I had been in England for but a few hours.
I landed in England on a very wet Monday morning, I was incredibly tired, having travelled all through the night from the Tina Turner concert in Cologne, but still in a very jolly mood. I would have loved to have been sleeping on that bus to Norwich which I saw drawing away later than scheduled, disappearing into the distance as I emerged from the airport, but instead I had, I thought, a ninety-minute wait for the next one.
Waiting for trains, boats, planes, buses or trams is never a problem for me. I always have my sketch book in my pocket and I really enjoy "people-watching/sketching" over a cup of coffee. And, as I was now in the UK, I could even risk drinking a cup of tea. Take-away tea really should be avoided in most other countries.
My journey to the Tina Turner concert in Cologne, by train from southern to northern Germany, had been thwarted by bad weather (snow and a tempeature of minus 10-20°C) that had resulted in late and broken-down trains. I had still, however, arrived at my destination only one hour later than planned. Despite having to travel on four trains instead of two, at each station the connecting train was waiting on the neighbouring platform. I was once again impressed by the efficiency of DB, the Germany Railways network.
On returning to the bus station at the airport in UK, after a breakfast with lots of tea and some sketching, I was greeted by a humorous but cynical National Express inspector announcing "It is raining and it is Monday morning, which means chaos on the M25 and everything is late". Not just minutes late but up to two hours! He went on to explain to us would-be travellers that Britain’s drivers and its roads are unable to cope with wet Monday mornings.
I couldn’t believe what I was hearing, it was raining quite heavily but it was only water, not ice or 30 centimetres of snow. It is no wonder that the country comes to a total standstill when that water turns to snow, as it did just two weeks later minutes after my lucky escape.
My bus to Norwich did eventually arrive, everyone was friendly and helpful and I got delivered to my family safe and sound, but I am never-the-less still wide eyed and opened mouthed from discovering that a drop of water causes havoc on "our" roads. What I find even more surprising is that this state of affairs is accepted with no more annoyance than a cynical smile or a raised eyebrow.
What has been happening in Britain?
I was to discover more.
I travelled "up to Brum" on British Rail, or whatever it is now called, National Express East Anglia, Cross Country or First Capital Connect, all part of "the National Rail portal to UK travel".
Norwich to Birmingham has no longer got a direct rail link so it is a risky cross-country journey. It is advisable whenever possible to change trains at Peterborough, and not at Ely, to avoid being blown away past the sheep grazing outside Ely Cathedral and straight out over the Fens. It is in Ely that one really gets to know just how lazy our east wind is, taking no time to blow round people but cutting straight through the body.
I was lucky on this trip to arrive in Birmingham dead on time, to enjoy some hours at the National Institute for Conductive Education library, picking Gill Maguire’s brains and bookshelves. Yet I was far less impressed with the railway's services as I am by Deutsche Bahn. When I had booked my ticket to Birmingham I asked for a printout of my journey and a few choices for the return journey, as I had no Internet to use. I was handed a pocket timetable which I later discovered only covered half my journey so I still needed to make a phone call to get the information that I needed. Again I was aware of how I am becoming very used to German efficiency, and beginning to expect it everywhere!
Luckily there were enough people on the train to ensure that these passengers could carry on with their journey, but there were a lot of wasted minutes which could have meant missed connections and a lot of angry passengers. Mr Jobsworth was totally oblivious to the chaos he was causing and the unfairness of his behaviour, his face was not pink, but many others were, mine included, in embarrassment.
Over the past two weeks I have seen and heard more to shock me. I was last here in August 2008, since when the big city and small town centres have a completely changed appearance: they are no longer bustling. Something similar happened more than ten years ago but then it was small businesses that struggled, eventually closing their doors and boarding up their windows. Now I am shocked to see that it is the big high street names that are disappearing. Perhaps it is not surprising that shops selling luxury goods like The Pier that have succumbed in this crunching time, but Woolworth? Stead and Simpson?
Of course I had read about Woolworth’s closure, both in the newspaper and in Andrew Sutton’s blog, but to see it first-hand with my own eyes, huge Big W stores shut, it is hard to believe and it makes me ore than a little sad. Woolworth was a part of my childhood.
My mother shopped there, buying us jigsaws galore and the cosy Ladybird clothes. My sister loved the jigsaws and I loved the clothes. The Ladybird T-shirts and pullovers had the most amazingly soft fluffy inner side, which I can still visualise and feel next to my skin.
Woolworth is where my sister and I, with our school friend in tow, headed for on our first solo excursions "up the city", on our first adventures without an adult escort.
First we headed for the broken-biscuits counter for a pound of cream biscuits for the parrot. He loved custard creams best and he would flick the cream all over the place.
Woolworth, one of the cheapest places to shop in is no more. How long before other established big names disappear from our lives and the high streets. Who would have imagined a town without Woolies? Tryin to imagine one with no Sainsburys, no Tescos, no Marks and Spencer and no WH Smiths?
This crunch really wasn’t a reality for me before this trip to UK. I tried to get on with life and ignore it. Germany has been late in accepting its existence, though I had been noticing the financial downwards trend because of several cancellations over the past few months, something that I had rarely experienced before in 15 years of conducting. When I had left Germany two weeks ago, however, there was still no evidence on the high street, shops were still open and just as full to overflowing as ever.
In Britain the crunch could not be missed. It leds every national newspaper and every television and radio station was full of it. Everyone was talking about it. In the stores there was 70% off everything, the sales continuing long after the traditional January sales would normally have come to an end. I even saw an insurance company having a sale, now that must be a first.
My trip was not all gloom and doom. The Best of British is still out there to be enjoyed. There would be piers, fish and chips, steam trains and more, to be shared with you in my next posting.
"Up to Brum" Travel to Birmingham, "up to" is a very Norfolk way of saying "to" somewhere. We go "up the city" (to the city, to shop), "up the Smoke" (to London) and "up the Samson" (to the disco, the Samson and Hercules, a ballroom since 1930).