London to Hamburg by Train via Brussels and Cologne with Interrail.eu

Shockingly, it’s my first time traversing Europe with Interrail.eu. And after the Eurostar from London to Brussels, which I booked in advance to secure the £39 one way fare – on a very early train that I have to run for, dropping strawberries at the Tube barriers on the way – I’m ready to begin the first leg of a trip to Tampere, Finland, to cover the Tampere Theatre Festival for the mustlovefestivals project. The first leg is the London to Hamburg by train. I’ve always booked journeys point-to-point in the past because I’m always going somewhere. With an Interrail pass – or Eurail pass, for those of you in the US – you can be going nowhere in particular. That’s the whole point. I guess if I took long holidays I’d do Interrail more frequently. As it is, for this trip, I spend hours on the phone meticulously making all the reservations I need for the specific trains I’d usually book point-to-point.

London to Brussels

The cheapest Eurostar tickets are also non-exchangeable and non-refundable, so don’t do what I did and decide to do the washing-up just before you leave the flat because you forgot to do it the night before, miscalculate the length of time it takes you to walk to the tube station and then gallop full pelt to check-in once you reach the station, cutting in the queue when you get there, and reaching the train with only five minutes before it’s due to leave, sitting down in a puddle of your own sweat, gasping and sucking in dry air and wondering where your water is.

To secure the £39 one way fare from London St. Pancras to Brussels Midi, I booked two weeks in advance and chose the 06:50 train because it was the cheapest. The journey takes about two hours twenty minutes and I had just under twenty minutes at Brussels before the next train for the day…

Brussels to Cologne

On the Deutsche Bahn (DB) train to Cologne I learn that seats with ‘Freigeben’ on the teeny monitors above are ‘sort of unreserved.’ This means they were unreserved up until the last minute but might potentially still be reserved. This, I think, is a little disorganised. As my reserved seat is near to a man with frighteningly bad B.O. I move to a Freigeben seat. When smelly B.O. man sees this he seizes his previously unrealised freedom and follows. So I move to a window seat away from his musty underarms.

Liege, in Belgium is the first stop. The station is an architectural delight, and the same architect has been commissioned to design the new station being built in Mons.

Liege Station, Belgium. © Sophie Collard

Liege Station, Belgium. © Sophie Collard

Liege Station © Sophie Collard

Liege Station © Sophie Collard

Shortly after this, Aachen Hpf is announced by the German flags on buildings just before it. Forest and very tidy fields and windmills follow and before long the train arrives in Cologne.

DB Train at Cologne Station. © Sophie Collard

DB Train at Cologne Station. © Sophie Collard

 

Cologne Station with the Cathedral in the background. © Sophie Collard

Cologne Station with the Cathedral in the background. © Sophie Collard

If you have a gap between trains, leave the station and take a look at the cathedral, it’s right outside the station and is big and beautiful. After that, pop back inside and find a local beer for the onward journey.
The Brussels to Cologne journey time is just under two hours and the reservation to ride with an Interrail pass or Eurail pass is €5.

Cologne to Hamburg

Dom beer on the Cologne to Hamburg train. © Sophie Collard

Dom beer on the Cologne to Hamburg train. © Sophie Collard

After a look inside the nearby cathedral and a Dom beer purchase, I board the 13:10 to Hamburg. The train first passes over a bridge that crosses a river then stops at Dusseldorf, which has a disappointingly uninspiring station, all small and concrete. Then the train continues past trees and trees and trees, a lake, more trees. When Germans get on to the train they say hello, which is nice. At Bochum, two cocky guys get on. They lie over two seats each and put their legs in the air. When they get bored of pretending to sleep, they sit up and talk about their cars and how on the whole German cars are the best in the world, even though Italian cars look good. I pretend I can understand less than I can, and they show pictures of their cars to the electrician sitting near me instead. They are still talking about cars long after Dortmund. I sigh a breath of relief when they get off at Bremen. Not long after that I reach what I absentmindedly think is Hamburg Hpf.

Hamburg Station. © Sophie Collard

Hamburg Station. © Sophie Collard

The Cologne to Hamburg journey time is four hours and the reservation fee to ride with an Interrail pass or Eurail pass is €5.

