When in doubt ask the bus driver...
When in doubt, ask the bus driver...
In August 1987 I visited Great Britain for the first time.
I took not just my own luggage but a horribly heavy suitcase containing a stack of vinyl records. I was to deliver this to a friend's son at Cambridge University. I also had a large tape deck. This was to go to another friend's sister in Deal on the south coast.
The plane arrived at Gatwick in the early evening. I waited in the 'aliens' queue to present my passport, retrieved the luggage and managed to buy a phone card and figure out how it worked. Struggling with my cases, I caught a bus to Victoria station, a tube to Euston and then a taxi to the Hampstead Heath hostel at Golders Green. The next day saw me in Cambridge, and soon after that, Deal. I don't think I could do it now.
On that same trip, I decided to visit distant relations in Carrickfergus, Northern Ireland. They'd never heard of me and I hadn't contacted them but Kiwi cousins had given me their address.
From Glasgow, using my Britrail pass, I caught a train down to Stranraer, arriving just in time to catch the ferry across to Larne.
I hadn't realised the crossing would take a good three hours. It was pitch dark when we got to Larne and everything was shut. I knocked on the door of a private guest house along the waterfront.
"I'm sorry, we're full up," said the warmly smiling lady. "But I'll ring my friend." Within minutes a man arrived to collect me. He installed me in a huge room with four ornate beds. I had it all to myself, and a cup of tea as well.
Next morning saw a fry-up with sausages, bacon and eggs and soda bread. I caught a train to Carrickfergus and spent a delightful few days with my new-found relations.
So I was lucky. Lucky enough that when I returned to Britain in 1993, this time with my 21-year-old daughter, I had a similar casual approach to finding places to stay.
I wanted Jenny to meet our Irish relations. This time we flew from Luton to Belfast and because I'd actually let them know we were coming, they picked us up at the airport. We had a great few days, including a bus trip up to Derry to meet more relations.
Eventually we said goodbye in Larne, where I'd have been happy to stay the night and then go south. Jenny was keen to see a bit of Scotland, so we tossed a coin and Scotland won. We took the evening ferry to Stranraer and after a few false starts, found ourselves in the High Auchenlarie farmhouse in southern Scotland. Lavish breakfasts, walks over the farm, a folk festival concert, car rally and gypsy fortune teller followed, before we went to Dumfries to catch a bus back to London.
The bus pulled up and I asked if seats were available. There were two guys in charge and their accents were unintelligible. I thought I caught the word 'full' and started to say, "Well, that's alright then," when I realised they were gesturing for us to get in.
They took our names, roaring with laughter when Jenny's surname was revealed to be Campbell. Her boyfriend back home was a Macdonald but until now she hadn't seen the connection, let alone been teased for it.
The trip took longer than we expected. I'd hoped to go on to Dover by train, as France was next on our list. But it was already 8pm. I noticed our drivers conferring with each other. They seemed concerned.
By this time it was a bit easier to figure out what they were saying. We could try the hotel they stayed in themselves.
The Queen's Arms in Battersea was our stop for the night. Perfectly comfortable, though the woman who served breakfast next morning seemed a bit nervous. Females seldom stayed there, our drivers told us.
Next morning they gave us a lift to Victoria to catch another bus to Dover. We even had time to see the changing of the guard outside Buckingham Palace.
Our new bus went with us on the ferry to Calais. I took photos of the white cliffs as they disappeared from view, and sipped coffee as France appeared - my first glimpse of the continent. And then we got back on the bus.
In my ignorance I hadn't realised that it would take at least three hours to reach Paris, and that French time was an hour ahead of Greenwich. So by the time we got to Paris it was after 9pm ... and of course we had nowhere to stay.
"The bus drivers came to our rescue last time," Jenny said. "Let's ask again."
We'd hardly spoken to this driver but he was just as helpful. He told us about a small hotel "around the corner" where he'd stayed with his girlfriend. We thanked him, collected our bags and found our way across a bridge, over a canal and down a side street to the Hotel du Chemen de Fer.
The concierge was in her office but my polite "Est-ce que vous parlez Anglais?" produced a firm shake of the head. I reached for my guide book and all went well, although Jenny nearly missed out on breakfast - it was just coffee she didn't want, she did want le petit dejeuner. The hotel was low priced and perfectly nice - thanks to our bus driver - and we stayed three nights.
Somehow I seem to have lost my nerve over the years. I had another overseas trip in 2012 but this time I organised most of my accommodation in advance.
If I hadn't, I could always look for a friendly bus driver.
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