Our man [formally] of Amsterdam


Crossing the Channel – Part 2 of 2
October 9, 2009, 21:02
Filed under: London, Travel

Harwich, my landing point in England, like Hoek van Holland the night before, and other such freight ports, are aesthetically the same: giant stacks of lego and hulking great cranes all linked by twinkling fairy lights at night, until morning dawns and the industrial ugliness rears to life as lorries laden with more lego scamper and dart about like worker ants, diving in and out of both ends of container ships.

I like arriving in new countries at dawn. This was confirmed many years earlier after another overnight ferry crossing, coincidentally, this time from Tangier in Morocco to Algeciras in Spain. It was the height of summer and the ink black night felt warm and still. This is not the best time of year to visit Morocco, unless the prospect of living in a 24/7 dry sauna is your thing. In Marrakech, the most popular venues were the banks and the police stations because they were the only buildings with air conditioning. I do not know if the amount of bank robberies surged in summer but I would not be surprised.

What did surprise me was how sick I became on the train from Algeciras that departed ’round midnight to Seville. Most of the journey I divided my time between the toilet and an open window in the rickety vestibule at the end of the carriage. The source of the scourge was probably a water-borne bug ingested a few days earlier when, against all advice, I sipped water directly from a mountain stream on the descent from Mt Toubkal, North Africa’s highest peak. Extreme thirst can do that.

And a few days later, on the night train to Seville, the bug erupted. A kindly American student noticed my distressed state and gave me her water and that of her friend and they both kept watch on my bags through the long night’s journey into day.

Suffice to say, the dawn arrival into Seville saved me, for it was like – and I don’t mean to overstate this – being reborn, as the rust coloured city and I slowly woke together, the details of which I’ll leave for another time. Generally though, that brief period before sunrise when it’s just you on the streets (or only a few) in somewhere new, is like letting yourself into a property uninvited, as if encroaching on a city’s fabric, and that ‘permission’ can only come after such time as workers and locals have roused, and the initial activities of their daily regime ‘grants’ you – by some Rousseauan general will – a form of leave to ‘enter’, which is why arriving at this time makes me feel like a privileged trespasser, and it’s a rare liberty I don’t take lightly.

After wandering along winding laneways that morning in Seville, and resting for weak black tea occasionally, I eventually found a cheap pensione with a room that had private facilities and lived off a diet of plain yoghurt and fresh lemon juice for how ever long it took the bug to pass through, which I think was about two days. After that I went to a bullfight and felt better, not for having witnessed a senseless death in the afternoon did I feel better, no, but for being able to venture more than three metres from a bathroom with confidence.

Harwich, England, is most definitely not Seville, but as the train left the docks behind and ambled along the bay en route to London, I did not spot any “cold beef, cress sandwiches and ginger beer in a hamper”, but instead I entered a calm sleepy pre-dawn light that seemed to envelope the town as if a blanket of soft mist had been spread overnight and was slowly evaporating, revealing more and more of itself as the air warmed and the train penetrated. And again, that privileged sense of ‘trespassing’ emerged, of stealing stealthily through the lives and landscape of a town in the wee-small hours. Or maybe I was just absolutely exhausted from hardly any sleep and regretful for not succumbing to the Chef’s deep-fried Special the night before?

Harwich, on approach. Photo courtesy Webshots Travel.

Harwich, on approach. Photo courtesy Webshots Travel.

This pastoral idyll passing sedately outside my window was soon shattered by an undecipherable noise belching through the train’s intercom: “Garble, garble, Colchester, garble, Mannering, garble, garble, Liverpool Street.” I think some numbers were also mentioned at the end, probably a time, but I can’t be sure. Not long later we stopped at the first “garble” and a few passengers got on. Then the noise started again, although with one less “garble” this time.

As we approached Colchester, I could see large numbers of commuters clumped together on the platform in tightly packed groups and this intrigued me until I saw where the train stopped; they were gathered right in front of the doors, all set to push through and claim the few remaining seats. Strangely many had their hands bowed down, rather reverently, peering into their Daily Mails and Suns and Mirrors. Even when they stepped forward in unison and poured into the aisles their heads remained downcast and expressionless, even sombre, probably because they faced the remaining hour or so of the journey to work having to stand, and it was this that maybe made them look sad. Or perhaps the news in their papers was bad? Welcome to England: Mind the gap.

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