Stellenbosch Airfield sits 414 feet above sea leavel, just to the South West of the small town of Stellenbosch, in South Africa.
Whilst Stellenbosch may be regarded as a medium-sized town, it does have a population in excess of 77,000 and has its own University.
Stellenbosch is also located squarely in the Cape Winelands, sharing this beautiful area with the towns of Paarl and Franschoek.
We had decided that we wanted to get to know more about South African wines, and what better place to discover the finer points than to tour some of the one hundred and fifty-odd vineyards and wineries along the Stellenbosch Wine Route.
Needless to say, we allowed for a full day of just cruising around the different venues, sampling the wine, and enjoying the Cape Dutch architecture, which I think has a timeless elegance.
So, having had a full day of cruising some lovely countryside, and meeting some really nice people, we drove back to our Bed and Breakfast accommodation to shower and change, and then we hit the town and found a place to eat.
The next day, I had cunningly (or not so cunningly, as SWMBO knew all about it) booked an aeroplane at the Stellenbosch Flying Club. The aircraft was booked for 1400, so we enjoyed a leisurely breakfast, and then had a wander around the town.
Arriving at the Flying Club, I could see that the distant mountains were wreathed in clouds, but it was still VFR, and therefore still flyable.
I was flying with an instructor, as I wanted to see the local area, and after the swift obligatory checks of my licence, ratings and medical, we walked out to ZS-BFC, a Piper PA28-180 Warrior.
A quick preflight inspection and we started up, taxied out, and then we were off, climbing out to the north-west.
Our flight was to route via the Franschhoek Pass, and head south-east down the valley, and then once out of the constraints of the mountains we would turn back northeast, and head up to the small airport of Worcester.
You can tell that this area has been historically influenced by its colonists; Most of the town names were either Dutch-Boer or English – hence Stellenbosch and Paarl, Worcester and Robinson.
In fact, Stellenbosch was actually a British military garrison town during the Boer War (1899-1902).
The climb out was quite turbulent, as there was a reasonable amount of rotor and turbulence rolling off the mountains, and with three onboard, the aircraft was a bit of a handful.
Dirk, the instructor was happy to let me pole the aircraft around, and sat there pointing out landmarks, and giving me headings to steer to enable me to safely enter the Franschhoek Pass. By this time, we were flying quite high, and I was playfully stroking the cumulus with the wingtips, whilst ensuring that I kept in the middle of the valley.
It was alll updrafts and downdrafts, but great fun, and a real experience,
The most thrilling aspect of this for me was that I had never been true mountain flying before. A few years previously, whilst hours building in Southern California, I took training to get checked out to fly in to Big Bear (L35) which sits at an elevation of 6,752 feet.
Part of my lesson back then was to appreciate that even in a turbo-powered Piper Arrow with retractable gear, the rate of climb at 12,000 feet was negligible.
Once over the mountains, dropping down to Big Bear City was fairly simple, but decelerating on touchdown seemed longer. Take off was different too, having to lean the engine before I even lined up, and boy, I used up a hell of a lot of the 1783m of tarmac before I dragged the reluctant aeroplane into the air.
This flight was positively ethereal, creeping down narrow canyons, with the peaks rising majestically either side (and above!), and the dunn browns and ochres of the flatlands slowly morphing into flint greys and olive greens of the mountain passes.
At Dirk’s behest, I rolled the aircraft gently to the right, and the pass we entered almost immediately opened out into a vast valley, illuminated as if it were a religious painting by bright, golden sunlight that bathed the countless vineyards in a golden glow. This highlighted the variegated colours – deep reds, violets, yellows and shades in between.
I imagine that this is the South African version of New England in the fall.
We continued to fly, eventually dipping down into Worcester, where we quickly gained clearance for a touch and go, and thence onwards to the smaller airfield of Robinson, to the east.
Another touch and go, and then we routed back to Stellenbosch using a more northerly routing, returning back via Duiwelskloof Pass, to the east of Paarl, and then back to recover at Stellenbosch.
After landing, and putting the aircraft to bed, we enjoyed a slow meander back into Stellenbosch, to enjoy a great supper washed down with some of the best wines in the world.
