Bringing solo travellers together

Rope Bridge

Val Baynton talks to Jackie Ring, Holidays and Trips Organiser for The Unattached Group in Surrey, and finds out how she has perfected the art of ‘mix and match’ group travel for singles.

Jackie Ring

Jackie Ring
Jackie Ring has been involved with The Unattached Group (T-U-G) for a decade and has always ‘organised things’. This has been a common theme in her many jobs – as a college tutor, a PA and secretary, and as an agent organising programmes for visiting foreign students. Currently she works in a local church office looking after maintenance, writing news sheets and handling the bookings diary for the church hall, and she is an assessor of people training to be teaching assistants. Jackie is a member of the Group Travel Organisers’ Association and a newly appointed committee member for the Southern Branch, and she edits the newsletter, Southerly Breeze. She has also joined the Woking Area U3A and she helps out organising their trips from time to time, too.

 

The group in Venice

As Holidays and Trips Organiser for The Unattached Group (T-U-G), Jackie Ring arranges theatre trips and short breaks for a core of 100 or so members living close to Guildford in Surrey. She joined T-U-G around 10 years ago after getting divorced, and in the early days did not arrange many activities. As her children have grown up and her work commitments have reduced though, she has taken on more and now organises 30-plus theatre trips as well as eight or more two or three-night breaks annually. Generally between 10 and 20 people sign up for each of her trips, and Jackie also prepares A4 flyers about her events to be distributed with the monthly programme and on each trip. She adds, ‘I want as many people as possible to sign up for each trip so I actively promote everything I organise.’

The group is made up of single people who are widowed, divorced or who have never married, and aims to provide a range of activities that allow members to socialise as friends. However, having said this, Jackie comments, ‘In the 15 years the group has been running, there have been 25 weddings or permanent partnerships involving, what are now, former members.’ As the group focuses on singles, once a member does find themselves in a committed relationship – whether with another member of the group or someone else – then they are not invited to renew their membership at the end of the year. Jackie explains more, ‘We have found that if we include couples in membership then it really changes the dynamics of the group and we want it to remain for unattached people, who can dip in and out of the programme and have total freedom to interact with other members during each activity, as they wish.’

Another guiding principle is that every member has to organise an activity at least once in a six-month period; it may be a meal out, a walk or a cinema trip, for instance. This keeps the programme fresh with a broad variety of activities for members to choose from, and there’s not too much burden on one or two people to organise everything. As many individuals work or have daytime commitments, activities are often in the evening or at weekends. Each week there is a pub night; the programme outlining all upcoming events is handed out at the pub
meeting at the end of each month, and also emailed to members who are not able to attend. There are similar groups elsewhere in the country, but T-U-G is not affiliated to any other.

 

Outings to the theatre

The Royal Albert Hall, where Jackie’s group often enjoy performances.

Regular afternoon and evenings trips are made to the New Victoria Theatre in Woking and to London’s West End by T-U-G. As Jackie personally enjoys musical theatre, these are the outings she plans, which allows other members to organise trips to more ‘serious shows’. For the Woking trips, Jackie books direct with the groups team at the theatre, but for the West End she does often book through agencies such as Ticketmaster, See Tickets and Encore Tickets, using whichever company sends the relevant marketing material at the opportune
time and based on the seat allocation they can promise. ‘Good seats are very important to my members,’ she says. ‘I book four to six months in advance to get these, as well as the best rates.’ Jackie also looks for and receives last minute offers for shows and she will email these around to members to see if there is any interest, and usually there are at least 10 people who sign up.

Either before or after the show, Jackie will also organise a meal or time for a coffee. ‘As single people, we are used to going to places on our own, but we all really appreciate a chance to chat over a meal or drink. After the theatre in Woking, we generally have a coffee whilst the car park clears, and in London I hunt around for a good deal for a restaurant meal – usually pre-show.’ Jackie finds that restaurant chains such as Strada, specialising in Italian fare, can offer deals and she also uses her Gourmet Society Card membership to get discounts. This card (it costs around £30 a year but there are often joining offers) allows the holder to access deals such as two meals for one in a variety of restaurants, and at some places it’s possible to use it for bookings of up to 10 people. Jackie has booked meals on the riverboat RS Hispaniola, which is moored on the Embankment too. Set price menus are a good option for groups, as this can save many a headache when the bill is divided up at the end. Jackie has perfected a technique for this, however, and now prefers to sort the bill out before any member sees it so she can tell each person how much they owe, including drinks and service charge – which often get overlooked when individuals try to do the calculation themselves.

As with the majority of T-U-G events, members make their own travel arrangements to get to the theatre, sharing cars or using local trains and buses if going to London. Many members have bus passes, which are valid in London, so this makes these trips cost-effective.

In December, 10 members went to a Bert Bacharach concert at the Criterion Theatre in London, booked direct with the theatre. As usual, the group met under the clock at Waterloo Station before heading for a meal at Planet Hollywood, just off Trafalgar Square. Jackie was impressed by the freshly cooked food and the diversity of meals on offer. The group also enjoyed the show. Jackie says, ‘The Criterion Theatre is delightful and the show was lovely; there was a good selection of songs, all with a modern twist.’ Afterwards, members caught a bus to Selfridges and walked back along Oxford Street to admire the Christmas lights and the festive window displays.

