(Mis)Adventures in Traveling - Boxing Day Blunders
October 31, 2012
Many people like to take big vacations to other countries during the holidays. They save and plan for months, making sure all the details are in order for their exciting trip. However, sometimes, it is just impossible to plan for everything.
Several years ago, I had the opportunity to live in England for a year. At first, it was an exciting adventure, especially the different modes of common transportation. The first time I rode the train, I was ecstatic! By the 20th trip in three months, though, I was an old pro at reading the time-tables and catching the right train to the right place. I knew the rail system like the back of my hand...or so I naively thought. Enter Boxing Day.
Matt, another visiting American, and I were invited by several of our friends to join them for the holidays. Lorraine invited us both out to Colchester to visit with her family for Christmas day; we were asked separately by our "hometown" friends and neighbors to join them for Boxing Day. I’d heard of Boxing Day (Bill Bryson talk about it in his book) before; it’s usually on our American calendars as a "Canadian" holiday. Historically, Boxing Day (December 26th) was an opportunity for the serving staff to have their own day off after spending Christmas working for their wealthy employers. The reason has slowly become obsolete over time, but the British still enjoy celebrating another day off.
So Matt, Lorraine, and I drove out to Colchester (known for "Old King Cole" and "Humpty Dumpty," which is a true story by the way, not about an egg, but a large cannon that fell off of the castle walls) to spend the Christmas with our friend’s family. We feasted, frolicked, and had a merry ole time. But sadly, Christmas day soon ended, and it was time to check the train schedule for our trip into London the next day.
Now, Colchester is a smaller city, so it didn’t really come as a shock to find out there were no trains leaving the Colchester station the next day. "Nice of them to give the few rail workers the day off," we thought. So our friend drove Matt and me to nearby Luton airport, where we got bus tickets to take us into London. The ride was uneventful, and we arrived at the Baker Street bus station around noon. We walked down to the Baker Street Tube station (London’s subway system), where Matt and I parted ways towards the different stations that would lead us home. I called my friend Andy to let him know I would be arriving home within the hour and boarded the Tube. Little did I know that this would be the last "planned" ride I had all day.
Five minutes later, the feminine British voice announced the Paddington Station exit, and I walked up the stairs to the railway station. Now, Paddington is one of the busiest train stations in all of London. Thousands of people commute every day into and out of London to the surrounding areas of England, Scotland, and Wales. So when I reached the top of the staircase and I saw twenty-five people (at most!) milling about the station, I instantly knew something was wrong. Trepidatiously, I approached the ticket counter and asked when the next train to Reading (pronounced Red-ding) was departing. That is when I learned the horrible truth:
The railway system in all of the United Kingdom shuts almost completely down for Christmas AND Boxing Day.
I was flabbergasted. How could one of the most popular modes of transportation simply shut down all across an entire country? It’d be like putting road-blocks on the highways in the U.S. With no other foreseeable option, I pulled out my cell phone to call my friend to let him know that I needed him to come pick me up in London. And that’s when the second terrible thing happened:
My phone battery died.
I was well and truly stranded. Horrible thoughts ran through my mind: I would have to spend the night on a park bench in London, the day after Christmas, in the cold, like a bum. I ran to the nearest pay phone, only to remember that most of my contacts were saved on my phone (which if you remember, was completely dead). I called the two numbers that I had thankfully written down somewhere, only to leave panicked messages "after the beep," asking them to call my friend Andy and tell him I won’t be there for lunch.
Now I was well and truly desperate! There was no way I was going to sleep anywhere else but in my bed that night! So I bought a ticket to the only place a train would take me: Heathrow Airport. At least there people would be coming and going all night long, and airport chairs would be better to sleep on than a snowy park bench.
Ten minutes into my ride to the airport, I was filled with a sudden hope when I remembered that buses ran every 20 minutes between Heathrow and Reading! I was elated! I would get home, maybe even in time for a late lunch! As soon as the doors of the train opened, I was running for the bus station. Hope renewed when I saw the line of people at the ticket counter. I waited my turn….only to find out that the last bus to Reading left half an hour ago.
I was crushed, but still more determined than anything to get home. There was a bus going to Reading/Calcott. I had no idea where that was, but if Reading was in the name, it must be at least within walking distance. I bought another ticket (my travel expenses were by now up to £30, or close to $50), and got on yet another bus.
But a wondrous thing happened on this last bus ride: I started having a good time. After all of the chaos and panic of the day, I suddenly realized that, despite the fact I had no idea where I was going, I couldn’t make the bus go any faster than it already was. So, I decided that I would worry about what to do next when I actually got to my destination. I just leaned back, relaxed, and enjoyed the wintry countryside flying past me.
Thankfully, I recognized the place where the bus dropped me off. So, I was able to call one of my two friends’ numbers, leave another message (apparently, no one answers their phones on Boxing Day either), and tell him to call Andy and have him pick me up, which he did. So, two cars, two buses, a subway, one train, two airports, and 4 ½ hours later, I finally got my Boxing Day dinner.
The moral of the story: plan ahead. But if Humpty Dumpty ends up falling right in the middle of the highway and causes a 3 hour traffic jam, just breathe. You’ll get there eventually, and you might miss the more exciting adventure around you.
Red Bridge Branch