Perfection on rails: The VSOE British Pullman

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Jan 292017

The re-creation of the British Pullman is a classic British story of eccentric, visionary wealth allied to traditional craftsmanship. James Sherwood rescued carriages from weird locations and states of disarray. Bob Dunn, whose grandfather made marquetry for the original cars, was one of a host of dedicated restorers.

Now, for a princely sum, you can get a princely ride on the British Pullman: most often, a day outing from London. On June 7, I treated my mother and me to a trip on this palatial train, on a re-run of one of the Classic Pullman trips: the Bournemouth Belle.



The interior of the Phoenix carriage

When I was born, my family lived in a rented flat in Wyndham Road, near Bournemouth Station. My mother has often told me how she’d lift me up at the kitchen window to see the Bournemouth Belle go by. Later, when I moved to Reading, we’d regularly find ourselves peering longingly into those fairytale Pullman cars from our second-class compartment at Southampton Central Station, on our way to see family in Bournemouth.

So when I was looking for a really special gift for a big birthday, the Bournemouth Belle was ideal. And everything about the trip was truly perfection on rails: the Pullman cars are works of art, down to the mosaics in the toilets; the food and drink were sumptuous; and the service was both friendly and impeccable.




Alan and his mother in front of the Phoenix carriage

Our itinerary included three hours of free time in Bournemouth, so we had a delightful nostalgia binge, revisiting Wyndham Road and other favourite spots from my childhood, and my mother’s.
The Pullman carriages are so special that you receive a colour booklet with a whole page on each one’s history. Ours was Phoenix, who started life in 1927 as Rainbow, and was destroyed by fire in 1936. She was rebuilt in 1952 and used on the Golden Arrow, carrying such celebrities as Sophia Loren and General de Gaulle.

This might be the trip of a lifetime for you, as it was for me: it’s totally worth taking!

PARIS – MILAN: the slow-fast train

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Jan 092017

I go to Italy by train every couple of years, as one of my best friends lives in Liguria. It’s a great train destination, as there are so many options, most of them scenic.

The fastest way by train is with the Paris – Venice Sleeper: this tips you out at Milan about 5am, which means you can get to much of Northern or Central Italy by 9am. Recently, we took daytime trains to Milan and realised how scenic the Paris – Milan route is.

A big factor in my train planning is how far you can get in a day, starting from Bridport: I’ve coined the term DJD’s (Day Journey Destinations) for this. A favourite DJD if travelling to Germany or further east is Aachen.

Heading to Italy, the 7am bus from Bridport to Dorchester meant we reached Paris Gare du Nord at 1547. Nipping briskly onto RER Line D, we caught a TGV from Gare de Lyon at 16.45.

TRAVEL TIP: if you book well in advance, First Class on TGV’s is quite cheap. We paid 35 euros each. You get huge comfy seats and more peace and quiet.

Centre ville, Chambery

Travelling to Italy, I can recommend Chambéry as a DPD. It’s a pretty, small cathedral city on the edge of the French Alps. The old town is car-free, with lots of beautiful old buildings and nice places to eat: we arrived in time for a late dinner.

TRAVEL TIP: The Hotel Ibis Styles is two minutes’ walk from the station, and for an extra few euros you can get a bedroom overlooking the railway!

The next morning, we joined at Chambéry one of the special Paris – Milan TGV’s, which run three times a day. They’re more spacious than most French TGV’s, and in First Class you get at-seat service for food and drink.

TRAVEL TIP: Book well in advance and you can get First Class seats cheaply. We paid £31 for the four-hour trip from Chambéry to Milan. Note that these trains terminate at Milan Porta Garibaldi, so leave time to get over to Milano Centrale where most onward trains depart from.

Climb to Modane, photo courtesy of SCF

As the train heads south-east from Chambéry, it’s climbing into the Alps, heading for the long tunnel near Modane which crosses into Italy. The railway follows river valleys which get narrow, tortuous, full of waterfalls. There are frequent small tunnels, with great views of the mountains between them.

