1. Transportation Adventure

This entry is part 1 of 8 in the series Southwest England 2005

“I’m going to England!” I was so excited that I couldn’t stop thinking about it. The flight would leave at 23:25 on August 3rd, 2005 from Montreal’s Dorval Airport to London Gatwick, arriving at 10:55 on August 4th, local time. Allowing two hours to pass Customs, we would take the 13:03 train to Reading in order to catch a mainline train leaving at 14:32 for Exeter St. David’s. Then we would take the second last local train at 16:26 to Dawlish, where we would be picked up by S’s parents. All the tickets had been booked and we were ready to go.

A friend gave us a lift to Dorval Airport at around 19:30. I looked at the sky getting dark with some red clouds at the rim, feeling a bit nervous. I always worried about accidents before taking a plane—not that it would ever stop me.

We entered the airport, found the check-in desk of Air Transat, and were told that our flight would be two hours late! Talking to the check-in agent about having to catch our train in London only rewarded us with this answer: “There’s nothing we can do.”

“We’d better change our train reservation”, was our first reaction. We looked around the airport, back and forth, left and right, up and down, before locating two touch-screen internet access booths, one of which was “hors service”. The instructions said ten minutes for two dollars. Preparing to lose two dollars in the worst case, we inserted a coin into the slot. One touch brought us into the English language world, a second touch opened a web browser, and a third touch took us to a blue screen—the machine rebooted itself!

Calling customer service gave us no benefit except for venting a bit our anger. We decided to give S’s parents a ring. His father provided two helpful suggestions: one for the immediate situation, getting a note from the airline company might increase our chance of being let on a different train; the other for future use, we should sit on the left side of the train from Exeter to Dawlish, for the view would be better.

We talked to an Air Transat agent again, who kindly referred us to the manager. With no difficulty this time, we received from the manager a huge sheet of paper with a brief note in big fonts explaining about the delay of the flight.

For the next five hours, we sat in the waiting room, waiting. When we got on the plane, it was 1:30am. Even though I was very tired, I kept worrying about the train schedule in England, especially the possibility of missing the last train at Exeter, which would leave fifty minutes after our reserved train. But since there was nothing we could do, I tried to forget it and get some sleep.

The flight was smooth. We arrived at London Gatwick Airport at 13:10. We had definitely missed our 13:03 train to Reading, but we must try to catch the next one at 14:00. As soon as we got off the plane, we rushed to the Customs. Fortunately, the line was short. Counter to my experience at the US border, where the Customs officers all wore a stone face, the officers here were polite and smiling, making me feel more welcome.

Passing the Customs only took fifteen minutes, but getting luggage took another twenty-five. We had ten minutes left for catching the train. With our luggage, we ran to the train station at one end of the airport, where we had to fetch our prepaid tickets from a machine. There were three people in front of us, but the first person took an awfully long time. I kept looking at my watch, 13:52, 13:53, 13:54, 13:55, 13:56. By this point, I gave up. There was no way we could catch the train in four minutes. Finally, the first person started moving. Very quickly the second person was done, and the third, then us! I looked at my watch again, 13:58.

We grabbed our luggage and went through the ticket center following an arrow on the wall. Preparing to run again, I was surprised to find myself already on the right platform. But the train wasn’t there. An overhead display said that the next train for Reading would leave at 14:03. So the train hadn’t arrived yet and we still had five minutes to wait. “My goodness! They really mean it!” I exclaimed with relief. “When they say 14:03, they don’t show up before 14:00!” “This is England.” S replied proudly. “We are serious about train schedules.”

We got on the train, which wasn’t very full, and made ourselves comfortable. Shortly after the train started, a ticket inspector came. Since our reservation wasn’t printed on the tickets, we had no trouble. At least we made the first of our three trains.

