It has been six years since I was last in the UK for my eldest niece's wedding and since then she has had two children so I thought it was about time I met them in person. When I made the decision I had to research the best, and cheapest way of returning. What a minefield. I thought I would try the cheap (sorry, low cost) route first. Nothing worked out to get me either to Bristol or Heathrow without travelling at hideous hours and then there was the hand luggage problem. Also by the time you added everything together, it was not cheap (oops sorry again low cost). Quickly took that off the list. Next, being a fan and having always travelled with them, I looked at TAP but sadly although I could get to Heathrow the options for return flights were either from Gatwick, Luton or Stanstead for some reason - all completely unworkable. So, biting the bullet as my previous experiences with them (when working for a living) were not good, I looked at BA. After a bit of backwards and forwards I eventually procured a flight for a return fare of approximately 200 pounds. One problem solved. The next was to find a way of getting from Heathrow down to Wiltshire.
Train? Book in advance and save pounds the adverts scream - yes and how? I looked at all the sites and could not find one decent fare considering you have to bus it to Reading to get the train in the first place or take the Heathrow Express to Paddington and then go from there. The prices were absolutely mind-blowing. How do tourists cope? I know I am spoilt rotten here with fares for a 40 minute return journey being 3.40 euros but First Great Western seems to need millionaires to travel on it. Scrap that one. Bus? National Express site was not particularly user friendly and they wanted 30 pounds each way to go from Heathrow to Corsham - even trying to book in advance to - yes, you guessed it - save pounds! At this point I was muttering to my best friend about prices and bless her, she said she would pick me up as she would be working close to Heathrow that day. Problem solved getting to Corsham. I would tackle the return nearer the time.
The day arrived and I set off with my suitcase and large handbag. I have been travelling through one version or another of Lisbon Airport for the last 20 years and the changes have been immense. It was pretty glamorous when I travelled six years ago but even more changes have taken place since then. Now instead of choosing to go into the Duty Free area, you have to walk through it. Well that took me all of a minute as I have no wish to spend any money in there. Then I was somewhat bemused as the other changes with upmarket shops, bars etc. All I was interested in was a cup of portuguese coffee and a sit down until my flight was called. Eventually, tucked away in the back of the Food Hall, I found a place that sold portuguese and not some other import. Suitably fuelled up I hiked to the gate - I say hiked as the distance you walk in airports these days is amazing. How the elderly or toddlers manage without a sit down is a miracle.
The flight was fine and comfortable and my Kindle kept me occupied although why they feel they need to serve 'food' (an icy cold wrap filled with over spiced chicken) is beyond me. Why not lower the fare and just serve a hot drink? Flying over the south coast of England I was cheered to see brilliant sunshine - however that disappeared very quickly as the clouds descended and we landed in greyness at Heathrow. Another long and tiring hike to retrieve luggage and then out into the Arrivals Hall to meet my friend who handed me over to my brother-in-law at Swindon.
The first evening I went to the local pub and practically fainted at the cost of drinking - no wonder the pubs are closing. A pint of Guinness and a glass of reasonable red wine was the price of a three course meal with wine and coffee here in a local tasca. I find it sad that this traditional way of life has been continuously under attack by governments, greedy breweries, irresponsible supermarkets and other interferring entities.
The following morning was a wander round the shops in Corsham. Very nice to still see some individual shops surviving in the harsh commercial world of today. One shop was The Deli at Corsham (www.thedeliatcorsham.co.uk) run by Cristophe and Rachael Bonneau.
Cristophe Bonneau and Charlie
I loved this shop. A huge selection of what you would expect and more. The best bit was finding Ribblesdale Cheese on sale! I was able to tell them more about Iona Hill who runs it and they, in turn, told me where they sourced it so I could tell her. Small world. Obviously I had to buy some and my sister also bought a couple of rather super French cheeses too. Another shop well worth seeking out.
