Two things that are underrated: coaches, and staycations. Staycations because when you live somewhere as small and as ordinarily rainy as the UK, going elsewhere in the same country never seems as exciting or adventurous as going abroad. And coaches, because normal buses are rubbish and coaches are just like buses, aren’t they? Well, sort of, but no, actually.
With a few weeks to go until our next trip to the continent, me and my partner in crime decided to take a mini adventure to Cambridge at the weekend – a place I’ve hardly ever been, even though it’s so close to Norwich, where I live. I’ve passed through it on the train plenty of times, but places lose their appeal when your main experience of them is waiting on a cold platform in a huff because there was a delay somewhere and you’ve missed your connection.
Which brings us to our chosen method of transport for the trip – le coach. I am all about ride sharing and public transport options and trying to make your travels as eco-friendly as you can, while still getting around. But I often dive straight for the train when I’m planning to get somewhere via shared transport, even though trains have made me late for all kinds of important events and once, a friend of mine had to go all the way to Liverpool on a train without a single working toilet. Boo.
National Express coaches have gotten some serious upgrades since I last travelled this way, and they offer much faster routes than I remember. (Hello, journeys to Leicester that are faster than getting the train – oh you know I’ve got my eye on you…) They’re also now the most eco-friendly method of public transport you can take – seriously! A coach creates five times less Co2 per passenger than the average car journey, and the majority of National Express’s vehicles are new enough that they’re up to Euro 6 emissions standard. Rad.
We stepped out of the boiling summer sun and into some much-needed air con just after 9am at Norwich bus station, and I immediately found about half a dozen reasons I liked the day’s transport better than the train. To name a few of them:
- There were USB charging points for literally every set of seats, which if you’re a phone-fiend like me you know is a major bonus. (There were also regular plug sockets, too).
- The seats were ridiculously comfy, as evidenced by the fact Chris actually fell asleep in his for ages on the way back home.
- They were also super clean, like, spotlessly clean – none of those dusty fabric seats you usually get on trains/buses that ping clouds of grime into the air when you sit on them. So clean.
- The air con gave me life – we’re three months into a solid heatwave here and ain’t cooling down any time soon, so praise be for decent air con.
- There’s a fun little National Express app called VUER where you can watch free TV and things and pretend you’re on a plane – likewise magazines in the back of the seats to prevent boredom. Win.
Of course, the other key thing is that on a coach, you’re actually guaranteed a seat and space for your bags. If only rail services could find it in themselves to manage this mystical state of being.
Vegan brunching in Cambridge
We got to Cambridge at the perfect time for brunch – although arguably, most of the time it’s the perfect time for brunch (said every middle class white girl ever). So for our first stop, it was off to Stem and Glory. There are two Stem and Glory venues in Cambridge now, but the King Street offering was only a short stroll from the coach drop-off point, so naturally that’s the one we picked.
(The coach drop-off was at the side of a park called Parker’s Piece, which happens to be where the Cambridge Thai Festival was being held – more on that in a minute)
If you search for “vegan food in Cambridge” you’ll find a fair few recommendations for Stem and Glory, and they aren’t misplaced. Though there may not be anything groundbreaking about a vegan cafe that sells smashed avocado and scrambled tofu on sourdough toast, these guys do what they do very well and without the food being overpriced.
They’re adding a mushroom Bahn Mi to the menu imminently and I’m gutted I couldn’t try it while we were there – but if you get the chance to visit their Chesterton Road branch, you’ll find a much more extensive menu that’s served late into the evening, while King Street’s focus is on brunch and lunch.
The Cambridge Thai Festival
I’d completely forgotten that there was an event happening over the weekend of our trip, but as we stepped off the coach and straight into the park where the Cambridge Thai Festival – aka Magic of Thailand – was happening, we couldn’t exactly miss it.
Having travelled around Thailand in 2015 and again in 2016, the festival genuinely brought back loads of happy memories for me – and apparently I was walking around looking like a kid at Christmas taking in everything that was going on.
