Tag Archives: travel

Beyond World’s End?

The previous instalment of this travel-report series concluded after leaving Oxford on Tuesday 22nd March 2016. This post brings the story of our ‘short holiday’ to its end with an account of the last day of the trip, Wednesday 23rd March.

Sika deer in Woburn Abbey's deer park
I’ve Seen The Sika: Sika Deer In Woburn Abbey’s Deer Park
In the morning, after my brother had been dropped off, the three of us (my mother and grandmother, plus myself) headed over to Woburn Abbey. While their safari park is a segregated tourist attraction, a public road runs through part of Woburn’s deer park. This had been an interesting feature of many of our journeys between our accommodation and the various places we had visited, and we drove through another part of it on route to the Woburn Abbey car park.
Oriental-style structure on rocky outcrop across a pond in Woburn Abbey Gardens
Spirit Of The East: Oriental Architecture In Woburn Abbey Gardens
Together we took a quick look around the Woburn gardens which, slightly unusually, featured a number of structures of oriental architecture (some of which I thought worked aesthetically). I then returned to the car and sat listening to music while my elders visited the house itself.

My brother wasn’t doing a full day, so our next move was to go and collect him, before heading into the centre of Milton Keynes for the first time. We didn’t like what we found; the place was all very grey and dreary. Long, straight, dual carriageways flanked by car parking with a slightly shabby shopping centre.

Photo by Tom Parnell of Silbury Boulevard in Milton Keynes
Post-Apocalyptic: Silbury Boulevard, Milton Keynes (photo by Tom Parnell).
The overall impression of the place was ‘post-apocalyptic’. I’m not kidding, something about it reminded me of the scenes set in Pripyat in the game “Call Of Duty 4: Modern Warfare”; Pripyat being the city that was abandoned due to the Chernobyl nuclear power plant disaster.

Photo by Tom Parnell of Midsummer Boulevard, Milton Keynes
Depressing View: Midsummer Boulevard, Milton Keynes (photo by Tom Parnell)
Being me, I blame the car. Milton Keynes appears to have been designed around it; the grid of roads (many being dual-carriageways), the acres of asphalt/concrete; all designed to support a population of motorists. At the time of writing, the Wikipedia article on Milton Keynes states that the central area was not designed as a traditional town centre. Instead, it is like out-of-town shopping centres (a “car-culture” idea, probably impractical to use on foot) but in the centre of town. Even ‘Milton Keynes Central’ railway station is on the edge of the central area, the wrong side of one of the dual carriageways, rather than dead-centre. Maybe there was a good reason for that; but I don’t know what that might be. Just like motorways, Milton Keynes itself (what we saw of it, at any rate) is characterless, uninspiring and depressing. Although there is some greenery, even this is standardised and fails to prevent the place looking artificial and near-lifeless (again, just like motorways and most dual-carriageways).

Photo by Stephen McKay of Midsummer Boulevard, Milton Keynes
Beyond World’s End? Another view of Milton Keynes’ Midsummer Boulevard (photo by Stephen McKay)
Almost needless to say, we didn’t stay long. But what was the best way home? I’m writing this some time after the event, so my memory is hazy, but I think I directed us along the A421 and A4421 to Bicester, then the A41 and M40 to avoid the Oxford ring road, then off the M40 at junction 8a onto the A40 briefly then the A329, B4015 and A415 to Abingdon where my plan unravelled. The traffic was terrible and it took us some time to get through the town. My mother, in the driver’s seat, was therefore rather displeased with my navigating (I think I may have had an alternative in mind, and may have even voiced it, but since that was using minor roads I doubt that would have gone down well either). Anyway, we eventually made it to the A34 and headed south towards the M4. On the way, I noticed that one of the minor roads alongside the A34 led to a place called “World’s End”, we drove right past it. This was the inspiration for the title of this post; very appropriate given that parts of our trip had been something of a culture-shock. I’m opposed to the proposed second M4 around Newport, and various other bypass projects, on the grounds that creating more space for more cars encourages even more car use, leading to increased pollution and congestion (leading to more tarmac and so on in a vicious circle). But having seen Milton Keynes, I wondered if it is already too late; have we already spiralled beyond the point where the car addiction is fatal to life on this good Earth?

