Category Archives: Trains

Slow journey

(Beginning bit, written in August 2010)

Last week I made a brief trip over to England to see the Youth Music Theatre production of David Almond’s The Savage, in which Rory, our middle son, was taking part, and to travel back home with him.  There wasn’t any terrific hurry, so I decided to take the overnight Belfast-Birkenhead ferry and have a mooch around Liverpool on the way.

The journey started in the familiar low-key manner, with a walk to Enniskillen bus station.  I’d left it a bit late as usual, having turned back from the front door once to water the tomato plants (v. leafy and fragrant albeit no actually signs of incipient tomatoes) and once to attempt, unsuccessfully, to update my Amazon orders.  I had the dual excitement,  therefore, of wondering whether I was going to get to the bus station on time, and, having done so, of wondering whether the bus upon which I’d rushed so impulsively was really going anywhere near Belfast.  Clutching at straws, really: it’s not exactly Victoria coach station; unlikely that I would find myself accidently en route to Minsk or Barcelona.   My usual setting-out-on-a-journey unease wasn’t going to be as easily mollified as that.

Even my foreboding murmurings, however, had to admit that things were going pretty smoothly.  Neither Dungannon nor Ballgawley, not to mention Clogher, Augher, and all the other stopping points that don’t so much have names as alternative ways to clear one’s throat, offered anything in the way of rush hours, slow-moving tractors or even bomb alerts, so we actually arrived in Belfast a few minutes early.  Then the taxi driver took me to the right terminal without either digressing from the optimal route, overcharging, or giving me the benefit of his views upon the ethnic mix of contemporary Manchester.   I was so stunned by this sudden whim of the universe to cosset me that, checking in for the ferry, I unthinkingly told the truth in answer to the security lady’s question as to whether I had any alcohol in my suitcase.

She surveyed me for a moment with solicitious shock; this had obviously never happened before in all her years (she was a mature woman) of ship securing.

‘Just a miniature bottle of wine.’ I back-pedalled rapidly.

She considered.  Did her duties require her to fling my infintessimal few fluid ounces of Lidl Merlot into the Belfast Lough?  But she hadn’t really the heart of a jobsworth.

‘You mustn’t drink it on board.’ she warned, waving me through.  I had no intention of doing so; one of the advantages of the Norfolk Line being their stunning cheap booze. This small piece of contraband was merely intended to act as a pleasant aperitif while whiling away the hours in the departure lounge  before the ten o’clock sailing.

But Fate was to give yet another lurch in my direction; and I didn’t even pause in the departure lounge.  Despite it being barely eight o’clock, the minibus was already quietly shuddering in the car park ready to take the foot passengers onto the ship.  We few, we happy few (I think there were six of us altogether) were accordingly

(continued, January 2011, having broken off mid-sentence for some reason now unfathomable but probably involving toast or Only Connect …)

escorted into the bus.  It would be wrong of me to suggest that this was in any way a sybaritic mode of transport, groaning with the weight of sumptuous down-filled cushions, redolent of Spanish leather and gleaming with freshly-polished brass fittings.  No,  this was a former NYCC school bus, and as anyone who has brought up children in rural North Yorkshire will attest, both comfort and warmth are considered as dangerously effete southern concepts to which it would be most unwise to expose our impressionable young.  It’s hard to tell what level of delapidation would make a bus unfit to carry li’l tykes to school, but presumably decades of wheezing up Sutton Bank had left it no longer able to cope with gradients steeper than the ramp onto the ferry.  Which it did, just about,  giving us plebian pedestrians the opportunity to ensconce ourselves comfortably in the bar and take advantage of the generous wine carafe offers before the alpha motorists arrived.  Viz attractively alcohol-tinged view of sunset over Belfast Docks.

If I’d finished writing this blog when I should have done, I could have told you all about the book that I read over dinner (special vegetarian order sweet & sour vegetable noodles – more than satisfactory) and in my padded banquette nest (family finances not running to the extravagence of a cabin) but I didn’t, so I can’t.  I know that it was something satisfyingly light without any unpleasant junk-reading aftertaste, so probably a classic detective story, but really can’t remember any more. I know that John Dickson Carr hit the spot admirably on a previous over the Irish Sea adventure, if that’s any help.

I woke up (yes, all this and sleep too) at some ridiculous pre-six o’clock time to Tannoy announcements about breakfast and a view of Liverpool.  As both were included in the ticket price (not sure that they are now – meals, that is, short of issuing compulsory blindfolds, don’t know how they’d preclude the latter) I took advantage, rediscovering, after around thirty years, the soggy delights of tinned tomatoes on toast with really serious quantities of pepper.

Upon disembarkation (satisfyingly precise term for getting off a boat) I scorned the waiting taxis and took my suitcase for a walk into Birkenhead.  Hamilton Square, to be exact, a handsome set of Georgian terraces which apparently has more Grade 1 listed buildings than any other square in Britain but Trafalgar.  I’d been to the station on previous trips but this time explored a little further, with the same kind of mild astonishment with which I’ve encountered similar architecture on ambles around the city of Limerick.  (waiting for Yuh-Gi-Oh! games to finish, if you really need to know) .

At this point,  over-excited by early morning sightseeing, I conceived the notion of, rather than travelling into Liverpool through the bowels of the underground system, taking what was so imaginatively described by Gerry & the Pacemakers as a FCTM.  (Here your mental soundtrack, to echo mine, should reluctantly switch from the brilliant Thea Gilmore song which gives this post its title, and instead constantly replay the couple of lines which are all I know of the Pacemaker’s hit. Got it? Sorry about that.)  So the suitcase and I wandered down to the Woodside ferry terminal to discover more about the epic voyage.

Unfortunately, it still being barely seven o’clock, the terminal was deserted, with no indication of when the first ferry might arrive.  After a few chilly minutes communing with the souls of the Benedictine monks who  founded the ferry in the twelfth century (here is your opportunity to eject Gerry from your mental jukebox and replace him with a nice bit of plainsong) and with that of David Lawley who is movingly commemorated on a bench looking out across the river, I reluctantly left the surface world for the Mines of Merseyrail.

There’s not a great deal to say after this, really.  Liverpool proved to be moderately moochable, the highlights being Chinatown where I stocked up on plastic chopsticks (our previous wooden ones having proved irresistable to small boys seeking arrows) and the second-hand bookshop with a nice stock of Italian textbooks.

But by the afternoon (after a pleasant pizza at an authetically Italian restaurant) I was weary and ready to spend the last hour under the Lime Street station clock waiting for the train up to the Lake District.   The plan was to meet up with various other family members en route and arrive together. The train was extraordinarily crowded, having apparently replaced two which had been cancelled and lost a carriage in the process, and though I managed to wedge myself in with my son and his fianceé, we never found out, until we reached Oxenholme, what had become of Grandma.  (We need not have feared; she had charmed the ticket collector into upgrading her to first class and was relaxing in comfort while we enjoyed having delicate parts of our anatomies deformed by giant rucksacks.)

From Oxenholme we took a taxi to the delightful Pheasant Inn in Casterton and, after a quick slurp of the Lidl Merlot (see above, Belfast)  walked up to Casterton School where we revelled in veggie burgers and the YMT’s spirited production.

Our journey home, completing the circle, was by the surprisingly straightforward and economical Rail & Sail (let’s see how long that lasts); a gentle train ride, reminiscent of childhood holidays, along the coast of North Wales to Holyhead, followed by the ferry across to Dublin.

No doubt there was much more I was intending to say back in August when I began this post,  analyses to be meticulously constructed, metaphors to be finely balanced and timely conclusions to be reached, but many brain cells have perished in the months since then and I’m lucky even to have remembered my password.  Let this be a warning to you all of the perils of procrastination.  Happy New Year.

