Queen of the Throne Age

It’s been a weird few days in the UK.

Last Thursday lunchtime, reports came in that the Queen was seriously ill. I was ready to dismiss the news – over the past year or so, there have been several reports of the Queen’s declining health, and each time she has pulled through and lived to see another day. We had all seen her meet the new Prime Minister just two days earlier, and she looked cheerful, if frail. The Queen, it seemed to all of us, would live forever.

However, the confirmation that the Queen’s family was racing to Balmoral, indicated that this was something different. The news was considered serious enough to interrupt a House of Commons debate. Grave enough that BBC One interrupted Bargain Hunt to go to continuous breaking news. The biggest sign that Something Big was happening came a little while later, when all the presenters suddenly donned black clothes, not just on the BBC, but Sky and other channels too.

The hours of speculation became rather gruelling to watch, with little actual news to report and the news channels spending much time broadcasting live pictures of a gate at Balmoral. The actual announcement, when it came, was handled impeccably by Huw Edwards, the true professional that he is.

There is much to debate about the monarchy’s place in British society. On the one hand, you can point to the outpouring of tributes as an indicator of the Queen’s ability to bring people together. Conversely, the entrenched wealth and privilege at the heart of the institution often feels quite inappropriate while millions struggle to make ends meet. It’s certainly rather distasteful to see people being hauled away by police for peaceful protests.

However, there is no getting away from the fact that this is a significant moment. The Queen was woven into our national life in numerous tangible ways: her face on coins, bank notes and postage stamps; her Christmas Day message; her appearances with James Bond and Paddington Bear. For the vast majority of the population, she is the only monarch we have ever known. Her absence is going to take some getting used to.

Those Who Trespass (#Amsterlin Part 7)

The morning of Monday 4th July was bright and sunny as we arrived at Berlin Haputbahnhof for our train home. I was in a bright and sunny mood. After three nights in Amsterdam and a further three nights in Berlin, we were capping our trip with an epic train journey home.

From Berlin we would take the 10:46 train to Cologne. Then the 15:40 from Cologne to Brussels. Then the 18:56 from Brussels to London. Which should arrive in London at 19:57 – plenty of time for a leisurely stroll up the Euston Road to get the 21:07 London Euston to Liverpool, depositing me in my home city just after half past eleven. That is 14 hours, covering 800 miles.

The railway gods were not smiling.

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Babble on Berlin (#Amsterlin Part 6)

Large statue of a yellow bear, with "I love sausage - do you?" emblazoned across its chest. Berlin was in the midst of a mini-heatwave, the temperature nudging past 30C every day we were there. It was perfect weather for a spot of nude sunbathing in the Tiergarten (not that I did that… ahem) but otherwise, much of our time was spent darting from one shady spot to another, to keep the fierce sun off our backs. Still, we crammed in plenty of sights while we were there.

We availed ourselves of the famous 9-Euro-Ticket. First made available in June for a three month period, this ticket gives unlimited access to all local transport across Germany. The ticket is subsidised by the German government and was meant to offset increasing transport costs for commuters, but seems to have been largely used by leisure travellers, with resultant overcrowding on tourist routes as Germans headed to the beach en masse. Even for us, staying in Berlin for just three days, it saved us money (a standard day ticket for just Berlin costs €8.80).

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Three Pessimists Tour Europe (#Amsterlin Part 5)

We were back at Amsterdam Centraal bright and early (well, early, anyway) the next morning. Our time in the Dutch capital was at an end, and it was time to continue on the next leg of our tour, to Berlin.

I don’t know if I’ve ever mentioned it in passing, but I like Berlin, and I was looking forward to showing Mark and Peter some of the highlights. But first, we had the small matter of a train journey.

There was just time to stop and appreciate the splendour of Amsterdam Centraal station, before heading for our train.

Interior of Amsterdam Centraal station, showing high ceilings and arches

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Utrecht: The Ex-Railway Station (#Amsterlin Part 4)

NS railway "double arrow" logo on a yellow background, with a red nameplate that reads "DIANA"

In all my international train travels, and despite visiting Amsterdam twice by train, I had never actually travelled on Nederlandse Spoorwegen. Yes, I have never entered one of their bright yellow trains – shameful. It was high time we put that right.

