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The Happy Commuter

Not many people can say that they enjoy their daily commute with any degree of truth.

I am an exception to this rule.

Yesterday morning, I softly shut the front door, and swiftly double locked it. As I walked briskly to the car, I noticed that it was cloaked with water droplets from the previous night’s heavy rain, and they shimmered in the alabaster cold moonlight, ruffled gently by the almost imperceptible breeze.

I looked up the field, and could just about make out the old farmhouse through the light mist. The sky overhead was as black as tarmac, and the stars glittered like shards of broken glass.

I smiled to myself.

It was 0445, and I was about to drive from rural Hampshire to Heathrow Airport for my early shift.

The car was chilled as I started it up, and I decided to be very self-indulgent, and switch on the heated seats, as it was only 0.5°C. By the time I reached the tiny hamlet of Bramshott, the warmth was permeating my back nicely.

The back lanes had treated me like royalty this morning. First, an unscheduled stop to enable a family of Muntjac deer to slowly amble from one side of the road, to the nature reserve on the other.

A Muntjac deer, Shy and beautiful. Photo courtesy J J Harrison

A few minutes later, I found myself driving parallel with a barn owl, sweeping effortlessly along the field to my right.

Photo courtesy Peter K Buriam. Barn Owl in flight.

Fantastic!

Accelerating up the slip road to join the A3, a quick glance in the mirror showed that there was no evidence of other vehicles heading north – not even a headlight beam.

Once the car was comfortably at the legal limit, I engaged the cruise control, tuned in my favourite radio station (Greatest Hits Radio) and took a sip of coffee.

Oh, the joy of fast cruising on an empty highway. No vehicles, and just the occasional truck heading south to Portsmouth to dip my headlights for.

The tarmac was damp, but not slippery, and I managed to get all the way to Guildford, some 17 miles before I spotted another vehicle heading north.

By Ripley, his headlights were just bright dots in the mirror.

The M25 was equally quiet, relatively speaking. Busy with articulated lorries, many bound for the airport, and some diving off down the M3 to head to the docks at Southampton.

In some respects, this was a bit eerie. In the past, even at this early hour, the western segment of the M25 would be busy with cars; airport workers and passengers, all heading for the terminals.

Lockdown was having a huge effect. The airport was just about surviving, but with so few movements, staff were either on furlough, or redundant. On the upside, air pollution was significantly reduced, and my journey time was reduced by twenty minutes.

Once off the motorway, my drive takes me through Staines, Ashford, and Bedfont, all of which are pretty deserted.

At this time of day, the lunatics and muppets are not about – still asleep I guess. Most of those that I encounter are driving safely, at the limit, and are courteous and helpful.

This doesn’t happen at 0445 on the A3… All the loons are in bed.

I pass through the security checkpoint at work very quickly.

Well, to be fair, I am the only vehicle in the queue.

My shift start time is conveniently placed between the end of one shift and the beginning of another, so there is rarely a wait before driving through the massive security gates, and onwards to the staff car park.

Early shifts are a pleasure. Definitely the best time of the day.

According to my mother, I have been an early riser since I was an infant.

I went through a phase as a grumpy teenager when I would sleep in until lunchtime, but that was more as a result of imbibing vast quantities of alcohol with my friends, until late in the evening every Friday.

I would get home, and crash out, on many occasions still fully dressed, not to be seen again until the sun was very much over the yard arm.

Despite the amount of beer taken on board, I was lucky to have never had a hangover either!

Leaving my teenage years behind, I became an early riser once more.

Working in the aviation industry, for a major airline I was a shift worker, and enjoyed a variety of start times, varying from 0500 to 2200 starts, and other shift starts between these two extremes.

0500 starts have always been my favourite though.

Summer “early-earlies” would see me quietly leaving the house, walking down the garden path in the pre-dawn glow of a brand-new day.

At the time, I was living in West London, about 5 miles from the centre of London Heathrow Airport, so it was a short drive to the staff car park.

In Spring, I would revel in the cool stillness of the morning. The sun would be shyly peeking over the gardens to the east, gilding the slate roofs of Bedfont with a golden glow, doing far more for the houses than a complete renovation would achieve.

Summer would offer somnolent dawns, warm, dappled and filled with birdsong and I would drive the deserted roads around the perimeter of the airport, usually not seeing another vehicle until I was within the airport restricted area.

Standing at the staff car park bus stop, it always surprised me that so many of us early shifters looked so tired, disengaged and sleepy.

I was, and still am, one of those awful people that are immediately ready for the day ahead as soon as their eyes are open.

