Happy Christmas! Bah Humbug!!
And so onto the next stage of my epic adventure. I was only due to be back in the UK for 3 days to swap over some belongings and then fly out to Cape Town to start my 2 week volunteering project on a game reserve. Of course, as the world weather had gone mad, it was freezing cold and snowing. I have since come to the conclusion that the UK is bordering on being a third world country - but worse!!
I was supposed to fly with BA from Newcastle to Heathrow last Sunday but when I got up that morning my domestic flight was cancelled. Never fear I thought (very naively!), everything will be fine by the time I make it down to London. It's probably just the morning flights that are affected. So, I got on a (delayed of course!) train from Durham, battled my way to a seat and secured myself some wine and a sandwich from the good old buffet car!
All was going too well and as we neared the Nottingham area we stopped - naturally no explanation - moved a bit, stopped again, moved a bit, stopped again and so on until we were very chirpily told that due to damage to the overhead cables, we would be kicked off the train at Peterborough. Excellent.
At Peterborough it was mayhem. We were told they would be providing coach transport to take us down to London but as the previous 5 trains had had the same problem, there were thousands of people milling around (I reckoned that each train held between 500-800 passengers) and in the previous 2.5 hours, only 4 caches had turned up (each one holding 50 people - ha ha ha). It was bloody freezing and dark by this point so I asked a guard where I could go from here - Birmingham being pretty much my only option as if I'd gone to Cambridge I would have had to use the same train line to get back to London. So, off I went across the country to Brum along with others who'd had the same idea. It always amazes me in the UK - the only time people rally round and actually utter 2 words to eachother is when there's a problem or a disaster, otherwise we completely ignore everyone else's existence. So, everyone was suddenly best mats and wishing eachother a successful journey etc etc.
Got to an even colder Birmingham to discover that all trains to London were cancelled. What?! Why? There was little more than a covering of flaky snow - why does this country come to a standstill so easily? Had remained remarkably calm thus far and decided to prolong that by getting myself a huge hot chocolate while I figured out my game plan. Anyway, as if by magic, a train became available so off I went.
By this time, I knew my Virgin flight to SA was cancelled (just as well as I would never have made it anyway!) and I arranged to go and stay the night at Sarah's in Acton - close to Heathrow so I could go there the next day and figure out what was happening. There was no way I was making it that night. In the end, a 3-4 hour journey took me 11 hours - but Sarah was there with a welcome glass of red when I arrived!
My theory on Monday was to head to Heathrow to find out what was happening and to see if I could get on a standby flight. Not one telephone number worked for Virgin (Mr Branson will be receiving a snotty letter from me about the whole debacle) so I couldn't find anything out and their website hadn't been updated since the previous day. I then saw the news, however and discovered that they were not letting anyone into the terminal buildings and people were standing outside in tents, freezing their bits off. No way was I going to join them.
And so came the first tears as I tried to figure out what to do. I spoke to Viv, who always manages to make me feel better and she banned me from going to Heathrow and we arranged to meet instead. I was alternating between trying to get a flight and going back up north (but how?!) but couldn't believe my eyes when BA and other airlines were trying to charge me between GBP 4-6,000 for a one-way flight. What an absolute joke - and criminal that they can get away with it. So, armed with my sleeping bag and a put-me-up bed, I camped on the lounge floor in Vincent's house, where Viv is staying for a while, in sunny Romford.
On Tuesday Heathrow was still absolute chaos and young children and babies were being forced to stay outside in below zero temperatures while nobody waiting outside was allowed to use the terminal toilets. I couldn't believe my eyes and ears - this is supposed to be one of the most advanced countries in the world! Pah!
Airlines were still trying to charge me the cost of a small country and I was starting to get very disheartened that I would never make the next leg of my trip. I then had a sudden brainwave - Manchester! Didn't appear to have been hit so much by the bad weather (or was, at least, certainly coping with it much better) and is only a 2 hour train ride from London, so not really that much difference in terms of getting there. Flights to Cape Town were still over GBP 1,500 and Jo'Burg not that much less until I spotted one for Christmas Eve which, believe it or not, was actually cheaper than my original fare - yippee!!!
On Wednesday night, Viv and I had a girly evening and went to see Burlesque at the cinema, followed by a huge eat as much as you can (from an al la carte menu?!) in a Chinese restaurant, including duck. Yum! On Thursday off I set, on a tube that broke down, to Euston station where I found all trains to Manchester were cancelled except for one leaving in 6 minutes. I had to bash women, children and old fogies out of the way to get to the ticket machine and then peg it to the platform, fighting with the hoards of other people in the same boat trying to get on the train. But, I made it. And actually, thank goodness. One girl said she had been trying to get a train up to Manchester for the last 2 days and every train had been cancelled. Hmmm, Virgin Trains kept that quiet on their website when they said all routes were open and operating normally (Dear Mr Branson again….). Anyway, got there and checked into the airport Hilton (cheaper than the Travelodge!!) where I flopped into a well-deserved bubble bath!
And so, my prayers to the transport gods seem to have paid off and here I sit, at 2am on Christmas morning in a packed lounge at Dubai airport. The place looks like a shopping mall - I don't think I've ever seen such a busy airport. I've been here a few times before but it's jam-packed! Things so far (touch wood) have gone very well. The Hilton was great with a fab brekkie, Manchester airport is brilliant and I shall endeavour to fly in and out of there from now on, plenty of room on the flight (A380 - expect nothing else darling!), and good entertainment although the boarding process was a shambles, they seemed to have all of the muppet crew on duty, the drinks service was very slow and there were far too many screaming (as in blood curdling screams) babies in my vicinity on the plane. I do, however, like their live camera gadget so you can watch the take-off and landing (and the whole flight if you want although not much to see in the dark above cloud level) from 3 different points on the plane.
And so, this is Christmas as they say. Although I'm not a festive season fan, after last year's miserable experience, I swore I would never spend another Christmas alone but once again here I sit. Well, can't all be bad as I have a glass of red in my hand, my next flight is on time (at 04.40 - who flies at that time?!) and the lions and elephants are waiting for me (if they aren't hiding from me as wildlife normally does). So, cheers to you and yours and Merry Christmas!