Friday, 16 December 2016

Of A Cratch That Itches (cont.)

And indeed yes, more photographs now.

This is the frame that Karl from Titan Boat Canopies fitted:



And here is Karl modestly standing next to the cover he measured a couple of weeks ago and installed this morning.


While here is a view of the outside world from inside. This all looks like a big improvement on the last cover. More space, more visibility, window covers and, I hope, less flapping and no leaks!


Thursday, 15 December 2016

Of A Cratch That Itches

This is just a short post, because rumour has it there are two people reading this who like to hear about the boat. You may have seen the photographs from August when Timeless became something else. After the beautiful paint job the old blue cratch cover just didn't look right. There was damage to the port side of the cover and I suspect it was either a large rodent or a malicious angler. Since anglers tend not to eat through heavy duty nylon zips I think the former was the more likely culprit. A couple of weeks ago I took off the old cover and removed the cratch frame. This is what the boat looked like underneath the tat:



I do hope you note the beautifully repainted wooden window frames. That is my contribution to the beautification of my home. Karl, from Titan Boat Canopies, fitted a replacement stainless steel frame and measured up for the new cover, which is due to be fitted tomorrow. More photographs to follow, I suppose ...

Of An Autumn Journey Part 2

Here's the second part of the story of my October adventure, that I've put off writing for a while.

The Saturday morning cruise along the Sixteen Foot was uneventful and peaceful save for the noise of the engine. Near Chatteris we turned right on to the Forty Foot Drain. The journey was a swanucopeia. There were so many swans I ended up slowing right down in order to avoid breaking up families. Swans have two approaches to narrowboats. Juveniles panic and flap on ahead of the boat. More mature birds turn through 180° and ease their way in the opposite direction until the boat has passed. With the juveniles flapping on ahead, eventually putting some miles between them and their parents, I wondered if and how the families ever find each other again. I have seen, back at my home mooring, singles, pairs or small groups of cygnets without the usual adult attendance. Maybe this has been their fate? Near Ramsey Forty Foot I saw something that didn't look right. Given the behaviour of most of the swans en route it looked like one was sitting in the reeds. It wasn't attempting to move. As I approached I thought it may have been dead, but then I saw its head move. As I passed I could see that one wing was splayed out rather abnormally. The bird was somehow stuck in that spot. There was nowhere that was easy to stop and moor up. Taking the boat up to the bird would not have been very sensible and the poor creature might have been badly frightened, so I hailed a nearby photographer and tried to explain the situation to him. He was able to investigate. I don't know the outcome. I suspected a fishing line may have been involved, but I shall never know.

 Just beyond Ramsey Forty Foot, the temperature gauge soared. I suspected a burst hose or a failed jubilee clip somewhere in the cooling system, so I pulled in and staked the boat to a remote bank. When the temperature cooled enough for me to check the fluid levels there seemed nothing much amiss, so I started the engine again and progressed gently along the cut. Perhaps it was just an airlock still in the system. The plan was to try and get into Ramsey before dusk. I really could have done without the overheating blip, although an overnight stay would not have been a huge problem. The only huge problem would have occurred had the engine not started again.

The light was beginning to fade as I passed Wells Bridge at the confluence with the Old Nene. Just beyond that, and off to the left, was the turn into Ramsey High Lode. I had not been along here before. I have met several people from Bill Fen Marina over the years and Timeless had received her coats of blue in the floating boatshed outside the marina. It was interesting to see what it actually looked like - rustic and homemade, as it happens. Nothing like the paint shed in the marina at March.

Passing the marina entrance I continued along Ramsey High Lode. What would have happened had I met another boat coming towards me I can only guess. The waterway, though navigable, is only wide enough for one boat for most of its length. One of us would have certainly needed to reverse. As we approached Ramsey the bank climbed up to the right and for quite a distance we passed underneath what I can only describe as a bus and truck graveyard. Truck-dwelling friends, I wonder if you know of this place. I am sure it must be spares nirvana. Finally, just as the light was fading altogether there was the winding hole, the public mooring and the end of navigation at the north end of the town. The waterway continues into a tunnel that passes underneath a new development of flats and disappears off to who knows where? Pubs, supermarkets and the town centre are but a short walk from the mooring. There is something to be said for exploring late in the season, because no one else was there, save some young anglers. It was very easy to moor up. P. and I decided to eat out again and we set off towards the town centre.

