As someone who lives the kind of fast-paced, adrenalin-fuelled existence of a Radio Four listener who’s been told to slow down by his doctor, I enjoy pottering around castles*. As previously mentioned, I’ve been making my way around all of Henry VIIIs castles (the ones that can be visited anyway). I’ve written about my previous journeys here, and here. There’s one on the south coast at Southsea, and another just across the water on the Isle of Wight. I decided to spend a long weekend visiting the island and ticking the castles from my list. This is the first post about that trip. It was a trip that didn’t exactly start smoothly.
Now, many would assume that a trip to the Isle of Wight would require a time machine with the dial set to mid-1970s. Personally, I opted for a ferry, but the journey was far from plain sailing.
It was the Easter Bank Holiday weekend. As such, I expected the roads to be pretty snarled up. So, when I awoke, I checked the AA website to assess the traffic situation. Much to my surprise, the roads were reportedly clear. I found this a little unlikely, so opted to periodically check throughout the morning while packing and preparing for the trip.
The journey time was predicted as 1hr 20mins. The ferry departed at 15:30 and the instructions said to get there half an hour early. As my departure time approached the AA website still maintained that the roads were clear. All the same, I left at around half twelve. This allowed 2hr 30mins for a 1hr 20min journey while still observing the thirty minutes grace time. Plenty of time – so I thought.
As I pulled away from home and joined the main road I immediately hit heavy traffic. Not the best start. It took me fifteen minutes to go about three quarters of a mile. Not to worry. This was exactly why I’d allowed plenty of time. On my way to the motorway I had to stop off to get a camping stove. Unfortunately, the car park was grid-locked. It took me ten minutes to get out. Not to worry. As I say, this was why I’d left myself plenty of time. Once escaped from the clutches of the car park everything went smoothly. Well, until I hit the motorway. The motorway was only crawling along. The AA site didn’t say anything about that. Now that was worrying.
I went all the way to the next junction without ever reaching top speed. Thankfully, I only needed to go one junction before departing the motorway and joining an A road. I was relieved to find this was clear all the way to the next motorway. That’s when the troubles returned. As I turned down the slip road I was greeted by the sight of backed-up traffic at almost standstill. The AA didn’t say anything about that either. I looked at the clock. I’d already wasted about forty minutes. This meant I only had thirty extra minutes left, and I still had a very long way to go. I began to get concerned. I also began nervously watching the sat-nav’s ETA as it ticked ever closer to my departure time.
Every time the motorway cleared, inciting a sigh of relief, it soon snarled back up again. It would clear for mere minutes before I encountered the next grid-locked section. It felt like being teased. Every time I was given hope that it would be okay, it was dashed by the next section of congestion coming into view. I sat helplessly watching as the time I’d cautiously allowed drained away. The AA website clearly had a lot to answer for. Meanwhile, time ticked away so freely that I eventually began entertaining the fact that I might not even make my ferry at all.
I had left the ferry booking later than intended. By the time I finally got around to it the fares were extortionate. I almost postponed the trip. It was only after I realised I could get my ticket significantly cheaper by booking through the campsite that I decided to stick to the original plan. But the ticket was tied to a particular departure time. Clearly, any last minute changes were likely to inflict a heavy toll. I was expecting over two hundred pounds for a ticket that had cost me about forty. As I crawled along the motorway, often at little more than walking pace, and watched the time ebb liberally away I even considered cancelling and postponing the trip. But, as I had nothing else planned, I figured that I might as well soldier on and see what happens.
What happened is that my thirty minutes buffer-zone soon evaporated. I then began to eat into the extra thirty minutes grace time. All the while, the traffic would clear for a few minutes only to clog back up again a few minutes later.
My ferry was leaving Portsmouth Ferry Terminal at 15:30. By the time I finally arrived it was 15:29. A guy in a high-vis jacket flagged me down and asked which ferry I was travelling on. I was feeling pretty broken by this point. “The half three to the Isle of Wight, but I assume I’ve missed it,” I said resignedly. “This isn’t the terminal for the Isle of Wight,” he replied, “That’s on the other side of town. You have to keep following the road.” I groaned**, thanked him and continued along my journey.
I pulled out of the terminal and began making my way across Portsmouth, only to realise that the motorways weren’t the only things snarled up. Portsmouth was packed as well. It took me ten minutes just to drive a mile or so. I eventually reached a grid-locked road on an approach to a roundabout. The turning for the terminal was off the roundabout.
