Beheaded in Rome in 304AD at the age of 14 for refusing to renounce his Christian faith, Saint Pancras became the patron saint of children. Quite fitting then, that London’s St Pancras Station is a place where you will see tiny children taking overseas holidays, following their adults through the throngs of travelers with their own tiny wheely suitcases. One woman with a very Sloane Square accent, turned to her son as we crossed paths through the hordes towards the underground, to ask “Darling! Would you like to go and see the Crown Jewels sometime?”. Would that the likes of Dara and the blind lady’s young daughters in their bamboo leafed hut could even imagine such an indulgence!
Completed as a combined railway station and hotel in 1877, the station is a Gothic edifice of cathedral-like spires, arched windows and entranceways built with a distinctive red brickwork. Euston Road is not short of beautiful and historic buildings but St Pancras dwarfs them, looming like a Harry Potter illusion. A couple of rare collectible cars sit in lonely splendour in the residents-only car park on the cobbled stones outside the multi-million-pound apartments of the converted hotel. Inside the station are enormous brass statues, plaques and sculptures commemorating various aspects of railway history and culture. A massive arched, glass and steel ceiling towers above trains parked behind glass walls on a mezzanine floor overlooking the lower level of bars, restaurants, shops, currency exchanges, banks and platform entranceways. Within the past eight years St Pancras Station received a £6 billion overhaul and became the arrival and departure point for the Eurostar railway between Britain and Europe.
Starting their international travel early, I am sure that in years to come the toddlers wheeling their tiny cases through busy concourses will know my following travel tips by osmosis, not making such foolish mistakes as I have. Alas, my last European travel was in 2003 when things were rather different to the way they are now for people wanting to jaunt across the English Channel. My excitement at the idea of a trip to Prague which so many friends have raved about, was boosted when I found a return flight for the total of £50. Without giving it a second thought I booked immediately. Here’s what I have learned since then:
- Stansted International Airport is 40 miles and 45 minutes by train from Liverpool St Station in the City of London. Tickets cost £19 one way or £32 return. It is possible to purchase tickets online prior to departure at a discount price and you can also travel by bus for £10. I arrived at Liverpool St this afternoon and bought the £32 open return train ticket, which is valid for one month. £50 ticket became £82. Not much I could do about this.
- The cheaper flights appear to leave at challenging times. My flight tomorrow departs at 0645am. Check-in is at 0445am. So I decided to book an airport hotel for the night, who are giving me a wake up call in the morning. For one night at this ordinary hotel with views out over the airport maintenance sheds, I have paid on a discounted deal, £116. £50 ticket became £198.
- The cheap ticket only allowed for carry-on luggage of two bags with very clear measurement specifications. In preparation for only taking carry-on, yesterday I culled myself even further, leaving with yet another accommodating friend, some liquids (shampoo etc) which the airline would not allow in a cabin bag. Despite this cull, today I became concerned after seeing warnings at the airport about the strict airline enforcement of carry-on luggage. So I got online and purchased a check-in bag, £20 which converts to £40 for the return flight. £50 ticket became £238! In today’s exchange rate that’s US$361 or AU$462. Not the deal it initially seemed.
A quick look online offers a midday flight on a standard rather than budget airline to Prague, return, tomorrow, for £134. Advance bookings are always cheaper so I could have purchased a seat on this flight for significantly less, not needed to stay in an airport hotel, and have check-in luggage included in the cost. Next time I’ll know, as those suitase-attached toddlers will when they begin booking their own travel, that the cheapest flight is not necessarily the cheapest flight!
Some other recent discoveries I’ve made include the magic of the Lake District in Cumbria, north-west England, where distances are so tiny that in 9 days I used half a tank of petrol. Also tiny are the narrow old country lanes lined with granite stones piled onto one another into waist-high fences. Villages consist entirely of granite stone cottages and/or mansions, some of them whitewashed. The calm ribbon lakes mirror the sky even more precisely on a cloudy day when fog reaches down to gently kiss the water’s surface. Restaurants heave with hungry walkers who spend their days hiking through farmland and forests and scrambling up rocky hillsides. The market town of Keswick, capital of the Lakes, is one of the most enchanting places I’ve ever spent time in. Tulips, cherry blossoms, dog-friendly pubs with canines catching chips at the bar or lazing under tables, the Lake Poets and their beautiful verses, Scottish Highland cows and Herdwick sheep, stalling uphill because second gear wasn’t low enough for the steep inclines and sleeping in medi-evil converted inns. It was a magical time.
The Youth Hostel Association (YHA) costs £15 to join, although you don’t have to join to stay in YHA accommodation. If you do join, each night will cost £3 less than the going rate. I have now stayed in five YHAs in England and cannot recommend them highly enough. Clean and comfortable, the only sacrifice is that you share a bunk bed in a same-sex dorm with up to six strangers and the bathrooms are communal, usually in a hallway or sometimes ensuite to the dorm room. Many YHAs are in big old mansions or other equally historic and charming addresses. The Ambleside YHA sits on the shore of Lake Windermere; the Buttermere YHA is on a hillside above Lake Buttermere and downslope of some of the most famous and loved ridges in the area. I had a six-bed dorm to myself one night; on other nights I met people to socialise with. I have not paid more than £25 per night for a bed (mid-week rates, depending on where, are as cheap as £10).
Now I am heading to Prague for a week, staying in an AirBnB booked apartment in the Old Town with a local host. Upon my return in a week I plan (which may change) to spend 10 days in London, whose charm remains as strong as ever. I then have time in France with friends before the wedding in Norfolk, possibly via somewhere else in Europe. Cycling in Holland appeals! Time is disappearing quickly.
All the while Cambodia remains close in spirit. The following quote from Scott Neeson of Cambodian Children’s Fund, which he wrote moments ago, sits on my shoulder whispering reminders to me of the other option I could have taken for these months and dollars I’m spending on myself. Temptations from friends to stay on in Europe for longer than I intend are kept at bay by these reminders.
Below is Scott Neeson’s account of what he did on the same week that I lazed around in my airport hotel, blogging about what was wrong with my airport hotel. Would that everyone of us who can stop, would stop as Neeson did on Wednesday. Even just once.
“I have a very strong feeling that the opposite of love is not hate – it’s apathy. It’s not giving a damn”.
I wish I had said that but it was in fact Leo Buscaglia.
I mention this as much for my own sake as for any other reason. Driving to our community centre on Wednesday, I saw this granny pulling a cart toward the city – around a 90 minute walk – with her sad, malnourished grandson, Sokny lying inside. Being tired, knowing that CCF’s program’s are full and that stopping would be a chunk out of my morning, there was a temptation to drive on by.
I didn’t of course. I knew too that there was good chance of a restless, guilty-ridden night if I drove on by.
So I stopped and I am so glad I did. Sokny is 3 years old, sick from the garbage and weighs 11 kg’s ( 6 1/2 lbs). We talked a bit of chit chat at first, then discussed their situation.
The boy’s parents divorced and both took off, leaving him with granny. She and Sokny head to the city each night to scavenge enough for their daily survival. Every night.
I gave granny a little bit of money so she could turn the cart around and go home, then meet with Hoin and his Community team the next day. And they did.
Sokny will be joining our kindergarten classes soon while we work on an alternate and more sustainable living for the lovely granny. The granny’s emotion in the 2nd photo here says the rest.
So the moral for me is that I lost maybe a half hour and Sokny gained a life-time.