We're fools whether we dance or not, so we may as well dance – Japanese proverb
There's No Place Like Home
It was always going to be a great weekend, but I don't think any of us could have imagined just what an adventure it would turn into. Flights cancelled due to volcanic ash? You couldn't make it up!
I was taking my daughter Jem to London for an audition at Bird College, a specialist dance and performance college. Her boyfriend Matty was accompanying us, as a birthday treat, as he'd never been to a West End show. Although the audition wasn't till the Thursday afternoon, we'd decided to fly over on the Wednesday evening, just in case there were any delays. And how prescient that turned out to be, as on Thursday morning all flights in UK airspace were suspended due to the ash cloud erupting from the Icelandic volcano Eyjafjallajoekull.
We were met on Wednesday by my best friend Sarah, a London resident who always knows the best places to go and eat, and we discovered that our hotel was right on the end of Brick Lane, famous for its curry houses. We took advantage of the half-price cocktails in the hotel bar first, and then braved the barkers outside every restaurant promising us discounts and free drinks if we would patronise their establishment, all of which seemed to have won the 'curry chef of the year' award. Reckoning that the principle of arbitrage would be at work here, we picked one that Sarah had eaten in before, and enjoyed a delicious feast of Indian food. Afterwards, she and I explored a bar that offered a secret beer garden, although the barman at first refused to tell us where it was, because then it wouldn't be a secret!
On Thursday morning I took Jem out to Sidcup for her audition, leaving Matty to navigate his own way round the tube, which was also a new experience for him. We pictured him wandering around, map in hand, like Macauley Culkin in Home Alone. But I arranged for him to meet up with my son Harry, now a student in London, and the pair of them happily whiled away some time in the Apple store on Regent Street, before heading for a pub in Carnaby Street. Jem's audition was quite tough – the dance routine was very fast and she wasn't totally convinced she'd shone, but her singing went well. We all met up again at London Bridge, and took a walk by the Thames to admire dusk framing Tower Bridge and HMS Belfast, before finding a karaoke bar and scaring away the locals.
By Friday I was starting to get a bit concerned about the volcanic ash – all flights were still grounded, and by that evening Ryanair had announced there would be no flights before Monday. Since we had been due to return on Saturday evening we now definitely had a change of itinerary to plan. We stuck to our schedule of visiting Harrods before heading for Sister Act at the Palladium. I was most impressed by the set, M and J just loved the whole experience and the music, and we even did that Norn Irn tradition of meeting someone you know, in this case the barman. I picked up on his accent, got chatting, and then Jem recognised him as a former MT4UTH member. Small world!
On Saturday morning I began to feel really stressed. Whilst I'd been able to rebook onto the Ryanair flight due to leave on Monday afternoon, I knew that the chances of that actually materialising were slim, and I wanted to explore contingency plans. I was trying to get through on the phone to various ferry companies, but just kept getting the engaged tone. I had my netbook with me, but hadn't been able to access the hotel's wi-fi. Whilst I could do some internetting via the iPhone, it started to play up too, and what I really needed was a proper computer. I contacted Harry and established that he had one we could use, so we set off for his student house in Dollis Hill. It was a glorious sunny day, and it was lovely to meet his house mates, but I could feel my anxiety levels rising. Harry calmed me down with a cup of tea and a cigarette, and we set about trying to establish what alternative routes home there were. There was nothing available on the Liverpool - Belfast overnight boat until Monday evening, and even then it was going to be over £200. There was space on the Holyhead - Dunleary boat on Sunday lunchtime, but I wasn't convinced we'd be able to make that (even though Teuchter had very generously offered to run us to a Welsh ferry port, after her own travel plans were scuppered). All later sailings on that route were fully booked. Getting increasingly desperate, I tried the National Express coach service. This goes via Scotland, entailing a gruelling 10 hours on a coach between London and Stranraer. I'd done this journey once before, 20 years ago, when my then husband was playing with the Ulster Orchestra at their proms debut. But in those days, there were no budget airlines, and flights were truly luxuries that I couldn't afford. Having endured the cramped coach trip then, I swore that I'd never do it again unless I had no alternative. This was that moment.
There was a coach leaving Victoria at 3pm on the Sunday, getting into Belfast at 7 am the next day. M and J were still convinced we should just stay till Monday and catch our re-scheduled flight, but I didn't want to take that risk. I pressed 'book'. £132 for the 3 of us. Had Harry a printer so I could print out my reservation confirmation? 'Yes', he said, 'but it's got no ink'. I looked back at the screen and saw the option of texting my reservation, so I crossed my fingers and selected that. And clicking an option while your fingers crossed is not easy, believe me!
Confirmation email and text received, I could relax a bit and enjoy our potter around Camden market. Harry adores living here, and was keen to show us his favourite shop, Cyberdog. His female house mates were very complimentary of him, too, describing him as the best boy to live with and a domestic god! Just cos he can cook and washes up afterwards! He still needs to learn how to clean a loo, though, but then that's students for you.
Back into town for our last evening, the hotel had thankfully been able to extend our stay by another night in the same room, and at a rate only marginally more that the rate I'd booked at (still well below the rack rate.) We took another stroll down Brick Lane, found a restaurant offering us 25% discount and two free drinks, and went in to enjoy the most wonderful Indian food I've ever tasted. Full marks to the staff at Mango for their service too – when Matty asked for chips, they said that although they weren't on the menu, they'd go to the chip shop next door and get him a portion.
