Even if I have nothing slated for the early morning I get out of bed by habit. When I did this morning I wanted cause as little disturbance to Lal as was possible. I picked up my laptop and tiptoed out of the room with the intention of working on the blog in the reception area. When I got there I found that all the chairs and tables had been moved to the restaurant and locked. When I was pondering the next step I found an elderly gentleman standing outside cursing the afterhours check in machine. It was raining and I saw there were more people in a van. I opened the door for him and disappointed him, I think, when I told him that I do not work at the hotel. He got on the phone and woke up the receptionist, who came out and checked the group of 8 in and handed over the room keys. She refused me a chair till the reception was officially opened by 6 am. I sat on the steps of the stairway and completed my work, reflecting on the journey thus far across 25 countries spanning nearly 22,650 kms in 67 days. And I had successfully negotiated driving the right hand drive car on the right side of the road for 57 days – since leaving Nepal on 27th June.
I had been a student at the London School of Economics in 1995-96. During summer vacation in 1996 I backpacked for a month in Europe travelling to Belgium, France, Germany and The Netherlands. The low cost journey was facilitated by Sister Gilda, my aunt and a nun with a Belgian order who was then stationed in Brussels, and Kamalamma Chechi and Bernie Chettan who were in Hengelo. I travelled by the Eurolines bus service with student concession and trains that offered hospitality arrangement for railway officers from other countries. The first leg of the journey then was the trip from London to Brussels. I was astonished to see, as I am even today, the big ferry that consumed the large bus I had taken from London. The 45 minute experience was wholly new and not for a minute did I sit down in the floating Palace on Water. The most unforgettable experience aboard the P&O ferry in 1996 was capturing on film a seagull picking a peanut from my outstretched hand. What was I going to experience today?
We were booked for the 9.50 am ferry and hence, left for the Terminal by 8 am after a decent breakfast. The queue was fairly long for the immigration at the port of Calais. Fortunately, a new lane opened up and I benefitted from it. Dating the Schengen visa exit was done quickly. However, the official at the UK Border Agency gate was intrigued by the ‘multi-coloured’ car, as he put it to one of his colleagues and asked us to pull into a parking lot to complete the formalities in the office rather than at the gate. In light rain we ran to the office and got the matter done soon – we were technically admitted into the 26th country of our journey. Since it was only 8.30 am I hoped to get on to the 8.40 ferry. However, at the check in gate I was told that the gate was closed for the 8.40 and hence, had to wait almost an hour in the designated lane to be boarded for the 9.50 am crossing.
The service left Calais Port almost on time. The views of the receding Port brought thoughts of the wonderful time I had on that side of the Continent. The sun deck offered good views but it was windy and cold to stay there for long. I completed a few tasks of updating information on my phone and wandered around to check prices to compare them with what the Euro Zone offered. Prices for breakfast, coffee and drinks in GBP were the same as that in Euro – Euro 1 was GBP 1. Therefore, I found items costlier in UK. The price of fuel is another case in point – in France a litre of diesel oil was Euro 1.35 whereas in York, UK it was GBP 1.36. While Euro is approximately INR 81, GBP is INR 101 – thus, on an anecdotal calculation, costs are almost 25% higher in the UK. It takes time to get used to the costs and comparison against Indian currency. I decided on tap water to bottled water based on such a comparison.
The Dover Strait crossing was scheduled to be completed in 90 minutes and we were almost bang on target. By 11 am, when I was up on the deck for a change of scenery, the White Cliffs of Dover came into clear view. The cliff faces are fairly steep in some places, rising to almost 350 feet. It is said that the Cliffs can be seen from the shores of France on a clear day due to its peculiar façade that is composed of chalk enhanced by streaks of black flint. The Cliffs have romantic and poetic significance as they face Continental Europe at the narrowest part of the English Channel, due to which they have been threatened by invasions and against which the Cliffs have stood guard over centuries. The sight of the approaching Cliffs have provided hope to travellers in the days of the glory of the Empire.
While disembarking from the Pride of Canterbury I was slightly apprehensive about ‘switching sides’ on the road. Lal comforted me by saying that the deep ‘DNA’ imprint would help acclimatise quickly. However, I took to the road gingerly and after driving on the right side for 57 days I did adapt soon to the new conditions. Moreover, at regular intervals there were warnings on the road to drive on the left. The maximum speed was 110 kmph and the road conditions were not a patch on what I experienced in the Schengen States. To me the road infrastructure was below par and the congestion unacceptable. For instance, ahead of the Dartford crossing the queue of vehicles was nearly 3 miles long. At this point the operation of the toll gate is reminiscent of the unscientific manner in which it is done in India. I wondered why the ‘sticker’ option was not adopted for UK so that the traffic could move smoothly. Additionally, at every major point on the route like Canterbury, Cambridge, Stamford (just to name a few) congestion was endemic. Traffic stops, crawls and then trickles. It took me more than 7 hours to get to York from Dover, a distance of 450 kms that should have been covered in about 4 hours as per European standards. The creaking road infrastructure, its maintenance and operation made me put the Indian experience in its proper perspective – after all, we learnt from the Babus of the Empire!
Mirus, my travel agent in Delhi, had booked us into the Holiday Inn Express in York. The information I keyed into the Navigator took me about 15 kms away from the location of the hotel. However, we considered it a heaven sent that we missed the route. We drove through the premises of Castle Howard to Slingsby. When I reached that village I knew I was in the wrong place. I stopped when I saw a car turning on to the main road from a bylane. I sought the young man’s attention and asked if I was anywhere near the hotel. He parked the car and I walked across to him. He explained with the help of a map that I was at the very least 20 minutes away from the correct location of the hotel. He was certainly placed there for us to get the correct information for there was no one in sight for miles; a Guardian Angel, surely. We retraced the path that we had travelled to Slingsby. En route we once again enjoyed the fabulous blind summit drive which gives a feeling of a roller coaster. The Castle Howard is the 300 year old stately home of the Howard family, the Earls of Carlisle. The castle has featured in television serials and films. The massive estate of the 7th Earl covered over 13,000 acres across 5 large villages – there is a monument to the 7th Earl in one of the villages. The estate was also served by its own railway station till the 1950s. it is on the drive back that we appreciated the North frontage of the castle across a large lake populated by ducks. The summit drives took us through the narrow Carrmire Gate and Pyramid Gate. There is also an Obelisk near the entrance to the castle.
On the way back from Slingsby I spoke to the hotel reception and got an address that the Navigator understood better. Without any further misses we reached the hotel and realised that we had overshot it on the way to Slingsby. While planning the halt in York I had in mind visits to the Cathedral and the Railway Museum. However, late arrival into York, thanks to the road condition and congestion we could not make the visits. Lal and I took it that we lost our way a bit in York to appreciate something typically Yorkshire, the blind summit drive and the Castle as also to meet a Guardian Angel in Slingsby.