ON THE WAY TO LONDON – That was pretty easy.
I’d love (well, journalistically, not from a lifestyle standpoint) to be writing a tale of wonder and woe about my horrible, twisted, tortured journey from Belfast to London to beat the ash off that Icelandic volcano. But, truth be told, it wasn’t that tough.
I spent a final night Sunday at the remarkable Merchant Hotel in Belfast, an old bank that’s been turned into a magnificent hotel in the suddenly chic Cathedral Quarter, then got up early for a cab to the ferry docks. Kind of a weird feeling sailing from the same city as the Titanic about 100 years ago, but I kinda figured a trip across the Irish Sea in 12 degree weather in April wasn’t too dangerous.
I had a wonderful cab driver, who was wonderful for three reasons:
1. He was a nice guy.
2. He thought I had a good idea to at least make way to Heathrow in London in case flights suddenly opened up, rather than sitting on my arse in Belfast and waiting to make a connecting flight on BMI. And,
3. He was pretty funny.
We were talking about my plan to get to London and he said he was glad he wasn’t that important in the
world and didn’t have to worry about such things. I said I thought he was pretty influential as he was getting me to my ferry, to which he replied in a wonderful Irish brogue, “That’s what I tell the drunks at night in my cab; listen, I’m the most important person in the world to you right now.”
Anyway, he said one of his buddies had been asked to drive someone to London from Belfast, using the ferry of course, and got 700 pounds for his trouble; well over $1,000 Canadian. Not bad. My tour guide in Belfast, the highly entertaining Billy Scott, told me had hoped to lead some Americans on a tour of his pretty cool city on Sunday morning but had to cancel. Earlier, as were about to depart on his “Black cab” tour of the town, one of the concierges at the Merchant suddenly came running over to the cab to ask if Scott knew of any place where some wrestlers who were in town for a WWE event could find a cruise boat or another large ship to get them to their destination.
“Damned inconsiderate of Iceland to put a volcano on a flight path,” he said with a laugh.
Anyhoo, it was a nice ferry, operated by Stena Lines. A couple of cafes, one of which was serving plenty of full Irish breakfasts with a fried egg, watery-looking bacon, sausages, mushrooms and baked beans. Some other folks were having bacon or sausage with egg on a bun; something we’d call a breakfast sandwich but which they call a “bap.” I fell in love with the word in Wales last year, and I’m thinking of starting a movement to make it a required term in Toronto restaurants. “Two ham baps, please.” By the way, speaking of Toronto-Canada-Ireland connections, I’m proud to report I spotted a Tim Hortons outlet inside a variety store in Belfast. I’m told there are a couple of them in Dublin, too, but I didn’t see them.
Anyhoo again, the ferry was just fine. There was a line to get on but there appeared to be enough empty seats. Lots of kids were sleeping on board, but that would happen on any ferry at the ungodly-for-teenagers-hour of 7:30 a.m. We passed out of Belfast harbour and pretty soon were in Scottish waters on a cool but lovely morning for a sail. Wonderful views of the Scottish coastline. I wasn’t sure it WAS the Mull of Kintyre I spotted to my left, but just in case I put the Paul McCartney song of the same name on my iPod as we sailed past. I later checked the map and I’m 99 per cent sure I was right.
I had never heard of the Scottish port of Stranraer, but it was kinda pretty. Lovely cliffs and a huge harbour and a nice little beach with pretty hills all around and that dark, Scottish-home style made for a pretty decent picture. It’s in a part of Scotland called Wigtownshire, and isn’t that great? What do they call themselves, Wigtownshirites? Wigtownonians? I don’t know but it’s a great name.
The folks at Scottish Rail held the 10:07 train to Glasgow until we could get off the ferry, meaning me and a few hundred others, but it wasn’t all that crowded on the way to Glasgow. The train DID stop for a good 20 minutes along the way, for no apparent reason, and we ended up about 40 minutes late arriving in Glasgow. Who put the TTC in charge of Scottish rail, I have no idea.
