‘Ey up. Not so much work this week, Gromit but eeh, what a Grand Day Out on Friday:-

Monday: Audi A1 Sport 1.4TFSI, Syston, Leicestershire to Newport Pagnell, Buckinghamshire; Bentley Continental GT V8S (2015), Newport Pagnell to Syston. Audi A1 Sport 1.4TFSI, Syston to Nottingham and back.

Thursday: Volkswagen Tiguan SE Nav 2.0TDI 4Motion DSG (auto), Kettering, Northamptonshire to Leicester.

Friday: Volkswagen Tiguan SE Nav 2.0TDI 4Motion DSG (auto), Leicester to St. Austell, Cornwall.

By gum, it were a long journey so I were up before crows, stumbling round in t’dark – almost put Wrong Trousers on, I did. Close Shave that was. Would have looked reet stupid in t’wife’s kecks. I went t’moon again, Gromit. In case yer’d forgotten lad, it’s just north of St. Austell in Cornwallshire. Have a gander on’t Google maps, t’stattylite view and yer’ll see it. All white it is, a reet desolate landscape. Actually, nay – it’s not really t’moon but it’s still made of cheese. Thems is Cornish Yarg quarries just like Wensleydale quarries back oop north. And those reet bright green pools thee can see on stattylite picture, thems is hot Manchester caviar springs … or mushy peas to thee, lad. It’s a good job I had decent car for that long trek, Gromit. Two hundred eighty mile on t’bumpy old motorbike and sidecar and me old eyeballs would’ve been rattling in their sockets. And….”

Wallace & Gromit
It’s the wrong transport, Gromit! Try a Volkswagen Tiguan
No, that’s enough. It’s very difficult writing in Wallace’s Wigan accent (oh, so that’s what it was supposed to be!). It was a Grand Day Out though and I breezed down to St. Austell in the Volkswagen Tiguan, leaving home at 4.30am and arriving at 10am. A couple of planned stops and no traffic jams – all quite effortless, due in no small part to the Tiguan. This was a four wheel drive version; notably thirstier then the two wheel drive examples I have driven but equally as refined on the motorway. In St. Austell, there was a quick car wash, customer handover, walk to the station (welcome exercise in the sunshine) and … pasty! Well I had to get at least one of my Cornish Five-A-Day, didn’t I?!  The first part of the train journey back to Leicester was interesting. Across tranquil, muddy creeks at low tide, alongside rivers and the sea. For a time, after we had passed through Teignmouth, it seemed as if the train was running along the beach, the sea was that close. This is the stretch of track that often features in the news in extreme weather and it was actually washed away during a storm in 2014. It added a bit of spice to my journey knowing that Storm Brian was approaching. But then again, how can a storm called Brian be anything to be feared??

But what about the Cornish Yarg quarries? Well, of course, it’s not cheese, it’s china clay (duh, cheese comes from the moon not earthbound quarries). The last few miles of the route to St. Austell took me down the A391 between the Cornish Yarg china clay pits which are eerily moon-like (although you don’t get a good view from the road).

China Clay Pit St Austell
A lunar china clay pit (on a grey day) near St. Austell, Cornwall
Europe was about ten thousand years behind China when it came to fine porcelain. But when Europe started catching up in the 18th and 19th centuries, it turned out that St. Austell had the biggest china clay deposits in the world. Boom time! The stuff was exported all around the world and to facilitate this, a chappy called Charles something or other built a harbour just down the road from St. Austell’s clay pits (by the sea actually, smart bloke). I’m guessing he didn’t do it all on his own although it did take ten years to finish (1791 to 1801). Rather modestly, he called his creation Charlestown (and why not, if he built it?). What’s more, there is a very strong likelihood that you have seen Charlestown even if you have never been to Cornwall. It has remained largely unchanged since the early 19th century and has been a popular location for film and TV over the years. Charlestown’s credits include The Eagle Has Landed, Mansfield Park, The Onedin Line, The Three Musketeers, the recent Tom Hardy drama, Taboo and, inevitably, …. Poldark.