The climb each side of the Modane Tunnel is really steep, and there are banking locomotives at Modane and on the Italian side at Bardonecchia. The descent into Italy is equally dramatic. At first the line is at the bottom of a narrow valley in a huge gorge, then the valley widens and drops dramatically, and the railway winds down the hills to catch up with it.

The train stops in Turin, which I can highly recommend as another stopover point. It’s an outstandingly elegant city, with a fresh semi-Alpine climate, and great ice cream (it’s the home of GROM, for starters).

Face-offs with cows, and flying chickens. Lessons in community from Ethiopian roads

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Jan 012017

We will not be moved…

It happens so often, you suspect the animals must enjoy it: why else do they spread the full width of the tarmac, instead of using the broad gravel verges?  The cows are the worst: they glower balefully as if they might charge, and only turn aside from our approaching vehicle at the very last minute.  At least the goats lose their nerve sooner.

Roads in Ethiopia are a community resource, with a stupendous range of users managing to share them.  It helps that most roads are not just a two-lane tarmac strip, but a gravel belt each side.  This gives lots of scope: for example donkeys on the far right, overtaken by a pony cart or a tuk-tuk, overtaken by a bus – with any traffic going the other way using the gravel strip on the far side.

I had rented a car and a driver for a long trip to the Bale Mountains, a beautiful, remote area in the far south-east of Ethiopia.  We tried to overtake a slow lorry in mist, and car appeared, speeding towards us.  My driver sensibly swerved off the tarmac onto the far-side gravel, alarming a lone riderless donkey whose lane discipline had been impeccable.  We bounced along the gravel for a few hundred metres, and rejoined the traffic as if nothing had happened.

Street scene from a rural town…

The sense of community remains very strong in Ethiopia, and qualities like tolerance and mutual support seem stronger here.  There was never a sense that some users had a right to the road, and others didn’t: everyone flowed around each other.  By contrast, in Britain it seems that car and lorry drivers believe they have an exclusive right to use the tarmac, and slower, more erratic travellers are an intrusion.

Livestock are a big part of rural life in Ethiopia, and the roads are constantly used to move them to grazing or to market.  A lot of animals meander along with no supervision, especially donkeys, who have a strong impulse to turn suddenly across the road.

Because rural prices are much lower, my enterprising driver bought two chickens to take home to Addis Abbaba.  They had a nice box with airholes, on the roof of the car.  However, after driving through heavy rain, the box fell apart, leaving the chickens flying through the air.

The community response was impressive.  Cars going the other way flashed lights and shouted to tell us of the problem.  A huge lorry behind us stopped, and the driver rescued the shocked chickens from the middle of the road.  I imagine one chicken telling the other, “I always had a bad feeling about today”.

I haven’t yet mentioned the pedestrians, horse-riders, motorbikes, handcarts, nor the fearsome potholes, ruts, gulleys… but what’s impressive is how these myriad users flow peaceably around each other.  British drivers could do with more of that tolerance.

Why African Fact is Happier Than Fiction

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Jan 012017

Recently I’ve been reading The Granta Book of the African Short Story.  When I travel, I like to read something connected with my destination, so this book went with me on a recent trip to Kenya to see the work of Farm Africa: a UK Charity who enable peasant farms in East Africa to adapt to climate change and other challenges.

Frankly, many of the short stories in the Granta collection are pretty depressing.  A lot are about Africans living abroad, unhappy at the many problems of their original home and their new one.  Two stories actually set in Kenya are equally sad: one about child prostitution in Kivera, the biggest slum in Nairobi, the other about tourists, guides, and all the pretence that can happen between them.

It’s good to know about the problems, and there are plenty of them.  But this book helped me to look hard at the reality I saw around me: not only in Nairobi, but also three days of travelling deep into rural parts of western Kenya.  What I saw is a society which is basically working, in many ways, for millions of people.

There are many things which could be better, in Kenya, as across Africa.  But in the West, we don’t hear enough about what’s already good: all the people who are basically happy, fed, housed, and at peace.

Nor do we hear enough about the extensive development support which the UK, European Union, US and others provide in Kenya and elsewhere.  Increasingly, this support is geared to helping the local economy work better, not to the relief aid that many in the west still think is happening.

