Tartan Trilogy : The Journey

I was up early on January 27th 2012 – well before I needed to be.  Whenever I undertake a long journey I have a rigorous pre-travel routine, which has become more complicated since  Trudy’s arrival on the scene.  On this particular trip Trudy’s kit took up more suitcase space than mine!  (Probably my fault for packing more dog food than necessary in case we got stranded somewhere).  The motto “Just in case” unfortunately determines most of what I pack when I go away.

Sight-impaired people often find public transport a real headache.  Travelling by train in the UK has been made easier thanks to station stops being announced on the train’s PA system.  It is not very often nowadays that we have to resort to counting stops or checking the time to ascertain where we are on a train journey!  But the noisy, smelly and busy platforms, crowded trains and huge gaps in between the train and platform can be off-putting.  As for which platform to go to and which train to board, that’s another mountainous obstacle.  Booking Assisted Travel beforehand reduces the stress of an unfamiliar train journey, but nevertheless it is not easy to put your trust in a “system “.

http://www.nationalrail.co.uk/passenger_services/disabled_passengers/

Hereford Railway Station has the most expert staff when it comes to assisting passengers who need extra help.  Down to a T, they are faultless.  Even so, until I was a hundred per cent sure that I was on the right train to Crewe I could not relax.  As it was early the train was quiet and I found myself settling back very quickly.  Trudy’s agenda was to hoover up beneath the seats and wriggle as far away as she could on the lead.  After she had licked the floor and eaten all the stray crumbs, she grumbled and curled up in a big lump to catch up on some missed sleep.  Labradors have it so easy.

Crewe was where I needed to change in order to catch the train to Glasgow Central.  When I had Googled Crewe Station a few days earlier, I was dismayed to learn that the station had 12 platforms and several cafes.  In other words, it was BIG.  This meant that as the train approached Crewe I became steadily more anxious.  What if there was no staff member waiting to meet me and assist me with the connection?  What if I actually missed the connection and never got to Gourock?  Suddenly my whole  life seemed to hang on making this one train connection.  It became my ultimate goal, my springboard, my future.  Crewe Station was Rivendell, Mount Olympus, Utopia, Paradise.  I had to get there, and equally I had to leave.  The Quest was gigantic and seemingly impossible.

On arrival, I was met by an extremely cheerful young man who took charge of my suitcase and bad me follow.  Off I went into the nether regions of Crewe Station, Trudy hoovering in the lead, completely oblivious to where we were heading.  It paid to be trusting.  In a few minutes I was comfortably established in one of the cafes I’d read about, relieved that at least I would make it over the border to Glasgow.  The chirpy lad was unquestionably sure of his trains, and that meant that I was sure too.  Ironically, I actually informed a fellow passenger that this was the correct platform for Glasgow Central – such is the ebb and flow of public transport!

The second leg of the journey felt like the real start of my adventure.  For one thing, I am so used to Arriva Trains that sitting in a train which was owned by a different company felt decidedly unorthodox.  It was like being in a stranger’s house.  This train was very crowded, and Trudy received far more attention than she had done on the way to Crewe. 

I could feel the tip of her tail thumping against my foot as one by one, people described her as “marvellous” and “beautiful”.  Her ear flaps were pinned back against the side of her head as she licked the cream off the luscious compliments.  She was the picture of stoicism  – the perfect working dog, saintly, bordering on smug. 

So when she dived into an un-manned crisp packet and virtually devoured the contents before anyone could intervene, the food crime appeared all the more shocking and unthinkable.  I was expecting a Tabloid journalist to tap me on the shoulder and berate me for “creating” a thief.  I felt the shame of a disappointed parent.  The aisle was narrow and there were people jammed in every available space, so Trudy’s intention to finish off her ill-gotten gains was harder to contain.  I succeeded in retrieving the crisp packet, only to realise that my hand and sleeve were covered in slimy, half-chewed crisp remnants fresh from the mouth of a Labrador.  I pretended I was not with her.  I was disgusted.  Trudy was disgusted too, for she wanted the crisps.  The atmosphere was a tangible bubble of bad mood.

Then we reached Preston.  I remember Preston because the train suddenly became colder.  This was my first awareness of being “on holiday”.  It was snowing outside, and I began excitedly sending texts to friends and family relating that I was at Preston, and “guess what guys?  It’s snowing!”  The PA system decided to pack up here so I rapidly tried to recall how many stations lay in between Preston and Glasgow Central.  There was a swift change of guard, and the new one was Scottish –  so we truly were on the way to Glasgow!

Having survived Crewe, I was not overly anxious about Glasgow Central Station.  I’m very glad, for this station dwarfed Crewe by far.  It was like a micro-city, with swarms of passengers buzzing hither and thither.  Thankfully the Assisted Travel was still up to the mark, as otherwise I would have disappeared into the underworld and never emerged again.  In Glasgow Station I giggled like an over-excited kid – I was actually over the border, out of England, venturing into another country!  My ears tuned into Scottish voices, some of which I could barely comprehend.  I slid about in my own  Englishness, for it felt totally inadequate in this environment.  I so wanted to add a bit of Scot to my identity!

My third train was a relatively short journey from Glasgow Central to Gourock.  By sheer coincidence I found that I was sitting opposite someone who was destined for the Murder Mystery Weekend in Dunoon.  Trudy actually introduced us and hence made the discovery  – in return for which I forgave her earlier food crime.  The Snout has its uses. 

Thus I reached my destination of Gourock Railway Station nearly seven and a half hours after leaving Hereford.  The smoothness of the journey gave me untold confidence when it came to returning home three days later.  Ironically this time I did miss the connection at Crewe which delayed my return to Hereford by over an hour.  The event was almost an anti-climax and I smiled recalling the anxiety which had plagued me just a few days earlier.  I can even whisper to the world that I think I now feel confident travelling by train.  “If there’s a railway station,” I heard myself saying to someone a couple of days ago, “Trudy and I can get there”.

The second part of the Tartan Trilogy (in progress) will recount the Murder Mystery Weekend itself – tune in if you dare!

http://www.nationalrail.co.uk/passenger_services/disabled_passengers/

http://www.guidedogs.org.uk/supportus/campaigns/talkingbuses/talking-buses-news/guide-dogs-discovers-the-forgotten-passengers/

 

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The Hoover and Bag Go Forth!

I’m writing this post in some haste.  Trudy and I are embarking on an adventure early tomorrow morning which is making me feel electric with excitement and apprehension.

In November last year when life was pretty bleak I responded impulsively to an e-mail which was offering a discount on a Murder Mystery Weekend in Dunoon. 

I realised today that I have been wanting to go to Scotland for thirty-five years, so this trek across the border feels momentous.  Trudy and I have been told to arrive at Gourock Railway Station by 4.30pm tomorrow.  The whole trip has such a thrilling, mystifying, alarming uncertainty about it that I am almost beside myself. 

The sense of adventure is gripping.  I have no idea what to expect – or even if we will get there.  This journey is truly putting Assisted Travel to the test!  My public transport experiences have been so varied that I am prepared for anything.

I do not know anyone in the holiday group so that too is fuelling my imagination.  Who will be there, and what on Earth am I doing?  Whether I’m experiencing some mid-life crisis or latent travel bug is immaterial now, for I am all packed and about to go to bed so that I won’t sleep past the alarm (set for 5.30am).

No time to think about the whys and wherefores.  The Hoover and Bag go forth!

Underground, overground…..