While the food stalls weren’t exactly loaded with vegan cuisine (or even vegetarian – which is sort of surprising given how much amazing veggie food there is in Thailand) we did get to stuff our faces on deep fried bananas, and killed some time floating around the minimart stalls looking at such delights as ‘pickled young grape’ and Thai sweet basil flavoured crisps. Delish.
For £4 entry there were Muay Thai demonstrations, traditional dancing, a ladyboy show and a couple of other live shows that we missed because we left to do other things – but the festival tours the country and I’ll definitely be heading along when it comes to Norwich in September, to buy some of the Thai homewares we were ogling in the sun. (And maybe to get another Thai massage, once I’m psychologically prepared to be gently beaten up by a stranger in the name of curing backache.)
Obligatory punting tour of the college backs
For our next stop, punting. Because you can’t go to Cambridge and not go punting. It’s probably a law. Do not be deterred by the fact that this is a very touristy thing to do – or by the absolute carnage of a boardwalk being organised by a lot of overworked university students who’ve all got a bit of a hangover. It’s worth it.
As far as I can tell, every punting company offers cheaper prices if you book online, but there’s no need to do tonnes of pre-planning. We booked while we were having brunch and showed up a few hours later with our confirmation, hopped on a boat within 20 minutes despite the vast queues left, right and centre and bobbed on off to an absolutely hilarious 45-minute trip. We went for Rutherford’s because they were the cheapest option we could see for an on-the-day booking, and I’d highly recommend using them if you go.
A tour of The Backs is a very relaxing way to spend an afternoon, learning a bit of Cambridge history paired with tongue-in-cheek humour and to top it all, it turns out there’s a Pimms bar boat that goes up and down the route selling strawberries, prosecco and of course, Pimms, to punters passing by.
I will say that any desire we’d had to self-hire and self-punt went right out of the window when we saw people valiantly trying to do it themselves. Those people all looked full of regret. By all means get a private hire if you’re a big group and don’t want to share with strangers, but for the love all things good in the world, let a professional do the punting.
Late Lunch at The Old Bicycle Shop
You might be wondering why a person would need lunch if they’d had brunch, but we arrived at The Old Bicycle Shop about 20 minutes before the dinner menu started and far too hungry to wait. It was epic, and I would absolutely eat here again.
While this isn’t a vegan venue, a lot of their menu is vegan-friendly – from the craft ciders right down to the Posh Kebabs. There’s a nice little outside seating space, and the food is clearly very carefully thought out – though I have to say the service was a little lacking during our visit.
We started off with a sharing platter that was made up entirely of delicious eats – sweet chilli baked aubergine, seitan bites, chickpea pancakes with white bean houmous and some cracking onion bhajis (among other things). By the end of that we were already starting to feel full, but ploughed valiantly on into two jackfruit ‘kebabs’ which were also epically tasty, and some of which I had to bring home because I was too stuffed to eat.
The only let down of this otherwise brilliant venue was that after the mains came out, we got totally, utterly forgotten about. I’m pretty sure we could have left without paying and no-one would have noticed. I heard someone saying there was a big party upstairs inside somewhere, but when it’s been 40 minutes since you finished eating and you haven’t even seen a server, you have to question whether the big party is enough of an excuse. Better luck next time?
a snoozy journey home
After hanging out with some friendly strangers in one of Cambridge’s many parks, we jumped back on a coach from the city centre and revelled in our return to air con life. As it was late in the evening by the time we made our way back, our second National Express coach was in what I’m calling Night Mode – bright white lights off, groovy blue low lights on so that everyone could get some kip.
Me being me, I mostly spent the return journey charging my phone and uploading photos of my food to Instagram, but Chris made the most of the comfy seats by sleeping through just about the entire thing.
All in all, Cambridge was wicked and I am now totally sold on both coach travel and on doing more UK trips. I’ve said before that I don’t know the cities in this country as well as I know ones on the other side of the world, so watch this space while I start working on that!
A big thank you to National Express for kindly providing us with the coach tickets that got us to Cambridge and back – there was no obligation for me to say anything in particular about their services, but I genuinely really rate them and all mentions in this post are an honest review / my own opinions.