Returning to the journey, having joined the M4 at Newbury and travelled some distance along it, we had to turn off the motorway for fuel (at junction 18, I think), having just missed a service station. The road to Pennsylvania was “chock-a-block” with traffic so we headed in the opposite direction, hoping that the petrol station I could see on the map would be open; it was. It was on this little detour off the motorway that Mum cheered, having seen some cows in a field (she was suffering from ‘withdrawal symptoms’ caused by all the concrete and arable farming). Once back on the motorway, we made our familiar drive home along the motorway and A48 to Carmarthen and then on into the land of the living and home. What a relief; these few days were a real eye-opener for me.

Photograph of N.W. Wales mountains from a Cambrian Coast train
Beautiful West Wales: a view from the Cambrian Coast Line between Dovey Junction to Pwllheli.
So, if you want to escape the post-apocalyptic concrete wasteland of southern England on your next holiday come to the west of Wales; but leave your car at home, we don’t want our country ruined in the same way. Use our ‘delightful’ bus services.

Happy New Year (this post was scheduled to appear in the last minute of 2016, so by the time you read this it is probably 2017).

Varsity Ventures

The M4 motorway at Port Talbot
M4 Port Talbot (photograph by Kevin Corcoran)
After a pleasant afternoon watching, and riding on, trains, my ‘short holiday’ started to go downhill. I’m picking up the story where I left off, in a car on the M4, having been met by family members at Port Talbot. There’s no doubt about it, motorways are very dull ribbons of dreary tarmac (and/or concrete), apparently without exception. Actually, that’s a good question, can anyone think of an exception? We did of course leave the motorway eventually, but not until after stopping for dinner. Thus we were in darkness as we headed up the A420, negotiated the Oxford ring road and the A418 past Aylesbury and onto the A505. Unfortunately, if there’s any travel more boring than miles of motorway then it is probably night-time motoring. Of course family chat and, occasionally, the radio can partly relieve the monotony, and so can navigation, but these don’t really make up for not being able to see what you’re passing. I think we were all relieved when we finally arrived at our booked accommodation, after crossing the A5 and twice passing the M1. No, I didn’t get us lost, the written directions used for the last few miles to our destination were written as though we were coming up the M1 from London and I didn’t want to risk finding my own route with just a road atlas (I might have tried it if I had been equipped with an Ordnance Survey Landranger map).

While helping to keep me sane, navigating was perhaps also a little stressful; there’s often an argument between at least two occupants of the car over the best route. On this occasion though, there was at least general agreement that the motorway network didn’t really suit our journey, much like the rail network it radiates out from London and I don’t think any of us fancied the M25.

Second Severn Motorway Bridge
Into England (public domain photo from Wikimedia Commons)
Anyway, so why are we here, in self-catering accommodation not far from the M1? Why would anyone want to come here? Although the accommodation was of a reasonable standard, the noise of the motorway could be heard if you stood outside and my mother wondered why somebody would come on holiday here. Our reason was that my brother had educational commitments in Milton Keynes, and the rest of us were just taking advantage of the trip to see a few things. I had a stab at answering Mum’s question by taking quick look at the map, the obvious tourist attractions were Woburn Abbey and its Safari Park. Apparently, none of us were interested in the latter, but the Abbey was one reason for my elder’s interest in the visit. Another of their reasons, and one I’d come along for too (though not the main reason) was Bletchley Park.

The next day, after dropping my brother off, we drove down towards Didcot to one of the other attractions which had drawn me, ‘Pendon Museum’. This ‘museum’ features three model railways, one a very early example of the craft. The other two are much more recent, at least one is still under construction, and very impressive with detail extending to the interior of buildings and a birdwatcher observing a bird of prey. These model various parts of the steam-era Great Western Railway, although they are intended to capture a snapshot of buildings and scenery typical of the areas concerned rather than being models of a particular location (the buildings in the model village don’t all belong to the same real-world village). We decided the Oxford ring road (with its many roundabouts) was no more appealing in daylight than it had been at night, so went back to Bicester via a different route (which involved the M40).

