Saturday, May 7, 2016

-- Sleepless in England --

It is a cliche spring afternoon. The sun breaks through a light cold breeze blowing from the West and commuters rush into their homes to start their bank holiday, creating ripples of bad traffic queues, the same way butterflies do inside my stomach at the thought of taking a ferry ride to England.

Shortly after being warned by the check in staff that no train connections were available on arrival in Wales, a handful of passengers and I are bussed into the ferry. An intimidating large vessel framed by thick steel walls painted in white, red and blue, dotted with small windows.
Ships always fascinated me. An ongoing mankind race for higher capacity, size or speed. The subject of countless tales and discoveries, large pieces of floating steel which shape the way our goods are moved across the globe.
The ferry seems to float over the low tide at Dublin Bay at dusk, in a time in which the clear skies turn orange and the street lights of the city fade through the Irish Sea mist.

My stomach and I applaud the arrival into dormant Holyhead Port some three hours later, the reverse engines making the windows tremble, whilst sturdy men in thick rain jackets run across thin steel platforms and moor our ship to the domains of Anglesey.

An island within an island within an island. Holyhead is not a town of many happenings, particularly when the clocks hit 1:00 in the morning and only drunk residents are seen clumsily walking through the deserted damp streets of the little town. I find myself a cozy place in the cold white floor of the ferry terminal, trying to keep warm with a vending machine tasteless tea, waiting for over three hours for a train out of this tragically placed town.
The loud chattering of two Indian ladies interrupts my peace on the short journey to Llandudno Junction, where the sun emerges from the silver horizon drawn by Colwyn Bay, whilst the maritime sights of North Wales give way to broad fields sporting colours worth of a Monet painting on approach to Crewe, where a modern bullet-shaped train sprints its way through the Midlands and sinks on brick-layered tunnels on approach to London Euston.

The sun breaks through the intricate structure of the platform at Euston, also breaking through my every single memory of previous visits to this overcast metropolis filled with angry commuters looking at the tourists with disdain, yet largely depending on foreign investment.
Instead, it is a warm Saturday morning and the pavements are taken by morning joggers in tight leggings timidly smirking at early rising tourists buried in large paper maps winding their way around the sea of embassies at Mayfair.
I meet my friend at Victoria Station, a place that has seen the conquers and defeats of each one of my visits to London, evoking memories from my times as crew raiding the Mark & Spencer's shop for overly-buttered cookies, or the struggle to find a space on a train to Gatwick amidst a winter storm.

Next is Buckingham Palace, sinking in a sea of selfie sticks and Union Jacks. The guards parading along The Mall as they do every day, whilst their black boots stomp on the hard pavement and their eyes avoid eye contact with the thousands of tourists who see this as a main London attraction.
Through Picadilly once again to Covent Garden and onwards to Embankment, following the windy journey of the murky Thames along its South Bank all the way to Tower Bridge.

We are joined by another friend. Her life in London started about eight years ago and, despite being close to Dublin, our lives at these latitudes had not yet met.
Old friends, old times. The afternoon unfolds in Greenwich, fulfilling old and new stories are told and laughed of in contrast to the 'microscopically-sized' hipster burgers and fancy sweet potato fries being served.
Greenwich is always a good idea. A nice escapade from the busy bland landscape of Victorian London, wrapped under a layer of bright green grassland raising over a hill. Standing at this point, the megalopolis in the distance looks like a still (and somehow peaceful) landscape dominated by two clusters of window boxes, typical of a business centre, separated by a low-rising horizon of brick-layered houses.

A return to the city is executed in style, staying away from the dark domains of the claustrophobic 'tube' and instead, caressed by the humid breeze of the Thames blowing through our hair whilst our public transport speedboat (at £5, a total bargain) gains speed over the murky waters, navigating its way through buildings and boats of all sorts. A privileged view of Tower Bridge, a privileged view of a city that never seems to stop.
The wind blows stronger and colder at sunset, a call for sheltering in Covent Garden around hot and thin pizzas, prior to our good-byes at Victoria Station, where our train to the coast awaits, a mix of tired commuters, their faces showing the fatigue through the baggy eyelids, and party animals, hands covered in glitter and worn out makeup, gobbling on fast food out of brown paper bags. The rest of the journey is a blur of stops in the middle of the night and a neck pain, result of a terrible position to fall asleep.