Approaching the mooring at Ramsey at dusk


We opted for The Bengal in the High Street and were treated to excellent service and a delicious meal. By the time we got back to the boat it was time to retire to bed. At least tonight we would not be trying to sleep against the sounds of goods trains rolling and clanking overhead. After a batch of  youthful stop-outs left the scene, it was indeed a very peaceful night.


Looking back the way we had come down Ramsey High Lode
Next morning we walked back towards the town to have a better look. I have driven through Ramsey many times, but have never had the time to pull over in the van and explore. It is a place to which I shall return. We didn't get to see the stained glass in the parish church, which was made by the The William Morris Company, nor explore the rural life museum, which also sounds interesting, but we did get to see in daylight, the buildings we passed the previous evening! Before setting off in the boat again there was something I had to do. The public mooring was looking very much the worse for neglect and there was a lot of litter. I cannot bear the idea of leaving the place looking as badly as I found it so I spent an hour filling rubbish bags. Why people have to shove their litter into the hearts of bushes is a complete mystery specially when, twenty yards away, there is a perfectly serviceable litter bin. Extracting bottles, cans, crisp packets and abandoned bait boxes from their prickly resting places made it more awkward to collect and, at the end I'm not sure it actually looked very much better. So much litter had ended up in the water and was stuck in far places I couldn't reach. Unfortunately I could still see it.

The bus and truck cemetery



















Finally, around mid-day, we were ready to depart. Naturally, by this time the wind had edged up a few knots and was being funnelled down the Lode and on to the mooring. Where it had once been timber-clad the mooring was now more threatening with exposed steel bolts sticking out from the quayside by several inches. As I attempted to turn the boat I made an error of judgement that had my lovely new paintwork being dragged along two particularly vicious-looking bolts. I had visions of long score marks running much of the length of the boat. I leapt out of the boat to fend it off, but I was too late. It is a tribute to the quality of the work done during the summer's repaint that there are only two fairly minor chips in the paint and not the tram-lines I feared.

Back out of Ramsey, passing under the bus cemetery, past fire damaged warehouses, the floating boat shed and the entrance to Bill Fen Marina we turned back on to the Old Nene shortly to turn again to pass, this time, under Wells Bridge and on to one of my favourite stretches of Fenland waterway, the Old Nene towards Benwick. I guess what makes this stretch a more interesting journey is that, being a river and not a drain, dyke or lode, it meanders and it changes width. What made it slightly more stressful was that all the anglers in the east of England seemed to be lining one bank for miles in competition. Fortunately, by the time we arrived at the scene, participants were beginning to pack up, so there was not quite the gauntlet of rods and lines to run that there would have been an hour earlier. Fortunately, again, no one was moored at Benwick public mooring, so we pulled in very gently and easily and P. prepared a delicious meal onboard as we settled in for the night.


Moored up at Benwick

Looking back the way we'd come




I love mooring at Benwick. The public mooring is adjacent to the graveyard which surrounded St Mary's Church which itself was demolished in 1985. The church had been there for just a century, but the Fenland ground structure had worked its familiar magic and after a hundred years of use it had become unstable and unsafe. All that remains of the old church are a few of the stones marking an outline where the church used to be. This in itself is all fascinating stuff, but what I really like about Benwick is that, in this fairly remote place, there is a stream of dog walkers and locals passing to and fro. A jolly good mardle is always on the cards and the passing locals I have met are generally intrigued by the life of boat people and more than willing to talk about their own lives. It is really quite amazing the secrets that complete strangers will divulge if one stands still for long enough.