I look forward to my next trip abroad.
Maybe I should consider South America? Perhaps Argentina. They should have a few Cessnas and Pipers that I could lay hands on for a potter.
Until next time!
We have all seen them walking through the airport terminal as we have been departing for our own trips – a group of smartly uniformed and elegant men and women, all dragging the ubiquitous wheelie bags behind them, as they head off to check-in for their flights.
Once onboard, we take for granted the smooth and professional welcomes, and the brisk and efficient manner in which the aircraft is prepared for its trip.
The Safety demonstration is performed, choreographed beautifully to a disinterested audience, many of them studiously reading their newspapers, or playing games on their smartphones.
Once airborne, we don’t bat an eyelid as we are served drinks, meals, and hot towels, all with a smile and good grace.
We are treated to the spectacle of the swift collection of headsets, and the prompt stowage of equipment as the aircraft descends towards its destination.
Finally, we disembark, with the farewells from the cabin crew still ringing in our ears.
Leaving the airport, we will probably notice a crew outside, patiently awaiting the arrival of the crew bus to take them to their hotels.
What an easy life! Operate a thirteen-hour flight to Singapore, then enjoy three days shopping, and relaxing, and staying in a four-star hotel! And get paid for it.
Sounds good, doesn’t it? Fancy it as a career?
Must be an easy job, right?
Now let’s do a quick reality check, and see what is really involved in operating as Cabin Crew.
Firstly, we have to appreciate why the cabin crew are there in the first place. Contrary to popular understanding, their primary function is not serving food and drink and making duty free sales.
Their primary function is that of safety.
Strangely enough, their principal concern isn’t bringing you some warm nuts and a gin and tonic, but ensuring that the required safety standards are being maintained, and for increasing your chances of survival in the event that something goes wrong.
All of these safety requirements are laid down by the relevant regulatory authorities; EASA (European Aviation Safety Agency) in Europe, the FAA (Federal Aviation Agency) in America, and are legally binding upon airline operators.
So, your average cabin crew member is actually a highly-trained individual who is capable of many things that the travelling public are not aware of. They are certainly not stereotypical “fluffy” airheads.
In an effort to discover what it takes to become aircrew, I enrolled on a new entrant cabin crew course with a major British airline. This course would take at least four weeks, which I admit, did surprise me, as I didn’t think it could have that much content.
How wrong I was!
My course was to be conducted in West London, at the main training centre for the airline, and I arrived with plenty of time to spare. I met with my fellow students, who, it seemed, came from all walks of life, and some from other areas of the airline.
We were all still milling about when a harried-looking instructor arrived and requested that those of us on course number 041 follow him immediately to classroom 6.
We all shuffled into the classroom and a minor hubbub ensued as we found somewhere to sit and stow our bags.
Our instructor introduced himself as John, and without further fuss, he launched straight into a briefing, giving us all an overview of what was to come in the forthcoming weeks.
He concluded by telling us that punctuality was vital to an airline operation, and that should we arrive late, we would be awarded a demerit point for each minute. Collect 6 points, and be washed off the course.
I realised then that this course would be no picnic. I did feel that this draconian system was primarily aimed at the younger members of the intake, young lads and lasses fresh out of school, who may have had a much more laissez-faire attitude to time keeping.
For an experienced man, punctuality was ingrained in my soul, indelibly stamped there by my parents, both of whom passsed on their work ethics to me whilst I was still a small child.
Our course was to start with a weeks worth of medical training, known in the flying business as Avmed.
We were all herded into our classroom, which was filled with medical equipment, including portable defibrillators, oxygen cylinders and resuscitation trainers. It all looked a little intimidating.
Our instructor, Louise, was an ex-nurse, and experienced crew, so she immediately commanded the respect of the class. The first thing we had to learn was our basic responsibilities – what we could, or couldn’t legally do.
Cabin Crew are trained to be able to handle lower level medical issues, and are more than capable of dealing with cuts, sprains, burns, and the like.
But normal workplace first aid just doesn’t hack it when the workplace is a pressurised aluminium tube flying at 38,000 feet – miles from any hospitals or medical centres.
