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Travelling around Britain in style

Recent debate regarding rail travel in Britain has revolved around the provision of first class facilities – with some saying they should be completely scrapped to reduce the problem of overcrowding. So with some uncertainty hanging over the future of first class train travel, Blue Guides’ resident rail expert Mark Dudgeon recently went roving on the rails to see what the fuss is all about – and is the extra cost of first class worth it?

Not all Train Operating Companies (TOCs) in Britain offer first class facilities. Generally, on shorter more commuter-oriented services, the trains are one-class-only. On many longer routes, however – principally the West Coast Main Line (London to the West Midlands, North-West England and Glasgow), the East Coast Main Line (London to Yorkshire, North-East England and Edinburgh) trains offer a separate first-class section with a reduced number of seats, more space and extra treats such as free catering.

Costs

First-class travel can be very expensive - especially buying “walk-up” tickets, and if travelling during peak periods, which are generally early-to-mid morning and late afternoon/early evening on Mondays to Fridays. A walk-up round-trip ticket for the 180-kilometre, 80-minute hop from Birmingham to London, for example, costs a painful £264 in first class.

These prices may be acceptable to the captive business market, but clearly many tourists would baulk at such extravagance. There are ways, however, of reducing the cost. Purchasing advance tickets (right up to the day before departure) for travel outside peak periods can reduce the costs significantly. Rail passes, such as a BritRail pass which is available to non-residents only, also can help, especially if you are travelling a lot by rail. If you are using a rail pass in Britain, there is the added advantage that reservations can be made free-of-charge at any staffed station - just remember to take your pass with you to make the reservations.

So what can you expect for the extra cost of travelling in first class? Generally, you’ll get a bigger and more comfortable seat - first class seating is usually three-across rather than four-across in standard class - and on several long-distance routes, free wi-fi is available. And then on many long-distance services, dependent on the time of day, there will be some form of complimentary catering offered.

Blue Guides put three of the major Train Operating Companies to the test ….

Virgin Trains

First class on a Virgin Pendolino
Scrambled eggs & smoked salmon breakfast

Virgin Trains operate the West Coast Main Line (WCML) franchise, with fast, frequent trains between London’s Euston station and: Birmingham and the West Midlands; Liverpool, Manchester and the north-west of England; and Carlisle and Glasgow. On the whole they are a well-regarded outfit, and there was an outcry when they were about to be stripped of the franchise a couple of years ago – a decision which was later reversed.

On Virgin’s flagship trains, the Pendolinos, first class can comprise up to four coaches, so be prepared for airline-style service. However, the quality of breakfasts, in particular, is consistently good and much better than you would receive on an average short-haul flight. Staff are efficient, occasionally tending to the brusque – probably because of the number of passengers they have to serve, often in quite a short space of time.

Full English breakfasts are generally served from a platter and consist of fried egg, tomato, sausage, bacon and a potato. Alternatives include vegetarian breakfast, scrambled eggs with salmon, and sausage muffin. Blue Guides found the English breakfast offering to be hot, freshly cooked and tasty, adequate in size, if not especially abundant. Toast and croissants are also served, with fruit juice and tea and coffee. Service could be touched up – grab the tea or coffee when you can – there may not be a second chance – and occasionally, as happened to the Blue Guides' reporter once, you may find occasional slip-ups such as the fruit juices being served after the meal!

During the rest of the day, hot and cold snacks are served, and on some evening services from London a hot-course evening meal (often a curry or similar) is offered followed by dessert or cheese and biscuits. All accompanied by your choice of drinks (alcoholic or not) from the complimentary bar trolley. Full details of Virgin’s first class catering services are shown here on their website.

Seating is reasonably comfortable - seats are in twos or fours, generally facing each other with tables - but the inward sloping sides (necessary because of the tilting action of the train through curves) – do make the carriages feel, you might say, somewhat snug. There is the added bonus of free (and, in our experience, reliable) wi-fi in first class.

The service on Virgin’s other trains – the diesel-powered Voyagers, which mainly operate between London and North Wales, and Birmingham and Scotland - is reduced somewhat because of the lower demand (there is only one first class coach in each Voyager train set), although service tends to be more personalised.

At weekends and during holiday periods, complimentary catering is generally restricted to hot drinks and biscuits.

Blue Guides’ verdict: reasonably comfortable seating, if a little cramped; good breakfasts; free wi-fi generally works well. Worth it if you can get a good, off-peak advance fare, or are using a rail pass.

