Spontaneous roaming on trains can get very expensive, unless confined to major cities where special one-day fares are available. So it's good to know that certain rail companies offer Day Rovers which permit unrestricted travel across a portion of their network for a single up-front fee. [full list]
Most cover parts of the country far-flung from the capital, but I was seeking something closer to home, so stumped up for a Thames Branches Day Ranger. For £20.60 this allows unlimited travel on the line from Paddington to Reading, plus all intermediate branches, plus a few brief extensions at the Reading end. Given that an ordinary off-peak return from London to Reading costs only 30p less, and that railcard holders get an extra one-third off, this is an absolute bargain. [info][map]
On Saturday I set myself the challenge of travelling on every available section of line, to each of the seven extremities, and taking a quick look round before travelling back again. Here's what I found...
Reading West (09:08)
Yes, it was an early start. Reading West is nothing like its mainline counterpart, a sparse pair of platforms with half-dismembered canopies rather than a swish shiny interchange with escalators and coffee. Fresh silver gantries span the tracks, recently installed for the benefit of fast services that never stop, and whose hulking dimensions have also forced the removal of the footbridge due to inadequate clearance. I exit the station via newly-installed steps, teetering down to a very ordinary-looking Oxford Road, where gothic Victorian villas stretch off in one direction and a parade of lowly shops in the other. Trade in your motorbike at MTC, grab some Italian shoes from De Dora's Lovely Fashion, or it's still early enough for breakfast at McDonalds. It's also less than a mile to Reading station so I decide to walk, because when else will I ever get the opportunity?
For reasons inadequately explained, a Thames Branches Day Ranger allows travel three stops down the SWR line towards Bracknell and London Waterloo. Winnersh is the last of these, a dormitory suburb in the A329(M) corridor, abutting the blandly modern Winnersh Triangle industrial estate. I've done my research on Wikipedia, which implies that the only other place of interest in the village is Winnersh Crossroads, and this is only a short walk from the station. Here I discover a road junction brimming with traffic cones and roadworks, overlooked by two screamingly-ordinary office blocks and a smashed Transport Information noticeboard. Apparently the far corner used to be Hewlett Packard's UK HQ, and before that a Crimpy Crisps factory, but today it's an extensive Sainsbury's and an even more extensive car park. I had only nine minutes in Winnersh, but this proved more than enough.
Tilehurst looked a lot more promising, at least on the map, because the station's alongside the River Thames. Unfortunately it's screened behind a thick row of trees, and the entire riverbank is cut off from the adjacent settlement by the railway, so living here must be the equivalent of paying extra for a hotel room with a sea view during a foggy spell. I have almost half an hour spare to explore the suburb by the station, which proves to be the epitome of everyday Berkshire living. Parallel avenues lined by big semis and parked cars feed off a shrubby roundabout up either side of a dry valley, past a modern geometric parish church, an overpriced corner shop and a multi-cuisine Chinese restaurant. The next two stations up this line are the delightful Pangbourne and Streatley & Goring, but the TBDR ticket stops woefully short... so basically that's my third "no really, don't bother".
Gahhh, the connections on these Thames Valley branches can be appalling. My train from Tilehurst is timetabled to arrive at Twyford one minute before the half-hourly shuttle to Henley departs, so all I can do is watch it depart as we pull in. Worse, my train had a scheduled five minute pause inserted at Reading, so could have got here in time, but nobody appears to have done any joined-up thinking. I use my enforced twenty-nine minute wait to explore Twyford, which I can report is a charming commuter village on the Old Bath Road with a Victorian parish church and a Waitrose, but don't think that means you need ever visit.
Henley's a well-appointed Thames-side town, and a proper destination at last. Multitudinous daytrippers are milling along the riverbank, or grabbing urgent refreshment in a hostelry, or hiding from the sun in a designer boutique, or clambering aboard a tourist boat for a cruise, or stopping by the parish church to pay their respects to Dusty Springfield (OK, that last one may have been just me). Better still, the Town & Visitors’ Regatta was in full swing, this the only day of the year when the public are allowed to soil the pristine lawns of the riverside enclosure without adopting the official dress code. Inaudible announcements describe the scene as eights and quads jostle for position, although there are still seven hours before the Peter Sutherland Cup is awarded and I still have other places to be.
Meh, the next branch after Henley only has an hourly service, and connections down the line to Maidenhead mean I'll be arriving nine minutes too late. So on the return trip I take the opportunity to alight at Wargrave and spend half an hour of my enforced hiatus there. Wargrave is a sought after village, and knows it, comprising vast commuter homes in spacious gardens around a historic high street heart. Its riverside frontage is jealously guarded by the motorcruising community, and mere mortals have to walk all the way up to The George and Dragon's car park to gain access. I look very out of place waiting for the next train to depart.