The dead centre of Benwick with the demolished church behind the trees on the right










Of Strength, Anger And Beaming Smiles

Today, one day in the middle of December, is the last day of paid work that I have in the diary until the middle of next month. What a funny old day it has been too. I've known seven year old T since he entered the school three years ago. Throughout our music workshops he has had his moments, but today, between sessions, he kicked off in a way that I've never seen before. He was amazingly strong as I peeled him off the classmate he was attempting to claw lumps out of, but it was the screaming, swearing, lashing out and total loss of control as I became the object of his attention. As I would have done with any of my own children in their moments of frustration and rage, I wanted to hug him close to minimise the danger to himself, to me and to anyone else careless enough to enter his flailing orbit, until he calmed down a little, and we could talk it out, but being a visitor to the school (and wearing the recently-instituted lanyard to confirm it - "Why are you wearing a visitor's badge?" asked one of the older children today, "You teach here!") I was struggling with any number of potential outcomes of getting too close to someone else's child with prospective witnesses having fled the scene back to their classroom. There was also the unarticulated burden of the next class on the conveyor belt. I tried to catch his hand, but he was flailing too much, and ended up holding his wrist, which felt very risky and so very fragile. Having now got into that position I didn't dare let him go because he would have gone tumbling on to the playground and probably hurt himself quite badly. I had no way of knowing that he wouldn't do a runner either. I was only there to lead three music workshops. The rest of the morning was rather marred by this event and I was not looking forward to filling out yet another incident form. These have become a bit of a feature over the past few weeks.    

As I went by the office to sign out at lunchtime there was an envelope with my name on it. It was addressed in an adult hand and actually spelled correctly so I assumed it was from one of the members of staff. I loaded the van and sat in the cab feeling rather sad and useless as I opened it. T had now been excluded for, apparently, the third instance of similar behaviour in a week. This poor, angry young man has something going on in his life which is making him very unhappy. I turned my attention back to the card which, when I looked at it, turned out to be from a reception child, his name scrawled in huge letters, some reversed, most in the wrong order across the double width of the card. This particular only-just-turned-five-years-old boy has had some difficulty settling into the school's routines and I have had several indications that my music lessons have interfered with his priorities, which have mostly involved acts of violence against anyone sitting nearby. I got out of the van and walked to the dining room to find him and thank him. I squatted down beside him as he was setting about his "hot dinner" and thanked him for his card. His face lit up with the biggest beaming smile I had seen from him in the few weeks I have known him. "Did my mum give you my card?" he asked. "Yes," I lied, assuming it was she who must have left it at the office. "Wow!" he said, "Did she really?" I wanted to hug him too, but I didn't. "Have a lovely Christmas," I said.  

"Merry Christmas, Mister," he beamed back.

Wednesday, 16 November 2016

Of An Autumn Journey Part 1

P. came to England for his Toussaint break from school. Here we have a week for half-term. There they have a fortnight for remembering their dead. It was a perfect opportunity to risk taking the boat out for a few days. The paint had had a few weeks to harden further and I didn't have much work on, so we upped and went one Friday afternoon in October.  Our first stop was Three Holes.

Over the years this village on the extreme edge of Norfolk has lost many of its amenities. I looked at a house there thirty years ago when the daily had outgrown our tiny cottage. It had a huge garden, with a barn and a workshop, but the house itself didn't fit our needs. It also required far more work than I would have able to undertake. Although I would happily have taken it on as a project, my wife knew I would never complete it (and knew full well I would abandon hope shortly after starting it when it came to things I couldn't fix with gaffer tape and bailing twine). I could see "potential". She could see disaster and rural isolation. She had a point and we didn't buy, but it never stopped me fantasising about what might have been. The village once had a school, a pub and, until recently, a garage. Only a village hall and, possibly, a shop now show any signs of life. The village hall seems to be quite active and regularly has film nights. I would be tempted to try one, but I have allowed a dread of a re-enactment of the village hall scene from "Deliverance" to build in my head. Many years ago I played for a ceilidh here. It is one of two gigs in my memory where I have felt unsafe. Apart from having to run a long lead from the kitchen to the stage in order to locate a socket with an earth connection I had made an error of not putting details of the gig in writing. In those days I worked on the principle of keeping the admin simple and all agreements were made over the telephone or on a handshake. This event encouraged me to consider a more professional route. Towards the end of the ceilidh I announced the last dance, walked it through and we finished at 11.30 as agreed. When we stopped, there was none of the usual activity of people bustling around to collect belongings, clear their glasses and bottles, rearrange the furniture and take their leave of friends. They turned to stand and face the band - that Deliverance moment - and there were none of the smiles customary from a group of people who had enjoyed a night of great fun, excellent music and exhilarating dancing. On the contrary the atmosphere had taken on a sudden coolness loaded with potential aggression. It was a confrontation without any obvious cause and I was confused ... not to mention a little nervous; actually that is British understatement and I was becoming scared to the point of panic as the microseconds passed. The band I had at the time were as sensitive as usual and had swung into shutdown, pack up and get out mode. After a few seconds, which to me seemed more like minutes, my contact came up and our exchange went something like,
 "They are expecting you to play for longer, you need to do another half an hour."
 "We agreed an 11.30 finish."
 "You need to do another half-hour."
 "We agreed an 11.30 finish."
 "You don't understand. You NEED to do another half-hour."
 "Why?"
 "I put midnight on the poster and that is what they have paid for and what they are expecting."