Cabin crew may be expected to identify – and treat, diabetics with uncontrolled sugar levels. They may have to adminster therapeutic oxygen to a semi conscious passenger.
Possibly deal with epilepsy, cardiac problems, panic attacks, air sickness and in extreme cases, childbirth and even death on board.
Yes folks – not so glamourous now…
In order for crew to be able to perform these functions, every aircraft is required to carry a minimum level of medical equipment.
This normally consists of a number of small first aid kits distributed around the passenger cabin and one large suitcase-sized medical kit containing a much more comprehensive array of equipment.
We had to commit to memory the contents of each type of kit, its location on the aircraft and the procedure for issuing medication and equipment.
It is important to realise that cabin crew are not trained medical practitioners, and as such are not legally entitled to prescribe medication, so a large proportion of the aircraft medical kit is prohibited for use by cabin crew.
That is why, in serious cases, cabin crew may make an announcement for any trained medical professionals to identify themselves and assist with the treatment of a sick fellow passenger.
There is also an unseen level of back-up available to help.
Many airlines subscribe to a service called MedLink, a specialist medical unit that is experienced in airline procedures and protocols, and whose staff are familiar with the type of medical intervention that maybe needed mid atlantic!
MedLink doctors and specialists may be contacted by using the aircraft’s satellite phone, the cockpit High Frequency radio patch or a specialist system called ACARS.
ACARS stands for Aircraft Communcations Addressing and Reporting System.
This system is normally used routinely for the transmission and acceptance of flight clearances from Air Traffic Control, company operational messages, such as flight plans, fuel plans, aircraft performance calculations and load and balance plans.
In our case, as cabin crew, any developing medical emergency in the cabin may be swiftly escalated via the flight deck to involve a fantastic level of support and guidance for the treatment of a sick passenger.
We were given practical instruction in how to provide therapeutic oxygen, and the use of an automatic external defibrillator. We also had to demonstrate that we could make an accurate patient assessment, deliver CPR, and place an individual into the recovery position.
This training was all delivered in a cabin simulator, with airline seats, and a standard sized aisle. We all had to show that we could get someone out of their seat, place them on the floor in the aisle, use the defibs, administer CPR and then place them into the recovery position.
I have been a qualified First Aider for years, but I still needed to make a huge amount of effort to remember the procedural and legal aspects of delivering healthcare in an aircraft cabin environment, so I was extremely pleased (and relieved) to have passed my first weeks training in Aviation Medicine.
I now had a complete weekend off in which to study that manuals related to operating the rest of the aircraft, including operating doors, firefighting, operating the emergency slides, ditching drills, and wet drills and security training.
No beers for me then!
Stay tuned for the next chapter in this thrilling account…
I woke up on the 1st of January with mixed feelings. It was the start of a brand new flying year, and I could look forward to lots of aerial fun with the Super Cub, always assuming that the lousy weather would improve.
However, there was a cloud of a different type on my personal horizon; the dreaded CAA biannual medical that assures the residents of Aviation House at Gatwick that I won’t suddenly collapse at the controls, incapacitated and crash land, demolishing a primary school or even a whole suburb.
I, like many of you, do not enjoy undergoing medicals. I’m not a screaming hypochondriac, neither am I so decrepit that I would automatically fail. It’s just that – well, I don’t like medicals.
I also suffer from White Coat Syndrome and this has a tendency to elevate my blood pressure to stratospheric levels. In an effort to control my incipient hypertension, I gave up caffeine and reduced my salt intake years ago.
But, as my long-suffering partner frequently points out (her being an ex-nurse and all), it is a complete waste of effort if I continue to eat the wrong things, and dare I say it – drink beer.
So, there I lay on New Years morning, considering that ominous red ring on the calendar, the date three months away, upon which I would have to say “Ah” and cough whilst staring skywards.
I had been making some half-hearted attempts at weight control since October when I first accepted that 95kg (209 pounds) was a little too much weight to be carrying around.
So, I came to the conclusion that drastic action was needed. Damn it, I needed to exercise. Back in the day, I had swum competitively. played rugby, and did a lot of cycling. However, these days, my exercise routine seemed to have slipped, and my work out was to play chess by an open window and glug beer.
