Sunday, 22 December 2019

We are sailing

It’s nearly two months since the short “taster cruise” that Mrs PBT’s and I undertook, and looking back I realise I didn’t actually write much about  life on board ship or, indeed, the ship itself. So as the pair of us are looking to undertake a longer voyage in 2020, I thought I’d put together a short piece about our all too short time afloat on the Cunard Queen Elizabeth.

As mentioned in a previous post, we voyaged with Eileen’s sister and her husband, after travelling down to Southampton with them. We stayed overnight at the Premier Inn Southampton West, but have to say it wasn’t the best Premier Inn by a long shot.

I don’t wish to sound like a disgruntled reviewer, posting on Trip Advisor, but the environmental control in the room didn’t work – we had to contact reception, who provided us with a couple of plug-in electric heaters. This wasn’t a huge deal, in itself, but when I returned from reception Mrs PBT’s informed me there was no plug for the bathroom sink, and the bathroom itself wasn't as clean as it might have been.

I’ll be kind about the place, as the staff did their best, but the hotel had a very tired look about it, and was definitely in need of some tlc. A Hungry Horse outlet, called the Vine Inn was attached to the hotel but, arriving as we did, on 31st October, the restaurant was packed out with hordes of hyped up and over-excited kids, crawling  and jumping all over the bench seating, and generally running amok in their best Halloween costumes.

The following morning, my brother-in-law drove us over to a nearby Morrison’s where we obtained a reasonably-priced breakfast, before  heading off to the pre-booked parking-compound, where we would be leaving the car for the duration of the voyage.

The in-laws had chosen Penguin Cruise Parking, who are on the opposite bank of the River Test from the Cruise Terminal. We could see the superstructure of the vessel, that was to be our home for the next two days, towering above the cranes and other port-related structures, which lined the western side of the river. After parking the car and handing over the keys, we were chauffeured over to our departure point, by min-bus.

Once deported at the Cruise Terminal, check-in was a far easier, and less rushed process than when flying. Several weeks before departure, we’d been sent pre-printed, bar-coated labels, which we’d attached to the handles of our suitcases. We were able to just hand over our cases at check-in, knowing that the next time we saw them they’d be waiting for us outside our cabin.

 We then had the border-control section, which was the only time we were required to show our passports. After this we were each issued with a credit-card sized, pass-cum-identity card. The card acts as you room key, allows you to go ashore – and return to the boat. It also enables you to make purchases onboard ship, as whilst all meals and snacks are free, alcoholic drinks and certain luxury purchases are not.

So if you fancy a bottle of wine with your meal, or a couple of beers afterward, you need to flash your card. Another point to note, US Dollars are the de-facto currency on board ship, and everything is priced accordingly. Whilst this might seem strange for a prestige British cruise line, given the trans-Atlantic or Caribbean itinerary of many Cunard cruises, it is perhaps no surprise. The other drawback of pandering to the US market, was that most of the plug sockets in our room were two-pin, American ones. We will take adapters next time!

The other benefit to the electronic key cards was there was no need to show a passport when leaving the ship; either in the cruise destination port of Zeebrugge or upon return to the UK., as the card contained all relevant passport details.

Once aboard for the first time, Mrs PBT’s and I were like a couple of excited kids. After we’d located our cabin, and dumped the hand luggage we were carrying, we set off to explore the ship, from, top to bottom and bow to stern. With a 4.30pm departure, we went up on one of the outer deck, to watch as the boat pushed away from the quayside, turned herself around and began slowly sailing down Southampton Water towards the Solent.

Alongside the in-laws, we attended the compulsory life-boat drill at our designated muster station. After that, it was time to dress for dinner and enjoy some fine dining. We’d been assigned the early sitting in the restaurant, but with hindsight, the second sitting would have been more appropriate.
Apart from splashing out on a bottle of red wine at dinner (they re-corked and saved what was left for the following evening), plus a pint of keg London Pride which my dear wife bought for me, I didn’t drink that much onboard. With tea, coffee and water freely available, there was plenty to keep me hydrated.