East Coast

Mid-morning snack

The East Coast Main Line, connecting the capital cities of England and Scotland is the Blue Riband route of the British rail network. Sights on the way include Durham cathedral, the striking Angel of the North sculpture before Newcastle, and later along the north-east coast of England the mystical Holy Island of Lindisfarne can be spotted in the distance, often shrouded in mist, followed by the border town of Berwick-upon-Tweed. On the way, look out for the large stencilled arrow signs appearing every so often by the side of the line: for example “Halfway between London and Edinburgh” and “Edinburgh 100 miles”. In order to get the best views, make sure you are sitting on the right side of the train (facing forward) going north, or, conversely, on the left side travelling south.

East Coast operates train services on this route, and - unusually - this is a nationalised body which took over the franchise when the previous operator forfeited it in 2009.

The seats in first class are comfortable - almost armchair-like - and there is more of a sense of space than on Virgin’s trains, even though East Coast’s trains are older. There is free Wi-Fi, but on the times Blue Guides has travelled on East Coast trains, the service has been very patchy and not reliable enough to do anything much more than occasionally checking or sending e-mails.

Complimentary catering in first class varies according to the time of day. There is a guide to what is available on the East Coast website, including a convenient, colour-coded timetable.

Blue Guides tested both the breakfast and daytime snack offerings. Breakfasts were ample and varied, although not consistently as good as on Virgin. The available options rotate on a weekly basis.

All-day snack offerings include a choice from a platter of fresh sandwiches, with pre-packaged biscuits, nibbles, and cakes. In the evening, a more substantial meal is offered on some services. As with Virgin Trains, the catering offering at weekends and during holiday periods is significantly reduced.

Service, we found, was inconsistent – some personnel were excellent and pro-active, while others were mediocre, sadly reminiscent of old, pre-privatisation British Rail days. The bar trolley offered soft and alcoholic drinks, but whether or not you were offered a refill seemed very much to be subject to the whim of the staff.

Blue Guides’ verdict: best part of the experience is the seating; the catering is reasonable and may or may not satisfy you depending on when and where you travel; forget the wi-fi.

Arriva Trains Wales

Premier service coach on Arriva Trains Wales
Premier service dinner main course

We’ve saved the best till last. You need to search hard to find the ne plus ultra of catering on British trains – and, it seems, not many people do. Indeed, on the day of the Blue Guides test, only three other passengers had the pleasure of this experience.

Arriva Trains Wales, which operates most of the trains within Wales (and between Wales and Birmingham and Manchester), doesn’t do first class on its high-density (some might say, spartan) trains – with one, glorious, exception. They don’t even call it first class – it’s called Premier Service, it’s an evening dining experience, and it’s only available on one train a day, five days a week. That train is the 17:16 departure from Cardiff to Holyhead, passing through Hereford, Shrewsbury and Chester before travelling along the North Wales coast to the Anglesey port. (On the early morning train in the reverse direction, breakfast is served).

Here you can experience the way trains used to be: a rake of coaches pulled by a locomotive, sitting in a proper, comfortable restaurant car with a menu and service to match. The menu generally consists of a choice of three appetisers, three main courses and three dessert and cheese options. On the day Blue Guides travelled on this train, the menu included: Baked local crab and cockle pots with fennel and Welsh cheddar; followed by: Pan-fried Gressingham duck breast served with braised red cabbage with apple, thyme and port, spring onion mash and peppercorn sauce; with Bara Brith, Cointreau butter pudding with cream to finish.

The three-course meal, soft and hot drinks are complimentary for passengers travelling with first class tickets and passes. The only thing that lets the experience down slightly is the wine list – reasonably priced, for sure, but on the day of our review, the only available wines were substitutes of poorer quality.

The service is personalised and friendly, and the atmosphere relaxed. This is a journey best experienced in the longer-day months of May or June, when the lovely, understated, scenery of the Welsh Marches can be savoured in all its finery, whilst sipping a glass of wine and enjoying the food in the way that civilised train travel should be. If you are travelling all the way on the longest days of year, you might well enjoy a fine sunset along the North Wales coast to boot. (We recommend you reserve seats in advance on this train: it is not compulsory, but there are only seventeen places).

So how and why does this train exist? Well, it’s operated by arrangement with the Welsh Assembly: it is financed, basically, by the Welsh taxpayer - to the tune of several thousand pounds per journey - in the interests of encouraging business connections between North and South Wales. So, be warned, it may not be around for long; and if you wish to experience it, make sure you reserve the right train because there are other, “normal” trains which ply this route.

Blue Guides’ verdict: great all-round experience, if you can get it! No extra charge for holders of a first class rail pass, but there is no wi-fi on this service.

