The day prematurely began at somewhere around 3am when my peaceful slumber was interrupted by a knocking noise. There I was, in a hostel in Amsterdam, in a dorm of about twenty other blokes, two floors up from street level, and someone was knocking on the window.
My ears could hear what was happening. They were passing this information to my brain, which was in a state of shock at having to be active at this time of the night, and was having a hard time trying to explain what was going on. My eyes were in no hurry to open and help fill in the gaps.
“Hello?” a French voice shouted, from the sounds of it, outside the window. He knocked on the window again.
The New Zealander in the bed next to mine, whose brain was having a slightly better time of reacting to the situation, responded. The noise that came out of his mouth was largely unintelligible, but I guessed later he probably meant “…. Yeahhhh?”
“I’m locked out – I didn’t know they close the hostel at night”, said the Frenchman, who was not doing a levitating act outside the window, but was apparently on some scaffolding that my brain remembered later was up outside the front of the hostel at the time. “I can tell you my bed number…”
The Kiwi, was obviously more interested in getting back to sleep more than anything, and took the course that would get him there as soon as possible. “Yeah yeah, no worries” and opened the window.
“Thank you, thank you”, said the Frenchman, and he must have gone and found his bed without much more fuss, because at this point as far as I remember, I dropped off back to sleep again, and so did everyone else.
After getting what remained of a good night’s sleep, and doing the usual shower/getting dressed/breakfast thing, I headed back to the Central Station to meet Brigitte. She’d managed to wangle a day off work to show me around a bit more of Amsterdam.
Our first stop was Anne Frank’s House in Prinsengracht, a museum which mostly consists of a walk around the offices and secret annexe where Anne Frank and her family and some friends hid from the Nazis for two years, and wrote her famous “Diary Of A Young Girl”.
It was very moving walking through the exhibits, to look at the tiny rooms where they were all hidden away; and to watch videos describing their story, and what eventually happened when they were caught: only Anne’s father survived.
After that we strolled up Prinsengracht towards Leidseplein, which looked completely different in daylight to how it had looked the night before. We were heading to the Rijksmuseum, but on the way found a canal tour which looked interesting, and in fact they were offering a special which included a tour and entry into the museum, so we bought tickets and headed over to the wharf it was going to depart from.
Problem is, it wasn’t. The same floods that had delayed my train into Amsterdam the day before were causing the canal tour operators some problems. Apparently the water level was so high that the boats couldn’t fit under some of the bridges – that is unless they suddenly got a full tour of body builders. We decided to head over to the museum while they waited for the water level to drop or for the Dallas Body Builders’ Association excursion to arrive.
The Rijksmuseum looks at first glance a bit like an old hospital – a kind of fairly plain-looking 19th century building with lots of towers. Inside we found a long queue of people lining up to pay, which we bypassed, though nobody checked our tickets. We found a map printed in English and started exploring.
We went through the renaissance paintings, which left me once again marvelling at what some people can do with paint. And just like in Brugges, after the first few hundred paintings, you almost get blase about the endless masterpieces. But it’s worth mentioning the Nightwatch, a humungous painting at one end of the top floor. You can see it coming, right along that level, and it really is a masterpiece, an absolutely brilliant painting.
We had lunch in the museum cafeteria, then headed back towards the canal boat. They were ready to go, so we climbed aboard and listened to the bilingual recorded coverage of the various sights, which included various trivia such as one of the clock faces on the central station tower is a wind direction indicator. The boat managed to fit without any trouble under all the bridges as it made its way around the various canals.
One sight along the way proved that despite their brilliant taste in city design and architecture and everything else, the Dutch know how to do tacky stuff too: just east of the central station was a gigantic floating restaurant done up as a Chinese temple.
After the tour we walked around the streets for a while, checking out shops. Brigitte invited me over to her place for dinner, so we caught a tram back to the central station, and bought a ticket for Hoofddorp, a suburb about forty minutes out of the city centre, beyond the airport. It was peak hour, and the bright yellow double decker train was pretty packed.
We got to Hoofddorp station, a quite huge, very new shining metal and glass structure, and found the bus stop. Brigitte told the bus driver in Dutch where we were going so he could stamp my Strippenkart appropriately, since I had absolutely no idea, and we found a seat.
Most of the cities and suburbs I’d been to in Europe were pretty much laid out like Australian suburbs. Main roads, side streets, houses, shops. Not Hoofddorp. It was brilliant: they’d designed a suburb that was genuinely based around the movement of people, rather than cars. It looked like a terrific place to live.
The only main roads through the suburb were bus-only roads, with special traffic lights and devices along the way that looked like they would be quite unhealthy for cars to traverse. There were parallel bike paths and footpaths, and plenty of trees.
The cars were contained to minor roads, but this didn’t seem to be a problem, because hardly anybody seemed to have a car: there were very few around, either being driven or parked. But there were plenty of people strolling down the streets, cycling, or just chatting with friends. And of course, as we got off the bus, there was a sight familiar the world over: a group of teenagers discussing loudly whatever it is that teenagers discuss, with their bicycles strewn all around them.
We walked the few minutes from the bus stop to Brigitte’s house, which like all in the area was what we Australians would call medium density – three story, and compact without being cramped. I met her kids Jennifer and Rich, and after a delicious dinner, played a Nintendo go-kart racing game with them.
I can’t say I’m particularly skilful at the fine art of playing Nintendo. I rarely play video games, and in fact the last time I had played Nintendo for any appreciable amount of time was in 1996 at my mother-in-law’s house in Seattle. For the first few games Rich beat me, but as time went on, I got better and managed to win a few back.
After while I thought I’d better head back, so we walked back to the bus stop and I said my goodbyes to Brigitte. I caught the bus and train back to central Amsterdam and started to walk back to the hostel.
I decided to take a quick detour through the red light district. Not because I wanted to avail myself of any of the services (so to speak) offered, but because I’d read that it was quite interesting just to look around there. It was, and I wasn’t the only tourist strolling along there for the amusement of looking in the lit windows of the brothels at the women sitting in provocative poses, some with whips and chains on hand!
Then I walked back to the hostel and sat in the bar with a drink, writing out postcards. Had a quick game of Pacman on the machine there, then decided to have one more walk around in the Amsterdam night – to find a postbox and mail the postcards.
I was somewhere on an almost-deserted Staalstraat when a bloke came at me out of the darkness. “How much?” he asked.
“C’mon, I want some… how much?” He thought I was selling drugs! Me! Innocent me! A qualified professional computer nerd, who has never smoked as much as a single Winfield!
“No – no, I’m not…”
He moved towards me “I know you’ve got some – how much?”
