To 'ull and back

Published: March 24th 2019
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On our last morning, we rose early and packed to leave and move on. Not just to move on, but to return home, at the end of what had been a wonderful trip. I wasn’t ready to stop our travelling. I’m not sure I ever will be ready to stop travelling but we’re not Richard Branson so needs must!

We checked out and the bell boy said he would let us know when our transport arrived so we sat in the foyer and mooched about the library while I looked out over the Potomac River and reminisced as we waited, reflecting on the amazing experiences we had had over the past few months. As it happened, we really didn’t need the bell boy to tell us when our transport arrived. It was the only vehicle to pull up that wasn’t sleek, black and chauffeur-driven, and had ‘Super Shuttle’ written all over it! Our cases were loaded, we collected another traveller and luggage in the local area and finally stopped for a last passenger from the Holiday Inn further out of the centre who had so many cases it was a squeeze to get everyone and everything in. This chap immediately made a telephone call to tell somebody he was on his way and he had just left the Hyatt Hotel, which had been lovely. Really? I thought it was the Holiday Inn?! Maybe if you love somebody very much, as he repeatedly told the person on the other end of the phone, truth and transparency aren’t so important ... And why have that conversation within the close confines of a shared shuttle bus? I was very tempted to shout out to the person at the other end that this man was telling them porkies, but restrained myself. Later on I wished I’d done it ... !

Our drive out to Dulles Airport took us past some lovely suburban areas with lots of pretty houses. We had built in plenty of time for us to get to the airport, given the dire weather warnings of snow and blizzards about to hit the area, but I think the American weather forecasters must be about as good as our own because they got that wrong. We arrived too early to check our luggage in and we sat and people-watched as the new arrivals formed a queue at the unstaffed counter anyway. Maybe they knew something we didn’t? But no, the counters eventually opened, everyone was efficiently checked in and we quickly passed through into the Departures area which was somewhat disappointing in terms of facilities. We managed to find something to eat, bought some Duty Free items (which were delivered for collection at the departure gate) and made ourselves comfortable until it was time to board.

For this final flight we were back with British Airways, which has never really impressed me with our previous experiences of its late take-offs, delays, cancellations and poor service. Some flagship airline, eh? I was pleased to see our 747-400 Jumbo jet already waiting on the tarmac and we not only boarded on time but took off on time too, at 6.35 pm. The plane was not quite full and we had a spare seat to spread our things out on. Things were looking up. But then things went downhill, starting with a very bumpy take-off followed by REALLY severe turbulence in the early part of the flight. It was so bad that our dinner service had to be suspended which was probably for the best as the near-vertical pitch of the sideways rolls the plane performed didn’t do much for a settled stomach. When the turbulence settled enough for service to resume we found it almost impossible to get the food from the plate to our mouths before it wobbled off the forks and having a drink was next to impossible, with most of it slopping over the sides of the half filled cups. What a mess – I used my napkin as a bib! Not BA’s fault on this occasion though and I was somewhat reassured by memory of a TV programme I had seen where pilots often cited the Jumbo as their favourite plane to fly because it was so capable, responsive and safe. Sad that they are being slowly retired.

In fact, we passed the 6+ hours flight quite quickly, watching films and playing games. We were told the strong winds had pushed us along and we were scheduled to land early as a result, but then we had to circle above Heathrow for quite some time. We were told to look for the blood moon while we waited but we didn’t see it. I couldn’t understand how we could miss it, if we were going round and round and circles ... Nevertheless, we landed safely (thank you, Jumbo jet), passed straight through Customs and joined a long line at Immigration but it moved along very quickly with plenty of staff to see to things. I was impressed. We were drinking coffees on the Terminal 5 concourse by 7.00 am and were pleased to report to the Lady With The Questionnaire that our experience had been very good indeed and that Terminal 5 could more than hold its own against the American airports. She said she’d heard that many times before ...

We had time to kill at the airport. Remember those really cheap (£16) train tickets we had booked on Christmas Day in Australia to get us home from London? Well, we had allowed ourselves plenty of time for delayed flights and long queues which never happened and the train we had chosen didn’t leave until 11.48 am. Thank you BA – just when we want you to run late you decide to arrive early. We figured it was better to waste the time in a warm airport than on the draughty concourse at Kings Cross as it was bitterly cold outside. We eventually caught the Tube and had an easy journey to Kings Cross where we discovered that our train had been not just delayed but CANCELLED! Bugger. And our tickets were with Hull Trains, who only operate a very small fleet so it wasn’t as though we could just catch the next one, because Hull Trains didn’t have another one to offer. We’d literally travelled around the world with no problems and the minute we get back on home soil we find ourselves stranded in London. Aaaargh. ‘Not to worry,’ said the girl on the Help Desk, ‘just catch the next train to Leeds and change at Doncaster’ and the carrier would honour the tickets.

So we waited. And waited. And, oh boy, it was cold. When we could stand it no longer we asked where the waiting room was and were waved towards the Harry Potter Platform 9¾, where there was a small ‘room’ to the side which was part of a major thoroughfare for station staff who passed through with such regularity that the doors letting in the freezing cold air might just as well have been propped open. It had, quite literally, only eight seats. Yup, eight hard seats for the thousands of passengers who pass through the station on a daily basis. Dreadful. One member of staff told me there was a much bigger waiting area on the upper floor which had plenty of comfortable seats and HEATING. ‘Great,’ I said, ‘we’ll move up there.’ Turns out this was for First Class passengers only and not for the likes of us with £16 tickets for a train that wasn’t running.