Milan trip

Note: As of January 1st 2010 I’m moving to new WordPress software, so all earlier entries are dated as December 28th 2009. They actually range from the summer of 2008 to autumn 2009. If you need to know a specific date for anything, please let me know.

In May I went to Milan to buy Italian books and to have a look around the bookshops to see what new stuff was out. I decided to travel by bus, ferry and train again, as I did last year (see September & October 2008 posts) when I went to Lucca. It’s taken a long time to get my notes and pictures uploaded, partly because we’ve moved house in the interim, but here, at last, they are:

Thursday May 14th

 

2pm.

Enniskillen bus station is enjoying its usual collection of eccentrics, including a female mallard who has wandered in from the lough and is being fed by an elderly man with pieces of jam doughnut.  Meanwhile another man, maybe ten years younger, is expounding to his companion a matter of biological curiosity.

“These English,” he says, in a tone of scientific detachment, tinged with wonder, “I don’t know where they come from but they can all swim.”

 

The Bus Eireann coach for Dublin pulls in, exotic with its racing setter logo, against the dull blue of the Ulsterbuses.  We travel down the rather boring N3, too far west for the sophistication of Belfast;  not nearly far enough for the glamour of Galway and Clare.  Election posters, huge flapping faces, hang from almost every lamp post, and the small towns have shops with names like Keltic Kuts and greyish G.A.A. grounds.  In between, the countryside is pimpled with concrete bungalows which almost, but not quite succeed in masking the soft blue-green beauties of the landscape.  On small lakes men potter in fishing boats, indistinguishable from their ancestors except for their outboard motors.

 

“Five minutes smoke time.” announces the African bus driver as we reach Cavan.  A small takeaway near the bus station offers “Probably the best pizza on the planet”.  What fun if it were true.

 

3pm.

 

After Cavan the clouds shift, and the first glimmers of sunshine filter through, onto spindly colts and cows lying with their spines at right angles like half collapsed tents.  I listen to my iPod, soft music to match the greens, surely more than forty shades in the strengthening sun. 

 

6pm.

 

In Dublin, I think I see more bikes than before, their commuting riders armoured in helmets and fluorescent vests.   I take a taxi to the ferry terminal, as the so-called connecting bus is due to arrive ten minutes after check-in is supposed to finish.  It would be grand, of course, but if I miss this ferry then the whole journey collapses, domino-style, so I don’t feel confident relying on Irish insouciance. 

 



As usual, the ferry port is a human place to wait, with space, fresh air and a relaxing absence of Tannoy announcements and people trying to sell you things. It’s a real port, with rows of Guiness tankers lined up waiting, a reminder that there is more going on in the world than just holidays, even if it’s only drinking. My new four wheeled suitcase is a delight on its marble floors – less like lugging luggage and more like taking a preternaturally obedient dog for a walk. 

 

As I wait to check in I read John Betjeman on the pleasures of cycling, slow trains and the unexpected joys of wartime simplicity.  He writes that Bradshaw, of the famous train timetable, was a Quaker and a ‘great worker for peace’.  One of the hoariest canards of literary history is that Bejeman and C. S. Lewis loathed one another, but when Betjeman attended the public enquiry into the proposed nuclear (or ‘atomic’ as it was called then, probably just as logically) power station near Maldon, Essex (Bradwell, now decommissioned but being considered for ‘redevelopment’) it was of Lewis’s That Hideous Strength that he was reminded by the suited managers of the Central Electricity Board. 

 

8pm

 

On board the Irish Ferries Ulysses, the narrator of the safety announcement begins with a surprisingly English accent, like an old-fashioned BBC presenter, becoming more Irish as he continues, as if Alan Dedicoat were slowly morphing into Terry Wogan.

 

The Ulysses is the biggest car ferry in the world, but there is only one half deck where passengers are allowed to go outside.  After an unintentional detour to the first class and truck drivers’ lounges, I eventually find the Ruby Stairs that lead to freedom.  Outside are a few men huddled in the bus shelter designated as the ‘smoking zone’ but no one else to witness our departure from Dublin.  Not that there is much to see; dark grey silhouettes in the air force blue twilight and ranks of distant lights.

 

The rooms on the Ulysses have Joycean names; the Stephen Dedalus suite and the Nora Barnacle Brasserie.  On my next trip, to Glastonbury with the boys, we will take the other ferry, the high-speed Swift which turns out to have, painted on its side, the full name of the venerable Dean, but disappointingly no Lilliputian Lounge or Brobdingnagian Bistro.  Meanwhile, two tables away, a man is groaning in his sleep – Finnegan’s far from awake.

 

 

Friday May 15th

 

1am.

 

The waiting area at Holyhead is very cold, and the metal seating rigid and chilled, its perforations painful to every part of the anatomy and its fixed armrests a piece of egregiously bureaucratic callousness.

 

5am.

 

A delicious relief to be on the train for London.  I sleep better than I can ever remember doing in a seat, though not well enough to avoid hearing the long debate between the ticket collector and a vague Irishman who has lost his ticket and refuses to buy another.  He is ejected at Chester and threatened with the Transport Police, a fate at which he is singularly unimpressed.

 

9.15am

 



On the Euston Road I join the throng of patient scholars waiting for the British Library to open.  It seems a sensible place to spend an hour or two before I have to be at St Pancras, provided that they will let me in with my monstrous suitcase.  It turns out that they will, though I spend a good quarter of my time trundling it up and down ramps before I find the right place to leave it.  There is just time then to visit a few of the manuscripts on display – drafts of Persuasion, Jane Eyre and Tess of the D’Urbervilles, and to gaze up at the the King’s Library, a magnificent block of patchwork leather and gilt.

 

Having been reading John Betjeman, I want to pay my respects at his statue, but come into St Pancras from the wrong end, and can’t negotiate the crowds with my suitcase.  I make do with remembering what I can of his writing about the station, how it was built as the London terminus of the Midland Railway, after the other companies had already erected their own London edifices, and required a bridge to be built over the canal and the levelling of the old Saint Pancras burial ground.  One of the assistant architects was Thomas Hardy and the experience of supervising the exhumation and reburial of the bodies did nothing to lighten his sepulchral gloom.  Because of the bridge, the line finished in mid-air, hence the station’s cathedralesque high roof, while the distance between the columns is said to have been measured by the Burton-on-Trent beer barrels which were the Midland’s principal freight.

 

12 noon.

 



The Eurostar is crowded but polite, with most of the passengers reading books.  Last time I took the train to Italy was just after the fire in the tunnel, so we took the Eurolines coach instead, all noise and jostling and music and rumbling discontent.  By contrast, this is sanitized travel, very Home Counties.  I slept through the tunnel and woke up thinking that we were still in England with a grey drizzling sky, poplar trees and concrete.

Suddenly we jerk to a grating halt.

“Ladies and gentlemen,” comes the announcement.  “We ‘ave stopped.”  He promises, in a French accent strongly flavoured with Essex, to find out why, but within a minute we have set off again. 

 

3pm

 

In Paris I have nearly five hours before my train to Italy, so I decide to walk from the Gare du Nord to Bercy.  This goes moderately well, as the suitcase behaves itself on the whole, only occasionally deciding to run over my toes.  It looks like less than three miles on the map but takes me over two hours, including the stops to stock up with bread and cheese and the demented wanderings up and down the rue Bercy, having by now completely lost my bearings.

 

8pm

 

I am the first to reach our coach, the very last on the Stendhal overnight train to Milan, and despite the lack of numbers for our couchette, manage to locate my bunk.  On the top, thank goodness.  After travelling in a six-berth couchette last time I’ve belatedly taken the advice of the Man in Seat 61 and gone for the four berth this time.  This means that I have only three companions: a young French girl with an astonishing quantity of luggage, a middle-aged Frenchman and a glamorous Russian girl who does her hair up at night with those bendy foam curlers and sprays the couchette with perfume in the morning.