Charlestown Poldark set
The BBC at work creating a set for Poldark in Charlestown
Charlestown is privately owned but you can still visit this wonderfully preserved bit of history. For just a modest charge (£5), you can walk in Michael Caine’s and Aidan Turner’s footsteps and enjoy all the olde worlde charm. A further charge gets you into the Shipwreck and Heritage Centre. It’s a very long time since I have been but it gets excellent reviews on TripAdvisor.

The china clay pits are still being worked today but far fewer people are employed there compared to their heyday. One of the disused pits has been put to good use though – as the dramatic location for the spectacular Eden Project. Definitely, absolutely worth a visit if you have never been to this global garden housed in “biomes”, encapsulating different climates and flora from around the world, including a tropical rain forest. Go for a walk in the rain forest canopy or fly over the biomes on the UK’s longest and fastest zip wire. We have been two or three times over the years. Had a great Thai green curry there on one occasion (but didn’t go on the zip wire which was probably a good thing).

Panoramic view of the geodesic dome structures of Eden Project
The amazing Eden Project and its biomes  Not to be outdone by Charlestown, the Eden Project had a role in the James Bond film, Die Another Day.



Another interesting and varied working week. I don’t know how I cope:-

Monday: Ford Transit Connect, Doncaster to Crewe; Bentley Continental GT Supersports, Syston, Leicestershire to Leicester

Tuesday: Bentley Continental GT Supersports, Leicester to Crewe, Cheshire and back

Wednesday: Volkswagen Tiguan SE Nav 2.0TDI (150hp), Nottingham to Mansfield, Nottinghamshire

Friday: Mercedes GLS 350d 4Matic AMG Line, Stafford to Hertford

So, I got to drive the same 700hp Supersports as a few weeks ago and for a good long run to Crewe and back. Talk about taking coals to Newcastle – two of us took a couple of Bentleys to the Bentley factory for some sort of customer driving event despite the fact there are hundreds of the things swilling around up there.

The Bentley factory, probably the most interesting thing in Crewe.

Between dropping the Bentleys off and picking them up again, we had seven hours to kill. What do you do in Crewe for seven hours?? From a quick peep in-depth research on the interweb, the answer is you don’t. There appeared to be nothing of interest whatsoever. When the local shopping centre, a kiddies play centre and Crewe Alexandra football stadium appear in the top ten things to do, you know it wouldn’t make for an interesting day out.  Crewe is famous as a railway town and there is a heritage railway museum …. but it closed a couple of days previously for the winter. Also, by coincidence, a group of us delivered some vans to Crewe the day before; from a drive through the town, it didn’t look inspiring. My extensive research suggested that the old market town of Nantwich would be a better bet, just a fifteen minute bus ride from the Bentley factory.

So, off we boldly went to seek out new sights and tea rooms in this old Cheshire town which dates back to Roman times, when local Roman garrisons used salt from Nantwich to sprinkle on their fish and chips (I’m guessing here but what else would they have used salt for??). And we weren’t disappointed. No Sistine Chapel, Taj Mahal or Hanging Gardens but a pleasant place to while away a few hours. In fact, it was a bit like Hereford which featured in my last post but on a smaller scale and without a famous drawing of the world. Like Hereford, the town is situated on a river (the Weaver) and it comprises mostly old, attractive buildings. The large church (which could have been a cathedral had it drunk a tad more milk when it was growing up) is also built in a pinkish stone just like Hereford Cathedral. A particular feature of Nantwich is the number of Elizabethan black and white, half-timbered buildings dotted around the town. There is also a very charming, mostly residential street called Welsh Row – the comparison with Hereford continues as Nantwich is not a million miles from the Welsh border. After a decent riverside walk, a turn around the town, church, small covered market, lunch and a visit to the small town museum (ho hum, it was free so might as well….), we jumped on the omnibus back to Crewe.

On the way back to Leicester in the Supersports, I was really adventurous and put it in “Sport”. I don’t know what came over me, must have been the Tabasco sauce in my porridge. Actually, I didn’t think that it would make that much difference but oh boy, was I wrong. The engine note changed immediately – louder and deeper, it held on to each gear for longer (and didn’t seem to want to bother with gears 7 and 8 even when settling at 70mph) and acceleration went from furious back shoving to vicious head snapping. The best bit was lifting off the throttle which prompted someone to play kettle drums very rapidly through some sort of fluttery filter, even when slowing down from the most modest of speeds. Tee hee.

