Hello again and welcome to the final instalment of my Northern Ireland July 2019 trip. I know the last entry turned into a bit of a saga about what was effectively four hours sightseeing in Armagh and I do hope you all made it through the ordeal unscathed. This one should be shorter but I shall promise nothing as I know what I can be like when I get my writing head on!
The 24th of July dawned and it was indeed D-Day, time to get back to London. I hesitate to say get home as I really do not know where home is any more. When I am in London I refer to Northern Ireland as home and vice versa. I am equally comfortable in either place and had really enjoyed my stay in Tandragee. I would have been happy to stay longer but I had one or two things to do back in my other home and there is always Broadstairs Folk Week looming which I will undoubtedly play yet again and for the 30th year in 31. I missed 2016 as I happened to be travelling in Canada (and playing occasional gigs) which will hopefully form the basis of another little series here at some point.
I am not officially booked any more as my fairly hectic schedule means I cannot commit in January to an August festival when I do not even know what continent I may be on! That is no problem as I still get “musicians perks” and because I no longer camp then I do not need the wristband for access to the campsite. Despite my lack of official booking I managed to play about 12 gigs in the week last year so I’ll never go short of somewhere to jam. I just love it there at any time of year but especially Folk Week. A dear friend of mine once told me in all seriousness that it was my spiritual home and I do not think she was far wrong. Perhaps when I have to pack up the travelling I might go down there to see out my declining years. There are a lot worse places to be.
Whatever the reasoning, I needed to get back to London. I set an alarm for pretty early which is a thing I rarely do but I wanted to launder my linen and tidy up a bit. I know my sister in law willingly keeps house when my Father is there and does a Hell of a job of it but I didn’t think it was fair to ask her to clean up after me. I got that squared away and then awaited my brother who was giving me a lift to the train station as he always does, he is very good like that. He was more reliable than the taxi firm who had messed me up on the outbound journey and turned up in good time for a drive on quiet roads which got us to Portadown very quickly as it is only about six miles.
Having said our farewells I went into the station for a word with the ticket staff as I had a slight concern. I had made a check of my tickets the night before and which had been presented to me at Euston Station on departure in a little wallet as pictured. Whilst I had about six or seven different tickets for the outbound journey I only had three for the return and I was worried that perhaps the lady in London had not given me all I needed. I spoke to the charming ticket collector on the barrier and asked if what I had was sufficient to get me “home”. She was lovely and stated quite openly that she had never seen this type of ticket before and I know they seem to be somewhat of a novelty there as I know you can only buy the “Sailrail” option in Northern Ireland in the Northern Ireland Railways (NIR) travel centre in Belfast. I know that as last time “home” I had to make a trip at my own expense all the way to Belfast to buy a ticket to get back to London. Again, we are back to Translink and their incompetence as I railed (pun intended) about in the last entry. Why I cannot purchase such a ticket at one of only two stations served by the Dublin train in Northern Ireland i.e. Portadown and Newry is beyond me. Surely it cannot be that difficult.
The Belfast – Dublin express is called the Enterprise and seems to be near enough full no matter what service you get and so I was happy to get my luggage stowed and get a seat. I got my book out and settled down, everything going nicely. Well, everything was going nicely for about ten minutes when the guard came on the p.a. to announce that one of the generators had packed up and we may be delayed which was the last thing I needed. There are so many changes on this route with a particularly dodgy bus service from Dublin Connolly Station to the ferryport that any sort of delay just wrecks your itinerary.
In 2018 I found myself wandering round Dublin on a busy Friday night looking for a bed, any bed, and luckily enough finding one in the Jacobs Inn hostel I have described elsewhere here. On that occasion it was an inexplicable delay to the ferry which had delayed me long enough to miss my last train to Northern Ireland.
I was definitely doing a bit of clock-watching as we sat there for what seemed an interminable length of time although was probably about 20 or 30 minutes and a guy in overalls and a high vis jacket wandered up the carriage carrying something that looked a bit electrical to me although I know nothing about it. I am guessing he was the engineer and he must have done the necessaries as we took off eventually and the driver, to his / her credit, seemed to be trying to make up time as we appeared to be going appreciably faster than before. This was not just me wishful thinking as I heard a couple of guys sitting opposite me commenting on it.
