I’m a bit slow

So the birthday of the lovely Jamelah (who cracks me up regularly) has come and gone, but I suddenly remembered a rather good travel-related disaster story which I don’t believe I’ve shared here before, so I’m writing it up anyway.

Well, it goes like this: I was in England with my rather lovely husband. In fact, it was our honeymoon. We’d been to Scotland (briefly) and Wales and had stopped by Worthing and were now making our way up around London in order to get to Stanstead for our flights home. The actual flights were two nights away, so we needed to find somewhere – preferably somewhere nice – to stay for the one night and then another, somewhat closer to the airport – our flights were ridiculously early, as flights are – the next night. We’d been driving (rental car) from place to place without pre-booking B&Bs – well, we did phone ahead most places, but it was a case of “have you got a double for tonight” rather than “can you fit us in next June”. It had mostly worked out well, though we sometimes ended up not quite where we originally intended.

Now, as I said, we were circling round London on the eastern side and heading for Essex, unknown country for me, for some reason I’ve never been North East of London much. We settled on Colchester as a likely place to stay for one night, as it was big enough to provide the likelihood of free rooms and good pubs, as well as some sightseeing opportunities. Rather than phone ahead we decided to go the “get the tourist information to book us in” route, which was our first mistake (unless chosing Colchester at all could be considered a mistake, which the following events might suggest to be the case, so go on then, not phoning ahead and trusting to the tourist information was our second mistake. I think. Unless it was the third or fourth or whatever). We found a carpark down by the station somewhere and proceeded on foot to the main centre of town (being taken aback at the first encounter with – presumably – native Colchesterians, a group of four teenagers we met at a little staircase up from the parking lot. The staircase was narrow, and they reached it first, so we stepped aside to let them descend. This they did, and each in turn said “Ta” or “Thank you” as they passed. Catch a Norwegian teenager doing that! I took it as heartening proof that politeness is not quite dead (yet). Anyway, on with the main story…).

After some initial problems of determining what was actually up and down on the tiny map we had of the centre (in the Rough Guide to England, I believe), we found the tourist information. It was stuffed with people. We got to talk to one of the ladies, but she didn’t even want to try booking for us when we couldn’t tell her where we wanted to stay (uhm, I kind of thought her job was to suggest places to us?), but gave us a leaflet with lots of B&Bs and hotels in Colchester and told us to sit down and see if we could find something we liked the look of. So we did, for a little while, then realised we were probably better off in a pub, making the phone calls ourselves, especially since the tourist information was about to close anyway. So we left, and discovered that it had suddenly gone dark outside. Now, in July in England it’s not supposed to be dark at 5 pm. It was. Then it started raining. REALLY raining, not the messing-about-with-a-little-watering-can sot of raing but the throwing-bucketfuls-of-water-at-everyone-and-everything kind of rain. We tried to stand under a portruding roof for a while, but then decided we’d rather be wet and cold and in a pub than slightly less wet, but still cold and outside, so we ran for it. I was so soaked by the time we got to the corner of the block where there was a pub (thanks be) that when I headed to the ladies to try to dry off a bit with some paper towels or something I actually got a laugh from some of the bystanders. Seriously. Think drowned kitten, except not quite as cute.

Incidentally, between the main pub and the ladies there was a little hallway with a door leading out to the beer garden. Outside there was a step up to the main area. Into the basin created between this step and the walls water was pouring from a – presumably defect – drain off the roof. Since the door in to the hallway was open, this is where the water was heading. Heroically – well, I’d just dried off after all – I stepped into the deluge and pulled the door shut (it opened outwards, so you had to step into the deluge to get a grip on it). I then headed back to the ladies for a bit more paper towelling action.