 

I’d bought a bottle of wine with a screw top as I was walking through Paris but can’t get it open now, so settle for a frugal and sober piece of baguette and chunk of goat’s cheese.  I have another, more exciting cheese, a Saint-Marcellin, about which Wikipedia notes that ‘Its degree of runniness increases with age’ This particular piece has evidently passed the limits of senility as it has already oozed out of the packet, filling the couchette with the ripe odour so eloquently described by Jerome K. Jerome .

 

“A few moments passed, and then the old gentleman began to fidget.

“Very close in here,” he said.

“Quite oppressive,” said the man next him.

And then they both began sniffing, and, at the third sniff, they caught it right on the chest, and rose up without another word and went out. And then a stout lady got up, and said it was disgraceful that a respectable married woman should be harried about in this way, and gathered up a bag and eight parcels and went. The remaining four passengers sat on for a while, until a solemn-looking man in the corner, who, from his dress and general appearance, seemed to belong to the undertaker class, said it put him in mind of dead baby; and the other three passengers tried to get out of the door at the same time, and hurt themselves.”

(Three Men in a Boat, Chapter Four)

Fortunately I have with me an almost inexhaustible supply of small plastic bags and manage to imprison the Saint-Marcellin in almost decent obscurity before the others arrive.

 

 

11pm

 

I’m feeling a bit miserable now.  Last time I did this journey it was with my son, who seems very far away now in Australia and though I’m very tired from the previous night on the Holyhead benches, I can’t sleep properly until the Frenchman finally switches off the central light.  Maybe I should get one of those eye masks.

 

 

Saturday May 16th

 

4.30am

 



I wake from what feels like a proper sleep at last, and am filled immediately with the elation of being in Italy, as unmistakable as the mild depression induced in France.  At Milan’s Stazione Centrale the loos aren’t open yet so I sit on a marble bench near a couple of suspicious lurking young men.  As soon as they speak, I realize that they are simply American students straight out of a frat-boy comedy; no doubt the most dangerous of all from a global point of view but reassuring from my selfish perspective.  I sort out my suitcase – Saint Marcellin is still with me, faintly stinking through his polythene.  I can’t work out quite which of the carefully colour co-ordinated recycling bins ought to be his next home.

 

A Parisian woman and her little girl, about four years old,  join me for a while and we have fun naming objects in English and French.  They were on the same train and are here to spend a few days with the woman’s boyfriend who works in Milan. 



At around six o’clock he arrives and I set off for my hotel to drop off the suitcase.  I follow the hotel website’s instructions to take the tram, which means a long trudge around looking for the right stop but then only a short wait before the tram arrives.  On this line the trams are old traditional ones with lovely wooden benches along the sides.  An announcement tells us which stop we will reach next, but the creaks and squeaks of the ancient wood and iron make it almost impossible to hear.  Somehow, despite, this,  I manage to clamber down – the tram floor is a good few feet higher than the road, at more or less the right place.

 

 

7.30am

 



At the hotel, the Ariston, celebrated for its organic and recycled stuff, I’m overjoyed to hear that my room is ready – I’d expected only to be able to leave my case and to have to wander unwashed around Milan until three o’clock.  But as it is, I can have a shower before setting out to the Saturday street markets.

 

10am

 

The first of these is easy to find but no good for me, having only clothes and a few food stalls: fruit and vegetables, fish and cheese.  Heading for the second, I disastrously confuse the Strada Alzaia Naviglio Grande with the Strada Alzaia Naviglio Pavese and walk several miles before I realise that I am skirting entirely the wrong canal and have walked several miles in the wrong direction.  It wasn’t even an interesting detour, consisting mainly of garages and apartment blocks, but the way back was at least straightforward, and the market, when I eventually found it, had plenty of useful book stalls.  Waiting for the tram to take me back to the hotel,  my rucksack straps digging into my shoulders, I fleetingly wonder whether I should have taken up their free bike hire offer, but the combination of my lack of sleep, the tramlines criss-crossing the road and the unbalanced loads of books make me glad I haven’t risked it.  Next time, maybe.  I drop the books back at the hotel and wander into the city centre – on foot again – mooching around the bookshops, piazzas and park. 

 

On the tram stops are paper notices advertising the fact that the routes will be changed tomorrow morning to accommodate the Giro (the big Italian cycle race, the equivalent of the Tour de France), the next stage of which will be held in the city centre.  I hardly dare to believe it, and phone home to check.  Martin managed to see it during both years that we lived in Italy and I joked before I left that perhaps it would come near Milan this weekend.  It seemed too forlorn a hope even to make it worth looking at the route before I set out.  But now, whatever else I need to do tomorrow, I resolve to try to catch a glimpse of it.

 

 

 

7pm

 

The hotel doesn’t have a restaurant but the barman has stuff he can heat up, so I stay there and eat a risotto – my first proper meal since Thursday lunchtime, before collapsing on my bed in front of the Italian news and a dubbed version of Beethoven (the film with the St Bernard dog, not a biopic of the composer).  After Beethoven comes another, even more sentimental dubbed family film with two orphaned sisters, a collection of resolutely pre-Vatican Two nuns, a pair of evil burglars (who intriguingly used MacBooks to plan their dastardly crimes) a rich and wholesome young couple, a plump Latino housekeeper and an anal-retentive mayor who, by the closing credits, sees the error of his ways.  Oh, and holding the whole thing together, an extremely large and endearing dog.  I’m sure you can deduce the plot from the above elements (and probably also name the film and to what extent it was sponsored by Microsoft). Films like this are most comforting in allowing me to imagine that my Italian listening skills are passable – the fact that an intellectually challenged oyster could work out what was going on if the film was dubbed in Klingon doesn’t really register.

 

 I have a vague idea that a very early night would be advisable, but ought to know better…

 

 

11pm

 

Some sort of male celebration has been going on outside for the past half hour: cars being driven around with full-throated horns and roaring cheers. It occurs to me that if I heard such a din in Northern Ireland I would be at least annoyed and probably rather frightened.  I don’t know whether the actual sounds here are unthreatening or whether it’s just that I know it’ll be a question of football.  I don’t know which victory, though; didn’t notice anything particular on the news.  I hope it’s not Manchester United who, even the Italian news report, secured the Premier League title today by drawing with Arsenal.  Surely the evil tentacles of globalization haven’t quite reached so far.  Unless it’s an eve-of-Giro-tappa-celebration, which would make it even more Italian and even less irritating; hard to imagine British youths welcoming a bike race with such gusto, Sir Chris Hoy or no.

 

Another fifteen minutes and the din is redoubled.  A good thing that I wasn’t really attached to the early night plan.

 

 

Sunday May 17th



The Giro is due to start at eleven, so I am ready and waiting at the Piazzo Duomo by twenty past ten.  I really ought to know better.  At around one o’clock, after urgent conversations by telefonini and radios, and lots of typically Italian civic stuff with school children and local dignitaries, the first special guests begin to arrive for the opening ceremony.  By now I am bright red from the sun and have changed places in the piazza countless times in the hope of finding a good viewpoint. 



But today the gods, or maybe Saint Ambrose, are looking after me for I find myself in a blessed corner with a good view of the stage.  What’s more, I am just one row back from the arriving corridori (riders, not corridors) and V.I.P.s (pronounced Veeps in Italy).  To my joy, the first Veep is our old Lucchese neighbour Mario Cipolini who used to go on practice rides past our house and one glanced quizzically, but not without approval, at my little red Moulton.  After Mario come more superstars of Italian cycling; Paolo Bettini and Danilo di Luca, and finally, following a drawn out and teasing build-up, and description as a ‘space cowboy’ which I’m not sure he appreciates, Lance Armstrong.

