A Day Trip to The Watercress Line (Mid-Hants Railway)

You may have previously read about my dad taking us on rail journeys when we were children.  Be it anything from our local suburban stopping service to obscure little diesel lines out in the country, dad used to frequently take us on rail adventures new.  These journeys created a fire in us for rail travel.

My love of railways still burns brightly.  I don’t know what it is about rail journeys that gets me excited.  The more obscure the line, the better.  I love railways so much that my now husband even proposed to me on a dining car on the North Yorkshire Moors Railway five years ago!

Amongst the railways we used to visit was the Mid-Hants Railway, also known as the Watercress Line.  Being one of the heritage railways in the southeast, it was never too far away for us to visit, and gave us a fantastic day out travelling on board majestic steam trains in the heart of the Hampshire countryside.

So I was beyond thrilled when I got the opportunity to visit the Watercress Line over the August bank holiday, except this time as the parent.  Accompanied by my elder son and husband, we drove down from southwest London to Alton, which took roughly an hour.

The line runs from pretty Alresford (7 miles east of Winchester) to Alton.  The main station is Alresford, which has a car park uniquely for Watercress Line visitors, but you can begin your journey at Alton and park in the Network rail car park.  I was advised that parking may be tricky at the Alton end, but there were plenty of spaces and parking cost us £2 for the day.  The availability and price of parking may be different during the week when there may be more commuters using the route from Alton in London on Southwest Trains.

The line itself is 10 miles long and is nicknamed the Watercress Line because it used to transport watercress to London markets.  (Yummy – watercress is one of my favourite salad ingredients).  The line operates a timetabled service which you can see in more detail on their website.  As well as the standard services, they also run real ale trains, dining cars as well as a variety of seasonal special events.  You can even book the chance to ride on the footplate or have an introductory driving lesson!  My personal favourite would be experiencing the real ale train; I love ale, I love trains, it has got to be a win-win.

It was a beautiful sunny day, not too hot and just perfect for visiting a steam railway.  We were greeted by the friendly staff in the shop at the Alton end, who advised that there would be freight trains running along the line during the day (we like freight trains, so this was great news for us).  We had enough time to pop a conveniently placed Waitrose at Alton to pick up some refreshments for the journey, and we got back to the platform in time to see our train pull into the station.

For the outbound journey, our train was pulled by ‘Lord Nelson’, a beautifully shiny, green tender engine.  My son was totally captivated by the sight of Lord Nelson, as it was nothing like he had ever seen before – a far cry from the Class 450 Desiros on Southwest trains (one of which was standing on the other platform at Alton).

 

We boarded our train and despite it being a sunny bank holiday weekend, we were able to get seats to ourselves.  By the time the train was ready to depart, the carriage was fairly full, but not packed, which made for a comfortable journey.  The journey took a little under an hour and comprised of three stops, including our final destination at Alresford.

We were aware of the West Country Buffet at Alresford, but our son was keen to stretch his legs once we’d left the train, so as much as we’d have liked to, we didn’t stop there for any food.  I was told by a fellow enthusiast on the Alton platform that the West Country Buffet is excellent, providing hot and cold food as well as snacks and drinks.  There are also refreshments available on board the train in the buffet car as well as the other stations on the line.  We had a wander around pretty Alresford, which is a short walk from the station.  We picked up some food from a local bakery, before deciding to head back to get the next train back to Alton.

We had the majestic Wadebridge (see below) pull us on our return journey.  We were able to see Wadebridge couple up to the train before we boarded for Alton.

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What struck me about the line was how incredibly well-kept the stations were.  They were clean and tidy, the gardens were immaculate and there was no sign of wear and tear on the paintwork or trains.  Everything was kept in such beautiful condition, and it was clear that the line is clearly well-loved by the people that run it.  I later learned that most of this hard maintenance work is done by volunteers who travel from great distances to help keep this valuable piece of rail heritage working and looking stunning.

We would have stayed for longer and perhaps alighted at the other stations if our son was a little older and able to tolerate a longer day out.  He loved his first ride on a steam train, but he was totally wiped out by the time we arrived at Alton.  He was half asleep on the walk back to the car, but simultaneously requesting to go back on the steam train (and has since been).