Other trips have included the Royal Albert Hall, which Jackie books direct with the venue. ‘We really loved seeing Romeo & Juliet being danced there, in the round, by the English National Ballet last summer, starring Carlos Acosta in one of his final performances, and I’ve booked Swan Lake in June 2016 already.’ There have also been trips to the Royal Military School of Music at Kneller Hall in Richmond for concerts, which Jackie says are ‘outstanding’. The group also go to recitals at the University of Surrey in Guildford. Music and drama students have to perform live as part of their courses and Jackie regularly books into a selection of these shows. Jackie says, ‘You are never quite sure what is going to be performed,
but it’s lovely to see these young talented students in action. The recitals are also free.’

Another excellent evening of entertainment was on a River Lights cruise operated by City Cruises. The three-hour cruise gave impressive views of London riverside landmarks lit up at night, and included a four-course meal with live entertainment. Jackie says, ‘This was enjoyed by all, the food was delicious and the singer was superb.’

 

Short break appeal

At the European Parliament on a trip to Brussels.

Jackie looks for a variety of short break experiences for the group, including city breaks, leisure hotels and an annual cruise taking in a variety of destinations to satisfy members’ demands to discover new places and things. Generally, the two or three-night break is over a weekend as these do not take up too much holiday entitlement for those members who still work. Members travel to UK destinations in the main by car-share, whilst for overseas trips Jackie will work with a variety of specialist operators such as Greatdays of Cheshire, Riviera Travel of Staffordshire or HF Holidays of Hertfordshire as they provide financial protection and essential back up should flights be delayed or cancelled. All three provide a good service but Jackie singles out Greatdays for the way they work with her group. ‘I was very impressed with their knowledge of attractions and places to visit on a recent trip to Belfast, and they booked a very good guide, which made all the difference to the success of the trip,’ she says.

Jackie suggests destinations through research she has done herself or because of a familiarisation trip she has been on, such as recent ones to Wiltshire with Visit Wiltshire and to Switzerland with the Switzerland Travel Centre. ‘I will only agree to go on a familiarisation trip, though, if I feel it will be something I am likely to offer to my group, and I will usually only organise an overseas trip if I have personally visited the destination beforehand,’ she adds.

For UK breaks, Jackie will reserve accommodation (members pay hotels direct) and meals, and suggest a variety of ideas, including visits to historic properties, gardens, walks and shopping, for her members to consider. During the weekend, Jackie will organise an activity, such as leading a walk or a visit to a National Trust property, but if members don’t want to do that they can join up with others to explore the destination themselves, taking in the elements that most appeal to them. Meeting for lunch and for dinner, members then chat about what they’ve done that day. Jackie adds, ‘This free-style, mix and match approach really suits my group; it means everyone is happy and can do just what they like, but we make sure that no-one is left on their own. We find people mix well too – three or four members might travel to the destination together from Surrey, but once there individuals pair up with other members to pursue specific interests.’

Single supplements are an important consideration for Jackie as, ideally, each of her members will want their own room. ‘I understand the need for a supplement as a hotel still has to service the bedroom and bathroom whether there are one or two people using it, but I feel the supplement should be at a reasonable level and a single occupant should definitely not pay ‘double’ for a room, especially as some single rooms are not that much bigger than a cupboard!’

Again, Jackie is alert to offers and as her members do like Warner Leisure Hotels, she will take up early-bird discounts for stays at their resorts. She explains that Warner holidays are always excellent value, and there is so much flexibility in what members can do in the day time – whether exploring the locality or staying in the hotel and using the facilities, whilst at night there’s excellent food and entertainment. ‘We can all sit together for dinner too, and I often invite members for a drink in my room first so we can all go down to eat at the same time.’

In mid-December, the group returned to one of their favourite Warner hotels, Bembridge in Yarmouth on the Isle of Wight, for a weekend break. For some members, Jackie says, this was their Christmas celebration. On the Friday, 21 members of the group made their own way to the island by car and ferry from Portsmouth, which Warner helped to book, ensuring good rates. On Saturday, about two thirds of the group went to English Heritage’s Osborne House, where they thoroughly enjoyed seeing the house dressed for a Victorian Christmas. Meanwhile, Jackie and other members went to the Christmas Tree Festival in Brighstone, using the shuttle bus there and back from the oyster farm at Isle of Wight Pearl. Jackie says, ‘It was very festive and lovely.’ Back at Isle of Wight Pearl, many members shopped, taking advantage of a 20% discount on pearl jewellery. On Sunday, the group again split, with Jackie leading a walk from the hotel to Alum Bay, taking the bus for the return route, whilst others went to Brighstone. ‘The entertainment at the hotel each night was great’, Jackie adds. Members made their own way home, but Jackie and several others lingered, taking a walk to a bird sanctuary.