 I looked the band, still oblivious as they shut off amps, unplugged leads and started coiling cables, and I looked at the unmoving, unsmiling audience. The post-gig band banter rang out over an Arctic silence.
 "Er, gang, can you plug in and switch on again, please? We need to go on a bit longer ... "

 Since then I have written and sent out contracts for every gig.

 The village shop metamorphosed into a café recently. The strait and cluttered rows of beans, bread and booze were cleared away and, save for a token display unit of essentials to appease villagers and passing strangers, replaced by a miscellany of charity shop tables, chairs, comfortable sofas and coffee tables. The walls were stripped back, many to bare brick, some painted in aspirational colours and an interesting photographic gallery of vintage local scenes replaced life's essentials that had apparently returned insufficient profit for the disproportionate responsibility. I thought the place looked great and told the owner so between mouthfuls of home-made cake and sips of peppermint tea when I visited and discovered the changes a few months ago. She explained how the rebirth was due to have happened over a holiday closure. However, as with many building projects concerning older properties, each step of the process uncovered a hydra-headed monster list of tasks that should have been sorted before. A few weeks of work turned into several months. Five layers of wallpaper was just the beginning of the horror.

I wondered how this new venture would attract more customers than a village shop. It may have been transformed on the inside, but from the outside it still looks like the same old corner shop. Although the road is mildly busy it is not an overly busy through route. Neither is Three Holes at present a must-visit tourist destination unless you feel the need to visit places with weird names - and you could get a two-for-one bargain here with Lakes End being the next village along this shortest route from Wisbech to Littleport. Let's ignore the fact that the road can be closed for several weeks, or even months, each year during the rainy season when the Washes are up. The flooded road necessitates a thirty-mile detour if you get caught out. I have heard of children on the wrong side of the flood at Welney being taken to school in a rowing boat owned by one family from near the Suspension Bridge. An adventure for sure the first couple of times, but it's not a journey I would fancy on a regular basis, specially if I were on the oars. It's not exactly a short distance.

So, this adventurous café project has begun life at a disadvantage and, if it is to realise survival as a business, will undoubtedly be working out how to get the customers in. In another location the place would likely be packed out on a daily basis, specially if the food and service can be got right, but Three Holes ...? I have been back several times, a few times to meet a friend for a slice of cake, a drink and a mardle and this time with P. Unfortunately, every time I've been back since my first visit the café has been closed. How self-destructively English. I really hope they find a way to make a go of it. 

I was delighted to have found space on the public mooring for the first time in ages. Usually there has been at least one other boat there and mooring has usually entailed a precarious balancing act to cast a rope round a post several feet from any foothold.  Think of the balancing posture required for The Crane Kick from the Karate Kid films. Naturally, there being plenty of space to moor, we only needed to be there for half-an-hour before we set off again, because the café was closed. It would take us nearly a couple of hours to get to the next place of refreshment along the Sixteen Foot Drain at Stonea.

The Golden Lion is a friendly pub that has been under the present ownership for a few years now. The first time I went there they were serving exotic meats - kangaroo, zebra and ostrich come to mind, but my memory may be playing tricks. Nowadays they specialise in pies, far more attractive to a couple of vegetarians such as P'n'me. I found out about their sixteen varieties of pies (and choices of pastry crust) when a woman nearly drowned. 