I’m pretty much past the point of wanting to stay in dorms with other travellers, but still enjoy access to ‘hostel atmosphere,’ so I book a private room at the original Superbude in Hamburg.

I’d accidentally alighted before Hamburg central station so have to go to the U-Bahn (Metro) a little earlier than intended. This means I then get a bit lost figuring out the system. It’s like having to figure out the London Underground or Paris Metro in ten minutes. If you alight at the main station like you’re supposed to, it’s a lot easier. Thankfully I have enough broken German left over from school to ask station staff what the hell I’ve done wrong. From the central station, Superbude is just one stop to Berliner Tor. As with any unfamiliar place, it’s best to print a map of the area before you go. 

As I only have a few hours in the city, I walk round the corner from Superbude and find a light-filled hotel restaurant called Essraum, in the Junges Hotel. There are elegant pink flowers on each table. There I eat a wonderful schnitzel that reminds me of a half-German family friend’s home cooking. I have a glass of German red wine to go with it. It is glorious. One of the best solo dining experiences I’ve ever had. The waitress even winks at me.

In the morning, Superbude provide an impressive breakfast buffet, for €8, which featured waffles you can make yourself, juice and coffee, fruit, rolls, hams and cheeses, yoghurts, muesli and fruit. When I explain I have a train to catch, the staff gave me a takeaway paper bag. No hotel or hostel has ever done that for me before. I put some rolls and kiwi fruits in the bag, plus a couple of colourful chocolate ladybirds.

The next leg of the journey would be Hamburg to Odense with a ferry crossing and a change at Hoje Taastrup…

If you are travelling London to Hamburg in a day, and Hamburg is the final destination, book point to point – it’ll cost from £159.50 when booked in advance, maybe even less. The cheapest pass is £191 on its own for 5 days in 10, so only get one if you’re travelling for longer.

I paid £56 for the room at Superbude last minute, with the breakfast. Dinner at Essraum was a bit of a treat and I spent about €30 (£24) on it. A local transport ticket was less than £2 and I used the machines to get one.

With an Interrail or Eurail pass, my entire journey, London to Tampere costs from £343, and less without making reservations AKA winging it. Point-to-point costs from £399 – although the day crossing on the ferry from Stockholm to Turku might have been worth it, it’s cheaper and you get the wonderful scenery of all the Swedish islands for longer.

Here is a full breakdown of my journey from London all the way to Tampere:

  • £39 one way Eurostar ticket London to Brussels
  • 10 days in 22 Interrail pass was kindly provided to me by Interrail.eu. A standard adult pass for 10 days in 22 costs €339 (£271) or €534 (£425) for first class. Be careful to purchase only what you need, as in the end I could have gone for a 5 days in 10 pass, which would have cost €239 (£191) in standard or €375 (£300) in first class
  • I called my friends at International Rail to make the reservations, these cost me £57 in total, for all the trains as far as Stockholm. I didn’t need to make all those reservations (although you do have to with high speed or overnight trains for the pass to be valid), but it’s risky not to 
  • The Viking line overnight ferry was €70 (£56) for the budget four bed dorm, so if I’d had three friends it would have been just £14 each
  • It wasn’t necessary to make reservations for trains in Finland

Point-to-point London to Tampere would look something like this…

  • £39 for my one way Eurostar ticket London to Brussels
  • Brussels to Cologne from £41.50
  • Cologne to Hamburg from £79
  • Hamburg to Odense via Hoeje Taastrup from £71
  • Odense to Copenhagen from £35
  • Copenhagen to Malmo £12
  • Malmo to Stockholm, £42.50
  • Viking overnight ferry Stockholm to Turku, £56
  • Turku to Tampere from £23

Top Easter 2014 Short Breaks by Train from London

Easter falls on 20th April, with Good Friday 18th April and Bank Holiday Monday 21st. A perfect amount of time to enjoy Easter 2014 short breaks by train. Train travel is (for me at least) far less stressful than flying and, with a bit of a search, cheaper too. Even if it means not going as far. I’ve looked into places in the UK it’s easy and cheap to get to by train from London this Easter weekend…

London to Oxford – from £5 each way

Oxford

Good Friday fares are as low as £5 London to Oxford and from £6.45 one way Oxford to London at the moment with First Great Western. Great sites in Oxford include (probably) my favourite museum in the UK, the Pitt Rivers Museum, as well as the Ashmolean Museum, which the city-promoting people tend to make more of a fuss about. Also worth a visit is the Museum of the History of Science with it’s ancient globes. There are several wonderfully old pubs you may have to bend your back a little to walk around inside, and the punting scene, if that’s your thing.

