Country Ways, Devon holidays

I had to write a little bit about the place I’ve been staying in just outside Great Torrington in Devon, called ‘Country Ways’ .

I arranged a very last minute trip to the west country to try to find a relaxing space to do some thinking and a bit of work. The Country Ways web site came up with a late availability, and I thought it looked good. I was not mistaken – this is a collection of small cottage buildings within a farm that offer the visitor a really good standard of accommodation. The units are all converted out buildings, by the look of them, and inside they are very well appointed. My residence for the last few days has been the ‘Dray’ – big enough for two people, with one double bed a bathroom (en-suite) and a modest but very comfortable living area complete with kitchen.

The ‘resort’ (if you can call it that) also has a laundry facility, a gym, pool room (the table based game, not a swimming variety!) and a whole load of open space, swings and walkways, etc.

Located between Dartmoor and Exmoor, south of Barnstaple, it is ideally located for North Devon walking and trips to some of the best coastal resorts, such as Westward Ho! and Bude, amongst many others.

The units are self catering, so bring food! There is no supermarket nearby – the closest being in Torrington which is around 8 miles away. There is no nearby petrol station either – again, you go into Torrington. This suits me, but if you are hoping for all the mod cons of living in the London area, or any urban area for that matter, you’ll be left wanting! This is Devon, and life is different here!

Just to add, last night I was able to see more stars in the night sky than I can remember ever seeing – a truly awesome sight – no light pollution, just the outer spiralling arm of our galaxy. Wow….

When exactly is ‘off-peak’ travel in London?

It drives me crazy that hardly anyone will tell you this. It seems to be almost a secret. I asked a train guard at Tottenham Hale when he thought the first off-peak train would be, and he couldn’t tell me.

The problem is that the system is far too obtuse. The basics are as follows…

An off-peak train into London is one that will not arrive before 10am. Thus, if your journey in is 45 minutes, a train departing before 09.15 will be peak time. If it’s after that it’ll be off-peak. It all depends on your journey time.

When leaving London, any train departing before 16.29 is off-peak. You then have a peak period until 18.34, after which it is off-peak again. There are some exceptions to this, depending on your route. I normally travel home from Liverpool street on the Cambridge/Stansted line. Those heading to Braintree don’t have the peak moment, apparently. Same goes for those in Hatfield Peverel.

So, if you are at Tottenham Hale, having travelled by tube to get there, and board a train at 18.40 to go north, it will be a peak time train. You need to wait 11 minutes after 18.34 to count as an off-peak train, because it takes a train 11 minutes to get from London Liverpool Street to Tottenham Hale… your earliest off-peak train is thus 18.45 from Tottenham Hale.

See? It’s not exactly simple is it! I thought there was a move to simplify this nonsense? Instead it just seems to have become ever more complex. And don’t start me on day ranger train tickets, advance single, or any other ridiculously complicated fare structures. It really shouldn’t be so difficult.

Ryan Air, hidden flight charges, economy air travel

Tonight I watched another programme which tore into Ryan Air and gave them a hard time over their pricing policies. Having travelled with Ryan Air more than a few times, and been subjected to their particular brand of in-flight care, I would have to say that there are definite areas for improvement in the servicdes they provide. I am not a staunch supporter.

However, I can say that I was fully aware of that each time I have booked, and the fact I re-booked goes to show that I accept their policies and terms of service.

I would say leave Ryan Air alone. They are still cheap, and you know what you are going to get well in advance. You know for a fact they will charge you heavily for food in flight, for carrying baggage, for making changes to your bookings, for turning up late, for turning up early… for turning up at all!

Despite this, you have the option of booking with them, or not. This seems like a definite case of not reading the small print… if Ryan Air were hiding these facts from you (and yes, I agree that their web site is complex and not particularly user friendly), then you would have cause to complain. But because Ryan Air are so up front with all of it, and you know in advance this is what it is about, then book the flight with them if you accept the terms they offer. If not, pay more and go elsewhere to get your flying sorted.