So, on to Friday when I moved into a small black bungalow for the 130 mile trip from Stafford to Hertford. It was my first Mercedes GLS, a huge seven seat SUV.  Bigger than a Range Rover but not as refined or as quick and it’s thirstier compared to the similarly-engined three litre diesel Range Rover. Like the Rangie, it is soft riding and pitches and wallows along undulating country roads, possibly more so than its British competitor, but all is calm on the motorway. So, why would you buy a GLS? Well, it has more space including a reasonable amount of legroom in Row Z (you could even fit real people back there) and the amply equipped AMG Line three litre diesel costs about £5000 less than the cheapest Range Rover. If you are fortunate to have enough of the stuff, you pays your money and takes your choice (which may be an Audi Q7 if cost, space and refinement are priorities but that’s based on what I have read, not personal experience).

Well-equipped des res bungalow, accommodates seven comfortably. Or maybe it’s a Mercedes GLS.

By the way, if you read my Hereford post right to the end, The Pretenders were absolutely brilliant when we saw them on Wednesday night!



We had never been to the very old city of Hereford before; in fact a lot of the area west of Birmingham to the Welsh border is a mystery to us. All we really knew about Herefordshire is that it is famous for apples, cider and its own breed of cattle. So, it was time to put that right last weekend. En route, we stopped at Brockhampton Estate, a National Trust property in Herefordshire just off the very scenic A44 (nice drive). What a hidden treasure this is. Not the usual, grand stately home but a remote manorial farm house surrounded by a moat and hills. Built sometime between 1380 and 1420, this half-timbered house sports a wonky gate house which was basically a 15th century status symbol since electronic gates had not been invented. We were so lucky to visit on a quiet weekday and in almost sunny weather. It is such a truly magical, rustic place that it was surely built by pixies. For a short period of time, the pixies lived at Brockhampton, bog snorkelling in the moat each morning in search of the much-prized white bog truffle (slice, pan fry in butter, add a handful of chopped, wild grungewort for a traditional accompaniment to roast pop weasel on pixie feast days).  In the fields around Brockhampton, the pixies could be seen bareback badger racing (brock is an old English word for badger by the way) until a reckless wager with a human saw the estate pass to one John Dumbleton in settlement of a crushing gambling debt (actually, it may have been Mr Dumbleton who built Brockhampton). Pixies have lived underground ever since. Eventually, the estate passed into National Trust ownership in 1946 (when badger racing and bog snorkelling on the estate were promptly banned).
Brockhampton farm house complete with moat and gate house. Beautiful. Makes your quaint bone tingle.
On to Hereford; not in the Premier League of quaint historic cities like Bath and York but capable of some giant killing – as Ronnie Radford proved in the 1972 FA Cup third round replay against Newcastle United. Radford’s 30 yard wonder strike helped non-league Hereford United beat top-flight Newcastle and became one of the most famous and muddiest FA Cup goals ever. Today, Hereford’s giant-killing wonder strikes are the Mappa Mundi, the Chained Library, the 12th century cathedral and one of four originals of the 1217 Magna Carta still in existence (not the first version famously signed by the infamous King John in 1215 which was actually a bit of a failure). The picturesque River Wye adds to Hereford’s attractions. The city itself has a long and eventful history involving civil wars, fire, sieges, executions, bishops, flirtations with Welshness (during which inordinate amounts of cheese on toast were consumed) and a castle that has long since vanished, although part of the moat remains (no bog snorkelling though).
Hereford Cathedral viewed from a Victorian suspension (foot) bridge across the River Wye.
It costs an entirely reasonable £6 to see the Mappa Mundi, Chained Library and Magna Carta which are all housed in a modern building attached to and styled on the cathedral. The Mappa Mundi is a map representing the Christian world in or around the year 1300 when the map was produced by one Richard of Haldingham and Lafford while he was still at enfants school. No, I mustn’t joke. Yes, at first glance it appears childishly simplistic but actually if you rotated it through 90 degrees, pulled and stretched it somewhat, it’s quite a good representation of Europe, Asia and Africa (the known world in 1300 unless you were a native American or kangaroo). Being a religious map, it has Jerusalem at the centre and the east at the top. Considering the majority of people in that era probably travelled no further than their local corner shop, the map shows a remarkable level of knowledge. It measures 1.59m by 1.34m (the largest medieval map known to exist) and is drawn (or painted?) on vellum – calf’s skin to you, me and the poor baby cow. It’s a wonderfully “busy” picture, covered in hundreds of place names (most recognisable in today’s world) and little graphics like the Hanging Gardens of Babylon, the Sphinx in Egypt and the Labyrinth on Crete. We spent a good while studying the original and an English translation of the map … but we still couldn’t find Wally. You may remember the map making the headlines about thirty years ago when a man from Sotheby’s valued it at £7million. Part of Hereford Cathedral was falling down and the bishop or whoever considered selling the map to pay for the restoration. Happily, donations flooded in, the Cathedral was repaired, the map stayed in Hereford and everyone went home for tea as happy as can be.
Hereford Mappa Mundi
Where’s Wally? Hereford’s Mappa Mundi. Amazing.