 

2pm

 



After the opening ceremony I meander with the crowd to the Castello Sforzesco.  The race consists of eleven circuits of the city centre and the green area surrounding the Castello looks like one of the best vantage points.  I can sit in comfort on the grass, getting up when warned by the first police motorbike to stand at the side of the road to watch the peleton go by.  I watch three of the circuits consecutively, though I’m confused by the timing; according to my calculations they should reappear every ten minutes, but it turns out to be more like fifteen or twenty.  Later my arithmetic is to be vindicated but for now I just assume that I’ve got in a mental muddle. 

 

3pm

 

Before the fourth I decide to pause my transformation into a lobster – two Senegalese traders have already remarked on my colour, one suggesting that I will soon look like him – so I go into the shady Castello and pay my three euro entry fee for the complex. This includes six museums, but I miss out the prehistoric and Egyptian ones and most of the furniture, being totally overwhelmed by the sculpture and paintings including Michelango’s unfinished Rondanini Pieta (more mysterious and moving than the smooth perfection of the Vatican version) and pictures by Filippo Lippi and Canaletto.  I’ve never been to the big Italian art galleries – not even the Uffizi – but this one is completely breathtaking, even more so as it is so quiet and empty.  I wonder whether they’d get more visitors if they charged twenty euro but meanwhile am profoundly grateful and determined to come back again with more time.  There is also a museum of musical instruments with weird nineteenth century guitars that I might use to tempt the boys into a future trip.

 

7pm

 



Afterwards I go to mass at the Cathedral, visit a few more bookshops, listen to a brass band and stop for a pizza.  At the table behind me an Australian is explaining to a couple of Americans that he stayed in Italy for a couple of extra days after his business trip in order to see the Giro.  When the Americans leave, I ask him whether he saw the finish.  It turns out that the riders had safety concerns about the route (he didn’t know exactly what, but I wonder whether it might be at least partly those ubiquitous tram lines, which are a perfect size to trap a wheel) and so they made a collective decision to ride deliberately slowly for most of the race.  At the last circuit the sprinters were let off the leash and Mark Cavendish won, with an Ozzie (sorry, I’ve forgotten who) in second. 

Meanwhile an impromptu demonstration in the piazza sort of solves the mystery of last night’s hilarity – a football team (Inter, I think) have won something significant (come top of Seria A?). No doubt someone can put me right.

 

9pm

 

Laden with books, I collect my suitcases from the hotel and clamber up into the number 2 tram with the help of a quick-witted passenger.  At the Stazione Centrale I take the lift into the waiting room, which, with its wooden pew-like benches and collection of the weary and derelict, makes me think of nothing so much as a Victorian workhouse. 

 

11pm

 

The train, another sleeper back to Paris, is on the platform before eleven – a pleasant surprise, as I had expected it to come from Venice.  I am the youngest person in the couchette this time, which feels odd; I had expected to be the oldest.  There would have been a much younger occupant – one of around four months – but his grand-mere has accidentally booked the top book for him and his mother so a middle-aged Italian woman from another compartment swaps places with them.  The other two are both French – a man in his late sixties and a large woman who decides to keep her suitcase on her bunk and consequently spreads herself across the floor.  At some stage during the night she unhooks the ladder to the top bunks in order to better accommodate her legs, leaving the Italian woman and I, in an emergency, with the only expedient of launching ourselves into her lap. Fortunately, no such eventuality occurs.

 

 

 

Monday May 18th

 

9am

 



The walk and metro journey from Paris Bercy to the Gare du Nord involves a lot of steps but fortunately also a lot of gallant Frenchmen to help with the larger of the suitcases.  I suspect that a few regret the chivalrous impulse – they probably assume it to be full of clothes, rather than books, but none are so craven as to abandon it mid-flight.  It later occurs to me that I am wearing a flowered smock top of what could be construed as maternity cut, which may account for some of the gallantry.  At the Gare du Nord soldiers are strolling around in camouflage gear – camouflage for a jungle, that is, or a dense forest, and rather more conspicuous amidst the grey suits and fawn raincoats of the French in Monday morning motion.  I notice that it is only the youngest and most timid looking of the soldiers who are armed, but don’t know whether to be reassured or alarmed by this. 

 

11am

 

Nothing much to say about Eurostar – again it’s incredibly bland compared with other train journeys or other ways to cross the Channel (apart from flying, of course, which is the essence of homogeneity). The passengers, whether English or not, all appear to come from Maidenhead and are polite, reserved and uncommunicative.  There is no tension, not even a whisper of the exciting confusions and unbearable frustrations of the Eurolines coach.

 

 

1pm

 



fFrom St Pancras I walk to Euston, which is trickier than expected, ploughing into a headwind so strong that it blows down a seven foot weighted pavement sign advertising the Betjemanesque café, which in turn narrowly misses a couple of young Asian tourists.  I leave my cases at left luggage and head for the British Museum, partly because the loos are clean and free, partly to provide a bit of symmetry to my outward visit to the British Library and partly to have a mooch around another room or two.  A couple of years ago I used to go to London quite regularly for the boys’ trips to the Magic Circle and got into the habit of calling into the B.M. for an hour or so at a time.  It’s much less tiring that way, and gives the chance to see a few things properly rather than to leave bombarded with mummies, amphorae and a sense of archaeological indigestion.  Now I visit a nice little exhibition of eighteenth century miniatures, drawings and watercolour portraits – pleasant and interesting enough but a little insipid after the wonders of the Castello Sforzesco.  There is a late Michelangelo cartoon, though, which I am sitting in front of almost exactly twenty-four hours after standing before the unfinished Pieta.  The most moving thing in the museum today for me isn’t an artifact at all, but a simple wall display in a single frame about the effect of the Iraq war on the country’s historical sites and treasures.  It doesn’t say much, which makes its criticism the more bitter, quietly illustrated by before and after photographs and a picture of the Allied military base hammered into the site of Babylon itself.

 

7pm

 

The sky is a bright blue as we pull out of Euston but by Milton Keynes it is a grey fuzz.  A little further northwest pinkish gaps appear and as we pass the first canals and redbrick farmhouses of the Midlands, the soft green curves are lit with a slanting golden light.  I wrote about the Shire last time, so I won’t repeat myself, but there are real narrowboats and canalside pubs, and healthy looking Friesans and barns with geometric brick decoration, and a kind of settled, humble peace that you don’t find at either end of the journey, either in Ireland or Italy.  I slept through this part of the journey on the way out and now, vaguely aware of  how close we will come to my family and home town, I feel rather like Mole in Wind in the Willows when he unexpectedly comes across the entrance to his burrow.  But I still don’t realise until we’re almost there, that we are going right through Stafford itself, past the playing fields of my primary school and a few yards from my parents’ house.  I jump up to look out of the opposite window in case they are taking an evening stroll through the Doxey Marshes (though I don’t even know whether the marshes are strollable without waders).  Before I sit down again I’m ready to explain my eccentric behaviour, but this is England and everyone is studiously pretending that they haven’t noticed. 

 

 

10pm

It is dark for the last part of the journey, around the Welsh coastline, though the red-painted benches on Colwyn Bay station are jolly.  One other passenger in the Quiet Coach has travelled all the way to Holyhead from London, a gentle wispy old Irishman who moved his bags at Euston to make way for my big cases.  He offers to help me move them from the train platform to the ferry terminal but all I need is a guide to follow in the near-blackness.  It is almost eleven, and we have nearly four hours to wait for the ferry, but this is the last direct train from London, and I didn’t want to have to cart the cases from train to train at Chester and maybe end up stranded there.  “I’ve missed this ferry many a time,” says the old man in a wistful tone.