National Express Versus Virgin Trains

Today I was treated to a journey to Leeds on a National Express train. The thing is, I booked the tickets through the Virgin web site, and half expected to travel on a Virgin train. It turns out that Virgin don’t ‘fly’ out of Kings Cross, and so it was that I ended up on what I now consider to be the wrong train entirely.

A Virgin train ride (in First Class) includes access to the lounge area at the stations (unless it is Euston, which at the time of writing is undergoing refurbishment), all food, all drink (including alcohol) and a pendolino train with free wifi (no need to register). More subtle benefits of Virgin include more pleasant announcements and less of them, too, but more informative, somehow.

Compare and contrast that with National Express…

No lounge access unless you pay full fare (so no advance single ticket holders allowed), no food included, trains that lean unexpectedly as if on an adverse camber, wifi that is slow as slow can be (and frequently drops out), and needs you to divulge too much personal info for my liking. On top of that the announcements are at many decibels more than they need to be, and repeated at least three times at every station. Something about needing to have a ticket and if it’s the wrong ticket having to pay full fare to get the right ticket… ad infinitum.

Given that advanced tickets on Virgin cost the same, and you get so much more, and working on the assumption that VIrgin trains also make a profit (which they may not, of course), how can National Express justify their level of service?

Now don’t get me wrong – the staff on NX (!) are pleasant and polite… but so are they on Virgin. And it may be that I’ve been particularly unfortunate in that each NX journey (East Coast) I’ve taken has been spectacularly similar. I can’t help but come to the conclusion that NX are overpriced, underserviced and not particularly the best experience of rail travel.

Ryan Air, cheap flights, baggage handling and simple mathematics

We all know the story of Mr O’Leary’s Ryan Air and their cheap flights all over the known universe, and I have used them fairly regularly from Stansted without any real dilemmas (OK – a cancelled flight due to fog, except other aircraft were taking off and landing just fine, so I wondered if the fog was with the flight crew – and a refusal to let me go through to the gate because I was a few seconds late and the flight manifest had been given to the pilot, when in fact it was on the table right there…) This week, however, I flew from Liverpool (John Lennon airport) to Pisa.

All looked set and everything progressed smoothly, until we were told that there was an extra bag in the hold not accounted for. To be fair, this isn’t strictly a problem with Ryan Air in any way and the other agencies involved have to accept the responsibility. However, I fail to see how this sort of thing happens.

You see, there is a list of all the people on the plane, and next to their names is a sticker which is put there by the check in desk staff. The sticker shows the number of bags passed through, and the list of names is, well, a list of names. In simple mathematical terms, you count both sets of numbers and you’ll know how many of each you have got.

The lists get sent to the baggage handlers, who collect the bags and take them to the hold of the (almost always) correct aircraft, then stow them there. They count them as they go because there is a big label applied to the bag saying which plane it neds to go on. They then check their count against the list and make sure no-one has slipped an extra bag or two on. Yesterday the numbers didn’t add up.

So we were delayed as they went through the entire lot until they found the bag they didn’t know about, checked the name on it and talked sternly to the person on board to let them know… except we missed our slot for take off… twice! The net result was an extended stay in my seat – thank goodness I opted for one by an emergency exit where there is more leg room.

So I was thinking, what happens if there are less bags accounted for? Is that alright? Do they go through the lists so rigorously and make sure everyone has got their bag on board? I dont think they do – hence the amount of lost luggage in the world that doesn’t arrive at the destination when you do.

So perhaps it comes down to simple adding up and fear of an extra bag, when no such fear exists for a missing bag. If it isn’t there, it couldn’t explode, right?

Still, the ryan air flight was excellent, the staff very professional and the prices for the food on board astronomical – some things are always able to be relied upon! I wonder if the baggage system is the same eveywhere, or just in Liverpool? I’ll find out on Monday morning when I fly back and land at Stansted 🙂