After a long, interesting chat with the guide about the map and a brief peruse of the 1217 Magna Carta, it was into the Chained Library, so called because there are still dusty skeletons chained to the walls as a stark warning to users of the library. The penalty for overdue books and for not shushing when shushed at by the librarian was harsh in those days. No, hang on, that was just a nightmare I once had when I forgot to take a copy of The Railway Children back to our local library on time. In reality, the Chained Library contains rows of books chained to their early 17th century bookcases, clearly for security reasons (the need arising after Rufus Gable, a shady roofing contractor, stole several editions of What Tiler from the library in 1601). There are many ancient manuscripts and crusty old printed works, some dating back to the earliest days of printing – 1473 is the oldest printed book. Each weighty tome is tethered to a metal bar on the bookcase by a chain attached to the leading edge of its front cover.

The Chained Library. Books go in spine first because of the chain. The framed document hanging on the end of the bookcase provides a key for locating each book.

The cathedral itself is not in the major league in terms of size but it is still impressive. Last year, a new stained glass window and memorial to the UK’s most famous (but still secretive) elite military unit  – the Special Air Service – was unveiled. The SAS is based in Herefordshire and there is an SAS cemetery in another of Hereford’s churches.

Hereford Cathedral in a distinctive pinky stone. The building on the right is the modern annex housing the Mappa Mundi, Chained Library and Magna Carta. “Does Magna Carta mean nothing to you? Did she die in vain?” Tony Hancock in Hancock’s Half Hour (Twelve Angry Men).
The new SAS memorial in the cathedral. Above it is a striking new stained glass window, also part of the memorial.

After that dose of history and culture, we did something very unusual for us – we went on a guided tour of the city for more of the same. We normally like to explore places on our own but it was worthwhile tagging along with a guide. Hereford has loads of old buildings, churches and history and our guide had plenty of anecdotes to bring it all to life. I asked him where the statue of Ronnie Radford was and was a bit shocked to learn there isn’t one. Later in the afternoon, I was tempted by Hereford’s Cider Museum but we were quite exhausted by that time so gave it a miss. To make up for it, I had a bottle of Herefordshire cider when we got home (by coincidence, we happened to have a bottle of Henney’s Exhibition Cider ready and waiting in the fridge – excellent buy, £1.29 at Aldi!). Another coincidence we discovered over the weekend – with the exception of Chrissie Hynde, all of the original members of The Pretenders came from Hereford. We are going to see The Pretenders in Nottingham tonight. The Chained Library was the inspiration for their hit, Back on the Chain Gang. No it wasn’t.



After I had delivered the Audi A4 Avant to Oakham last week, I had a very pleasant, sunny stroll through this tranquil town situated in the county of Rutland. As I made my way to the train station I noticed that Oakham has sufficient quaint bits to make it interesting, including a castle with England’s most complete Norman great hall (yes, I looked that up afterwards). However, the walk did not take long because most things in Rutland, the UK’s smallest historic county, are, well … small. Including Oakham. Multum in parvo is Rutland’s motto. A lot in a little.

