Believe it or not, one of the things I miss in rural Western New York is travelling by public transport. Coming to London for Christmas, it's nice not to have to drive everywhere. Hubby and I were headed to Sussex to visit relatives.Remember those old ads? "Let the train take the strain", we thought.
It started off promisingly. We arrived nice and early to take the train down to Chichester, from where there was an easy bus ride, we were told, to Midhurst, which was where we wanted to be. This would be simpler, we were told, than going to Haslemere, which was nearer but would involve two bus rides. I had forgotten that, where British public transport is concerned, nothing is ever simple.
Things looked really good until we were a few minutes out of Clapham Junction. A place called Selhurst, to be exact. Which I could tell hubby very little about save that it had some connection with Crystal Palace football club. That was then. Now, the name Selhurst will live in infamy. The train wasn't supposed to stop at Selhurst but it did. And that was the first time we heard the ominous words, "Conductor, please contact the driver." We didn't know then but we know now that the words "Conductor, please contact the driver" are an unfailing portent of trouble ahead.
Then came the first announcement. There was a landslide in Hooley - or was it Horley? The train was stopped. Some time later, the next announcement. The conductor was bravely negotiating with Control to unlock some platform gates, so that passengers who wanted to could actually leave the train. If they were so inclined they might find a bus to take them to East Croydon. We looked out through the foggy drizzle to a seemingly abandoned station. We wanted to be marooned there even less than we wanted to go to East Croydon. We decided to stay
. After a while, the lady driver came on. "I expect you can tell I'm smiling", she said, "Because I have good news. They've cleared the landslide. We'll shortly be on our way.". This time we got as far as Horsham.
"Conductor please contact the driver", boomed over the tannoy. We started to feel uneasy. The conductor came on again, "We're sorry to tell you, ladies and gentlemen, that because of flooding in the Arundel area, this train will be held here indefinitely. We waited an indefinite time. Then, another announcement, "Replacement buses will be available outside the station entrance." We all piled out and a man resembling Second Officer Lightoller marshalling passengers to the last lifeboat on the Titanic. tried to herd us in the direction of the buses. There were, it transpired, no buses. We stood waiting in the dripping rain, in the company of forlorn families with their Christmas luggage, while a Southern Trains official wandered around aimlessly with a walkie-talkie."We should," I said to hubby, "Have gone to Haslemere."
Then several buses went past but none stopped. "What colour are these buses we're waiting for?" shouted a man. "Dunno. Pink I think," said the official. Then a promising-looking coach with "Luxury Travel" on the side stopped opposite us. Considering the number of waiting passengers, it was not very big. We gritted our teeth and prepared to charge. The official with the walkie talkie called out, "May I have your attention please!" We all turned and crowded round in desperate expectation, like animals waiting to be fed.
"I've got good news for you!" said the official. "For those of you who weren't looking forward to taking a bus, there's a train at platform three. Control has decided the floods are not a threat and the train can proceed."
"Where's the train going?" we shouted. "South", he said, without going into detail, "Everyone should take this train and you will be informed when we know what the stopping pattern is. Please listen carefully for announcements."
We listened very carefully indeed. We had to because the stopping pattern proved to be a moveable feast. As we stared in alarm out of the train windows at muddy fields full of half-drowned sheep and flood waters lapping the track, the train rattling along a virtual causeway, Control finally decided that the train would terminate in a place called Barnham. This was just one stop from Chichester, oh so tantalisingly near. "But" said the Conductor, "If you want to go to Chichester, all you need to do is cross the platform, where a train to Portsmouth is about to arrive. The train arrived. We got in. We sat and waited. I remarked "Any minute now, we're going to hear... "
"Conductor please contact the driver", blasted the tannoy.
Then we heard from the driver, "We are just waiting for a driver", he said, "Well what are you?" growled my American husband, rapidly tiring of the charms of Southern Trains."
The driver stuck to his guns. "Passengers for Chichester are advised to cross the platform and take the train about to arrive. We apologise for this delay, which is due to a landslide in Hooley, (or was it Horley?) floods at Arundel and a fire at Brighton."
"Good grief, I muttered, "Those Mayas got the blinking date wrong. The end of the world's today, not yesterday. Only one woman lost her cool and started screaming at the driver. "The trouble with British people", I said, "is that they're too stoical".
"This wouldn't happen in America", said hubby. I forbore to mention that you're lucky to see a train in America at all.
When we finally got out at Chichester, it was four hours later and the bus for Midhurst had just left.
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