Farm Africa were pioneers in this new approach, which is why I have been one of their donors since 2005.

Kenya has under-used fertile land, and low farm productivity, so there’s huge scope to improve the incomes of subsistence farmers, and help Kenya to feed itself.  The Farm Africa projects I saw are clearly achieving this, and it would be great if they can be expanded to a larger scale.

So if you want to get a flavour for Africa, you may want to read the Granta collection, but do balance it with a trip around the Farm Africa website.


 General  Comments Off on FOURTEEN GENERATIONS OF WISDOM AND WINE – Viniculture in Alsace
Nov 132016

One of many highlights on my recent holiday in Alsace was a wine tasting at Emile Beyer, one of the region’s long established wine producers. It was guided by Christian Beyer, the fourteenth generation of the clan, and it was the most eloquent exposition of the wine-maker’s craft I’ve ever heard.

He commented that the French word, viniculture, is more accurate and expressive of the craft than wine-maker: “at least eighty per cent of the skill is in the growing the grapes”.
For him the biggest challenge is in matching the type of vine with the type of soil. He said that he can distinguish the soil type through the flavour of the wine.

Christian Beyer

The challenge is further complicated by the long time cycle of viticulture. Their vines take 15 years to start producing, reach their peak at 25-40 years, and need to be replaced by 65. So the production currently depends on vines planted by Christian’s grandfather, and he is making planting decisions for the sixteenth generation, guessing at climate change and many other factors.




Grape harvest, Domaine Emile Beyer

I was impressed to learn that over 30% of Alsace wines are now organically produced, and Beyer recently started using biodynamic standards, which are even higher. Christian believes these standards improve the wine, and their prices, and their environmental impact.

Christian’s views had many parallels with my natural happiness approach, and it intrigued me to think what new insights grow from using vineyards as the model, instead of gardens or farms.
The long timeframes are a big difference, and are closer to human life cycles. I believe that people also produce their best vintage when they match their temperament and hopes (‘the plant’) to their circumstances (‘the soil’). When they do, as Christian Beyer would say, eighty per cent of the work is done.




Vineyard at Domaine Emile Beyer 

Train Lovers: The London Underground as a spiritual map

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Jan 282016

It was in a lull on a retreat group recently that I realised I was musing on the spiritual significance of the Northern line at East Finchley.  This is where, after twenty-one miles of tunnel, the Tube emerges into daylight: much as a travailing soul find illumination after the long darkness…

This blog is intended to appeal to spiritual travellers and railway lovers, though it may deter both: give it a couple of paragraphs.  The Tube Network can show us a lot about aspects of our spiritual quest.

Take the Circle Line: going repeatedly round the same circuit, at shallow depth, is like our daily routines, which mindfulness urges us to notice and value, not just rattle through them.

The Central Line and Piccadilly Lines are rich in symbolism. The Heathrow loop reminds us how our deep journeyings can lead to high places, exotic destinations: but if we miss our stop, we head back round into the depths.  Whereas the Hainault loop offers an image of the segue from deep stuff into a rambling rural idyll, and back again.

Underground blog 2







The transition from deep dark to conscious light

Sometimes part of our psyche may become run-down, decrepit, in need of renewal.  The Docklands Light Railway shows how new routes can help such regeneration, and it doesn’t always need heavy excavation to achieve this.  Imagine your new initiatives prancing lightly across the skyline as new high-rises emerge from the grunge.

You’re doubtless familiar with the idea of neural pathways: how repeated thoughts or feelings create repeating patterns in our brain.  So imagine the famous Tube map as pathways in your brain: what rich complexity, with so many access points and interconnections; and it’s good to realise new routes can be created, and new connections like Crossrail or the Jubilee Line.  But the effort and upheaval can be major.

Underground blog







A new route means deep excavations …

I have a soft spot for the Metropolitan Line, helped by John Betjeman’s ode to it. In this exploration, it shows how a starting point deep in the centre can be linked to far-flung, rural outposts of our psyche, like Chesham and Chalfont. It also reminds us how our spiritual travels can be in style: there used to be restaurant cars on this line!