The train to Leeds was eventually ready to board. Of course, as well as losing our ride home we had also lost our reserved seats but the girl on the Help Desk had told us that Coach H was the unreserved carriage. My lie-dar alerted me at the time that she was making that up, and I said so to Steve, and I wasn’t wrong. Coach H did not exist! We eventually threw ourselves and our luggage into a carriage, fighting for a seat with everyone else who had also been booked onto the Hull Trains train. Sadly, there were none to be seen. The thought of standing all the way to Doncaster was almost impossible to bear so Steve got off the train, ignoring my requests not to in case the train set off without him, and wandered further down the platform to see if there were any seats in the other carriages further down. Yes – plenty! So, we managed the journey in relative comfort and warmth, though not so warm that I felt I could take my coat off.

LNER did indeed honour our Hull Trains ticket and we arrived in Doncaster where staff appeared a little overwhelmed at the sudden influx of passengers, many of them with suitcases, like us, asking for assistance to get them home. ‘Catch the next train to Scarborough’ I was told by an employee still wearing the red Virgin uniform but now apparently working for Northern Rail. Hmmm – Scarborough? Seemed a little odd ... My in-built lie detector pinged again but I stupidly ignored it and we squeezed on to the small Northern Rail train, where we had to sit apart amongst other passengers and their luggage. ‘Did you know about this?’ the conductress asked the chap I was sitting next to. ‘I had heard,’ he replied and I deduced he must have something to do with trains. The conductress didn’t mind about our Hull Trains ticket – she just wanted all of us to make it safely home, she said, though I suspect she also didn’t want to deal with all the tired and disgruntled passengers like us who were reaching the ends of their long journeys and now much shorter tethers. I watched the countryside roll by and saw what looked like the Salt and Pepper Pot water towers at Goole. Hang on a minute, they WERE the Salt and Pepper Pot water towers at Goole! Nowhere near where we needed to be! ‘Erm – does this train go to Selby?’ I asked the train man beside me, with some trepidation. ‘No, love,’ he said. I almost cried ...

Turns out I had sat myself beside THE most helpful and knowledgeable train man. He advised that we stay on the train to the next stop and wait there for a train to Selby which should be along 10 minutes later. ‘Please tell me it isn’t a Hull Trains train’ I said. It wasn’t, thankfully. He told me Hull Trains only operate four trains, one of those is always ‘in for service’, one operates on the London to Hull route and the other two shuttle between Manchester and Hull. Unfortunately, the London train had ‘a wheel problem’ the day before and there was no spare train to replace it with. Apparently, Hull Trains are taking delivery of some of the new high speed trains in the very near future, but at the moment they don’t have enough trained drivers to operate them. God help us ...

Most unusually for the ever-positive Steve, even he was becoming a little tetchy by the time we got off at the next station, in the middle of nowhere. I knew it was the middle of nowhere because I’ve been to Brough (near Hull) before but Steve never has, so I told him he was at least adding to his knowledge of rural Yorkshire. Bang on time, a Trans-Pennine train pulled in and we got on board. I showed our Hull Trains ticket to the conductor, despairingly explaining our issues but fully expecting to have to pay for this leg of the journey given that we had gone off route. He scrutinised the tickets carefully, in ominous silence, then shrugged his shoulders and wandered off. Thank you. But please, can someone devise a system where we can travel on any railway line with just one ticket without all of this palaver? I know, we could call it British Rail ...

I’ve never been so pleased to pull in to Selby train station. We’d missed the one and only bus a day from Selby to home so called in to the taxi office next door to the station for a ride home. ‘No chance,’ said the chap behind the counter. It was, apparently, school-run time and all taxis were booked for at least the next hour. So, children don’t walk to school these days then? We set off for the taxi rank in the centre of town, wearily pulling our cases behind us and hoping against hope that someone would be there with a taxi that was not ferrying perfectly-able-to-walk small people around – our need was greater than theirs! Hallelujah – a taxi! Just the one, but that was all we needed. Finally, we were on the last leg. That taxi ride cost us more than the £16 we had paid for the train tickets from London but I couldn’t put a price on eventually making it home.

Before setting off on our trip all those months earlier I had emptied and turned off the fridge and freezer. I had considered asking the taxi to stop at the village shop on the way past but was so numb by the time we got there I forgot. ‘We have no food in the house,’ I said to Steve as we walked up the garden path, wracking my exhausted brain to remember the dried and tinned goods I had left in the pantry, as the prospect of starting up the car to do another journey and go shopping was just too much. I couldn’t think what I could create from rice, spaghetti and gravy granules and a tin of soup was the best I could come up with. So, imagine my delight when we walked into the kitchen and found our wonderful neighbours had left us some milk, bread and butter on the worktop to welcome us back. It was soooo thoughtful and kind and suddenly the possibilities were endless. A tinned ham sandwich? Bread and soup? Soup and a sandwich? Tuna on toast? Just toast? I could even offer a tin of rice pudding for dessert! In the end we settled for beans on toast, followed by more toast, and it was wonderful – one of the best meals I’d eaten for a long while! Welcome home.


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