Andy and Christina moved to the Fens from high-powered jobs in the prosperous south. The prospect of a family seemed unlikely through their custom of passing each other in trans-Atlantic aeroplanes heading in opposite directions. So they sold up and moved to the Fens. Six years ago they bought the pub. Six weeks ago they bought the boat. One day the boat broke down on the wrong side of the river near the farm. That day there was a knock at the door at the farmer's house and and his partner was rather taken aback to be confronted by a woman who was sodden from head to toe and dripping on her doorstep. Christina had taken decisive action and leapt into the river to swim across for help, leaving Andy on board with their three year-old daughter. Fen life is good for families. I wasn't around that day, but somehow they got the boat to the farm side of the river and have ended up with a place to moor their boat. Although many, many miles from the pub it was an improvement on their previous improvised mooring under the railway bridge over the Sixteen Foot, which is where P'n'me ended up mooring that night. It wasn't easy either.

Last time I moored up in Stonea there was another boat. I snagged a fishing line I hadn't seen and released an apparently very expensive float into the wild. The young angler hadn't seen me until it was too late and he hadn't heard me either with his earphones attached to whatever music he was playing on his phone. He was very apologetic and so was I. I staked the boat to the bank and we later shared a drink and conversation in the Golden Lion. The bank then was very steep and very slippery, but at least I could get close enough to extend the gangplank. This time, though, I couldn't get near the bank for the reeds that grew out into the river. I was forced to turn round (luckily I knew there was a culvert nearby - where I had found and retrieved that expensive float from where it was caught up in the reeds) and moor half under the railway bridge. Unfortunately the stern end still wouldn't pull in anywhere near the bank, so I was moored jutting out into the water where it narrowed under the bridge. Fortunately I could get just about close enough at the bow end for the gangplank to reach. It still took us well over forty-five minutes to moor up safely though and I was glad P was with me. It would have taken even longer by myself. I was also very glad Andy and I had spent a while talking one day when he had come to do some work on his boat. From that conversation I knew that, somewhere, there was a rope attached to a post which we could use to haul ourselves up the bank. P found it and, with our boat secure we headed in to a delicious pie supper. The accompanying vegetables were perfect.

I had a fitful night's sleep. With the cabin end under the bridge I discovered that goods trains run right through the night. Most goods trains are very long. As a child, living in London, I had a terror of railway bridges and arches. I remember having to run under them, holding my breath, fearing the rumbling train would bring the bridge down on me. I'm not a big fan of going under noisy railway bridges to this day. Sleeping under one was worse. Next morning the wind had picked up. My first manoeuvre was to get the boat off the undredged river bed and back into deeper water without falling in or losing any of the stakes, the club hammer, the gangplank or P. Then I had to reverse back to the culvert so I could turn round again and we could continue on our journey. Reversing boats do not have much directional control so it was a delicate manoeuvre requiring much shunting between reverse and forward gears. The wind did its very best to unravel what advantage I had gained through the bursts of forward gear necessary to correct our heading.

(I started writing this some time ago and haven't had time to finish it yet. It suddenly struck me I didn't have to do the account all in one essay, so I shall rename this part 1 and finish the rest later. Why didn't I think of that before!)

Wednesday, 12 October 2016

Historical Diary 20/12/12 - Some Days Are Quite Full

Every so often I come across something that amounts to a diary entry from elsewhere that I've been thinking would work, with a little tweaking, as a short essay here.  Here's one from 20th December 2012.


It has been an odd sort of day. I/we took P to Carrefour to stock up so he didn't have to go shopping for a few days. Then I set off back to England. The TAC web site gave the wrong train times and destinations causing me to panic, specially when the ticket machine didn't recognise my pre-paid travel cards as payment. I had to join the queue in the French ticket office with my train into Switzerland imminent. My queue led to the clerk who wouldn't accept cash. Start again. I barely made it to the train and somehow lost the travel cards anyway; got to the airport and eventually to the boarding gate where a young Swiss girl pushed in front after the queue had formed. The airline staff seemed to know her and told me to let her boyfriend in too. One day I'll understand European queues. I dozed off on the plane, but was woken up when a member of the cabin crew staff opened the locker overhead and someone's computer fell on me - bit of a surprise. We arrived at Gatwick ten minutes early, but had to stay on the plane because we'd stopped at a domestic stand and staff couldn't open the right doors to prevent us internationals getting muddled up with the domestics. Eventually, we disembarked, but the railway station was closed because someone had been hit by a train. Chaos ensued, rail staff useless and got to St Pancras to meet Toby three hours later. Walking through the station we passed Brian May walking in the opposite direction. I smiled and nodded a discreet greeting. He stared at me realising I was probably mad and, I assumed, fearful that I would want to talk to him or worse still have a photograph taken. I spent the evening with Toby at Cargo's in Shoreditch bouncing about to the rather splendid Treacherous Orchestra at their first London gig. Forgot my earplugs. Not sensible when this ten-piece band features two Highland pipers. Great set. See this band! Winding down for sleep now with both ears ringing. Found earplugs in trouser pocket. Anticipating being leapt on by grandsons in a few hours. Goodnight."