London to Cambridge – from £6 one way

Cambridge Rowers 1943

Not so long ago I went to stay in Norfolk for a week, stopping off at Ely on the way up to Kings Lynn and stopping off at Cambridge on the journey back from Kings Lynn to London. Breaking the journey in that way is free if you have a ticket valid for the entire day, however the cheapest tickets mean travelling at a set time on a specific train. I discovered slower trains from London Liverpool Street to Cambridge are cheaper. So ignore anyone at ticket offices who tries to encourage you not to buy them. Vive la révolution! Hooray! This Easter Weekend, you can get a single with Greater Anglia on Easter Friday from £6 one way and the same on Bank Holiday Monday. Cambridge has famous and beautiful colleges, Christ’s Pieces – a stretch of land where goths hang out, and the Fitzwilliam Museum – although that’s closed Good Friday and Mondays generally. Oh and you can go for a punt of course. Or a pint. Or both.

London to Bath – from £13.50 one way

Bath

Book now with First Great Western and you can get fares from £13.50 each way from London to Bath for the Easter weekend. Bath has the Abbey, Royal Crescent, Pulteney Bridge and Roman Baths, that, last time I went, were accompanied by Bill Bryson’s thoughts in the audio guide. I lived in Bath for a while and learned things like, there was no Sally Lunn and Jane Austen actually disliked – read hated – the city, plus the Bath Chronicle said Queen Victoria looked drab when she visited, so she never returned. As such, Bath is best appreciated for it’s aesthetic beauty, celebration of the elite, and pubs like the Raven, the Royal Oak and the wonderful – co-operatively owned – Bell Inn. Toppings bookshop is lovely too, they’ll make you a cup of tea while you browse. Talking of tea, check out the Tea Emporium rather than taking afternoon tea in the tourist traps if you fancy a bit of peace.

All three cities have some fantastic places to stay from about £30 per person per night sharing on airbnb.co.uk

Letter to an Unknown Soldier, a WWI Project at Paddington Station

Letter to an Unknown Soldier is a new project created by Neil Bartlett, a novelist and theatre director, and Kate Pullinger, a professor of Creative Writing at Bath Spa, with the aim of making a tribute out of words to mark the centenary of the beginning of the First World War. Members of the public are invited to write their own letters to the unknown soldier, forming a collaborative war memorial. The statue the project centres around is on Platform One at Paddington Station in London.

Everyone from the celebrated Stephen Fry to the celebrated poet Andrew Motion has had a go, of the 50 leading writers and artists kicking it all off – but the big reveal will be 28th June 2014, with the project running until 4th August 2014. I’ve had a go at writing one too…

“I wanted to express my gratitude… is what I find myself writing from habit. I’m not sure gratitude is the right word, because I’m not too sure I’m for the war, or any war for that matter. And I’m not sure whether you’re out there by choice or by duty or if the two can ever be intertwined. I could talk about home or ask you what it is like out there, in the mud and the cold and the rain. I could talk about the women down the road sewing as if it will mend everything, or about my widowed neighbour who stares forlornly at the forget-me-nots in her garden and no longer speaks, not even to the milkman. But I don’t think these trivialities will put light in your heart and it is light in your heart that might pull you through the struggles that arrive with each new day. So I will tell you a story, with the aim of spiriting you away to a gentle place…

After a while all the cold mud grows warmer, and the air hot. Rainforest plants appear, thick and moist and green and they open to a lake from which steam rises. All around birds of paradise sing. The butterflies float iridescent in the humidity and the bright tree frogs gaze longingly at the flies. A beautiful person swims there, in the lake, every day, at the foot of a ramshackle jetty which runs from the door of a house made of reeds to the bank. This ethereal being kisses the water as it flows past their nakedness. Time subsides. Reaching the bank they raise their body glistening from the water, drawing their legs up to their chest. And then their eyes, like other fantastical worlds, invite you to join them, as temptation stretches out across the sand waiting.”