And now some general facts and figures about the Queen Elizabeth, for all you ship anoraks out there; surely some must exist? The liner is a Vista class cruise ship operated by the Cunard Line. The vessel was built by the Italian company Fincantieri Marghera, who are Europe’s largest shipbuilders, at their yard in Trieste.

Vista Class ships are designed so that eighty-five percent of the staterooms have ocean views and sixty-seven percent have verandas; the extensive use of glass in the superstructure is also reflected in the class name. At 92,000 GT, the Queen Elizabeth is slightly larger than her sister ship, Queen Victoria, and is able to carry up to 2,092 passengers.

Although having an almost identical interior arrangement to Queen Victoria, the décor, with its many art deco  touches is very different, and evokes the era of the 1930s, in which Cunard's first Queen Elizabeth was launched. The name of the new ship was announced on 10th October 2007, and the ship set sail on her maiden voyage on 11th October 2010.  

Right, that’s enough geeky stuff and enough about cruising for the time
being. It was a pleasure to have sailed on the Queen Elizabeth at the beginning of last month, and I look forward to undertaking a longer voyage, possibly as early as next spring.

Thursday, 19 December 2019

Right to roam?

Just a short post and a bit of a rant really, but from what I’ve seen it appears I am not the only person who’s annoyed by what’s happened, and not the only one either to take the culprits to task.

I’m not talking about the alarming prospect of five years of  “Bumbling Boris,” Britain’s own tousle-headed version of Donald Trump. Instead I’m talking about something far more important, and that is the obstruction of a well-used and highly convenient footpath, close to where I work.

The path I’m referring to runs from just opposite St Luke’s Church, on the edge of Chiddingstone Causeway, to the tiny hamlet of Charcott. It is a tarmac footpath which leads across the old Penshurst airfield; a grass landing strip which saw active service during World War II, before closing shortly afterwards.

It is a well-trodden and familiar route which forms part of my regular lunchtime walk; or at least it did until a couple of weeks ago. Now, the path, whilst still open, has been given over to a herd of sheep, and although towns folk might consider these animals cuddly and lovable, they make one hell of a mess!

Sheep have pretty much always been a feature of the first field, on the right hand side of the path, and there is nothing finer than seeing the new born lambs, skipping about, each spring, without a care in the world.

So far, so good, but the other two fields, an equal sized one also on the right, and a massive one, which is the size of the other two fields combined, on the left, have always contained arable crops. These range from barley to oil seed rape, maize and turnips.

It is the latter crop that has attracted all the controversy, as turnips have been planted in the both large and small fields, but not as a food source for humans, but for our woolly-coated friends instead.

To begin with, the sheep were confined to the larger of the two turnip fields, hemmed in  by a low, electric fence. The plan, so far as there appeared to be one, was to let then eat the foliage of the turnip tops, before then uprooting the turnips themselves by a bit of nifty harrow work.

Again, this was not a problem until earlier last week, part of the electric fence was removed, allowing the sheep to roam freely between the large field on the left, and the smaller secondary one on the far left. To prevent the sheep from escaping via the public footpath, temporary gates were fitted at either end of the path, with strict instructions to the public, to keep these gates closed at all times.

Now I don’t have a problem with sheep, and will happily walk through a flock of them without fear or hindrance. What I do have a problem with is the mud they have trodden all over the normally clean tarmac footpath, along with the far more unpleasant matter that comes out of their rear ends!

This, combined with the heavy rain we have experienced in recent days, has made the path virtually impassable – certainly to any one wearing normal shoes of the type acceptable in an office environment.

Along with other colleagues of mine, who also enjoy a lunchtime stroll, I have given up on this path until the livestock is removed and the whole thing tidied up. It seems we are not alone in our annoyance, as local residents are not happy either. People who live in Charcott rely on this footpath to access the nearby Penshurst station, as well as local buses and  shop and Post Office in Chiddingstone Causeway.