This wasn’t a particularly constructive programme, so I had to do something more constructive. I decided to pull my old bicycle out of the garage.
It wasn’t looking very well. It, like me, needed some serious attention.
I put it up into the bike stand, and inspected it. It needed new brake pads, a new chain, a new chainring, and a new cassette on the rear wheel.
The next day, all the parts arrived from Amazon, and I spent a happy morning removing the worn components and fitting and adjusting the new ones.
Now I was ready to rock!
My initial effort included a fairly regular cycle ride into work, a distance of some eight miles, coupled with eating salad at lunchtime. So it was that I coasted into the month of January and for the first week was able to stick to my plan.
However, the festive season brings forth its temptations, and I had “enjoyed” a few Christmas binges with various corporate departments, friends and eaten shed-loads of inappropriate foods. That, coupled with gorging on one of my Mother’s gargantuan Christmas lunches, a lot of work was needed if I was to get my weight down to the sub 90Kg mark!
Hastily scribbling the figures, I worked out my BMI, and was aghast to realise that it was sitting at 31.5!
Running the calculation in reverse, I would have to be a shade over six feet to put my weight back into proportion with my height.
It appeared that my target weight would ultimately be 79kg. I wasn’t sure about this. Being so lean may make me look ill, so I decided that I would make 81 kg my target weight.
I mulled this over. There was no way that I could lose almost two stones in three months. As I considered it, I could almost feel my blood pressure ratchet up another notch or two. I decided that I would have to do this in stages.
I would continue with an expanded “self-help” programme before going to see my GP. I know he is a very busy man… and I am also a craven coward, so I embarked upon a tough regime based on a simple formula.
I would have to eat and drink less, and exercise more. This is an anathema to me, as I love food, and hate most forms of exercise. I exclude playing chess in front of an open window, as this has the benefit of a complete mental workout in the fresh air!
So, on January 2nd I started my revised plan.
I decided that as I liked cycling, I would continue to use my mountain bike for the commute to work – but now on a more regular basis. The first few rides had been quite difficult – an eight-mile slog to be in work for 0630 in winter conditions are less than fully motivating.
I stuck with it though, and I am now able to complete the ride in just over 40 minutes.
Having mastered the psychological barriers to doing anything that actually involves a modicum of physical effort, I decided that I would go one step further – literally. I decided that I would try commuting to work by foot.
This was definitely not one of my better ideas.
The first day I did this was a beautiful, crisp January morning. It was still dark when I left the house at 0515, but with a yellowing moon sneaking along just above the horizon, it was quite pleasant. I cracked along at a reasonable pace and managed to cover the 8 miles in just over two hours, ready for a 0730 start. I felt quite exhilarated as I walked into the office, still damp from the shower, still puffing from the effort.
Exhilarated wasn’t quite how I would summarise my feelings when I left the office at 1530, for the walk home. It took forever, (well, two hours and twenty-five minutes to be exact!) and by the time I got home, my left foot was on fire, and my lower back felt like it had been run over by a 747 freighter.
The blisters took about a week to heal, during which time I cycled very gently back and forth.
The scales testified to the efficiency of this programme, and I had got my weight down to about 88kg
However, I came to realise that my faithful Marin Alpine Trail full suspension mountain bike was not the ideal machine to cycle to work on – knobbly tyres, and lower gearing made it better suited to the wilds of the South Downs National Park, not the A30 Great South West Road.
I decided to buy a newer bike on the Government’s Cycle to Work Scheme, so I ended up with a flagship state of the art hybrid, with built in lighting, and better wheels and tyres. It was also considerably lighter, and shaved about seven minutes off my commute.
I had now completed stages one and two; my New Year resolution was to moderate my alcohol consumption by two thirds, until my birthday in May. I now enjoy a couple of pints a day at the weekend.
Stage three would be to bring my blood pressure down, which was currently averaging at about 159/100, against the ideal of 140/90.
By mid January, I decided that I had now lost enough weight to show the doctor that I was doing my best to manage my health, so I made an appointment, and sat down in his surgery.
I explained that I was worried about my blood pressure, and told him of my forthcoming medical at Gatwick. I also advised him of my white coat hypertension. I also showed him my blood pressure diary, and after studying it for a few minutes, he scurried to the other side of the office, then advanced rapidly towards me with a tape measure in his hand.