 

© Dom Agius

© Dom Agius

Stephen Fry wrote;

“Beloved brother,

 Enough time has passed now for us to think only one thought:  that we will never see you again. The last I heard you were cheerful and funny, as ever.

Remember when I told you that I was going to declare myself a conscientious objector? I saw a look in your eye. “My brother, a coward?” It nearly killed me. I would give anything to be in your place, a hero respected and at peace — and not just because of the insults, beatings and stones hurled at me from bus conductors, shopkeepers and children in the streets.

Every night Ma and Pa sob as they try to swallow their food. I eat in another room. They cannot look at me. I try not to feel sorry for myself, but I do believe it is wrong to kill. I made my decision. you made yours.

For eternity your image will stand for unquestioning courage. I will die proud of you and ashamed of myself. And that is in spite of me being right.”

The Unknown Soldier © Dom Agius

The Unknown Soldier © Dom Agius

In the 37 days prior to the anniversary of the declaration of war, you’re invited to write your own letter and send it to the site. As the letters are submitted, they will be published for everybody to see. After that they’ll be added to the British Library web archive.

Fifty UK writers have pledged to write letters to the soldier so far. Among them are Benjamin Zephaniah, David Almond, Geoff Dyer, Malorie Blackman, and Birdsong writer Sebastian Faulks.

Prisoners, nurses, senior citizens, local historians, ex-service men and women and lots of secondary school pupils have also pledged to write letters.

The Letter to an Unknown Soldier website goes live 28th June 2014. You can visit now to read more, including a few of the letters at 1418NOW.org.uk/letter.

Behold! The Two Together Railcard – For Cheaper Train Tickets

Attention couples and (very good) friends: Exciting news! For the first time in thirty years the Association of Train Operating Companies (ATOC) is offering a new discount card, saving lucky rail travellers a whopping third off off peak travel on the Nation Rail network. And you don’t have to be under 25 or over 60 – you can be my age! Or whatever age you might be, dear reader, that is between the ages of 25 and 60.

The card’s launch date is 3rd March 2014 and it’s a big hooray for those of us who might have made the switch from rail travel to National Express coach travel much of the time because train travel is just. too. expensive.

The Two Together Railcard March 3rd 2014 - courtesy of ATOC.

The Two Together Railcard March 3rd 2014 – courtesy of ATOC.

The card will cost £30 and save you 1/3 off rail travel – just as the 16-25 and senior rail cards do. The card is for couples and friends travelling together. The only catch, if you want to see it that way, is that you need two named persons on it – which means that as with EE’s ‘Magic Numbers’ you’ll want to agree to get a card with someone you know you travel by train with more than anyone else. This inevitably means the greatest beneficiaries will be happy couples – but pick a good bestie and it’s still a pretty damn good offering.

I’m excited. I don’t know who I will identify as the adult between 25 and 60 I travel with on the network the most, but I am excited.

Good job, ATOC – more of this please.

You will be able to purchase your very own Two Together Railcard online at railcard.co.uk from 3rd March 2014 or at any train station ticket office (that’s big enough) in the UK.

For more on the varying railcards and how they can save you money – check out my post How to Book Trains in the UK and save Money

Break your Journey, do some Split Ticketing | Sightseeing for Less

Recently, I decided I was going to go for it. Quite simply, if I wanted to go some places and see some shit, I was going to do it, because, as the kids say, you only live once (or twice, as I heard the other day).

With my wonderful friend and colleague, Katherine Conlon, a historian with a degree in the subject from York and an MA from Bristol, we set up the website www.traveldarkly.com. This gave me a new sense of purpose – a new theme. I would explore the UK, Europe and beyond looking for freaky shit.

To start this ‘going for it’ business, I got two massive maps of the UK from Stanfords travel bookshop alongside a Lonely Planet Great Britain . I carefully and painstakingly underlined all the places in the UK that related to death, disaster and the macabre throughout history, as well as all the best railway journeys in the UK, and linked the two together. Following the advice of my great friend Kashyap, the Budget Traveller, I also acquired a copy of the Rough Guide to the Best Places to Stay in Britain on a Budget.