We spent an hour and fifteen minutes on the train. I looked out of the window at the English landscape. It looked familiar at the first sight. Green fields divided into patches, the color and the size very similar to those of the rural area around Shanghai. The difference was in the hills, which gave more variety to the scenery. At one moment, the train ran along the bottom of a valley surrounded by hill tops; and the next, the train climbed over a hill, presenting a vast land expanding up and down to the horizon. Animals such as cows, sheep, horses and deer were often seen in the fields, which wasn’t the case when travelling in Canada.

We arrived at Reading at 15:18. Obviously having missed our reserved mainline train, we got on the next one at 15:32. The train was quite full. We managed to find seats separately. Now we had to worry about the ticket inspector, because the mainline train ticket came with a reservation coupon showing our reserved time and seats. Whether we were allowed to sit in this train lay completely at the mercy of the ticket inspector.

The inspector appeared and checked passengers one by one. I had the airline note ready. It was my turn. I gave the inspector my ticket but kept the reservation coupon in my hand, hoping that he wouldn’t ask for it. But right away, it didn’t work. “Not this one. The other one.” He demanded. He started looking at the reservation coupon in my hand. I opened my mouth and was about to tell him about the flight delay when he announced, “Get off at Exeter St. David’s. That’s right. Thank you.” He moved on to the next passenger. Later I learned from S that the inspector wasn’t being careless, but was apparently in a good mood, to let us go. So we made our second train.

Now came our biggest challenge. How to catch the last train from Exeter to Dawlish, which would leave at 17:15; for we would arrive at Exeter at 17:18. But I was so exhausted at this point that, instead of worrying more, I fell asleep.

We arrived at Exeter St. David’s on time, and our anticipated train was naturally gone. By a strike of luck, right at the platform where we got off, another train had been five minutes late and was just pulling into the station. And it was going to Dawlish too! We happily got on and made the last train of our journey.

Now we should remember S’s father’s second helpful suggestion: sit on the left side where the view was better. So we did, although I had no idea what view to expect. Five minutes later, I saw a small river running parallel with the train. There were towns on both sides. Gradually, the river grew wider and wider. Without me noticing when, the other bank of the river disappeared. The water extended all the way to the sky. The surface of the water rose and sank rhythmically and formed waves near the shore. “It’s the sea!” I recognized with joy. “I told you we would stay by the English Channel.” S reminded me. My fatigue was suddenly forgotten. Not having seen the sea for many years, I felt like absorbing every sight of it into me.

The train ran along the sea shore for a while and stopped at Dawlish. As soon as I got off the train, I heard the soothing noise from the breaking of waves and smelled the refreshing salt air. The seagulls’ cries emphasized the grandness of the space.

We met S’s father, Peter, standing in the parking lot beside a small, yellow, Honda hatchback. I used to hear that Europeans had small cars. I could see it was true. I tried to get in the car from the right side, but only then realized it was the driver’s seat. Of course, this was England.

We headed home. Having driven cars in Canada, I was habitually anticipating the traffic but constantly surprised when cars crossed each other on the right side. My ambition of driving in England during the vacation diminished. I would need quite some time to get used to the English traffic.

We started driving along a tiny curved road only two meters wide. Bushes on both sides would often scrub our car windows. I was told that this was a notorious Devon lane. They were built for carriages but hadn’t been upgraded since the popularization of cars. And mind you, they were two-ways. “What happens if two cars meet in the middle of such a narrow lane?” I asked. “Well, one of them has to back all the way out.” Peter replied. “And you have to back out very quickly before another car gets behind you. But don’t worry. People here are very good at it.” It was true that during my stay in Devon County, I would see several times a driver skillfully backing a car for twenty meters to the entrance of a lane in order to let another car pass.

After climbing up a very steep slope, the car parked in front of a little house with a little garden. From here, you could see the River Exe down the hill. The air smelled almost sweet, and I noticed my headache was gone. Of course, how could anyone have a headache in such fresh air?

I met S’s mother, Ailsa, a kind lady who possessed the same sense of humor as S. After food and a shower, I went to bed. Everything was quiet, except once in a while I heard seagulls outside the window and the whistle of a train along the river side. I fell asleep quickly….

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