Over the next six months, Jackie has booked breaks at Warner Leisure Hotels’ Cricket St Thomas in Somerset in February and Bembridge, on the Isle of Wight, again, in June. For the Somerset holiday, she will also make suggestions to her members on where they can break their journey on their way to and from the hotel. From the recent familiarisation trip she attended in Wiltshire, she would suggest time in Salisbury or Bradford-on- Avon.

Recently, Jackie has organised weekend breaks at De Vere Hotels too. She has found that although they are busy with business and conference guests during the week, they can often offer good value at weekends. By selecting hotels close to Guildford – at Latimer Place in Chesham and Theobalds Park in Cheshunt, Waltham Cross – members can arrive after work on Friday. Jackie says, ‘We enjoyed using their team-building facilities, such as the table football.’

Coming up for 2016
By taking advantage of discounts wherever she can, Jackie feels she can plan twice as many trips and breaks, and she has many ideas for the year ahead. Some trips, as mentioned, are already booked to take advantage of early-bird deals, but she is also hoping to plan a weekend in Salisbury and a visit to Geneva and Montreux for the Christmas markets, which she will be arranging through the Switzerland Travel Centre. And, as usual, Jackie will decide what to include in the programme using one decisive factor – that of enjoyment. ‘If I think I will enjoy the performance, the venue or destination, then I am happy to book and to organise the trip, encouraging as many other members of the group to join me,’ she concludes.

Bird watching trips

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Val with the RSPB North Staffs Local Group, at the start of the ‘Bins and Boots’ walk at Deep Hayes Country Park, Staffordshire.

Birdwatching is arguably Britain’s most popular hobby; it’s certainly something that can be enjoyed by groups, and the experience enhanced by shared trips, as Val Baynton discovers by talking to the trip organisers of the RSPB North Staffs Local Group.

 

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Ian Worden

Ian Worden
Hailing from the south coast and initially studying earth sciences because of the enthusiasm for nature he developed as a child, Ian Worden eventually joined the police force and settled in Staffordshire. His interest in the natural world, and in particular bird watching, was ‘put on hold’ as family and work commitments increased, and it was not till 2007 that he was able to devote more time to these leisure pursuits once again. Ian met members of the RSPB North Staffs Local Group after inviting them to come along to investigate young peregrine falcons that were roosting in his local church tower and, having made contact, he joined the group himself. He’s now Coach Trips Organiser and he runs the monthly Sunday outings with his wife, Anne.

 

The Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB) has over one million members, and over 220 Local Groups, which organise a variety of activities including days out to discover and see birds in their natural habitats, run by birding enthusiasts throughout the UK.

The RSPB was founded as a charity in 1889 and its work is supported by a nationwide network of Local Groups, run by volunteers. The groups organise events including walks, talks and fund-raising activities, and each acts as a local forum for enthusiasts to learn more about birds, conservation and wildlife.

Black Tailed Godwit 2 Leighton Moss

Black Tailed Godwit at RSPB Leighton Moss. Courtesy of Ian Worden.

The RSPB North Staffs Local Group is a typical group, founded over 30 years ago and currently with around 200 members, ranging from 20-year-olds to octogenarians! Monthly trips, taking place from September to early June, are organised by Geoff Sales, Peter Durnall, and Ian and Anne Worden. To cater for all the needs of the group, they have developed three types of trip – a full-day coach trip on Sundays, a mid-week ‘Bins and Boots’ short walk and occasional car-share trips running on both weekdays and at weekends. Although birds are the prime interest, trips sometimes take in other aspects of wildlife, such as butterflies. The social and health aspects are also important factors for many of the members. Geoff says, ‘I joined to take my interest in birding further, and to meet like-minded people. Since I’ve retired, it means I can do more trips and I find it’s a good way to make friends and meet new people.’

Membership of the group is £5 per year and trips are costed out individually, with most members also joining the RSPB, local Wildlife Trusts, and the Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust (WWT), thus getting free entry into the reserves they run. Any surplus monies at the end of the year are donated to the RSPB and following the 2014-2015 year, Geoff Sales was able to send a cheque for over £2,500 to the charity. Affiliation to the RSPB as a group means that there is also insurance cover for group activities.

Sunday trips
The Sunday trips led by Ian Worden are usually to nature reserves run by the RSPB, local Wildlife Trusts or the WWT, and occasionally to private reserves such as Paxton Pits, near to Huntingdon. Staffordshire is well located to travel routes in several directions, so a three-hour journey time allows the group to take in reserves in Yorkshire, Cumbria, Norfolk and Wales, ensuring there is plenty of diversity in the programme over each nine-month period.

Group at Walney Island

The group at Walney Island, Morecambe Bay in 2012. Courtesy of Ian Worden.

