’ in this case was referring to the river, as I realised much later.  However, everybody else was leaving the train, so I followed.

By the time I had worked out what was going on, it was getting late.  Hastily buying a ticket for a regional train which would take me to Frankfurt Haubtbahnhof and my connection to Regensburg, I raced to the platform.  We all dashed over the bridge to another platform when the train arrived there instead (this seems to be a popular sport!), then there was a painfully slow journey as it stopped very thoroughly at a number of stations on the way.

I arrived three minutes before my train left, found its number on the destination board, identified the platform and ran down a very long concourse to arrive with seconds to spare!  It was some time before I could catch my breath enough to look for a seat!

Someone had mine; the conductor found me another one when the train got busy, and people were sitting in the corridor.  I discovered the reservations were marked on more of those obscure digital displays beside each seat.  I had wondered how people identified free seats.

more railway infrastructure

Despite the difficulties, most of the trip was relaxing, and I did get a good view of the changing countryside.  Deciduous forests changed to conifers and back; there were fields of solar panels, and grape terraces.  Clusters of whitewashed houses stood among pasture; sometimes we effortlessly outpaced motorway traffic to a backdrop of clean white factories.

I arrived in Regensburg at 5.30 pm.  Head straight for the exit at the station – don’t get drawn into Retail Hell, from which it can be hard to extract yourself!

Regensburg station July 2018

The number 17 bus to the hostel was not every 6 minutes as Google had suggested, but more like once every hour.  I managed to navigate to the Microverse using my printed-out map, and asking locals in my rudimentary German; it was only about twenty minutes walk.

Once at their office in Arnulfsplatz, I picked up one of those splendid town maps which are torn from a huge pad, and appear at hostels all over Europe.  Bus stops, street names and tourist attractions were all ready for a few days’ exploring!

 

Your travel insurance may help if you miss a connection due to a delay or other problem with the trains.  Try and get someone to sign something for you.  

If you miss it through stupidity, you could well be on your own!  Luckily, buying a train ticket just before departure seems to be the same price as advance tickets in Germany.  A valid credit card provides a useful contingency plan.

 

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The 67 Bus

Even though the whole globe has been mapped out and uploaded, adventure can still be found in the details. The Somerset Levels are best explored by cycle or on foot, but there is one bus which crosses them. The number 67, from Wells to Burnham-on-Sea via Wedmore, takes the intrepid traveller right through this iconic countryside to enjoy a couple of hours at the seaside.

A distinctly rural minibus pulls up at Wells Bus Station, down the platform from its sleek, Bristol-bound brethren, and we are off on the ancient trackway to Wedmore. The modern B3139 follows this intricate path, connecting two projections of higher land separating broad expanses of marshland. Building space was limited on this dry ridge; the hamlets are strung along this narrow, twisting country lane, almost submerged in greenery at this time of year.

wookey cottage garden

Exuberant hedges are covered in flowers; creamy elder, clouds of pink-blushed hawthorn, spikes of lilac and chestnut, curves of honeysuckle. Gaps in the foliage reveal little orchards, families of black sheep, contented donkeys. We pass through Yarley, Bleadney and Theale, past ivy-draped stone walls, verges scattered with the white flowers of cow parsley, fields decorated with buttercups, and into Wedmore.

Here, there are elegant town houses, stone built cottages with purple flowers pouring over garden walls, and foxgloves in full bloom. Wedmore, founded by the Saxons, was a busy market town in medieval times. The Market Cross dates back to the 14th century, and there are some other building of historic interest. Wedmore is the home of the infamous Turnip Prize for modern art, and an annual Real Ale festival.

You could plan a few hours wandering around this pleasant area and return to Wells, but we are changing here for Burnham-on-Sea.

bus transfer at Wedmore
Changing buses at Wedmore; the blue one returns to Wells

Our next driver was a trainee, learning the invisible stops on the route. The passengers cheered when she edged past a horse box on a lane where ‘single track road’ would be a generous designation.

The countryside is more open as we approach the sea, crossing the old tidal marshes on our rocky ridge. Black and white dairy cows, familiar to Glastonbury Festival followers, graze in the summer pastures. Swans resting by willow-hung streams are a reminder that these fields are the domain of waterfowl in winter time.

Another set of villages is linked by this slender road, like beads on a wire. We pass quaint churches, pubs, an aquafarm and an Aikido centre. The bus begins to fill up, mainly with elderly local residents. Sit at the back if you can, as many passengers have walking frames or shopping trollies. There isn’t a bell to ring; call out if you need to get off before the terminus. The other passengers join in until the driver responds!

