a city through the eyes of a girl who's not sure how she ended up here

Friday, 24 December 2010

The Christmas Exodus

One of the joys of living in London is that one never actually NEEDS to go anywhere else.  Which means one is saved the tortuous task of trying to leave the city, and at no other time of year is this expedition more vile than at Christmas, when it snows.  And this is an event for which London is always entirely unprepared.  If it happened in July, fair play, we'd all be a bit surprised, but winter in the UK is supposed to be snowy, and even if it weren't going on the law of averages given the last few years climate history you'd think some weather bods would be scratching their chins right now and identifying some sort of pattern.  In winter, in London, it snows.  Message received? Now, please be so kind to tell the transport people, because I think this may come as quite a shock.

London's transport system has its shaky moments at the best of times but when it snows its default position is stationary.  It stops dead.  Planes are grounded.  Trains vanish.  Buses stay warm and cosy in the garage terminus.  Cars remain frozen to the kerbs, and the less used roads become impassable.  Tubes, to be fair, do generally continue to run, but it's not snowing under ground so they really have no excuse.  The horror stories we have all heard in the last week about Londoners desperately trying to make it home to families outside the city have reached new levels of absurdity.  Families taking £1000 cab rides to the Alps so little Jimmy could spend his Christmas on the slopes.  People hiring cars to drive to other bits of Europe, which can actually handle snow, to get flights from their un-paralysed airports back to the rest of the world.  Tales have flooded back into the centre from Heathrow and Gatwick of days and nights, sat on the floors of departure halls, eating old, limp sandwiches provided grudgingly by BAA, who cannot be said to have come out of this incident well.  Again.  (A little new year investment in customer service training maybe?)

As this week progressed these stories began to panic me slightly.  Would I be forced to spend my first Christmas in London, apart from the Accidental family who I had been planning to join up in the Midlands?  Trains heading up north have been endlessly cancelled, delayed and stopped this week, and I have watched online tracking services like a hawk, desperate for updates.  A sinking feeling set in.  Virgin Trains have screwed me over innumerable times these last few months, hence I had a ticket booked on a London Midland train which was set to crawl back towards the Accidental homestead on Thursday afternoon.  Several days ago London Midland announced industrial action and cancelled my train.  I raged and mentally composed a thoroughly irate letter to them.  Then it snowed again, and, displaying a degree of humanity rare to public transport providers, they called off the strike, and my train was back on.

In deep gloom about ever seeing the Accidental homestead again I packed on Wednesday night, taking with me extra layers, food, water, and enough to entertain myself for a full night stuck on an unmoving, icy train; a la the horror stories from the beginning of the month when such a fate befell commuters on a Southeastern train.  I trudged to Euston a good half hour before my train was due to depart, pre-paid tickets smugly in my bag, and was greeted by a departures board littered with cancellations and delays, and a main hall full of desperate travellers, their luggage, and confused-looking small dogs.  A trailer for the new film of Gullivers Travels played on repeat.  Solidly.  For an hour.  I now cannot bear to look at Jack Black.

"This is a passenger announcement for passengers expecting to travel on the 15:46 service to Crewe.  This train is delayed and we are awaiting confirmation of rolling stock.  We will inform you of the platform when it arrives." Not an auspicious start.  Half an hour later..."The delayed 15:46 train will now depart from Platform 11" - cue mass exodus from the main hall as everyone else at Euston is also dying to go to the Midlands.  We arrive at Platform 11 where a train to Birmingham awaits.  Er, no.  A hurried announcement over the tanoy: "The delayed 15:46 train will now depart from Platform 10".  We swivel 180 degrees.  There is an empty platform, nary a train to anywhere to be seen.  We wait.  And then wait some more.  A train arrives and regardless of destination we all form distinctly unhelpful throngs around each door, as baffled arrivals to Euston station find themselves unable to disembark, faced with hundreds of anxious emigrants, brandishing metre-long rolls of wrapping paper, barring their way.  We all sort ourselves out and the new passengers scramble for the newly-vacated, and alarmingly still warm, seats.  Then we sit there.  Finally an announcement informs us that London Euston is the final destination of the train and thanks us for travelling with London Midland and reminds us to take all our luggage as we depart the train.  We ignore it.  Ten minutes later the train finally moves off and everyone sighs in relief.

The journey is slow, and cold.  My carriage companions are mostly inoffensively peaceful yet one individual, uses the endless extra hours on the train to row with everyone in her phone directory, in between munching fruit gums and painting her nails a lurid shade of orange.  A miserable sluggish few hours later (after we had been stuck behind a train doing a regional tour of tiny, pointless stations) and the train pulls into a stop two before the one for which I had been aiming.  Unable to face more hours of glacial progress and glacial temperatures inside the carriages I hop off here, having rearranged the Accidental parental taxi service, at a portacabin on the edge of a snowy carpark.  Inside a mop and bucket have been discarded in the centre of the makeshift ticket office, where seven people huddled together for warmth.  I picked my way across the soggy floor, and trundled my suitcase out onto an ice-rink strewn with cars.  Only a brief car-ride back to the Accidental village, and I had made it home for Christmas.  I intend to spend the rest of the festive season recovering (by which I mean drinking) from the trauma of my trip out of London.  Merry Christmas!

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