“No! Hey – I’m not – I’m just out mailing letters, okay?” and I walked away at that kind of I’m-not-frightened-of-you-I’m-just-a-little-short-on-time speed. I found a postbox, mailed my postcards, went back to the hostel by another street and slept without any further interruption – not even any Frenchmen knocking on the windows.
After breakfast, I said my goodbyes to Jeannie, who tragically had to go to work that day. Then after I packed up all my stuff, Richard and I set out for Brussels’ Midi station (which had nothing to do with computer music, if you’re wondering) and bought my ticket to Amsterdam on the 12:28 service of the very phallic-sounding Thalys express train. A bargain at only 1200 francs, especially as there were severe disruptions to most of the slower services to Amsterdam due to flooding.
Then we caught the Metro back to the King’s Palace, and it’s worth pointing out for the people back home in Melbourne that Brussels’ Metro ticketing system is almost identical to Melbourne’s. The tickets are the same except in French, the validators are the same, the way loads of people don’t bother to buy a ticket is the same, in fact the only differences are that (a) you buy the ticket off a human instead of a machine, and (b) there seems to be no controversy over any multi-million dollar/franc contracts to get it installed, and I suspect it’s because they didn’t pay that much for it.
The Metro itself, with only two lines, is a bit sad and pathetic, but the ugly orange trains get the job done, and the Perrier vending machines in the stations add a touch of class.
We took a look around the beautifully manicured and colourful lawns of the King’s Palace, before going inside. We didn’t have to pay anything to get in, but we did have to surrender our multitude of cameras. There were lots of serious looking police in and around the palace, and going in, you could see why. It was very luxurious – loads of furniture that looked antique, expensive and without doubt devilishly uncomfortable.
There were also plenty of paintings and statues, as well as displays explaining some of the history of Belgium’s royal family. We didn’t spot King Albert himself, but of course I could’ve passed him in a corridor and not realised.
It was getting on for midday, so we headed back to the flat so I could get my backpack, then we headed back to the station. We eventually found the platform, and found the train waiting up there too. It was very streamlined, high-tech looking, coloured white and dark red, and about as sexy as a train can be.
After thanking Richard profusely for his and Jeannie’s hospitality, I boarded and found my seat. Before long we were cruising out of Brussels, heading towards Antwerpen. The train was incredibly smooth. If you didn’t look out the window, you wouldn’t have been able to tell it was moving.
Leaving Antwerpen, we kept going through northern Belgium, and from time to time we found ourselves crawling through flooded areas, the water obviously reaching the tracks, but not thankfully coming high enough to actually prevent the train getting through.
Every time we approached a new city, the conductor would announce it, in about half a dozen different languages. This could take anything up to five minutes, but sounded so cool that as we were coming into Rotterdam, I recorded it on video.
The conductor was female; does that make her a conductress, or does that just sound too silly? She probably had an official name designated by the marketing people, like Customer Service Captain or something.
I watched the European countryside go by, and munched on some chocolate I’d got on the BA flight into Belgium a few days before. By the time we got into the Netherlands, I had started to notice the canals and things, though I didn’t spot any “traditional” old windmills, just the more modern wind turbine-type devices. Probably much more efficient, but a bit lacking on the romance.
We got into Amsterdam a little late, but I could only imagine how much time it might have taken had I skimped and got a stopping train. I probably would have found myself stuck somewhere in northern Belgium with water up to my armpits. So I happily made my way out of Amsterdam Central Station, stopping only for a lengthy queue to change some money over to the local flavour.
When you walk out of Amsterdam Central Station into the Stationsplein, Amsterdam really hits you in the face. Bicycles and trams are everywhere – not a car in sight. There are canals right outside, and swarms of people walking in all directions. I was already booked into one of the nearby HI Youth Hostels, and walked slowly through the square outside the station, just basking in the atmosphere, and looking for a map.
While I was getting my bearings, no less than two blokes approached me and asked if I needed accommodation. I guess with a pack on my back, a camera in one hand and a bit of paper with an address on it in the other, I had “backpacker” written all over me. One of them cheerfully directed me to the VVV (it means tourist office, though I don’t know what it stands for) where I found a map, determined where the hell I was going, and bought a multi-use transport ticket, better known as a Strippenkart.
It was no trouble talking to people, because just about everyone there seemed to speak English – in fact most of them spoke English better than people from English-speaking countries. And with the exchange rates, the money wasn’t confusing, because one guilder was worth about one dollar.
I got on a tram which zipped down what looked like the main street, Damrak, and I got out and walked for a couple of minutes down Kloveniersburgval, a lengthily named, awkward to pronounce street which like many in Amsterdam is split in two by a canal down the middle. It must make doing U-turns rather inconvenient. I found the hostel, checked into the enormous dorm, stuffed my belongings into a locker, and headed out to explore.
I walked around and around and up and down the streets of Amsterdam, poking my head in shop windows, trying without success to keep track of the number of bicycles, and continually stopping to enjoy the very scenic canals.
Something I noticed was that there seemed to be much fewer phones in central Amsterdam than almost any other city I had visited. Edinburgh, London, even Inverness had heaps of phones, you could hardly walk down the street for bumping into them. But in Amsterdam they were relatively scarce, though given their metallic bright green appearance, maybe somebody decided that they don’t want more of them on the streets because they’re kind of ugly.
I had bought a phone card, and stopped every so often to try and phone Brigitte, a Toxic Custard reader who had said she’d show me around Amsterdam. Now this is the embarrassing bit, which I didn’t even tell her when I finally reached her, but I’m a safe distance away that I won’t be able to hear her laughter when she reads this: I walked around for a couple of hours trying to call her from different phones, finding it continually engaged, before I finally realised that had the number wrong. I was missing out on the area code. Bad move. Once I even left a voicemail, expressing my frustration at the continual busy tone!
It started to get dark, and it started raining, but I kept trudging around the streets, watching people going about their business, and generally enjoying myself. In fact, at one point it started pouring down with rain, and during this torrential downpour I spotted something that will live with me always: a brave Amsterdam soul, riding his bicycle down Vijzelstraat, one hand on the handlebars, the other on an umbrella.
Amsterdam really does appear to be a bicycle-friendly city. A lot of the streets are one way, and single lane, and don’t allow car parking, which of course isn’t a problem for bicycles, which seemed to be chained to just about anything that wasn’t moving.
I found dinner, which was traditional Dutch lasagne and garlic bread and a drink, at a very traditional Dutch restaurant named “New York Pizza”. After munching it down, I found a phone and wisely decided to try Brigitte’s number with the area code. Needless to say I got through first time.
We agreed to meet at the Central Station, and about an hour later I found myself waiting outside the bank in the station, looking out for a woman in a blue raincoat with a koala attached to her collar. I almost got thrown completely by the seventy-ish granny who came down the hallway wearing a blue raincoat and some other kind of furry animal on her collar that was quite plainly not a koala.