Ian and Anne plan the year’s itinerary a year or so in advance as the group’s events calendar is published every September. They try to include favourite reserves such as Yorkshire Wildlife Trust’s Potteric Carr, as well as places they haven’t visited as a group before, gaining recommendations from other members, from places they’ve visited themselves and from publications such as the RSPB’s newsletter, Natures Home. Generally, Ian and Anne go on a recce before booking the group into a reserve. Ian explains, ‘Even if a reserve has been personally recommended, we find it invaluable to go and see it before including it on the programme. This knowledge gives us confidence that the facilities that we need will be there and that there is good bird watching to be done.’ Hides, for example, are important – the group goes out whatever the weather and, if it’s raining, the hide provides much needed shelter. Another plus point for some members is a good cafe serving a hot lunch. ‘Given the length of the day and that we often don’t get home till mid-evening, many members like to eat at lunchtime so they don’t need to prepare food later on,’ Ian adds. Another practical point is that at smaller reserves, there may only be room for one coach so it’s essential to make an advance booking.

Razorbill Bempton

A razorbill spotted on a trip to RSPB Bempton Cliffs, Yorkshire. Courtesy Ian Worden.

Between 35 and 45 members regularly attend the Sunday trips, and Ian uses Robin Hood Coaches from Rudyard in Staffordshire as the company provides a good reliable service and will pick up from points throughout the Potteries. Arrival at the reserve is around 10.30am and there is a breakfast stop – often at a motorway service station – enroute. The group spends six hours or so at the reserve, returning home for mid-evening, so 12-hour days are not uncommon. Sometimes they set off even earlier – especially when visiting the WWT reserve at Martin Mere Wetland Centre, where they combine the normal bird spotting trip with the annual Bird Fair, or to RSPB Titchwell Marsh on the Norfolk coast. The length of the day is one reason the coach trips are so well supported, because the combined journey and visit time is usually too much for an individual to consider.

During the journey, Ian will give a brief introduction about the reserve they are visiting and welcome any new members. He says that there is often a ‘meet and greet’ from the warden or resident expert when they arrive who will mention any special information or birds to be seen. Members then tend to split up and go round the reserve at their own pace, meeting up to share information about birds and wildlife, and where to see them. Ian admits, ‘We also use phones – on quiet mode naturally – to let other members know if we see something out of the ordinary.’ Everyone is very happy to share their knowledge with each other, and to help and guide any beginners so that everyone sees as big a variety as possible.

Whilst on the journey home, a list is passed round to get an accurate record of what’s been seen. Ian then gives a summary with a total bird count and reminds the group of the date and venue for the next trip.

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A Sedge Warbler at the RSPB reserve Lakenheath Fen on the Norfolk/Suffolk border. Courtesy Ian Worden.

Ian singles out the RSPB Ynys-hir reserve, between Machynlleth and Aberystwyth on the Welsh coast, as his favourite place because of the variety of habitat and because an interesting selection of birds such as ospreys, goldcrests and willow warblers can be spotted. He also likes to visit Leighton Moss in Lancashire, the largest reed bed in north west England and home to breeding bitterns, bearded tits and marsh harriers, and RSPB Titchwell Marsh because it has good viewing places and excellent facilities as well as many birds such as avocets, bar-tailed godwit and oystercatchers to spot. Highlights of the current programme include visits to RSPB Fairburn Ings in West Yorkshire, WWT Slimbridge in Gloucestershire and RSPB Newport Wetlands.

Ian and four other members of the group have also joined an overseas trip organised and led by birding and photography expert Ashley Groves, through his company Experience Nature Tours. Ashley spoke to the North Staff Local Group at one of the monthly evening meetings and this inspired Ian and others to sign up for one of Ashley’s two-week trips to The Gambia in early 2015. Ian says, ‘The number and variety of the birds present was amazing. One of the most memorable sights was that of a martial eagle that had just caught a monitor lizard and was feeding on the same in a tree at the side of the road. Whilst returning from a cruise on The Gambia River, near Tendaba camp, we suddenly found ourselves in the midst of two pods of dolphin swimming in the sunset. These were just two of the many wonders that can be found in this quiet part of West Africa.

 

Peter Durnall

Peter Durnhall

Peter Durnhall
Retired engineer and media technician Peter Durnall volunteers as a warden for Staffordshire County Council Countryside Services, working in the reserves and country parks around the Staffordshire Moorlands, checking facilities for visitors and conditions for birds and wildlife at each location. He also uses his expertise with a camera to photograph and film birds and wildlife, and one of his films, Wild North Staffordshire, has won an international award. Peter co-ordinates the monthly ‘Boots and Bins’ walks for the group, and leads some of the walks, especially around Leek.

 

Bins and boots
The monthly Tuesday trips run by Peter Durnall have the catchy name of ‘Bins and Boots’ – bins being the popular term for binoculars. Although co-ordinated by Peter, there are a variety of leaders for each walk, depending on location.

Generally around 10 to 20 members go on the Tuesday trips, which are generally timed to last between two and three hours, and people travel by car to the reserves and country parks within a 20-mile radius of Newcastle Under Lyme. In the 2015/2016 programme, visits include Apedale Country Park and Sandbach Flashes.

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Watching from the hide at Deep Hayes Country Park, Staffordshire.