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If you have ever been curious about visiting a heritage railway, then please do just head down to the Watercress Line.  It is a fantastic day out like no other.  Your ticket will cover you for travel up and down the line all day.  Children and adults will be captivated by the magic of those old engines, from their sheer appearance to their smell and their sound.  Even the novelty of the slam-door carriages in an era of automatic, beeping doors will bring a smile to your face.  There is nothing comparable to the experience and atmosphere of a British steam railway, and the Watercress Line is a fine example of such a railway.

Here is a little video clip of some of the footage I shot while we were out.  I had no plans to video anything that day, but nevertheless found myself filming a bit.

Have you been to a heritage railway?  I’d love to hear your experiences and thoughts.

Disclosure: The team at the Mid-Hants Railway very kindly supplied us with a family pass for the purpose of this visit.  This review was written by me (Fiona @ Free Range Chick) and all opinions are my own.

Flowers and Fruit for Four Years of Marriage

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This is a slightly belated post, as Ian and I celebrated our wedding anniversary last week.  Four long, tiring, hard years of modern-day slavery together (me slaving as a nurse and looking after the kids and him slaving on building sites and telephone exchanges as an electrician).  No, I jest about the slavery; that’s just life, right?

Anyway, we celebrated our four-year wedding anniversary last Wednesday, the day before my parents’ 38-year wedding anniversary.  According to Wikipedia, four years of marriage in the UK is symbolised by fruit and flowers, or in the US, linen or silk.  Being the romantics that we are, neither of us saw anything resembling a bloom or one of our five-a-day, but we did stretch ourselves to writing a card for each other.

We were both working in the day, but did make it out to a fabulous New Malden Korean restaurant called Su La in the evening.  We ate some delicious and healthy Korean treats.  We had quite a lot of fizz before we left and some more when we returned, so I was in a charming mood the following day.

I found this page on About.com which gives couples some ideas on what they could do to mark their first wedding anniversary.  Some of these were pretty cheesy, and the last one on the list took the biscuit.  In case you chose not to read the article, the final suggestion is to ‘relive the wedding night with great sex’.  Really?  I am uncertain there is a married couple on earth who took to their honeymoon suite after the longest day ever, and had incredible sex.  Many couples are so exhausted from the stress and length of the day, in addition to the copious amount of drinking and dancing, that they’re barely able to string a coherent sentence together by the time their wedding day is over.  Or was that just us?

Anyhow, I digress.  Despite our low-key anniversary celebration, Ian and I regularly reminisce on how blooming brilliant our wedding day was, despite the incoherence back at the plush honeymoon suite.  We had all of our close friends and immediate family with us at a stunning venue (Ham House in Ham, Richmond).  Everyone looked gorgeous, ate well and partied hard in the evening.  Our dance floor was full at all times, which was one of the most important things to me when I planned the entire event.

So one day, when our babies are less babyish and more boyish, we’ll be able to push the boat out a little more and celebrate our wedding anniversaries with more of a bang.  In the meantime, we’ll both still regularly reminisce on our incredible wedding, magical honeymoon in idyllic Kefalonia, and look forward to many more years together.

Happy anniversary to The Dashing Mr Chick x

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My sons wear pink, AND they have intact penises

I was recently out with my mum and younger son in our local town centre for a spot of lunch and shopping.  My baby son was 13 months at the time, and had acquired a pair of chopsticks from the fab restaurant we were in (Busaba Ethai).  He was happily waving them around, nibbling on them, dropping them etc., as we made our way around Kingston.  We wandered into a stationary shop, where one of the shop assistants was admiring his chopstick-skills.

“She’s going to be a drummer when she grows up.”

Mum and I whipped round and simultaneously piped up with,

“He’s a boy!”

We weren’t aggressive or offended, and actually found it more amusing than anything.  The shop assistant, however, was mortified and didn’t utter another word.

So what’s the big deal?  Babies must get mistaken for the opposite gender all the time, right?  Well, the big deal was this; the reason the shop assistant assumed he was a girl was because he was wearing a bright pink tank top.  It was a modified t-shirt bought in the girls’ section of TK Maxx.  It had a bulldog on the front, and I thought it would make a cool tank top with the sleeves cut off.  And it did.  He had it teamed with a pair of urban-camo shorts (very ‘masculine’, although I frequently rocked the urban-camo trousers back in my Scary Spice days, circa 1995).