The real Brigitte turned up as promised and we caught a tram to Leidseplein, and found a pub and had a beer. We chatted about Amsterdam, and what there was to see. The Van Gogh museum was closed for renovations, so I wouldn’t be seeing that, but I did take the opportunity to ask a genuine Dutch person how to pronounce Van Gogh. She said to pronounce it as “Gock – with a bit of phlegm.”
We walked across the road to the Alto Jazz cafe, which was packed to the rafters with humanity, and took in some great music (and a little more beer) for a bit. Then we walked around for a bit, but it was getting late so we headed back to the Central Station and Brigitte caught a train home, and I headed back to the hostel and dropped asleep with great speed.
Jeannie, Richard and I set off early (well, reasonably early – well, that is, reasonably early for us – well, that is, well before lunchtime) for Bruges. Bruges is a marvellously historic town, full of historic buildings, museums, churches and packed to the brim with character.
We drove out of central Brussels, stopping for petrol and paying at at an ATM amusingly named “Mister Cash”. Then we found the freeway and zoomed along at somewhere around the speed limit of 120Kph towards Bruges. Jeannie and Richard reckoned there were virtually no traffic cops in Belgium, and certainly the people speeding past us at 30 or 40 or more k’s didn’t appear to think so.
It was a gloriously sunny day, and beside the freeway the endless numbers of neatly arranged farms and fields looked amazingly beautiful picturesque in a kind of undefinable Low countries kind of way. I was to discover that any attempts to take pictures of such things at freeway speeds invariably fail, so you’ll just have to take my word for it.
We found the turn-off for Bruges, and drove slowly around the city centre down a maze of cobbled one way streets, looking for a carpark. Eventually we found an underground carpark, which may not be strictly keeping with the historic tone of the city, but probably helps the tone stay historic by hiding some of the cars away off the streets.
Finding our way out of the carpark, we wandered down narrow cobblestone laneways and streets, towards the Market Square. Just before the Square, we made a miraculous discovery. More miraculous than the horses and carts passing us by with special poop chutes to stop the road getting covered in horse shit. It was the Tintin shop – yes, an entire shop devoted to everything to do with Tintin.
It was full of Tintin merchandise: books, posters, T-shirts, ties, shoes, jackets, towels, pillowcases… you name it, they’d whacked the image of Tintin and Snowy and HergÃ©’s signature on it. About the only Tintin merchandise I didn’t see was condoms.
Mind you, it all seemed to be good quality stuff, not the kind of fall-apart-ten-minutes-after-you-open-the-packet you usually get with cartoon merchandise. Expensive with it though, and I confined myself to buying a few postcards.
We took a look around the Market Square, and then decided to climb the bell tower. I quickly discovered that this is not a job for the faint-hearted, because although the steps start off nice and big and gentle and relaxed and civilised, as you go up they fairly rapidly become the kind of deadly steep narrow winding staircase normally associated with anorexic acrobatic lighthouse keepers. Perhaps that’s how people were when they built it over five hundred years ago, or at least people who worked in bell towers.
About halfway up you can see all the ancient machinery that works the bells. At set times through the day, this cranks into operation – wheels start turning, cogs start crunching, and the bells play various tunes.
If you manage to hold off the vertigo and dodge the people coming down, and actually make it to the top, a brilliant view out over the city can be found. It was very windy, but very beautiful, as we stood up there for several minutes looking around at the streets and buildings before us.
There was a deafening clang, and the bells began ringing, singing out a tune across the city. And all automated, without any hunchbacks having to lift a finger.
After making our way back down to terra firma again, we had a walk around the canals. To me, canals always look picturesque, it doesn’t matter where. Even the dumpy old Elwood Canal back home in Melbourne has a certain mystique about it. I could sit there for hours, watching the moored boats and the Coke cans bobbing up and down on the water. My sister and I used to throw in ice cream sticks and watch them race each other down towards the sea.
But these canals were even better: clean, filled with happy people in boats, and surrounded by buildings centuries old and cobblestone streets full of people.
We found a charming restaurant with a great view of a canal, and were just about to order when we realised they didn’t take credit cards. Being a little short on cash, we decided to evacuate and find one that did. We ended up back in Market Square, stuffing ourselves with the most traditional of Belgian foods, pizza and pasta.
We tried out a change machine in a nearby bank. It didn’t recognise my Australian twenty-dollar note, but it was okay on the English money. But it became apparent that whoever designed it was very cunning indeed. It didn’t tell you how much local currency (after the bank’s commission) that it was going to give you while you were putting in the notes. And by the time it did tell you, you couldn’t cancel the transaction: it was like it or lump it.
Next we decided to inject a little culture into the day, and found the Groeningemuseum. As it happens, it doesn’t have anything whatsoever to do with The Simpsons, but it does have a lot of historic artworks. And the thing about really fine paintings of this era is that you can only really appreciate the level of fine detail in them from seeing them up close and in person. Somehow they manage to show much more detail and emotion than the average photo.
Some of the Flemish primitives were pretty depressing, featuring gruesome torture scenes. Perhaps they were reflecting life back then, or perhaps they were just the horror movies of their time. Or perhaps a bit of both.
We found The Church of Our Lady and went in and gazed for a while at Michaelangelo’s Madonna And Child (no, not that Madonna, you philistines) which looked amazing in the candlelight.
Then we made our way back to the car, and got thoroughly lost driving around the streets looking for a way out of the town. Eventually we found it and got back on the freeway and headed towards Gent.
Gent was a bit drizzly by the time we got here, and we drove around for a bit, doing that curious lazy-tourist thing of looking out of the car windows trying to see if there was anything that looked interesting enough to actually get out for.
Perhaps we were on the wrong streets, but nothing really leapt out at us, so we got back on the freeway and headed for Antwerpen, better known in English (for reasons that escape me – why on earth do places need names in different languages?!) as Antwerp.
Richard and Jeannie showed me the docks (cold and wet), the red light district (pretty quiet on a Tuesday night) and then we stopped right in the centre of the city and took a walk around. The humungous cathedral tower looked brilliant, lit up against the night sky.
We wandered around looking at restaurants and eventually settled on quiet one facing a big square, and stuffed ourselves full of ribs, as we chatted about life in Australia and Europe, and Richard and Jeannie told the full story of how they got together (which is quite a tale, but Jeannie would kill me if I related THAT to the world!)
Having consumed our own body weights in ribs, we staggered out of the restaurant and kept wandering around the streets in a futile attempt to work it off, while a fine mist of rain came lightly down among the old buildings, and the trams came screeching around the corners of the narrow streets.
We eventually made our way back to the car, and drove back to Brussels for a good night’s sleep.
