My, but I’ve been having fun.
Mr G decided to buy me a car to celebrate my return to normal life – nothing fancy, just a little run around that I could leave in the garage in England and potter round the neighbourhood in. Have lunch with a few old friends whenever I felt like it without going through all the faff of hiring a car…
He arranged to buy it in Cambridge – all I had to do was fly over to Stanstead, pick it up, enjoy a couple of weeks of the English summer and fly back again. So simple.
I often stay at the Radisson Hotel in Stanstead – after an evening flight, who wants to start driving across the country? It is no more expensive that many B&Bs – around £75 – exceptionally comfortable, and you literally fall in the front door as you step out of the terminal. Car Hire is right next door. The ‘Wine angels’ abseiling their way up and down the wine rack are quite an attraction.
Except – except that this time it was fully booked. Not to worry, there is another hotel at the airport; The Holiday Inn Express. £5 cheaper but a bit further to walk…pay the extra £5 and avoid it is my advice.
The ‘courtesy bus’ – to avoid a half mile route march along a dual carriage way with no pavement – is a mere £3 for the ‘courtesy’ and packs an entire screeching hen party en route to Benidorm in with you, before depositing you in the car park of the dowdy Holiday Inn. The hen party legged it over the road to the Spar shop to stock up on Vodka, (they obviously know what it takes to survive a night in the Holiday Inn Hellhole) and I was first in the queue for a room key. Finally in the room, I tried my mobile to tell Mr G that I had safely arrived. No signal. I picked up the hotel phone. No dialling tone. I dialled reception. Apparently if I wanted to actually use the phone I should have lodged my credit card at reception. If I wanted to use my mobile they recommended the far side of the car park….
Having just survived Ryanair…I thought a cup of tea and the loo was first on the agenda. One solitary tea-bag – did Madam want a cup of tea now, or first thing in the morning? Huh! Still, there was still the loo….seconds later I thudded head first into the towel rail with my knickers tastefully tied up round my ankles. Some joker had removed the bolts from the loo seat and naturally housekeeping had failed to notice…as they had failed to notice a number of other things, I might add.
I headed out into the rain (of course it was raining!) and phoned Mr G – a mobile does indeed work on the other side of the car park. ‘Of course I was enjoying myself, it was a lovely thing for him to arrange’ – I can lie on occasions too. Old Holborn was heading my way, having told the world on Twitter that he was joining me for supper of oysters and champagne…I was looking forward to seeing him again, always excellent company. We had a supper of ‘curled up beef-burgers’, and ‘chicken caesar salad’. Uninspired, dried up, but just about edible. No ‘wine angels’, but a lot of ‘whine angels’ – the other guests seemed equally disgruntled. The witty company more than made up for the ‘Wimpy Bar reject’ gastronomy.
The next morning, (just as well I brought my own soap eh?) showered and shaved, having pointedly told the front desk that I would appreciate a loo seat actually attached to the loo, and if they could push the boat out and run to two tea-bags in the room before I returned for my second night, I made my way to the Station via the £3 courtesy coach. A train down to London and lunch with my favourite person. What could possibly spoil the day?
Arriving in the sort of clothes I reserve for mid-winter in the Dordogne, into a London of 5° and a monsoon downpour is what. The nearest Marks and Spencers was Moorgate, only a mile or so from Liverpool Street station. A bedraggled Raccoon bought a long sleeved t-shirt and a scarf….they don’t sell polo necks in the summer….
My hair dried out where the wind had placed it on the tube trip to Queensway, and I stepped out onto the platform looking like Worzel Gumages girlfriend, just in time to catch the tail end of an announcement ‘that you are welcome to alight at this station but we regret to inform you that owing to the public services strike there are no escalators and no lifts today – but there is a circular iron staircase at the end of the platform comprised of 132 barely lit steps….’. I battled my way up those steps, dodging descending Australians with fifteen suitcases who were having a far worse time trying to get down, to find that the restaurant I wanted was precisely at the far ‘other’ end of Queensway…
Of course it was still raining.
I dripped into Whiteleys Cafe Anglaise and had a perfectly wonderful lunch with a great and garrulous friend that made me forget the tribulations involved in getting there, in fact – why didn’t I join him for a stroll across the park to his next rendezvous at the Lancaster Gate hotel – I could jump on a bus to Liverpool Street there and enjoy his company a little longer? A seemingly brilliant idea. And it had stopped raining. The wind rearranged my hair once more – but who cared? It was lovely. We parted company outside the hotel, I walked to the bus stop. To be met by a sign that said ‘regrettably, buses wouldn’t be stopping there on July 10th – kindly walk to the next stop’. It was a companionable walk with a group of grumbling Americans wheeling more luggage than I would move house with.