I had got myself online and was checking the options which indicated it was pretty much touch and go as to whether I would be in London that night for reasons I will explain now.
There are two ferry companies competing on the Dublin / Holyhead route namely Irish Ferries and Stena and they basically sail alternately in each direction. My ferry was Irish Ferries and time specific to the 1350 sailing as cheap advance travel tickets normally are. I am sure that if I explained the situation they would have let me on the next sailing, hours later, but that was going to get me back on the mainland in a position where I had to stay in Holyhead, Crewe or Chester (or points in between) as I could not get back to London that night. Additionally, wherever I stayed I would have had to buy another ticket at the obscene walkup prices charged on the British rail network as the Sailrails are date specific. Trying for the next Stena was just a non-starter as they were not going to honour a ticket from their fiercest rivals.
We eventually arrived into Connolly Station and I fairly charged up the platform, out of the gate and straight to the information office. I knew where it was from my previous debacle and I know they are hugely helpful no matter what tale of woe I give them, they are good people albeit they must be sorely tested at times. I also knew the bus stop was literally across the road from the station and I asked the guy for the time of the next one. He said I had just missed one (no surprise there) and asked what ferry I was on. Another quick check showed that the next bus would never get me there on time. Nothing else for it then but a taxi as I reckoned I could still just about make it.
I literally ran straight outside and grabbed the first available cab which was manned by a typically sociable old Dub guy with an accent you could have cut with a knife. When I got in I told him my situation and the delayed train he said, “Aye I heard, about half an hour”. How he knew that I do not know, it must have been the cabbies bush telegraph or something. We pulled out into the traffic and he appeared to be in no hurry to get anywhere albeit I was inwardly screaming “Get a bloody move on, you clown”, but he knew exactly what he was doing and we sat there and had a chat about all sorts of things. Still, he was driving steadily, never speeding and always keeping a good distance from the vehicle in front. He might have been on his driving test and I wish that all drivers were like that but on this one occasion I wished he would speed up a little before realising that it was pointless as there was nowhere to go.
I was watching his dashboard clock ticking along much as I suppose the condemned man must watch the clock (if there is one in the cell) until 0600 and his appointment with the noose and at one point I could not restrain myself any more and asked, “Will we be there on time”? Calm as you like he replied, “Don’t worry mate, I’ll get you there”. True to his word he did and there was more to come. During the journey he had been at pains to confirm which ferry I was on (apparently the cabbies bush telegraph does not extend to a knowledge of sailing times) and delivered me to the correct terminal. The meter showed aobut €10:60 or thereabouts and he said, “Ah just give us ten, that’ll do”. What an utter gent and a credit to his profession, his city and his country. I do wish more London cabbies were like that.
Unlike Holyhead the terminals are not co-terminus and actually a bit of a distance apart so always tell your cabbie what boat you are on. Co-terminus, I love that word and I am so glad I got a chance to use it in it’s absolutely proper context, I love the English language.
Dashing into the terminal I saw a small queue at the check-in desk whereas I was expecting to be running up gangways alone at full tilt just as the boat was casting off but not a bit of it. Making enquiry I found out I had plenty of time before embarkation. I knew the departure lounge upstairs was no smoking and they do not open the smoking decks until the vessel is clear of the harbour so I had even time to go outside for a quick cigarette.
Going through to security the guy there, yet another friendly Dub, ripped off a couple of old baggage tags before he checked in my suitcase and appended a current one for this voyage. With a conspiratorial wink he said, “Bloody British Customs will have you if they see those” (one was from a flight via Bahrain) which made me smile even though the only “official” I was later to see on arrival in Holyhead was a bored looking security guard not even looking at the arriving passengers. Perhaps North Wales Special Branch and HMRC (Customs) were all out playing golf or something. I actually like this idea of them checking your baggage on a ferry, they never used to when I was young and I remember humping large Bergens (rucksacks) up and down gangways and stairs and trying to look after them if you went to the toilet. It is much more comfortable now.
