Thursday, July 10, 2014

The Angelico Anglo-Austrian Adventure - Twain on Europe

Mark Twain once described New South Wales Government Railways' practice of weighing baggage and charging for the excess as being "troublesome and European - that which is not troublesome cannot be truly described as European". And so it proves as we board the ferry for Dover - compared with our southbound crossing where we just went straight on, straight off and on our way, this time we had to queue up for ages, get off the bus, go through Passport Control, get back on the bus, and then queue up again to get onto the boat. Incidentally, it's the same one we had before, the Pride of Burgundy, owned by P&O Ferries.

It felt good to swap the universal plug adaptor from European to British mode. Luckily we were on board before all the tables in the bar became occupied, and one TWROAPP was still vacant. So Midga and I spent most of the voyage playing OpenTTD, which we haven't done for ages. No WiFi on the boat unfortunately.

The bus ride from the docks to London seemed to last a lot longer than it did. The crew were good, but not as hilarious as Spencer and Neil. Driving up the motorway we paralleled a railway - Midga and I were hoping it was the main line to the Channel Tunnel and that we might see a Eurostar flash by at some unbelievable rate of knots. Unfortunately we saw nothing at all - not even a local EMU. Ah well.

When we got to London Victoria the driver announced the directions for people transferring to the National Express service to Glasgow. Now over here, National Express is a bus company, not the owner of M>Train, M>Tram and V/Line. Who travels to Glasgow by bus when there's two completely awesome rail options? Well I guess it's the same answer as who goes to Austria by bus instead of flying or Chunnelling - people who holiday on a budget.

From Victoria we got the tube to Shelly's and arrived just as the humans were approaching 0% battery power. So no gunzelling tonight. It was dark out anyway.

The next day it was time to start our London adventures. We sat around gasbagging with Shelly for a while, then headed out. Just shopping today, and getting an idea about navigating London.

The number of options for buses and tube stations is mind boggling. Without a grid network of main roads there's bus routes within walking distance in several different directions, and with the tube the way it is you can pick which one to walk to based on where you're going. I wonder how long it takes to get used to it.

So we went to Oxford Street, to a discount clothes shop called Primark. Apparently it's even cheaper than KMart and Target, and Asha needs some clothes of some sort. What with the crowds, the queues and the decidedly non-linear (and completely nonsensical) method they use to allocate numbers to sizes, we spend most of the day there.

That evening is spent recounting our Austrian adventures to Shelly, and talking randomly about anything that comes up. Fun people are fun.

The next day it was time to tourist around. We started by going to Paddington station to buy our London Passes. It's a kind of "welcome to the city" card, where you pay 47 pounds and get up to 90 pounds worth of museum entries for the day. Paddington itself was quite a sight - five HST sets all lined up, and the usual massive concourse lined with eateries. It's just like being at Manchester Piccadilly again but with different trains!

And that was just the beginning, we were off to the Tower of London. Which is quite old, even in human years. We took a guided tour with one of the Yeomen Warders, who told us bloodthirsty stories about beheadings and political intrigue which would completely destroy your respect for the monarchy if you didn't bear in mind there weren't any parliamentarians back then so each member of the royal family had to possess disrespectability enough for six, just to make up the allotted quantity.

We had to hurry (sic) a bit because we wanted to see about a dozen different places today, and the next one on the list was Tower Bridge, which is right next door. Victorian era engineering, my all-time favourite! Unfortunately the "Tower Bridge experience" is aimed at tourists who really don't care how steam power or hydraulics work and just want to take a few happy snaps and then leave. Worse still, when people who ARE interested see an exhibition like that, all they can do is take a few happy snaps and then leave - with a few wistful backward glances at the stunningly restored brasswork and cylinder castings. Still, the rivetted ironwork holding up the towers of the bridge was quite a sight. And there was a video reenactment of Queen Victoria discussing the urban planning, world heritage and skyline implications of having a second river crossing. That was fun.