The bus arrived eventually, and we lined up to pay our fare…until I got to the front of the line. ‘How much to Liverpool Street Station?’ ‘Don’t go that far today, Marble Arch only’. ‘How much to Marble Arch?’ ‘Oyster card?’ ‘No’. ‘Contactless Card?’ ‘No, old fashioned cash, how much?’ ‘We don’t take cash’. He handed me a carefully printed card explaining that three days beforehand, London buses had stopped taking cash…totally. He wasn’t joking. I’ve never been thrown off a bus before; only two stops from Marble Arch, and he threatened to just sit there until I got off. Bastard. Yeees, it was raining again.
I walked to Marble Arch – by this time Worzel Gummage would have disowned me, or at least made me walk three paces behind him…I got the tube to Liverpool Street…and the bloody train had been cancelled! Only an hour to kill. An hour on the windy platform and my hair had dried once more, though I suspect Worzel would have insisted on a full scale hijab outfit by now, never mind a burka.
I was meeting the elegant and sophisticated Ms Gloria Smudd for dinner; take no notice of the glass eye and size 20 leotard she likes to portray herself in on here – she is drop dead gorgeous and glamourous. I arrived back to the Holiday Inn Hellhole a good minute and a half before her. She insisted on taking a photograph of me. Bitch. I suppose I’ll forgive her eventually. So long as she destroys the negative.
We had a choice: either pay £12 to the ‘courtesy bus’ to take us to and fro the airport for a burger, or settle for the Holiday Inn’s indifferent fare. We settled. We ordered the Chicken Caesar salad. It arrived. We stared. And stared. A white plate with a small pile of pallid limp iceberg lettuce roughly chopped, a few chunks of white toast, and some chopped bacon…swimming in a gallon of sauce. It looked like a Russian soup. No chickens were harmed in the process of throwing this salad together. We called the waiter back. ‘Where’s the chicken’ we said in unison? D’you know what he said? – and thank God I have a witness! – ‘Oh, did you want chicken with it?’
Now Ms Smudd and I can laugh for England when we get together, so we barely noticed that a full ten minutes had gone by before he returned with two tiny finger bowls – each one containing a handful of grey and greasy chicken bits patently scraped from the ‘parsons nose’. ‘I’m not eating that I said; I’ll have a cheese sandwich please’ – even that they wrecked. Ms Smudd gamely ploughed on – that girl is a trooper. She even professed to having enjoyed herself. Fortunately they were so blinking incompetent, they forgot to charge me for the meal – and naturally the loo seat was still unattached. I’d sleep on the airport floor rather than ever set foot in that place again.
I discovered in the morning that I had fared rather well there. I shared the courtesy bus with 14 lads on their way to Magaluf. Yes, I’ve heard about the viral video – they’d not only heard about it, they’d studied it frame by frame, and decided to book a long week-end in Magaluf…judging by the amount of plaster in their hair, and on their sparse clothing – think tattoos, swimming trunks with filthy t-shirts, and black socks with work boots, oh, and cans of Red Bull at 7am – they asked what I thought of the Holiday Inn. ‘Diabolical’ I said, ‘I’ve been complaining that I want a toilet seat for two days’. ‘Ha!’ they replied. ‘You had a toilet’! Turns out one of their number worked for the maintenance firm that maintains all the Holiday Inns – they’d booked seven twin rooms for the Friday night at a discounted rate, only to arrive and discover the booking had been taken as being for the Saturday night. They’d been given the alternative of two twin rooms ‘taken out of operation because the toilets were smashed’. No showers, no water, no toilets, and seven to a room, sleeping on the floor, which explained why they were flying off to hopefully emulate the video still covered in plaster! I guess they must have used the sink eh? You have been warned.
But finally en route to Cambridge and my new car!
My phone rang; it was Mr G. He still hadn’t been able to contact Ann, the lady who holds the key to our property. I wouldn’t be able to get into the house, nor put the car in the garage – there was nothing else for it but to drive it back to France. An 850cc Fiat 500. My cup runneth over. It’s only 1100 kilometres…..I had been looking forward to seeing Ann again, if only to show her how well I was now. Her daughter lives in New Zealand, and she hadn’t seen her for some years – when I saw Ann in February she told me that her daughter also had pelvic cancer and how worried about her she was, and what a long way away it was, and how she’d never been out of Norfolk, and how terrified of flying she was. I wanted to reassure her, and show her that you could recover, even at my age, and her daughter was some 30 years younger…perhaps her daughter was now well enough to fly over herself and they had gone off somewhere for a few days?
Mr G had ‘found me a bed and breakfast’ – with some difficulty; Glyndebourne Festival was on that week-end and every available hotel for miles around Newhaven was booked up solid – but he had managed to find me a single room at something called the Cooden Beach Hotel in Bexhill that looked like the Bates Motel on the little ‘Trip advisor’ picture, and a booking on the Dieppe Ferry for the Sunday night – but no cabin – I’d just have to survive as best I could.
Survive! The Cooden Beach Hotel is just the best thing since sliced bread was invented! It is simply wonderful. They tell me that they get complaints on ‘Trip Advisor’ that they are ‘old fashioned’ – well, roll on old fashioned. ‘Tis true, it is full of men that look like retired drill sergeants drinking gin and tonics and reading the Telegraph who stand every time a lady enters a room, and hold doors open even when you are fifty yards behind them in the corridor. It hasn’t been ’boutiqued’ and covered in Farrow and Ball paint – it is a world of immaculately maintained plush red carpets, and comfortable arm chairs, devastating sea views, a swimming pool and blissful Jacuzzi, beds so comfortable I actually asked them if they knew what the mattresses were – Tempur is the answer – I want one! A restaurant with a decent , more than decent, chef who turns out a superbly well cooked two course evening meal for £15 – a whole fiver more than the Holiday Inn charge for fake Russian soup with no chicken – and when I came to pay the bill, it turns out that they are actually a fiver cheaper than Holiday Hellhole. The place is dripping with staff – five waiters vied with each other for the privilege of ensuring that 15 guests had everything we could want for breakfast – you just couldn’t fault the place.
They used to be a popular watering hole for the gin and tonic set in Bexhill – but they are miles from anywhere, just them and that wonderful beach – and now with no drinking and driving, they survive on wedding parties, but if you want a taste of what England used to be like, and to be totally cosseted in comfort, I do recommend a long week-end at the Cooden Beach. I shall be going back with Mr G and I don’t care how much of a detour we have to make.
So, two days to kick my heels in Lewes. Shops full of shocking pink old fashioned mixing bowls for three times the price of a plain ordinary one; lots of indulged ‘Jeremy’s’ spinning round on expensive looking scooters; every second person in a motability scooter trying to avoid the little ‘Jeremy’s’; Farmer’s market selling ‘hand kneaded bread’ for three times the price of any other loaf; and a charity shop selling cast offs from every top designer you care to mention. Did austerity fail to call in on Lewes? It’s all so very twee and well heeled; relieved by sharing a lovely Sunday lunch with yet another blogger who lives in the area who turned out to be one of the nicest and sanest people I’ve ever met through the internet.
The Newhaven-Dieppe ferry is definitely an improvement on the Calais version; very small and friendly with a cafe that makes pukka cheese sandwiches, all infinitely preferable to flying with Ryanair – mind you, walking would be better than that. No cabin, so a sleepless night listening to the raucous post mortem on the football match. Arriving at 4am in Dieppe with the joys of another 850 kilometres on the motorway in an under powered Fiat…..
I hadn’t gone 100 kilometres when Mr G rang again. He had finally managed to track down Ann, she was hugely apologetic that I hadn’t been able to get into the house or the garage, but the thing was her daughter’s husband had rung from New Zealand. ‘Her daughter was now very ill’ – so that lovely village lady had taken herself off to Heathrow and sat there until someone had found her a seat on a plane to New Zealand; she had spent three days with her daughter before she had died.
I drove the rest of the way in a feisty little Fiat that seemed to have grown wings and flew along the motorway; reflecting on how very lucky I was to have been able to spend time with my friends, to have walked London in the pouring rain, to have tasted the Holiday Inn’s Chickenless Caesar salad, to have been given the chance to freeze to the bone in Liverpool Street station, to get thrown off a London bus – just to be here to moan about it all.
I am very, very fortunate. A million times more fortunate than Ann’s daughter.