If you’re unfamiliar with the gender non-specific clothing movement and groups like Pink Stinks, you may be wondering why I decided to choose a bright pink tee for my son.  Well, I was getting pretty sick of my sons’ clothes being confined to blues, greens, greys and khakis.  Men, women and girls can purchase clothes in styles of their choice in any colour, yet little boys have such a limited palette to choose from.  This is all because we’ve got it into our heads that wearing pinks, purples and lilacs will somehow make our boys less male than they are.  And this is so ludicrous because really, I’m fairly certain that nothing untoward is going to happen to our boys’ penises if they choose to wear pink.

Children are children and they all seem to enjoy and appreciate every colour.  My children certainly don’t discriminate between any colours, and they’re both boys.  They don’t even discriminate between toys aimed specifically at genders.  I don’t force cars and trains on them, although they do like these toys.  As well as their vehicles, they also have a girl doll called ‘Baby’, as well as an array toy kitchen apparatus.  My elder son loves flowers and cooking as well as horsing around and rough games.

Indeed, my elder son also takes a keen interest in the variety of nail colours that I wear, and insists that he have a nail or two in a matching colour.  In the park recently, we met a woman who saw his toe nails and asked him if he was a girl.  And when shopping in Next a few weeks ago, I was picking two lilac t-shirts for the boys in the girls’ section.  I was with my elder son, and the shop assistant said ‘I hope they’re not for you’ (talking to my son) and directed me to the boys’ section which was home to ONE salmon pink polo shirt.  Amongst other things, I told her to open her mind, which she didn’t appreciate, but hopefully it made her think about her attitude.

Anyway, I know there are other parents who take gender neutrality very seriously, probably way more seriously than I do, and have indeed written about it.  A lot of the focus is on the negative effect that the colour pink has on little girls, but there isn’t so much about the effect of limiting boys to stereotypically boyish colours/appearance.  If a girl dresses in ‘boy’ clothes, she is deemed as a tomboy, which is fairly endearing.  There is no equivalent for boys.  Little boys couldn’t possibly play with dolls, yet they’re expected to grow up and be amazing fathers.  Isn’t the whole purpose of roleplay in childhood to learn about some of the activities that children see their parents doing?  Caring for a younger sibling can be mimicked by looking after a baby doll, and surely this is a positive learning activity for little girls and boys?

Boys’ sexuality is referred to or questioned in a negative manner if they’re seen to be wearing or playing with anything traditionally feminine.  I have never heard of anyone being coerced into a sexual preference because of the clothes they wore as a child or the toys they played with.  And anyway, even if that child later discovers that they are gay, who cares?!

So there.  I just wanted to share with you my annoyance at the absurd notion that girls and boys should have certain toy and colour preferences.  They are all innocent, curious and blank canvases, and should be allowed to make up their own mind about the things that they like.  They shouldn’t have to deal with the nonsensical and historical notions that we hold around gender specificity and I can only imagine how pleasant a world with less of that attitude would be.

In the meantime, here are some photos of my boys rocking pink.  I would, as ever, love to hear your thoughts on this.

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Creating Photo Memories with Photobox

As a parent and blogger I take a lot of photographs, particularly of my children.  Whether it be on outings, at home or special occasions such as birthdays, my camera is never far from reach in a bid to snap a magic moment, or simply capture a lovely photo.

In the digital age, we seem to be very snap-happy; taking a lot of digital photos, storing them on little plastic memory cards, and sometimes never viewing them again.  My parents and in-laws frequently ask for copies of our photographs of the kids, and so naturally we have obliged on many occasions by developing prints of our favourite snaps.  We’ve even gone further by getting some pictures blown up into canvases to display on the walls, and thus appreciated all of the time.

We have always used Photobox as our first and only choice of photo-printing.  My husband first discovered them a few years back when we wanted to print out some of our honeymoon photos.  We had such an excellent service: quick, often receiving our deliveries much sooner than anticipated, and easy with a user-friendly website and excellent customer service team.  As well as an outstanding service, you can get astonishing value for money by ordering your prints with them.