Mark had suggested we take a day out to visit the Spoorwegmuseum, the Dutch national railway museum. It is in Utrecht, just a short train ride from Amsterdam. Naturally, I didn’t need much convincing, so on Thursday morning we marched back into Centraal station and trekked to Utrecht.

We purchased our train tickets from the NS ticket machine at Amsterdam Centraal. Nearly all train tickets in the Netherlands are issued on smartcards, either the reusable OV-Chipkaart or – if you are ignorant tourists like us – on a single use disposable card, which nevertheless contains a chip, and costs an additional €1 for the privilege (the Dutch word for this supplemant is “toeslag” which to English ears sounds like something you’d put in a Grindr profile, but… I digress).

Dutch train ticket - day return from Amsterdam Centraal to Utrecht Maliebaan

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An Amsterdam Amble (#Amsterlin Part 3)

Hotels in Amsterdam are expensive, and our “three-bed room” in the Ibis was clearly just a normal double room with an extra bed shoved in where normally there would be a little chair and table. It was rather cramped, and much of the time in the room was spent getting in each others’ way. Still, it was the only place in the centre that was remotely affordable, even booking at three months’ notice, so I can’t complain. Oh I just did.

The big compensation was the hotel’s closeness to Centraal station – in fact, it literally straddled the platforms, and access to our room was via a footbridge over the tracks, offering splendid views of arriving and departing trains.

View of Amsterdam Centraal station tracks, with two trains visible and the setting sun low in the sky

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Chunnel Chums (#Amsterlin part 2)

Side entrance to St Pancras station (a glass frontage with many people coming in and out)

It was a grumpy, annoyed Robert who ordered breakfast in the Wetherspoons at St Pancras station. Things improved with the arrival of Mark and Peter, whose train from Brighton had also been cancelled (although they only had to wait 15 minutes for the next one).

I felt a little better after I had finished my breakfast of scrambled eggs and black pudding (which is a perfectly cromulent combination, no matter what judgmental types may say). Together, we headed for the Eurostar check-in and Priti Patel’s Security Theatre.

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The Avanti Aversion (#Amsterlin part 1)

It was a trip over two years in the making.

Way back in January 2020, I was busy planning another European train adventure in conjunction with my friend Mark. The central plank of this trip was to be Eurostar’s new direct London-Amsterdam service. After a couple of days in the Dutch capital, we would travel onward, again by train, to Berlin, for a further few days.

We were almost at the point of booking it. The only problem was that booking for the Amsterdam to Berlin train had not opened for the dates in the summer of 2020 that we wanted to travel. We waited impatiently, refreshing the Deutsche Bahn website several times a day to see if the trains had gone on sale.

Then, the world went mad. COVID swept across Europe, borders were closed, and train services were deemed off-limits to all but essential passengers. I continued to make plans, fully expecting all this to blow over in a few weeks, in time for the summer holiday period. After all, locking down for months on end would be ridiculous, right?

We did not go away in 2020.

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Clown and out

It was two and a half years ago that Boris Johnson won a landslide majority in a snap general election. It was a horrible day, knowing that a completely amoral, opportunist lazy chancer could be elevated to the highest office in the land.

Now he is (almost) gone, leaving a country in a much worse state than it was when he became Prime Minister. He has destroyed trust in politics through his dishonesty. He has elevated desperately unqualified people to high office. He has pursued a toxic culture war agenda that has turned people against each other and divided the country.

Good riddance to him, but be afraid, because whoever replaces him is going to be just as bad, if not worse.

As for everyone who enabled him to get to this point – the cabinet colleagues who propped him up, the newspaper editors who gave him columns, the Have I Got News For You producers who booked him, the journalists who failed to call out his lies, the pundits who made excuses for him – we see you, and we do not forgive… or forget.

IE was the future, once

Farewell, Internet Explorer, which officially retired today. It has already vanished from Windows 11, Microsoft’s latest and greatest operating system. Over the next few months, Microsoft is rolling out updates to Windows 10 which will encourage those few people still clicking on the big blue ‘e’ icon to switch to using Microsoft’s new browser, Edge.

Internet Explorer page showing the Microsoft web site about the browser's retirement

It’s all a long way from Internet Explorer’s heyday. IE launched in 1995 when the Web was a very different place – accessed through slow dial-up modem connections, still largely text-only, and mainly the preserve of tech geeks and Star Trek fans. The main web browser for PC users at the time was Netscape Navigator, which had been released in late 1994.

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