Despite the lack of bluebirds, as first impressions go, seeing the white cliffs of Dover appearing out of the mist isn’t a bad introduction. In my childhood I was in no position to escape my Mum’s musical taste, so I’m very familiar with the Vera Lynn songbook. As the Channel Ferry from Calais gets closer and the cliffs become more defined, it’s impossible to get this song out of my head. The green and pleasant land stopped being home about 15o years ago, but most branches of my family tree lead to England for at least seven centuries. I’m only 21, but this arrival seems to have been a long time coming.
The formalities of entry and the first use of my Brit Rail pass have gone smoothly, and the train is now pulling into London Victoria station. It’s January 12, 1990 and I’m about to set foot in London. It’s all getting quite exciting – but there’s a problem. I can’t get out of the carriage. I’m reminded of my first solo train trip in France, arriving in Nice, and realising I don’t know how to open the door. A typically stunning French woman audibly sighs at my ineptitude, and has to open it for me. Smooth, Mo. I now have the skills to open doors of french trains with complete nonchalance, surely impressing locals and novice backpackers, but this is a completely different setup. This time a suited gent smiles, and shows me the trick. He slides down the glass, and reaches through the window to open the door from the outside. My gratitude exceeds my temptation to explain the benefit of handles on the inside of carriages, so I return his smile and tumble out under the force of my backpack.
I’m hoping that this is not a typical day in London Victoria. Firemen are everywhere, barricades are up, and people are being evacuated. I hear that there has been a bombscare, and I quickly join the line of people heading out to the street. It’s raining, and my first act is to buy a cheap umbrella. About twenty minutes later it’s blown inside-out and the spokes snap. My second act is to buy another umbrella, hopefully one that will survive the day.
I’m due in Cardiff this afternoon, which requires navigation to Paddington for a 3pm train. It’s always satisfying when names familiar from childhood books and posters on walls finally become real locations. I have no idea why but I had a map of London on my wall before I even started school. The only thing I recognised were the characters around the edges (Dick Whittington etc) , so it took me years to realise that this city with the river running through it was a real place.
On the underground trip to Paddington, I hear a sound that is strangely familiar, but that I haven’t heard for a while. I suddenly realise what it is – those are New Zealand accents! Nooooo! I didn’t fly around the world to hear that. In France I loved hearing foreign words and exotic accents – and I was a bit of a novelty. Over here I’m just the latest kiwi who will get drunk with other kiwis, sing “Bliss” by Th’ Dudes repeatedly, and do bad hakas. Time to head to Wales I think.
Top of my list for Wales had been Caerphilly Castle, and that’s my first trip out of Cardiff. This is more like it – wandering around a castle on a crisp but beautiful day. Over the next week I have a great time in and around Cardiff, seeing the major sites of the city. Highlights have been walking on the turf of Cardiff Arms Park, a visit to Cardiff Castle and then Cardiff Museum. I also stumble across St David’s Hall and a huge record fair. This time I take the risk and buy some vinyl – a bootleg of a live Pixies gig. And fortunately it does survive the many legs back to New Zealand.
I also manage excursions within Wales to Chepstow, Tintern Abbey and Monmouth, and back into England to Stonehenge, Salisbury, Bath and Oxford. Tintern Abbey in particular is a spectacular sight. I can never visit enough castles or other historic spots, so I’m more than happy getting up and going to different locations every day. Stonehenge lives up to expectations, and it seems very British taking a red double-decker bus for the visit. Sadly I don’t have my camera ready when a tank drives past the ancient stones, and disappears around the corner with a massive L plate on the rear.
I’m still a bit jinxed by the trains though. My time in Salisbury was cut short by a train that was late leaving Cardiff. I thought I’d miss my connection in Reading for my day in Oxford, when that train was late leaving Cardiff too. It arrived in Reading at exactly the scheduled time for the Oxford train to leave. My only hope was that the onwards train to Oxford too would be delayed, and it was.
While in Wales, I’m staying in Cadoxton, and every day I take a local light rail train to Cardiff Central. On my day to Chepstow and Monmouth, my first train to Cardiff is scheduled to leave at 8.23. That never arrives and no explanation is given. My day-trips generally coincide with rush hour, and no-one here seems to be surprised when trains don’t appear, or bothered that they’ll be late for work. The next train is scheduled for 8.33. An announcement is made that this one won’t be stopping because of faulty doors. The next train is scheduled for 8.52. That one is absolutely packed, and no-one is getting on that. I miss my first planned train from Cardiff to Chepstow that day, but I now know not to rely on one train. In France you can set your watches by trains. Here, you should bring provisions to last a few hours because you could be in for a long wait.
But to be fair, I can’t blame anyone but myself for falling asleep on the local line out of Cardiff, snoozing through my stop, and waking up in a empty train at the end of the line in Penarth.