Monday: time for some continental drifting. I had planned a trip into Belgium and Holland. Originally I’d planned to go to France too, but during the first few slightly homesick and lonely days of the holiday I’d decided that spending a few days in a country where I didn’t speak the lingo, and where I had no friends to guide me around would not be a good idea. So I’d rejigged things a tad.
Hew was off to work early, so I said my goodbyes, then pottered around packing up my belongings and settling my differences with his shower. Then I set off for Brussels.
The first trick was to get to the airport. Hew had shown me in the map the way to the railway station on foot, and I tramped my way through a very large version of page 134 in the A to Z and eventually found it. South Croydon is the station in walking distance from Hew’s. East Croydon is the nearest major station, another one and a half kilometres away, which in heavy-backpack-kilometres is about ten Ks.
From busy East Croydon, a dozen or more trains leave for central London every hour. From not-so-busy South Croydon, a dozen or more trains for central London rush past at a rate of knots without stopping every hour. About four an hour stop. I decided that rather than to come to an untimely death jumping onto one of the express trains, I would wait until a stopping train turned up.
Eventually I got into London, found the Piccadilly line and caught a tube out to Heathrow. I checked in, then wandered around the terminal until it was boarding time.
The pilot seemed very courteous, announcing to us that we were flying to Amsterdam. Then he apologised profusely and said we were going to Brussels after all. I suspect we would have ended up wherever he decided to fly us.
As is the custom when travelling alone on planes, I got chatting to the passenger in the next seat, a girl called Sara from Seattle. We swapped stories of the export and corruption of our various cultures – how the Seattle Coffee Company seen in England is nothing like actual Seattle coffee shops, and how the Outback Steakhouse in America has very little food that an Australian would recognise.
After landing we queued up at the Immigration line marked “You filthy non-EU foreigners with your weird passports and doubtful personal hygiene” and watched as the adjacent “Clean-living continentally superior EU passport holders only” vanished into thin air faster than a whisky into Oliver Reed.
As it happens, each of these queues was split into two, which resulted in a McDonald’s-like situation of us naturally choosing the wrong sub-queue: the slower one, which ahead of us turned out to have some woman who was obviously trying to sneak into Belgium to do something forbidden and had been foolish enough to declare it and consequently was involved in a heated discussion with the Immigration people.
As it happens, the Immigration lady was cheerful enough, and I found my luggage and headed for the green channel, where Jeannie was waiting.
I worked with Jeannie a couple of years ago. She and her boyfriend Richard departed for Belgium in late ’97, and when she heard I’d be in Europe she insisted I drop in and stay for a few days. We found her car and she drove me back to their flat in central Brussels, explaining some of the scary Belgian road laws along the way.
The most scary of these is that you have to give way to the right. This would not normally be a problem in itself, but for the fact that it applies in all sorts of places you would not normally expect to give way to the right – like when you’re on a main road and the people you’re giving right to are on a tiny side street intersecting with it. Sometimes they might be facing a Stop or Give Way sign, but if they’re not (and you have to look out for this, because it’s terrifyingly common), you’re the one that has to give way.
We got back to the flat, a glorious, brand new two-level place with gleaming tiles, polished floorboards and a charming view into a courtyard below. In fact, it was so nice I think I’d better stop calling it a flat and refer to it as an apartment from now on.
I met Richard, and we set off out for a walk around the streets of Brussels. It was raining a bit, in fact before long it was pissing down, but I didn’t mind, as we roamed the streets, looking at all the marvellous historic buildings. Or at least, if they weren’t historic, they were certainly old.
The rain let up a bit, and we found ourselves in the main square of Brussels, very suitably named La Grand Place. It might have been a dim and drizzly evening, but it certainly was grand. The huge expanse of cobblestones, surrounded by quite amazing Gothic architecture, of varying colours due to them being midway through cleaning away vehicle fume residue. There wasn’t exactly a throng of people, but certainly enough people walking around to make it interesting, and just to put the masterful finishing touches on the ambience was the classical music piped through the square.
We just stood and looked around for a few minutes, before walking down a laneway for a block or two to find Brussels’ symbol: the Mannekin-Pis. It’s the statue of a boy, pissing. Taking a whiz. Having a leak. Doing a wee. Spending a penny. Having a slash. Urinating. He stands on a street corner, letting it all hang out, the water flowing twenty-four hours a day, while tourists like me (and probably locals too) watch and take snapshots. Sometimes he’ll be dressed up in costumes – an Elvis suit was on display nearby when we were there.
After a good chuckle and a moment of quiet contemplation at the sense of humour the Belgians must have to let something like that be a national symbol, we set off down more narrow cobblestone streets and through glorious arcades to the restaurant district. We found it and wandered around, reading menus and generally being indecisive.
We found somewhere that looked good. Alas, they were full, but it’s worth describing the place. The entire restaurant was backwards. The food was stored in the window. We went in and found ourselves in the kitchen, and further back we could see all the tables. Weird. Not to mention the bloke with the severe humpback who appeared to be the chef.
Another restaurant had a very prominently displayed name of “Drug Opera”, but the menu was completely normal.
In the end we caught the Metro back to Richard and Jeannie’s street, and headed for one of their usual haunts, Pablo’s Mexican restaurant. So I found myself seated at a table of Australians, eating Mexican food in a restaurant run by Belgians, and chatting merrily about all the news from home.
After absolutely stuffing ourselves, we headed back to the apartment for more chatting and to laugh ourselves silly over an episode of Shooting Stars we found on BBC2 on cable.
I’d arranged to meet Merlin at Oxford Circus tube station to do some shopping. Now, for those of you who’ve never been to Oxford Circus, it’s a very crowded place, day or night, seven days a week. Like many places in central London, a large proportion of the human race finds themselves there, arsehole to bellybutton, roaming around doing whatever it is they happen to feel like doing. And that is why we made very precise meeting location instructions: the north east corner of the intersection, next to the tube entrance.
This plan worked like a charm, and we set off to explore Regent Street’s many fine shopping establishments. First on the list was Hamley’s, generally known (and I’m not about to argue) as the biggest toy shop in the world. We decided to start at the basement and work our way up through to the sixth floor. As it happens, the basement includes a cafeteria: not an outstanding one, but they did serve edible food which performed quite reasonably in the role of lunch, and at a not too monstrous price (well, at least not to monstrous for London, which tends to lean just slightly towards the monstrous side in the money department).
Then up we went through the floors, pushing aside bratty kids in an effort to see all the cool stuff. Well okay, we didn’t really push aside bratty kids, we just fantasised about it. Well, okay, I shouldn’t really speak for Merlin on this, but I fantasised about it. Novelty toys, Lego, video games, board games, model trucks and trains, an army of TV/movie miniatures, card games, fancy dress costumes, practical jokes… if it was anywhere even remotely within the realm of toys, you name it, they had it.
