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.

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

The Train from London Waterloo – Destinations and Ways to Save Money

A train from London Waterloo will go to destinations in the South West and South Coast of the UK. Waterloo is the busiest station in the UK with more than 90 million entries and exits a year. 90 Million! That’s a lot.

Popular destinations from London Waterloo vary depending on whether you are a commuter or a day tripper/holidaymaker.

The top three destinations out of London Waterloo are:

  • Bournemouth
  • Poole
  • Southampton

Other destinations from Waterloo include:

Salisbury     Windsor     Portsmouth     Ascot     Epsom      Reading

Guildford     Staines     Woking     Basingstoke     Winchester 

Exeter     Yeovil     Shepperton     Kingston     Weymouth

Hampton Court   Chessington     Sunningdale

Teddington     Brookwood     Wimbledon     Byfleet & New Haw

Waterloo to Southampton

Southampton is also a port, and ferries leave Southampton and go to the Isle of Wight with Red Funnel Ferries and the Hythe Pier on the Hythe Ferry. Trains take roughly 1hr 20mins – 1hr 40mins. There is a free shuttle bus  every 15 minutes from the train station that takes 7 mins to get to the ferry terminal.

Book train tickets from Waterloo to Southampton

Waterloo to Poole

I always think of the waterpark when I think of poole. A pool in Poole, imagine that. Very popular with little ones. 2hrs to 3hrs 20 mins from Waterloo.

Book trains from Waterloo to Poole 

Waterloo to Bournemouth

Bournemouth has a lovely long beach and so is a popular UK seaside destination, but is also home to Bournemouth University, which has a varied list of arts courses including Scriptwriting for Film and Television. Many students can also get a third off rail travel by using a Young Persons Railcard. 2hrs from Waterloo. 2hrs – 2hrs 15 mins from Waterloo.

Book trains from Waterloo to Bournemouth

And the rest…

Waterloo to Salisbury

Salisbury has Salisbury Cathedral, which is very grand indeed and has a modern font which behaves like a water feature. It is set in grassy grounds with lots of quaint little cafes nearby. It is 1 hr 30mins from Waterloo.

Waterloo to Windsor

Windsor is home to Windsor Castle and Legoland. It is just under 1 hr to Windsor & Eton Riverside from Waterloo. The castle is not far from the station and Legoland is served by a shuttle bus that picks up from both stations. Shuttle buses cost £4.80 for an adult return and £2.40 for a child return, information can be found here.

Waterloo to Portsmouth

Portsmouth is a port, so lots of ferries leave from Portsmouth and go with Direct Ferries to; St Malo, Caen, Cherbourg and Le Havre in France, Bilbao and Santander in Spain, Fishbourne in the UK and Guernsey and Jersey which are islands off the coast of, and belonging to, the UK. The train from Waterloo to Portsmouth takes 1hr 30mins – 2hrs. Portsmouth & Southsea station is closer to the ferry terminal than Portsmouth Harbour but shuttle buses operate from both. Allow 45 minutes to get from the train station to the ferry terminal to be on the safe side.

Waterloo to Ascot

Ascot has Royal Ascot, the famous annual horse races – where a lot of women wear a lot of hats. (One each for the most part). The racecourse is a seven minute walk from the railway station and trains from Waterloo take just under 1hr.

Waterloo to Epsom

Epsom has the Epsom Derby. The racecourse is usually served by a bus that takes 10 mins from the station, but during the festivals shuttle buses are laid on between the station and the racecourse these cost £3 one way or £5 return, regardless of your age. Otherwise its a 1/2 a mile walk from Tattenham Corner Station or 1 mile walk from Epsom Downs Station. Trains to Epsom take 35-40 mins.

Waterloo to Reading

Reading is a commuter city and station at which many journeys are split to save money. It is on the outskirts of the Network Rail area. There are lots of willow trees that hang over the river at Reading and it also has the Reading Festival, which can be seen from the train tracks that run alongside the festival area right by the station. Trains take 1hr 20mins from Waterloo to Reading.

Or you can hop on the Underground at Waterloo and get the train from London Paddington to Reading instead, which is a shorter journey.

Waterloo to Guildford

Guildford is another commuter destination in Surrey and, ‘luxury shopping capital of the UK.’ There is a castle you can visit for £3. Guildford is 40mins from Waterloo. 40mins to 1hr 15mins from Waterloo.

