Today, I’d planned to visit my Mum in Northampton. It’s a 180-mile round trip in the car, but I prefer the train because it’s much cheaper and in any event my wife had the car for the day. By train and bus, I get the chance to explore the town, steeped as it is in history as illustrated by this wooden sculture of a knight that I saw in Spring 2015 outside the main church.
The train is only cheaper than the car if I can get off-peak tickets. Even with my Senior Railcard which is valid outside south-east England at any time, the Anytime return from Swindon to Northampton is over £100 via London, or £73.55 via Cheltenham Spa and Birmingham. Off-peak’s less than half price at £36.30.
I wanted to get to Northampton by around 1 p.m. – and to go the pretty way via Worcester, but the first off-peak train via Stroud was too late at 9:40, while that from Bristol Parkway wasn’t until 10:14. Was there a way to get there earlier? Yes. Simply buy ‘split tickets’: Swindon to Cheltenham Spa return at £6.20, which is off-peak at 08:41, and then Cheltenham Spa to Northampton return at £24.70, totalling only £30.90. It shouldn’t be necessary to have worked in a ticket office to get the journeys I want at a reasonable price.
The first part was on a High Speed Train to Gloucester, followed by a Sprinter to Worcester Shrun Hill where there would be a 40-minute wait for a train to Smethwick Galton Bridge. The first problem: the Worcester train might be delayed by 45 minutes thanks to a damaged level crossing. I decided to risk it, and luckily we were only delayed 5 minutes at the crossing where a motorist in a hurry had smashed into the barriers. I had time to get a hot breakfast at Cafe Loco before getting the next train. A smooth connection at Smethwick (and enough time to glimpse the canal there) got me to Birmingham New Street, where I went high-speed to Rugby and changed there to the train to Northampton.
Just before my destination, there was trouble. We’d already passed Long Buckby, but the train was held at signals. Thanks to steady rain, there’d been a landslip. After a while, we were told that we’d be returning to Long Buckby where alternative transport would be provided. Oh no – not a bus! People seem to think that there are buses and crews available if there’s a problem on the line. The driver had to change ends and drive wrong-way without signals back to the station – but the signalman had assured him that there were no other trains expected – “Trust me”.
Once the rain stopped, we spilled on to the platform to wait – and wait – for the bus. The destination board by the station shelter told us that our train had been cancelled. The driver and guard (seen on the platform) were eventually told that the line was clear and we could get there by train, but we would only go as far as Northampton.
We pulled into the rarely-used bay platform, and I got to see my Mum over an hour late. The rain kept returning, so there was no chance to go for our usual walk across the park (well, I walk and push the wheelchair). We stayed inside where Mum managed to do a jigsaw – pretty good for 96.
I had no idea whether trains would be running north towards Birmingham, but when I reached the station, I found that a shuttle service was running. Several services had been cancelled, but the 15:55 was waiting for me – alongside another two trains in the bay platforms, including the one I’d been on earlier.
The return journey was smooth, and in the afternoon peak in Birmingham I even found a seat on the two-coach Cross-Country train destined for Cardiff. It made three stops on the way to Cheltenham, at simply-named ‘University’, then at Bromsgrove and ‘Ashchurch for Tewkesbury’. The Worcester & Birmingham Canal was not far away for much of this journey – and nor was the Stroudwater, Thames & Severn through the Golden Valley on the last train of the day from Cheltenham towards Paddington.