16.04.2014
14:02

In praise of plague cakes

Photo by Phil Manning © St Olave Hart Street PCC 2013

In the eastern corner of the City of London, close to the old walls and to the place where the Aldgate once stood, is a small church, that of St Olave Hart Street. It is dedicated to King Olaf II of Norway, who fought with King Ethelred against the Danes at the Battle of London Bridge in 1014. He was canonised in 1031, so the church in London must have received its dedication after that date. In 1666 the Great Fire came within 100m of St Olave’s before the wind fortuitously changed direction, thereby saving it from being engulfed in flames. (The church was not so lucky during World War Two and sustained two direct hits during bombing raids; it has been lovingly restored and King Haakon VII of Norway laid a stone from Trondheim Cathedral, the burial place of St Olaf, in the sanctuary.)

The church is famed as the burial place of Samuel Pepys; and high up on the north chancel wall, left of the altar, is a bust of Pepys’ wife, Elizabeth (d. 1669). To the right of the altar is a wall tablet commemorating William Turner (d. 1568), Dean of Wells, militant Protestant and father of English botany. Close by, left of the southeast window, is a painted alabaster portrait bust of Turner’s son, Peter, ‘Doctor in Physick’, who attended Sir Walter Raleigh in the Tower. In 1603 Peter Turner wrote a treatise in support of plague cakes: little phials of arsenic to wear around the neck or in the armpits in order to ward off infection. Turner was a keen follower of Paracelsus, the great German physician known for his advocacy of the use of poisons to control disease: he was both early homeopath and pioneer chemotherapist. He recommended the use of mercury to combat syphilis, for example. Efficacious to a degree, but of course toxic if used in too great quantities. Paracelsus also used a solution of lead as a treatment for goitre. Peter Turner may have been right to champion the use of these poisonous pomanders. The full title of his treatise is important: ‘The opinion of Peter Turner Doct. in physicke, concerning amulets or plague cakes whereof perhaps some holde too much, and some too little’. Dosage is all. In 1605, Francis Bacon published his Advancement of Learning, in which he also mentions the use of plague cakes: ‘It hath been anciently received, for Pericles the Athenian used it, and it is yet in use, to wear little bladders of quicksilver, or tablets of arsenic, as preservatives against the plague: not for any comfort they yield to the spirits, but for that being poisons themselves, they draw the venom to them from the spirits.’

Turner’s bust (c. 1614) disappeared from St Olave’s during the confusion of the Blitz but—in another of the strokes of luck that seem to attend this church—it resurfaced in 2010 at public auction. In 2013 it was reinstalled after a 70-year absence, in a partial recreation of the original monument.

For St Olave Hart Street, plague cakes and much more besided, get Blue Guide London (18th edition), compiled, written and updated by Emily Barber.

02.04.2014
15:30

Princesses from the Trabzon Empire

Detail of the princess from Pisanello's 'St George' fresco in Verona.

For the Grand Comneni, the Christian rulers of the 14th–15th-century Trabzon Empire, diplomacy was probably the best way to survive in a hostile environment. Enemies were all around, and they were all Muslim. If you could not fight and crush them, it was probably more prudent to join them and hope to buy time, to fend off the evil day: it was a strategy of survival. And for this purpose, the Comneni used the best commodity they had.

Princesses of the line of the Grand Comneni enjoyed a high reputation for beauty, refinement, learning and class. They were highly prized by non-Christians, mainly as an exotic addition to the harem. Between the mid-14th and mid-15th centuries, a number of daughters of the Trabzon Emperor—a total of eleven, to be exact—were betrothed to Turkmen and Mongol rulers and to Emirs. It is only fair to say that the Grand Comneni did not invent this practice. They took their cue from Byzantium, where in 1346 Theodora Cantacuzene had been married to the Ottoman ruler Orhan.

The arrangements surrounding these marriages were rather vague: the ceremonies took place outside the Empire and it is not clear whether a dowry or a bride price was ever paid. According to the Church, the unions were invalid and Pope Pius II went as far as to say that the demise of the Empire of Trabzon was a clear sign of divine displeasure at such dealings. Ibn Battuta, on the other hand, saw the princesses as something akin to high commissioners in an allied court, a protector of local Christians. That may have been the case of Theodora Grand Comnena, who married the Ak Koyunlu chief Uzun Hasan, a Turk, and went to live with her Greek entourage (which included a suitable complement of monks) in the fastness of Harput in the middle of Anatolia. She was his principal wife, his hatun, but, sure enough, when the crunch came, Uzun Hasan made no move to assist his father-in-law, under pressure from the conquering Ottomans in Trabzon. No other Trabzon brides ever reached the position of hatun; it shows that from a Turkish point of view, the princesses were hostages. None of them gave birth to the next ruler, therefore acquiring the powerful position akin to the Valide Sultan in the Ottoman court. Nevertheless, they were clearly sought after. Their story does not appear in the Greek Pontic ballads but is remembered in the sixth ballad of Dede Korkut, a Turkic folk cycle. It is set in 14th-century Trabzon in the Meydan, the main square, and tells the story of the brave Kan Turalı, one of the Ak Koyunlu Turkmen, and his quest for Salcan, a true Amazon of a princess who could draw two bows at a time and had already disposed of 32 previous suitors. It all ends happily but the Herculean labours the young Kan Turalı has to complete go a long way to show how desirable the lady was.