Brighton is reached at nearly 01:00am. The walk from the train station to the seafront animated by crowds of drunk youngsters holding cans of beer and bags of greasy chips, winding their way through the steep hillside streets of this town, known for its night life.
My friend takes her bus home, I rush to the Happy Hostel. The sloppy night receptionist opens the door and in the thickest English accent enunciates: 'your booking is cancelled, our cut-off time is 20:00pm, we gave away your bed. Find somewhere else', statement corroborated by the owner of the premises, his screams heard from the other side of the line, evoking imaginary images of a fat British man in his pyjamas, indulging on Saturday night take away food, late-night Jeremy Kyle and terrible manners.

A night I might never forget. My shoulders tired with the weight of the backpack and the lack of sleep from the previous night, my feet tired of walking through the damp streets of the town, and my skin reddened by the chilling oceanic wind. For brief moments, my mind envies the homeless people tucked in dark corners. At least they have quilts!
I find shelter at a Burger King joint for an hour. The sun slowly breaks through the pristine horizon of the English Channel, also revealing a white building ran by Hostelling International where I am offered a sofa to rest the head for a few hours.

Hours later, myself, my friend and other tourists travel through the coast line of Southern England. The buzz of Brighton slowly surrendering to tall cliffs and suburbs lined with thatched cottages, built in burgundy coloured bricks, under the shelter of vivid recently-blossomed cherry trees, a journey ending in the vastness of the round green fields of the English countryside, stop for the Seven Sisters.

I have seen sea cliffs before. The majestic isolation of the Slieve League cliffs in the Northwestern coast of Ireland, or perhaps the urban-dominated cliffs of Miraflores in Lima, overlooking a wild roaring Pacific underneath.
The Seven Sisters are also unique. Sea cliffs primarily made of chalk, which have succumbed to the perpetual erosion of the cold English Channel waters, giving this landscape its unique bright white colour, which shines even stronger under the clear skies, raising the terrain contour for seven times, providing the place with its name.
Nap, pictures and 'fish & chips' wrap this day, which seems to have blended with the previous two in a continuous time frenzy. I check into my hostel and indulge on the pleasures of a warm shower, a pint of strawberry cider at the downstairs bar, and retreat to the comfort of my warm bed sheets for the night...

... until at 04:00am, the door bangs. 'Police open up' is followed by a loud thud. My body fails to react. In between dreams, I hear how an arrest is made in my own dorm. The guest sleeping on the bunk bed below mine in trouble, resisting to accusation and finally taken over to the police station.
A friendly police man taps my arm, I wake up as he tries to hide his head around his shoulders in an rather embarrassed and apologetic way. Two apologies later, I am screened through a basic whereabouts police check and, after a last apology, left to sleep whilst the rest of his team look for fingerprints in the bathroom.

Did that actually happen? In the morning, I shower, pack my bags and checkout. At the downstairs bars, a staff member explains that such character had been accused of assaulting someone on the streets and the police took him away, confirming that the events above were not just a bad dream.

The weather deteriorates and the lively Brighton Pier is covered in a mix of mist and light rain, an ambiance ideal for time-traveling to an era in which this place was dominated by ladies promenading in vintage cake-layered dresses, sheltered under draped umbrellas and holding hands with gentlemen wearing top hats and black suits whilst munching on Brighton rocks and soft cones.
The Westerly wind clears the mist by midday. Brighton wears its hipster card and a fancy paella is devoured on colourful paper plates for lunch. A coffee and a cake with my friend working as a send off from Sussex.

Big port cranes endure the heavy rain falling in the area. My window covered in mist blurs the sight of these structures blending with housing estates and villages in the distance. I transfer at Portsmouth, the train rolling North detaching from the cold sea and cutting through hills covered in an assortment of sunflower plantations, and fields populated by bright white sheep, conquering towns and canals with bridges and tunnels carved in the terrain over a century ago.

Bristol is next. Perhaps my favourite city in England. Clean, hilly and liveable. The Avon turned silver under the spring sunshine, the city resting at the compass of students preparing for exams. I meet a friend for some basic catch up around a succulent lasagna and succumb to the fatigue, only waking up in the morning for the early commute to Dublin.
My flight is delayed, our aircrafts are exchanged and for once, I fall asleep before take off only to open my eyes when the landing gears are deployed over the Northern suburbs of Dublin.

I may now finally sleep.