Not many people agree with me when I wax lyrical about the smell of the London Underground.  For me the combination of hot rubber, industrial detergent and all manner of human odours is strangely comforting.  Yes, I do like it.  What I struggle with is the fat slug of passengers clogging up every inch of space from the ticket barriers to the platforms.  Somehow you’re supposed to find a hole in the slug’s body and dive through it to the other side, as if your life depends on it.  If you happen to misjudge this move there’s a risk that you’ll get swallowed up into the slug’s huge digestive system and end up being spewed onto the wrong platform somewhere far away.  Timing is crucial when you’re negotiating the London Underground.  One false move and you find yourself being swept along in the wrong direction, feet flailing, arms flapping, heart sinking.
As a visually impaired person, dodging the giant human slug in the Underground is a heart attack in the making.  Last week when I attended the Guide dog of the Year Awards I had to face the beast head on.  Luckily I was accompanied by a travel-wise mate.  Having a savvy mate by your side is a fantastic help, but if you add a hoovering Guide dog and an overloaded rucksack with wheels that don’t wheel – the best made plans crumble into chaos.  My rucksack with the dodgy wheels was kindly adopted by my companion for the duration of our London trek.  All I had to do therefore, was to steer The Hoover.
We would have been fine had it not been for the aforementioned slug of tourists and commuters.  This giant beast wedged its great body between us numerous times, which left us frequently calling to each other desperate not to get separated forever.  Trying to listen for directions with a hoover-in-harness eyeballing every grain on the ground was no mean feat.  Our stress levels quickly peaked.  The effort of remaining calm whilst being swept away by a perpetually moving monster would test the nerves of the most accomplished traveller.  “Where are you?”  I’d call.  “Over here – in front of you!” was the disappearing answer, and we’d be lucky to reunite within the next five minutes.  We lost count of the number of times we had to hunt down an unoccupied space and simply “take stock”.
Another major bane was escalators.  Those massive metal mountains which move up and up and up…!  Guide dogs cannot travel on escalators because of the risk of their paws getting trapped, so every time we encountered an escalator we had to hunt for a London Transport staff member.  This was not straightforward.  When I lived in London in the early 1990’s there was no such thing as Help Points, so it was mere chance that my mate came across a circular white disc at Euston fitted with Help and Emergency buttons.
We didn’t expect any joy when she pressed the Help button, so when a disembodied voice answered our SOS call it was extremely heartening.  London Transport staff were mostly very helpful once we’d located the Help Points.  But there appeared to be no logical system as to their whereabouts, so searching for Help Points became a quest in itself every time we chanced upon a dreaded escalator.  And once the offending escalators were halted hundreds of steps needed climbing.  There was a moment at Oxford Circus when my companion sailed by on a parallel escalator (there has to be some perk for being the luggage carrier!), and I was seriously beginning to wane.  The steps seemed to be endless, and my legs were growing heavier by the second.  As she passed by she called out to me “Come on Claire!” and somehow I found a spurt of energy that I didn’t know I had.  I’m not sure if Trudy felt more tired than I did, but her front paws were definitely sagging by the time we made it to the top.  It might not have been so bad had we not had to repeat this exercise at least ten times!
On our second day we decided to be tourists and visit Buckingham Palace.  Green Park was possibly our trickiest tube station, but we did not know this when we hatched our plans over breakfast.  Puffing our guts out ascending Green Park’s stationary escalator might have seemed worthwhile had the sky not decided to empty its latrine bucket over our heads just as we exited the station.  Playing the tourist in London invariably gets you soaking wet – as we discovered the hard way.  London rain is hard, relentless, back-stabbing, rib-jabbing pain.  It  literally penetrated our bones as we traipsed through Green Park,  vaguely taking in the scene of mounted Police and majestic trees.  I decided to give Trudy the chance to have a free run despite the fact that we were almost drowning.  A group of excited Japanese tourists pelted past laughing at the force of the downpour.  We were unable to share their merriment.
Trudy was dashing about with the bells on her collar jingling in time to the rain.  She seemed oblivious to the cold shards of silver being hurled from the sky.  Herein lies the sorriest part of my tale.   Trudy used her freedom wisely and performed a “busy” on the grass as we neared Buckingham Palace.   I dutifully pulled a bag from my pocket in order to deposit her offering  in the nearest bin.  All the while the rain was continuing to assault our bodies and we were hunched over double.  I turned towards my rucksack with the dodgy wheels and expressed concern that it might look “unattended” while we were retrieving Trudy’s “busy”.  At this point I  wondered where the “busy” actually was, for it had seemingly disappeared.  In fact it had not disappeared at all – it was under my shoe.  This was quite possibly the lowest point of our London experience.  There was a poignant moment of despair and self-loathing,  but once my shoe had been washed in a series of puddles the hilarity of the situation took over.  Laughter is truly a great medicine.  Hence we were able to reach our destination, Buckingham Palace, where we lingered for about thirty seconds.  The rain was still venomous, so we decided to head back towards the shelter of Green Park station.
As we neared the station we came across a Marks and Spencer, and the prospect of a sandwich tempted us in.  Dripping pools of water onto the floor we took refuge behind a huge pillar in order to try to organise our sodden belongings.  Trudy, who was hoovering up crumbs,  shook her waterlogged fur all over a smartly dressed lady .  If that smartly dressed lady happens to be reading this, I apologise on behalf of my soggy hound.  Throughout the watery chaos we were  being watched by a store detective who must have labelled us  “suspicious persons” right from the moment we entered.  Against the odds, we did manage to buy a sandwich and that kept our spirits afloat as we headed back towards the mayhem of Green Park station.  Many escalators, steps, platforms, crowds and near-heart attacks later, we were sitting on the train at Paddington about to start our homeward journey.
Hereford and London are two vastly contrasting places.  When you’re in Hereford, London seems magical, exciting, buzzing, and alluring.  But once you actually hit that heaving hub of humans, the magic fades into unease, and slowly that unease changes to all-out panic.  After just 24 hours of city strife I was longing for the pure oxygen and grassy hills of Herefordshire.  Now as I sit at my desk I smile as I remember pouring over Tubeplanner early last week.  It is a great online resource for would-be Tube travellers, but memorising the stops on the Bakerloo line whilst sitting in your living room does NOT prepare you at all for the brutal reality of the London Underground.  Having said that, I have not ruled out another trip at some point in the future!