The gentle rural lane ended at the A38, the main coast road, lined with caravan parks. We detoured through Highbridge and arrived opposite the Old Pier Tavern in Burnham.

old pier tavern at burnham on sea

It’s a short walk – about two minutes – to the sea front. There’s a typical British seaside sort of building there, housing the Bay View Cafe, a remarkably well stocked Tourist Information centre, and public toilets.

Bay View Cafe Burnham on sea May 2018

I picked up a leaflet for the Heritage Trail in Burnham, found the main street easily, past the bucket-and-spade shop. There was a Farmers’ Market going on, and the second hand shops were worth a visit; there were coffee shops and cashpoints, icecreams, seaside rock in strange and wonderful flavours, chips and amusement arcades. Everyone was excited about the Food Festival on Saturday; unfortunately the 67 bus doesn’t run at weekends.

pier amusements Burnham on sea may18

Back at the seafront, there was a good view of the Low Lighthouse, Burnham’s iconic landmark. This was built in 1832, and is still operational; the remains of the previous lighthouse are now part of a hotel.

Round Tower and church tower Burnham on sea May 2018

The abandoned jetty speaks of a busier past. Steamships from Wales would arrive here, connecting with the railway service whose tracks used to run right out to the dock; now even the station has gone.

jetty Burnham on sea May 2018

The seawall is high and curved, there are storms in winter. The tide was out, exposing the mudflats. Rippled channels of water were almost invisible on the gleaming surface, swiftly filling up the flat expanse, bringing the sea back to the sandcastles.

Curved sea wall Burnham on sea may2018

Gulls loitered in the seaweed crusted dampness  under the pier; it was a quiet day at the beach.

burnham pier may18

A short one too; the last bus leaves Burnham at one o’clock. Still, I had a good couple of hours at the seaside and a relaxing journey through beautiful countryside – just like being on holiday!

 

This service got dumped by First Bus, since it wasn’t profitable, and has had to be patched back together by the town and parish councils along its route. It’s the only public transport for the outlying villages. Taking journeys like this is good training for using local buses in unfamiliar countries.

Some key points need to be considered wherever you are.

  • Timetables may be out of date. Check your return journey, or connections, with the driver before the bus abandons you in the middle of nowhere. Have some useful phrases printed or practised if you’re in a foreign country.
  • Buses may be early. A rural bus with no passengers waiting is bound to be ahead of schedule at some points on its route. Arrive at the stop in good time.
  • The bus may be full. A popular journey, such as the last bus back, may be crowded. Have a Plan B; an alternate way of getting back. Plot another bus route if possible, or check local taxi services before leaving.

Testing your personal resilience with small, accessible challenges is a great way to build up your self confidence.

Read the Resilience Handbook for more information, or just go straight to the free resilience assessment to see how good you are already!

 

Iceland Adventure

In the Resilience Handbook, I recommend going on regular adventures.  Travel by a method you don’t normally use, go to somewhere different.  It doesn’t have to be exotic – a week in a campsite is just as good for your resilience.  As a solo traveller, I prefer to use hostels.  They’re cheap, you can self-cater, and you meet interesting people in the communal areas.

The confidence I gained by hostelling around Britain enables me to explore further afield on a limited budget.  I did some research and packed appropriate clothes; there was very little I didn’t actually use.   Even an 18 kilo suitcase was a serious handicap on public transport though; it may be worth while paying the extra to fly from a closer airport next time.

Why Iceland?  With its renewable energy and reforestation programme, it’s an ideal destination for the resilience explorer!  I’ve got extensive notes to go over, and a return trip is already on the cards.  I never did get a recipe for putrefied shark – but I know the history behind it now.

Here’s some pictures

iceland old harbour
The Old Harbour is quite industrial around the bus stop – then you walk round the corner and see the bay open out towards the sharp snowy hills
My kind of tour bus! Off into the wilds for the 'Game of Thrones' tour. Winter driving in Iceland is challenging; use tours, not car rental.
My kind of tour bus! Off into the wilds for the ‘Game of Thrones’ tour. Winter driving in Iceland is challenging; use tours, not car rental.
The landscape north of Reykjavik from the tour bus - there was a strong wind that day, whipping the powdery snow up into a white out later on!
The landscape north of Reykjavik from the tour bus – there was a strong wind that day, whipping the powdery snow up into a white out later on!
iceland murals 2016
Many ordinary house walls in Reykjavik are adorned with amazing murals – the streets are full of random sculptures as well.