Saturday, 8 October 2016

Of Clockwise Days

You know the kind of thing. You get up perfectly early enough to do what you have to do before you leave your home for a few days. You've made the journey a dozen or more times a year for a dozen years or more and there is minimal packing - just computer, tablet, phone, a coat, some papers for work, notebooks of half-started song lyrics, a manuscript book for emergency tune writing, new flute, so you can try and get a better sound following a first lesson, clean underwear and the stuff you have been commissioned to purchase by your Anglophile partner who is unable to buy decent tea in France, or Bittermints, or Cheese Cheddars. He still has jars of Marmite from a previous visit.  Then as you prepare to leave, you do that final check - windows are closed, power is switched off and no gas is flowing, lock the back door and the front door. You can't do the front door till you leave the boat, but the back door now has a different locking arrangement owing to modifications carried out at the time of August's great repaint. The modifications have, however, greatly compromised the very simple, but effect security you had in place. Until now unwanted forced entry to the boat would have entailed the use of an angle grinder and made a hell of a racket. Now, though, anyone with a stout stick could get in. You kick yourself for not having noticed these differences before, but that doesn't help, so you see what can be done to cobble together a solution that will last the few days of your absence. Nothing you can think of seems to work. The holes that once lined up perfectly to do the padlock thing are now miles apart. Consequently you waste half an hour ending with exactly no progress, except that now you are half-an-hour late leaving. The perfect plan is ever-so-slightly scuppered. Rational thinking is considerably more than ever-so-slightly impaired, but you really have to leave. As you stow suitcase and carry-on laptop bag in the van, you have already constructed the first half-a-dozen consequences of your boat being broken into in your absence.  

You have arranged to leave your van at the house of a friend who lives in a nearby town where there happens to be that almost extinct Fenland phenomenon, a railway station, and from where you hope you will catch the first of three trains to get you to the airport. Naturally enough, his place is on the far side of the town, about half an hour's walk from the station. This would have been no problem had you left at the planned time. A leisurely stroll would have been fine. Perhaps your friend will be at home and kindly offer you a lift to the station. Such a kindness is not unknown in your relationship. Decisions are required first though ... like how to get there by the quickest route? Geographically, it is much less distance through the town than round the bypass, but the town is always busy, so generally slower. However, being a Sunday, there won't be any other traffic in the town centre, so there is no chance that today could see the kind of weekday queuing that brings everything to a dead stop. The bypass will add distance, and therefore time, to the journey so you weigh up the number of traffic lights you will have to pass and go for the town centre route. You will cut a huge corner off the journey. 


As you enter the town you approach the level crossing by the station you hope to return to very shortly. Red lights flash as the crossing barriers lower. You stop and turn off the engine. You have been kept here in the past for up to ten minutes as sometimes three trains clatter by: one going east, another west and a third hauling forty goods wagons in its wake to who-knows-where. You should have taken the bypass. Winding further into town, the traffic coagulates. It is as inexplicable and marvellous as the thickening of cornflour and milk when heating custard. The townsfolk here must be among the most religious in the kingdom. C. Of E., R.C., J.W., Spiritualist, Methodist and two kinds of Baptist churches are full to overflowing and the worshippers spill into the roads, blocking entrances to car parks and roadside parking spaces. Young men in suits, girls of all ages in bridesmaid dresses and adults with briefcases bring me an eerie reminder of my own adolescence. The roads are as busy as on any weekday. Crocodiles of pedestrians are waiting at every crossing for the lights to change which, of course, they do the moment you approach. You sit and watch a pious procession of briefcase and bible carriers at every pedestrian light controlled crossing. You didn't realise how blessed is the town with facilities for walkers.