We already have two beautiful canvases of our elder son as a baby; one at my parents’ house and one of our own.  We felt it right to match our one with an equally beautiful baby picture of our younger son, so that they could sit proudly next to each other.  We chose this glorious happy picture which Photobox very generously gifted us in the form of a 20”x 30” classic canvas.

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After placing the order online, we were advised that we should expect a few working days before delivery.  However, less than 48 hours later, I was delighted to open the door to a delivery driver with our brand new canvas, much earlier than expected!

We hung it on the wall immediately, and you can see some snaps of our snaps below.  I’m chuffed to bits as I know we will cherish these canvases for many, many years.

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Here are some photos of our elder son which I had printed with Photobox a while back, and framed.

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As well standard prints and canvases, Photobox also offer a huge range of products which you can customise with your favourite photos.  My husband has customised a mug or two for his dad for Christmas and birthdays, and they have been treasured.

If you’ve got archives of digital photos, why not visit Photobox and get some printed, get them framed or blown up and display them around your home.  They instantly brighten up a wall or make a special gift.  So go on, grab your camera, get snapping and get printing with Photobox!

What to do on a Day to Myself

Since becoming a mum, my life has changed dramatically.  This is no revelation, as most of you either have children, or know people with children and can appreciate how your life is essentially no longer your own once you have kids.  This isn’t a complaint, I’m merely stating a fact.

Getting out of the house on the most basic of trips always proves to be a total mission, usually with fights over getting clothes on/off, minor setbacks such as soiled nappies, having to make about 57 trips up and down the stairs because you’ve forgotten some spare bibs/socks/nappies/bum cream/teddy bears/fire engine/beaker of water… you get the picture.

So it is no wonder that I don’t usually go anywhere of significance with the kids.  It just proves to be such a massive faff that it isn’t worth it.  We keep our trips out simple; dog-free parks (you know much I hate dog poo), a trip to the garden centre (any child can be bribed to be still and quiet with cake), Sainsbury’s (because what child doesn’t love being pushed around at speed whilst sat in a shopping trolley?), the playground (obvious), for a walk (because they need exercise, and apparently so do I).

I never, ever wish that I could have a day without them (honestly, I really don’t).  They’re like my entourage and I feel totally lost on the rare occasions that I pop out without them.  However, I do sometimes ponder over what I would do with my day if I had a day entirely to myself.  You may think this would be an easy choice to make, but I found it quite difficult to decide on that ‘perfect’ activity.  So here I shall list some of the things that I would consider doing on such a day.

I used to make fairly regular trips into London, either for work, shopping or on a public transport jolly.  Hey, I love train journeys, thanks to my dad.  We all know London is incredible for any kind of shopping requirement that you could throw at it.  In London I have previously enjoyed shopping for anything from high street clothes on Oxford Street, to shoes at Neal Street, to body piercing jewellery in Camden, to cowboy boots on Portobello Road (for my dad – I got mine in Schuh).  But really, you can do shopping any time on the internet, for whatever you need.  I know it isn’t supposed to be as fun as shopping in real life, but I just don’t get the buzz from trailing around shops anymore.

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However, I do miss traveling around to places in the city, and would love to get on the train and do a day trip to a few destinations with my trusty (topped-up) Oyster card.  I would probably head to the bustling Borough Market in Southwark, just south of the Thames (yup, even better that we don’t have to cross the river!).  If you’re a foodie you will fall for Borough Market.  Traders cater for all tastes, just check out the pictures if you don’t believe me…

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After perusing the stalls, I would get myself a tasty lunch and go sit in the grounds of the magnificent Southwark Cathedral to eat.  After lunch, I would head to the river for a stroll along the south bank towards Tower Bridge, passing the impressive Hays Galleria packed full of shops and restaurants (although may pass on the food after my Borough Market fest), not to mention some glorious architecture.  Not forgetting to marvel at HMS Belfast, I would continue on towards City Hall (the place you can find Mayor Boris Johnson).  The building is pretty cool, with a lot of open space outside to sit and take in the view of Tower Bridge and the river.

