Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Planes, Trains and Automobiles

(Actually, that’s a bit of a misleading title as there were no automobiles involved.  Well, one on Skye, but it doesn’t really factor into this post.  Buses, though, lots of buses.)

I’m not a particularly high-maintenance traveller.  This year, I’m especially good at going with the flow; I like wandering around without much of a plan beyond “Oh, I think maybe I’ll go there next”, and when you don’t really have an agenda set in stone, it’s easy to shrug and change your plans to fit what’s possible, even if it’s not quite what you originally set out to do.  A useful ability to have in this epic UK winter, one of the worst and earliest they’ve seen in years.

Things, on occasion, went awry.  Take, for example, Orkney.  My one “must see” on Orkney, Skara Brae (a Neolithic village dating back several thousand years) is shut when I'm there because the roads are impassable in the snow.  Okay, Plan B:  hike around Orkney to see smaller sites (but still very old and very interesting), doing my best not to die of exposure before I get back to the hostel that night.

Successfully accomplishing the not-dying, I hop a ferry back to the mainland and think I might toodle along the north coast over to Durness.  Another detour:  buses from Thurso (the ferry port) to Durness only run once a week (five days from now) in the winter, and — given current weather — in all likelihood won't go at all.  Okay, Plan B:  rather than waiting around a week or two for a bus that may not ever go till spring, hop a bus back to Inverness and then a train over to Ullapool, where I catch a ferry to Lewis.

No particular issues on Lewis, or getting from there to Skye, but leaving Skye, another detour:  I plan to catch the ferry from Skye to Mallaig on the mainland, and from there take the glorious West Highland line down to Oban.  Oops, no dice; ferry cancelled on account of weather (which I discover only AFTER I wait fruitlessly at the bus stop for an hour).  Okay, Plan B:  take the bus over the Skye bridge to Kyle of Lochalsh on the mainland, and either (a) catch a train from there back up to Inverness (completely the wrong way for Oban, but the most beautiful train ride ever so worth the detour), or (b) get a bus to Fort William and then on to Oban.

No trains running, so bye-bye, option (a).  Option (b) still possible, I just have to wait an hour or so for the Fort William bus.  It’s late, I’m frozen stiff by the time it arrives —but at least it arrives, so I’m on my way to Oban.  About 20 minutes outside Fort William, another detour:  no buses will be going further south that day, as the roads are closed.  My bus will go back to Skye, with any passengers who wish to return and try their luck again tomorrow. 

This causes great consternation on the part of the woman in the seat behind me, who keeps repeating "but I just don't know what to do" — should she go back to Skye for another night (but it's so expensive!), stay in Fort William and get an onward bus tomorrow (but where would she stay?), or go somewhere else like Inverness and down from there (but what if she gets stuck in Inverness? and wouldn't she get home really, really late?)  I finally interrupt her confused monologue and take her with me to the train station, to see if trains were running or not.  She clings to me like a leech all the way to the station (practically next door, but she is terrified about getting lost!) and we get tickets, so she is all sorted out. 

I memorize the streets of downtown Fort William as I traipse around for hours, finally landing in a coffee shop offering free Wi-Fi.  Train does go, eventually, although later than its promised 17:45 departure; I don’t mind leaving late.  At least I’m actually leaving.  (Fort William has no appeal.)

I get off at Crianlarich, where I must switch trains; wait is supposed to be about 20 minutes, but stretches out more than an hour, which I spend trying to stay warm.  There’s a little waiting room, with a heater activated by a push-button on the wall; the heater’s at one end and the button’s at the other, the heater’s on a five-minute timer and I am only warm while standing 6 inches from the heater.  So every five minutes, I dash out of the tiny circle of warmth to jab the “on” button and race back; at least I get my exercise while waiting for the train, but even so I have lost all feeling in my fingers and toes by the time it arrives.  But I get safely to Oban, so all ends well.

Leaving Oban, another detour:  no morning train.  I wait for the noon train, but it is not running either.  ScotRail is putting on a bus instead, but we have to wait a couple of hours while the bus gets driven to Oban and then for a new driver to be found (the first guy has logged too many hours at the wheel).  By late afternoon, finally on our way; another long, slow, treacherous journey.  My seatmate (7-year-old Willow) and I entertain ourselves with a drawing game:  one person draws a shape on the paper, and the other has to turn it into a picture of something.  We spend about three hours doing this, during which time she also questions me incessantly about Canada and tries to convince her mother (sitting across the aisle) to take her there for their next trip.  Eventually we’re in Glasgow and life is fine again for a while.

No problems with bus/ferry combo over to Belfast, or getting from Belfast to Derry on the train.  Deciding to cross the entire country in one fell swoop (Derry to Cork in a day) may be a questionable choice:  it’s not that far, distance-wise, but it’s a convoluted trip and requires changes of buses in Omagh, Longford, Athlone, and Limerick, with tight connections at each juncture.  No issues until the Athlone-to-Limerick leg, when the bus driver goes unspeakably slowly.  He dismisses our complaints with a “it’s the weather” shrug (even though there’s no snow to be seen, anywhere).  We’ve missed the connecting bus to Cork and will now have to hang around Limerick bus station for an extra hour and a half.  But eventually I get to Cork.  