Oakham Buttercross
The Buttercross (market place) in pretty Oakham

However, it was not all tranquility in Oakham’s recent and bloody past. Rutland is a historic county but that long history was interrupted when it lost its county status in 1974 and was absorbed into neighbouring Leicestershire. The population of Rutland then had to kowtow to the tyrannical Leicestershire County Council (LCC). But the feisty Rutlanders were not going to take this lightly. The Rutland Independence Party (RIP for short) led by Nicholas Barage organised resistance while Rutland Weekend Television (anyone remember RWT??) broadcast subversive propaganda in an attempt to undermine the authority of the LCC’s despotic leader, Percy Soulless. The LCC instigated a clamp down. Thanks to the LCC’s notorious secret police, several Rutland freedom fighters disappeared in the dead of night. They were sent to a concentration camp known as Skegness (known by some as Leicester-by-the-Sea) and forced to read the Leicester Mercury (readily available in Skeggy) in an attempt to brainwash them. Their families were notified of their incarceration by means of saucy postcard. The suppression continued. Leicestershire, famous for Melton Mowbray pork pies, Stilton and Red Leicester cheeses, banned exports of these dietary staples to Rutland. In retaliation, the RIP threatened to cut-off water supplies from Rutland Water, England’s largest reservoir by surface area (like Nicholas Barage’s ego, not everything in Rutland is small. By the way, Rutland Water is a good place to hire bikes and cycle round). However, that plan backfired when someone pointed out that Rutland Water did not actually supply Leicestershire with its water.

Normanton Church Rutland Water
Rutland’s most famous landmark, Normanton Church on Rutland Water nearly became a watermark(?!). When Rutland Water was created in 1976, the church was thankfully spared.

Nevertheless, the hardy Rutlanders, surviving on black market Lincolnshire sausages and Cheddar cheese, would not give up. The RIP laid low but not idle in the rural idyll that is Rutland and would be forever Rutland, the beauty of its little villages and countryside comparable to those of the Cotswolds but without the hordes of tourists. The RIP planned and executed forays into Leicestershire causing chaos and confusion. Cling film was surreptitiously put over all the toilets in the LCC offices; all the potato peelers were stolen from the Walkers crisp factory and Percy Soulless’s wheelie bin was stolen not once but three times. Things came to a head when the LCC tracked down Nicholas Barage to Oakham Castle and laid siege. The siege lasted until tea time when Barage said he needed to go home to feed his cat and watch Coronation Street. Finally, common sense seemed to prevail when a meeting was held between the leaders of the RIP and LCC in Oakham’s bijou and very ancient Lord Nelson pub which dates back to the 1500s.

Great Hall Oakham Castle
The Great Hall of Oakham Castle, scene of the Great Siege in March 1997. The siege lasted until tea time.

However, the meeting started badly and went downhill from there. Things got heated, people’s parentage was brought into question and other insults were thrown. And, when everyone “stepped outside”, handbags and punches followed the insults. It was the bloodiest battle Oakham had ever seen – Barage suffered a cut lip and then threw a Bloody Mary over Percy Soulless’s Armani suit. That was the final straw. Soulless could stand no more and promised independence for Rutland on condition that Barage let go of his hair, paid the cleaning bill for his suit and returned his wheelie bin. Thus on 1st April 1997, Rutland became an independent county again. Peace reigned and Rutland celebrated. The “disappeared” were returned from Skegness by donkey, bearing sticks of rock, knotted hankies on their heads and burning copies of the Leicester Mercury. The Rutles sang songs in the streets (now do you remember Rutland Weekend Television?? Eric Idle? Neil Innes?). The Rutland Navy was disbanded and its battlecruiser, the Rutland Belle, was converted back to its original pleasure cruiser rôle by removal of its armament (3 x .22 air rifles). The Rutland Belle still plies its trade on Rutland Water today, so after your cycle ride, watersports or wildlife watching, you can enjoy a relaxing cruise on the reservoir then go and explore the delights of this charming little county in the East Midlands.

Rutland Belle
The Rutland Belle in today’s happier, more peaceful times. It never saw action in the War of Independence as its armament (3 x .22 air rifles) did not have the range to hit any part of Leicestershire.