One local has been so incensed by the farmer’s thoughtless action that they saw fit to affix their own laminated sign to the gate. As you can see from the photo, one angry Charcott resident has, quite rightly, castigated the thoughtless farmer/land-owner, but shaming his/her actions. The section where the farmer is brought to task over making the footpath unusable for elderly residents is very apt, as it the line stating that there has never been a gate on the footpath.

I was particularly impressed by this anonymous, public-spirited individual, and after reading they had reported the matter to Kent County Council, I decided to follow suit. KCC have a section on their website, where members of the public can report problems on rights of way, so as soon as I arrived at work this morning, I’d registered an account and reported the problem caused by the sheep.

Once you’ve registered and logged in, you have access to an interactive map, where you can highlight the path in question (every footpath in the county has its own unique code, which makes things much easier).

I was really impressed to have received a response by mid-afternoon, and a positive one at that. I was informed that their Public Rights of Way Department have inspected the problem and are working with the land owner/manager responsible to resolve the problem. They went on to say that the gates and cable should be removed within 24 hours, and the path cleaned and fencing put back along the sides of the path to keep the sheep off the path.

Now that’s what I call a result, and whilst I suspect they acted following the initial complainant’s report, mine must have helped to spur them into action. I shall wait and see whether the farmer is as good as his word. It’s good to know too, that the local authority take these matters seriously, so that all Kent residents, as well as visitors, can enjoy unfettered access along the county’s footpaths.

 As well as being well-used by inhabitants of both Chiddingstone Causeway and Charcott, several of my work colleagues also use the path at lunchtime. Like me they will be pleased to the livestock properly fenced in, and the path cleaned up.

Sunday, 15 December 2019

Double booked before Christmas

Well with just six and a half working days to go before the long Christmas break, it’s time to relax and chill out a little. I mentioned it somewhere – on the Beer & Pubs Forum, now I think about it, that the past fortnight had been pretty intense on the work front, with two back-to-back audits to contend with.

We’d been expecting one of these audits, and in fact actually welcomed it when a date was proposed. This was despite the event clashing with our works' Christmas buffet. I won’t go into too much detail, but a little background information might help to emphasise the importance of this audit.

My company manufactures dental materials. These are classed as Medical Devices, primarily because fillings, used to repair a partially decayed tooth, tend to remain in the body for a substantial amount of time. The same applies to dental cements, used to secure crowns and bridges in place.

All our products carry a CE Mark, which enables them to be exported and sold all over the world. To obtain this accreditation we have to be assessed by a “notified body”, who are in effect organisations with the wherewithal to inspect and verify that companies like ours, conform to internationally recognised standards. In our case, that standard is ISO 13485, which covers Medical Devices.

Back in February, our NB gave just four weeks notice that they were withdrawing support for Medical Devices; a move which left dozens of companies, like us, without cover. Fortunately the UK Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency (MHRA), which is the government agency responsible for regulating all medicines and medical devices, stepped in and threw us a lifeline, by endorsing our continued CE accreditation.

This was only a temporary measure, and the onus was on us, and other affected companies, to secure accreditation with another recognised notified body. We sourced and approached a suitable replacement, but after a promising start, earlier in the year, things went very quiet. You can imagine then our relief when we received notice on the Monday, that our new NB proposed carrying out our re-certification audit on the Thursday and Friday of the same week.

As alluded to earlier, we jumped at this offer, despite it clashing with our Friday afternoon Christmas bun-feast. Preparations for what we knew would be an intensive process, were well underway when who should turn up, un-announced on the Wednesday, but two auditors, from a different NB, who’d come to conduct an audit on behalf of one of our European customers.

We had no choice but to let them in to conduct their investigation, even though our QA and regulatory resource were already heavily involved preparing for our all important “re-certification audit” at the end of the week.