 Arriving at the house of the friend who has consented to you parking in their driveway no one is home. Of course. Clearly there will be no offer this time of a lift back across town to the station so you set off on foot, hoping you can make the train in less than half-an-hour.  You might just make it into the town centre in fifteen minutes where, with luck, there should be taxis waiting to take you the rest of the way. Of course, with today's luck, there aren't any. You arrive at the station exhausted, breathless and sodden with the sweat of your brow (not to mention that of every other part of your body), and head for the booking office to pick up your pre-booked ticket. The door is locked, the office is closed and you have to go the long way round to find the ticket machine on the platform. Four minutes to get your ticket and make it over the footbridge to the other platform. There is a queue. There is also a message on the ticket machine screen. "Cannot make a connection. Please use the ticket office", which as you have already seen, is shut and the doors are locked. Two minutes before the train arrives you make a quick decision and lug the heavy suitcase up the stairs and over the line to the other platform, thanking your lucky stars that the footbridge is open again after recent repairs and you don't have to use the road to get to the other side of the track and miss your train because the level crossing barriers will be down by the time you get there ...  As your foot touches the platform the train pulls in. There are even plenty of spare seats.  This is not normal for the Birmingham to Stansted train, which usually only has two carriages. Perhaps you've seen the worst of the day now. Once aboard the ticket inspector magically appears by your side so you explain the situation. Fortunately you can show him the details of your online booking and he suggests picking up the ticket for the whole journey to the airport from Cambridge, where you are due to change trains. You will have eight minutes to perform this task.       

 At Cambridge you haul your contraband-laden suitcase to the exit barrier where you are required to engage the ticket collector in a lengthy conversation as to why you have no ticket and need access to ticket machine. You join the line which snakes among the webbing guide ropes in a queue to collect the tickets you bought yesterday. With two minutes to go you retrieve your tickets and, returning to the barrier, further engage the ticket collector in discussion as to why your ticket says one departure point and you are leaving from another. Your poor hearing in a crowded environment and his thick accent add to your frustrations. Finally you are allowed through the gate and with more scurrying along the platform to the waiting train you assemble with a crowd until the doors open enabling you to board the train and stow your suitcase.  The seats are filling quickly and each double seat has filled with its statutory single occupant.  You head for an aisle seat nearest the luggage rack at the rear of the carriage whereupon a young man places his laptop bag on the seat and leans over to rummage through it.   He disengages from the physical world and clearly has no intention of allowing anyone else to share his space.   You consider engaging him in earnest and meaningful discussion and decide that (specially today of all days) such engagement could only have bad consequences so you choose another seat and settle to type up the day's events so far to make this blog essay. Once in full creative flow the ticket collector arrives and with pride you wave the ticket you finally managed to buy in front of him.  As you flap your prize ostentatiously you glance at your senior railcard and stare in disbelief as you try to process the dawning realisation that the expiry date was six weeks ago. You have already paid £41 for the whole journey of three trains to the airport, but the ticket collector feels the urge to charge you a further £46 for this middle section of the journey. He is, he says, doing me a great favour and saving me money by not charging me for the whole journey at a non-senior-railcard fare, which he would be quite entitled to do considering how much out of date my card is.  With your tongue bleeding from the effort of avoiding the overwhelming temptation to discuss the irony of the difference with him and the details of your day so far you submit to his mercy and attempt a little quiet rejoicing. You had planned to buy your replacement railcard online when you would have had the option of buying a three-year card at a bulk-purchase discount, but now you contemplate buying a replacement annual railcard at full price when you get to London.  Next year then.