I stayed at Reykjavik City Hostel which is a little out of town but well serviced by the 14 bus from across the road, which takes you all the way to the Old Harbour (Grandi stop the return journey is headed Listabraut).  It’s right next to one of the best heated pools in town, Laugardalslaug and there’s a lovely park behind it.

The Game of Thrones tour is run by Grayline.  All the tours, and the airport bus, collect you from right outside the hostel.  This was a relief as, outside the main town, the suburban roads are quite exposed for the walker.  It takes less than an hour to walk to the other side of the town centre from the hostel though.

Another good day’s winter wander – keep in mind you have only 6 hours of daylight before the cold dark sets in! – is Oskjuhlid wooded park.  The number 5 bus takes you to the artificial beach with hot tub at Nautholl, then you can wander past the site of the new Asatru heathen temple and head upwards through the dwarf birch and evergreens to the Perlan at the hill top.  It’s a challenge – the paths are often icy and you can’t see the landmark building for the trees – but the view over town is wonderful and the cafe quite reasonably priced.  An 18 bus goes from the main road to the Hlemmur – bus station – where you can catch the number 14 again.

London Transport

After my experience on the Road to Hell, I reconsidered my plan to drive to London that weekend. Clearly, more vehicles was not what the situation there needed.

I booked a ticket over the phone with Berry’s Coaches, a local firm. I boarded at Glastonbury Town Hall, read Private Eye and a newspaper, and was in Hammersmith before I had got round to the puzzles.

The new Underground trains were a little disconcerting. There aren’t any divisions between the carriages. You can see down the whole length of the train, how it twists and leans on the track ahead. With an Oyster card, a stranger in town has to take the fares on trust, but I’m always pleasantly surprised by its remaining balance. The entire return trip from Somerset cost me under £30.

Cheaper than the diesel for my somewhat rural camper van. No worries about overheating in traffic jams, finding somewhere to park or straying into the Low Emission Zone! I have to admit that the air quality in central London is greatly improved due to this policy, which excludes elderly diesel vans, even if it puts me to some inconvenience.

News is easy to come by here. If you’re not hooked into the direct feed of your smartphone, there are free newspapers everywhere.

I read about the London living wage campaign, to which many firms have already signed up. If workers could afford to live within walking distance of their jobs, this would reduce the commuter traffic.

Labour threatened to change the name of the House of Lords to the ‘Senate’ and move it to Manchester. This too would make a major contribution to reducing congestion. The frantic dashing of lobbyists between Houses would be offset by the regular travelling of the support staff.

Finally, such a valid reason for the HS2 that one wonders which idea has precedence here. If there’s a joined up plan, why not share it with us stakeholders who will have to pay for it?

A community transport hub

Imagine not a simple bus shelter, but a small building in every village, at every key location in towns and cities. It’s furnished with cushioned chairs, magazines and a water dispenser. The place is kept clean and maintained by a rota of local people. The solar panels on the roof provide power for lighting – including the ‘Stop’ light outside so that the bus driver knows there are passengers to pick up.

Buses come every hour at most and there is thoughtful scheduling of connections. No matter how long or awkward your journey, you never have to wait more than an hour to catch your next link. Fares are cheap. A day pass costs scarcely more than a single journey. A conductor helps you on with your luggage, and can advise you about other services.

There are lockers in the building, operated by tokens or small coins, where you can leave your shopping and go for lunch. Or lock your bicycle to the racks outside and store your wet weather gear to catch the bus for the trip to work in town.

Shoppers are transported directly into the town centres. The independent shops do well, local produce sells and is encouraged, money stays within the community. Many new jobs are created.

There is a community notice board at the hub, with news of events, official meetings, items for sale or wanted. At busy times, a local business brings a small mobile stand for newspapers and refreshments. There is a roll-out awning on one side of the building to protect a weekly produce stand, or a sale in aid of some project.

The buses are partly run on electricity, and there is a charging point close to the hub, perhaps powered by the community windmill. The surplus is available to local disabled people to charge their small electric cars.

A network of bicycle tracks links these hubs. They often use different, traffic free routes with the occasional shelter along them in case of heavy rain. Footpaths sometimes follow these routes, sometimes diverge into wilder, more scenic areas.

Where does the land come from for these hub buildings?

Car parks.

© Elizabeth J Walker 2014