I shrank back in alarm – had my doctor suddenly been overwhelmed with the urge to do a quick bit of DIY whilst I was sitting in the consulting room? Was he about to measure me up for my coffin?
My fears were misguided, and he proceeded to measure the circumference of my upper arm. He squinted at the measure, and pronounced that I was a 34cm – so needed a large cuff.
He went on to explain that most home blood pressure monitors (or sphygmonometers) come with a standard sized cuff, and that I was on the borderline of needing the next size up. He expanded on this, saying that using a cuff that was too small could result in erroneously high readings.
He checked my pressure with the larger cuff, and the result was much lower than I was expecting – a mere 132/110!
After a discussion about my weight loss programme, and other factors, we agreed on a further course of action – I would be fitted with an Ambulatory Blood Pressure Monitor for a 24 hour period.
Having been told this, I rang my Aviation Medical Examiner (AME) or Flight Surgeon and explained the situation to him in full. He seemed quite relaxed about it, and told me not to worry, and come and see him for the dreaded class two medical in three weeks time.
So, I duly drove down to Gatwick, leaving myself plenty of time for my imbecilic-driver induced hypertension to reduce to less stratospheric levels, and went in for the medical.
I have known Dr Maddison for several years, and after conducting my medical, together with the mandated 12 lead Electro-Cardio Gram (ECG) he issued me my class two but requested a copy of the results of my Ambulatory 24-hour monitoring test. He seemed quite satisfied that I was taking control, and that the meds that I had been prescribed wouldn’t cause me to auger into a shopping mall or nuclear power station, so I was good to go.
To supplement my new exercise regime, I substituted breakfast every day for a nice, healthy smoothie.
My favourite, if it can be called that, is made with cherries, chocolate protein powder, almond milk, almond paste, peaches and seeds. Once whizzed up in the Nutri-Bullet, it looks like pond sludge but tastes quite reasonable.
It does bulk me out, so I can last easily until lunch time before I need feeding..
Now, people imagine that being a flight instructor is a somewhat sedentary occupation, like an office worker. Let me put you straight folks.
The simulator in which I conduct my training is the furthest from the offices and is a 500-metre walk to the far end of the hangar building. I normally conduct two simulator sessions per day – two kilometres walking! The journey also involves climbing and descending four flight of stairs.
The other aspect of my free workout at work, is that of coffee.
Whilst there are vending machines near my work area they are of the ingredients-in-a-cup design, and quite frankly a pair of old socks stewed in used bathwater would probably taste better.
So, when the need for caffeine hits, I walk to the nest building, 200 metres away, to use the staff canteen.
The exercise benefit here, is that it sits on the ninth floor. Rather than take one of the three lifts servicing this building, I use the emergency stairs, and climb 9 stories. I unwind the spring by walking back down.
I make this trip three times a day; first coffee a standard filter coffee in a thermos jug at about 0700. Then, elevenses. Normally the excuse that Brits wheel out whenever they fancy a cuppa and either a biscuit or a slice of cake. As soon as eleven o’clock approaches, desks empty, phone calls terminated and a mini exodus heads for the canteen.
I usually opt for a “posh coffee” – either a speciality coffee from the bean-to-cup machine, or if I am feeling particularly profligate, I have a medium white Americano from the Starbucks implant in the canteen.
Lastly, I normally come here again at lunch time to be sociable – another 8 flights climbed!
24 flights climbed a day.
So, here we are, with enforced inactivity as a result of COVID 19. The results of the new laws on self-isolation and social distancing make it very difficult to remain fit.
I am legally entitled to take exercise once a day out of the house, but I am not allowed to drive to a venue to exercise. So, I walk a mile or so or cycle around the military ranges not far from my home.
I do have activities that stop me from becoming too bored – a multitude of Honey-dos. So far, I have managed to clear my woodshed so that I can start chain-sawing wood for next winter; I have pressure cleaned the terrace, and swapped the winter tyres on the car for the standard summer ones.
I have just been furloughed, so I now have some extra time to get ahead of the chores curve and maintain physical activity.