We made a special stop at the model rockets, the water-powered variety being something that Merlin and I used to dabble in from time to time when we were kids. You’d fill the rocket with water, then put it into a special launcher pump, which you used to increase the pressure, then pull the trigger, and POW, off it’d go into the sky. After rapidly climbing for a dozen or two metres, it would then plummet back down to earth, ready to be retrieved for the next launching. And who says NASA pioneered reusable rockets with the Space Shuttle?
One time we headed to a local park to launch a few missions off, and when noticed by some other smaller kids we attempted to dazzle them by holding our fingers to the air, ostensibly to check wind speed, and spouting all sorts of trajectory and flight path mumbo jumbo before performing the launch. They probably just thought we were complete nerds, but hey, it was fun anyway.
We got to the top floor, and woke up a card trick set rep who was just about falling asleep at his display table. He showed us a little trick card pack he was trying to flog – for Â£4.95 you could try and be David Copperfield, though you didn’t appear to get Claudia Schiffer as part of the deal. Actually, it wasn’t really on David’s end of the cool scale. It was probably closer to Wally The Magnificent from The Wiggles Movie.
Merlin was on the lookout for anything suitable as a birthday gift for one of his flatmates. He thought he’d found something, but wasn’t sure, so we decided to mull on it and come back later. So we set off back down Regent Street exploring.
A welcome and familiar sight greeted us on Regent Street: an RM Williams shop, all this distance from home. Quite a surprise, and they seemed to have much the same stuff as at home. I found myself speaking slightly stronger Strine in front of the sales staff, just to give them the non-too-subtle hint that I already knew one end of a Drizabone from the other.
We spent the rest of the afternoon wandering happily around Regent and Oxford Streets, dodging the large numbers of people, exploring whichever shops looked interesting, taking photos on behalf of (other) tourists, slurping down hot chocolates and/or coffee and cake. In the end, Merlin’s flatmate got a present from Hamley’s, and we parted and I headed back to Hew’s place in Croydon.
The following day I would be flying to Europe, so that night Hew and I went out for some dinner at a Mongolian restaurant in Croydon. I’ve had Mongolian before in Melbourne, and it’s delicious. Basically, you choose the meat and vegetables and sauces you want, then give your bowl to the chef and he cooks it for you, then you go and eat it, then decide whether or not you want another helping, and if so, you choose the meat and vegetables and sauces you want, then… well, you get the idea.
The place in Melbourne (in Exhibition Street) appears to be run by Mongolians, or at least people who look the part. It’s hidden away up some stairs from the street. The decor is pretty plain, the tables look like they were remaindered from a secondary school. But when the chef cooks your food, he does so with a kind of showmanship, scooping your food off the barbecue and back into your bowl with one flick of the hand, in a real flourish, with the kind of skill that you speculate could perhaps only be learnt by a real Mongolian. You return to your table and munch happily until it’s time for the next helping.
The place in Croydon is run by white English people, which throws you a bit at first. But the decor is amazing, the low hanging curtains from the ceiling and lighting really giving it a great atmosphere. The chef, another white Englishman, cooks your food on the barbecue, but alas without the pizzazz of his Melbourne counterpart. You return to your table and munch happily until it’s time for the next helping.
If only these two places could get together and swap notes.
Hew and I munched happily and slurped down beer, before returning to Hew’s place and a well-earned (well, reasonably well-earned) kip.
It was late by the time Hew and I got up – somewhere around 10. At least, late by my usual standards. My boss wouldn’t be too impressed if I waltzed into work at 11am, but thankfully on this occasion I was many thousands of miles away from work, on holiday.
After breakfast I had a shower, and for the first time encountered the extremely wacky shower controls in Hew’s house. It was another in a series of weird and (in my opinion) unsuccessful ideas that the plumbing industries in various countries have come up with to replace conventional taps.
Some of the ones I’d encountered in the USA a couple of years before involved joystick-like contraptions. But this was different. This one had two buttons and a dial controlling the temperature, an On/Off switch to turn the water on or off… and that was all. No way of actually controlling the water pressure, which was permanently set at the factory to something just slightly stronger than “piss weak”.
Anyway, after dressing we got into Hew’s car and drove up to the supermarket, a gigantic Tesco’s in nearby Purley (famous place, say no more!). It was pouring with rain when we got out of the car, which was of course far enough away from the entrance that we got soaked in a minor way just getting into the place. Some things are the same the world over.
We went through the supermarket aisle by aisle, giving me a chance to compare all the different products to what we have at home. They seemed to have pretty much all the same stuff, except that most of it had unfamiliar brand names and unfamiliar prices. I did spot plenty of Australian wine though, and it was good to see that some Australian alcohol had made it over other than the appalling Foster’s Lager.
I think Foster’s Lager is the beer equivalent to Home And Away. It’s well-known through most of the world, and where it’s sold, the locals lap it up. But most Australians don’t actually like it.
After dumping everything in the car, we went for a walk down to the high street. The main street in an English town or suburb is generally referred to as the high street, even if it’s not actually called High Street. But you can tell if it’s not called High Street, because people will use the definite article in front of it.
We got back to Hew’s place and after some lunch he dropped me at East Croydon station and I caught a train into London. Then I caught a tube to Willesden Green, where I was going to meet my old mate Merlin, who was over in England working for a year or two, something which is not an entirely unknown thing for Australians to do in their twenties.
He gave me the grand tour of the flat he was sharing with a couple of other blokes from Canberra, then we headed back to the tube station and caught a train to St John’s Wood. Our destination? Abbey Road. Yes, the Abbey Road; in particular, that crossing. It’s just a block from the station, and it’s not hard to recognise, because there were two blokes with a table full of Beatles merchandise standing nearby attempting to earn their fortune. And judging from the number of people milling round, it seems to be something of a Mecca for Beatles fans the world over.
We did the traditional thing – took photos of ourselves walking across the crossing, which took a little while, because you want to (a) ensure that other people aren’t crossing at the same time, and (b) ensure there isn’t too much traffic around, which is not easy, because it turns out that Abbey Road – like almost every road in London – is a reasonably busy road.
The view down Abbey Road hasn’t changed much since the album came out thirty years ago. I couldn’t help but wonder what kind of outcry there would be if ever some officious government official decided that this intersection should no longer be served by a zebra crossing. There’d be Beatles maniacs coming from all over the world to lie down on the crossing in protest, singing “Come Together” in unison.
A few metres from the crossing is the recording studio named after the street. EMI Abbey Road has a white wall around it, which is probably subject to more graffiti than anywhere else in Europe. I don’t know if they ever bother to clean it, but I’m guessing that if they do, it doesn’t stay clean for long.