The leader for the day will usually have visited the park or reserve prior to the visit and, as with the full-day trips, new members are always welcome and there are two or three powerful ‘bins’ that they can borrow, if required. ‘The spares also come in useful if a regular member forgets to bring their own along,’ says Geoff Sales, who leads some of the Tuesday morning walks and car-sharing outings (see panel below). Typically walks start at 10am and are over by 12.30pm, allowing plenty of time to see a good selection of birds. Once everyone has arrived and is booted up, the leader for the morning introduces the reserve, giving a little of its history and an overview of bird species that might be seen – these will vary according to the season. Guiding the walk, often taking in more isolated parts of the park, the leader points out the best spots to see birds and other wildlife, and makes sure all members are able to see each species. The walks are leisurely, allowing for everyone to cope with the varied terrain, which usually includes steps, slopes and muddy and potentially slippery footpaths, but there’s plenty of time for chatting as well. Members bring drinks or snacks to eat enroute if they need to, but also sandwiches for an informal picnic-style lunch at the end of the walk – weather permitting, of course! As the walk finishes, the leader will remind members of upcoming dates including evening meetings, the next Sunday trip as well as the next Tuesday meeting.

 

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Geoff Sales

Geoff Sales
Geoff has been a member of the RSPB North Staffs Local Group for around eight years, and since retiring from his work as a laboratory technician at Keele University and a therapist specialising in complementary medicine, he’s had more time to dedicate to the group. He acts as leader of some of the Tuesday morning walks and the car-sharing trips. He has also become Group Leader of the North Staffs Local Group in the last year, which means he has additional responsibilities for the smooth running of the group such as arranging the evening meetings and being the point of contact for the RSPB head and regional offices, as well as organising committee meetings and AGMs, and answering emails from the public including those about injured birds. He is also arranging a county-wide birders’ conference to run in March 2016.

 

Car-sharing outings
Geoff organises the car-sharing trips, which take place every six weeks or so on a mix of weekdays and weekends, allowing members who do not have their own transport to visit reserves that may be 30 or 40 miles away. There are usually up to four cars, the cost of petrol is shared between passengers and a good spirit of comradery is engendered by the fact of sharing transport. Typical locations are Carsington Reservoir in the Derbyshire Peak District, Venus Pool in Shropshire and Belvide Reservoir near Brewood, Stafford. Lunch is either in the on-site café or people bring their own sandwiches. Like the Tuesday morning field trips, the car-sharing trips are ideal for people new to bird watching, and being closer to home are less intensive than the Sunday coach trips.


 

2015

Following the flight of a Kingfisher on the far side of the lake at Deep Hayes Country Park, Staffordshire.

Val goes bird watching
Val was delighted to be invited by Geoff Sales to go along on one of the Tuesday ‘Bins and Boots’ field trips, and she choose the October visit to Deep Hayes Country Park, near Leek in the Staffordshire Moorlands.

‘This was the first time I had joined a bird watching group and also my first visit to Deep Hayes Country Park, and I thoroughly enjoyed the experience, being made to feel very welcome by the 15-strong group. Peter Durnall was leader for the morning and his expert knowledge of the park meant we learnt a little of its history and how it originated as a reservoir for the nearby Potteries as well as seeing some unusual birds. At the outset, we headed to an isolated part of the park where redwings and fieldfare were feasting on autumnal berries. The two-mile walk was at a leisurely pace, and there was plenty of time to halt to admire the birds and to discover other wildlife such as an extensive badger set, or to take in the magnificent autumnal colours. We also visited a hide and saw nuthatches, coal tits and dunnocks feeding whilst elsewhere there were migrant wigeon and teal swimming on the pools around the park. The highpoint was spotting the brilliant blue flash of a kingfisher, and following it as it perched in bushes on the far side of one of the lakes and dove for small fish. I was lucky to be lent a pair of powerful bins, and I was amazed at the detail that could be seen! The morning was a lovely way to enjoy the rich variety of nature, and I look forward to repeating the experience in the not too distant future. Many thanks to Peter and the other members of the group.’

 


 

RSPB_logo_blacktext_Eng_CMYKA short history of the RSPB

The RSPB was formed in 1889 to counter the cruel trade in plumes for women’s hats, a fashion responsible for the destruction of many thousands of egrets, birds of paradise and other species. Concern earlier in the century about the wholesale destruction of great crested grebes and kittiwakes for their plumage led to such early legislation as the Sea Birds Preservation Act of 1869 and the Wild Birds Protection Act of 1880, but the continued wearing of ever more exotic plumes triggered further action.

Initially, the society consisted entirely of women who were moved by the plight of young birds left to starve in the nest after their parents had been shot for their plumes. The rules of the society were simple – members discouraged the wanton destruction of birds and interested themselves in their protection, and Lady-Members refrained from wearing the feathers of any bird not killed for the purposes of food, the ostrich excepted.

Some of the society’s staunchest supporters were the very kind of people who might have been expected to wear the plumes such as the Duchess of Portland, the society’s first President, and the Ranee of Sarawak. Leading ornithologist of the era Professor Alfred Newton lent his support and the cause gained widespread publicity and popularity, leading to a rapid growth in the society’s membership and a widening of its aims.

Today, the RSPB has a broad mission as a campaigning charity working to save threatened birds and wildlife, the special places they depend on and the environment that supports them. Its practical
land management and cutting edge policy work is supported by sound science and more than a million members, including the world’s largest wildlife club for young people.

Bon Voyage: A Trio of Group Cruising Fans

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The Fetcham U3A with CroisiEurope’s MS Botticelli.

River and ocean cruising is an increasingly popular option for groups and, in this issue, Val Baynton talks to three GTOs whose groups enjoy cruising, to learn more about their experiences.

Winnie Benford

Winnie Benford

Winnie Benford
Winnie Benford helped establish the Fetcham U3A in Surrey in 2002 because the two existing local U3As were full. She was on the organising committee from the outset, and drew on her experience working for large companies to become the travel and social events organiser. Her roles in the past had included working in a chemicals division of ICI where, amongst other things, she organised international tennis tournaments! She confesses to being a ‘born organiser who loves seeing people enjoy themselves’, but she also finds the role a positive influence in her own life, and one that keeps her mind and soul active. It all helps her to cope with the varying needs of her husband, who suffered two strokes nearly eight years ago, which severely reduced his mobility.

When Winnie Benford was one of the founder members of the Fetcham branch of the University of the Third Age (U3A) nearly 13 years ago, she began an enjoyable and varied time with like-minded, energetic retirees, and from the start she was involved in organising travel and days out for the group, drawing on her experience in similar tasks during her professional working life.
River cruising quickly became one of the most popular activities for her members and, most years since 2004, the group has taken a trip along one of Europe’s waterways. Cruises are usually for between seven and ten days, and normally around 40 people join each trip. Single rooms are always requested on the vessels and operators such as The River Cruise Line are expert at getting a good allocation. If there are not enough singles, Winnie does confess that she is quite persuasive in encouraging people to share!

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CroisiEurope’s MS Victor Hugo.

One of the reasons that cruises are so popular is because they offer a complete package for her members. The cost is known at the outset and the price includes transport to the ship – whether by coach or coach and flight – all meals and standard drinks on-board, and excursions. ‘My members like to know what the costs will be before they travel, and river cruises allows them to budget very well,” says Winnie. “In fact, there’s hardly any need to spend any money whilst away!’ Cruises are normally planned a year to 18 months ahead, so the cruise can fit in around the rest of a full and varied programme for the group, and there’s time for individuals to save up.

Memorable cruising highlights have included a recent ‘Rhine in Flames’ cruise on mps Lady Anne, sailing with The River Cruise Line. This cruise is timed to coincide with the annual fireworks display in the Rhine Valley when local vintners celebrate the harvest of the Riesling grape. ‘The location with fire, water and light interacting is a great backdrop for the sound of the fireworks as they reverberate around the valley,’ says Winnie. The group has also experienced the Danube sailing from Passau to Budapest on MS Serenity, again with The River Cruise Line, in 2014. In 2012, they chose CroisiEurope’s Paris to Honfleur cruise on the MS Botticelli along the River Seine. The group normally takes the standard excursions offered on each cruise, as these include the highlights of the towns or regions they pass through, and are well organised and led by experienced guides.

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Picturesque Vienna

From the cruise on the Danube, they took excursions to the Benedictine Abbey in Melk and the days in Vienna, Budapest (pictured below) and Bratsilava. All were typical of the high quality offered by The River Cruise Line, Winnie says. However, if one of her members wanted to visit somewhere in particular, then Winnie would be happy to try to include that too as part of the cruise itinerary.

Winnie is very impressed with The River Cruise Line. “The company knows what my members enjoy so working with them is very straightforward and there are very competitively priced options,” she says.

For this year’s cruise, Winnie was delighted to find something slightly different for her group, as she felt they had almost ticked off all the European rivers! “This year, in July, we sailed from Berlin to the Baltic Sea, Poland and Copenhagen with CroisiEurope on MS Victor Hugo,” she says. ‘This provided a very interesting itinerary and a tiny bit of ocean, albeit, coastal, cruising.’ She further explains how her members enjoyed learning and seeing the varied history and landscape of the region. The visit to Peenemünde on the island of Usedom in the Baltic Sea was fascinating, she recalls. ‘We visited the factory where German flying bombs were made, with a replica V-1 rocket in the compound, and saw the flats that were built for the servicemen to holiday in, but were never used.’

Web MPS Lady Anne

The River Cruise Line’s mps Lady Anne

‘The cruise brought to life aspects of the past that were familiar to much of my group,’ reflects Winnie. ‘But it was a chance to see places at first hand.’ She notes that there were several differences to on-board life compared to a standard river cruise because of the sea cruising element. ‘When the ship was sailing the Baltic sea, passengers had training to wear life jackets and when the ship was moored, security onboard was paramount and was carried out to a high professional standard to ensure everyone’s safety at all times,’ she recalls. ‘It was a brilliant trip, the CroisiEurope crew were very good and the wine and food was excellent.’ Spurred on by the success of being at sea, she is now thinking of an ocean cruise for her group’s next cruise holiday in 2016.

Generally the group boards a coach locally and travels via Eurotunnel to start their river cruises or, in some cases, flies to the departure point for the cruise, being collected by coach again and returned home at the end of the break. As a GTO, Winnie is very aware of the responsibility of taking a group away and ensuring that everyone is safe and enjoys the break. She says, ‘A cruise is a good option as there is a lot of support and backup before the trip and during it as well, which I personally find very reassuring.’


 

Mary Ginger

Mary Ginger

Mary Ginger
Mary Ginger is based in the Vale of Taunton in Somerset and started to organise trips for her friends and family some 25 years ago. Their first trip was to the 1990 Garden Festival in Gateshead, and came about by chance when her friends learnt she was planning to visit herself and asked if they could come along! Before she knew it, 28 people had signed up and the few days away were so successful that on the return journey home she was asked not only to do it again but, following a short visit to Durham Cathedral, requested that she organise a return to Durham to explore the area more fully. Mary is now retired but for the first few years of her organising worked full time in a busy fine art sale room in Taunton, where her role liaising with customers gave her the administrative experience to cope with putting together the trips. She is also Visits and Tour Secretary for the local West Somerset NADFAS (National Association of Decorative and Fine Art Society) and Visits Secretary for NADFAS South West, which covers the area from North Somerset to Cornwall.

Mary Ginger’s travel group, made up of an informal network of neighbours, friends and family in her home area of Somerset, has been going on day trips and short breaks for 25 years since her first trip to the Gateshead Garden Festival in 1990 (see panel). She and her late husband, Brian, came up with the name Dragonfly Tours after seeing a handful of the insects settle on a garden table in their then new home. Dragonflies had been one of Mary’s favourite visitors to the garden pond in their previous home, so she was pleased to see they also frequented their new garden! The name seemed apt for a group loving to travel and it suitably reflected the friendly and open make-up of the group. Over the years, Mary has organised a wide selection of trips, from day visits to gardens and stately homes to longer breaks to Europe and Canada.

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Dragonfly members all dressed up for dinner, Fred. Olsen style.

Often Mary’s trips are in response to a suggestion from her members, and this was the case with their first ocean cruise in 2011. Mary had been on a cruise herself with a relative the year before and when she got back her group said ‘Why didn’t you take us?’ Mary selected a Fred.Olsen cruise for her group for two reasons – they’d been with the cruise operator for her previous cruise, and she was delighted by the ship and the service they offered. She also cherished a particular memory from her childhood. ‘As a small child, my grandmother used to take me to watch the ferries going in and out of the mouth of the Tyne,’ she recalls. ‘And they always seemed to be Fred.Olsen. I told her that one day I would go to Norway on a ship just like that!’

Now the group has been on three cruises – firstly visiting Spain and Portugal, which was followed by a cruise to the Mediterranean in 2013 and then to Norway in July of this year. All have been with Fred.Olsen, sailing on Balmoral and departing from Southampton. ‘The ship itself is very comfortable,’ Mary says. ‘And the crew are extremely friendly and look after us exceptionally well. They seem to remember so much about us! The welcome we receive is wonderful and everyone feels at home and happy.’

What impressed Mary from the outset about Fred.Olsen was the service she received from the moment she made her first tentative enquiry about a cruise back in 2011. ‘Ellie Fulcher and the groups team looked after the booking and me every step of the way’, she explains. ‘And this was very supportive. The exceptional service continued onboard, and no fault could be found, so I was happy to book our subsequent cruises with them.’ Above all, she notes that it is the attention to detail that makes the cruise line stand out. ‘When we arrived in our cabins this year, not only was there the hand written ‘Bon Voyage’ card from the groups team but also a brass bookmark in the shape of a dragonfly!’ Mary was particularly delighted when an anniversary cake to celebrate the 25th birthday of Dragonfly Tours was presented to the group during afternoon tea whilst they sailed the fjords.

Mary and her group have happy memories of the whole eight-night Norway cruise. The first port of call was Stavanger, which Mary says was delightful, combining the old with the new. ‘Many of the group went on the organised tours but I found that the local tourist bus going around the port was very good.’ The highlight of the cruise was that all four Fred. Olsen ships were in Bergen at the same time – the first time this has happened in 200 years. Mary recalls, ‘We were due to dock at 5am but my friend and I were up looking out by 4.30am and we invited others to join us on our balcony for a ‘coffee party’ and watched as we all sailed into port. There was a carnival atmosphere on the quayside with bands, pipers and dancers, and the party feeling went on all day with tug of war and basketball between the ships’ crews. The ships were bedecked with flags and bunting too.’

There were many tours organised by the groups’ team that passengers could book whilst in the beautiful and interesting port of Bergen. However, Mary says, ‘Many of us enjoyed wandering around the town taking the funicular car to the top of Mount Floyen. It was a lovely sunny day and the view of the four ships in port was a sight to see.’