Fortunately we emerged relatively unscathed from both inspections but, as you can imagine, they were pretty intense and also rather tiring. Both audits involved two inspectors, who operated along the lines of “good cop, bad cop.” So with a constant stream of questions to answer, or various supporting paperwork requested, it really was a case of constantly thinking on ones feet, and making sure you kept all you wits about you.

Our staff Christmas “do” took place at the Greyhound in Charcott, just over ten minutes walk away from the factory. It was a buffet affair, and the pub put on a really good spread for us. The event was in full swing when a colleague and I arrived shortly after 2.30pm, having been “excused” by the auditors. Fortunately there was still plenty of food remaining, and the home-made sausage rolls, plus hot scotch eggs, with runny yolks, were particularly enjoyable.

There were four cask ales on tap from the likes of Ballard’s, Brumaison, Three Legs and Titsey. The latter are yet another new brewery that has popped up recently in this corner of Kent, the name coming from Titsey House, a posh country retreat that I’d never heard of, until last year.

I deliberately asked for two pints of Leveson Buck, which still didn’t prevent the barman’s  rather silly, schoolboy quip of, “I thought you were going to ask for two Titseys!” as he pulled up a couple of pints for us late arrivals. There were shades here of last month’s great Shifnall mix-up, which occurred over what constitutes a pint of bitter

Neither of us were impressed with the Leveson Buck, so we moved onto the Brumaison BB. It was perfectly drinkable and in good condition, but somehow it too didn’t hit the spot. I don’t think I tried the Ballard’s, although I perhaps should have done, given the brewery’s longevity. Founded  in 1980, Ballard’s beers are now brewed at the Greyhound Brewery, in West Chiltington, Sussex, following the retirement of the company's original founders.

The 4.5% Oatmeal Stout, from the Three Legs Brewing Co, was the best of the cask beers I tried that afternoon, although perhaps a little heavy for a lengthy session.  Back in February, Retired Martin and I called in at the brewery tap, which is situated on the edge of the village of Broad Oak, to the west of Rye. This was the first time since our visit that I’ve seen Three Legs beers on sale, anywhere.

Later in the evening, I moved onto Hofmeister, clean, refreshing and with just the right balance of malt and hops, this Bavarian-brewed Helles, was the most enjoyable beer of the session, taken as a whole.

This year was the first time our Christmas party has not involved a sit-down meal. There was a feeling that the less formal approach of a help-yourself buffet worked well, as it allowed people to mingle and socialise. As in previous years, the company paid for the food and ran a tab behind the bar. There was though, the strict proviso of no shots!

I left just before 8pm, walking back across the former Penshurst airfield, to the station, and the train home to Tonbridge. Despite the late start, it was an enjoyable Christmas “do,” and it was good for us to be supporting a local, family-owned enterprise.

Friday, 13 December 2019

Too early for cautious optimism?

Buried amongst all the pre-General Election hysteria, was a story that was first broke by the Morning Advertiser, before featuring briefly on BBC News. Newly released figures from the Office of National Statistics (ONS), show that for the year which  ended in March 2019 the UK’s pub stock increased by 320.

This is the first net increase since 2010, and follows a decade in which the number of pubs in the UK declined by an average of 732 each year. Although small, the rise marks a turnaround following years of decline, and demonstrates that despite rising levels of excise duty, changes to business rates and a new generation of young people who don’t drink much, the pub industry is fighting back.

Unsurprisingly, large pub groups,  such as Wetherspoon's, are responsible for much of the growth, suggesting that larger and more profitable pubs may be more resilient to the aforementioned forces. If proof were needed, Tim Martin, founder and boss of the Wetherspoon chain, recently announced plans to spend £200m on expansion, an investment he said would create 10,000 jobs

With more investment in larger premises and more potential to increase turnover and hence drive revenue, larger pubs, such as Wetherspoon’s, are more resilient than their smaller brethren. Indeed, it is a sad fact, that once shut, smaller pubs have a tendency to remain closed.

