Friday, 21 August 2015


Thursday was an interesting day. After having extended my stay by a day the night before and spent the morning in research, I left the hostel at noon on Thursday with a bold and perhaps overambitious plan – hire a car at Heathrow Airport, drive to Bristol to find a WWI soldier’s grave, and drive back in time to see another West End show.

First off, show tickets. The Underground to Leicester Square seemed to take too long as I dashed out of the station, made the snap decision to buy slightly more expensive tickets to my favourite Phantom of the Opera, and then back on the same train in the opposite direction towards Heathrow Airport.

Once there, I stumbled around until I found the shuttle bus to the Europcar depot, the only company I could find that didn’t have a minimum age of 23 to hire cars. That’s not to say it was an easy process. Having first caused a sensation by asking to hire a car without a prior reservation, I then sent the staff into a tizzy by producing a licence that they’d never seen before. On the cusp of being denied a hire because their Big Book of International Licences had no record of my Victorian probationary licence and couldn’t vouch for its validity, I produced my International Driving Permit containing enough rules and restrictions to allay their fears.

Thus it was that around 3 o’clock I pulled out of the Europcar depot and promptly got lost in the rabbit warren around Heathrow Airport. Some astute sign-reading soon put me right and got me onto the M4 without too much difficulty, and then I was on my way to Bristol. Once the initial terror wore off, it was actually kind of fun. Thankfully the English drive on the left, like us, but I turned on the windscreen wipers more than once when I tried to change lanes!

It pretty soon became clear that it was a race against the clock, though. Heathrow is almost an hour from the city by the Underground, and with Phantom starting at 7.30 I needed to get back to Heathrow by 6 if I was to make it. With Bristol only an hour away it seemed like I had time up my sleeve, but with the clock dimishing noticeably and the distance not so much, I was definitely cutting it fine. A quick stop of about five minutes to grab some food and I continued hell-for-leather towards Bristol.

I made the turnoffs in all the right places and found myself, shortly past the impropitious hour of five o'clock, in the tiny hamlet of Leighterton. Almost on the other side of the village, I found the cemetery, where are buried a handful of WWI soldiers from the Australian flying squadrons stationed in Leighterton who never saw a battle are buried. One of them is called William Parkes, and he enlisted in Creswick, Australia.

After 20 minutes or so in the cemetery, during which time all hope of making it back to London at a reasonable hour went out the window, I jumped back in the car for the return trip to London. This time I got all the turnoffs right around Heathrow, managed to get out of penalties for not refuelling the rental car, and didn't even blow a gasket at the London Underground for taking so long to get me back to the city.

I bolted down Haymarket and made it to Her Majesty's Theatre just before the intermission in Phantom. The music, as always, was just wonderful, and one of the ushers has been inspired to study the story further after a soliloquy on why the actor playing Christine missed the crucial moment that defines the tragic love of the story - aka I went full Phantom nerd on someone and they thought it was so beautiful they want to know more.

Today was much less exciting - at noon I left the hostel bound for London Euston station, from whence I took a train north towards Manchester, changing at Stockport for Buxton, where I waited for the next bus that took me along a scenic 45-minute route to Hartington Hall, Jacobean manor and stunning youth hostel in the village of Hartington in the Derbyshire Peak district. After dinner I went for a walk through the town. It's all so classically English - all the stereotypes of stone buildings, multi-coloured flower gardens and pubs named after long-forgotten famous figures take life in this little dales town. It's James Herriott and Pride & Prejudice country, and it's gorgeous.

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