It’s fascinating to me that there are whole stretches of tunnel, and stations like Aldwych, now disused.  Surely there are echoes here, of the neglected backways of our psyche?

If I lived in London, I might hate the Tube, or take it for granted… As a visitor, I love the speed and ease.  And as a map of the spiritual life, it’s exciting to realise how many connections, and possibilities are within easy reach, and how accessible and useful the deep places can be.


Train Lovers: FACT! Virgin XC more reliable than DB Intercity Express!

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Jan 282016

I travel to Germany by train most years, and this year I finally realised that my major frustrations with Dutsche Bahn are not just bad luck, it really is bad.  Online research quickly confirmed this: the average reliability of DB’s ICE (InterCity Express) trains has been around 75% for several years, whereas the recent figure for Virgin Crosscountry is 92%!

For a Brit, reading the annual report on the Dutsche Bahn website is gratifying – it sounds like British Rail in the 1970s.  Each year, DB lament the ongoing appalling punctuality of ICE, and trot out a variety of reasons all too familiar from over here.

Whilst many of us have got into the habit of knocking Virgin XC, as a regular user, I have to admit that it’s mostly not bad, and it really is a good deal better than German ICE trains, not only on punctuality, but several other respects:

  • Refreshments: astonishingly, many ICE trains which run right across the country with a total journey time over 8 hours, have no refreshments on board whatsoever.
  • Information: in general, the information on ICE about delays (both how long and why) and fall back options if you miss your connections, is considerably poorer.  This is not about language: when announcements are made, they are at least made in German and in fluent English.
  • Humour: I appreciate the elements of humour on Virgin trains, and as you might suspect, ICE is 100% humour free.
  • Comfort: the large number of old-style ICE trains have mediocre seating, and appalling air conditioning.  On a couple of trains this year, several carriages were sealed off because the air-con didn’t work at all, leaving the passengers herded into the few which were usable.
  • Connections: Dutsche Bahn is clearly in severe denial about its punctuality problems.  If you book on their generally efficient website, they assume ridiculously tight connection times of a few minutes.  So my top tip if you are booking online, is to use the facility to specify a connection time of at least 20 minutes.  Even that may not be long enough, since I have had delays of over 2 hours…

Deutsche Bahn

Train Lovers: What trains can teach us about relationships

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Jan 282016

Insights from a zugteilung in Hanover

The special overnight trains which in English we hopefully call sleepers, are in Germany sensibly called Nachtzug, night trains.  No false expectations there.  In fact, I’ve used the Nachtzug many times, and they’re very comfortable.

However, my recent German holiday involved getting onto the night train in Hamburg at 00:31, and off in Cologne at 06:14.  Exotically, this Nachtzug was from Copenhagen to Switzerland, with special coaches for Prague and for Amsterdam via Cologne.  German is a wonderfully literal language, so I didn’t need my dictionary to figure out that Zugteilung meant train-part-ing.  In Hanover, night trains from Copenhagen, Berlin and elsewhere would be split up, shunted about, and rejoined.

The reality of this was that around 2am, when I’d at last got soundly asleep, my coach was repeatedly and vigorously bounced, as if the German engine drivers were playing ping-pong.  It’s thanks to this awakening experience that I can offer you this new model of relationships.  Gehen wir los…










Your relationship is ready to depart…

Imagine that a relationship is like the connection between railway carriages.  Your relationship may run smoothly along the tracks, round the bends, through the tunnels, for a good while.  But there come times when you have to uncouple, and this can be bumpy.

There’s also the question of destinations.  You may hope that your relationship is headed in a certain direction, just as I had bought a Nachtzug ticket for Cologne, but once embarked, other factors are at work…The driver and signalmen can take you to Hanover, or wherever, and bump you around as they choose.  Depending upon your chosen weltanschaung (outlook on the world), their role could be compared to Fate, guardian angels, or the working-out of your own complex subconscious.

However, if you and your adjacent carriage need to go in different directions, the Zugteilung is inevitable: but you may end up coupled to a new coach from an interesting origin.  Who knows what plans the Fat Controller of relationships may have for you?  At least you now have a fine German word for the process.

trains relationships