Posts Tagged ‘Help for Heroes’

London, baby! Or, er, actually, maybe not…..

Sunday, July 29th, 2012

Before last Thursday, I hadn’t been on a train for  – ooh – about ten years. And I can now safely say that time, plus extra, will pass before I get on one again. Especially if it is run by First Great Western (the irony in this name is extraordinary). Let me paint for you a very full picture of what happened last Thursday.

July 26th, 7am, was the date and time picked by my brother, Charles, and his eleven teammates, to depart from the Cenotaph in central London to cycle to Istanbul. They were going to make it the 28th  but then realised that this was the day that the Olympic cycling races were taking place through London, so it could all get a bit confusing. Not to mention competitive. However, this epic bike ride will take them approximately forty days and they are doing it to raise money for Help for Heroes. This is a staggering challenge and all the more impressive because these people are not professional sports people, they are a group of students from Exeter University who all applied to join this team a year or so ago because they support the cause so wholeheartedly. They did have a fitness test, but essentially the team was created to be a cohesive group who would manage to cycle over 4,000km and not fall out with each other. For the last few months they have all trained tirelessly, cycling distances of up to 60-70km at a time to prepare themselves for the gruelling six weeks or so they have ahead of them now, where they will hopefully cover around 120km per day. They have fundraised extensively, needing money to live on as well as to donate to the charity, they have had heads shaved, legs waxed in public, organised quiz nights, events, sweepstakes – anything to raise money. And they’ve done it. Charles actually took his finals at the same time as training for this and gained a 2:1 Honours degree in History from Exeter University. The families behind these cyclists have watched them prepare for months, in awe and trepidation, and it was agreed that we would all gather at the Cenotaph at 7am on July 26th to give them the best and most supportive send-off for this momentous journey that we possibly could, we built up to that day for months. So the fact that we didn’t actually make it is more than galling.

I drove from Hampshire to Berkshire the night before, which wasn’t planned, but a phone call at 7pm from my mother deemed this to be the necessary action. And you know what it’s like when your mother tells you to do something…… So I flung the bare necessities for myself and little Alice into a bag and drove to my mother’s house where the group travelling to London the next day had gathered. There were eight of us: my mother, my step-father, my two step-brothers, my half-brother, myself and my two daughters. Our alarms were set for 5am to allow us to be at the station at 5:45am for a 6:10am train. An early start, in other words. But it was so lovely to see everyone that we all sat up drinking wine and no-one went to bed until midnight.

We actually managed to be at the station by 5:30am the following day, so well-prepared were we. Our horror was missing the train – that absolutely could not be allowed to happen. So, dressed for the heat of the day that we knew was coming, we all froze on a station platform for half an hour as we waited. One London-bound train came and went but that was a slow stopping service so too late for us which was a shame, it would have been nice to hop on board that nice, warm train. Never mind, ours was due any minute. Or so we thought. At about 6:05am there was an announcement from a pleasant-sounding woman informing us that the train was delayed. Just that, no hint or clue given as to when we might expect it. We looked at each other in horror. Quite apart from the fact that we really couldn’t afford to be late, the three children with us were by now very cold and bored. We watched that information board like Christopher Columbus scanning the horizon. But it obstinately refused to say anything other than ‘delayed’. And that a slow train to London would be arriving at 6:28am. No good to us. We hopped around to warm up, we gritted our teeth, we prayed, we made deals with God and any other deity that happened to be listening and evidently one of them was, because suddenly we were given a time – “The 6:10am service to London Paddington will be delayed by approximately 17 minutes.” So it would be arriving at 6:27am. Not brilliant but not disastrous. A phone call to Charles confirmed that the team were prepared to leave as late as 7:30am We watched the clock anxiously. And then we saw a train in the distance. This was it! Or was it? Was it ours or was it the 6:28am slow train? We didn’t know. We couldn’t know. What on earth were we going to do? But then, to our relief,  there came an announcement “The delayed 6:10am train to London Paddington will arriving on Platform 4.” That was us, perfect. With grins and sighs of relief that rivalled the gales in the Great Storm of 1987, we waited until it drew level and climbed aboard. We even managed to find seats for us all to sit together. This was it, we were on our way! About three minutes later, my 17 year old step-brother said “Er, Dad? This is the slow service.” What! In horror we looked at the information screen and sure enough, this train was scheduled to stop at about 100 stations before Paddington and take three weeks to get there, as it proved by sliding to a halt just metres from our station at its first stop. This was a disaster, if we stayed on this train we’d miss them leaving for sure. There was only one thing for it – the slow train and the express train were both due to stop at Slough. We’d have to hope and pray (and do deals with deities) that the slow train arrived first and we could swap. We glued our faces to the window of the train to see if the express train overtook us – if it did, all was lost. It was a tense ten minutes. But it didn’t! We leapt out of the train at Slough and glanced frantically around for the express train. This was where it all started getting very “National Lampoons On Their Way To The Cenotaph”. As I mentioned, 8 of us in the group, including my step-father dressed in a smart suit for work, my mother with her bad hip and ankle limping everywhere, a lethargic  12 and 10 year old who looked like they’d sleep on the tracks if we let them, and a five year old with very short legs. Oh, and I was wearing flip-flops. We weren’t going to get anywhere fast.  But fast we had to be, unfortunately.  With massive effort we raced collectively up two flights of steps, over the bridge to the correct platform and down another flight. Thank goodness, we’d made it. Then an announcement – “The express service for London Paddington will now be leaving from Platform 8.” The one we’d just come from! So our strange, raggle-taggle group, along with the other million passengers waiting for the train, flung themselves up the steps, over the bridge, the older boys running ahead, when suddenly, on the bridge itself, a commotion took place and one million and 8 passengers froze in mid-flight – the express train looked like it was not going to Platform 8! It seemed to be going to the original platform. But we couldn’ t tell yet, it wasn’t close enough. We had to wait in an horrific limbo on the bridge until it passed beneath us to see which platform it went to, because helpfully, there was no information given. But we made it, we collapsed into our seats and looked at the information screen to check we were on the right train. The information read “Train arrived late from depot.” And the information stayed the same all the way to London. Thanks, First Great Western, absolutely brilliant.

