England, 18 January 2007. Will this go down in history as the worst storm of the decade? Subsequent newspaper stories and tv coverage certainly make it look as if it will. England collapsing under the weight of a storm, total chaos. It definitely was windy when I left home but not quite a storm. I got on the train at 11 in Downham Market, to attend a meeting in London. It was quiet on the train, as you would expect at that time of the day – just a few travellers with suitcases, one or two business people with briefcases and laptops, in my carriage. We toddled along, stopping at the required stations, Littleport, Ely, a few more stops and Cambridge and then on to London. Some five minutes delay, nothing unusual there. The train stopped a few times, hesitating, slowing down at stations as we got nearer to London rather than moving along at speed. Then we stopped again, a place called Brent North and stood still, nothing happening. The winds outside seemed to have died down a bit and the sky was clearing, the appearance of just a blustery bright day. I had read my papers for the meeting and looked forward to a quick cup of coffee once I got to London.
Something was not quite right, the train just stood and then the announcement ‘We are sorry for the delay on this train, however, there is an obstruction a bit further down on the track. We are unable to say when we will be able to move again. We’ll open the doors so that passengers can stand outside on the platform if they wish’. That was it, nothing else. Passengers looked at each other, questioningly, what are we going to do? I got up and walked along the platform to another train, where the driver was in the middle of explaining something to a small group of passengers. ‘It’s all blocked’ he said ‘ there’s a tree across the track further up. There’s trains stood still all along the way into London. No chance of moving mate!’ ‘Can we go back?’, I asked. ‘No way, he said, ‘trains are stood at all stations and we cannot move backwards or forwards…’.
True English disaster – the weather had interfered in daily life once more, nothing you could do about that. Weather and its impact is god sent, human beings are incapable of withstanding this, it’s a force of nature to be respected and accepted. And so we stay at the station, I go back to my seat, then a conductor comes along and tells the few passengers left in the coach that there are bus services just outside the station with coaches that will be able to take you to a tube station so that you can get into London. What happens after that is everybody’s guess, but I decide to take his advice, along with a group of other passengers. There’s a hard gale across the footbridge that leads over the platforms to the exit. I shiver and count my lucky starts for having put on my boots that morning, I had hesitated between fashionable shoes and the warmth of boots. Groups of people, with bags, rucksacks and briefcases are looking lost just outside the station, until a bus appears and a dialogue starts with the driver. This is obviously not the bus that will go anywhere near a tube station, he is shaking his head and vaguely points across the road, and then we all troop along the road to a bus stop over the crossing, two streets away. Another bus stops, ‘no’, says the driver ‘you need to be on the other side if you want a bus to a Northern line tube station’. We go to the other side of the road and then someone says ‘but the northern line is not running – we need a Piccadilly line station.’. Back to the other side of the road, the wind is picking up and we shiver, a pack of some twenty people all trying to get on a bus or coach in a part of London that no one knows. ‘Turnpike station’, someone says ‘Or Arnos Grove’. After a while of shivering and murmuring we do in fact get on a bus and after a thirty minutes drive or so Arnos Station looms, we all get out, relieved. Perhaps we will get back to civilisation, where we know what to do, less dependent on indifferent coach and bus drivers, who seem so incredibly unhelpful because they don’t understand how helpless we all feel in this. Torn away from our programme for the day, meetings, journeys and shopping trips, seeing family and friends and intruding on a part of north London that is not concerned about us, not one little bit.
After Arnos Grove I eventually arrive at King’s Cross Station, familiar territory, it’s three o’clock, my meeting is due to finish at four, no use trying to get there as I will almost immediately have to turn back to try and get a train back home. I hear strands of an announcement ‘King’s Cross railway station is closed….overhead power failure…. ‘ , disconnected phrases, and then realise that platforms are quite busy even for London, at this time of the day. I decide to try my luck and go to Liverpool Street Station, perhaps I’ll be able to get a train in the direction of Cambridge from there. Eventually I get on a Circle Line train to Liverpool Street Station, which very slowly proceeds, stopping at the in-between stations with people getting on and off as if unsure as to where they are going. Various announcements inform us that trains are delayed, some stations closed, other routes interrupted until further notice.
At Liverpool Street Station I realise there is not a single train going into the direction of Cambridge or Stansted, my only hope for getting anywhere near home again that day. I decide to jump on a train to Norwich, which seems to be ok. Large groups of people look bewildered and lost, I manage to get a seat on the train, which then fills up with people standing along the isle, but looking relieved nevertheless. Then the journey starts, excruciatingly slow. I leave a message for my husband who is in Cambridge, can he help me later on tonight to retrieve my car which is in the car park at Downham Market station? I intend to get a bus from Norwich to where I live. Then another announcement ‘ladies and gentlemen, I regret to say that due to obstructions across the lines, this train will terminate in Diss from where coaches will take ongoing passengers to Norwich’. Where is Diss? I have no idea, am unfamiliar with this route. I leave another message for my husband, I will get the coach from Diss to Norwich but it may actually become quite late. . Perhaps he can drive to Norwich and pick me up? I feel helpless and the whole thing is becoming quite unreal. I’ve sat on trains, buses and tubes now for about six hours without having been anywhere, drank half a bottle of water and am beginning to feel hungry, no, not hungry, in need of comfort, some chocolate or something… I have left a message with head office to say that I am on a train somewhere and will not be able to get anywhere near a meeting or workplace for the rest of the day. The secretary sounds efficient but bored, her own boss is also stuck on a train somewhere. The world of work seems slightly taken aback that this should happen, everyone has been so busy and then suddenly everyone is helpless and nothing gets done, thanks to a storm.
Passengers get on at Colchester, more relieved looks until the next announcement which is that the train will now terminate in Ipswich. Where is Ipswich in relation to Diss? My husband rings, says he can pick me up from Diss if I can make my way there, he will leave Cambridge now, but the roads are bad as well and it will be difficult to get out of Cambridge, however, once out it’s not difficult to cut across to Diss. Flashes of conversations between passengers make it clear that Ipswich is near to paralysis with traffic. There have been powercuts and some roads are blocked, it will be difficult to get out again on a bus.
When I get off the train in Ipswich hundreds of people troop towards the exit. Outside, station polic and guards direct people to the front where coaches are promised that will take people to their destinations, only not immediately! Shouts that there is a coach that will go to Norwich, there is no way I can get on it, an army of people in front of me all edging forward to try and get on. It takes ages before the coach actually leaves the court and then another one takes off. At the same time two or three buses leave, empty, no-one knows where they are going, they don’t let anyone on. Why is it so difficult to arrange a couple of buses for people to get home? I ask a fellow passenger if they know whether there are any buses or coaches going to Diss. ‘I hope so’ he says bleakly ‘ that’s where I want to go’. And then a minibus turns round across the road, Dereham and Diss it says on the front, and it moves at speed along the other side of the road. ‘I hope it turns this way’, my fellow passenger says. Then the rear light indicates a turn and it moves around coming into our direction, and we decide to make a run for it, out of the crowd towards the stop. It’s a local bus, a regular, ‘that’s £4.20’ the driver says. We look at each other, cannot quite believe that they will charge us, not after some six or seven hours delay, surely, but then meekly get out our money, too tired to argue. ‘I hope I’ve got enough’ my neighbour in the queue says ‘I don’t usually carry any change’. ‘I’ll pay’, I say, but he finds some in a corner of his briefcase, just enough to get him to Diss. The driver decides to forget about Dereham and drive straight to Diss, he gets permission over the phone, loud and clear. The A-14 is blocked at various points, with traffic moving slowly. There are electricity failures and large parts are in utter darkness, here and there an emergency vehicle with flashing lights. The whole experience becomes more and more unreal. I was supposed to be at a policy group meeting, discussing crucial decisions on new education developments, fundamental decisions will be made. I have made a couple of telephone calls, explaining what is happening and hear that other people have been similarly stuck or have decided to stay overnight in London after having managed to get in after lengthy rail and bus journeys. Should I simply have stayed in London, got myself a hotel room and think again tomorrow morning? Too late now, I’m sitting in a local minibus, with some 50 other people on my way to Diss, beginning to feel more and more detached from everything. I am reading my novel ‘Winter in Madrid’ , which captures the bleakness of my mood, the sense of being stuck in something that is almost inevitable, quite well.
By the time we arrive in Diss it is 8 o’clock, I’ve been on the move now for almost ten hours and the reality begins to sink in. England has come to a standstill. ‘People have died’, says one of the passengers, ‘I’ve been trying to ring my wife but the telephone lines are down’. I reflect on the urgency of all the papers and decisions and meetings that were uppermost in my mind that same morning, a lifetime away. The minibus drops us at the end of a seemingly long dark road ‘the station is along this road’, someone says and so we all march along, aiming for the lights of the station, where my husband stands waiting for me. It’s another 50 miles to pick up my car, we eat something on the way, exhausted and arrive home after 10 where we watch the news on the worst weather chaos for a century, ships sinking, trains derailed, cars overturned, walls falling on people and trees on cars.
I wonder if this twelve hour journey to nowhere is symptomatic of the work I do on the implementation of new education policies. Will all that lead to nowhere and are we simply engaged in a merry go round, never arriving where we want to be? I go to bed, feeling gloomy and wake up at 6.30, to catch my train to London, for two more meetings that day and then it will be weekend. On the way back, the train only has four coaches instead of the usual 12. ‘that’s adding insult to injury’, says someone behind me. I put my earphones in and listen to Ludovico Einaudi, trying to switch off and forget all about everything.