We took a stroll down Abbey Road towards central London, and found Lord’s about a block away. For people from non-cricket-playing countries (shocking as it may seem, there are a handful), Lord’s could probably be described as the home of English cricket. As Merlin said, it’s where the English invite teams from all over the world to come and beat the shit out of them.
We walked back towards the tube station, but upon finding a clump of shops (that’s the correct town planning terminology by the way) decided to seek refreshment. We found a coffee shop that had a suitable ambience, slurped down hot chocolate or coffee as preferred, munched on some truly delicious cake, and generally relaxed for a little while.
And then we left, paying on the way out, and completely forgetting to leave a tip. It’s just not something us Australians always remember, coming from a place where tipping is comparatively rare. I remembered about ten seconds after walking out of the place, but it seemed too late to go back in and plonk a few coins down on the table. The deed was done. I can only speculate that they now have our likenesses attached to a “Warning: Bad tippers” bulletin in the staff room. Either that or they looked at one another and said “Huh. Australians.”
We found the tube station and headed back to Willesden Green. Then Merlin let me into a little secret: Cricklewood was only a short walk away.
Ah, Cricklewood, another on the list of semi-obscure TV landmarks. “No Fixed Abode, Cricklewood” was the home of The Goodies, a seventies comedy show probably better known in Australia than anywhere else because of seemingly endless runs of repeats.
So we strolled up and took a look. There’s not much to see, of course, just a bunch of shops and so on. But I did find an Off Licence (bottle shop) sign, which above the words declaring to the world that the premises was an Off Licence, had a big Foster’s Lager “F” logo. The net result, “F Off Licence”, I found pretty damn amusing.
I wonder what you need to apply for an F Off Licence? What benefits are available to the holder? Can you tell anybody to F Off without fear of recourse? It could be very handy.
Feeling slightly lazy, we caught a bus back to the flat, and formulated a plan to go and see a movie at Swiss Cottage. We confirmed a movie time by phone, and then went out to a nearby Indian restaurant for some dinner. I ordered Chicken Tikka – I could say that I wanted to try out the local interpretation of my favourite ever Indian dish, but perhaps the truth was that I just wasn’t feeling all that brave. Who was I to try and guess how hot a London curry might be? With my stomach being unaccustomed to such culinary delights, I didn’t want to end up out of sight of the movie screen, in the cinema toilet all night.
Having finished dinner, we took a tube to Swiss Cottage, which from my observations is one of several locations in London named after pubs. Which is a good way to name places, I reckon.
The movie, however, was sold out. We looked for alternatives, and decided that the best alternative was to go and find some beer. So we sat in the Swiss Cottage (which looks kinda like a Swiss cottage – funny that) and slurped down beer and talked about the old times.
After that I headed back to Croydon. It was late, so rather than badger Hew for a lift back to his place, I joined the taxi queue at the station. I had wanted to take a ride in a black cab anyway – it’s all part of the authentic London experience. I had no sooner got in and uttered the required address, a fairly small and probably obscure Close in South Croydon, when the taxi took off, without even a pause for the driver to have a think about where it was, and certainly without any recourse to a street directory.
So when people talk about how marvellous black cab drivers are, with their intimate knowledge of London streets (which is known as The Knowledge, as it happens – I’ve remembered that ever since I saw a TV show about it), they’re not really exaggerating.
The cab pulled into Hew’s street at speed, and I happily paid the driver (after getting out of the cab of course, just like you always see on TV) and let myself in, brushed my toothy-pegs, put on my piggy jim-jams and went off to Sleepy Bo-Bo’s without even needing a drink of Venom(tm) to help me sleep.
The train from Inverness pulled into London just a few minutes late, depositing me at Euston Station. It was 8am, and the place was buzzing with commuters. I managed to manoeuvre myself and my backpack through the station without hitting too many people and found the Left Luggage counter, where, following the tradition, I left my luggage.
Then I took a tube south to Leicester Square for a walk around the streets of London. They varied between packed and quiet, but because they were all new to me, they all looked interesting.
I found Piccadilly Circus, and just stood there for a while, looking at the signs, watching the buses rush past, caught up in the Londonness of it all. Some of the buses had open doorways and conductors, which reminded me of the good old days in Melbourne when the trams were like that, and you could sit in the doorway on a summer’s day, the breeze on your face – unless the conductor got to that spot first.
I kept walking and found one of the many bridges over the Thames: Waterloo Bridge. I strolled out into the middle of the bridge, walking past a bus with some worried official-looking people sitting in front of it, examining a bloke who looked like he had been hit by it.
An ambulance and several police were in attendance, and although I didn’t stop to look too closely, the bloke seemed to be remaining in the land of the living for at least the moment. One can only hope that he had listened to his mother, and that he was wearing clean underwear. At that moment, I made myself a promise that I was to keep throughout the rest of my trip: That I would never, ever jaywalk in London. It’s just too dangerous.
The Thames looked magnificent in the sunshine. I looked south towards Westminster and the Houses of Parliament and Big Ben and other such famous landmarks. Then I looked north towards… umm… some bridge of other. I could see the distinctive dome of St Paul’s Cathedral though. To be quite honest, just standing, leaning on the edge of the bridge, and watching the busy city before me, it felt great to be alive.
I headed up towards St Paul’s, along the Strand, taking careful note of where Australia House and the Qantas office were. Strand becomes Fleet Street after a while, a name synonymous with the British press, even though most of them have apparently moved away. And then I came to it, St Paul’s Cathedral, in all its massive glory. I walked around it for a bit, trying to work out how to get it all into a picture.
In the end I was feeling conscious of the growing credit card bill that would be awaiting me when I got home, and didn’t pay the entrance fee to go in, instead enjoying the free part of St Paul’s – the toilets and the gift shop. Besides, I had seen other highly impressive churches, and I had other fish to fry, and it was after 11am – when those other fish would be available for frying. So I found the tube station and caught a train back to Convent Garden (change at Holborn) and headed for the London Transport Museum.
The thing about the London Transport Museum is that everybody I know of who has been there, even those not particularly interested in transport, has raved about it. This is the kind of stuff that would normally put my sister instantly to sleep, but she loved it. So I, having a bit of an interest in transport-related matters, well, I had to go.
So I rocked up, paid my five quid to get in, and looked around.
For me, it was heaven. I was there for almost four hours. I looked, climbed aboard, pressed buttons, watched videos, examined everything in detail. It was fascinating. Perhaps it wouldn’t be to everybody on the planet, but it certainly was to me.
For an unbelievably long time I chatted with a bloke dressed up as a 1930′s London tram conductor, about the trams we still had at home in Melbourne, and various other related topics. Answering my multitude of questions and chatting for so long, he was either being incredibly polite, or genuinely was interested in his job, and I think it was the latter. Unlike most of the other Brits I would meet, he had actually been to Australia, but hadn’t got to Melbourne. Next time, he promised.
It was about 3pm by the time I left, having burnt more time in the brilliant museum shop (which you can get into for free, by the way). Then I noticed that once again my appetite was calling for lunch to be the top priority. I wandered around, my appetite once again frustrated by the very indecisive section of my brain that’s in charge of choosing food. Eventually I settled for a meal of relative cheapness, quick preparation and minimal decision (can we all spell golden arches?).
I headed back to the Qantas office in the Strand to do some rejigging of my plane tickets, and then decided I was in need of an e-mail fix. Looking at a list of London net cafes I had obtained earlier, I decided to take a trip out to Earl’s Court to find the one there.
Coming out of Earl’s Court station, there is a surprise for anybody who was ever a Doctor Who fan. Sitting on Earl’s Court Road just outside the station, is a Police Box. The full monty, sitting there on the street, resplendent in bright blue paint. It doesn’t seem to work as a phone, let alone a time machine, but it looks impressive.
With the aid of the trusty A to Z, I found the Net cafe, sat down and got my e-mail, then headed back to the station. I was back on the train before I realised I’d left the priceless A to Z (which didn’t even belong to me) on the table in the cafe. I got off at the next stop, caught a train back, and found it still sitting on the table. Phew. I’d have been lost without it.
In search of obscure landmarks, I headed for Paddington Station, which is where Paddington Bear got his name. Being peak hour, it was bustling with commuters, and there were very few bears around. In fact, I didn’t spot any. But as the bloke at the London Transport Museum had promised, the massive arched roof was very impressive.
I walked out to the street to find a bus, any bus, for a joyride. Not the kind of joyride where you break-in, steal the vehicle and drive at high speed through the streets before crashing into half a dozen garbage bins while being chased by the cops. More the kind where you get on board, show your Travelcard, settle down into the nearest comfortable looking seat and watch the world go by.
The bus rumbled down busy streets, and onto Edgeware Road, which for some reason I have in mind is always referred to in British TV series not as “Edgeware Road”, but “The Edgeware Road”. I’m not sure why this is, but I got off the bus just around the corner, at Marble Arch.
Marble Arch is known as Marble Arch, because of the incredibly simple reason that there is an arch made of marble there. Hence, Marble Arch. Marble Arch, in particular the tube station, is another obscure landmark because in one Doctor Who episode set far in the future they find the remains of the station. I don’t remember the name of the episode, but it was one of the ones just before Colin Baker got sacked.
After this I headed back to Euston Station for my backpack, which had apparently not attracted any attention from security personnel, and had not been blown up in a controlled explosion. I took it to Victoria Station to catch a train to East Croydon, where I phoned my Uncle Hew. I would be staying at his place for a few days.
He met me at the station and we walked to where he’d left his car outside a nearby building known locally as the thruppenny bit, because of its shape. We went to his house, had some dinner, drank some beer, and chatted about everything under the sun until about 2am, after which my head hit the pillow in the spare room with some speed.
My mission for Thursday was to get from Inverness to Plockton and back in time for the 20:30 overnight sleeper train to London.
Why Plockton? Two words: Hamish Macbeth. If these two words mean nothing to you, then perhaps the following thirty-nine words might help:
Hamish Macbeth is a TV comedy/drama series starring Robert Carlyle (of Trainspotting and The Full Monty fame) set in a remote highlands village called Loch Dubh, but which is actually filmed in the remote highlands village of Plockton.
When I went to America a couple of years earlier, we all piled into a car and went to the remote Washington town of Roslyn, where they filmed Northern Exposure. Hamish Macbeth and Northern Exposure have a lot in common, so I thought it logical to pay a visit to Plockton. Anyway, it was a good place to aim to travel to.
The hardest bit was waking up to catch the early(ish) train. It wasn’t exactly at the crack of dawn, but pretty early considering I was on holiday. I don’t know if this is always the case at the Inverness Student Hostel, but at the startlingly early hour of 7:30am, I was the only bloke in the land of the living. All the others in my dorm were snoozing happily, and I ate breakfast chatting with a Canadian university lecturer who was bemoaning the fact that in this day and age of e-mail and Internet Cafes, her students could still send her questions even when she was in far away Scotland. Then she and a couple of Swedes raved on about the Isle of Skye for a while, almost making me regret I wasn’t planning to go there. Ah well, next trip.
I packed up my stuff and walked down the hill from the hostel. On the way down I stopped off at McDonalds, to ask them a question. The day before, I had spotted a curious item on their menu entitled “Irn Bru”. At the time, nobody had seemed to be snickering as if this was a spelling mistake, so I wondered what exactly it was. I was particularly determined to ask, because I realised that asking what something is on the menu at McDonalds is probably a once in a lifetime experience.
The McGirl at the counter chuckled and explained that it was one of Scotland’s top selling soft-drinks, a kind of orangey fizzy drink. She gave me a free sample. It tasted like a very very sweet version of Fanta, and seemed to perk me up a bit for the rest of my walk to Inverness station.
I put my pack into a locker at the station and boarded the 08:47 Kyle Of Lochalsh train, a set of two diesel railcars, one of which had a startling number of reserved seats. I found a seat in the other carriage and made myself comfortable. Soon the train was zipping out of Inverness and into the Scottish countryside.
At Dingwall a carriageload of pensioner-looking people got on, all of them heading for their mass of reserved seats. We continued on, through stations with such increasingly unpronounceable (at least to me) names such as Lochluichart and Achnashellach.
It was raining, and through the windows I could see incredible landscape – tall mountains shrouded in fog, fast and wild running rivers, endless miles of wild, inhospitable countryside, punctuated occasionally by a fence or a wall, probably built decades or centuries ago by a couple of blokes slaving away for months in hideously unfriendly weather just like this. Some kind of epiphany came to me. After years of listening to bagpipe music, I suddenly appreciated it so much more. This was the place in the world where bagpipes fit. This was where they belong. Okay, so they weren’t actually invented in Scotland, but they should have been.
As the train rumbled on, I decided to go and find the toilet. I found it in the other carriage, and examined the door. It was one of those automatic sliding ones, with a button to open or close it, and presumably another button inside to lock it. It was closed. The engaged light was not on, repeat, not on.
What follows was the single most embarrassing moment of the entire trip.
I pressed the button, and before I describe what happened, I would like to point out that in the few seconds that it took the following events to unravel, I saw nothing. Absolutely nothing, I promise on my grandmother’s grave. (The dead one, that is.)