And then I get twenty minutes to waste in Maidenhead, so take to opportunity to go exploring here too, although the ticket barriers don't recognise my ticket and the staff have to let me in and out. I have never seen an attractive side to Maidenhead town centre, and this brisk circuit fails to change my mind, especially when I hear a racist insult hurled from a car misjudging the pedestrian crossing by the multi-storey. An entire block on Queen Street is to be demolished in readiness for Crossrail's arrival, although they'll have to get a move on, even to hit next Christmas. The gentlemen's club across the road will alas live on.
Well that took forever. Thankfully Marlow is also charming, and properly on the river, if not quite in Henley's league. A new 3-bed house is up for sale at Signal Walk, on the site of the town's former railway station, for any rail-obsessed commuter with £725,000 to splash. The High Street is garlanded in red, white and blue bunting, and boasts an outpost of The Ivy, whose covers look fully booked. At the farmers' market one of the traders is trying to shift rabbit and venison pie, whereas anything chilled or in liquid form is selling better. Many of the cars parading towards the suspension bridge are open-topped, their owners having long been praying for a summer such as this. I check my watch.
The next station back down the line is Bourne End, which my smartphone assures me is 3.0 miles away, and its next train departs in 63 minutes time. That should be doable, shouldn't it, especially given I've walked this stretch of the Thames Path before and so know where I'm going. I locate the wiggling alley past the churchyard, survive an unexpected detour round a ploughed-up sports field, and enjoy a route march through a chain of open Thamesside meadows. Most of the tiny inlets are occupied by merry folk who've arrived by river, either in a canoe or motor launch, and are enjoying splashing in the water with picnic food and alcohol. Otherwise it's relatively quiet, despite peak summertime weather, and I'm well chuffed I decided to do this stretch on foot. There again, the outbound service to Marlow has already passed by the time I reach the ice cream van by the boatclub, so I ruefully decide I don't have time to pause for a 99 before it returns. Even speeding up my pace only just works, and if the driver hadn't had to reverse at Bourne End I'd have missed the train.
Windsor and Eton Central (15:55)
I'm giving myself twenty minutes between trains to explore Windsor, much of which is wasted trying to extricate myself from the horribly tourist-centric shopping centre jammed into the area around the old Victorian station. A kerfuffle on Castle Hill draws my eye, where there appears to be a drunken pirate shouting at the crowds. Ah no, this is the annual National Town Crier Championships, being held here this year by express permission of Her Majesty The Queen, and already well underway. Every few minutes an over-feathered man steps up, rings his bell, unscrolls a proclamation and then bawls towards the judges' tent, while his bonnet-topped wife stands decoratively beneath a lace parasol, and the next contestants are wheeled into position behind. An entire marquee of Town Criers and their spouses is overheating beneath the castle entrance, and praying for 6pm when they can all escape to the pub. Congratulations to the HaslemereTown Crier on his booming victory, long after I'd fled for the train.
The next leg takes absolutely ages because absolutely nothing connects. The Windsor train pulls into Slough just as the Paddington train departs from a platform nobody could have reached in time. This means twenty minutes to waste, plus the depressing knowledge that not a single train from Slough also stops at West Ealing. I have to change again at Hayes and Harlington, and even then the next TfL Rail service just misses the half-hourly connection I need at West Ealing, and sheesh that isn't an interesting place to hang around either. Altogether by the time I've finished my journey I'll have spent three hours waiting for connections which, sorry, isn't actually a very good advert for using Thames branch line services.
This runty decapitated spur is a poor way to end a long day out, as is proven when only three passengers board at the start of the ride, and absolutely nobody is waiting along the way. But it is included on my ticket, so I grab this rare opportunity to venture inside the graffitied Drayton Green tunnel and to gawp out from the South Greenford viaduct. Just past a set of antiquated semaphore signals we pull into the central platform at Greenford station, where there must be almost two people waiting, and the driver strides up to the other end ready to head back. I could pop ouside the station to tour the local hotspots, except there aren't any, and also I'm knackered after riding eighteen trains (plus twelve miles walking to boot). You wouldn't want to follow in all my footsteps, but the Henley, Marlow and Windsor branches are winners, and a well-played Thames Branches Day Ranger is well worth the money.
If you enjoy this kind of thing, and are on Twitter, you might want to follow @ToursByTrain whose four-strong team regularly go out riding trains for the sake of it and reporting back regularly along the way. They even had their own go at a #ThamesValleyTransit on Friday, but didn't quite get all the way round.