Waterloo to Staines

Staines, also a commuter destination and now actually called Staines-upon-Thames is also the closest train station to Thorpe Park, the fantastic water-based theme park loved by so many brits for so much more than its log flume. 30 – 50 mins from Waterloo and the 950 shuttle bus runs from the station to Thorpe Park every 15 mins.

Waterloo to Woking

Woking is a commuter town. 25-50 mins from Waterloo.

Waterloo to Basingstoke

Basingstoke is also a commuter town. 45 mins – 1 hr 20 mins from Waterloo.

Waterloo to Winchester

Winchester has Winchester Cathedral which costs to get into but is impressive even from the outside. The once capital of England is quite a charming little city with many old Tudor buildings. Ordinary chain shops and restaurants have found homes in these beautiful wooden-beamed buildings. Approximately 1hr from Waterloo.

Waterloo to Exeter

Exeter, gateway to Devon… Exeter is a university town but also has Exeter Cathedral and a 14th century labyrinth of underground passageways and Exeter’s Historic Quayside. 2 hrs 45 mins to 3hrs 25 mins from Waterloo.

Waterloo to Yeovil

Yeovil is not only the gateway railway station for those wanting to visit Glastonbury with its lovely town centre, Abbey and Tor, it also has a Railway Centre with steam trains. Lucky you. 2 hrs 20 mins from Waterloo.

Waterloo to Weymouth

Weymouth – the sea, the sea! 2 hrs 40 mins – 2 hrs 55 mins from Waterloo.

Waterloo to Hampton Court

To me Hampton Court Palace is significant because the ghost of Hernry VIII’s wife is said to haunt it. Catherine Howard purportedly runs screaming yet headless through the halls. Hampton Court is 30 – 36 mins from Waterloo. The palace is 200m across the bridge from the station.

Waterloo to Chessington

Home to Chessington World of Adventures. 10 mins walk from Chessington South rail station. 34 mins from Waterloo.

Waterloo to Kingston

Kingston is served by Shepperton station too. 28 – 43 mins to Kingston from Waterloo.

Waterloo to Sunningdale

Sunningdale is a commuter destination and wealthy residential area. 47 mins from Waterloo.

Waterloo to Teddington

Teddington is a commuter destination which has a lock you can visit. There’s some info here. 33-37 mins from Waterloo.

Waterloo to Brookwood

Brookwood is of particular interest to me because of the Necropolis railway that once ran from central London to the cemetery. A private railway line was used to transport coffins and mourners. Sometimes twice daily. The station was sadly bombed in the war and never rebuilt and so the railway line was ripped up. But you can still go on guided walks of the route for a suggested donation of £3. An in-depth Fortean Times article can be found here. 35-45 mins from Waterloo.

Waterloo to Wimbledon

Wimbledon, tennis dahling. 16 mins from Waterloo.

Waterloo to Byfleet & New Haw

Byfleet & New Haw – Mercedes-Benz World is here, if cars are your thing. There are exhibitions about the history of Mercedes-Benz and they offer guided tours and driving experiences too. 35 – 40 mins from Waterloo.

Waterloo to Strawberry Hill

A commuter town in Twickenham home to  Strawberry Hill, Horace Walpole’s Gothic Castle, a Gothic Revival building commissioned by the son of Britain’s first Prime Minister. It’s five to ten minutes walk from the station and is sign-posted. 35- 45 mins from Waterloo.

So whether you’re a commuter or day-tripper, Waterloo provides a gateway to some excellent cities, towns and attractions. If you think this guide is missing something, do let me know…


50p Train Ticket from London to Birmingham

Thanks to Ian Visits for sharing this AMAZING deal – book two one way 25p tickets to end up with a 50p train ticket from London to Birmingham in September and October 2013. Click the image below to go to the site and book yours. Hurry!


Go to the Bullring and check out the cool spacey Selfridges building, eat a curry at one of the multitude of fabulous curry houses, check out vintage clothing in the huge shop there, stay the night and go clubbing. Go to the jewellery quarter or visit the chocolate industry leftovers. Whatever, it’s cheap. I wonder where else we’d all flock to if trains were this cheap. An interesting thought really.

Chiltern Railways. Winner.

Back to Back Package, How Holidays Cost the Same as Living in London

Today, I looked at the Directline Holidays late deals page. Thought it would be interesting, as a vagabond, to see whether joining up back to back package holidays would cost the same as moving house within London and renting. Thus far I’ve successfully (and somewhat painfully) moved my stuff into a locker in London. Aside from clothes, a laptop, and a strangely vast number of plugs, which I didn’t have time to untangle and imbue with meaning.