P.S. I do apologise for the appalling drivel in the above post but it was enormous fun writing it. Hopefully, you can separate fact from fiction. If you can’t, please let me know which planet you live on and how I can get there; it is probably a fun place to be. In case there is any doubt, Rutland did cease to be a county in 1974. The story of how it really re-gained county status in 1997 is probably very boring.

P.P.S. Rutland Weekend Television was a TV sketch show with two series broadcast in 1975 and 1976. It was ex-Python Eric Idle’s first television project in the post-Monty Python era with music written by Neil Innes (ex-Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band). The show spawned the Rutles, originally a fictional then actual rock band parodying the Beatles.


An executive kind of week; not a van in sight (not that I would have minded):-

Monday: Audi A4 Avant Sport 2.0TDI (150hp), Leicester to Oakham, Rutland; Audi A4 Avant Quattro S-Line 2.0TDI auto (190hp), Nottingham to Melton Mowbray

Wednesday: Range Rover Velar R-Dynamic S D180 auto, Peterborough to Sheffield

Thursday: Range Rover Velar R-Dynamic SE D180 auto, Long Eaton, Derbyshire to Leeds

Friday: Range Rover Velar R-Dynamic S D180 auto, Peterborough to Windsor, Berkshire

The Audi A4 Avant is such a class act. Unpretentious, no tacky gimmickry, just quality and refinement. I’ve written about the larger A6 Avant before (over here!) and the A4 Avant does everything the A6 estate car does except that it will carry less flat pack furniture in the boot but probably more than enough for most. The drive across country to Oakham in the 150hp version with proper gearbox (manual) was as pleasant as my subsequent walk through the little Rutland town as I made my way to the station. The A4 wouldn’t set many pulses racing but it is surefooted and would be a satisfying car to own. I will add a caveat about tacky gimmickry – the automatic A4 Avant that I drove later the same day had a very ungainly gear selector, a big ugly block. Shame.

A Royal presence on the platform of Windsor & Eton Central Railway Station

And three more Velars this week! All three had the same 180hp diesel engine as the one I wrote about a couple of weeks ago. So nothing different in that regard but one was an SE rather than an S – so even more technology! I delivered one of the Velars to Windsor, famous, of course, for Windsor Castle, the largest inhabited castle in the world and one of the Queen’s official residences (and home to the Queen’s stash of chicken tikka). And guess what? I saw the Queen on the platform of the charming little Windsor and Eton Central Station! Only the Queen I saw was a steam engine, a full-size replica of the engine that used to pull Queen Victoria’s Royal train. The station itself has a lovely atmosphere as most of the old station building is now given over to eateries and upmarket shops; the working platform is tucked away almost out of sight. By the way, if you find yourself in a train station in Windsor and can’t see any shops, then you are probably in Windsor and Eton Riverside station (or you need to go to SpecSavers).

If you are in Windsor, a visit to the castle is a must. It is spectacular on the outside and incredibly lavish inside; it’s hard to believe that it was extensively damaged by fire in 1992. The restoration work is amazing. When I last visited a couple of years ago, I was struck by the fact that the castle is right on the flight path for nearby Heathrow Airport. I remember standing in one room with very large windows looking out over the gardens. Planes descending into Heathrow seemed to be coming straight at the castle as if they were going to land on the castle lawn. So, if you do visit the castle remember to hold on to your hat and duck if you hear a plane. I wonder if the Queen wears earplugs at night when she’s in residence?

Windsor is not just about the castle. It is an interesting old town and, if it’s a nice day, don’t forget to wander down and have a stroll along the banks of the River Thames. In the riverside Alexandra Gardens, there is a memorial to Sir Sydney Camm, designer of the Hawker Hurricane and many other Hawker aircraft (including the Hunter). The memorial to Sir Sydney, who hailed from Windsor, takes the form of a replica Hurricane. The Hawker Hurricane, as every schoolboy knows, shot down more enemy aircraft in the Battle of Britain than the Spitfire.

Windsor Hurricane
Replica Hawker Hurricane in Windsor’s Alexandra Gardens. A memorial to the Hurricane’s designer, Sir Sydney Camm.

If you want a proper walk, cross over the old Windsor bridge to Eton (home to Eton College, famous boarding school for rich folk), turn left and keep going. You will quickly find yourself on the Thames Path and in an open meadow from where you will get a great view of the castle towering over Windsor.

