I woke up to snowy fog. Even the hulk of the incongruous jumbo jet across the street was invisible. I cleaned up, dressed and ate breakfast, checked out, and hurried out the front door–to watch the big yellow Alfa shuttle bus driving away.
No problem; they run every ten minutes. Another blur of action, and I was walking down a jet-bridge to a wide and comfortable British Airways A-321. Good-bye, Sweden, with your superb bathrooms, stunning breakfasts and friendly, helpful people! I was just getting to know Stockholm, and there’s so much I didn’t see or do.
In Heathrow’s Terminal 5, I reclaimed my suitcase and towed it down a corridor signed “Customs–Nothing To Declare.” Actually there was no Customs office here; the hall just led to the airport lobby. In short order my BritRail pass was validated, I acquired an Oyster Card to pay for Underground rides, and I was the proud renter of a mobile phone that I didn’t know how to use.
Travel expert Rick Steves advocates BritRail passes, but doesn’t say how to use them. What I learned: My Southwest England Eight-Day Flexible Pass was good for eight days of my choosing during the 30 days commencing with the date of validation by a railroad agent. On each of the eight days, I could enjoy unlimited train rides. On a day that I wanted to use it, I filled in that day’s date in one of eight sets of blanks. Then I showed the pass as a ticket whenever asked. A nit; unlike a real ticket, the pass doesn’t open turnstiles. So I had to find a human attendant to let me thru them.
Today my destination was Ely (map), north of London, near Cambridge. I set off into England on the Heathrow Connect, which despite its strong resemblance to a subway is technically a train–the pass is no good on the London Underground. Nobody asked to see my pass. I alighted at Paddington, a rambling subterranean complex that serves both railroad and underground.
Next I needed to ride the Hammersmith and City underground to the King’s Cross station. Underground routes each have a name and a color; the H&C is pink. I followed a pink line through the labyrinth, patted a turnstile with my new Oyster Card, and carried my suitcase down a flight of stairs to a platform. (A small suitcase is a necessity for rail travel, I’m finding.) A train was waiting, so in I jumped.
At King’s Cross I followed a series of signs that deposited me outdoors on a busy sidewalk. I thought I’d been abandoned. But then I noticed a tall old-fashioned train station across the street, and that was it. I bought a ticket to Cambridge (because it’s outside the area my pass covers) and got on that train.
An older lady sat on the facing seat. I commented on the daffodil pin on her sweater; she told me that she was a fundraiser for Curie Cancer Care, a foundation that provides hospice in patients’ homes. She had started out as an electrical engineer, and when children made this career impractical had switched to mathematics. She advised, “If you don’t have time to buy a ticket, just get on; you can buy one on board from the conductor. If no conductor comes, the ride is free!”
At Cambridge she walked me to the next train to make certain I’d be all right. All these trains seem to run on time, and connections have hardly any layover. Soon a conductor came, and all happened just as she’d said. This train ran past huge fields of solar panels. I alighted at Ely’s little station, and was met by my online friend Jon.
Jon drove me to the little house on an estate (townhouse condominium) that he shares with his wife Shelley and their two-year-old son Flint. Jon told me that the village grew around a cathedral construction project on an island surrounded by fens in about 1200 AD. Legend has it that the cathedral stonemasons were paid in eels caught in the fens–thus the town’s name. Later the fens were drained and the island became a hill. The soft black peat soil is very fertile; but it erodes rapidly, by as much as a decimeter a year–a slow-motion disaster.
Jon is a university administrator. Shelley works for a zoological museum, creating interpretive talks and raising funds. At this time, she was coordinating a promotion with David Attenborough, a popular BBC broadcaster. Flint is fond of railroad crossing gates; he’s in the midst of a two-year-old’s ultimately doomed battle to control the universe. Their house is decorated in bright colors; and Flint and Shelley wear colorful mismatched socks. “Life’s too short to match up socks,” she said.
I walked with Jon, Shelley and Flint to the Wildwood Restaurant for dinner. The narrow medieval lanes were lined with a mix of old and modern structures. Paved paths wove between the houses, providing quiet strolls and making for meetings with neighbors. The restaurant was not only excellent, but it also had a children’s play area.
Later, Jon took me to the Prince Albert, a dog-friendly pub. A huge dog near the door regarded me almost eye to eye and allowed that I might pet him, while his owner beamed proudly from his table.