Onwards with the “place to stay” mission: Over a pint or two we started phoning some of the B&Bs in the leaflet, but they were either not answering the phone or all full. The rain eased up a bit and we decided to head back to the car and drive over to one of the areas where there seemed to be a concentration of B&Bs, as in our experience there are usually more than bother to pay for mention in leaflets. So we did. Once we were in the car it started raining again, so we drove around Colchester in the rain, muddling through roundabouts and trying to figure out ways of getting to where we wanted to go through the maze of one-way streets. Finally, we found the road we were looking for. According to the leaflet and the rough guide, there were at least four B&Bs on that road. We didn’t find them. Not one. We’d have been happy to see one with a “No vacancy” sign at that point, quite honestly. The closest we got was a house with the usual credit card stickers in the window, but there was no sign outside and it seemed completely locked up.

Getting increasingly desperate, we tried a couple of the hotels in the leaflet. We normally don’t stay at hotels because they are A. more expensive and B. less personal and interesting. This time we didn’t stay at any because they were full. At this point we started wondering what it was that was so great about Colchester that everybody and his grandma wanted to stay there, but decided, on reflection, that we would rather have a bed than a good time (if, indeed, such were our choices) and to look further afield. So while the husband drove out of Colchester I started phoning B&Bs in nearby, smaller towns. “Sorry, we’re fully booked” became the refrain. Turns out the world and his grandma had invited their friends from outer space and had filled every bed in Essex. The party must have been swinging.

Working my way through the Rough Guide to England with the help of the map, I found a B&B – or a small inn, rather – in Clavering, a village not too far from the main road leading from Colchester to Stanstead and very close to Stanstead. I phoned. Did they have double? Yes, they did. How much was it? 86 pounds a night. A bit stiff, but ok, we’ll take it for tonight, certainly (I don’t think I actually told the guy on the phone that I thought the price a bit stiff, mind you). Fine, when can we expect you? Oh, in about half an hour I should think.

By the time we arrived we’d decided that 86 pounds wasn’t all that stiff and that we’d be thrilled if they would let us stay for two nights. Now, because of the rain and the soaking (remember the rain and the soaking?) we’d been rather wet when we stepped into the car. By this time we had mostly dried up, but not quite. I was wearing a dress in a olive cotton that turned a few shades darker when wet. When soaked from head to toe this wasn’t a problem because the whole dress was still the same colour, but now the only part that hadn’t dried was the part down around my middle that gets squashed when sitting. So I had a big, wet patch in the middle of the front of my dress, looking pretty much exactly as if I’d needed the ladies but hadn’t quite made it. Classy.

The nice gentleman at The Cricketers booked us in for two nights regardless, which just confirms the overall friendliness of the place. See, this is a travel disaster story with a happy ending. Got to love those.

Good things about the Cricketers (because lists are good):

  • Heavenly food. Seriously. I thought I might die when I tasted the carrot-and-something puree I got with my meat the first night, it was that good.
  • No rain. Well, not inside, anyway.
  • Charming, old pub, with beams that warned you when you were too drunk (i.e. you had to duck, if you hit your head, you’ve forgotten, which probably means it’s time to go to bed).
  • Food to die for.
  • Four poster bed. Which is what every girl wants on her honeymoon, right? Beats sleeping in the car by a long mile.
  • Sherry in a decanter in the room. Ok, the sherry was pretty bad, but still.
  • Gorgeous food, and it was reasonably cheap, too.
  • Complimentary chocolate a-plenty in a bowl in the room.
  • Morris dancers outside the pub. Weird stuff, but entertaining.
  • Fabulous food.
  • Lots of good beer – kept the husband happy.
  • And did I mention that the food was really rather good?

Turns out we’ve accidentally ended up in an inn run by Trevor and Sally Oliver. Sound familiar at all? Know where the naked chef learned to love cooking? Yup.

So. There’s your travel disaster story, and there is a bonus: A recommendation. If you’re ever flying out of or in to Stanstead and need somewhere to stay – and have a car or a generous taxi-budget – this is the place. Or if you’re in the area for some other reason. Or, in fact, if you’re not in the area at all but can get yourself there.

That was the commercial break, now back to our regular programming.

Oh, and happy belated birthday, Jamelah.

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