So in the next couple of days, I will finish pressure cleaning the paths in the garden, mow the grass, and tackle the small jungle that I have called a compost heap. I must get the strimmer (Weed-Whacker/Brush Cutter) out of retirement.
I will also dig over my vegetable plots. Maybe lay out a small nature reserve, and plant it with wild flowers, and old logs as a habitat for insects and hedgehogs.
Wash the windows. Thats a pane…
The list goes on…
However, a few minutes ago, a good friend of mine WhatsApp’ed me to invite me for a virtual beer, and it would be rude to refuse.
So, I am relaxing before the call – watching two pigeons attempting to eat from a bird feeder designed to support finches and tits. It a bit like watching a C-130J Hercules attempting to land on a strip designed for Tiger Moths.
In between trying to stuff their avian faces, they are also both harassing a female pigeon (at least – I hope it is female!) for favours. She appears to be totally underwhelmed by their advances, so when they are not eating they are waddling round the garden after her.
It seems so sickeningly familiar…
So – I am hoping that I may continue to carry on being active in spite of the strictures of COVID 19.
Maybe even shed a few more kilos?
Having worked for two major international air carriers, one US and one British, I consider myself a reasonably well-travelled person.
However, I am also a total aviation geek.
In the heady days before the world suffered its seismic shift, in the form of 9/11, the flight deck was not an impregnable citadel only occupied by the flight crew.
My partner was resigned to the fact that whenever we boarded an aircraft for a flight, I would always discretely pass my pilot licence to the senior cabin crew member, murmuring “Please pass my compliments to the Captain, and ask him if I may be permitted to visit the flight deck for the take-off”
This often raised an eyebrow and caused me to miss many welcome- aboard glasses of champagne, but I was always accepted into the “office” and would talk flying with the crew prior to departure.
I would be offered a headset and would sit on the jump seat, quietly, enjoying the takeoff and climb, only returning to my seat once we got into the cruise.
It was sometimes a bit bizarre, as the commander may have been one of my students only a few months prior, so an interesting juxtaposition of rôles.
Very often, I would be summoned to the flight deck just before the top of descent and would sit there happily until we parked at the gate, where I would eventually be reunited with the long-suffering girlfriend.
She is still a committed airfield widow, so she knows where to look for me if she hasn’t seen me for a few weeks…
Whenever we go away on holiday, I always do some research into the local flying clubs, so that I can commit aviation around the world.
So it was on this trip.
May 2008 saw me visiting the Republic of South Africa, for the second time.
I had already booked an aeroplane from the Cape Town Flying Club – a Cessna 172RG Cutlass, so I was looking forward to conducting an aerial reconnaissance of the local area.
On a particularly gloomy and rain swept Wednesday, I drove my Toyota hire care to the flying club, leaving the better half to check out the the Victoria and Alfred Waterfront in downtown Cape Town.
The amount of time I had available for aviation when on vacation was limited, so rather than getting a complete check flight, and sitting written exams, I elected to engage one of the club instructors to sit next to me as a safety pilot.
The flight was a simple route. Depart from Cape Town’s D.F. Malan International Airport, heading south to cross the coast at Rocklands, then turn onto a south-westerly heading to Muizenburg, where we would turn south to parallel the coast.
Passing the military base at Simon’s Town, we continued on at about 1000 feet, to remain clear of the cloud base.
We were now descending constantly to remain in VFR conditions and eventually levelled out at about 500 feet above the sea as we rounded Cape Point.
The waters around Cape Point are treacherous, with very strong tides and localised currents giving rise to huge swells. I was thinking that I shouldn’t be thinking about having an engine failure at this moment.
So, having gone as far south as we could, we slid up the western side of the Cape, flying abeam of the Cape of Good Hope, and onwards, heading north.
The cloud was turning into water on the windscreen, the rivulets streaming backwards in the prop wash, and it felt as though King Neptune was reaching out of the deep to shake the aeroplane, as we bounced about in the turbulence.
We dog-legged back to the north-east at Pegrams Rock, and passed overhead the small town of Ocean View, then back to the east coast at Fishoek, then headed back to Fisantekraal, a small airfield north by north-east of Cape Town.
