It seems strange now to think that I never left the shores of Britain until I was 20, unless you include the Isle of Wight and Mull. In fact it was the day after I was 20. The reason was quite simple, my family always took their holidays in the UK, and I am grateful for that because I got to know large chunks of Britain from those experiences. There were several favourite spots, the south and south west of England being one of those; partly because Dad had spent many years living there, we also had three holidays in North, South and Mid Wales, and four holidays in various parts of Scotland, some of the best holidays we did. We experimented with the east coast; the North York’s Moors and Suffolk, but although we enjoyed them enormously and there were many high spots, they never felt the same as going to Devon or Galloway. Mum and Dad and I also filled in a few gaps up the east coast one year; Lincolnshire, central Yorkshire and Northumberland, me showing them some of the wonderful sights of that huge, oft forgotten county beyond Newcastle. I was at Durham University at the time, and with a couple of other friends had started to explore both the more rural areas of Durham and Northumberland; the windswept coastline, the massive castles, bleak moorland, fabulous river valleys and the busy little market towns. But during term time, the north east was generally very cold and empty – no leaves on the trees, no growth, short days and often terrible weather. It was good to see places like Beamish, Warkworth, Alnmouth, Wallington and the like in full summer.
And living in Liverpool, which sits so much at the centre of the British Isles, many places others would think of as far off holiday locations; the Peak District, Snowdonia, Shropshire, The Yorkshire Dales, Lake District, were day trips for us, and we knew all those wonderful retreats in the north that nestle between the big tourist honey traps, the fabulous Howgill Fells, The Trough of Bowland, The Vale of Eden, the Ribble Valley, the Berwyns, the Clwydian Range and Vale of Clwyd. Just as beautiful as the big boys but half as crowded.
So, I knew much of Britain pretty well; the only large blank spots at the time were the north and north east of Scotland and the Isles, Essex and Kent, and I ended up living in Kent. But while I had been learning about the UK, my knowledge of Europe and beyond was pitiful. We had to do an overseas field trip for my geography degree. The choices were Malta, Portugal, Germany and Greece. Of all these Portugal sounded the most interesting to me, far enough away to be different but close enough to my islands for a first go at the big wide world. I never regretted my choice; not only was the place spectacular and some of the experiences fantastic, it was also with a group of marvellous people, several of whom became long term friends.
So many firsts on that trip; first time abroad, first time on an aeroplane. It started with the long haul by bus from Durham to Gatwick Airport to catch the British Airways flight to Porto. The flight left at 10 in the morning, we had to be at the airport at 8. Being students there was no way we could afford the peak hour rail fare or accommodation near London, so working back that meant leaving Durham by coach at midnight. I had never been on an overnight coach before. About ten of us met at Durham’s unglamorous bus station at the foot of the famous railway viaduct. It had been my birthday and although aware of the travel, we had been out for a bunch of drinks at Trev’s College Bar and a Cheese and Branston Toastie; one of those delicacies of student years that have never been replicated; how did they manage to get the cheese dripping inside, and the non-flammable plastic stuck to the burnt corner of the toast? Mmm mmm. And they sold draught Theakston’s Old Peculiar for 75p in those days. So we grouped together on a cold June evening (the north east hardly ever seems to heat up) and eked out the last few moments of my launching into the 20’s. The bus station was totally deserted and we believed we would be able to stretch out on the coach and get some sleep on the way down. The double decker from Newcastle was about thirty minutes late, so we were already knackered by the time we handed our bags over to the driver for storage, and stumbled aboard. A bossy stewardess hustled us upstairs, down was full, and we had to split up to sit next to those who thought they had double seats to themselves. When we left Durham the coach was jammed packed. I don’t have long legs, but I could not get comfortable without splaying into the aisle, and I got a few caustic comments from the Geordie stewardess as she tripped over me. As coaches are want to do, we seemed to dawdle through the streets of Durham City, up the dual carriageway to the A1(M), and I tried to get comfortable a dozen times in the next hour without success. No sooner were we on the motorway than we seemed to get off, and we spent twenty minutes entering Darlington. More people boarded, the very last seat had gone, and we set off again. Twenty minutes later, approaching two thirty, we rejoined the A1 south, I drowsed but could not sleep, we stopped of at York and Doncaster on the way south, neither place yielding any further passengers making the half hour detour at each place completely pointless. I seem to remember every mile of the M1, from where we joined it where the M18 comes in, past Nottingham, up over the Charnwood Forest (the coach almost coming to a standstill up the gradient before hurtling down the other side). It was here that it started to get light, at about four in the morning. Once past the M6 junction I finally thought we may make Victoria on time, but we had one more short detour into the deserted bus station at Milton Keynes, a bunch of simple shelters in a car park surrounded by thickets of young trees. If you had no prior knowledge you would be suspicious that a city actually existed here. And then finally the outskirts of London, up Finchley Road past Lords, Marble Arch and Park Lane and into the gleaming whiteness of Belgravia. We alighted in the diesel smoke-saturated bus station. That was my last ever voluntary overnight coach trip – six hours without more than half an hour’s sleep, cramped into a space that an octopus would find uncomfortable.