Meanwhile frantic phone calls were taking place with Charles. The team had gathered at the Cenotaph at 6:30am and were preparing to depart. Where were we, he wanted to know. About to get into London, he was told. Right, well, they’d wait as long as they could but no promises, we were told. And then the reception cut out. There followed an agonising, breath-holding, wait as the train crawled into the station and then we all leapt out and ran for our lives through the ticket barriers, down the concourse to the Underground. And down yet more steps, we ran headlong towards the platform for the tube; the sprinting businessman, the disabled lady, the tiny child and me doing that toes-curled-over run people do when trying to keep flip-flops on their feet.

From this point onwards all went smoothly with our journey, the tube service was fantastic (of course it was, London has a most fabulous Mayor at the moment to keep everything in shape) but we just weren’t quick enough. The delayed First Great Western train and misinformation had seen to it that we missed the departure of the cycle team. We ran through Westminster station, got outside, underneath Big Ben, at which point we realised that not one of us actually knew which direction the Cenotaph was in. So we spent a few seconds yelling at each other about why hadn’t someone looked at a bloody map, but it didn’t matter. By the time we found it a minute or so later, we learned that the team had left five minutes before.  Disappointed doesn’t even cover it. We’d been up since 5am, endured a horrible journey to London, little Alice was nearly collapsed with all the running she’d had to do, and my mother was wondering aloud whether she needed an ambulance for her hip. And we hadn’t even got to say goodbye to Charles. The group that trailed back to Paddington was a sombre (and injured) one. Some of us cried, it was just too awful. And then as we sat in miserable silence on the train, something occurred to me. They may have left London, but where were they heading? Dover. We could drive to Dover!

“We’re going to Dover,” I announced and the mood suddenly lifted. We couldn’t not say goodbye to Charles, we couldn’t not see the team, not after the months and months of anticipation. We had to make the effort. How far was Dover? I had no idea. But no matter.  Myself, my mother and the three smallest children climbed into the car an hour later. It occurred to me that after my late night, early start and frantic journey to London that I’d probably fall asleep mid-drive, but I couldn’t let a triviality like that stop me.