The sailing went without a hitch although there was a very slight swell and chop which seemed to be causing some of my fellow passengers a bit of distress. Thankfully, I don’t have a problem with very rough seas (never mind this nothing) and do not suffer from travel sickness at all. The only sickness I felt was when I was presented with the bill for a pint of very ordinary cider being passed off as some sort of premium brand which it was not. It was €5.75 or £5.45 so needless to say I only had one. I do not mind paying for quality but this was not it and the purser on the till even had to go and remonstrate with the two barmen who were chatting with their backs to the counter whilst the queue grew longer. Product average, service very poor, sort it out people. Despite all the hassles, I still prefer this to flying.
I was in good time for my train to Chester where I changed again for Crewe. On some trains you only have to change once but this was a double change although that was still no problem as I have a little dodge regarding Crewe station. There is always a 30 -40 minute wait at Crewe for the connecting train so you go and ask the person on the gate very nicely if you can just pop out for a smoke and show them your connecting ticket. They invariably say yes but what you do not tell them is that you are heading straight across the road the the excellent Town Crier pub to have a smoke in their beer garden along with a pint that is going to cost considerably less than the disgusting rip-off on the boat. I have managed two in there on one occasion but frankly that was just being greedy, they were rushed and none too enjoyable. One is sufficient.
Back onto the platform then to await the arrival of my Virgin train to London and after the potential hiccup earlier everything was going well and I looked like I might get back on time. Wrong. I mentioned in my last entry that I had two little adventures and you have only heard about one of them thus far. The train arrived in on time and I was glad to see that it was one of the Pendolino class which are rather comfortable and go fairly fast as they have the ability to tilt as the go round curves. I know that some people do not like the sensation but I do not mind it. They are officially designated as Class 390 for the railway buffs out there who probably already know that but for the rest of you they are pretty rapid as I said and run generally in service at 125mph whilst one has been clocked at 145mph under test conditions. What wouldn’t I have given to have been driving that.
I had no worries about seating as one of the few tickets that I had worried about all the way back in Portadown was my seat reservation for this service, seat F76 to be precise and normally I would not worry you with such minutiae but it becomes relevant shortly. Seat 76, as the high number suggests was near the door so I was right beside my luggage. I have an undoubtedly irrational fear that someone might make off with my luggage either intentionally or accidentally (look how often that happens at airports) and I like to be close to it to keep it in view. Secondly it means that I was three coaches from the buffet in coach C and I cannot resist another little travel tip here. If you are travelling on a Virgin train without a reservation, coach C is always an unreserved coach so it is handy to start there to try to get a seat. I did warn you that I could not get the old travel review concept out of my head!
I was settled down reading my book despite the efforts of the “lady” sitting next to me yakking on her mobile ‘phone incessantly. I swear I could write her biography from what I overheard and I was not deliberately earwigging, it was unavoidable. I was sure I had booked for the quiet coach as I always do but apparently not. I do wish people would be more considerate as I really do not want to know all about anyone’s personal life. I think the pendulum should actually be swung the other way with every coach except perhaps two being designated quiet and the “noisy coaches” having the most basic of facilities so people only went there if they really had to use their ‘phones and not be encouraged to just congregate there to indulge their socially indefensible addiction, which is what it amounts to. Why we cannot bring some common civility back to everyday living is beyond me or am I sounding like the fictional “Disgusted of Tunbridge Wells” here?
If I was head of Virgin Trains that is what I would do and it looks like there shall be a vacancy in that position in November 2019 as Virgin will probably cease to operate. They still own 51% of the operation but their associates, the multi-national Stagecoach who own 49%, have been barred by the Government from bidding for contracts because of a refusal to pay proper pensions to staff. Frankly, they should have been shut down years ago. I could tell you stories related to me by people who know about Stagecoach and how it was founded on the sharpest, if not downright illegal, business practices but I’ll let you ferret that one out for yourselves lest this entry becomes as long as the last one.