The latter was invaluable when, at 6pm on a Sunday, I arrived at King’s Lynn station hoping to hop on the Coast Hopper Bus – only to realise that on a Sunday the last one leaves at 4pm, and that I needed to give a very nice taxi driver the postcode of Deepdale Farm where I was going to be staying, so he could put it into his GPS wotsit-magig and take me there.

A room of one's own for £24 a night in winter at Deepdale Farm Backpackers. © Sophie Collard

A room of one’s own for £24 a night in winter at Deepdale Farm Backpackers. © Sophie Collard

On 10th January, I left home with a suitcase filled with clothes and borrowed ski wear. The plan was a bit of the UK, followed by a ski train trip to the Jungfrau region, followed by more of the UK.

And this is when a revelation hit me. I wanted to see quite a few places, by train, in the UK that related to dark tourism. I had maps and descriptions. I knew how to split train tickets by booking different legs of a journey separately, and I knew that UK train rules from up high dictate that passengers are allowed to break their journey at any given station on any given route they are travelling, provided they do so on the day of travel.

I was headed to Deepdale Farm in Norfolk for a week, because I wanted to do some writing, I’m not wealthy enough right now to be able to afford an Arvon Foundation retreat, and the smell of woodsmoke is my favourite smell in the whole wide world. And it’s really cheap.

I had a train ticket from London to King’s Lynn. There was a replacement rail service from Ely. I had never been to Ely. There was a Cathedral in Ely that not only has a painted ceiling to rival the Sistine Chapel’s but also an architect who fell off the roof of to his death, and Oliver Cromwell’s House, which is ‘haunted,’ and the museum, which is housed in a very old gaol. Perfect. I tweeted the train operator for this route, First Capital Connect, and asked if it was possible to break the journey at Ely. It was, so I did.

Ely Cathedral Ceiling © Sophie Collard

Ely Cathedral Ceiling © Sophie Collard

On the way back from King’s Lynn, a week later, I noted that Cambridge was on the line to London. Lovely, can’t beat a stop in Cambridge. I got to King’s Lynn station and asked how much a train to London was. £33.50. This seemed awfully expensive, when it should have been £22.50 or something.

‘That’s at weekends,’ the man in the ticket office said.

‘What. A. Load. Of. Crap,’ I thought.

So I asked if I could just purchase King’s Lynn to Cambridge for £9.50. I did. I went. I saw. And then when I got to Cambridge station (taking the park and ride into town and back, which is a bitch to walk to with a suitcase otherwise) I checked for the cheapest of the two trains available – one goes to King’s Cross, one goes to Liverpool Street – I saw that the slow one to Liverpool Street, which was the area I wanted to be in anyway, was £15.90. This meant the total fare for that day, on the day, King’s Lynn to Liverpool Street with a long pause in Cambridge, was £25.40.

Sidney Sussex College, Cambridge, Where Oliver Cromwell's head is buried © Sophie Collard

Sidney Sussex College, Cambridge, Where Oliver Cromwell’s head is buried © Sophie Collard

I don’t think the man in the ticket office was altogether impressed when I exclaimed, ‘I WIN!’

Empowered by this cheap train ticket win, I happily opened my Lonely Planet Great Britain and looked for the next trip which would follow after the train to Switzerland and back. Bristol, my hometown, then back to London.

And what’s this? What is on the line to London from Bristol? Well lot’s of places, including Swindon, where the STEAM museum is, but I’ve been to the STEAM museum, and Swindon is boring (sorry Swindon), so the answer is actually Didcot Parkway. And not because I’m looking to hang out in Didcot Parkway, but because Didcot Parkway is the gateway to Oxford.

Here’s how it will work. Following a wonderful excursion to the Jungfrau region by Eurostar, TGV Lyria, SBB and Jungfraubahn, I treated myself to a walk-up open return to Bristol, where I am sitting right here, right now, just like the Fatboy Slim song says.

On the return to London, where I will be taking afternoon tea with the wonderful Laura Porter of about.com fame, I can break my journey at Didcot Parkway, where, get this, a return to Oxford is a mere £6. £6! For all the joys of the Pitt River’s Museum and its shrunken heads, and Oxford Castle and its grizzly history, and all the pubs for gnomes…

Well I don’t mind if I do.

For more information about saving money when booking train tickets by split ticketing, journey breaks or using rail cards, see my post; How to Book Trains in the UK and Save Money