Now I'm not really qualified to comment on the afternoon, because without legs and feet of my own I have no idea just how tiring it can be to tramp around London, going from map to map and wondering why it takes so long to get anywhere. But at least we got a chance to buy tickets to Jeeves and Wooster for tomorrow, which we're seeing with Trevor F.

To my (limited) understanding, walking and dancing are pretty much the same thing, so if a pair of humans don't feel like walking, a whole evening of dancing will be right out. But no. Not only did they brave the rain to go to a blues dancing lesson, but they paid good money for it too. I'm beginning to see how Midga could behave the way he did at the Tyrolean night - after all, he likes learning stuff, and keeping in time to the music is pretty much the same skill as stepping from one pallet of chairs to the next without falling over. Not that he ever did that, of course. Not while he was secretary of the Say Stafe Steam, or Stay Safe Team, or whatever they called it. No, certainly not.

After about an hour of shamelessly bumping his rear at everyone else in the room the lesson was over. My attention span was pretty much done, but Asha said there was another whole lesson to go, AND something called "social" after that. It was too much for me so Midga and I went for a bit of a stroll. No particular reason, we'd just seen trains in the distance and were curious.

And I'm so glad we did! It was the Docklands Light Railway, which runs driverless trains! The station we were at was one stop from the city terminus - or rather, the city termini, because there are two of them. Since we had an Oyster card already on the go we decided to take a ride. From Shadwell to Bank we just sort of watched through the window, observing the strange shape of the third rail and the electrical conduit running down the centre of the Four Foot connecting to each rail alternately - presumably providing a return circuit in case ground isn't the same as ground when there's 25kV AC trains running in the same reservation as 750V DC light rail vehicles.

From Bank to Shadwell we got the front seat. There are notices up saying that we have to vacate the seat if asked to by the Customer Service Agent if they want to drive the train from the front. At one point she was doing exactly that - she pressed a button to say "Close the doors" and then another to say "Go", and the train did everything else. It knew when the flat junction between the Bank and Tower Gateway lines was occupied. It even knew there was a train slowing into Shadwell station in front of us - and from the way it slowed down in increments I think it must have moving block safeworking. That would explain why I didn't see any signals - do you call it in-cab signalling when there's no cab?

Incidentally, re the flat junction, Bank is an underground station, and immediately after the junction the line descends off a viaduct to ground level (and then into a tunnel portal). Why on earth couldn't they put the descending lines in between the flat ones and avoid the junction? Anyway, it was fun to see the train's automatic "driver" stopping at a "red signal" on a steep gradient, and then starting again when it went "green".

Back at Shadwell with time to kill we visited Tower Gateway, which has platforms on both sides of the single terminating track - which provides a unique example of a station which has a single platform and a double platform by the same operation.

Watching the track from the front of a train never gets old. We need more half-width cabs, or double decker vehicles, or (let's go for broke) driverless trains in Melbourne!

Back at Shadwell we glanced around the Overground station (which was in fact underground) but the trains were the same Class 378 things we saw a few years back. It was almost time for social so we went back to the dance studio.

Now social, I've worked out, is just a piece of time when there's no lesson going on. The people who took the lesson are still around, the music is still on, and anyone who wants to dance can just get up and dance. Midga and Asha had a go but they were a bit tired and headed home pretty soon. The teachers and several of the students expressed deep appreciation for them visiting from the other side of the world, and homeward they trod.

In London there are quite a few bus routes that keep running at a useful frequency until midnight. It's amazing. So we didn't take the Overground back to the tube station to go home, we just sat in a bus shelter trying to keep the rain off for a few minutes, and then a bus came along.

Double decker buses are fun. Up the top you can see forward, but you're so high that perspective tells you everything's closer than it seems. So a cyclist who's calmly minding their own business in the left gutter looks like they're inches from disaster when actually the bus is overtaking them in a perfect "be nice to cyclists week" manner.

From the tube to Shelly's Midga offered Asha a piggy back, but he's getting out of shape and couldn't do it. Pity, it would have made quite a photo.

No comments: