Small talk at work:
“I’m off to Mallorca for a week”, I say.
“Oh that’s lovely. It’s nice in September.”
“Overland. No plane.”
That gets their attention. “Wow. How long is that going to take?”
“Two days each way.”
Two days planned with precision, and a small, fat notebook to note my experiences. I text my father to tell him of my earth-saving strategy. “What about your boredom footprint?” he asks.
17/09/2007 Dun Laoghaire – Holyhead
The ferry port is impressively silent. Check in lasts 5min, the doors are opened and we board a floating plethora of shops, bars, one-armed bandits and fruit machines. The sea is almost incidental. Seats fill up with passengers – many in their ‘golden years’.
When the ship pulls out, leaving the little red tower at the end of Dun Laoghaire pier behind, if feels different. Sadder, somehow, as if I am carrying the baggage of the many immigrants who left Ireland before me. I settle down with The Sorrows of Young Werther and do battle with seasickness. In Holyhead train station, the sense of immigrants’ anguish is reinforced as I walk across a 1970s brown, tiled extension to Platform 1 and the 2pm train to Euston. Unlike them, I will go home again. But that, sad, dusty building will never move on.
Holyhead – London Euston
The couple next to me is on the wrong train. They argue: accusations of ‘petty’, ’smallminded’, ‘not paying attention’ fly back and forth as I continue with Werther. At Chester, I get talking to Dean, an architect. We fill out a newspaper personality test. I score high on Neuroticism and he on Conscientiousness. Another man sitting opposite is flipping through a booklet with several pictures of houses and design diagrams. I wonder if he too is an architect. Maybe the two of them could have a ‘house-off’.
The train arrives at Euston after four hours. Dean says goodbye and shakes my hand vigorously. The mysterious man looks at me, smiles, and sighs, “I thought he’d never shut up.”
Bruce (yes, he is Australian) is an architect. He is also solicitous, showing me how to use to Oyster tickets on the tube, even queuing with me when I buy one. He and I travel together as far as Bank station, where he leaves me. I admit to feeling a twinge of regret at his departure. But it’s a nice, mournful, literary sense of regret – worthy of the great travel writer Colin Thubron. Here I am making thoughtful observations about the human condition, saying goodbye to attractive people I will never see again.
18/09/2007 – 19/09/2007 London – Paris – Barcelona
At 3pm the following afternoon my Eurostar departs for Paris. I take my seat in an almost empty carriage. There is no sign of human life after the train leaves London, only vast crop fields; even the stopover on the other side, at Calais-Refrun, appears to have been dropped into the middle of deserted countryside. The effect is eerie.
At Paris there is barely time to see the sun set over the Seine before boarding the overnight train at Gare d’Austerlitz. I am booked into a cabin of four with two girls from Siberia and an older Frenchwoman. The seats become bunk beds with a sink folding out under the window; there is no spare space. We eat a late and expensive meal at 10 amid hilarity and red wine. Sleep that night on my upper bunk is fitful.
The following morning the train disgorges us all into Barcelona station. I have eight hours to kill before I catch the ferry and use up four getting thoroughly lost.
19/09/2007 Barcelona to Mallorca
My notes say, “very tired now”. On the fast ferry, I read Goodbye to All That, Robert Graves’s autobiography. He too was en route to Mallorca back then, and would have traveled on a ferry. Nice.
Trip notes: the journey back
24/09/2007 Palma – Barcelona
Unpromising start involving a missed ferry, the wrong car park, port authority police and a dented car. Let’s move on.
The later, slower ferry, allows me to go out on deck and watch Palma fade as the ship rounds the headland. After a serviceable meal, I go off and read Great Expectations. Divine Irony must have spotted my choice of title, because once I get to Barcelona He/She/It decides to frustrate them all.
25/09/2007 Barcelona – London Heathrow (ahem!)
What a disaster.
Attempt to take the train to Paris, only to be stopped from getting on by un vrai jobsworth from SNCF because I have no proper ticket.
And why not? Well, before traveling I tried to print out the ticket several times on the SNCF webpage, finally asking them if they would mind sending me the ticket by post. They refused. I tried the webpage again; it failed again. So, in spite of having made a reservation on my credit card for that night’s train, I am dumped in Barcelona at 9pm with nowhere to stay, and no chance of catching tomorrow’s Eurostar to London.
The first thing I do is to find an outrageously expensive hotel room: it’s that or the city park. Second, I book a flight with British Airways for 2pm the following day. The hell with climate change and Colin bloody Thubron. I’ve had enough.
In the airport, glory of glories, my webpage printout is valid. The flight, turbulent and not cheap, is still only half the cost of my Barcelona hotel room.
My conclusion: it was worth doing as a far more sociable way of travel. But I need to stick to my principles more, and train companies need to work better. Journeys should be booked as packages, with flexible connections and cheaper prices. And no more dodgy webpages.
But there’s another obstacle: if we insist on believing we have a God-given right to fly and hang the consequences, then how can rail and sea travel even hope to compete?