It’s always interesting coming into a city on a train, as you often get to see the unseemly side of things as well as the glories. This was no exception. There were decrepit-looking suburbs with all sorts of trash tossed behind fences, including an electric lawnmower that sat five feet from the tracks. There also were abandoned factories left to the owls and mice, with graffiti sprayed everywhere. Yet when we pulled into town I could see gleaming glass towers, church spires and carefully restored buildings along the river, so apparently things are going okay in Glasgow.
The folks at the train station were hugely helpful, steering me to the “immediate travel” window. I just missed one train, but got on the Virgin train at 2:40 p.m. with no issue. A nice guy from Virgin helped us avoid a long walk and put us at the front of the line for a seat in the non-reserved section. I made a bit of a dash to the unreserved carriage to be sure I got an electrical outlet and a table for my laptop, but the car was virtually empty. It got crowded around Preston, as I recall, but it was just fine aside from the ridiculously tiny space for storing luggage. There had to be 100 people on board the car I was in by the time we got to London, but the luggage rack held maybe three regular-sized suitcases. Amazing.
There was some lovely scenery along the way, including a couple glimpses of the canals where people sail tiny barges through quiet and still country a couple hours north of London. I didn’t have my camera on at the time, but I spotted a couple called “The Mouse” and “Tisha.” They look cozy but perhaps would feel a touch cramped after a few days of barging.
I also spotted a man and his son, perhaps about four years old, standing in a field of greens and watching my train roll into London. I don’t know if they go out in the field regularly to watch, but it looked vaguely romantic to see a father and his boy catching the magic of a train skipping past at a fast clip.
There were a few annoying rings of people’s cell phones on the five-hour or so trip from Glasgow to Euston Station in London, and it made me wonder why people torture themselves – and the rest of us – with tinkly versions of Stairway to Heaven and similar tunes. Can anyone please explain? I did figure out, though, that when the guy from Virgin asked me if I wanted a quiet coach he meant a part of the train where cell phone conversations are banned. Hallelujah to that.
I’m supposed to arrive in London around 7:15 British time, which is just a few minutes from now. Barring a wild taxi driver who tries to take me to Westminster via Bolton or Coventry, I should have had a very uneventful travel day, for which I’m quite grateful. The worst part of my trip was looking out the window at Troon golf course in Scotland on a lovely day and thinking, “Damn, I’d love to play that course.”
Lots of folks have suffered real hardships the past few days. I was at the Ballygally Hotel in Northern Ireland on Saturday, and there was a wedding going on. The father of the bride missed it as he was stranded in Portugal, which is really a shame. There were far worse episodes, I’m sure, and I’m thankful all I had was a very small blip in the road. I’ll miss some work in the travel department, but spending a couple days in London is a pretty fine way to spend a travel delay.
There were reports on Monday that some British airports would open Tuesday morning, although it seemed London’s Heathrow might be later in the day. British Airways said it would try to resume some flights on Tuesday, but I hadn’t heard anything from Air Canada.
As of 1:30 p.m. Toronto time on Monday, the notice from Air Canada on its website, aircanada.com, was from Sunday. Absolutely shameful.
Get with it, folks. Even if you just say, "stay tuned, we're monitoring things and hope to have more news shortly" it would at least as if someone's awake at headquarters.
“WE’RE NUMBER 25, WE’RE NUMBER 25!” ASK MEN RATES TORONTO
Not sure about this one, but I got a press release from a website called askmen.com to tell me that Toronto had placed 25th in its list of the 29 top places to live in the world. Why 29? I have no clue.
Anyway, top spot went to New York, followed by Melbourne, Tokyo, Madrid and London. Montreal beat out Toronto, finishing 22nd. Vancouver didn’t make the list. But neither did Brantford or Barrie. Behind Toronto were Kyoto at number 26, followed by Bogota, Rome and Las Vegas. The folks at askmen.com (I’m not endorsing the website by the way, or its lurid use of lovely women for photo galleries not that I noticed) said the survey was based on employment figures, green space, cuisine and the “ratio of single, educated women.”
Thought you’d like to know.