 

Before sitting down, I take out as much of my laundry as is decent and pad the metal chair with it.  It doesn’t exactly feel luxurious but I remind myself of what the cold punched surface would be like otherwise.  A small girl comes to tell me that she is staying up all night, but is called away sharply by her mother. 

 

 

 

My notes stop here, and I’m not sure, writing this up three months later, whether there was nothing else to say or whether I was just too tired to say it.  I remember an extraordinarily comfortable red leather sofa on the ferry, upon which I slept instantly and deeply, the bus from the ferry port into Dublin, during which my suitcase made frequent bids for liberty via the ankles of a polite African and the bliss of settling down on the back seat of the first morning bus from Dublin to Enniskillen.  The suitcase had its revenge on the walk home from Enniskillen bus station, mangling one of its wheels, but has now been replaced by a ready and willing clone.  Apart from that little blip, the journey was an astonishing success, with no significant delays or frustrations, lots of opportunities for fascinating people-watching, a few interesting conversations, a bit of art, a lot of books and the unexpected excitement of a world-class cycling race. And a glimpse of Mario and the Space Cowboy.  You don’t get all that on Ryanair.

Day Nine: Lower Earley to the Irish Sea



The morning is grey and foggy as I emerge from the chrysalis of G’s sofa, surprisingly comfortable once the kitchen scissors and sachets of tomato ketchup were extracted from between the cushions. No one else has been in the house since we left for Italy, so the household food supplies (the two bananas we ate then) hasn’t been replenished. G has bought some good hot chocolate, though (fair trade and organic) so I make myself a mug before we head back to the bus stop with an odd sense of reverse deja vu. I even have the great green suitcase that, like the Ancient Mariner’s albatross, cannot be lightly discarded.

The cross-country train from Reading is busier than it was last week; but I remind myself that this is a Saturday morning rather than Sunday afternoon.




At Stafford the sun has come out as I wait outside the station for my sister to pick me up in her car. Apparently there has been an accident on the M6 and the radio traffic bulletins are advising drivers to “skirt around it” which means driving into Stafford and out again. It reminds me that it’s not only public transport users who are subject to random disruption and in fact, in minutes per mile, this is the longest delay of the whole ten days.




After a couple of hours with my family I’m off again, on another quiet train through Stoke (pictured here) to Stockport. Usually there would be a direct train to Liverpool, but this afternoon the line north of Crewe is closed for engineering work.




At Stockport, as I photograph the station, I realise that I’m about to take the last of my twenty-one train journeys (including the Tube and Metro) on this trip. It turns out to be one of the busiest, as it passes through the main Manchester stations on its way to the dark and mysterious Liverpool Lime Street.





(View from the passengers’ lounge across the Mersey)

I arrive several hours early at the Norfolkline ferry terminal in Birkenhead but there are already a few foot passengers there. We wait in the lounge and watch celebrity Family Fortunes – Barry McGuigan and the Nolan Sisters. There’s something appropriate about the cosy Seventies celebrities in this relaxed atmosphere, like sitting in your granny’s living room watching television with your cousins. We chat to one another, rummage through our bags, plug in our mobile phones to charge. I don’t know quite why it’s so different from an airport. It may be the staff: the woman on security, asking to look in my bag, says, “No reflection on you, dear”. Later it gets a little bit rowdier as the lads come in from the football matches in their Liverpool and Man U shirts, but there’s still no tension or impatience.






As we get on the minibus to be taken onto the ship I notice that it originally belonged to North Yorkshire County Council. This explains a lot. We used to live on the edge of the North York Moors, and any vehicle considered too decrepit to take Yorkshire children to school must really be hanging onto existence by the thinnest of threads.

On the ship I stake my claim to a comfortable corner in the bar by the restaurant and get into dinner early, at a spacious window table. Afterward I settle back on the padded bench with a large volume of John Dickson Carr and, when the text begins to swim, curl under a ship’s blanket and listen to the adjacent party of dog-breeders who’ve brought their charges – pets doesn’t seem quite the word – across for a show. I sleep well, apart from an occasional glare as I turn towards the overhead lights and think that I should have brought one of those things to cover my eyes. But each time I am asleep again before I can think of the word.


Day Eight: Northern Italy to Lower Earley



We didn’t fall off the rails.

I wake to a glimpse of landscape, under the big window blind, that is unmistakably French. There are some hills, but they don’t have snow on the top, so we must have got through the Alps. I sit on the floor and watch the dappled countryside with its distinctive church spires and high roofed farmhouses. I know almost nothing about French geography, but am starting to feel more confident.

When, half an hour before we are due into Paris, I see tower blocks in the distance and motorways alongside us, I am positively Pollyannaish. Then the train slows and stops beside a station sign. Dijon. Even I know this is not a suburb of Paris.


The attendant can be heard telling another passenger, with a note of pride, that we are now two and a half hours late. On the hung-for-a-sheep principle, or perhaps just sheer bloody-mindedness, we then spend forty minutes in Dijon station and thereafter inch along the rails at walking speed. No one can bear to ask whether this forty minutes is included in, or in addition to the two and a half hours.

And this is where we are as I write in my little Moleskine notebook; six people: three Italian and three English, making the best of things in a hot little compartment trundling through the French countryside. G and I will certainly miss our Eurolines coach and the other Englishman his connection on to Cologne. It was bound to go wrong somewhere, of course, and things could be a lot worse (after all, we haven’t been rained on for a week) but the uncertainty, coupled with the insouciance of the staff, is a bit niggling.

But the time passes relatively easily. The sun is shining, we are passing through beautiful countryside and everyone in the compartment is friendly. If the worst happens, we have several litres of wine and over a kilo of Gran Padano in our bags. Once, when G. is out in the corridor, a man comes round carrying a large tray.

“Vuoi un cornetto?”

Without looking I give a curt “No.” What would I be wanting an ice-cream for at this time in the morning? Later G. says, “I was offered a free croissant in the corridor.” and I remember the Italian word.

We get into Paris Bercy three hours late and SNCF staff are waiting at the exit handing out slips of paper which tell us where to write with “mail, suggestion or complaint”. I hope they don’t get too many suggestions.

I’m not convinced by this, so join a queue at the information desk. When it is my turn I try to ask, in what remains of my schoolgirl French, for official confirmation of the lateness of the train. The young woman behind the desk has got as far as understanding that I caught a train from a place called Enretard before suggesting that we switch to English. Finally she gives me a little square of paper headed Bulletin de Retard and specifying the train number and extent of the delay, with an official stamp. This mollifies me and we lug our bags through three more Metro stations to the international bus station.

The coach on which we were booked has left an hour and a half before, so I join the queue for ticket sales with more hope than anticipation. There is, as I had thought, another bus at 2.30 but I expect at best to have to buy fresh tickets with a hefty surcharge, at worst to be told that there are no seats available. I begin in French at the first window then, suddenly suspecting that I am about to buy a ticket back to Italy, break off to ask whether he speaks English. He doesn’t, but the man at the next desk does, and gravely examines my tickets and Bulletin de Retard.

“You want to go on the 2.30.”

I’m not sure whether it’s a question or a statement. He types interminably on his computer and I try to remember how many euro I have left. I don’t dare to speak. Finally he hands back our tickets, liberally annoted in blue ink. The 11.30 has been crossed out and replaced with what, allowing for the vagaries of French numerals, could possibly be a 14.30. On one ticket is written “retard train” while the other, by way of variety, says “train retard”.

“You check in here,” indicating an adjacent booth, “in ten minutes. You will see me there.”