Industry observers have also pointed out that the change may be down to pubs realising they can no longer rely on the “same old tired formula” that has seen them through previous decades. Instead they have had to improve their food menus, spruce themselves up and offer events such as live music, or even accommodation.

Communities have also been exercising powers to save their local from redevelopment, in the form of ACV’s, whilst other factors, such as relief on business rates, has also helped some pubs.

CAMRA chairman Nik Antona, said that whilst the Campaign welcomed this slight increase in the number of open pubs nationally, pubs unfortunately continue to close, particularly in small or rural communities. This meant the loss of the social, cultural and economic benefits that come with a well run local. He added, “To ensure pubs survive and thrive, they need a fair tax system and stability going forward.”

While the ONS figures showed an increase, industry trade body the British Beer and Pub Association (BBPA) warned that its own statistics, which capture a higher number of pubs, showed a turning point was yet to be reached.

A spokesman said, “We would cautiously welcome any good news for pubs, however our own data suggests a higher base of pubs, and has shown higher closure rates for the last five years. In the New Year we will be able to report 2019 pub numbers versus 2018.”

According to a regional breakdown of the figures, the increase shown in the ONS statistics was driven almost entirely by a rise in the number of pubs in England, which recorded an increase of 345. Wales ended the year with 25 fewer pubs, Scotland declined by five whilst Northern Ireland increased by the same amount.

Wednesday, 11 December 2019

Finding the right Vocation

Over the past few months I’ve become a big fan of Vocation Brewing and their range of bold, punchy and hop-led beers. Based in the West Yorkshire town of Hebden Bridge, Vocation brew an impressive range of beers, which includes a number of different pale ales and IPA’s.

With names such as Heart & Soul, Love & Hate, Pride & Joy, plus Life & Death, their 330ml cans have been promoted quite heavily in local supermarkets, including Lidl and more recently at Tesco For the past month or so, 4-can packs of both Pride & Joy, plus Life & Death, normally priced at £6 each, have been available at two packs for £9, an amazing saving of £3 for every two packs purchased.

At this price the 6.5% abv, Life & Death is incredible value, as well as being a very fine beer indeed. This American-style IPA doesn’t take many prisoners, although despite its high alcoholic strength, it slips down rather too easily. Pale in colour, and packed full of juicy malt flavours, off-set by aromas and flavours of tropical fruits, the brewery claim three kilos of hops and forty kilos of malt are used in the brewing of each barrel.

I’ve purchased several packs of this beer over the past few weeks, along with some 4-can packs of Pride & Joy. At 5.3% abv, this pale ale is more of a session beer. Pale golden in colour, crisp and hoppy, with plenty of fruity hop flavours set against a strong malt background, this is another extremely quaffable beer. Both beers are excellent, so much so that it’s difficult deciding which one to go for.

It’s worth bearing in mind that even in cans, these beers are un-pasteurised and unfiltered, so may contain some sediment. I’m not sure if this meets CAMRA’s increasingly hazy definition of “Real Ale”, if you’ll pardon the pun, but when beers are this good, who really cares?

As well as the pale beers, Vocation brew a couple of stouts (Naughty & Nice + Chocolate Factory – Golden Ticket), several pilsners (Yakima, Pure Pilsner + Dirty Pilsner), the obligatory Saison plus Sour, along with numerous “one-off” beers and collaboration brews.

The company has made quite a name for itself, in this part of the country, so much so that there is talk amongst the Beer Socials WhatsApp group I belong to, about making a visit to West Yorkshire, in order to sample Vocation beers on their home turf.

The brewery operate two bars; one in the form of a taproom at their  Hebden Bridge home, the other a bar at Assembly Underground. The latter is a subterranean food and drink venue in the heart of Leeds. Vocation’s outlet has fifty taps, offering the full range of the company’s beers, together with what the brewery claim are the best beers they can source from the UK and abroad.