Windsor Castle riverside view
Windsor Castle from the River Thames

Finally, going back to the Range Rover Velar – if you think the name “Velar” is a bit pretentious (as I originally did), think again. It has some proper Land Rover history behind it as it was the code name used to conceal the original Range Rover during its development. It comes from the Latin verb, velare, meaning to conceal or cover up. So Land Rover’s marketing folk can be forgiven for that but not for the claim that the Velar has a “Sports Command driving position” (i.e. it’s higher than a normal car). What total, utter …[complete with word of your own choosing]…



After my excitable post about the Salon Privé and the fabulous cars we spotted on a recent visit to Blenheim Palace, here is a word or two (and a few photos) about the palace itself. No cars, I promise. Blenheim Palace near Woodstock, Oxfordshire is unique because it is the only country house in Britain enjoying the title “palace” which is not the home of a Royal or a bishop (or a rural source of Indian or Chinese take away food). As gifts go, they don’t come more lavish or splendid than Blenheim but that’s what winning a few battles got you in the early 1700s. A Mr John Churchill, later the 1st Duke of Marlborough, earned the gratitude of Queen Anne with a few military triumphs in the War of the Spanish Succession, culminating in the Battle of Blenheim in 1704. Blenheim is an anglicised version of Blindheim in Bavaria, Germany where the battle was fought. A long way from Spain I know, but let’s just say Europe was as complicated then as it is now. Mr Churchill thus helped ensure stability in Europe and was honoured with a dukeship and over-sized retirement home for his efforts.IMG_20170902_143229IMG_20170902_145648If the name Churchill sounds familiar,  yes – fast forward more than 200 years and John’s great (times X) grandson, Winston Churchill was doing his bit to save Europe again. Winston, nephew to the 8th Duke of Marlborough, was born at Blenheim in 1874. Today, you can see the room in which the great Briton was brought into this world – just one of many things to see and do at this magnificent stately home which is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. There’s easily a whole day’s worth (probably more) of stuff to do at Blenheim Palace, from admiring the house itself – inside and out – to exploring the extensive landscaped grounds, taking in various exhibitions and getting lost in the maze, car park, adventure playground or butterfly house. Check the What’s On section of the Blenheim Palace website and you may be able to time your visit to coincide with a classic car event (although there are no more scheduled for 2017 so you will have to be patient). Sorry, forgot I promised not to mention cars.








You can interpret “joys of train travel” in two ways. Before starting this driving work in May last year, I hardly ever travelled by train. Now I do it all the time. Very, very occasionally, it is frustrating, e.g. delays, cancellations, overcrowded trains and the occasional obstructive member of station staff demanding that I have a ticket before I can go to the ticket office! So, “joys of” in a sarcastic sense. However, since I usually travel by train outside of rush hour on mostly uncrowded trains, it normally is a genuine joy. A nice drive, walk or bus to a station and pleasant train ride home (you can read about how I usually occupy myself on a train here). Here are some observations gleaned from my year and half of frequent train travel:-

PLATFORM ATHLETICS: If you see your train waiting at the station platform you will run for it even if you know it is not due to leave for another seven minutes. The pathetic loping run that you effect is slower than a brisk walk so it takes you longer to reach the train anyway (its the same run you do crossing the road when a car kindly stops for you).

GOING TO THE LOO: The public toilets in most station ticket halls have an automatic turnstile demanding 20p before you can proceed. If you are bereft of a 20p coin or you are simply a tightwad, don’t panic. After you have gone through the ticket barriers, you can usually go on the platform for free. Just ask your fellow travellers to look away for a few moments and remember not to face into the wind. Seriously, there are usually less financially demanding facilities on most station platforms.