Indeed we do, as he slides from ticket vendor to passport checker, so I don’t even have to interpret his hieroglyphics to another official. And there’s nothing more to pay. Suddenly this bit of the journey doesn’t look so bad after all. The coach, unlike the sardine can of Monday night, is a civilised quarter empty, and we pass quickly over the Seine and between the cornfields of northern France. A hazy question-mark still hovers over tonight’s 22.05 train from London to Stafford, but the nice ticket man told me that we will arrive at Victoria by half-past eight, so all appears pretty much bien.


The journey through France is smooth and sunny, our spirits lifted by the ubiquitous wind turbines and unimpeded speed of the coach. At Calais we go through the passport check without anyone being interrogated and join a short queue of coaches driving on board a ferry. I’m almost inclined to believe the 20.30 ETA. But the coach line is halted as we reach the front, a stream of cars allowed on and then the lights turn to red and the gates are closed, leaving our bus sad and solitary on the quayside.




After that it goes a bit pear-shaped, as they say, in gross disrespect to the noble and proportioned figure of a pear. We get on another ferry a couple of hours later, are mid-channel at the fabled hour of half-past eight and being driven rather jerkily through Kent as my train to Stafford (the last of the night) pulls out of Euston.

So it’s back to Lower Earley, G’s sofa (and chivalrously loaned duvet) and an emotional reunion with the big green suitcase. One more piece of contemporary life to round off the day; as we try to walk into Victoria tube station sirens start wailing, coach-loads of police appear on all sides and the whole place is evacuated and packaged up with yellow crime-scene tape. We don’t think it’s anything to do with us, but on a day like this we can’t be completely sure.

Day Seven: Lucca to somewhere in northern Italy



At around nine in the morning, when the little electric carts are still trundling around the streets, cleaning and collecting rubbish, I go into Lucca to visit the church of San Frediano. The saint is said to have brought Christianity to Lucca in, I think, the sixth century from his native Ireland, then the “land of saints and scholars” where I don’t remember what he was called, but am pretty sure that it wasn’t Frediano. Probably plain Fred to his mates. Inside is the mummified body of another of my favourite saints, Zita. She was a servant to a rich Lucchese family and had got into the habit of giving away bread from the household kitchen to the poor of the city. One day her master caught her sneaking outside, holding up the corners of her apron to make an improvised bag.

“What have you got in there?” he asked.”Only flowers,” she replied and dropped the apron corners. To, I suppose, the astonishment of both, this turned out to be the literal truth, as what had been chunks of solid Tuscan bread floated down to the floor in delicate petals. Zita’s body now rests in a glass box, wearing a lacy dress, a brown and wizened little Snow White, waiting for her Prince at the resurrection.






I wander back to the Hotel Rex, passing the statue of Puccini and the Piazza Napoleone, or Piazza Grande as the locals call it. Checking out, I am given a regalo – a small wrapped present which turns out to be a ceramic plaque of Lucca’s two towers. It’s another thoughtful gesture from the excellent management and staff, by whom I’ve become more impressed every day. Having chosen the hotel without particularly high expectations, I’ve been really delighted by the place and it will certainly be my first choice next time.






G. has joined me from Pisa by now and leaving our bags at the hotel we go for lunch – my first proper meal since Wetherspoons at Victoria. Afterwards we visit Cicli Bizzari, the shop from where we bought our bikes when we lived here, and now hire a couple for the afternoon.






We ride up to Nozzano Castello, the village seven kilometers north-west of Lucca where we used to live, and pass our old house there. Suddenly I catch a glimpse of the next door neighbour Luglio, a kindly and exhuberant elderly man and wonderful gardener who used to call “Signora!” over the wall and pass me baskets of sturdy and delicious vegetables.

Now we pedal fast down the little side-alley and meet him at his gate. He’s doing well, except for trouble with his eyes, and we’re delighted to see him.




The river Serchio, which runs between Lucca and Nozzano, isn’t in such good shape. Near Nozzano, where we cycle along its banks, it is still healthy, but under the bridge the water level is low with a thick scum of algae. We’ve never seen it like this before, in the seven years we’ve been coming here.

We cycle through the twin villages of Nozzano Castello and Nozzano San Pietro, deserted in the siesta, and stop at the church and the lane that led to the back gate of our old house. There’s a car in the drive, so we don’t intrude any further.















Cycling around the walls of Lucca is an entirely pleasant experience, with no motor vehicles except for the odd maintenance van and plenty of room on the broad path for cyclists, pedestrians and other self-powered bods to spread out and give one another space. In the city streets it’s more tricky, with traffic on most of the roads and bands of less-than-alert tourists, but with plenty of bell-ringing most cyclists manage all right. Outside the walls it’s harder again, in the full force of Italian traffic aided and abetted by sporadic cycle lanes, random parking and little old ladies who insist on cycling on the left, against the flow of traffic. The final part of the journey back from Nozzano is hairier than the rest, as a basket full of pesto, Gran Padano and cheap Tavernello wine makes me wobble far more than I had expected, but we make it back in the correct number of pieces, drop off the bikes and go back to Lucca station and on to Firenze.

(I’d forgotten to mention, by the way, that at SMN station on the Tuesday were policemen on those wheeled platform scooters – are they called Segways? – that Niles in Frasier once borrowed. They seem ideal for the Italian polizia, allowing them to play boyishly when they’re not too busy, fidget in style and remain taller than anyone who comes to ask them a question.)



Now from SMN we go around to Campo di Marte and await the train for Paris. This is the point at which the fact that it starts in Rome, previously unconsidered, hits us with its true significance.

Forty minutes before the train is due it shows on the departure board as on time. Ten minutes ditto. Three minutes ditto, and we start gathering up the luggage and shrugging our shoulders into our backpacks. Then, without warning, the board changes. “In ritardo 100 minutes”. A hundred? That’s… Yes it is. To be fair, it’s only actually ninety-five minutes late, half past ten, when the train wheezes into the station. Not to worry, is my last thought, as I snuggle down in my bunk. Judging from the way we’re rattling along, we’ll have made up half the time before morning, if we don’t fall off the rails entirely.

Day Five: Switzerland? to Lucca, via Firenze

I wake up briefly, at about half past four in the morning, as the train groans to a stop and eases itself off again, like an old man cajoling himself up from a park bench. It’s due to stop at Dijon, pass through the Simplon tunnel and call at a few northern Italian towns before Firenze (Florence) and later Rome. I wonder vaguely where we are, and go back to sleep. At seven my alarm goes off, and judging from the houses I can see under the blind, we are definitely in Italy. The train is due into Firenze at 7.15 but we left Paris late when the attendant comes round at half past seven with our passports, he tells me that it will be another half hour before we arrive. Ten minutes later we pull into a station and I glance idly to see the name. Firenze Campo di Marte. Aargghh. Fortunately we have our bags packed and are able to stagger out before the train chugs on to Rome.

From the air alone we would know we were in Italy. It’s still cold, and there is frost on the tracks. We know this cold. For the final seven or eight months that we lived in Italy, we rented a farmhouse in the Mugello, the hills north of the city, and caught the train into this station for Christmas shopping and for G to play rugby. But there’s nothing much to see, other than the pitch, and we catch the next train for the seven minute journey into the central station, Santa Maria Novella. There I fail to find a fornaio to buy plain bread so we breakfast on the leftovers from our French picnic supper – Roquefort, tomatoes and those ubiquitous sandwiched biscuits with chocolate in the middle. To be strictly accurate I have the tomatoes and G had the biscuits, so it isn’t quite as bizarre as it sounds. While G. digests the gastronomic feast, I go for a quick gallop around the city, armed with camera, thus:




















When I come back, G. goes to catch his train for Pisa and I wait at the station to meet Timea, the export manager of the Italian publishers Giunti. I’ve dealt with Giunti since we first started our online Italian bookshop (now www.crystalbard.com ) and Timea has been especially helpful, efficient and friendly. It is the first time we’ve met and we recognize one another immediately. We go to a new Giunti bookshop in Firenze and browse around together – I can’t think of a much better way of getting to know someone, unless it’s indulging in coffee and apricot tart at a corner café, which is what we do next. After that we go out to the Villa Giunti, the firm’s headquarters north of Firenze, towards Fiesole. It’s probably the most beautiful house I’ve ever visited in Italy, with ancient wall-paintings, a light gallery where the art and children’s departments work and a perfect library with huge windows opening on to the olive-strewn hills. I’m mostly lost for words, in any language, but nod as I’m welcomed and shown around with delicate Italian courtesy.