The only thing was navigation. We were taking my mother’s car, which has a sophisticated on-board sat nav – but neither of us could work it. Not a problem, we got my 17 year old brother to programme it before we left and I watched him like a hawk to ensure it was correct, I’d had enough of haring around pointlessly. And then we set off! The children were so tired they fell asleep instantly and an unexpected calm descended. Dover wasn’t that far (we hadn’t checked, we didn’t quite know how far) and the cycle team weren’t due to get there until 4pm. We had hours, I thought happily as we sailed towards the M4 on the first stage of our journey. And then the sat-nav instructed me to turn right, away from the motorway. Couldn’t be right, surely? But “It’s OK, it’s taking us directly to the M25,” my mother said confidently, so I turned. And drove underneath the motorway we needed towards Windsor. I was directed through Eton, around Eton and then through Eton again in the opposite direction. “It’s all right,” my mother was saying, “it knows where it’s going.” We drove across the motorway a further three times without actually joining it as my unease grew ever greater, it was now almost an hour since we’d left home. Then we arrived at Heathrow. As in, jets were landing by the side of us and I couldn’t be certain that we hadn’t been directed onto a runway. Something was up with the sat-nav, that was for sure. I peered slightly closer at it and saw that our estimated arrival time was 5pm. No! That couldn’t be right? I voiced these objections as planes thundered around us and as the sat-nav cheerfully guided us straight on – into central London – and a quick phone call to my step-father confirmed my fears – the sat-nav had been programmed to avoid motorways.  We all began to wonder then if our journey was fated. Maybe we just weren’t supposed to say goodbye to Charles.

We hopped onto the M4, seeing as it was right next to us, and our progress began in earnest. We switched off the sophisticated sat-nav, my mother found a battered old map from 1988 and we plotted our route using that. M4, M25, M26 and then M20 into Dover. Easy. Except, hang on, the cycle team weren’t going to be on the motorways were they? And we needed to find them. What roads were they using? What was their route? Something occurred to us both in one horrifying second – we had absolutely no idea what roads they would be on to travel to Dover. How could we find out? A few quick texts confirmed that nobody knew what route they were going. Brilliant. Not one person had thought beyond their departure from the Cenotaph. And now we were feverishly speeding towards Kent with no clue as to where they might be, and Charles had turned his phone off to save battery so we had no way of finding out. When we thought about it, the only detail that we actually had as to their final destination tonight was, er, ‘Dover’. Using a desperate logic that was our only weapon against our ineptitude, we calculated that they would take the quickest route, which would mean the A20. So we took the A20 as soon as we could and started keeping our eyes open for cyclists. We had no idea whether they were ahead or behind us, so we just kept driving. And then – hallelujah! – Charles switched his phone on and rang. They were ahead of us but had stopped for lunch. We found a pub along their route, ordered some food and sat back to watch the team pass. We waited….and waited….and waited. We knew when they’d set off again but an hour later they had failed to reach us. It was boiling hot, we were standing in midday sun for more than an hour staring desperately down the road. I’ll see that road in my mind until my dying day. And they still didn’t come. I was convinced we, or they, had gone wrong somewhere. Despondently, we climbed back into the car and as I did so, my shoe broke. So I had to drive with one bare foot. It just kept on getting better. We drove slowly along the road checking for them and then – suddenly – a line of bikes materialised in the distance! We had finally FOUND THEM! I did a dangerous U-turn on the A20 and drove alongside them. The windows were down, we all shouted and cheered and clapped and whooped and beeped the horn. They probably hated us. We rushed back to the pub, leapt out and back to where we’d been standing for the last hour and a half and waited for them to come past, which they did, and we jumped around and clapped and cheered and shouted again – our exhausted, injured party and me with one flip-flop on. Then we quickly drove on with the support vehicle and waited for them in a lay-by for when they stopped for their rest. When they arrived Charles looked absolutely exhausted and dehydrated. We were quite worried about him – until we saw another team member had gone to lie down in a graveyard so I think he felt worse. The heat of the day had made it very difficult for them, so we handed out water, smoothed in suncream and generally aided them. Goodness knows what they thought. But it didn’t matter because we had done it. We had caught up with them, we saw Charles, we saw them cycling and now we can imagine what they look like on the road as they make their slow, steady way down towards Istanbul. That’s the important thing. Along with sponsoring them. I’ve included the link to their Just Giving page below and I know it feels like people are constantly asking to be sponsored for something these days, but if anyone does feel that they can spare a pound or two, these guys would appreciate it so much.

the Exeter Uni, London-Istanbul cycle team (photo by Chris Bushe)

And as it turned out, it was a good thing that our sleuthing skills located the team on the A20 because we would never have found them in Dover – they were going to Folkstone.

me and Charles