Trains in Unusual Places | A Train In A Field In The Highlands

Somewhere between Balmoral and Aviemore, past landscape scarred by burnt heather and hills as far as the eye can see, there’s a couple of train carriages on some farm land. Running up to them, it is not possible to see why they’re there. But beside sheep and grass and a tumbledown farmhouse, I think they are really quite beautiful.

The Ambulance Driver | Conversations on the Train

I’m on the Caledonian sleeper train to Aviemore in Scotland with my friends Amy and Emily. I talk to Amy about what she does for a living for Conversations on the Train on the way.

“What do you do?”

“I work for the ambulance service in Bristol”

“The normal ambulance?”

“The nee-naw ambulance.”

“Do you say that often when you’re there?”

“I never say that! I work for the emergency ambulance service. So I do all the driving. I’m not a paramedic.”

“I don’t get that, if you’re not a paramedic how can you drive? I mean, don’t they need to be paramedics… because on Casualty right…” I wink.

“Cutting costs… the NHS can’t afford too many paramedics, so I assist them. I’m an emergency care assistant.”

“So what can you do?”

“Not a lot. I can drive, I can give oxygen and I can give gas and air, but I can’t actually administer any drugs. I’m just there for support.”

“So there’s only one paramedic?”

“A crew would usually go out as a paramedic and an ECA, occasionally you might get two paramedics, but it’s very rare.”

“You don’t need two?”

“No, often we have paramedics that go out in a car as well, a rapid response vehicle, and they’ll get to the scene first because the cars can get there a lot quicker than ambulances. The paramedic will assess the scene and then the crew can transport the patient. So you quite often have three people on the scene.”

“What’s the most common reason you’re called out?”

“Chest pain.”

“Really?” I say.

“Yep, people often think chest pain is a heart attack. It’s not, you can get a call for chest pain in someone who’s 25 years old. That chest pain is probably indigestion, strain from having a cough over a long period of time, or they’ve got a cold with chest pain and freak out.”

“I think my dad called an ambulance once because he had a migraine…” I say.

“Actually migraines are pretty bad…” she laughs, “some people do need an injection for that… but yeah chest pain and respiratory are the most common.”

“Respiratory like in old people, or like I’m choking on a donut?” I ask.

She laughs again, “I’ve never seen anyone choke on a donut. Yeah I suppose any breathing problems like asthma or emphysema, bronchitis…”

“Do you go out Fridays and Saturdays?”


“Do you get loads of drunk people?”

“Fridays and Saturdays you do, yeah definitely. I do a shift from five in the evening till three in the morning and that’s predominantly drink-related calls. But we do have St. John’s Ambulance to help out. On Fridays and Saturdays they have a sort of army, if you like, so that whenever there’s a call comes in and it’s within walking distance of the centre they’ll send a couple of St, John’s out to it, find out what’s going on, and if they need paramedic backup then they’ll request it. A lot of the time it’s just young girls and young lads that have drunk too much and just need to sober up. They’ll put them on the booze bus…”

“The booze bus?” I say.

“Yep, then they can take them down to A&E. I believe they just sit in the waiting room until they sober up.”

“Do you get drugs as well?”

“Yeah, we have a lot of regulars. Drug users who have had problems maybe when they’ve been taking heroin, for instance, and they’ve got abscess’ that are out of control.”

I grimace, “are they hostel dwellers?”

“Yeah, a lot of them live in supported living places.”

“But drug-related calls are not a Friday thing?”

“No, that’s an anytime thing.”

“What’s the worst thing you’ve ever seen?”

“I suppose a hanging is the worst thing. It was when I’d just started out. That’s a horrible thing to see.”

“Was the person dead?”

“No… they’d been cut down by their partner. There were quite nasty injuries to the neck.”

“That’s horrific,” I say, “were they young?”

“40s, 50s…”

I talk about how people jump in front of London Underground train quite frequently and how blasé the delayed train announcements are about it as a result of the frequency. But that they offer drivers counselling, which makes me ask, “Do they offer you counselling?”

“Yeah, when we’ve had a bad job they do a debrief session and offer you counselling as well.”

I change the subject, “do you have a special driving test to drive an ambulance?”

“You have to have a category one license to drive the ambulances. It’s to do with the amount of seats and weight. The A&E vehicle is about 3.5 tons.”

“What makes up the weight?”

“Two cylinders of oxygen, a life-pack for monitoring heartbeats and shocking patients who go into cardiac arrest. Then there are drugs… a scoop to scoop people from the floor to the stretcher, chairs… a special chair for getting people downstairs without having to lift them…”

“Do you want to do it forever?”

“I haven’t made that decision yet. Some days it can be the best job ever, and others it can be quite stressful. It’s a very demanding job and I do worry about my back. There’s a lot of manual work involved and there are so many people in the NHS who have had to retire early because of back problems. It does freak me out, that there could be one day when I lift somebody at the wrong angle or the other person doesn’t lift from the other side properly and all that weight would go on my back and that’d be it. But I’m happy with it for now.”

