Tuesday, April 22, 2003

London calling

To London, Ontario (pop. 350,000) for two nights at Easter. Take the VIA Rail train on Saturday afternoon from Toronto via Oakville and Brantford. A pleasant ride in the sunshine in an old-style stainless-steel rail car - an experience not dissimilar to UK inter-city. This is a good time to travel as most of the week-end travellers have already reached their destination. The snow has nearly all gone too but lingers still in shady spots.
The train travels slowly past Bayview with southerly views across the water to the city of Hamilton. We swing away westward leaving Lake Ontario behind, past Dundas spread out below us, and we pull into the magnificently-restored Brantford station. It was in this town that Alexander Graham Bell invented the telephone.
In a little over two hours we reach London and its new VIA Rail Station. We ask for directions to our hotel - the Comfort Hotel on Dundas Street - and a lady assures us it is too far to walk. We set off anyway and are there in a few minutes. The hotel has few guests at Easter and hence is very quiet - at $75 per night including breakfast it is a bargain.
After checking-in we retrace our steps to the Greyhound Station to check for a bus to St Thomas on Sunday - we draw a blank as the next bus is on Tuesday. We are panhandled by three young n'er-do-wells outside the bus station so we beat a hasty retreat.
After a wander round the centre - mostly closed for the holiday week-end - we stop off at Mexicali Rosa's restaurant on Dundas Street. Pleasant casual dining - we enjoyed it and so returned the next night.
The following morning we are determined to visit St Thomas and Port Stanley to look for a railway museum and ride on the Port Stanley Terminal railroad. A quick call to Thrifty Car Rental and we are on our way in a Kia Rio, a compact car with so many blemishes on the bodywork that the condition report is peppered with spots.
On arrival in St Thomas we stop at tourist information which is housed in an old caboose - being a holiday it is closed. Next to it is a giant statue of Jumbo, the elephant. A plaque says "On September 15 1885, Jumbo the giant African Elephant, star of the Barnum and Bailey Circus, met an untimely death when struck in St Thomas by a Grand Trunk Locomotive."
We drive on and spot the old Canada Southern Railway Station. This large two-story, brick station was built between 1871 and 1873. The style is Italianate and the buiding is some 350ft long. The station has lost its chimneys and the canopy for the passengers but the old girl is remarkably intact. This is a Canadian national treasure crying out for restoration.
Nearby we spot the Elgin County Railroad Museum, across the railyards, which is also closed and looks neglected with many broken windows.
We head south to Port Stanley on Lake Erie and purchase our tickets at the railroad station for the 13:30 departure - we have time for cod and chips at the "The Bridge Dining Lounge." We join the Easter Bunny Express which takes us across Kettle Creek and out to an old flag stop in the sticks close to the road to St Thomas. This stretch of track was an early electrified railway but is now diesel-hauled. The railway can apparently connect with St Thomas and the railroad museum in due course, following further negotiations. St Thomas could use every visitor that they can get having many empty storefronts in the town centre.
Back to London we search for a shop specialising in British goods but as far as we can tell it is no more - we do see the old C.P.R. London station which was closed in 1989 and is now "The Keg" steakhouse and bar. We also ride down by the Thames river.
Next morning we are killing time in London waiting for the train and go in search of coffee - we look in the city-centre shopping mall, which is in dire straits with some two-thirds of the shops empty and the rest are 'dollar stores' and other C-list emporia. Eventually we find a Tim Horton's and head back to the station. The train is crowded and nineteen minutes late departing turns into half-an-hour late arriving at Toronto Union Station. We take the streetcar home.
London may not be the most obvious choice for a week-end away but we made the best of it.

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