Week two has been dominated by the words rail travel. Having arrived at Andrew’s work destination, reality showed what the map had already indicated – we were staying well and truly outside of London. The hotel, Runnymead on Thames, being situated on the banks of the River Thames somewhere between Egham and Staines. It wasn’t on my agenda – I had London museums I’d wanted to visit – but with Windsor Castle being a short easy train trip, I decided to make it my first day’s destination.
I am always amazed, despite not having lived in the UK since I was five years old, at how familiar England feels. One of Andrew’s American colleagues told me I’d have to catch a cab to Windsor. I knew this wouldn’t be the case. I walked for a mile or two along the banks of the Thames and caught a train. Disembarking at Windsor, I wasn’t surprised to find myself slap bang in the middle of a quaint English prosperity. I wandered the shops. Took a tour of the castle (apparently the Queen likes to spend her leisure days at Windsor). I don’t blame her. It’s not a bad spot for a weekender. Though, I doubt she makes use of the free Wifi at Pret a Manger.
The next day, I had organised to meet a friend in London. I knew Alison from the SaysomethinginWelsh forum and we have spent many a happy Skype hour conversing in Welsh. We have, on occasions, resorted to English but for the most part our relationship has been conducted in the Welsh language. This day in London was no exception. We met at Holborn Station (texts and organising emails largely in Cymraeg), picnicked in a garden close to Lincoln’s Inn, visited an old Chapel and visited the John Soame’s museum with only the occasional beth yw y gair am – what’s the word for? To interrupt the flow of our conversation. We have so much in common both having ties with Australia and the UK, daughters with similar health problems, a love of reading, and writing and, of course, underpinning it all our love of the hen iaith – the old language. It was a magical day, made all the more memorable by the museum guide who approached us just before closing time. Excuse me, he said. Ydych chi’n siarad Cymraeg – are you speaking Welsh? Ydy! We replied. We spent a delightful quarter of an hour speaking Cymraeg with him as the museum staff locked up around us.
The next day involved a two hour trip down to Christchurch, to see my Aunty Jean in her care home. She didn’t know me. She hasn’t known me the last three times I’ve visited. I go for the sake of my uncle and his wife who oversee her care. It is always sobering to see people in the late stages of Alzheimer’s. As ever, I was struck by the grace and kindness of her carers.
It is so easy to get around the UK by train (albeit expensive) and I must have been getting a little over confident because the next day disaster struck. We started out easily enough. Bought return tickets from Egham to Chelmsford with quick tube trip to Camden Market planned enroute. England was experiencing a heat wave (Andrew had read in the Melbourne Age) and the day was indeed stifling. But we had fun wandering around Camden. The markets go on forever. We could easily spent a full day there. We settled for a couple of hours, going on to spend a delightful evening in the company of old family friends in Essex.
Coming home, we left Chelmsford a little later than intended, reaching Liverpool Street Station only to miss the last train to Waterloo. Night buses. I knew there were night buses. The trouble was, anyone that could have helped us had long since departed. The station was now in the hands of a set of surly security guards. They were herding everyone out the streets. The taxi queue was a mile long. My pre-paid British phone credit had expired. Andrew’s Aussie account wasn’t working. And no one knew anything about night buses. We faced a long night walking round the city (my suggestion), finding an over priced hotel (without the aid of phones or internet), or joining the taxi queue. At this point, Andrew sidled up to the man in charge of the taxi queue and ‘happened to mention’ our destination. One of the listening cabbies ears pricked up. I saw the pound signs in his eyes.
‘I’ll take you,’ he said, lowering his voice. ‘It’ll be jumping the queue so walk along the road now without making a fuss. My cab’s the blue one over there.’
We did as we were bade. Needless to say it was a long silent journey back to Egham. We spent an unmentionable amount on taxi fares. We were dumb, is suppose – dumb Aussies in London. I should have checked the times of the last train home. But this was London. A world city. Brimming with international tourists. Who’d have thought it would pull on its night cap at half past twelve in the morning.