“One of the gifts of being a writer is that it gives you an excuse to do things, to go places and explore.”
–Anne Lamott, Bird by Bird
I’ve recently taken to comparing travel within the UK to Internet dating.
It’s one thing to spend a few hours getting your itinerary together–buying regional train tickets, noting their times and working out local bus schedules–and yet it’s another thing altogether seeing how it works out in reality. In a similar vein, seeing someone online is a nice thought. You can learn a couple of things about them and view their (undoubtedly enhanced) photos but the real test (not that I would know…) comes when you meet them in person. Will they measure up? Will they follow through with everything they promised? You can only hope for the best, right?
And so I set out for the seaside town of Southwold this morning fearing for my life.
Well, perhaps not life–no need for the melodrama, I suppose–but at least my sanity. The last time I attempted a “day trip” in the UK a few weeks ago, things didn’t end so smoothly. It turns out London Midlands rail service isn’t quite as punctual or efficient as her online profile leads you to believe. As the train delays began stealing precious hours from my life, I began cursing their inane scheduling shortfalls. Leave it to be said there was no shortage of weeping and gnashing of teeth before that night was through.
Nearly a month ago, though, I came across a tiny blurb in Lonely Planet magazine mentioning the Ways With Words literature festival being held this weekend in Southwold, England. Although I might’ve happily gone along no matter how illustrious a line-up they had on, one particular speaker arrested my attention: Alain de Botton. With his books often said to cover “the philosophy of everyday life,” he’s a phenomenal writer and thinker, but–and maybe this is obvious–it was his book, The Art of Travel, that had me hook, line and whatever.
But after my trip home from Liverpool spiralled into a disastrous, nearly seven-hour mess of a journey, I started thinking this week: is Alain de Botton really worth all this fuss? Is visiting an obscure village on the east coast of England actually worth the risk of losing more hours of my life to the incessant failure that is UK transport? Last night, my flatmate Claire had a good laugh predicting things wouldn’t end well for this trip. “You know you are so not going to make it there! Buses hate you!” she said, tearing up with laughter, all the while fueling the fires of my inner panic.
In the end, I ran the risk anyway–but not without great trepidation. A 5am wake-up call got me out of bed and fumbling around for several layers of warm clothing–something about visiting a coastal village on the edge of the North Sea in November sounded slightly more threatening than a trip to the beach for, say, spring break in Miami.
My journey from Surbiton to Liverpool Street Station was remarkably unremarkable–both train and bus proved capable of holding to a schedule. My train from Liverpool to a town called Halesworth 100 miles away also not only left on time, but arrived exactly on target as well…I hardly knew what to think. The last test, however, was the local bus, No. 520 from Halesworth to Southwold. I waited outside the Halesworth train station with my fingers crossed so hard they hurt. And sure enough, at 10.09am on the very dot, a big yellow bus flashing “Southwold” in red letters miraculously appeared around the corner.
Just like it said it would.
I could have wept with joy. I’d come prepared. I’d brought my laptop, plenty of writing to work on, Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird, and a full roll pack of milk chocolate digestives, just in case things got truly desperate. But for once, over-preparation was totally unnecessary.