Back in Firenze I buy a ticket for Lucca at one of the automatic machines. It not only gives me the option of buying a ticket within Italy or internationally, suggesting the destination when I type L, U… but tells me the times of the next few trains and asks which I would like to take. The journey, as all Italian train tickets tell you, is 78km long, I have no eligibility for reductions, and have not booked in advance. So the price would be … imagining a similar situation in the U.K…. five euro. The train leaves in half an hour, as I have just missed one by seconds, but is already at the platform and I can get straight on and settle into one of the clean and comfortable seats. Looking around I see that special litter bins are marked inside the carriage for recycling of paper and cans. It’s the sort of detail we imagine in the Netherlands or Germany, but are rightly ashamed to find the laid-back Italians doing these things so much better than we can. The journey is smooth, quiet and quick, and I am soon back in Lucca, where we lived for a year and a half, and to which I cannot stop myself returning.



I’ve booked into the Hotel Rex, this time, next to the station and with precious wireless internet. The Rough Guide is a bit sniffy about it, complaining of a lack of atmosphere, but the staff are all exactly what most of us hope for, friendly and helpful without being pushy, and the rooms spacious and imaginatively furnished.






Mine is a bit dark, being at the back of the hotel looking out on a narrow alley, but we can’t all be at the front, and it is well-lit and a generous size for a single booking. To my mild surprise the wireless internet, which is free, works first time as soon as I get a username and password from reception, and I’m able to catch up with M, who is valiantly holding the fort at home, including snuffly son and missing books.






Later I go out to walk around the broad walls that circle the city, planning to pick up some bread, olives and water to supplement the remaining Roquefort. Distracted by memories, I am confused by a new chldren’s playground and come down from the walls too early, walking around the road for the rest of the way. But if I hadn’t, I would have missed the typical Lucchese sight; a young man cycling, in the chaotic rush hour, along the busy ring road, baby (six months at the most) in a carrier in front of him, while his golden labrador trotted along, also on the road, at the end of a sturdy lead. There are so many ways of travelling about, given a little courage and imagination.

Day Three: Stafford to Dover (via Reading, Lower Earley and London)



Begin the day, as befits one taking a long journey, by going to Mass. I feel as though, like a medieval pilgrim, I ought to be going via Canterbury instead of Dover, and continuing on to Rome. Instead I catch the train from Stafford to Reading. I have a reservation in coach C so while I wait for my train I watch the two earlier ones pull into the platform and note where coach C usually stops. Third from the back, ending up in a patch of sunlight. I stand in the patch, and sure enough, as the Reading train wheezes to a halt, the door of the third coach from the end is directly in front of me. I take this as a good omen and lug the great green case inside with no more ado. It’s only when I’ve stowed the luggage and am looking for my seat that I realise this train has its carriages lined up the other way, and I am in coach I. But the friendly lady ticket-collector says it doesn’t matter; they’re not busy.






Nothing seems to matter very much on this sleepy, sunny Sunday afternoon as we meander through the ruins of England’s industry (the picture on the right shows what was once a Wolverhampton brewery). It must be the beginning of the university year, as here, as on the ferry, are students with giant sports bags and anticipatory faces, less frenetic, but happier, than the holidaymakers at airports. Between Birmingham and the NEC are green fields with no-nonsense oak trees and the irrepressible ghosts of Falstaff and King Charles join us in the empty seats. In places the globalized world makes its sulky bid for dominance, like a child no one likes, that has to shout for attention, but in Coventry the church spires rise high behind the garish Burger King, leaving it flimsy as one of its own abandoned boxes. White bindweed twists up the sidings, shimmering trees overhang little rivers, a woman and child pick blackberries and odd shaped fields, hills and copses remind me that this is also Tolkien’s native country, The Shire.






Inside the train a man in a red anorak won’t sit down but stands in the aisle

for the entire journey. When I excuse myself to squeeze past he doesn’t reply or move, but gazes into some unsharable distance. At Banbury a group of young people in bright clothes clamber on while an elderly Chinese lady waits on the platform. A man with a magnificent black beard talks on his mobile phone in a language I don’t know. The whole experience, inside and outside the train, is of England at its best; eccentric, tolerant and diverse; calm, with no sign here of anything to trouble us and yet real, more real than the panic-stricken headlines. Haystacks are rolled up on the pale gold fields and the canal boats are bright in primary colours. Sometimes I spend so long thinking about doom and woe, I forget how much good there is left to treasure. The churches in the countryside seem signs of continuity here, not conflict, as they inevitably are in Northern Ireland. There the scenery is greener, our spirits lifted higher by the breathtaking lakes and forests but correspondingly plunged into melancholy when we come to another of the ugly, brutal settlements. Now, as we pass Oxford with a moment’s glimpse of the city and follow the Thames southwards, I have the unusual sensation of gratitude towards my homeland.






My bucolic reverie is rudely broken by the discovery that the platform lift at Reading station has broken. A chivalrous passer-by carries my light case leaving me with the great green monster. (Not excessively chivalrous.) A kindly old gentleman with a walking-stick, who seems to have wandered by accident into the twenty-first century, laments “I can’t be much help to you, I’m afraid.” and follows me, breathing auras of sympathy, as I edge the suitcase up, step by step. It’s enormously heavy, and only the knowledge that, if I let go, it would knock the KOG down to the bottom, keeps me hanging on. Finally I reach the top, breathless, and a jolly ticket collector explains that the lift only broke that morning. I’m not sure why that should make me feel better, but it does. Back in the sunshine outside I wait for the bus beside little knots of taxi drivers, talking in what I think of, childishly. as taxi-driver language, all dressed in neat cotton shirts with sandals or, in one case, bare feet. It feels exotic and oriental. The bus driver arrives, running and laughing, calling out, “I wish I was single!” When I get on the bus he rather charmingly apologizes, explaining that his wife is out at work and that his mother has only just arrived to take over looking after his children. “I tell her I have to drive a bus at three o’clock so what time does she come? Three minutes to three!” On the bus is an advert for a promotion, In Town Without My Car, and another for a Safer Reading Campaign. I wonder if this is to do with not straining your eyes, or, as at Cambridge University Library twenty years ago, not letting impressionable students take The Bell Jar back to their rooms with them. But then I remember where we are.






At Lower Earley I bid the green suitcase a not-very-tearful farewell, as our eldest son meets me at the bus stop and trundles it along to the house he’s renting with a fellow chess player. His old school friends from Lucca (where we lived five years ago) are now at university, mainly in Pisa, and so I’ve coaxed him to keep me company on the journey. The case is full of essentials; Playstation games, jeans, snooker cues and a fair chunk of Terry Pratchett’s oeuvre. We stay for long enough to eat the only food in the house, two bananas, listen to his brother on the radio in Enniskillen (intermittent wonders of the internet) and admire the cat who has annexed their front garden to its territory. Then it’s back to the bus stop, station, train to London and tube to Victoria where we grab a quick meal, with more economy than imagination, at Wetherspoons before going in search of the coach station.

