To Newport - The Seven Year Itch - CycleBlaze

June 6, 2024

To Newport

The train to Newport is a transition point in our tour of the UK - we’re leaving Devon, entering Wales.  Originally we’d planned to bike this stretch, taking about a week to ride through Somerset by way of Bath.  We dropped that idea though when we decided we’d enjoy our experience here more with shorter travel days and more layovers.  So, for the second time now we’re passing within a fairly short distance to Bath but still not stopping in for a look at that historic city.

Train trips are an event we take seriously, trying to minimize the risk of all the many things that can go wrong with them.  We’ve been planning on this one for a couple of months now - I think we rethought this part of itinerary way back in Extramadura - and have booked space for ourselves and both bikes through the GRW (Great Western Railway) website.

As I said yesterday, the station is only about two blocks from our hotel.  Our train leaves at 9:53, has a half-hour connection in Bristol, and arrives in Newport just before noon.  Looks like a vanilla trip.  Our plan is to have lunch there at a restaurant before checking in to the hotel, and then go out on our own exploratory outings in the afternoon.  Rachael has mapped out a walking loop along the mouth of the Usk River, and I have about a 25 mile bike loop that includes a nearby wetland and a swing past Newport’s landmark transporter bridge.

There’s a scare though when we get an email from GRW about our upcoming train reservation: 

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So this isn’t good.  We have to present the card we made the reservation with when we pick up the tickets.  Not possible - we used one of the new replacement cards the bank sent to replace the ones that were hacked, but the physical cards are back in Portland with Elizabeth.  I read more in the GWR website and it’s confirmed - an unfortunate constraint that’s not declared until after you’ve booked, unless there was some fine print I failed to pay attention to.

I’m worried about what will happen at the station when I try to collect the physical tickets (which apparently you need if you’re traveling with a bike), so we plan on arriving early to allow time for issue resolution.  We are packed and ready to walk downstairs at eight.  I’m gearing up for carrying the panniers down two flights of stairs (the sort of formerly-routine activity my knees hate now) when a housekeeper grabs both of them from me and trots down the stairs with them.  Such nice people at this hotel!

Ten minutes later we’re in the station and I walk up to the ticket window, mentally rehearsing my explanation for why I don’t have the card I bought our tickets with.  It’s all unnecessary though, because he doesn’t ask for anything other than the order number.  He doesn’t even ask me to identify myself.  All that worry for nothing!  Puzzling, but I’m speculating that the constraint is if you’re trying to get your tickets dispensed from one of the automated kiosks.

Here’s half of our pile of tickets. One for the person, and a pair of tickets for the bike for each of the two legs of the journey - one stays with you and one goes on the bike. These are mine, and Rachael’s got a set just like it.
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So we’re here an hour and a half before train departure, a wealth of time.  We grab a bench and sit for about 45 minutes and then head over to our departure platform, happy that the station comes with elevators.  And wait a half hour there while the platform gradually fills up around us.  Then there are announcements, a long train arrives in a rush, and we hustle on with our bikes and gear, gratified that information was supplied telling us which cars the bikes can go on.  Within two minutes the doors are closing, so it’s a good thing we were well organized.

After hanging our bikes in their reserved stall we take our seats; and two minutes later the conductor comes by to check tickets.  I pull ours out, but all he needs is to see that we have ones in our possession - he doesn’t scan them or even look at them.  They could have been any ticket to anywhere, new or expired.

It’s an hour until our transfer at Bristol, but a half hour later our train is racing across southern England at what feels like 100 mph, not stopping anywhere.  It feels like an express, which surprises me.  I pull up the map on the iPad to check our current location, and am surprised by that too - and when I watch our position inch along my fears are confirmed.  In a TA first, we’ve gotten on the wrong train and are speeding our way toward London.

There of course have been post mortems about what happened, but the fault is mine.  Our train was scheduled to depart at 9:53, but when this one pulled in at 9:41 I assumed it was ours and was pleased we’d have plenty of time to board.  Coming from a country that if it has any train service at all will only have a single train come through a few times a day, it didn’t occur to me that a station with nine tracks would have two trains arriving at the same platform only ten minutes apart.  But this is the UK, a country with zillions of trains arriving and departing all day long.

I pass this information on to Rachael.  There’s panic of course, fears that we won’t be able even to get to Newport today at all and keep our itinerary.  First things first - we hurriedly pack up and prepare to get off at Reading, the only stop on the line before London - but we’re of course anxious about what comes next, and whether we’ll even be able to get to Newport today and keep our booking.  Will there be a train going our way, and will it take our bikes?

But this is Britain.  There are zillions of trains running all day long, going everywhere, and a direct train for Newport leaves hourly all day long.  And the people here speak our language, and are helpful, and no one treats us like idiots once they hear what we’ve done.  And the Reading ticket agent, after staring at the schedules and checking bike reservations for a few minutes, apologizes and tells us that the soonest he can get us on a train to Newport isn’t for another hour and a half.  We won’t arrive until about 2 PM instead of noon.  Amazing - other than the stress and the cost of the extra ticket the only thing we’re out is that we’ll miss our lunch reservation and have to reschedule it.  Luckier than we deserve.

Reading is a huge station - fourteen tracks, I think.  We come to ours a half hour early, and I check the electronic departure board carefully this time to make sure we’re getting it right on our do-over opportunity.   

What a wealth of information!
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It’s a real revelation studying the departure board.  The first striking thing is that it shows the next three departures on this track.  For the one coming up there’s a chyron with the details of the upcoming train: departure time, all the stops, how many cars on the train, which ones are first class, which take bikes, which take wheelchairs.  The line below it scrolls between the second and third departures.  Our train isn’t even listed though, because even though it is scheduled to depart in just over half an hour, there are three other trains due in on this same platform before then.

