WEEKEND AWAY — The Ups and Downs of Travel.

15 Aug

The strange events began when a poor cow wandered on to the mainline south of York. The inevitable messy and fatal collision was not only traumatic for the train driver and others directly involved, but it caused a long delay on the London to Edinburgh route for the rest of the day. I was en-route to meet up with my son, Ian, in the capital. We were then to fly out to Eindhoven in The Netherlands, where his wife, Nanayaa, works.
The southbound East Coast train slid to a halt somewhere north of York. We just sat there for 20 minutes looking out over anonymous fields. The train-manager explained that we had got caught up in the log-jam caused by the earlier cow incident. From then on, it was constant stop-start and crawl all the way to Doncaster and beyond. Only after Peterborough did we pick up speed but by then we were a full hour behind schedule.
Previously settled and content passengers now became restless and even anxious. All their carefully laid plans were starting to unravel. It’s no fun to be stuck in a situation over which one has no control. They hit their mobiles en-masse, explaining to waiting friends, family and colleagues why they were going to be late. The sad story of the cow and the train was repeated over and over again, sometimes with humour, sometimes with irritation, occasionally with anger. Nobody alas seemed to care about the unfortunate animal, just that their travel plans had been disrupted by its untimely death. I just sent a quiet text to Ian.
One positive outcome of all this, a silver lining to the cloud, was that people came out of their private zones and started to talk to their neighbours. Barriers broke down and a hint of the Dunkirk spirit set in. I got to know that the lady reading the Daphne du Maurier mystery next to me, was from Falkirk and was meeting up with her sister from Ham to go on holiday to Majorca. Like me she was facing an early morning alarm call and flight the next day. She constantly updated her sibling on our stuttering progress so that she didn’t have to pay a hefty parking fee at Kings Cross.
Unbeknown to me, this delayed journey south was to set the tone for an incident- strewn weekend. This was only the beginning.
Travel can be both exciting and stressful in equal measure. By making a journey, travellers voluntarily leave their everyday comfort-zones and embark on an unpredictable series of events largely controlled by others. The feeling of not being responsible can be liberating and even exhilarating, but can also lead to frustration and worry. Even if you travel in your own car, there is always the chance of a break-down, of getting lost or of getting stuck in an endless traffic jam which you have no control over. Travelling by public transport puts one even more in other people’s hands and more subject to the whim of chance. The first thing you have to do is to conform to a timetable dictated by someone else. So if the airline decides to fly at 6-30am, that means you have to be at the airport by 5-30 at the latest, and you end up struggling out of bed in the middle of the night.
Thus it was that Ian and I were dragging our clothes on and cleaning our teeth at 3-45am to allow time for our trek from Canary Wharf to London Stansted in Essex. We were flying with Ryanair to Eindhoven. It was not long before we started to depart from the script!
The taxi arrived early but when we didn’t come out straight away, the driver, for reasons known only to himself, decided to go away again and fit in another local call. Thus by the time he condescended to return, we were already late.
Stratford interchange, near the Olympic park in east London, is a surreal place at night. It was here where we were to catch our airport transfer coach. A weird forest of large, flood-lit golden leaves rears up at the side of the road — an attempt at modern art. Trains, buses, taxis and private cars constantly come and go even though it is the middle of the night when most people are still tucked up in bed. Huddled together on the dark pavement are the travellers, dragging cases and carrying ruck-sacks, like a bedraggled army of refugees. Some shuffle from foot to foot to keep themselves warm and stay awake. Others cling to lovers in one last forlorn embrace. Ticket sellers from two competing coach companies mingle with the crowd touting for custom, but most people are waiting to see which coach comes first. It was difficult to realize that all this was happening at 4-45am.
Ian and I missed our preferred coach because of the late running taxi. We waited slightly anxiously for the next one. Inevitably it was late and set off for Stansted even later as everyone had to load their luggage and belatedly purchase their tickets.
We had already checked in online and didn’t have any hold luggage to deposit, but, as is the norm at any big airport, we still had to queue! The line of people waiting to pass through security looked absolutely enormous. When I saw the masses of people my heart sank. We could well miss our flight. Ryanair is an airline famous for not waiting for stragglers. Luckily what had seemed like one huge queue turned out to be 4 queues for separate conveyor belts and x-ray scanners. So we thankfully progressed more quickly than I had at first expected.

Being a reasonably experienced flyer, I had made sure that no liquids were packed into my cabin bag. However, as I walked through the x-ray barrier without bother, I saw to my dismay ( and Ian’s) that my bag had come under suspicion and had been pulled. Was this just a random check that they sometimes do? I had to stand there, wasting precious minutes while a uniformed officer combed through my belongings. He was as bemused as I was. Then he went back to my small deodorant stick. Had this triggered the scanner? This was probably the culprit he concluded. Although not a liquid, it was classified as a “gel” even though it was pretty solid. Apparently, the airport authorities thought I might be clever enough to make a bomb with my roll-on deodorant in the aeroplane toilet during the 45 minute flight to Eindhoven. This Dutch city is famous for the brain-power of the boffins in its university and research establishments. Maybe Stansted Security thought I was one of them!
Actually, I don’t think they thought about it at all. They were merely following the rules. These rules have been applied to long-suffering air travellers for years now, ever since a would-be terrorist attempted to make an explosive device from the aforementioned liquids and/or gels. Anyway my deodorant was popped in a see- through bag and passed its security scan at the second attempt. I was relieved to be taken off the list of suspected terrorists.
Ian and I hurried to the gate which must have been at least a quarter of a mile away. All the screens said — “Eindhoven: Final call.” We made it with just over 5 minutes to spare. The queue was already moving through. After all that, the actual flight, which took off on time, was fairly tranquil, except for an alarmingly bumpy landing. So, at last, we were released from the tunnel of uncertainty to enjoy a late breakfast in another country. If it had been a normal day, I, as a retired person of leisure, would have been just getting up and starting my stretching and yawning routine.
The weekend in The Netherlands was great. We explored Eindhoven, visited picturesque and historical Maastricht and spent quality time with Ian’s wife, Nanayaa. The summer sun shone, we sat in atmospheric pavement cafes, we saw lots of interesting sights and we relaxed.
Then it was time for the return journey, another train of events over which we had little control. This involved arriving at the airport 10 hours too early for our flight ( our mistake), having to hurriedly evacuate a café that had a very loud hissing gas leak, having a truck catch fire immediately in front of our plane( causing a 50 minute delay), and waiting another long 50 minutes for a late running National Express Coach from Stansted back to central London.( no explanation given.)
When I eventually got home to north-east England, the next day, I had enjoyed a fascinating and very enjoyable long weekend, but it was really nice to just stay still and to be back in control!


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