In some cases you could probably pay just over £1,000 to join up four back to back package holidays. If we take a typical houseshare rent + bills in London at approximately £550-£700 + £80 travel + £80 a month for food + £55 for gym + £120 a month for any pub visits and other luxuries (don’t mention the daily chocolate bar budget) we get £885 for cheap London living each month or £1,035 for those with slightly higher rents. As a freelancer, this means that a choice between back to back package holidays and just living in London actually exists.

Office in the sun - Image provided by Tourism Thailand

Office in the sun – Image provided by Tourism Thailand

Obviously, given my penchant for all things train-related and my dislike of planes and package holidays, it’s not for me. But isn’t that crazy? Isn’t that slap-me-in-the-face-because-I-can’t-bloody-believe-it ridiculous?

Having perched myself in Bristol over the last weekend and become familiar with booking coaches and phoning lovely friends with space to stay, I’m wondering when and how we’re going to sort out the housing mess that is London. Does the government seriously think the answer is for people to become freelancers to help the economy only to move into someone’s spare room and pay their bedroom tax for them? What a monumentally bizarre country we do live in.

At this stage – it means ultimately giving up the freelance lifestyle and returning to the world of full time employment. But I’m incredibly lucky to have that option, I had a good education and writing is a skill people need.

This post was brought to you by Directline Holidays. Clearly.

Sophie Collard on Google+

TFL London Talk About the London 2012 Olympics

Last week, David McNeill, the Director of Public Affairs and Stakeholder Engagement at TFL, gave an immensely amusing TFL London Talk about travelling around London during the Olympics. He was so funny I thought he should switch career and do comedy instead. Although, ‘I work for TFL and can promise everything is going to be fine,’ is probably a one off joke.

(Thanks Sue, for taking his picture)

As many of you know by now, there is a fantastic site called get ahead of the games, that, alongside some freaky illustrations, details everything you want to know about travelling around during the Olympics. The trouble is it can be a bit like having a menu that’s too extensive at a restaurant. So here are some important points to take away with you:

1. don’t drive through London during the Olympics. Pretty obvious perhaps, but the only people who will be getting anywhere quickly will be athletes, athlete’s families, authorised big-shots, and media types using special lanes on the ORN, or Olympic Route Network.

2. use the train to get to London and indeed other cities hosting events if you aren’t there already. Additional services will be running to places 2-3 hours outside London. Some will run until 1/1.30am. and if you haven’t booked tickets yet, do – because advanced fares are far cheaper than fares on the day. Incidentally if in or heading to London;

3. …get your Oyster card sorted and topped up now, to avoid silly queues at machines during the weeks of (fun) madness. The Oyster can be used on buses, the Underground, the Overground (far more spacious, cheaper and recommended tube alternative) and the DLR. If you have a Railcard you can add it to your Oyster card and shrink the fares alarmingly. Don’t tell anyone I told you, it seems to be a big TFL secret and I’m really enjoying my reduced rate.

4. avoid the Central Line like the plague. I do this on a day-to-day basis anyway because I enjoy what I have left of my sanity. Avoid Bond Street. Avoid London Bridge. If you can, avoid using the tube as much as possible. Check the hotspots. David says, ‘instead of waiting an extra half an hour on the platform, go down the pub for a beer. We have also negotiated cinema and restaurant deals for people who are working in London so that they can avoid the crush… it’s a better idea than it sounds. And don’t go on the central line.’

5. there are a couple of events that will be free. However, don’t go and see the Marathon unless you are mad. The Marathon doesn’t take the normal London Marathon route. David says, ‘ever seen one of those  Hollywood movies set in London with a big car chase that seems to take in every famous landmark from Buckingham Palace to Big Ben to the Tower of London in two minutes flat? Well the Marathon route is a bit like that. It runs five times round central London. We’ve worked out that there’s space for around 150,000 spectators. We are expecting over a million. So that could be quite a difficult one. If you want to go, don’t expect to be able to use the toilet, don’t take the children, and take lots of water. Because basically otherwise you’ll dehydrate and your children will die.’

And then David finishes his TFL London Talk with, ‘anyway in summary it really will be okay – the public transport system is going to hold up, it will be alright, and soon we’ll be joyfully celebrating the 150th year of the Tube.’

Sophie Collard on Google+