We were rather despondent on Sunday morning packing our bags and saying cheerio to out hotel: Brick Lane has a long history of welcoming immigrants to London, and we were so grateful that it had welcomed these poor three stranded Irish travellers. I really loved staying in this part of London – the view from our window looked out to the Gherkin, while a stroll around the neighbouring streets felt very like Real London as opposed to a touristy area. I'll be back!
I decided we should go to Victoria in plenty of time, just in case I had to convert my text message into a proper paper document. I was expecting chaotic scenes around the train and coach station, but though the queues were long, they were orderly, and National Express had a couple of hi-viz vested helpers giving advice to those in the queue. Some of the advice was not good news – I overheard one poor traveller aghast at hearing that the next availability for his coach was the 26th, a full week away. I was able to confirm that my text message was all I'd need, and I checked where the coach would be departing from.
Jem was starting to appreciate how good it was to be organised, and I do admit I like to have things planned and agreed. I even had with me some Rescue Remedy, some lavender oil to help us sleep, and some Travel Ease pulse point oil. And I'd found a Tesco Metro the night before, and was stocked up on water, cereal bars, bananas and magazines for our trip. Satisfied that I was on top of things, we had plenty of time to enjoy a good meal at Garfunkels. The only remaining niggle I had was over Matty's medication, as he's a haemophiliac and normally has to inject once or twice a day. He'd given himself an extra dosage before we left Belfast, but with the difficulties of taking drugs and syringes in hand luggage, hadn't brought any more with him. We called into the inspiring vaults at Westminster Cathedral for a cool calming break from all our anxieties, where I lit a candle at the chapel of St Paul and wished for a safe journey home.
At 2.30, they started loading the coaches. Extra vehicles had been put on, and someone was dividing the travellers into those going straight to Stranraer/ Belfast, and those who wanted to get off at Manchester or Carlisle en route. It wouldn't save us any time in the long run, as we'd all still be on the same ferry, but psychologically it felt better to be going directly. By the time we'd stowed our luggage and boarded, there were only single seats available. Jem and Matty were dismayed at not being able to sit together, and couldn't persuade either of the single travellers beside them to give up their window seats. I told them to put on their big pants and deal with it!
The coach stopped 2½ hours into the journey at a services station in Birmingham for a stretch of the legs and a quick cuppa/ loo visit, and again at Carlisle, another three hours later. By this stage the sun had set as we were passing through the Lake District, and one of the single passengers gave up his window seat now that there was nothing to see, so the grumpy teens could nestle against each other and try to get some sleep.
I was updating hootooers on my progress, but 3G is a voracious consumer of battery life, so I was restricting myself to a quick log-in every couple of hours or so. But a huge show of appreciation to everyone who was reading and making encouraging replies, it really did help my journey pass more enjoyably!
It was hard to sleep on the coach. Fellow passengers were making and receiving calls to update their friends and families of their progress, and a red-jumpered man was very loudly expressing shock at the cost of fuelling the coach ("£300! Jaysus boy thon's brutal!") and trying to work out National Express's business model ("So how much does wan o' these yokes cost then? An' how many would be full every trip?"). Up to Carlisle the journey was all on Motorway, but that final 100 miles to the port is along a notoriously nasty road, twisty and turny with endless roundabouts and traffic lights to negotiate. So the noise from the bus itself as it manoeuvred up and down gears, and rattled over corrugated road surfaces, wasn't conducive to sleep. There were a couple of small children on board who had some fretful moments, but by and large they were OK.
We arrived at Stranraer at 1 am, and had to wait for the terminal building to open. Red-jumpered man was at the head of the queue, but didn't have his reservation number with him, so had to stand aside while the rest of us got our boarding passes. Amazingly, my text message seemed to be sufficient, and soon we had located a few seats to stretch out on, a socket to recharge the various phones and iPods, and I had procured a cup of liquid that was almost, but not completely, unlike tea. There was wi-fi in the terminal, but I couldn't get it to work on the netbook, so it was still the trusty iPhone. Red-jumpered man must have managed to wake his wife back home to get the reservation number off his email, and he got a round of applause as he made it into the terminal building ("Man dear ah didnay think ah'd make it there!")
The ferry wasn't as busy as I'd feared, and I found a sofa to relax on. M and J discovered that the children's play area had soft mats, and curled up on those. As other passengers walked past and saw their ingenuity, they followed suit, and by the end of the trip there were about a dozen adult bodies strewn around Curious George's den. Sadly, my sofa was right opposite the men's loos, with a door that slammed alarmingly every time it opened or closed. So by the time I'd given up on that as a spot to get some sleep, all the other available stretching out space had been taken. There were plenty of upright seats though, so I plugged in my shuffle and tried to doze a little. The crossing was smooth, and at about 5.30 we were sailing into the familiar landscape of Belfast Lough, as the dawn gradually lightened up the sky. I don't think I've ever been as delighted to see Ballylumford power station!
Did I say it was a small world? This trip was a timely reminder of just how isolated Northern Ireland is, and of just how much life today relies on Wilbur and Orville Wright's 12 seconds that changed the world, a mere 106 years ago.