Whilst the Leeds venue sounds impressive, it also sounds somewhat overwhelming. Personally speaking I would prefer the rather more tranquil surrounding of  Hebden Bridge; a town I visited a couple of times during my time as a student in Manchester.

Since those days, the town has become a centre for artists, writers, photographers, musicians, alternative practitioners, teachers, plus all things Green and New Age. More recently it has attracted wealthier commuters, because of its proximity to Leeds.

Whatever type of resident Hebden Bridge attracts, it sounds the ideal for a spot of ale sampling, combined with a little light hill walking. 

Sunday, 8 December 2019

Letting the train take the strain

I have to say that much as I enjoy driving, trains remain  my favourite form of transport, particularly over medium distances and especially when I am planning to have a few beers at the end of my journey. The advent of Eurostar has also made international train travel much easier, but that’s a topic for another time.

Travelling by train to large cities saves all the hassle of finding a place to park, or the stress of navigating ones way through busy and often congested city streets. In a nutshell, the whole experience is far less stressful than tearing up and down the motorway.

Ever since childhood I have always enjoyed train travel. I’m not quite sure what the attraction was in the beginning, but it was probably the ability to cover relatively long distances, in much shorter times than was possible by road.

Anyone who finds this concept strange, should be aware that when I was growing up,  back in the late 1950’s – early 1960’s, Britain’s motorway network was still in its infancy, and fast, dual-carriageway  roads were few and far between.

Car ownership was limited as well.
It might seem incredulous, but I had reached around 9 or 10 years old before my father acquired his first car, and even then it was a converted Austin A35 van. Prior to that the family was transported locally by motorbike and sidecar, with my mother riding pillion behind my father, and my sister and I squeezed into a rickety sidecar.

Longer journeys, such as trips up to London, to visit grandparents or other relatives, were invariably made by train, and it must have been from around this time that my love affair with rail travel first came about.

I was three years old when my parents moved the family from London, to Kent. Property prices were obviously much cheaper out in the sticks, and my parents had been able to purchase a three-bedroom, new-build in Willesborough; once a village in its own right, but by the late 1950’s,  it had become just a suburb of Ashford.

Ashford was, and still is, an important rail junction, with good connections to London, but when my family and I first arrived there, steam-hauled trains were still the order of the day. Although the pre-
nationalisation Southern Railway had embarked on an ambitious programme of electrification, World War II had put this on hold, and it was some time before work to electrify the more outlying lines could be completed.

As a result of  this, those early trips to London and back, would have been undertaken on a train hauled by a steam locomotive. Subsequent opportunities for train travel arose towards the end of my schooldays, when my friends and I would take the train to Canterbury, for the odd bit of shopping and the chance to hang out.

By this time the family had move to a small village, called Brook, situated to the north east of Ashford. We would cycle to nearby Wye, where we could leave our bikes at the station, before taking the train. A few years later, when I was in the Sixth form, a group of us would travel from Ashford to Folkstone by train, in order to watch various groups perform at the Leas Cliffe Hall. There we saw the likes of Fleetwood Mac (pre-Buckingham/ Nicks), Caravan, Groundhogs, the underrated, but very talented JSD Band and Uriah Heep, to name a few.

Fast forward to my student days, where a friend and I spent a month travelling around Europe by train, taking advantage of the Inter-Rail ticket. A few years ago I posted a couple of articles, on the blog, about my experiences on this marathon train journey which you might have thought would have put me off train travel for life, but it didn’t. 

Instead, a decade or so later, the previous Mrs Bailey and I undertook another long train journey, travelling initially to San Sebastian, on Spain’s northern Atlantic coast, before criss-crossing the Iberian peninsula to Alicante. This was pre-Eurostar, so the trip involved ferry crossings and overnight stays in Paris and Bordeaux. Both undertakings proved an excellent way to experience and appreciate the countries and the cultures we travelled through, and I would not have missed them for the world.

