I’ve always liked trains.
I’ve always liked travelling by train, I should say (I was never that in to Thomas the Tank Engine). I like dreamily watching the scenery go by whilst listening to music and jotting notes down in a diary. I like taking luggage on to a train and pretending that I am a lady of leisure from the nineteenth-century and I have hat boxes and a porter. I find them romantic.
Most people who know me well, know that I’m a hopeless romantic. In fact, this post was going to be about going to the Columbia Road Flower Market in London, and how its full of lovely antiques, and a beautiful red-haired lady dressed in white selling delicate crocheted things and how I bought daffodils for Tamara and peacock feathers for Sonia and smelly french cheese from a delightful French man and how you should all visit the following website: http://jandbtheshop.com/page3.htm because I saw this shop at the market, and it was delightful, all handmade books and jewelery and Welsh love spoons (its a thing. Seriously. And if ever anyone wants to truly make me fall in love with them, they will buy me a Welsh love spoon instead of roses) and how this market was now my favourite thing about London.
However, other things happened. So, instead, this post will be about trains.
Or, the lack of trains.
You see, I thought it would be romantic to travel from London to Belfast on the train and then the ferry. There were a few connections to be made, however, they were in delightfully Scottish named places, absolutely impossible to pronounce, like Kilmarnock, so I thought this would only add to the romance and splendour of the adventure.
Unfortunately, Richard Branson (who owns the trains over here, as well as the planes, and the phones and the CD stores… in fact, I think Richard Brandson actually owns England… I’ll have to check though) had other plans in store for me.
So, I spent a delightful morning on the train from London to Carlisle, which is right on the border of Scotland. The trip was beautiful – everything I have come to expect of England from BBC costume dramas. Green rolling hills, frost on the grass, sheep and cows grazing, a slight mist, with sun through white fluffy clouds. I kept trying to read, but ended up giving up and sitting with my face glued to the window for the whole 3 hours. I even got to see the famous Lake District, though only a bit of it and through a train window.
When I got to Carlisle, I got off the train to check which platform I should wait at for my connecting train to Kilmarnock. The station manager told me it had been cancelled and I should wait for a bus.
No worries. I also like buses.
I went out the front and looked at the wonderful fort or university or whatever the magnificent building outside the station was and waited for the bus. I told the driver I was heading to Kilmarnock. It never occurred to me to tell him I was actually heading to Belfast and needed to get another train from Kilmarnock to Stranraer… and no one thought to ask me where I was actually headed, even though I clearly couldn’t pronounce the name of my destination and wasn’t Scottish… reasons to wonder why indeed I was travelling to Kilmarnock…
Just before we left, the train master stood at the front of the bus and made a very quiet announcement (which I missed), that the girl in front of me had said was something about Dumfries. I also couldn’t quite understand her because of her delightful Scottish accent, but as she had said it was about Dumfries, and I was going to Kilmarnock, I didn’t bother to ask again. I put in my earphones and watched the scenery go by.
Which, again, was very beautiful. Here’s a tip – if you ever want scenery to seem really significant, like, if you’re doing a movie or something, just pump a whole of mist/fog over the top of it, and then play some moody music, like Laura Marling’s ‘Hope in the Air’. It makes you think everything you’re seeing must have some underlying importance. That’s certainly how I felt yesterday afternoon.
At Dumfries, most of the people on the bus left, which worried me, and I went to check with the station master, but the driver was in a rush, and I was on such a high from all the lovely scenery and accents and music that I decided it was probably ok to just stay on the bus.
I started to get anxious around 5:15pm, when we still hadn’t reached Kilmarnock, and I knew my ferry was leaving Stranraer at 7:55pm. The Scottish towns we were passing seemed to be getting smaller and more remote, and I worried that the station I was heading to wouldn’t have a train going by at all, and what would I do then? I decided to eat all my smelly french cheese and baguette to make me feel better. It made me feel motion sick.
At 6pm, when we still hadn’t reached Kilmarnock, I thought I should check with the bus driver. Of course, he told me I should have gotten out at Dumfries. I barely kept it together as he radioed headquarters about me to find out what to do (I’d like to say he spoke to Branson directly, but I don’t think he did). He told me they would figure out a way to get me to Stranraer. So, I sat down and tried to stop panicing.
When we got to Kilmarnock, he told me there was a train leaving at 7:05pm going direct to Stranraer. I was asked if I would get my ferry in time. He said he didn’t know and to check with the station master. The station master was also grumpy (but I like to think it was at Branson and not at me) and told me no, I wouldn’t make my ferry and no, there wasn’t another until tomorrow.
And that’s when the panic set in.
I asked him, through gathering tears, what I should do now? Would there be accommodation in Stranraer? (‘Oh, ay’ he said, which would normally have delighted me) When he saw me getting more and more upset, he said, there ‘might’ be a freight ferry that I could get on, that wasn’t advertised, and I might be fortunate.
So, through a torrent of tears and self-pity and absolute terror that I might turn up in an unknown Scottish town at 9pm in the rain, by myself, with no idea where to go or stay, I went and called my Belfast hostel. He was also grumpy, until he realised what had happened and how upset I was. Then he went into overdrive. He could find me a B&B in Stranraer, no, of course 3am wasn’t too late for me to get in, if I did manager to get the ferry, yes, of course, there would still be taxis around at that hour to get me to the hostel. Then, the station manager knocked on the telephone booth and said he had rung Stranraer for me, and there was a freight ferry leaving at 11:30pm and I could go on as a foot passenger.
So, it all worked out in the end. There were a few more hairy situations, involving young hooligans in the ferry terminal (they were just teenage girls hanging out and eyeing me off, but by the time I had gone through everything else, I was convinced they were going to attack me and take my luggage… I got out my butter knife and sat on it, just to be safe….), and walking through the dark and the rain past empty cars and semi-trailers with the distinct feeling that this was a scene from a movie somewhere, and not a nice one at all, but I got to Belfast safe, sound and in high spirits, thanks in no small part to the delightful Scottish and Irish men I met along the way, who carried my baggage, made calls for me, teased me and generally acted like hugely decent human beings (and not like the theives and murderers and rapists I conjured up in my sleep-deprived and anxiety-riddled brain).
Belfast has been lovely so far, sunny and warm even (I think it was trying to make up for my ordeal last night) and there is a very nice girl from Armidale in my room, who I have been able to talk to about the highs and lows of traveling by yourself. She and I both agreed that it wasn’t all it was cracked up to be. It can be kind of lonely too. Even if you like your own company and are independent, like we two are.
Anyway, this has taken forever to write, and I have to have some dinner before heading out to a stand-up show, so I’m going to post it and leave it. More on Belfast soon.