As I glacially made my way up the road I kept looking at the clock. It was 15:40. I kept reminding myself that my ferry had left ten minutes earlier. What was the point in turning off from the roundabout and getting stuck in even more grid-locked traffic when I was already too late? Well, I’d travelled this far, so I figured I might as well see it through to the end. I opted to stay the course.
After a few minutes I finally took the turning off the roundabout. It was such solid traffic that I turned my engine off. What was the point? The traffic was going nowhere. As I sat there frustrated and annoyed I saw a partially readable dot matrix sign just up ahead. “Did that just say…” A tree’s branch was obscuring the message as it waved in the breeze. “Did that just say…all ferries are running 30 minutes late?” I asked myself. I stared at the sign waiting for the wind to move the branch. A breeze arrived. The branch moved. I got my view. All ferries were running thirty minutes late. I looked at the clock. It was 15:42! I was only running twelve minutes late. I still had eighteen minutes to go! All I had to do was drive a hundred metres up the road. I couldn’t believe my luck. I was actually going to make it!
Forty minutes it took to drive that one hundred metres. Forty, long, infuriating minutes. I was stuck behind a lorry, so I couldn’t see the road ahead. Every time it moved I became hopeful, only for it to move a couple of metres before stopping again. I was almost banging my head against the steering wheel. How could I get so close and still fail?
Eventually I reached the terminal entrance. I pulled up alongside a woman in a high-vis jacket. “Which ferry you here for?” she asked. I despondently explained, while expecting bad news. “They’re just loading that one now. You might just make it,” she said with a smile. I couldn’t believe it. I rushed up the road before being flagged down by the next person in a high-vis jacket. I then repeated the conversation I’d had with the lady. Well, almost. This time the interaction didn’t end so positively. “Nah, you ain’t gonna make that, mate. You’ll need to go to the booking office and buy a ticket for the next one,” he said. Aarrgghhh! Defeated, I crawled up the road before being flagged down by a third person in high-vis. We went through the same conversation again. After I explained the situation he apologised for the inconvenience before saying, “Just drive down into bay two and I’ll put you on the next one.” “O-kay,” I said, somewhat confused. I drove down to the requested bay. “How about that,” I thought to myself. “I think I’m going to make it.”
There had been some kind of terminal inspection combined with an unexpected level of travellers that had created turmoil at the port. This turned out to be fortuitous for me as I was able to get on, eventually. I didn’t make the next one. It wasn’t actually until 17:20 that I was finally standing on the deck of the ferry and thinking, “I can’t believe I actually made it.”
About an hour or so later I was happily winding my way across the island towards my campsite. I had a little trouble finding it (which I later realised was owed to someone having crashed into, and flattened, the requisite signpost), but I eventually arrived. The camp site was right on the coast and had only a short stroll down to a nice, sandy beach. Not that I was in a position to exploit it. By the time I set up camp it was getting dark. I hadn’t brought much in the way of food as my plan was to get there much earlier and go to the pub in the nearby village. It was 20:30 and dark by the time I’d set up camp. I was sceptical as to whether the pub would still be serving food. The campsite shop had obviously closed, and I had no idea where the nearest open shop was. I was relieved to have finally made it, but acknowledged that my first night on the island was likely to be a hungry one. Either way, my best bet was to wander down to the pub in hope they were still serving food.
After ten minutes of weaving along a dark, pavement-less road I eventually arrived at the pub. I was pleasantly surprised to enter a warm, brightly-lit, wooden-beamed, friendly local pub sporting a strong selection of ales. There was also a rather enticing looking menu. “Are you still serving food?” I asked the barman, optimistically. He looked around me at the clock behind me. “Yeah, you’ve got twenty minutes,” he said. “We stop serving at nine.” Excellent, I thought to myself. I then began drooling over the menu. “The specials are up there,” said the bar man pointing at the chalk board behind him. I then began drooling over the specials. All the food sounded spectacular.
And so it was, at 9pm, I found myself sat in a delightful, little local pub with a delicious local ale while tucking into an exquisite dish of slow roasted belly pork with baked apple, mash and cabbage. I paused from my meal and took a swig of my pint. “After all the trouble of today,” I thought to myself, with a satisfied grin, “it turned out nice again.”
*Despite only being in my mid-thirties, I do actually enjoy Radio Four.
**Well, I say I ‘groaned’. To be honest, I wasn’t in the best frame of mind by this point and without thinking said, “I’m fucked then.” My little blooper didn’t register until I’d driven off, so I didn’t have the chance to apologise.