The other Friday’s meet up in Shifnal, with members of the Beer & Pubs Group Forum, allowed me to re-live part of a train journey I once made on a regular basis. This harps back to my days as a student at Salford University, where I got to know the train journey from London to Manchester like the back of my hand.

Making the journey by train was something of a luxury for a hard-up student, as it was considerably more expensive than the alternative coach option. Whilst the latter was less than half the price of the rail journey, it took twice as long, the seats were cramped and it was at times, something of a “white knuckle ride.”

What I mean here is that like cars, but unlike lorries, coaches are allowed in the outside “fast” lane of a motorway, and with tight schedules to keep up, it was not uncommon for drivers to tail-gate slightly slower vehicles in front of the coach, in a bid to force them to pull over into a slower lane.  You would be just dozing off, when all of a sudden there would be a squeal of brakes and you would be jolted forward, as the driver came up behind a vehicle who wouldn’t play ball. This, coupled with having been a passenger involved in two separate coach crashes, is why I am not a fan of this means of long distance travel.

To return to the story, arriving at Euston station, ready to board my train to Birmingham, was like stepping back in time, apart from the station itself, which looked rather tired compared to the bright, modern structure I remember from the mid-1970’s. I understand the station is due to be re-modelled in order to accommodate HS2, although given the current mess that UK politics is in at present, the future of the project remains uncertain.

The Virgin Pendelino train I boarded, was painted in a dull shade of grey, instead of its usual red livery. The company have lost their franchise for the West Coast Mainline, and are due to hand over to a new operator on 8th December. (See below).

When I was a regular traveller on this line, the rolling stock, rail lines, signalling and stations were all part of the unified, nationally-owned and nationally accountable British Rail. This was a far more sensible modus operandi than the fragmented system we have today, although of course the entire network suffered from chronic under-investment.

My journey to Birmingham the other Friday, involved turning off the West Coast Mainline, just after Rugby, whereas those trips back in the 1970’s continued on to Manchester by a route which avoids the Birmingham conurbation. The journey still brought back pleasant memories as the train sped steadily north, passing through familiar places and familiar landmarks.

Now that I’ve passed the magic age of 60, I’m entitled to a “Senior Railcard”, sometimes referred to as as “Old Git’s Railcard.” With a third off the price, even off discounted tickets – providing one travels outside of peak hours, in the south east, makes even long-distance rail travel more affordable and opens up whole areas of the country to the eager explorer. Even with moderate usage, the cost of the  £30 fee is soon re-couped,  and then the savings really start to mount.

A sad note to finish on because as mentioned above, tonight marks the end of the line for Virgin Trains, after more than 22 years of operating services on Britain’s West Coast Main Line.  The firm, which is owned by Sir Richard Branson’s Virgin Group and Stagecoach, began serving what is sometimes known as the "backbone of Britain's railways" in 1997. The company was stripped of its franchise in a row with the Department for Transport (DfT) over pension liabilities. The companies are suing the DfT over its decision.

Virgin ran its first service in March  1997, with a pledge to update the 1960s rolling stock it inherited from British Rail.  In 2001 it delivered the Voyager, capable of 125mph, and a year later, it brought in Pendolino trains, equipped with tilting rolling stock, which enabled curves to be taken at higher speeds.

More than 500 million journeys have been made with Virgin during its tenure on Britain’s railways. Now that era is coming to an end, and shortly before midnight tonight (Saturday), the last ever Virgin Trains service will roll into Wolverhampton station. The trains will stay the same, the staff too will remain, but the iconic brand is set to disappear from our railways for good.

The new operator is Avanti West Coast, a joint partnership between the Italian state railway company TrenItalia and First Group. Avanti says passengers can expect simpler fares, new trains and more frequent services on the West Coast Main Line. (Sounds too good to be true?)