As we left Crewe the “train manager” (do we not have guards or ticket collectors any more?) had announced that one of the coaches was overheating due to a failure of the air-con and I was wondering if anyone in the British Isles still made trains that actually work, given my disaster on the Enterprise earlier. If memory serves it was in the ludicrously name Coach U in the middle of the train. I kid you not, a Virgin train is designated as folows, Coach A, B, C, D, E, F, U, G, H, J and K. Why? If you do not believe me then look here. What doombrain thought that particular piece of nonsense up?
In this case it isn’t just me being a grumpy old man again (although I most certainly am and would have loved an invitation to appear on that TV programme, I would have given Ian Hislop and Rick Wakeman a run for their money) but imagine here people who not only do not have English as a first language but do not have the Roman alphabet as their own.
The UK benefits massively from tourism and we have always had many Japanese visitors but now Chinese and Russians are increasing massive in numbers. Imagine a family party of any of these with limited English skills and little knowledge of our alphabet standing in the middle of the platform when carriage U pulls up beside them. They must think they are at the very back or front of a huge train when it is only nine coaches and then the panic starts. Carriage U in the middle?
Good, glad I got that off my chest. As I say, I am a grumpy old man but the lamentable thing is that in modern day UK there is so much to be grumpy about including what the popular media have named “rip-off Britain” which brings me nicely back to my narrative.
I had decided that although I knew I was going to be fleeced I really needed a drink and I saw from the menu that a standard 440ml. can of Magner’s cider was £3:50 which is a disgrace on a par with Irish Ferries but again they are working on the “captive audience” principle. Firstly, Magners is not a particularly good cider although it is popular due to a multi-million pound advertising campaign beginning some years ago and, secondly, why buy from overseas when there are so many excellent British ciders on offer? Incidentally, to put it in perspective, Magners is currently (02/08/2019) on offer at Asda and Tesco who are two of our big supermarket chains for overseas readers for £8 for 10 cans this size so do the maths yourselves. Whilst researching this piece I see that Virgin have made about £300 million from their soon to be demised train operation and skinning customers like this makes perfect sense of how Branson can afford to fund potential space flights for the mega rich, transatlantic balloons, a private island and all the rest.
I made the long trek to the buffet and did notice that it was indeed hot which I thought was associated with the air-con problem and I grabbed a can out of the fridge which was doing nothing to keep it warm just as the train pulled into Stafford. There was a member of staff busily loading the fridge shelves with product although on the evidence of my can it was a futile exercise. I waited for him to come and take my £3:50 but he just ignored me and I thought maybe he was the “stacker” and the proper person would be along presently. The next thing I knew was that I distinctly smelt smoke. I knew this was more than overheating and almost instantaneously the “train captain” came on with the message, “evacuate the train, evacuate the train, please get on the platform and stand behind the yellow line”. I have to say this message was delivered with rather less sang-froid than I had expected and are lauded on behalf of such staff by various very militant Unions that still plague our transport system. Off I jumped, leaving my much needed can behind.
The train had been fairly full and the platform was rammed. I wandered back up to the door of carriage F to keep an eye on my luggage and I saw a number of staff wandering about fairly aimlessly on the train so I decided I was not going to be separated from my worldly goods and possessions and I jumped back onboard and it was the matter of seconds to recover my kit. Whilst you may decry this action it was safer than crossing the main road outside my home and I reckon that my training would have rendered me better qualified to detect and deal with a fire then the headless chickens that were apparently employed to do it, they were abysmal and nobody seemed to be in charge let alone know what was going on.
I still do not know what the supposed fire was, although I knew something was burning somewhere from the evidence of my olfactory nerves, but I did not see a single fire appliance the whole time I was there nor a single firefighter. I can only surmise it was not that serious although I definitely did smell smoke even with my sense of smell being heavily dulled by heavy smoking. Surely a fire on a train would have warranted a full-on response from the guys in the big red wagons.