Sophie Collard on Google+

Who Needs The Far East When You’ve Got St. Ives | My Brother Returns

I described my brother’s decision to return early from a trip to Thailand a month ago, in this post. This is a follow-up guest post written by the man himself.

So this is my follow up to my sister’s blog post about my (failed) gap year. The post almost made it seem like I took the decision to leave and come home lightly. I did not. But I was unwilling to spend loads of money, on what should be the time of my life, on the indeterminate amount of awful weeks it may take for me to be happy.

Anyway, having said my bit about that, back to the journey at hand. (A trip which is NOT a substitute for three months travelling in Asia).
As soon as I retuned from Bangkok I made the decision to go for a week’s Cornish, cottage getaway with my girlfriend. A super relaxing, beach holiday in the good ol’ English countryside, where I’d be able to breathe the fresh air and still be in a balmy eighteen degrees or so.

We’re now on our second train from Plymouth to Penzance, stopping at Hayle (where we’re staying). Not really sure what to say about trains, they’re my favourite way to travel. No motion sickness, mostly quiet and spacious, you’re never usually forced to sit with randomers for long journeys and you travel the best scenic country routes. Well worth the extra money when compared with other modes of transport, I reckon. Which isn’t much more anyway, if you have a rail card, which we do.

Two returns from Bristol Temple Meads to Hayle (with railcards) cost us about £84, £42 each. We didn’t really book in advance. Most cottages and holiday homes we knew of through family and friends were unavailable or too expensive. It was the same on websites too, booking so close to the Easter hols. But we did find a late deal on a nice little cottage-lodge thing. £200 for the both of us, for a week. The place is equipped with everything we need and very close to the beach. So in total it’s £280 (£140 each) for the whole thing – To get to Hayle, very close to St Ives, and stay in a nice relaxed beach-side apartment – modern but with cottage charm. Yeah. Not a bad price for country walks, surf, sand, pubs and all round Cornish goodness. Compared to a ridiculous 20hrs of travel and £450 return to go to manic, super humid, smelly Bangkok for a week. However that’s just if you’re a wuss like me. Bangkok is actually pretty cool in some ways and isn’t really a basis for judging the rest of the country, which I’m sure would have been amazing.

The Heart of Wales Line | A Guest Post By Robert Gale

Heart of Wales Line

The Heart of Wales line is a 121 mile scenic route from Craven Arms, Shropshire to Llanelli in south Wales. Apart from a small portion near Swansea, the rural branch line is predominantly single track with five passing loops at Llandeilo, Llandovery, Llanwrtyd, Llandrindod and Knighton.

There are four daily services in each direction and two on a Sunday. All services run between Swansea and Shrewsbury with one service (the 0809 Monday-Saturday) starting from Cardiff.

A Heart of Wales ranger ticket is available for a very reasonable £30 which allows travel in a circular route between Newport in the south east of Wales, Llanelli in the south west of Wales and Shrewsbury in Shropshire. A standard off peak return between Newport and Shrewsbury is £33 so the ranger provides good value for money.

The journey time from Cardiff to Swansea is 4h59m. If you catch the service from Swansea it takes 3h52m and the actual Heart of Wales line proper will take slightly less.

The line passes through some 31 stations and halts many of which are request stops only. One stop is Sugar Loaf which is the least used station in Wales with only around 100 passengers using it each year.

The route also travels across a viaduct at Cynghordy and Knucklas and through a 1,000 yard tunnel at Sugar Loaf.

My Journey (Saturday 23rd April, 2011)

Rather than starting at Swansea, I caught the service from Cardiff to ensure that I had the best choice of seats. The train for the journey was a rather stale smelling but nonetheless clean single carriage Class 153 diesel unit operated by Arriva Trains Wales.

It takes around 1h30m to reach Llanelli and along the way stops at every station between Bridgend and Llanelli. This portion of the journey is used by people traveling to the main stations such as Bridgend, Neath and Swansea. A trolley service (with table service!) was available on the train from Swansea onwards.

Soon after leaving the estuary in Llanelli, and the start of the Hert of Wales line, the train enters some stunning countryside such as the meandering stream that follows the line between Llandybie and Ffairfach.

About a third of the way into the journey the train reaches Llandovery. Beyond this station is a a long climb up to Cynghordy station and then onto the 18-arch Cynghordy viaduct. Unfortunately you can’t get a good view of the viaduct itself but you do get excellent views of the valley on either side.

Two stations after Llandrindod is a beautifully kept little station called Dolau. The villagers spend a lot of time maintaining the plants and flowers on the platform and keeping the tiny waiting room in immaculate condition. There is a plaque on the station commemorating a visit by the Queen in 2002 during her Golden Jubilee tour.

Llanbister Road, like Builth Road that was passed earlier in the journey, maintains a the word Road in its title despite many other stations adopting the term Parkway instead.

The short ride between Llanbister Road and Llangynllo offers a great view on the right side of the train of a large open valley. Llangynllo is around five miles west of Knighton and the English border.

