Just 24 hours before I found myself being tossed around a metal container at 80mph, I was watching a sack of letters undergoing the same treatment.
A FEW NIGHTS AGO, at around 12.30am, I realised I was lying in bed with a smile on my face. This is not something that happens very often.
I was also lying in someone else’s bed. This is something that happens even less often.
I’ve the railway company First Great Western to thank for this pair of unlikely scenarios. For it was one of their beds I was lying in, a bed that was in the process of travelling around 300 miles. And I was smiling because I’d realised what a faintly ludicrous yet also rather wonderful experience I was undergoing.
LYING IN MY TINY BUNK in the carriage of the train that was carrying me from Nice to Rotterdam in the summer of 1994, I tried not to think about just how exposed I was.
Not literally: I had enough trouble in these circumstances trying not to let my guard down, never mind anything else.
It was more the wider context that threatened to disturb me, and which I endeavoured to put to the back of my mind.
Apart from my three fellow travellers, I was a stranger in a strange land with absolutely no means of contacting anyone I knew if something went wrong.
I don’t think I’d ever placed myself in such a situation before, and for good or ill I’ve never quite done so again.
However I must have done enough to cram such thoughts into a hastily-sealed bit of my brain, for I ended up getting a fair few hours of sleep. This was much to my surprise, and to those of my companions, who it later transpired had barely slept a wink and were bemused, and not a little envious, that I’d somehow stayed comatose for so long.
I was in one of the three top bunks in our couchette. I had a view of the carriage ceiling a few centimetres above my head, and nothing else.
I had to lie on my back the whole while. If I tried turning on to my left hand side I hit the wall, and if I tried turning to the right I would fall on to the floor.
This lack of movement, combined with the scorching heat, turned my “bed” into a coffin of foam rubber, to which I stuck with sweat.
The conditions were intolerable. The whole journey seemed to have been intolerable.
Yet somehow, somehow, I fell asleep.
After a couple more stops were out of the way, it was around 1am that it happened. The steady pulsing of the train’s engine, the regular rhythm of the wheels on the tracks, and the unchanging hum of the carriage machinery all conspired to lull me into a sort of reassured, becalmed stupor.
The next thing I knew it was 7am and I was awake.
I’d made it through the night, unscathed and uncompromised.
I felt absolutely awful, of course, and I knew I looked terrible: shabby, smelly and utterly out-of-sorts.
But it was the morning. And it was cooler. And I was somewhere different.
I went into the corridor and stood, watching the countryside race past.
Outside was northern Europe: plains of uniform fields and acres of monochrome woods with no rocky hills or tropical groves to be seen. Flat moorland stretched for miles.
There were rivers. There were bridges over the rivers. There were ducks nestling under the bridges over the rivers.
And then there was industry. Factories! Power stations! Warehouses! All drab, all functional, all standing magnificent against a soft, sombre sky.
An enormous sense of familiarity, and at the same time desperate longing, crashed over me. These places looked like home!
Though I was now geographically a lot closer to the UK than I had been for quite a few days, emotionally I felt further away than ever.
I hadn’t thought much about home since starting the trip almost two weeks earlier. We were always moving forward, looking ahead, preparing for the next leg of the journey and anticipating the next obstacle.
Now there was nothing left to do but to complete the circle and head back to Britain. With this realisation, everything and everyone associated with home charged back into my consciousness from wherever I’d hitherto quelled them.
I wanted to be back among them as soon as possible, yet I knew it would be a further 24 hours before I set foot on UK soil.
I cursed our stupid timetable – why weren’t we due to sail today? Whose idiotic idea had it been to eke out this adventure so as to include a Sunday afternoon in Rotterdam? Worse, a Sunday evening at the Hook of Holland ferry terminal?
“Well, we are where we are,” someone said – quite possibly me inside my own head.
I now did something rather embarrassing.
I started humming the signature tune of Michael Palin’s Around the World in 80 Days.
I’d watched the whole series on video just before we left. I suppose that by evoking the programme at this moment, I thought rather fancifully I could imbue my journey with a similar sense of the epic and the significant.
In reality, all I got was funny looks from the other passengers, some of whom I recognised – with a shudder – from the previous night’s antics.
Pretty soon we’d reached Rotterdam and were threading our way through a day of deep anti-climax.
I was elated that I’d both got through and ended up rather enjoying our marathon train ride. But I was also maddened by the way were now inching our way towards home rather than hurtling, as had been the case for the previous 15 hours.
Plus it turned out there was a final ordeal to endure.
At the Hook of Holland, the ferry we intended to catch had a hydraulic ramp that wasn’t working. It needed to be welded into place.
I remember standing on deck at about 11pm, looking down through the darkness and watching some of the crew trying to bang the ferry doors shut. It was as if some malevolent travel god, determined to hold up my departure from the continent for just a little longer, was taunting me one last time.
But the ship sailed, and I slept in an uncomfortable seat for a few hours, before waking and stumbling back out on to deck.
Harwich was on the horizon, twinkling in the cool sunlight.
I had never felt such deep love for a container port.
THE LAST TIME I WENT ABROAD was in 1994.