The door opened, and a middle-aged woman was inside, not dressed, not undressed, but somewhere in between, probably roughly the state one normally is in when one uses a toilet, but I didn’t really notice the detail because I was trying to look anywhere other than there, and my brain was screaming “oh God, no, this isn’t happening, Jesus no, I’m so sorry” and my alarmed voice was gurgling “oh sorry” and my brain was still screaming and panicking and my hand leapt back onto the button to close the door and hide this poor woman’s undignified pose from the rest of the people on the train, who thankfully, were not looking this way.
I breathed in deeply, and stepped well back. I paused, then walked a few paces back and waited. The engaged light stayed off. Despite the incident, the woman had obviously still not spotted the lock.
She eventually came out, sprinted back to her seat without giving me a glance (who could blame her) and I went in. Sure enough, there was a lock, and it worked.
Anyway, we rolled into Plockton and I leapt eagerly from the train. The village was a few hundred metres from the station itself, and I set off along the road, trying not to gaze up at the surrounding mountains for too long in case I walked onto the road and into the path of a rare, but nonetheless potentially lethal, oncoming car.
I got to the village, a set of a few dozen houses, all painted brilliant white. The sun was shining, the lake was silent, and there was no noise at all except for the occasional car and the shouting from kids in the nearby schoolyard. There was a sign with Robert Carlyle as Hamish Macbeth on it, welcoming people (apart from me, all I could see was a handful of other tourists) to Plockton.
I walked down the main street, I forget the name. There were mostly houses, and a couple of shops, a pub, and more houses. The street was very narrow, and went along the foreshore. On one side were the buildings, right on the footpath. On the other side of the street were little gardens next to the lake, each with a little fence, and each belonging to one of buildings.
The street turned and continued, with a branch off to the right, which I decided to follow. A few paces on, I stopped. A small herd of perhaps three or four cows were slowly strolling towards me from the far end of the street. I looked around. I couldn’t see anybody nearby. Another couple of cows came round the corner and joined the others, strolling along. I walked towards them, and they continued a little further down the street before turning into a piece of vacant land and stopping there for a little while to munch some grass.
And that summed up Plockton for me. A herd of cattle strolling around the town on their own. That to me said that this was a pretty laidback place.
A little further on, I found the post office, though to call it an “office” is probably stretching it a bit. It was more of a shed with a Royal Mail sign on it. Another sign proclaimed that it was open from 11 to 2 every weekday, and that people were welcome to come in for stamps, other postal services, or just a chat.
I sat on a rock near the lake and wrote postcards, then continued walking around to see if there was any more of the village. There was some, but not much, so, feeling hungry, I went back and found the pub and enjoyed a beer and a truly delicious serve of haddock and chips.
Then I headed back towards the station. My plan was to find the path I’d spotted near the station, the one that went to Duncraig, the previous stop on the railway. The sign said it was 1Â½ miles, which should be a nice walk in the sunshine.
After stopping at the shop (which was used as Rory Campbell’s Store in the show) for a gift or two and some chocolate, I set off down the path.
I followed the path around the lake, and then parallel with the railway, then it started up the side of the mountain, when I came to a branch in the path. With no sign. Straight ahead the path looked well kept, and went on climbing. To my left the path descended into a muddy mess, well covered by low trees and branches overhead. Which way should I go?
I carried on ahead, for about 15 minutes, until I reached a road. There were no signs there either, but I guessed I was now heading away from the railway line, and that this was probably not the way to go if I wanted to find it again.
So I turned around, got back to the branch, and squelched my way down the other path. It reminded me of a quite ancient videogame called Pitfall. All that was missing from the swamp-like surrounds were crocodiles to jump on and swinging vines to get across the mud.
I took one more wrong turning along the way, but I eventually found the right way to Duncraig station, which was just as well as I had no wish to get lost in the Scottish highlands with only a Twix and a Yorkie Bar to sustain me.
For anybody who ever reads this and decides to follow the same path, and doesn’t even have two chocolate bars for sustenance and therefore can’t afford to take any wrong turnings at all, the correct combination of turns is Left / Left / Right.
I eventually got to the station, and killed time until the train by exploring a bit. There wasn’t much around, apart from a farmhouse and a mysterious looking large building at the top end of a laneway, so I ended up waiting most of the time at the station.
Duncraig Station is not what you’d call one of Britain’s most major railway stations. It’s in the middle of nowhere. It consists of a platform, a sign that says “Duncraig”, and a small rotunda that serves as a waiting room. The waiting room has a notice in it with the times of the trains, and information about local services, which runs something like this:
Taxis: There are no taxi services at or near this station.
Public transport: There is no public transport at or near this station.
Phone: There is no public telephone at or near this station.
Duncraig Station was actually seen in Hamish Macbeth too, as Loch Dubh station. I sat in the waiting room, contemplating life while I waited for the train, because there was bugger all else to do. It started to rain quite hard, and I looked out of the window across the lake back at Plockton, the distinctive white houses easily visible through the rain.
At home in Melbourne, it’s common to hail a taxi if you want one. Or a tram, or a bus.
At Duncraig, if you want to catch the train as it comes through, you have to hail it. And so at 17:21 I found myself on the platform, waving my arms up and down trying to make sure the driver had seen me. If I missed this, I’d be in the wilderness for the night. Or Plockton, I suppose, presuming I could find a bed for the night, which seemed unlikely given the events of the day before. The driver saw me, and I climbed aboard gratefully and found a seat.
Back in Inverness a couple of hours later, I had about an hour before the London train left. I decided to find something to eat, since it hadn’t occurred to me that food would be available on the train. Then I went and found my pack, and found my carriage on the train.
The conductor looked at my ticket and announced that I (and several others) had been upgraded to first class! What a bonus! He showed me to the cabin, the benefits of first class instantly becoming apparent when I realised I wouldn’t have to share a room, that I got a complimentary breakfast snack in the morning (tea and a juice and a croissant), a travel pack with a moist towelette, shaver, soap, comb and a Joanna Trollope novella to keep me from getting bored!
And as the train pulled out of Inverness, I lay back relaxing on the bed, thinking that this, of all the ways of getting from A to B on the planet, this, travelling by sleeper train, was by far the classiest ever. It was like my own rolling hotel room. It certainly beat the crap out of going by air. Okay, so it might have been much slower, but sitting back relaxing on a fully sized bed beats the hell out of being crammed into a 747 with several hundred people in seats so small that you bump the person next to you every time you move your arms.
After a few minutes basking in the luxurious surrounds, I went for a stroll to the Lounge Car, and relaxed watching the (rapidly darkening) countryside roll by while sipping a drink and chatting to a Canadian bloke (who looked and sounded staggeringly like my brother-in-law) and a couple of jovial South Africans.
By about ten we were all pretty tired (I bet none of them had got lost bushwalking in the highlands of Scotland though) and headed back to our cabins. I lazed on the bed for a while, then changed into my pyjamas and drifted off to sleep, as the train sped on through the night, through the Scottish countryside.