I once nearly missed a three month trip to South East Asia because I fancied a few extra minutes in bed. That’s not to say I slept through my alarm. I woke up and felt so miserably tired that I had to weigh up whether the trip was worth it – the trip won, narrowly. I wish I could say that’s the worst of my troubled transit tales but alas I have missed more than a few flights and cost myself more than a few pounds for a myriad of reasons. Thankfully these episodes have now become entertaining yarns for me to regale in first class lounges at some of the swishest airports in my head.
I still think of myself as being a great traveller, like George Clooney in Up In The Air, I know which queues to join, often travel belt-less, and am pretty sure Michael O’Leary is going to saunter down the narrow aisle with an engraved metal loyalty card any day now. It’s the bit before that I struggle with. I have missed flights waiting on breakfast rolls, turned up at the wrong airport (twice) and once, after losing my passport, I had to sweet talk my way onto a flight with no ID save a Palace membership card (implying it was a premium establishment whilst remembering the ‘Smirnoff Ice on tap’ meat market we all know and love).
I’ve spent so much money on missed flights that if I make a flight I convince myself that I am balancing out the lost revenue on missed ones – it doesn’t take Carol Vorderman to figure out the flaw with that calculation but it certainly makes me smug buckling up in my financial ignorance. I recommend you try that technique actually, it really is a great confidence booster.
I also tend to book flights very last minute, with obvious financial penalties. It was a new year’s resolution to book flights on time but six months in I still haven’t got my shit together. 32 years in actually. As a regular London–Dublin commuter this means I always have a plan B: Sail and Rail.
Doesn’t the name sound romantic, timeless? Strolls on the upper deck, dining at the captain’s table, wood panelled cabins – these are all things not to expect when doing a Sail and Rail. The only romantic hark back that does still hold water, is probably a good old-fashioned murder mystery. Even at the age of 15 I knew what a trip on the ferry meant: travellers, runaways, and young girls seeking a solution to a problem Ireland still won’t deal with. Historically it meant emigration and that is as true today as ever. Travellers get an honourable mention, for as everyone will tell you, they are a regular fixture (more of which later).
For those unfamiliar with Sail and Rail, it consists of a train ticket from London Euston to Holyhead and a ferry ticket from Holyhead to Dublin for the very cheap and flat rate of 43 quid. Perfect when you have forgotten to book a flight and the airlines want £200 to squeeze your 6ft plus frame into rendition class.
There now follows a handy guide for everything you need to know about Sail and Rail:
1 Euston Station is not pronounced like Dublin’s Heuston Station and doing so may lead so sneers from smug, settled Irish.
2 Euston station is a pigeon infested building site, but it does contain a Sainsbury’s Local where you can stock up on booze and snacks – DO THIS.
3 The train journey is pretty boring but does have plug sockets.
4 Holyhead is spelled with only one L
– I learned that just now.
5 Holyhead is one of the most depressing places you will ever be forced to spend time in – I learned that years ago.
6 There is a shop in Holyhead that sells airguns, Funsnaps, and Boob Inspector hats.
7 You should buy a Boob Inspector hat when given the chance as you never know when that chance might appear again.
Everyone has a Sail and Rail story, usually involving cancelled trains or boats and time spent in Holyhead. This is time spent either looking for the least vomit-like all-day breakfast, or a trip to the local Chinese for the local delicacy - sweet and sour chicken balls.
I have many of these (stories, not chicken balls), some fun and some depressing, but all are stories that I cherish. Sometimes it takes a while, but eventually I can look back and laugh (usually when I have forgotten to book a flight again and my brain goes into denial).
The lows may also serve as a warning to others, some may have been avoidable. For instance, you may think staying up all night and going straight to the early morning ferry may be a great way to attack the journey, sleep through the monotony of the trip, to be gently woken by the ship’s steward on arrival. When I last attempted this, I fell asleep in the departure lounge in Dublin only to be prodded by a friendly traveller when it was time to get on the shuttle bus. I don’t think the staff would have bothered. Said traveller was making the trip with some mates who all looked like they had had more than a few already. I can admit that my prejudices had me wary of these guys, so all the more foolish I felt when one of these guys woke me up. A few hours later they were thrown off the train for disturbing other passengers - an afternoon on the high seas with some high percentage cider and you run that risk.
Once on board the ship there was not a stretch of pleather to be found on which to spread my weary limbs. I shifted around in the odd boy racer style seats at the ship’s bow but despite their ergonomic design and comfortable wipe clean finish I couldn’t get comfortable. I tried other lounges on the vessel – even stuck my head in the infamous Trucker’s Lounge, but there was nowhere suitable to lie amongst the fruit machines and scowling faces. On arrival at Holyhead, bleary-eyed, I waded through the passengers to the train platform to be told the train was cancelled and a wait of an hour and a half was in store.
As mentioned, Holyhead is not the most exciting place in the world, and your slim options are even slimmer on a Sunday. I had planned on picking up a Boob Inspector hat (first seen some three journeys earlier, but missed out on through a variety of conspiring circumstances) but alas, the shop was closed. I resigned myself to a pre-pack sandwich from Boots and a little sit on the platform. The train was standing room early resulting in no sleeping opportunities until my bed that day (which came after a tube and overground journey from Euston).
The highs have been good though. On one memorable trip I was settling into to my seat when a few rows over I saw two men tuning their ukuleles. This then spread to a few more, and before I knew it there were about 30 uke players belting out hits from The Beatles to Hall and Oates. That was quite romantic and I did think at the time that had the ship sunk, I would have stayed listening to them as we went down. That feeling lasted about three seconds before I was clocking the lifeboats and sizing myself up against the truckers.
The Sail and Rail also provided me with a memory that will last a lifetime - the trip back to Dublin for Ireland’s Marriage Equality Referendum. Inspired by the Contraception Train in the 70s, some pals wanted to make a political point arriving en masse to assembled media. The point was well-made, but equally, those of us that were on the trip had amazing fun from start to finish. Thankfully we don’t have reason to make trips like that regularly, but as it is for so many different people, the boat was there when we needed it.