Tuesday 9 December 2014

A day trip to Manchester on the train with CrossCountry trains

I often wonder how much time I've spent on trains in my life. When I was at uni, I used to go home one weekend a month. It took me a while to pass my driving test so I relied on trains quite a bit in my twenties. My friends all live all over the country so regular trips on the train helped us to keep in touch. At work, my clients are also all over the shop and sometimes the train is just quicker, easier and cheaper for me to get to where I need to go. And hubs relied on the trains for a year when Ethan was first born, travelling to and from Leeds every single day so he could be at home with us every night.

I like the fact that when you're on a train, you know where you going, (usually) when you will get there and you can do whatever you like to pass the time - window gaze, read a good book or get on with some work, undisturbed.

Because these days I'm usually using the train for work, when CrossCountry got in touch to see whether I'd like to take a trip away somewhere for fun, I jumped at the chance to have a change of scenery and to take Ethan on his very first train journey. As you may know, I have an enthusiastic young Thomas the Tank Engine fan on my hands so I was really excited to be able to take him out for the day on a real train.

We booked our tickets to Manchester, to go and see their Christmas markets and do a spot of shopping, and looked forward to the date in our diaries.

Then I realised what taking a child on a train would entail. Oh.

I have to admit, I was a bit worried about juggling Ethan, his pushchair and his changing bag, let alone my things, despite the fact that hubs was joining us. I've experienced how impatient train passengers can be when you have a suitcase, let alone a pushchair and a child who still needs to be carried. 

We debated whether to take our Quinny buggy, as it's light, compact and would be a lot easier to handle on and off the train but decided to go for our other pushchair as it has a foot muff and raincover so we would be better prepared. I packed everything I could into one bag for ease and made sure essentials like snacks were close to hand whilst hubs brought along his tablet loaded with plenty of Timmy Time episodes in case Ethan got restless.

We made sure we left early enough to allow for Birmingham rush hour traffic, parking the car and walking over to New Street station, then using the lift to get onto our platform. To be honest, it all went fine and even boarding the train was straightforward, me taking the little one, hubs tackling the pushchair.

We were treated to First Class and after finding our seats, we had a look at the menu of complimentary food and drink. The friendly member of staff who served us chatted with Ethan, who was in a good mood and clearly excited about what we were doing. 

We ordered a breakfast wrap and two helpings of porridge, plus Starbucks coffee which went down a treat. Ethan enjoyed his breakfast and caught up with the latest goings on with Timmy and we enjoyed the journey. The seats were comfortable and the service great and it was just nice to be taking a trip on the train for fun reasons rather than work. The novelty of it was really nice and it was lovely seeing Ethan looking out the window at the passing scenery or waving at people on the platform when we stopped at a station.

Hubs and I really like Manchester, and there's lots to do as you can see if you check out the handy city guide on the CrossCountry website. I've been a few times for work or to go to an event at the MEN Arena and hubs went there on his stag do. I also planned a surprise weekend away for his 30th birthday with all our friends to Manchester, so we've grown quite familiar with the city over the years.

Our plan for the day was to have a good wander around and just enjoy what there was to see, with no real plan at all. We walked around the city centre streets and browsed the Christmas market stands. Hubs found his ultimate hut, with strudel in every flavour you can imagine. When we went to Prague with friends a couple of years ago, hubs became obsessed with apple strudel and had it everywhere we went, so seeing this stand brought back fond memories and he really enjoyed the treat.

We did a spot of shopping in the Arndale Centre whilst Ethan slept, to have a break from the cool air outside, and then we headed for a long lunch at TGI's. Ethan loved the crayons he was given, even though Daddy did most of the drawing, and we had a really nice meal that filled us up for the rest of the day.

A few more shops and a bit more walking around the centre before it was time to head back to Piccadilly for our train home.

We had a few more bags with us this time but the train was at the platform early so we had plenty of time to get on board. We did think we were going to have a problem as the train manager told us we couldn't put our folded pushchair where we had left it and said it had to go in the luggage rack, but it wouldn't fit. He came back shortly and said we could put it in a seat space and we managed to slide it under our table, out of the way.

Ethan was in a really good mood but was quite fidgety on the way back, keen to see everything and try and sit on all the seats. We were concerned by the looks we were getting from one passenger in particular, from the moment she came on board and saw us with Ethan. It was a First Class coach but it wasn't a quiet coach and Ethan wasn't making much noise at all, just exclaiming now and then and calling our names. CrossCountry themselves said that they aren't elitist and that anyone can use First Class with the appropriate ticket, after seeing a comment I made on Twitter, which made me feel better but I still felt like other people were looking at us and thinking why we were there.

Paranoia? I'm not sure. It would be interesting to hear if anyone else has felt like this when travelling with their little one on a train, regardless of your ticket type.

We could have enjoyed a complimentary snack on the way back but we were full from lunch so we just had a few drinks instead and again the staff member was really friendly and asked us about our day.

We had a really nice family day out and it was good to have a change of scenery. I love Birmingham and our Christmas market is still pretty impressive in my eyes (come visit, it's a great city!), but I did like having the chance to go somewhere else and see what there was to see, rather than just going from A to B and not having the chance to take it all in. It was great to take Ethan with us and the whole thing was an adventure to him.

My top tips for taking your toddler on the train are:

  • Travel as light as you can, the less you can carry, the better!
  • Take plenty of snacks, so they don't get grumpy during the journey
  • Bring different forms of entertainment to keep them happy, as they may get a bit restless
  • Book in advance! There's some good ticket deals to be had if you book in advance or choose off peak times for your journey. Cross Country provides a great service and connections all over the country, so I'd certainly consider leaving the car at home and going out for the day by rail instead again as a family and certainly for a day out just me and the hubs or with friends.

* Thank you to CrossCountry trains - we had fun travelling with you! We really enjoyed our day out in Manchester - it's a great city but Birmingham will always be the second city to me!


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