You finally get to your destination railway station and decide to take the lift, but the lift isn't working. You know you take your life in your hands using the escalator because highly visible warnings that there have been twelve luggage-related accidents during the last year have been posted at the head and the foot of each flight. Fortunately you survive to escalate another day. Outside the station the queue for the shuttle bus is longer than you have ever seen it in the thirteen years during which you have made this monthly journey. Something is definitely "up".  A uniformed railway employee appears and announces something to the front of the crowd, which is completely inaudible to you. People start walking away from the station and when you get close enough your requested clarification elicits that road traffic is heavy, following an earlier "incident", and the shuttle bus will take an hour to complete the six-minute journey to the airport. You try your luck and suggest a refund for that part of the journey (remembering the old days when the shuttle bus was, in fact, free). However, the road conditions are Not The Company's Fault and no refund will be forthcoming. You are welcome to take the (very slow and greatly delayed) bus or you could walk up the hill to the airport in half an hour. You decide to walk up the (now) massive hill to the terminal and ten minutes into your sweating, staggering, vertical promenade the shuttle bus sails past somewhat imperiously on the inside lane and comes to rest in the queue at the roundabout you can see in the distance. Despite promises, tantalising hopes and predictions you never actually catch it up and by the time you limp into the bus station at the airport end the bus has been at the stop for fifteen minutes smugly swallowing passengers for its return shuttle down the hill to the station.


Making your way to the bag drop at the departures desk you are informed, after an unusually short queue, that the flight is running half-an-hour late.  It has now been officially confirmed that you should have waited for the bus. Security, disarmingly, is a breeze. Maybe now your fortunes have turned.  


You have a mission. The birthday camera that you bought your partner comes wth a range of optional, expensive and ostentatiously over-packaged accessories. You know that the airport shop has a three-for-two offer on the very same. Unfortunately, and obviously, it has run out of the items your partner requested.  At this point you almost become distracted as you begin to imagine what else could happen today. You hope that your air ticket still shows up on your phone when you need it.  You hope your boat is still at your mooring and that, when you finally get back home in a few days' time, it still has its engine and all your expensive batteries intact and connected. You spend stupid pounds on alternative over-packaged camera accessories in bloody-minded determination to save money on something.



With no time to indulge in your customary sandwich, your departure gate number lights up on the display screen, so you head off to join the queue. After some forty minutes, with only a single apology for the expected thirty-minute delay to your journey which, it is hoped, will not cause any inconvenience, you are sent back to the departure lounge, because the plane is now expected to be two-and-a-half hours late. You suddenly feel the promptings of hunger. You want your sandwich. Naturally enough everywhere seems to have sold out of sandwiches suitable for the vegetarian. You eventually locate one from a vendor who looks like she just wheeled her barrow off the street and into the departure lounge and eventually manage to tear her away from arranging social engagements on her phone for long enough to be able to purchase a rather apologetic cheese sandwich. Having bought it you discover there is nowhere to sit anyway in this hell of a place that will soon be full to bursting so you find the only available patch of partition wall with a bit of floor space where you can sit. As you finish the final unappetising mouthful you just happen to glance up at a nearby screen to see a "final boarding" instruction for your flight (not supposed to be due for another two hours remember), which will now be departing from different gate! There was no audible announcement over the system, which such a sudden and unexpected change might have warranted. The new gate is much further away and you arrive to join the queue much further back than you were originally. The board over the gate informs us we are queuing for a flight to Berlin. While waiting a woman with a buggy and two children push through the crowd and ahead of several people in the line. You suspect that she is returning from a nappy-changing trip and feels entitled to push back into place to join an abandoned, but accommodating, travelling companion. However, you are wrong. She simply feels entitled. Your phone battery has held out and you can show your boarding pass and passport at the gate and you pass through to be sent to queue somewhat perilously down a stairwell. You are told over the tannoy to double up. The irony is probably not appreciated by the announcer.

Finally on the plane you find the extra-legroom seats for which you pay a handsome annual premium. Bliss, you can finally unwind from this trying journey as you will be the only passenger in the row of three. You will not have to put up with anyone else and whatever annoying habits, sharp and persistent elbows and knees or fatal disease they might have.  You hear a tall man ask a flight attendant if he can move into the seat next to you. The flight attendant is quite happy for this exchange to go ahead. You have no idea whether he paid the extra fee. You know you won't be getting a refund to match his fare if he didn't. The captain welcomes you on board and announces he had been expecting to fly to Berlin and has just been instructed to go to Geneva instead. You hope he knows the way. 

You know ... that sort of thing.