So far, all the Dragonfly Tours cruises have departed from, and returned to, the UK and Mary organises coach travel to Southampton using Ridlers Coaches from Dulverton in Somerset. ‘Ridlers drivers are always unflustered in stowing the enormous amount of luggage we seem to take with us!’ she says. Mary uses Ridlers for all her other tours too. For overnight breaks, she always asks for the same driver. ‘They always give 110%!’ she says.

Mary now plans a cruise for her group every other year, to give members time to save. For 2017, she is considering going further afield and booking a fly-cruise – perhaps to the Caribbean or the Baltic region. She finds that although cruising is a relatively expensive break, she is able to persuade people to come along by pointing out the benefits of the all-inclusive price, which covers all meals, teas and coffees as well as the excellent nightly entertainment. ‘There is also a package that covers daily alcoholic drinks,’ Mary adds. ‘And we took that this year. So there was really nothing extra to pay for!’


 

Rob Waters

Rob Waters

Rob Waters
Rob Waters has been Travel Manager, Coach Trips, organising outings for the Addlestone Community Association in Surrey since 1973. He worked for British Rail for 37 years, retiring in 1997. Rob is married to Lyn and they have two children and four grandchildren. Aside from organising trips, Rob is an enthusiast about canals and enjoys travelling around Britain on his own canal boat.

Rob Waters must be one of the longest serving GTOs we’ve been in touch with. This year he celebrates 42 years of organising trips and short breaks for the Surrey-based Addlestone Community Association, which has some 900 members! GTO first interviewed Rob in 1994 (GTO 52, May – see below) and this time we asked him more about what made him return to group cruising after nearly 20 years. An established feature of Rob’s annual itineraries has long been trips on heritage railways and canals, but in 1997 he decided to be a little more adventurous and he booked the first river cruise for the association. The cruise was booked with KD River Cruise Lines (now part of Viking River Cruises), sailing on the MS Intalia France, Eure (27), Les Andelys, la Seine//France, Eure (27), Andelys, the Seinealong the Rivers Rhine and Moselle from Frankfurt. It was judged an outright success by him and his members, but this year is the first time they have booked another cruise because, during the intervening years, Rob struggled to find an operator that offered both service and value until he came across CroisiEurope. He has been extremely impressed by the company since, and he and his members are keen to book another cruise soon. He explains why. ‘CroisiEurope boats are spotless, the food is delicious, the cabins are comfortable and well maintained, and all the staff – from the Captain to the kitchen prep team – are, without exception, brilliant,’ he enthuses. ‘The attention to detail is unparalleled and overall the standard of service is what every hotel should provide, but many don’t!’ As an example, he points to the on-board chef and his team’s ability to provide delicious food choices for passengers with dietary restrictions, ‘I filled in a form when booking the trip, outlining any special needs, so that when we arrived onboard, the restaurant staff were already well informed.’ If the suggested menu was not to the person’s taste, then something else was offered, Rob says.

Détente sur le pont

Members of Addlestone Community Association relax onboard

Fifty two members were on the six-night cruise sailing down the Seine from Paris to Honfleur, passing though the pretty section of Les Andelys on MS France. ‘We were actually late to embark because of issues at the Channel Tunnel,’ Rob recalls. ‘But the purser delayed the welcome reception so we all had time to get changed.’ As usual, the group travelled with Trumans Coaches, based in Ash Vale in Surrey. ‘Trumans look after us very well and the drivers know what we like to do, so we’ve used them for the last four years,’ Rob says.

Rob organised his own land-based excursions and he arranged for the coach to shadow the cruise ship so it was always on hand to pick the group up. During the Seine cruise, there were trips to Monet’s Garden in Giverny (pictured bottom left) and a sightseeing tour when moored in the cathedral city of Rouen, as well as a coastal tour along the picturesque stretch of the river known as the Côte Fleurie from Honfleur to Cabourg, with a visit to a distillery making Calvados. At the end of the cruise, they journeyed back to Addlestone, calling at Le Touquet for lunch on the way. His community group represented about a third of the total passengers on the ship, and there were also groups from Norway and Denmark as well as some individuals. The cruise was ‘first rate in every regard,’ Rob says.

River cruising is popular with Rob’s group for several reasons. ‘It offers excellent value for money, once on board there’s no need to keep re-packing, the scenery is ever changing and it’s a wonderful way to see the countryside,’ he explains. Rob adds, ‘My members like to know the costs involved up front, and the all-inclusive package offered by CroisiEurope makes it easy to budget.’



Cruising top tips
• Work with a group cruising specialist operator to get full support in planning and organising your cruise
• Plan a year or two in advance to give your group time to save
• Sailings from UK ports can suit more members, especially those who are less mobile
• All inclusive packages mean there’s very little extra to pay for whilst on a cruise, making budgeting easier for everyone
• Selecting the same operator and ship for cruising allows members to feel at home
• Take advantage of familiarisation visits to ships or short two-night cruises to assess whether a cruise would suit your group