Sunday, 13 October 2019

Gressenhall, Norfolk by train and bus

Beer and travel are the main themes of this blog, but this particular post is solely about the latter. Give its title it could have been written for bus and train anoraks  public transport enthusiasts, and as I count myself amongst the latter category, perhaps I should not be so disparaging to the former.

Those who have followed  this blog over the years will know I am a regular visitor to Norfolk. This came about following the decision of my parents to retire to the county, about a quarter of a century ago. So there were regular visits to see them, and cheap holidays as well, especially when our son was small, but during the course of the last half dozen or so years, the trips became more and more fraught.

This was due to the deteriorating health of both parents; mum’s problem was physical, whilst dad’s was/is mental – specifically advancing Alzheimer’s. After mum’s passing in 2015, my sisters and I took the difficult decision to move dad into a care home, and after inspecting several without being overly impressed, we found him a place in a small and pleasant home, with high standards of care. The home is in the small village of Gressenhall, just a few miles to the north of Dereham and not too many miles from Swanton Morley; the village where mum and dad originally retired to.

I’ve found over the years, and certainly since my parent’s health started to decline, that a visit to Norfolk was best combined with an overnight stay. It is of course, quite possible to drive there and back in a day, from my home in west Kent, but even on a good run I’ve never managed the journey in less than two and three quarter hours, and that’s with the recent improvements to the A11.

So whilst it is dual carriageway all the way from Tonbridge, it's a tiring drive, which seems to get worse as the volume of traffic on our roads, continues to increase. I also find the journey repetitive and boring, as over the years I know exactly what lane I need to be in, the location of all the roundabouts and also which diversions to take, should the road get too busy or become blocked.

Public transport is the other option, and with fast and frequent trains between London and Norwich, completing the journey in under two hours, the train is increasingly the way to go. With cheap, “Saver” tickets, book-able in advance, the train is also competitive when you factor in the cost of fuel, plus wear and tear on the car. Getting to London from Tonbridge is also easy, with around three trains an hour, which just leaves the section at the other end i.e. getting from Norwich to Gressenhall.

Now this is where the real, bus geek stuff comes in, as Konect bus operate an express service from Norwich to Dereham, with buses every 20 minutes in both directions. I used this service last year, but it still left me the short journey from Dereham to Gressenhall. There is a busy B road which head north out of Dereham, but being narrow in places, and with fast moving traffic, they are not the sort of roads I wish to be walking on; even though the distance is only three miles.

 I solved the problem last year, by pre-booking a taxi from Dereham, but this plan nearly came unstuck after my train was delayed for three quarters of an hour at Ipswich. So determined not to be faced with a similar problem I conducted a little more research and found that Konect bus also operate a convenient service between Dereham and Gressenhall.

Last Friday I put this combination train and bus route to the test, and set off to visit dad in his Gressenhall care home. I’d timed the various stages of my journey to include sufficient slack, so that if there were delays on the trains, they would not impact on the overall itinerary. The critical part was the buses to and from Gressenhall, as there was only one viable outward service coupled with a final return service at 14.21.

I therefore opted for a train which would get me to Norwich shortly before 10.30, plus one which would depart for London at 17.30. So, sounding even more like an anorak, I bought two "Advanced Singles" – one in either direction, which would fit in with the above times. What I hadn’t realised is that not only do these tickets specify which Inter-City services to take between London and Norwich; a situation which is exactly what one would expect, they also specified the times of trains to and from London Bridge.

This was a new one on me, and unfortunately it did add unwanted and unnecessary inflexibility to my journey. What was worse was no-one bothered to check my ticket on either of those local, South Eastern trains. The other strange thing was my outward ticket to Norwich was designated from Stratford, rather than Liverpool Street.

Stratford wasn’t difficult to reach from London Bridge - 7 stops on the Jubilee Line, but the station itself took a bit of getting use to. I entered the wrong platform to begin with; why have a 10a when your platform numbers run up to 12? But with sufficient time to correct my mistake I boarded the 08.38 Greater Anglia service to Norwich, and settled down to enjoy the journey.

There were no disruptions on this occasion, and I passed the journey either reading or listening to some downloaded music on my phone. I also enjoyed the scenery, especially the section where the line crosses the River Stour, close to Manningtree and just before the river widens to become an estuary. Looking out the window, it was possible to see the towering cranes of Harwich Port, in the distance, some twelve miles away.

My train was a few minutes early getting into Norwich, which allowed me to catch the 10.37 No. 8 Konect bus to Dereham - £5.60 return. In Dereham, I had time for a ham and egg salad roll, plus a flat white in Gregg’s, before finding the correct bus stop for the 12.30 No. 21 Konect service to Fakenham - £5.40 return, also calling at Gressenhall. This was a small single- deck bus; don’t ask me what type as I am not a bus anorak, even though I am starting to sound like one!

I had around an hour and a quarter to spend at the care home, with dad. He was finishing off his dinner when I arrived, and whilst he wasn’t looking too bad, he wasn’t very communicative, hardly opening his eyes. There was no real acknowledgement of my presence, and if truth be told I don’t think he knew who I was.  

Alzheimer’s is a cruel and debilitating condition, which not only robs sufferers of their memories, but also leaves them increasingly isolated form the outside world. It’s heart-breaking to think back at how intelligent and witty dad was in his prime, but as I’ve mentioned before he is being well cared for and doesn’t appear to be in any stress.

The 14.21 return bus to Dereham was running a little late, which gave me time to gaze forlornly at Gressenhall’s sole pub; the now sadly closed Swan. It was a pub I’d wanted to take dad to, before his illness became too crippling, but in all honesty by the time he entered the care home, he wouldn’t really have been up to it.

The No. 21 bus dropped me in Dereham town centre, allowing me to hop smartly cross the road and onto the 14.38 express service back to Norwich. I alighted at the city’s bus station, as I wanted to take a look around and also visit a pub or two.

I will describe in a separate post, what I got up to in Norwich, but I had ample time to do what I wanted before catching the 17.30 Greater Anglia service back to London Liverpool Street. The train was a lot more crowded than it had been on the outward journey, but this wasn’t surprising for a Friday evening.

After waiting at London Bridge, for my timed connection back to Tonbridge, I was picked up at the station by son Matthew, who was waiting in his car. The entire journey ran like clockwork and cost a total of £43.45, probably not much more than the cost of diesel, and significantly less when combined with the price of a overnight stay.


retiredmartin said...

I enjoy these detailed posts Paul.

Of particular interest in the Norwich to Dereham Konect. My curry companion Charles lives in Dereham and I'm planning a beer trip to Yarmouth. That bus may help us, er, Konect.

Paul Bailey said...

The No. 8 Express Konect bus is definitely the way to go, Martin. It’s cheap as well at £5.60 return, and fast too. The lady driver we had last Friday, certainly put her foot down! I will definitely make us of the Konect services on future trips to see dad.

The last No.8 service back from Norwich to Dereham leaves around 10pm, so it might be useful for your curry companion.