Before reaching Knighton you need to pass across the viaduct at Knucklas. A steep descent leads down to the viaduct and similarly to the Cynghordy viaduct you can’t get a good view from the train. Knucklas station is just after the viaduct. The spectacular 13-arch span viaduct was completed in 1865.

After Knucklas is Knighton station which is positioned just 100 yards over the English border in Shropshire. The market town itself is actually located in Powys, Wales. The jounrney onto Bucknell is particularly picturesque.

Once a two platform station, only one platform is now operational at Bucknell station. The large station building is now a private house and it’s residents are probably grateful that there are only four services a day as the train must sound its horn before departing.

Beyond Bucknell you pass through large open countryside and onto Hopton Heath and Broome, both small single platform stations.

The final station on the Heart of Wales line, but not the entire journey to Shrewsbury is Craven Arms. This much larger station is located on the junction of the Welsh Marches and Heart of Wales lines. Platform 1 serves Shrewsbury and beyond and Platform 2 serves the southbound trains to Hereford and Cardiff.

Despite the journey time, boredom is unlikely to set in as there is so much to look at from gorgeous countryside, wildlife and quant little stations many of which are nestled amongst small clusters of houses and farms buildings.

I travelled on a sunny April day which is probably best conditions for the trip although I imagine it would be equally stunning on a snowy winter day or when the valleys are covered in fog.

You can quite comfortably complete the entire journey in a day and that could include a few hours exploring Shrewsbury.

Moore At Hatfield House | A Very Splendid Preview

On a beautiful summer-like day in April the bloggers went to Hatfield House to play… arriving by train…

Anyone who has been to the Henry Moore Institute in Leeds or the Tate in London might’ve fallen in love with the accomplished sculptor’s work. Huge brass structures with curves that allude to the curves of women’s bodies and those found in nature as well as sculptures of women.

Moore at Hatfield House

Moore at Hatfield House

As we stand in a circle around one of Moore’s students, he describes the artist to us as ‘very naughty.’ And I think how very, very English it all is.

The grounds are prepossessing with all manner of plants and particularly wonderful flowers everywhere.

The sculptures fit perfectly, because they were designed to be at home in a setting like this. In fact, it is pointed out to us that Moore found many of his sculptures ended up in urban environments when they were never created with such environments in mind.

For lunch, we are taken to a hall where there are several round tables covered with white table clothes and with wine glasses beside the plates and cutlery. There are caterers serving salmon and potatoes, beef and salad and for the vegetarians (and later me) feta and vegetable stacks.

Red and white wine are brought to us.

When most of the bloggers have had two servings dessert is brought out. A fruits of the forest small cakey thing (I’m not a food blogger) with a side of clotted cream.

And then, then when I am very full coffee and chocolates are brought out.

After lunch, Andy manages to negotiate a private viewing of the house itself. The armoury is very impressive and of note are a pair of Queen Elizabeth’s silk stockings in a cabinet. The whole place smells woody.

Just before we leave I am told Tomb Raider was partly filmed at Hatfield House. This I find almost as exciting as lunch.

See the photos on Flickr

How Twitter Helped My Brother

Alright, this post isn’t about trains (don’t all gasp at once). Recently, my brother…

jetted off to Thailand with a friend. He was supposed to be travelling around Thailand and Laos for three months. Yes, three months. Then, approximately two days after his arrival he posted in my family’s closed Facebook group that he wanted to come home.

Before he left he’d suffered panic attacks, which I’d talked him through and explained how best to try and overcome them. I suffer from them too. So I wasn’t surprised when I got the message. I talked to him on Skype about it, trying to persuade him to stay out there. But he was having none of it. So I sent a tweet out asking for help. And my lovely friend @AboutLondon retweeted it, and put me in touch with @andrewspooner who, I later discovered is the author of the Footprint guide to Thailand (click the image to go through to the Amazon page)…

Andrew proceeded to email my brother advice, copying me in all the time. He sent links to good hotels he knew of, forwarded the phone number of a safe and trustworthy taxi driver who knew some English and generally offered consolation. And he spoke to me in direct messages all week as I rushed between the @FlightCentre_UK (who were very helpful) and tweeted other people and listened to the West Side Story soundtrack on the Jet Airways of India customer care line.

In the end, I changed his flights and he returned. Which I think is a shame. But I know that it can be scary having a panic attack when away from home. My advice would always be to go and get some Bach’s Rescue Remedy, some camomile tea* and repeat in your head ‘I will not give into this, I will not give into this,’ while taking deep breaths. Because at the end of the day panic attacks come from your mind, and you can either let them take over or will them to go away. But it’s a process that can take some years.

My brother is now planning to go somewhere else, on an organised tour. I hope he’s able to overcome the attacks. And at least he knows there is a whole community of friendly, helpful people online who can send advice straight away if he ever gets into a pickle.

Thank you to Andrew and Laura, as well as everyone else who wished my brother well.

*For those of you who might be eager to jump on the homeopathy doesn’t work bandwagon, yes you’re right, and yes science is wonderful, but seeing as this is a psychological complaint to begin with, a little placebo never hurt anyone.