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Afterwards, I would head up to and over the iconic Tower Bridge, checking out the incredible view of the city to the west as I crossed to the north side of the river.  It is hard to miss the modern and dazzling Shard on the south side of the river, juxtaposed with the historical Tower of London adjacent to Tower Bridge on the north side of the Thames.  If you fancy a trip through London’s ages, I highly recommend a visit to the Tower of London.  Brimming with 1000 years of London’s history, covering fascinating stories on Sir William Wallace (Braveheart) to the sparkling Crown Jewels, the Tower will feed your hunger for history all under one roof.

Walking on towards Tower Hill station, I would hop on the Dockland Light Railway (DLR) towards Greenwich.  The DLR will forever prompt fond memories of day trips around London with my dad.  It is exactly what it says on the tin; a light railway with short trains.  No driver on board, instead it runs on an automated system.  This means that you can sit right at the front or back of the train with a brilliant view of the tracks and feel like you’re the driver.  I LOVE it!

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I would stay on the DLR until Greenwich, which is back over on the south side of the river in southeast London.  The journey would take me through the heart of the Canary Wharf business district, before heading further south.  Canary Wharf is home to a branch of Charles Fish, a jewellery retailer showcasing some stunning designer jewellery.  You can find my favourite jewellery brand Oak Fine Jewellery stocked there if you fancied treating yourself to some truly special pieces.

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You know you’re near Greenwich once you’ve headed down into the tunnel under the Thames after Island Gardens, which I think is the most fun bit of the journey (especially if you’re sitting at the front or rear of the train).  Greenwich is a super cool little town in southeast London, home to the Cutty Sark and the Royal Observatory.  Another place that my dad took us to when we were children, the Cutty Sark is another fantastic, historical attraction to visit.  Lovingly restored after the fire in 2007, the Cutty Sark is a tea clipper which captures the imaginations of adults and children alike.  Do visit if you’re in the area.

The Royal Observatory is located at the top of a hill through in Greenwich Park.  The Observatory is home to the Greenwich Meridian Line, which is where Greenwich Mean Time (GMT) originates.  There is a physical line present on the ground where visitors enjoy having their photo taken, straddling the line.  Another great place for families.  After swinging past the Cutty Sark and through Greenwich Park, I would take a stroll through Greenwich market, which is full of arts, crafts, antiques and interesting finds.

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I’m going to start to feel a little hungry again, so I would head back onto the DLR to Monument station, where I would head to towards Fleet Street on foot (or to St. Paul’s station if my feet were hurting!).  There is an ancient pub just off Fleet Street called Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese.  My old friend first introduced me to this pub many years ago, and for me it epitomises what you can imagine ancient London pubs would have been like; a labyrinth of dark, crooked corridors and rooms on several floors below ground.  Said to be the oldest pub in London, It is accessed through an alley leading off Fleet Street.  All you see is the façade of a small pub from the outside, but if you head there on a weekday evening, you will be able to access all of the basement floors (I believe it is closed on the weekend).

Full of nooks and crannies, they serve Samuel Smiths beer as well as all of your usual pub staples.  They also serve a traditional menu here – no hint of gastro-pub in sight.  Although I am a foodie and do appreciate fine dining, I would opt to dine at Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese because of the historical atmosphere and for the fact that there is nowhere else that looks like this place.  It is unique and I will always revisit when I can.

After dinner, I would take a bus over the river over Blackfriars Bridge, before taking another walk along a different stretch of the South Bank of the river, passing the Oxo building (now you really can get fine dining at the top of the Oxo tower!), as well as art exhibitions, designers, interiors, cafes and more.

Moving on, I would stroll past the London Television Centre, the place where you can find the likes of Phil and Holly from This Morning most weekday mornings, and sometimes out on the South Bank.  I would then swing past the National Theatre before heading up to Waterloo station and heading home.

So that would be my day to myself.  Possibly a little different to what you might have expected, or maybe not if you know me well.  Either way, that would be a pretty cool day for me.  I would of course have my camera with me to capture the numerous gorgeous photo opportunities whilst out and about.  Notice how I didn’t go for drinks after getting off the bus?  I would probably be exhausted by this time and would want my bed!  But covering some of my favourite watering holes would need to be in a whole other blog post.

What would you do if you had the day entirely to yourself?  I’d love to hear about it!