Fisantekraal Airfield is an ex-South African Air Force facility that was built towards the end of World War Two. During the war, it was the home for Lockheed Ventura bombers. A quick coffee in the ops room, and it was away back to Cape Town.
Having safely seceurd the aeroplane, and paid my bill, I sauntered out across the car park, whistling tunelessly. It had been a good flight, mixing it up on the taxi out with a SAA Boeing 737, and then having the challenge of flying marginal VFR/IFR in an unfamiliar aeroplane over some interesting terrain.
So, I left the airport, and headed up the eastern side of the Cape, to meet SWMBO, Mike and Carmen.
Mike, an old Africa hand, had spent many years in South Africa in the travel business, and as a result seemed to know all of the best places to eat.
He made sure that we weren’t disappointed. A short drive into Hout Bay saw us arriving at the Mariners Wharf restaurant – which served the most amazing food and the most excellent wines.
I retired to bed feeling very satisfied; I had flown, enjoyed superb company, ate a fantastic meal, and enjoyed some of the best wines from the Cape.
Maybe its time to do some more wandering…
A few years ago, I had a bit of a weird experience.
It started in the deep midwinter pre-dawn. Trudging to the bus stop along a dark, bleak country lane. In the gleam of my torch, I could see that the landscape wore a cloak of crisp white hoar frost – frost that crunched satisfyingly under my highly polished boots.
Standing at the bus stop, I was suddenly struck by a great feeling of déjà vu. I was approaching my sixties, and yet I was instantly transported back about four decades.
Back then, I was a teenager, embarking on my career as a trainee technician apprentice for Post Office Telecommunications, now known simply as BT
The winter dawns when I started my commute to work were as cold and dark as this particular morning. I used to make the ten-minute walk to the sleepy East Grinstead railway station, my breath smoking around me as I strode along.
The 291 London Country Bus would normally be sitting at the bus stop, pumping huge clouds of greasy grey diesel smoke into the pre-dawn air. The bus was always numbingly cold. I often thought it was warmer outside than in, but I would be wrapped up in my thick coat, wearing a hat, and woolen gloves that my Mother had knitted me.
At around about 0630, the scheduled departure time, the driver would, if he felt so inclined, pull off rapidly, causing the tired suspension to creak and rattle loudly over the rutted and potholed rural roads.
Lurching alarmingly through quiet country lanes, the bus would stop in hamlets and villages, picking up weary sleep-drugged passengers, reluctantly pacing like automatons into their working days.
Stopping in the village of Ashurst Wood, my friend Katrina would board the bus. Wearing her ubiquitous duffle coat, she would wriggle her ampleness next to me on the seat, her figure disguised under the acres of blanket-like material. I would press against her, feeling her form against my arm, the tantalising press of her prominent bosom sending hormones scurrying around my brain like sex starved mice.
She would openly flirt with me, as the bus wheezed its asthmatic way up Wall Hill, and then we would grip the seat handles as the driver, whom I assumed to be having a psychotic episode, would plummet crazily down the steep hill towards the country town of Forest Row.
Next, we would pick up Darlene, the frizzy haired Aussie who brightened my mornings with her sunny disposition and shortly after, Stuart and Will.
Stuart and Will were as unalike as could be possible. Stuart was tall, and impossibly thin, with long, lank hair, and a quiet disposition.
Will was his alter ego – shorter, mop headed and rumbustious – he was the life and soul of any party.
Pulling into Colemans Hatch we would pick up Gary, who was urbane, dapper and a total eccentric by the age of seventeen, who would converse loudly in a wonderful upper-class drawl.
The bus would then wend its way through Hartfield, where we would collect Lisa and Penny, both of whom were taking a course in Nannying and Nursing at West Kent College.
Into Withyham, and on into Groombridge, for yet another snails crawl grind up Groombridge Hill, the driver disguising our position with the clever use of diesel exhaust smoke.
Langton Green next and then the slow crawl through the western outskirts of Tunbridge Wells.
By this time the bus was happily filled with a cacophony of voices, all competing for priority with the barely subdued roar of the ancient diesel rattling away at the back of the elderly dilapidated contraption.