The only Pontic girl who truly ‘married well’ was not a princess at all. Known as Maria de Doubera, she was the daughter of a converted Pontic Greek (or so one may infer from her name). Her family, from the Matzouka valley immediately south of Trabzon, had been able to assemble small estates, make its way through society and participate in local government. She married the Ottoman Sultan Beyazıt II in 1463 and was his principal wife. Her son Selim became sultan but she never was Valide Sultan as she died before his accession. She took the name of Gülbahar; her mosque and türbe (the grave), are in Trabzon.

In Europe a Trabzon princess graces the wall of the Pellegrini Chapel in Sant’Anastasia, Verona. It is a work by Pisanello dated to the mid-15th century and represents either the liberation of the princess by St George or his departure to get his dragon. Either way, she looks magnificent in her finery and outsize headdress. In the background Trabzon looms high: all the fabled towers are there with the inevitable gallows for the Turks to hang from. Cervantes must have had this image in mind when he modelled his Dulcinea on a captive princess in need of a saviour (he would have had plenty of time in his five-year captivity in a Turkish prison in Algiers to hear the folklore of his jailers).

With the passing of time, Trabzon princesses became progressively ethereal and unreal. In Offenbach’s comic opera La princesse de Trébizonde, she is not even a real person. Her wax image is sufficient to steer the deepest feelings in the male lead. But the opera was a great success, notwithstanding such arias as ‘I have a toothache’; it was premiered in Paris in 1869 and went on the take Melbourne by storm in 1874.

by Paola Pugsley, author of the Blue Guide to the Black Sea coast of Turkey (for details, see here).

Artwork of the month: April. The Seuso Silver

At some point during the turbulent years of the declining Roman Empire, a cache of silver was hidden by its owners, packed into a copper cauldron. This hoard has been puzzling the world ever since. Known as the Seuso (or Sevso) Treasure, it has become an artworld mystery. And the mystery is far from solved. But seven pieces of the great hoard were purchased by the Hungarian government in 2014 and—at last—went on show to the public, in the Hungarian Parliament building in Budapest.

No one really knows anything about the Seuso Treasure except that it is Roman, extremely fine and extremely valuable, and dates from the 4th or 5th century AD. The most convincing story is that it was found, sometime in the 1970s, by a young man called József Sümegh, in the vicinity of the village of Polgárdi, east of Lake Balaton in Hungary. Sümegh did not live long to enjoy his find. He died in mysterious circumstances shortly afterwards, at the age of just 24. Not long before his death, he had suddenly started appearing in Levi’s jeans, the kind of apparel that wasn’t readily available in Communist Hungary in those days. It is highly possible that he had sold several of the smaller items of the hoard. By the time the Treasure ended up in the hands of Lord Northampton in England, it numbered 14 pieces: perhaps vastly fewer that had originally been stashed, hurriedly and in panic, into that wide copper cauldron by a Roman family clinging to the coat-tails of their civilisation as it collectively fled before the barbarian invasions of Central Europe.

Hungary cannot prove its claim to the silver. Even though soil samples from the cauldron are a good fit with Transdanubia, it is not enough. The trail of the hoard has been deliberately muddied and obfuscated for decades, by dealers, smugglers, heisters, small-time and big-time crooks, a whole procession of them. The tedious dishonesty of greedy men has obscured the story of these extraordinary works of art. The Getty Museum was at one stage interested in purchasing the silver, but it pulled out because its story was too murky. Auctions at Sotheby’s and Bonham’s in London foundered because of bad provenance. Even now the Hungarian authorities will not reveal from whom they purchased the seven pieces for 15 million euros. This was a good price, considering—though if the silver really is Hungarian patrimony, it is a pity they had to pay anything at all.

