05.04.2010 - 06.04.2010 17 °C
I don’t know why everyone thinks of British trains as being scruffy and never on time. I dare say past neglect has contributed to this now hopefully mythical idea. The fact is, the last two occasions I’ve travelled on trains here, they have been both on-time and clean. Not to mention very frequent.
You may have guessed that Ann and I have arrived in England. Funny really, because we don’t feel we have. Twenty-four hours ago we were saying farewell to family in Perth Western Australia; now we are just pulling out of Salisbury on a train bound for Axminster. The whole process has been a piece of cake in spite of the fact that we are both dishevelled, disorientated and desperately in need of showers.
We left Perth on time at 3:30 pm on Easter Monday aboard an A330 Airbus. The flight was uneventful and we landed in Singapore at about 9pm. To digress a moment, I have never understood why people complain about airline food. I quite like it. OK, it’s hardly haute cuisine, but I’ve eaten far worse. I think the environment contributes to the poor impression airline food has; after all you’re crammed in like battery hens in your seats, dropping great lumps of agneau avec pommes frites down your front every time your neighbour bumps you with his elbow - hardly an atmosphere conducive to fine dining.
Anyway, where was I? Oh yes. We had a two hour wait in Changi Airport; and while it’s a haven for women with an eye for pointless bits of coloured glass and a nose for exclusive French pongs, I find it all a bit boring. It is however the brightest, shiniest, cleanest and most attractive airport I’ve ever been too (and I’ve seen a few in my time).
The first moment of panic on the trip came when I noticed that the last call for our flight was flashing on the electronic departures board. Ann was working off her terror of flying by indulging in some jewellery shopping in ‘Madame Butterfly’ as I was making my way to Gate C23. I was already hacked off by her incessant griping so far on the trip (something to do with her terror of flying, or so she says); so when I realised I had to dash back several hundred metres dragging her bag and mine, I was ready to rip the head off anyone who got in my way.
Luckily halfway to Madame Butterfly I met her ambling back, oblivious to any urgency and the beads of sweat running down my back. As it was, we ended up at the end of a queue waiting to go through the transit passenger security check; so all was well. We sat at the boarding gate, one side of which looked out on to the planes docked at their stations. Adjacent to our gate sat a huge gleaming white monster that I recognised straight away as the new A380 Airbus. We were booked onto a 747, so I could only imagine what flying on the new Super Jumbo would be like. I was puzzled however by the fact that it seemed to be parked where we were due to board. I spoke to a chap next to Ann who said that it was indeed our plane. Yippee! It seems I was going to get my wish of flying in an A380!
It has to be said that cattle class on the A380 is much like that on any other plane: cramped and noisy. Sleeping was, as expected, somewhat fractured, sitting bolt upright one minute, then to the left side the next and so on. After a few hours of this one eventually sinks into a deeper than expected sleep, only to wake with a start when the ‘hostey’ rattles past with yet another drinks service.
Landed at Heathrow with a small bump (incredible when you think what a gigantic lumbering beast the A380 is). Customs and immigration was a mere formality for both of us. Even Ann being a foreign national was amazed at the swiftness with which she went through.
Now – how to get to Axminster to meet our motorhome sellers. A cheerful lady at airport information led us to another cheerful lady at the ‘National Express Coach & Rail’ booth; with the payment of £94 we were booked on a short coach trip to Woking, then a two hour train ride to Axminster. All terribly easy.
We arrived in Axminster just after midday and decided to have a quick lunch at the station café. The food was served by friendly staff, and we watched the passers-by wend their way to their various destinations. I have to take a moment now to say that since arriving in England (and that was three days ago) everyone has been warm, friendly and welcoming. And it’s not because we come from Down Under. The people have needed no prompting. It’s been fantastic.
We finally managed to call Helen who’d kindly offered to have her husband Steve pick us up in his estate car (station wagon to the folks back home). When he arrived he was nothing if not cheerful and easy-going in his manner, treating us as though we were relatives come to stay. He’s a tall slim chap, with fair complexion and boyish good looks; and the kind of countenance that makes you feel instantly at ease.
We arrived at the James’ home on North Street, a recently renovated semi-detached just two minutes from the town centre. An attractive woman walked down the drive to greet us - Helen, and it was like meeting up with a favourite cousin or sister – instant warmth.
We stayed with the James’ for 24 hours, in which time we enjoyed all the comforts of home. We ate with them, drank with them and chatted animatedly without the often difficult pauses new acquaintances have. We met Helen’s sister Sophie and her husband Joe, two wonderfully cheerful characters who live three doors down. They invited us all to have drinks at the end of their garden. Nothing terribly exciting in that, one would think except – their garden was a hundred yards long! It was narrow as most British backyards are, but this one (and all the neighbouring ones) climbed up and up and up, a seriously steep incline until we reached a lovely pine cabin perched at the top like an eagle’s eyrie. We all sat outside on the front decking looking out on the glorious Devon countryside, drinking gin and tonic, eating cheese, biscuits and garlic-stuffed olives. It was magic, except that it was very cold and I and Ann were rugged up like arctic explorers.
The next day, after a morning of organising MOTs and vehicle insurance, Ann and I ventured out in, what to me, was an enormously large vehicle, through roads that seemed enormously narrow. We’d booked an MOT nearby in Offwell for Friday; so we decided to stay close to Axminster until then. We ended up at a CL in Musbury (a CL is a Certified Location, a term used for small official campsites catering for no more than five caravans or motorhomes). It was a farmhouse run by a retired couple, both locals, and they were as pleasant a pair as you could hope to meet. We spent two nights there, and I’ve been sleeping more soundly than I have for the past six years. We’d been out buying up all the essentials for the motorhome, which included two duck down-filled duvets – and are they warm and cosy!
Friday came and went, the vehicle passed its MOT and we drove on past Axminster to another CL in Chickerell, just a few kilometres outside of Weymouth and on the south coast. We’re coming up to our second night here, And while it hasn’t been all smooth sailing (driving this big left-hand drive vehicle on these narrow fast roads has left me a gibbering wreck), the weather has been simply fantastic, and we’ve seen some beautiful villages.
We stopped for lunch at Abbottsbury, a wonderfully typical example of British country villages. At the Swan Inn I had a pint of the local ale and a steak and kidney pie and vegetables, while Ann had a wine and a stilton, leek and walnut pie. It was magic and the pub small, cosy and atmospheric. The village itself was tidy and photogenic, with thatched stone cottages hugging the absurdly narrow streets and quaint antique shops, art galleries and the like.
Whilst walking past one of the stone cottages, Ann happened to notice some knitted stuffed toys. There was Wallace and Gromit, some Beatrix Potter figures, and some ‘Dickensian’ mice. Ann tapped apprehensively at the cottage door, and it was opened by an elderly gent who ushered us into a tiny front room. A small, kindly very elderly lady stood up from her armchair and welcomed us – this could only happen in Britain. It was a scene of quintessential country life that seems almost hard to grasp for we townfolk from the 21st century. Ann bought a Dickensian mouse carrying a lantern, and after a few friendly exchanges about the wonderful sunny weather we left.