Bletchley Park introduction exhibit entrance
Bletchley Park introduction entrance. Image from ‘The Hub’ (fit-out contractor) website.
On the third day (Monday), we made the much shorter journey to Bletchley Park. We had thought we may move on to somewhere else afterwards, but our visit took us through until it was time to collect my brother again. We didn’t even visit the adjacent national museum of computing, which contains more of the code-breaking machines created on the site, although it wasn’t fully open that day anyway. Interestingly, the entrance to Bletchley Park’s introductory exhibit had a railway theme. The word ‘entrance’ was in white text on a midland-red background, while the doorways beneath it had imitation railway-carriage slam-doors. Also present was a four-way ‘fingerpost’ sign, also in midland-red, pointing to ‘platform 1 for Oxford, platform 2 for Cambridge, platform 3 for Glasgow and platform 4 for London. I doubt such a sign actually would have existed on a station, but railways from Bletchley to the four places in question certainly did exist.

Bletchley Park Cambridge-Oxford sign, photo by Caroline Longstaffe
Varsity fingerpost, Bletchley Park. Photo by Caroline Longstaffe
Sadly, you cannot currently make a reasonably direct journey from Milton Keynes to Oxford by rail today, because the central section of the Oxford-Cambridge ‘Varsity Line’ has been closed since 1967; so when we headed off to visit Oxford on the fourth day we couldn’t leave the car in Milton Keynes with my brother. The line which would have taken you to Cambridge still exists as far as Bedford, but beyond that it is also gone.

Chiltern Railways service at Oxford Parkway station
Stopping short of Oxford: Chiltern Railways service waiting to London at Oxford Parkway
One of the many Milton Keynes roundabouts we traversed on our excursions in the Oxford direction was called, I kid you not, ‘Bottledump Roundabout’. Perhaps unsurprisingly, it was liberally scatted with discarded plastic bottles, presumably thrown out of passing cars. Whether the bottles were there first and this inspired the name or vice-versa I do not know. The railway between Bletchley and Oxford is now to be reinstated, but we were several years early. So, to avoid the Oxford traffic, we parked at ‘Bicester Village’ station, which until the recent complete rebuild was ‘Bicester Town’. Previously, ‘Bicester Town’ was served by a shuttle to Oxford, but now Chiltern Railways have had a new section of track built to allow services from London Marylebone to Oxford, running through ‘Bicester Village’ station. This project wasn’t complete either, enhancements work was still taking place near Oxford so we had to transfer to a bus for the final leg into Oxford from Oxford Parkway station.

Of course, it is not only Chiltern who have significant changes planned on their part of the network. The electrification work of parts of the Great Western Main Line (GWML) will see Intercity Express Programme (IEP) class 800 bi-mode trains introduced from next year (2017). Thus we get to my principle reason for coming on this trip; the five class 180s currently with the franchise will be moved to Grand Central, probably by the end of 2017, as the 800s arrive. Having never been on a 180, I was keen to get a ride on one to compare them with the related class 175 units we have in Wales while I had the chance.

Class 180 number 180108 at Oxford Railway Station
180108 arrives at Oxford to take me to Kingham
I left my elders and boarded my first 180, 180108 on a Cotswolds line service to Kingham. From there, I returned to Oxford on another class 180. I was pleased to discover that the interior of standard class did indeed have much in common with the class 175s, with ample legroom even in airline-style seating. Rather strangely however, especially on a line with short platforms like the Cotswolds line, the first-class carriage on the 180s (class 175s are standard-class only) was not one of the driving vehicles at the ends. Instead, one standard-class coach was isolated on its own at one end, with the adjacent coach being the first-class one. Given that I’ve read standard-class ticket-holders are not even allowed to stand in the vestibules of first class coaches on Intercity 125s, I wonder what happens if somebody in the isolated standard class coach wants to alight at a short platform where that carriage is off the end of the platform. One of the four standard class carriages on the 180, perhaps the isolated one, also seemed to have fewer bays of four around tables than the others. Another feature that the class 175s lack but can be found on a 180 is the mini-buffet/cafe. This is really quite small, with just one of the main external windows blanked out by it, though it didn’t appear to be open. I’m not sure if First Great Western bother with it anymore.

Old building in Oxford
One Of The Old Ones: building in Oxford
Back in Oxford, I rejoined my mother and grandmother for a walk around parts of the city; admiring the architecture of some of the old university buildings and other heritage structures. One of these was a church whose tower is of Saxon origin (it is close to the building in the photograph, click that to go to my Flickr where you should be able to find photos of the Saxon tower too). It was then back via bus, train and car to Milton Keynes, to collect my brother, and to our ‘holiday’ accommodation.

END OF PART 2

We return to Wales in the final instalment of this mini-series of blog posts, which I did eventually get round to writing.