The centrepiece of the 2014 Hungarian Parliament display was the so-called Hunting Plate: a huge salver with a beaded and decorated rim and a central roundel filled with a busy scene. In the centre are figures dining under a canopy, one of the members of the party feeding a titbit to a dog. Around them are scenes of hunting: and below the image of an upended boar, is the word “PELSO”, the Roman name for Lake Balaton. The whole design is of silver gilt with the details picked out in niello (a black-coloured alloy of sulphur with copper and lead). Circling the roundel is the following inscription: H[A]EC SEVSO TIBI DVRENT PER SAECULA MVLTA POSTERIS VT PROSINT VASCVLA DIGNA TVIS (‘May these vessels remain with you for centuries, Sevso, and serve your descendants worthily’). It has been suggested that the silver was presented to Seuso as a wedding gift. Nothing is known of him. It can only be surmised that he was a wealthy Roman or Romanised Celt who lived a gracious life in one of the fine villas that existed in the neighbourhood of Lake Balaton. At the very top of the inscription, between the first and the last words, is a tiny Chi Rho: Seuso may have been a Christian, or simply an army veteran. (For a detailed image of the central roundel, see here .) Stylistically, the platter shows similiarities to the famous Cesena Plate in the Malatesta Library at Cesena in Italy, near Ravenna. (For an image of the Cesena Plate, see here.)

Other items include another large plate with a geometric design in the centre and two geometric ewers (one of which illustrated at the top of this story). These objects are assigned by some scholars to a “Western” workshop, whereas other objects, notably an unusually-shaped incense casket and a jug with Dionysiac scenes are decorated with repoussé figures. On the Dionysiac jug, the varicose decoration of frenzied maenads recalls (sort of) the famous Derveni krater in Thessaloniki. Which is perhaps not an utterly mad comparison, despite the six hundred or so years' time difference between the crafting of the two, because scholars believe the pieces of the hoard may have come from two different centres of craftmanship, a western and an eastern. Other experts claim that all the pieces could have originated from a single Balkan workshop (in Sirmium, for example, or Thessaloniki), a place where the styles of East and West came together.

In the late 19th century, an elaborate folding stand, made of silver and lavishly decorated, was found close to Polgárdi, the claimed findspot of the Seuso hoard. It is a tetrapod plate stand, just the thing for a sumptuous fête champêtre, a kind of five-star camping table. It is part of the holdings of the Hungarian National Museum (see image here ). It is by no means out of the question that it once belonged to Seuso’s picnic equipment.

For three months, members of the public may view the seven treasures in Budapest, free of charge and with no prior appointment, in the hopes that someone might have their memory jogged, might recall a small silver object—a spoon, say, or a little finger bowl—which a member of their family might have bought, many years ago, from a treasure trover called József Sümegh. Then at last the question of the silver’s patrimony might be convincingly answered.

Annabel Barber

NB: Since this was written, the remaining known items of the Seuso Treasure, including the spectacular Achilles Plate, have been secured by Hungary. For more, see here.

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The Roman Villa at Balácapuszta (Baláca, Nemesvámos,...
The Bard of….Messina? Was Shakespeare Sicilian?
Rereading Ruskin
Sicily’s emblem: the Trinacria
Luca Signorelli on exhibition in Umbria
The Tribuna of the Uffizi reopens
The Venice equivalent of the anonymous Tweet?
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Sicilian Holiday Reading
Attila the Hun and the Foundation of Venice
Death in Venice cocktail a hit
The Gentry: Stories of the English
381 years ago this June
Brooklyn Bridge: a New York landmark
A Venetian Update
Sixth-century church to reopen
Roman Aquileia
Springtime in Friuli
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Al Dente: Madness, Beauty & the Food of Rome
A celebration of Lucca
Romantic music in a Baroque setting
Blue Guide India Delhi Launch
Nikolaus Pevsner: The Life
The Man of Numbers: Fibonacci’s Arithmetic Revolution
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The Roman Forum
Whispering City: Rome and its Histories
The 15th-century Health Museum at Edirne
City of Fortune, How Venice Won and Lost a Naval Empire
Books about Istanbul
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Constantine: Unconquered Emperor, Christian Victor
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The 54th Venice Biennale stars Tintoretto
Holy Bones, Holy Dust
RECOMMENDED PLACES TO STAY AND EAT ON CRETE
Delhi: Adventures in a Megacity
Full Circle: How the Classical World Came Back to Us
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Blue Guide Northern Italy
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A day trip to Ostia Antica from Rome - highly recommended
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A day trip from Venice up the Brenta Canal
A day trip to Murano from Venice
Pietrasanta, Pisa: in search of Stagi
Reading list for Venice
Reading list for Florence and Tuscany
The Best Credit / Debit Card for Travel
Ruskin on Venice
Reading list for Rome
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