OK, nothing else for it, back onto the street and a quick smoke. I have to admit I was scanning the street for a hotel should it come to that but it was hardly going to, I was just going to be late home. I have only ever been to Stafford once for the wedding of my mate, an East End cab drivers son (i.e. pretty rough and ready), to the daughter of a millionaire owner of a pottery which is what the area is known for. It was a great weekend and I have very fond memories of it 30 years later although the marriage lasted about 18 months and the two dear friends I attended with, Tony and Geordie, are both many years in the grave. It is a lovely story which I may bore you with eventually and believe me they were both extraordinary characters. I just seem to bump into very interesting people as I have mentioned before many times here.
I wandered back to the platform expecting quite a wait but after maybe half an hour the announcement came on the p.a. to go to platform five I think it was. We were on platform one and whilst I may have got the numbers wrong it involved a trek up and down stairs to the other side of the station. The announcer told us they had diverted another train from it’s normal route to pick us up so fair play to Virgin and credit where it is due as I have been legitimately slating them here a bit. The announcer also told us that the train may already be pretty full with the implicit message being that we should rush although a station announcer would never say that.
You can imagine the chaos and after all the upheavals and transfers of the day my back was giving me gip so I really needed a seat as there was no way I could have stood in one place in a train corridor for two hours. The diverted train pulled in and I dived on, stowed the kit in double quick time and managed to bag a seat. Yes, it was fairly full but not unbearably so and I think the few people standing in the passageways between the carriages were doing so from choice as there were still a few seats left. I have certainly been on a lot worse on the sick joke that calls itself our railway system.
We started off again and I have to say the “train captain” here was much better than his slightly panicking colleague on the smoky but not quite burning train. He was at pains to keep everyone informed, apologised profusely to the original passengers on the train for the diversion and delay and explained that he had contacted his Control and been cleared to stop at all the intermediate stations for both services. Whilst this may have not been the best solution for people wanting a really fast journey it was definitely the best compromise for the largest number of passengers and it was handled well.
I would like to say that being evacuated from a burning train was up there with my surviving a 6.9 earthquake in the Philippines or living through a hurricane in Nova Scotia in a high-sided campervan (RV) but it really wasn’t. It would be another great “road” story but I don’t lie about things here and it was just another rather unspectacular pain in the derriere in a day that had been full of them.
I arrived at Euston, walked up the road to Euston Square without being hit by a runaway truck, got the Tube round to Stepney Green without derailment and decided that I really did need a drink now so I headed to my local. Unusually for me there was nobody there I knew and so I sat, quietly sipping and reflecting on my last month back at “home”, whichever home that is and thought about what I would write here as I always like to summarise a series of entries.
OK, I had screwed up royally by missing the wedding which still pains me as much as it embarrasses me but it appears I have been forgiven and I had a forwarded email yesterday (as always I am writing behind time and it is now 02/08/2019) from my Aunt but originating from the happy couple thanking me for my gift and making the effort at least! They are currently enjoying a honeymoon cruise in the Med / Adriatic so good luck to them as they are lovely people.
Yes, it was great to see my Father and my family again, I know I probably do not get to that “home” enough. I will obviously not go into detail but at 87 years of age, a fall where you break your femur is a major deal. Still, having visited on several occasions as documented here, I am content he is receiving the best care possible in a nursing home environment.
Yes, there is much more I could say but a public forum such as this is not the place to do it. I thoroughly enjoyed my time back in NI, renewed some old friendships, relaxed, read some great books, ate and slept better than I do in my London “home” and felt good for it. I should get back to that “home” soon, I still have the key and I know how to work the alarm!
I do not know what to do next here although I have a serious writing head on me at present. I am thinking maybe some short one dayers as I shall be off to Broadstairs soon so that will take all my time and I do not want to get all mixed up. Actually, I suppose I should finish Malta before I do anything else.
I think I can best summarise my month back in NI with the picture of my Father, my brother and I in the grounds of the nursing home which is the featured image at the top of the page. He was a very accomplished horseman in his day and visiting the pony at the bottom of the grounds gives him great pleasure. I wish my sister in law could have been in the picture as well but she took it as there was nobody else about and I did not have my tripod to use the timer. Despite the shortcomings of my poor battered old compact camera with the smudged lens etc. I really do rather like this image.
Whatever I do decide to do next please stay tuned and spread the word.