My plan is to go visit Cobh (where I’d learned my O’Neill ancestors departed from) and its Heritage Centre with a genealogy centre and lots of information about the famine ships.  Slight detour in Cobh, as the genealogy researcher is on vacation.  But the helpful girl at the desk copies down her name, email address and phone numbers, and has a long chat with me about what kinds of information are helpful to have as starting points for further research.    I realize just looking for a “Dominick O’Neill” (no birthdate, county of residence or year of departure) might not net me much.  (Or, rather, it will net me far too many Dominicks and I’ll have no idea which is the correct one.).  So I resolve to track down more info when I get home.

Next step in the Irish plan (modified by spur-of-the-moment jaunt to Cork) calls for me to work my way back north to visit some of Sligo and Donegal before reverse bus/ferry trip back to Glasgow.  Unfortunately, “weather” hits Ireland too so — rather than head northwest where (if I even get there) I’m likely to get stuck and unable to get out — I decide to go northeast to Dublin instead.  Easy trip on the train from Cork.

I start to get worried about ever-more-ominous reports of flight problems at Heathrow and think it's more prudent to head back that way instead of more time in Ireland.  No ferry tickets either from Dublin or Belfast available for days, so I book a flight on Ryanair.  I opt to go back to Edinburgh and eke out a couple more travel days before London.

All’s well leaving Dublin, but about halfway there the co-pilot comes on the loudspeaker to tell us that Edinburgh airport is closed and we’ll be diverted to either Glasgow or Newcastle.  Glasgow?  No problem, loads of trains to Edinburgh, where I’ve already booked and paid for my hotel.  Newcastle?  More of an issue; went there once in 1994 to catch a ferry to Norway and have no desire to return.

Of course it's Newcastle.

 Ryanair says they’re organizing a bus to take us to Edinburgh (about two hours’ drive in good weather); we wait around the airport for close to three hours.  I keep hearing “Edinburgh” repeated in an announcement and finally clue in it`s my bus; I can’t understand a bloody word in the Newcastle accent.  The two-hour trip becomes more than four, as we crawl slowly north through a winter wonderland of swirling snow and hail.  I finish my book about half an hour in, and it’s too bumpy to write so I start reading the same book again (even though it’s very bad).  Everybody else sleeping so no one to talk to.  I am happier to see Edinburgh than I’ve ever been to see any city.

Getting back OUT of Edinburgh is a bit of a challenge.  I don’t want to fly (London airports still a mess), so I get a train ticket.  Check the morning of departure and learn that the sleeper trains are NOT going to go; tracks are closed between Peterborough and London so trains on the East Coast line are stopping there.  The ScotRail ticket guy is willing to give me a ticket for the morning train anyway (at the full London-Edinburgh fare), but tells me it’s my own problem what to do once I get to Peterborough, there may or may not be buses from there, he can’t say.  Shrug.

I traipse over to the bus station instead, where I learn that buses are indeed going, but I’ve missed the only morning bus so there’s only the 10 p.m. night bus.  Ugh.  Overnight on a night bus in Argentina or Chile is quite delightful; in North America or the UK it’s pretty dire.

So I go back to the train station, where I get a much more helpful ticket lady this time; she tells me I can go a less direct way to London with a couple of changes of train, and I decide on that plan instead.  I get on the next train leaving for London, which leaves late and runs well behind schedule on the way to York, where I make my first connection for Sheffield.  The train rolls in late to Sheffield as well, but I make a different connection than I’d originally planned (fortunately, lots of trains to London) and head south.  I arrive in London late, but at least I get there.

Finally, it’s Christmas Eve and I head to Heathrow for the epic journey home.  I line up once to use the self-serve check-in kiosk; the printout tells me I have to see a live person.  I line up to do that, for another 40 minutes, and she tells me I’m flying standby (despite having a ticket booked six weeks ago), so I have to go to yet another line and wait to see if I will get a seat.  The security guard keeping order in the pandemonium sends me over to yet another line, where I wait for about 45 minutes (nervously watching the clock tick down toward my flight time); I finally flag down a British Airways person, who tells me I’m in entirely the wrong line.  Fortunately, I’m the first one in the RIGHT line, so as soon as the counter flashes its "Toronto – Flight BA0093” sign, I’m in business.  I get a seat, race over to security and run full tilt to the departure gate.  They’re on the final boarding call for my flight, so I get on nearly last (but not actually LAST, which is good, since the last person always gets glares from everyone else on board for holding up the flight).

Flight home is delightful, with a roast turkey dinner and some good movies to choose from on my personal TV screen.  Oh, and I’ve landed in the middle class (BA has one between business and economy), despite having booked economy, so I get a much larger seat and more leg room.  Oh, and as much wine as I want so the flight passes in a pleasant haze. 

Small hitch when I get back to Toronto, in that my backpack neglected to make the trip with me.  I realize this after about half an hour of waiting at the baggage carousel, when someone new starts making the announcements; apparently they’ve been paging “Passenger MacLellan” the whole time, but my name had been so mangled by the previous announcer that I hadn’t recognized it.  Bag arrives, finally, on Boxing Day and travel mania is over.


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