We’re very impressed.  Out of this experience, the idea forms that when we come back to the UK for the third time some year we’ll pretty much dispense with traveling by bicycle.  Trains go almost everywhere on the island, and we’ll just use them to relocate from one base to another and take day rides and hikes from there until we’re ready to move on.  I’ll be nearly eighty by then and Rachael pushing 70, and we’ll likely still be on pushbikes because there’s so much overhead and loss of flexibility that comes with ebikes - and who wants to be pushing a bike with panniers up a 17% hill in their eighties, when they’ve got bad knees to boot?

Three trains come, three trains go.  Each arrives about two minutes before departure and departs at the scheduled time, to the second.   

The train before ours leaves the station, on time to the second. It’s a long one, nine cars, but if it had been ours it would have been easy because we’d know where to get on - bikes go at stations 2 and 7, the positions painted on the platform.
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We get on the train in a rush, with a guy helpfully giving a hand with our loaded bicycles.  The female agent on board gives a hand with lifting the bikes up onto their hangers in their closet.  A passenger overhears our uncertainty over where we can sit and explains how the reservation lights show what’s available, and when (they indicate if the seat is reserved, and which upcoming station it will free up again).  And when we get off, another helpful guy gives a hand here too.  Everyone is so nice!

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All this disrupts the plans for the day of course though.  We hang around the room for the next hour or two, and then Rachael heads out on a hunt for some tape she can wrap her ankle and wrist with, both or which have been aching and making her wonder if she’s starting to have symptoms of arthritis.  Afterwards she heads to the nearby restaurant we’re planning on having dinner at, Pierre’s, and calls me when she’s secured a table to rush on over.  afterwards she returns to the room while I take a four mile walk along the mouth of the Usk which comes to the sea here, lured by the chance to see a new bird (which doesn’t happen) and the opportunity to see Newport’s transporter bridge, one of only six still standing worldwide.  I could hardly come to Newport and miss that!

Those pigeons! Incorrigible photo bombers.
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I’m anxious to see the transporter bridge, but I’m also quite impressed by the city’s new footbridge, built in 2006 as part of the city’s urban regeneration plans.
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Its appearance is unique in my experience. It’s a dramatic, graceful structure. The supports are meant to emulate the cranes from Newport’s industrial heritage, and to minimize the impact of the construction work to the houses on the opposite bank.
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The pedestrian bridge must have been a transformational development, making it easy for walkers and bikers to get across the river to the city from the largely residential east bank. Good for the gulls also of course.
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The view toward the mouth of the river. My short loop will be down to the farthest bridge (hidden behind the nearest one) and then back up the opposite bank.
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A closer look at the George Street Bridge, with the City Bridge behind it. Both are safely accessible by pedestrians and cyclists, making a variety of riverside walks and rides possible.
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We’re in Wales now. I don’t expect to be picking up much of the language while we’re here.
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The City Bridge. Other than the transporter bridge just around the bend it’s the last crossing before reaching the Bristol Channel.
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A Welsh rose.
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The Transporter Bridge, that operates the same way as the one we saw in Bilbao. It’s closed for restoration maintenance now, but when operational it transports passengers across the cable on an aerial ferry suspended by cables from above.
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Of the 20 transporter bridges that were built, this is one of only six still operational. I’m sorry we’re not seeing it in action. It’s scheduled to reopen later this summer, I think.
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Welsh rabbits.
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The Welsh Liberty Bull.
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Today's ride: 2 miles (3 km)
Total: 1,928 miles (3,103 km)

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Comment on this entry Comment 9
Susan CarpenterNot quite as good a story as the chap who boarded a plane for Aukland instead of Oakland, but an epic train adventure nonetheless. Glad everything worked out so smoothly.
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2 weeks ago
Scott AndersonTo Susan CarpenterI don’t remember that one. True story? Wonderful if so.

It seemed time to spice things up a bit. You’ve been hogging all the good stories lately.
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2 weeks ago
Susan CarpenterTo Scott AndersonAlmost 20 years ago - here is a link https://www.latimes.com/archives/la-xpm-1985-04-02-mn-19265-story.html
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2 weeks ago
Suzanne GibsonI've heard Vienna airport has a special information booth for passengers who wanted to fly to Australia and landed in Austria instead.
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2 weeks ago
Suzanne GibsonHere's our story of getting on the wrong train: https://www.cycleblaze.com/journals/2010summerfrance/beginning-at-the-end-early-start-and-late-arrival/
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2 weeks ago
Suzanne GibsonTo Suzanne GibsonHowever, not true. Apparently a viral meme...
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2 weeks ago
Betsy EvansGetting on the wrong train really seems like something I'd do!

In Canada, I've been on a flight where they announced that we were going to Saint John, New Brunswick, and if you wanted to go to St. John's Newfoundland, you were on the wrong flight. That's a common error.

And apparently there's a long list of people who have flown to Sydney, Nova Scotia instead of to Australia. https://www.cbc.ca/radio/asithappens/as-it-happens-thursday-edition-1.4047704/a-tale-of-two-sydneys-dutch-teen-tries-to-visit-australia-but-ends-up-in-nova-scotia-1.4047709
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2 weeks ago
Scott AndersonTo Betsy EvansYes, I’m sure it happens all the time. A very natural mistake, nothing to be embarrassed about.
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2 weeks ago
Scott AndersonTo Suzanne GibsonThanks for reminding me of this incident Suzanne. I feel much better now - if you can do this too, there’s no reason for me to feel foolish. I do think once is enough though.
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2 weeks ago