Poor SWMBO, with whom I have shared my life for over 30 years, is a night owl, and doesn’t function correctly until the correct number of coffees have been emptied into her!

So, I would bask in the sunshine, waiting for the bus, whilst the others round me were slumped against the glass walls of the shelter.

The buses back then were a climate activist’s nightmare. Operated by the British Airports Authority, they were probably ten years old and to be frank, were knackered. Originally painted in bright traffic yellow, they were battered and grimy, both inside and out.

They rattled, creaked and generated more diesel smoke than an ocean liner, and would grind their way round the airport perimeter road, making only one stop at the staff bus stop in the central area.

I would then enjoy a brisk walk to Terminal 3 check in for work.

Autumn 0500s were enjoyable too, but in a more melancholy way. I would still leave the house at 0430, but now the sun was reluctant to welcome the day, and I would walk through the crispy leaves to the car in the half light, now needing to wear my light bomber jacket, thoughtfully provided by American Airlines.

As the seasons marched on, I would have to leave the house at 0420, to give me sufficient time clear the ice or snow from the windscreen.

Whilst I used a de-icing spray in the hardest weather, I often had to scrape the ice from the car, and the sounds would be amplified throughout the quiet residential street, reverberating and bouncing off the houses, and shattering the stillness.

I used to feel guilty about this, until I realised that most of my neighbours were shift workers as well, and we all took it in our stride.

I stopped working at the airport in 1997. I had been lucky enough whilst working with American Airlines to see many aspects of airline operations, Passenger Services, Passenger Security, Special Services, and Flight Operations.

I had sat in a deserted ops room, watching the flights departing the US, and plotted their arrival times, and planned the parking stands for the day.

I had sat with my heart in my mouth in the early hours of July 18th 1996, after hearing reports that an American aircraft had crashed into the Atlantic off the coast near New York.

It turned out to be TWA flight 800, and not one of “my” flights, but still a tragic loss of 230 human beings.

I had searched aircraft, operated security equipment, and interviewed suspect passengers.

I had escorted celebrities and VIP as they transited both Heathrow and Stansted airports.

Flight operations was my element though. It was what I was trained for, what I enjoyed, and what I understood.

However, promotion in the Flight Operations sector normally requires the transfer to a job that is no longer practical and hands on, but is more of a specialist desk job.

So, after many years with the mighty American Airlines, I started work with British Airways, working out of the fantastic Compass Centre.

The design of Compass Centre makes use of curved glass external walls on the south side, which overlooks the airfield. Curved glass walls were chosen as glass does not present a large radar signature, and the curved walls reflect radar energy onto the ground.

This reduces the building’s radar reflection on the ground movements radar used at the airport. The building is also thermally efficient, and summer afternoons caused the air conditioning to run at full power, despite the floor to ceiling blinds.

I was very privileged, as my department occupied the middle floor of the eastern-most block, and overlooked the runway. My desk was three feet from the glass windows, so my viewpoint was superb.

Compass Centre, My office was the middle floor of the module nearest the camera.

My job was now a standard day job, with working hours of 0800-1600. I now had to drive on roads that were filled with other commuters, some of whom appeared to have forgotten the most basic driving skills.

Luckily, this didn’t last too long, and I soon transferred to the Flight Training School, where I began working as a Flight Crew Instructor. Not only was the job hugely enjoyable, but luckily, I was back on a shift roster.

My office… I could never be an accountant!

Most of the instructors weren’t keen on early starts, so I happily swapped out their earlies, and off-loaded my late shifts. Every day was an 0630 arrival, so I was normally out of the doors at 1430, and was able to use the rest of the day for my pleasure when the rest of the world were slaving away in their offices.

I am now getting towards my personal Top of Descent, and I am thinking more and more about retirement.

If you ask people what they like most about their retirement, the most common response is “Not having to do the daily commute”.

I think that I will miss my enforced dawn patrols, when the day is new, and you can smell the freshness of the dawn.

What about you?

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APPRENTICE English Culture Motoring Nostalgia Old Friends Society Trains Transport Travel Work

A journey by bus and train

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.

Your Carriage awaits…

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.

The 291 Route – Still the same now as it was in 1975

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.

It doesn’t look much on the map, but at 0630 on a dreary winter morning it lasts forever.

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.

Tunbridge Wells Central Railway Station

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. 

Players Number Six – or Shit Sticks as we used to call them

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.

Not a valid reason to stop if you drive a bus in Reading, Berkshire

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.

STOP Working…. Look out of the window and enjoy the Journey

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….

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