I know. That’s an appallingly long period ago. But it’s not that I haven’t wanted to return. For the first 10 years or so I simply didn’t have the money, while latterly it’s been more a case of not having anyone to go with.
My 17-year exile within the UK hasn’t really rivalled that of Dr Who Jon Pertwee, at least not by way of encounters with diabolical masterminds or brokering peace deals at international summits. It has, however, outlasted his by over a decade. That’s assuming his adventures took place in a linear dimension, but enough of that.
The last time I went abroad was to Europe in July 1994, just after I’d finished my A-level exams.
I went with three others, one of whom I never saw again from the second we got back to Britain. I lost contact with the other pair towards the end of the last century.
We spent two weeks interrailing. Two weeks that were, at that point, the most intense period I had ever spent in the company of others. We were around and on top of each other, often literally (only in the sense of bunk beds, mind), day after night after day after night.
I think I was the one who had planted the notion of interrailing in the others’ heads, before – typically – going off the entire idea and trying to sabotage the trip just weeks ahead of departure.
But by that point the thing had gained a momentum. It was happening and I had no choice but to go to Millets and buy a rucksack large enough to accommodate a mad cow or two (contemporary satire), convert my meagre savings into a plastic pouch of travellers’ cheques, and visit British Rail’s international travel centre at Derby station.
I ended up pretty much loving the whole adventure. I might write about other bits of it at a later date, but I want to concentrate here on what, for me, was the most exhilarating, but also the most maddening, chunk of the trip.
It was Saturday 16 July. We had spent a few days in Nice on the south coast of France, but now had to head northwards in order to be back in the UK by the 18th.
To do this, we were booked on a train that would carry us all the way from Nice to Rotterdam. And we would be travelling through the night. We would drift off to sleep amid the balmy plains of the French Riviera then wake back in the cool climes of the Low Countries. That was the plan, at any rate.
The concept of what we were about to do appealed to me immensely. The reality was somewhat different. It went against all my instincts for self-preservation to bed down on a foreign train and willingly fall into protracted semi-consciousness. Heavens, anything could happen!
Worse, I’d spent much of the day of our departure suffering prolonged constipation. I’d also broken my sunglasses, and had sulked for a good two hours or so under a tree, cursing the tropical heat and my unfailing capacity to attract bad luck.
All of this, however, passed swiftly from my mind (and body) once our train crawled into Nice station, we gathered up our acres of baggage, and set to finding the compartment in which we were billeted to spend the next 15 hours.
To be continued…
IAN, I AM FREQUENTLY ALMOST NEVER ASKED, when was the last time you bought some food or drink from a buffet car or trolley service?
The answer is I can’t honestly remember. I have a long-term aversion to buying refreshments on a train, not because they aren’t any good, but because I’m unable to shake off the belief that they’re too dear.
I can’t quite ever bring myself to shell out for a packet of crisps that might be double the price of the ones on sale in my local newsagents or in the shop just round the corner from the station.
I know: I’m hopeless.
It’s an entirely irrational attitude, because I’ll often end up buying something from a shop on a station concourse that is probably almost as expensive. It’s totally hypocritical, as I will gladly accept refreshments that anybody else buys me on my behalf. I also lap up all the free food and drink that’s on offer during the rare times I travel first class.
One of the last times I did indulge could well have been when I first took the train from Loughborough to London by myself. This would have been in the early 1990s, when the very notion of buying some on-board nourishment was still, for me, impossibly exciting. I almost certainly went for a small bottle of orange juice and a chicken sandwich.
This would have been soon after Sir Clement Freud was enlisted by the InterCity division of British Rail to quite literally spruce up their sandwich range.
Freud’s bestseller was the Ultimate Egg: chive butter and lemon with gourmet egg mayonnaise on one side and sliced egg on the other.
Sadly there’s not much evidence of this delicious concoction, nor his other creations including poached salmon and dill with mustard mayonnaise and Chinese leaves on oatmeal bread, or corned beef with red tomato chutney, in this photo:
You can’t help but suspect that whoever arranged this photo opportunity decreed that the official last “British Rail sandwich” ought to look as tatty as possible in order to make its successor automatically seem superior. Indeed, this picture conforms to every possible punchline that propped up many a comedian’s act during the previous decade:
“Napoleon’s army marched on its stomach, so they say.
Well, it was that or a British Rail sandwich.”
“My love life is about as lively as a British Rail sandwich.”
“Yes, my mother-in-law can still curl her lips –
just like the edges of a British Rail sandwich.”
“What’s the difference between a British Rail sandwich and an IRA bomb?
You don’t get a telephoned warning before the sandwich goes off.”
Freud later recalled: “I did a deal that everyone who worked in the sandwich factory would get two first class tickets each year. You’d think they would order their own sandwiches to see what they were like. Not a bit of it! They said: Mr Freud, we make the sandwiches, we don’t eat them.”
Just like everything to do with British Rail, the sandwiches were never as bad as popular culture or posterity would have you believe. Nor were the gags. I miss both of them.
I also miss this, though I can’t say I ever actually tried one: