It was one of those trips that was constantly in flux. Happy to ride the tide, altering plans as new possibilities presented themselves. In retrospect maybe a little more planning would have been wise.
I’d spent the weekend in Hastings working at a convention, and opted for the long trek home. Endless hours on a train that would traverse the length of England and into Scotland before eventually making its way to the Ayrshire coast and connect with the boat back to Ireland.
It’s not everyone’s idea of a commute, but after the ashcloud (remember that?) had scuppered a couple of flight plans I got used to taking the leisurely transit. What’s not to love? You don’t have to deal with the stresses of airport security, or excess baggage fees. And I was carrying a suitcase full of books, which would have cost me a tidy Easyjet charge on their own.
To be fair, wheeling a heavy case of hardbacks through central London as I navigated the underground between my national rail stops proved problematic. Heaving weights up and down the stairwells and narrowed arteries of the tube tunnels isn’t something I plan to repeat. I’ve no idea how young mothers and disabled persons manage it – commuters are unforgiving.
But I’d made it, and my train was en route to Glasgow. Glancing at the printed itinerary I saw that I had a six hour gap between trains – not unusual for a trip of this distance. And for a while I sounded out my brother about the possibility of visiting him in nearby Edinburgh. In the end logistically it wasn’t working so I resigned to killing the hours in Scotland’s other major city. There’s plenty of cafe spaces that I’m sure would cater to me as I killed time.
As the clocked eeked its way long past midnight and the train pulled up into Glasgow Central I could feel sleep fighting against me. I’d been on the go for most of the last couple of days, and all the water and sugary travel snacks had threatened to send me into an uncomfortable coma. I disembark, dragging my overweight suitcase and into an eerily quiet station. As I make my way towards the uniformed staff I am met with grim news. Yes, I appreciate you’re booked on another train in a few hours, but you’ll have to leave the station. It gets locked up overnight. Yes I know its cold, but tough Sir.
Oh feck. I haven’t planned ahead. My brother is long in bed, I can’t get him to pick me up now. I don’t really want to pay for a hotel for a matter of a few hours. I don’t know anyone I can call on in my hour of need. Where can I go, I ask the evil guardian of the station. In his sympathy he suggests that I might be able to go to the bus station near Buchanan Street. Its a short walk from where we are. Hmm. I’ve spent a few nights waiting around bus stations, so I figure I’ll take my chances. But as I set forth into the cold, damp, uneven streets, hemmed in by looming Victorian architecture, I am beginning to panic. The need to keep a phone charged, the absence of comfort, lack of supplies, and sheer exhaustion are all starting to crush my resolve. I stretch a ten minute walk into the best part of an hour, looking around for a possible out – a cheap hotel, a friendly shout out on twitter, anything really.
But no, there is nothing and I eek my way round to the cavernous Buchanan Street Bus Station. Its lit as there are still buses throughout the night, but this isn’t like my nights in other stations. I have spent many deeply uncomfortable nights in bus, train and ferry stations. They have a rhythm of their own, a vibe that can be worked with, a late night coffee dispensary. But the shops here are closed, and while there are glass fronts, there are also gaps, and the lack of heaters means that my entire body is slowly succumbing to the cold.
There’s a couple of other people milling around, but generally its quiet. That’s good. I look for a vending machine, but they’re in the bit of the concourse that is locked up, so I can’t even get a much-needed chocolate fix. Frustrated, I find myself a space on a row of hard metal seats away from anyone else. I bundle up as best I can, wrapping my body around my suitcase, and my shoulder bag warming my lap. I’m grateful that I wore one of my long velvet coats, and I have gloves. But I’m aware I’ve got hours to wait. And I’m aware that as a lone traveller I’m vulnerable. So I don’t really want to sleep. I’m fighting the urge, in a need to keep an eye on myself, my possessions and those around me. Please don’t mug/rape/murder me!
But it does overtake me and I awake to find someone sitting on a seat practically beside me. He’s talking to me. But I’m not paying attention. I’m working out what his angle is. And I’m very uncomfortable. I know I shouldn’t judge, but its 3am and he’s in a closed bus station. Who in their right mind would do that? Oh, yeah…
The night passes until I can take it no longer. The guy talking to himself a little way down the concourse has freaked me out and I fumble for my kit and set off back out and towards the town. Its just gone 4.30am. Surely by now the shops must be opening for the early commuters? I stroll down Buchanan Street, eerie in the street lighting. I’ve been through here so many times, but never seen it as quiet or atmospheric. Half way down is the distinctive blue of a former Police Box, a beacon of escape and hope to my mind – influenced by years of Doctor Who watching. I take my camera from my bag and snap a few shots, moving around to get some different angles. I’ve been photographing this box every time I walk past, but this visit it feels magical – and if I’ve got to pass an uncomfortable night, I want at least one good photograph as a momento.
I took this:
As I make my way slowly back in the direction of the Central Station I spot a light on in a McDonalds and as I approach one of the staff tells me to come in out of the cold. They’re just setting up, but the prospect of a softer seat and some warm is unavoidable. He must have seen my case and realised I’d screwed up my plans for the evening. Say what you want about that chain, but I’ve never been as grateful for a coffee and a McMuffin as I am right now. And i relish it over the next hour, watching as the early shift workers come in bleary-eyed, contemplating the rashness of my plans the night before. Its not even dawn as I walk into the station and onto the empty train to begin the final stretch back towards Ayr.
There’s a lesson here somewhere. But I don’t think I’ve learned from it. I recently found myself having to go through the same process on a trip back from Dublin during a bus strike. Though I was more fortunate in that I was able to hide in the comparative warmth of the airport, before setting off and meeting a friend for early breakfast. But once again, I found myself harangued by a random bloke – one who spent most of his time ranting about what physical harm he was going to do, until the Garda kicked him out.
If you find yourself on an overnight in a travel spot, make sure there’s somewhere warm to hide. Ideally with food and drink options. Try to stay indoors, and somewhere with a security presence. Especially if you’re travelling alone – we’re all far too easy prey without someone to back us up. And if all else fails, head for the nearest 24 hour fast food outlet and spend a few calories. Your stomach will forgive you, and its probably safer. And if you can’t do any of that, hope there’s at least a decent photo or a story at the end of it.
When: October 2012
Where: Glasgow, Scotland