The plane touched down at some ungodly hour of the morning (I’m not sure exactly when; my brain doesn’t quite grasp the concept of time before 6am). There had been a terrific view of London from the plane – but only for the people over the other side. And trying to get a glimpse out of a tiny aeroplane window from nine seats away has never really been my forte.
We disembarked from the plane, that usual slow shuffle you do when there’s several hundred people in the aisle in front of you, each struggling with slightly more hand luggage than they can comfortably manoeuvre in a confined space. The inky blackness of the early morning and the gleaming lights of the airport was all that I could see as I walked up the ramp to the terminal building.
Having gained my British Right Of Abode by virtue of my mum being English, I got to whiz through the British passport holder’s queue at Immigration, though I almost got sent back to the slow lane when the bloke saw I had an Australian passport. I opened it for him at the appropriate page and said “I’ve got a…” and he looked at it and said “Oh, one of those” and waved me through.
Around a corner and down some stairs to the luggage claim. Why is it that at every airport in the world, they let a few dozen people completely clog up the view of the conveyor belt with empty trolleys? Couldn’t people get the trolleys after they’ve pulled their luggage off the belt? It’s not like they’re ever going to be short of trolleys. My borrowed backpack eventually came, and I skipped off through the green channel to freedom: the arrivals lounge.
Found the ATM and got some of the local currency, phoned home to let them know I’d reached terra firma in one piece, and found somewhere to brush my teeth, lest I inflict my truly hideous morning breath on any of the locals and get arrested for chemical warfare offences.
Then I headed for the tube station. I could have got the faster, probably less scenic, more expensive Heathrow Express, but the prospect of seeing some of suburban London without it being a blur appealed. And besides, as old friends who remember my teenage obsessions with things English know, I’d wanted for ages to ride the tube. When I was growing up, most kids wanted to go to Disneyland. I wanted to go to London. They wanted to ride rollercoasters, I wanted to ride the Piccadilly Line.
A train covered in United Airlines advertising arrived, and I boarded. I’ll talk more about the tube later, probably in mind-numbing detail, but for this particular trip the most notable and amusing point worth mentioning was the driver’s tendency to announce that “This train is for Cockfosters”. See, it’s the little things that you notice.
I got off the train at Green Park (change here for the Jubilee and Victoria lines; and while you’re at it, mind the gap) and made my way up the exit stairs and out into the open air. By this time it was about 8 o’clock, and when you step out onto Piccadilly in the middle of peak hour having just arrived in London for the first time, it really really really hits you. Wow! LONDON! Shit!
I stood on the pavement, aghast at the reality of the red phone and post boxes, double yellow lines, double-decker buses and black cabs whizzing past, while less surprised people dodged around me. Suddenly it was real. I had arrived in England. It was like television in 3-D, honestly.
In a bit of a daze, I walked through Green Park, probably enjoying its simple pleasures infinitely more than the commuters scurrying through it. On the other side of the park I found Buckingham Palace, and once again the reaction was Shit! It’s Buckingham Palace! And not just on the telly! Complete with two bobbies on the gate wearing those funny hats like on The Bill. A tiny Panda police car went by, and I peered through the fence at the whatsername (Grenadier?) guards, whose stilted poses could very well be a symbol for that cliche of English stiff-upper-lippedness.
Continuing on down Buckingham Palace Road, and silently praising my brilliant sister for lending me her Inner London A to Z, I kept a lookout for the Internet Cafe which I had been told was down there. I must have walked right past it that day without spotting it, but I did find it later on the trip.
What I did find that morning was a post office to buy some stamps and postcards, as well as Victoria Station, which is where I needed to catch the train to my grandparents’ place near the delightfully named Bognor Regis. It was around 9am, and Victoria Station was utter chaos. Buses, cars and taxis were flying everywhere outside, and inside people were swarming off their trains, heading for work.
After wrestling with the ticket machine (sure, it’ll take your £10, but only on its terms), and confirming with a dwarfen lady Connex railways employee in a funny hat which of the many carriages on platform 15 would get me to Bognor, I boarded said train and we proceeded at a frantic pace south. We zipped over the Thames and through London’s suburbs, into the countryside.
I thought the countryside looked disappointingly similar to southern Victoria (the state I mean), until I spotted a castle outside Arundel. Hmmm. Not quite so many castles in Victoria.
The train seemed to have an oversupply of Connex employees on board, in fact I wouldn’t be surprised if they outnumbered the passengers. We passed through stations with such delightful names as Three Bridges, Pulborough and Christ’s Hospital.
The train got to Bognor Regis just before midday, and I wandered around the station and found a phone to ring my grandparents to be picked up. They soon arrived in their little Fiat, and we set off.
My sister said before I left “England is like being in Legoland. Little roads, little cars.” Never truer words were spoken. Just on that trip back to my grandparents place, I discovered that a main road in an English town is about the size of an Australian side street.
This is, I suppose, because most of the towns have grown and developed over the centuries, and they’d prefer not to knock down large sections of them just for the sake of building roads. Fair enough. It also helps explain why most of the cars are so small. That and the fact that petrol is almost three times as expensive as in Australia.
English roads also have a plethora of roundabouts. They have heaps of yellow lines indicating where you can’t park, and the narrow streets also mean that many towns have complex networks of one way streets. All these things together make we wonder how on earth tourists manage driving in England: I know I’d probably have a coronary from the stress of it all.
Not that riding in the back of my Grandad’s car is necessarily stress free. He’s not a bad driver, my Grandad. His use of indicators is better, it would appear, than most English drivers, who seem to have a dislike of them. In Australia even the most senile elderly Volvo driver uses indicators all the time. Well, okay, maybe I’m exaggerating a bit. In England they only seem to use them if they really have to, and if they do, it’s at the last minute, so anybody relying on the signal to give them any kind of advance warning about what the other vehicle is going to do is, essentially, out of luck.
My Grandad is not a perfect driver, however. He’s wasn’t quite down to the standard where I got the feeling that he and Gran might have a deathwish of any kind (and bad luck to any young relatives in the back seat), but it did get a little hairy at times.
On that first trip to their home near Bognor, we went through a roundabout, and as we did so I noticed another car coming from the right which we should’ve given way to, and it would’ve hit us if the driver hadn’t slowed down. It must be an English thing, but he didn’t honk his horn, and he didn’t look like he was going to get an attack of road rage. He just looked confused.
And just as this death-defying manoeuvre through the roundabout was being completed, Grandad said, and I kid you not: “I suppose you have the give way to the right rule in Australia, too.”
After driving along for a little while, with all sorts of sights being pointed out along the way (most of which I promptly forgot the names of) we made it back to their place intact. It’s a huge house, two storey, masses of bedrooms, big garden, right by the sea. Grandad gave me the grand tour, including, just as my sister predicted, more detail than was strictly necessary about how to flush the toilet.
We sat down to eat shortly afterwards, a filling meal of roast chicken, potato, cabbage and peas, with the first of many fat-free Tesco’s yoghurts thrown in as dessert, not to mention the first of several million cups of tea.
I probably drank more tea in the next few days than I have in my entire life previous to that, though to be fair, I rarely do drink tea. (And I never drink coffee.)
The rest of the day was spent exploring the house and surrounds, writing postcards, eating dinner (which consisted of white bread and butter, fish fingers and brown sauce. Mmmmmmm…), drinking more tea, a little chatting and TV, and finally sinking into a relatively early but well earned slumber.