The original plan didn’t have this bit in it; we were going to stay overnight at G’s house and then catch the Eurostar at some civilized time on Monday morning. After a few days of agonizing, following the fire in the tunnel, I decided not to risk hoping for a seat on one of the few trains still running, and booked us instead on the Eurolines overnight service. Neither the coach station nor the coach itself is terrible; everything is clean and modern, but after my transcendent train journey, it’s very crowded and we are herded with little idea of what is to happen when. Most of the passengers are French, and the driver makes his brusque announcements in French only, so we have to grasp what we can and follow the others. The only thing that really annoys me is that, waiting at the ferry port in Dover, the driver switches the engine on to indicate to those who have gone to the terminal for coffee that it’s time to return to the bus, but then leaves it running for almost an hour until he can drive on to the ship. But by then I’m drifting in and out of sleep and don’t think of saying anything (if I’d dared in any case).

Day One: Enniskillen to Stafford (via Belfast and Liverpool)



In a way, the trip started yesterday. For reasons known to themselves, Ulsterbus have got rid of the early bus from Enniskillen to Belfast, so the only way of getting to the ferry port on time, other than spending another night away or managing to make conversation for two hours with a taxi driver, was by hiring a car. So MJ and I set out on the bus yesterday to collect a car from Belfast. We usually hire a car once every few months, and do as many as possible of the motoring-type errands that have built up since the last time. No one enjoys it particularly (except the dog, who wagged his tail in ecstasy when we got home with it yesterday afternoon) and there’s always a great collective sigh of relief when it’s safely back with the car hire firm.

We were the babies on the bus, as all the other passengers were white-haired couples taking advantage of their free bus passes. It was oddly quiet, especially as I often find myself on the bus at around four in the afternoon, with the hoydenish teenage girls, and rather reassuring. The reassurance was even odder, as I racked my brain to think of a bus-related crisis that would be defused by an ability to solve the Telegraph crossword or to bake a plateful of really well-risen scones. All the same, there it was.

In Belfast, while MJ got another bus up to the airport to collect the car, I whizzed (later modulated into a trudge) up and down Botanic Avenue, in the university district, visiting the charity shops (and post office, to send back our Eurostar tickets, q.v.). We met up outside the Hilton, or opposite the market, whichever sounds more congenial, and drove back to Enniskillen via Dungannon for a bit more thrift-shop browsing. Back at home we delivered some boxes of books to the business unit, collected a large box of other odds-and-ends, and called in at the supermarket for the great British (and Irish) institution of the “big shop”. After four years of not having a car, and bringing almost all our groceries home by bike, we’ve rather lost the knack of buying too much, but managed to half fill a trolley with lemonade, cereal, dog-food and vegetarian sausages.

I walked back from town, having failed to get Boots’ photo processing machines to recognize my jpgs as valid files, and was perplexed to find my legs aching quite badly as I walked up the last hill. It was bizarre – all I’d done, apart from a couple of miles wallking in Belfast and a few yards in Dungannon, was walk into town and back, a journey which I do virtually every day, usually in combination with ten miles’ cycling. The only difference was the two hours on the bus to Belfast, which I also regularly combine with walking, and the two more in the car going back. I’m beginning to understand why drivers are so anxious to park as close as humanly possible to their destinations. There seems to be something about sitting in a car – maybe the design of the seats? – that makes it really difficult to walk afterwards. Has anyone else noticed this?

At 6.45am this morning we were off again, calling at the Halifax cashpoint machine (the only one in Enniskillen that gives out Bank of England notes) and listening to more more financial squeaking on the car radio. Of all the fantastic explanations of the “crisis”, the only one we missed was the story of the innocent young bankers who, on their way to market, meet a plausible man who bought their cows in exchange for handfuls of magic beans. Of course, the tale has a happy ending; the government buys all the beans, which have turned out not to be magic after all, puts them all in a giant tin marked “Not For Human Consumption” and gives the bankers their cows back. After all, it wouldn’t do to shake confidence in the regulated fairy-tale cattle market. Not until the next time, anyway.



The journey to Belfast was quick and easy, suggesting that the massive scars across the countryside, showing the path of the new designated motorway, are less than absolutely necessary. In Ireland, however, north and south, the word “by-pass” is still synonymous with “panacea” and the phrase “road improvements” uttered without a hollow laugh. We reached the docks and the ferry terminal with an hour to spare before the check-in closed, and MJ, having lugged my enormous suitcase out of the boot (couldn’t take that on Ryanair without precipitating a personal banking crisis), set off around the harbour to take the car back.

It wasn’t, by any means, his only enormous contribution to the journey. Earlier this week he made a couple of heroic cycle trips across the border to collect my euro spending money, and while I’m away he’ll be single-handedly looking after the boys, dog, house and my book orders. No man is an island, and neither is a woman, especially when in motion. None of us can get anywhere without a bit of help, and in my case (pun not intended) an awful lot. So thank you again, M.

“Check-in” and “security” for the ferry isn’t quite what air travellers are accustomed to. In place of the long bad-tempered queue, the frenzied tapping at the keyboard, the suspicious questions, water confiscation and obsessive bagging of toothpaste, we get a friendly hello, a swipe of the passport, an offer of help with luggage and a nice lady who asks whether you have any alcohol. (I didn’t, so never found out whether it was an official question or whether she was just thirsty.) A passing lorry driver lifted my gargantuan suitcase on to the luggage trolley, with only a slight gasp and blanching of the features, and I joined the other passengers in what I suppose is probably called the departure lounge. It’s fine; modern, clean and bright, with a water cooler, toilets, television and machines for drinks and snacks. Not the total consumption experience of the airport; no opportunity to buy ties, knickers, wide-screen televisions or twenty-year old malt, just the sort of room you’d choose to wait in for half an hour before you get on a boat.

The minibus that took the foot passengers to the ferry has seen better days, and many of them, but we almost all fitted on, and it took us efficiently and unpretentiously on to the ship. In front of me was a middle-aged couple travelling with an elderly lady, and I had the pleasure of hearing them, when the bus came to a stop, urge her, “Come on Eileen.” No one else seemed to notice; maybe they didn’t go to so many discos in the early 1980s.



On the ferry I went for a wander around on the outside decks with my camera. No one else was there, and the crew hadn’t yet put up the chains designating staff-only areas, so I ended up in a few places I wasn’t supposed to be. I was enjoying feeling a bit like a journalist, but not an undercover one, so I conscientiously went back to the proper passenger places. I didn’t see anything gruesome, anyway, just a glimpse of an older world where things still get done without the benefit of wall-to-wall PR and focus groups.






The vegetarian option at lunch (three course, included in the ticket price) was the same as last time, rather glutinous spring rolls, but the chips were outstanding and, as always, the service courteous and efficient. I managed to find a seat overlooking the prow (it is prow, isn’t it?) – definitely more civilized than the safety instructions on the back of an airline seat.

The crossing was pretty near perfect; calm and smooth,and after lunch the sun even came out. I’ll leave the pictures to tell the story.












We were half an hour late getting in, but the foot passengers’ minibus was as swift as before (albeit with a cheery Scouse accent) and I found a couple of people going to Manchester and bludgeoned them into sharing a taxi to Lime Street Station (Mind you, they hadn’t seen the suitcase when they agreed.) At Lime Street there was an almost empty train about to leave for Birmingham and by dint of looking pathetic, I got another kind-hearted sap to help with the monstrous article. So,as at the time of writing (five to eight, a few miles north of Runcorn) things couldn’t possibly have gone much better. But don’t worry;there are nine more days, plenty of time for mystery,adventure,gloom and the good-natured exercise of schadenfreude.