LATE TRAINS. We like to knock our train services but to be fair, they are generally not too bad disastrous.  However, when trains are late, the announcement is met with no surprise and a general air of resignation. If a train is due at 13.45 and the board says it is expected at 13.48, most of us probably don’t consider that as late. If it actually arrives at 13.48, we often think that’s quite good. Swiss trains, on the other hand, are legendary for always being on time. However ….. many years ago when on a business trip to Switzerland, I was at a station waiting for a train to take me back to Zurich airport. It was after five o’clock, the sun was shining and the platform was packed with happy Swiss commuters chatting away, discussing their day at work and whether they would be having cheese fondue or maybe, … cheese fondue for dinner. Then something strange happened. The station clock ticked on to the time the train was due to arrive but no sign of any train. The atmosphere on the platform changed very noticeably. A murmur of disquiet crept along the platform. People looked confused and uncomfortable. This did not compute … the train was …. LATE!!?? I sensed a real feeling of concern. National pride had been severely dented. The cheese fondue waiting for them at home would be cold. From a British point of view it was very interesting bearing witness to this remarkable event. I read afterwards that those responsible for the delay were sentenced to six months hard labour in the Swiss cheese mines and had their Toblerone ration cut. Incidentally, this event took place in the Swiss town of Zug. “Zug” means train in German.

IC2000_Zürich_- Zug
Swiss trains are lovely to travel in – especially these double decker ones – and the scenery is often spectacular. However, the Swiss nation has been left mentally scarred by the infamous Zug incident.

HUMOUR: Train staff can be friendly and amusing; they are not all jobsworths. Example:

A member of staff collecting rubbish on a train somewhere in the East Midlands comes down the aisle with a large bin bag chanting this mantra: “Any rubbish​, coffees cups, laptops, mobile phones, Rolex watches, Nottingham Forest fans….”. Obviously a fan of Derby County Football Club (Nottingham Forest’s arch rivals).

UNORIGINAL HUMOUR: Two weeks later, a different member of staff on another train somewhere in the East Midlands:-

“Any rubbish​, coffees cups, laptops, mobile phones, Rolex watches, Derby County fans….”.

ON-BOARD REFRESHMENTS: Does anyone ever buy anything from the on-board refreshment trolley? It’s pushed up and down the train by a person looking and sounding totally dejected and miserable, like Marvin the Paranoid Android from Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy: “Coffees, teas, snacks … Brain the size of a planet and they just make me push this trolley up and down all day. Nobody notices. I don’t know why I bother.”

Well, if no-one notices, why not liven it up a bit? “Teas, coffees, lobster thermidor, earwig sandwiches, crêpe suzette, Mini Cheddars….”. No, still no-one took any notice. Have you noticed, there’s always Mini Cheddars on the trolley. Are they really that popular?

TRAIN ANNOUNCEMENTS: It is often difficult to decipher announcements made on trains but sometimes I manage it. The most alarming announcement that I have heard on a train was: “Ladies and gentlemen, we are now arriving in March.” Hearing this in the month of May was quite disconcerting. Am I going to be stranded on this train for nine months? What are we going to eat? Will the Mini Cheddars last? Will my family miss me? Don’t answer that last question. Relief washed over me as I realised we were approaching the small town of March in Cambridgeshire.

APPROACHING THE NEXT STOP: Why does it take so long for a train to reach a station after the announcement “Ladies and gentlemen, we are now approaching X. X your next station stop.”? Everyone wolfs down their lobster thermidor, hurriedly puts their coat on, gathers belongings and stands up …. for the next 15 minutes as the train creeps more slowly than a Trabant full of elephants through seedy suburbs and finally, to the station. I would have had time for a crêpe suzette.

TECHNOLOGY FAILURE: It is not helpful when the seat reservations are not displayed on the little electronic screens until after everyone has boarded and found a seat. When the little screens above 80% of the seats then change from “available” to “reserved”, there ensues a grumpy game of musical chairs but accompanied by mutterings and grumblings rather than real music.

HISTORIC ARCHITECTURE. In the UK we have a fantastic number of very old churches which represent an amazing heritage of ancient, historic and beautiful architecture that we really take for granted. Likewise, many of the railway stations in the UK are fabulous buildings and I suspect many people forget to appreciate these chapels and cathedrals of travel. They may not be as ancient as most of the UK’s churches but next time you approach a station, stop for a few moments and take in the grandeur, elegance and/or quaintness of the outside. Sometimes these aesthetic qualities extend to the interiors of stations as well. Of course, this doesn’t apply to all stations. If you are walking towards Peterborough station, for example, don’t get too excited.

Huddersfield Station where I happened to find myself this week. Looks more like a city hall or art gallery than a train station.