As soon as the bus came to a stop at Tunbridge Wells Central, it would be an utter, mad, maniacal dash to cross the road, and get down the steps and onto the railway station platform in order to catch the 0840 train to Tonbridge.
The train was always packed, and I don’t think I ever got a seat on it. Back then, the entire carriage was full of commuters, the majority smoking and reading their newspapers in silence.
This was a complete contrast to my recent journeys on the train, where the carriage was still full of commuters, but hardly a paper in sight. Everyone was either texting on their phones, listening to music players or tapping away on a lap top or iPad. And not a cigarette or e-cigarette in sight.
Once at Tonbridge, I would join the meandering human crocodile of students heading for the Brook Street Campus.
By that time, I would be on my 5th or 6th cigarette. Players No 6, or Guards – or if I was feeling delicate, Consulate Menthol King Size.
I can’t believe how much I used to smoke in those days. I must have reduced my life expectancy by a huge amount. I have been clean now for thirty odd years, and I’m probably saving not only my life, but about £4,650 per year!
And now, here I was, standing at a bus stop in the same weather, and at the same time of day. The point of origin is different, as is the destination. The bus is now a modern single decker, with a fuel-efficient engine, and is relatively quiet. My fellow commuters look the same though, tired, cold, and longing for their warm beds, from which they were rudely prised by an insistent alarm clock scant minutes earlier.
It does appear, however, that across recent contemporary history, all bus drivers have been selected because of their underlying psychiatric tendencies. It must be a recruitment requirement. This driver was either colour blind, or had problems with authority, as we jumped at least two red traffic lights en-route to Reading Station.
This time, I was in no mad rush – I had left myself plenty of time to get to Central London. The concourse of the station was already thronged with travellers, muffled up against the chill.
I attempted to issue my ticket at the self-ticketing machine, but to no avail. I then realised that I was trying to obtain a South West Railways ticket from a First Great Western machine. Oh, the joys of technology and rail franchising.
Having queued for a ticket, I made my way to platform 8, and awaited the arrival of the First Great Western 0758 “service” to Paddington.
The train was bang on time, and I boarded, to find that my reserved seat already had a corpulent, sallow woman sitting in it. As there were a number of other vacant seats, I dropped into the nearest available and re-read my presentation notes.
Ah yes…. My presentation. I had been wrestling with the finer points of my presentation, and had worked late into the previous night getting the order right, and fine tuning the PowerPoint slides.
“You are required to give a fifteen-minute presentation on what you perceive as being the biggest challenges faced by the faculty of Engineering and Mathematics in relation to delivering course content that combines high quality technical content whilst acknowledging and embracing cultural diversity and inclusion”
I was applying for the Senior Lecturer vacancy at one of the large London universities but my obviously simplistic interpretation on reading the advert, was that I would be passing on my extensive knowledge and understanding to students within my specialisation of Heavy Commercial Aircraft Operations and Performance – but it seems that I would also need to be much more…sensitive.
Sighing, I closed the lid on my lap top, and reviewed my fellow passengers. Most were hard at work on open lap tops, and a few were mumbling intensely into mobile phones. Only a very tiny minority were conducting leisure activities such as reading a book, or a newspaper.
This would appear to be the modern work ethos. Travel to work whilst working. Then put in a ten or twelve hour day, and then work some more on the commute home. Fourteen hours a day, and get paid for eight.
I think my Father’s generation were the last to enjoy their commute; my dear old Dad became a very well-read man after commuting for two hours a day by train for sixteen years, and he would read just about anything from autobiographies to science fiction. I used to benefit from his addiction as he would frequently wander in to my room and toss a book to me, saying “Read that, I think you’ll like it”.
I always did like his recommendations…
As a young lad attending college, and travelling by train, I used to spend the journey gazing out of the window, watching the English country landscape whizz by in a blur. Or engaging in fantasies involving some of the elegant ladies on board. I used to often enjoy reading the discarded newspapers left by fellow commuters, and would avidly soak up the latest news.
It seems that now, the young are disconnected from reality whilst connected to their phones, and commuting is now part of the working day, rather than a brief respite for those that work for a living.
How commuting has changed.
Welcome to the brave new world.
And yes, you are welcome to it….