Charlie weighing out my choices
My favourite day out of the trip was when we went to Bath Farmer's Market which was fabulous. So lovely to see lots of stalls all selling wonderful produce. A great mix of antique, second hand, dairy, vegetable meat, bakery etc. http://www.bathfarmersmarket.co.uk The website gives a good overview of the traders and what they produce. After cruising the second hand stalls that were tempting, I went off to investigate the myriad choices of cheese. As I was going to be cooking a portuguese meal for my sister and brother-in-law's friend that evening, I wanted to get a cheese and this stall took my eye immediately.
Talking to Tim Homewood I managed to choose a beautiful sheep's ricotta which proved to be a real hit at dinner. His stall was very inviting and he is happy to let you taste before you buy. Well worth stopping by. I was also thrilled to know that he knew about Ribblesdale Cheese.
Tim Homewood and Angela Morris run Homewood Cheese (http://www.homewoodcheeses.co.uk) and recipes for using their cheese are on the Bath Farmers Market site too
Happily moving around, tasting here and there, I then spotted this incredibly mouth-watering display.
An eye-catching array of flavoured olives
Obviously I had to buy some to have as appetizers before dinner and was assisted in my choices by Fey, who shyly agreed to having her photograph taken and to tell me about her family company Jacob's Finest (www.jacobsfinest.com) that specialises in Falafel but her 'baby' is the olives. Unfortunately although I have requested numerous times to their email for more information on Fey and her products, none has been forthcoming.
Fey of Jacob's Finest
A close up of some of the olives
Eventually after exhausting myself wandering around and buying some rather nice organic vegetables, it was time for a coffee and breakfast courtesy of my brother-in-law.
A full English breakfast - old style
The Sunday was a trip to Bristol for a family reunion and the only black spot was the torrential rain and gloom. Amazing how you forget how dark the UK is at this time of year considering Portugal and the UK are the same time zone, it is definitely better being that further south so it stays lighter longer. It was a rare treat to be driven everywhere and able to look at the countryside which is still very beautiful and rather nice to see cows and sheep - none around me here sadly. Parking around my niece's house was reminiscent of Lisbon before parking meters! Every bit of pavement appeared to be covered in cars with just a narrow gap for traffic. I did notice that the tailback for people heading for Ikea in Bristol was just as I remembered it too! Some things never change. Catching up with nieces and other halves and my great nephew and niece was the icing on the cake for me.
The time went very quickly and soon it was time to sit on the suitcase and start the long trip back to Portugal. Just before I left, I had attempted to get a cheap bus fare back to Heathrow from Corsham - one of the designated stops for the 403 National Express Service. Again, after a frustrating time on their website and rather a lot of bad language about the cost, I somehow got a fare for nine pounds from Bath to London Heathrow. That would do nicely.
Come the day, my sister dropped me at the bus stop in Corsham and awaited the bus. It was late and when it did stop, I was told off in no uncertain terms by the driver because my ticket was from Bath and although the stop is on the route, they have to be told otherwise they may well not stop and go via a different route. He was also in a temper because the motorway was closed and he was stressed about getting to London. I apologised to him and privately pondered the fact that a ticket from Bath to Heathrow is only nine pounds but if you get on at Corsham - about 15 minutes from Bath - the cost would have been 30 pounds!!!! Something odd there I think. Anyway we set off and it was rather nice to be able to travel along the roads I used to drive regularly and see the changes. I was rather surprised (I suppose) to see that Swindon Bus Station is still as disgraceful as ever. It really does need something doing to it. As the motorway was still shut, the driver took the old Oxford Road to head up to Heathrow. A rather beautiful way to go rather than the M4 and considering everything, we were only 15 minutes late.
Again, armed with my boarding card and being well in advance of flight check in, I went over to the desk just to see what time I should check in. Having ascertained I would need to wait about 45 minutes, I found a place close by and got stuck into my Kindle. Alerted by a lot of noise, I looked up and saw an immense queue had formed at the desks. I worked out that if I joined it, my desk should be ready for my luggage by the time I got to the end of the queue.
It quickly became clear that chaos was happening all around me. Apparently a flight to Thailand had been cancelled the previous night and this queue was a mixture of people going for the new flight, people like myself heading for Europe and the Thailand flyers were less than patient. Stories abounded about the lack of information the previous evening and how some had gone home for the night and others had been forced to stay in Brighton as the cheapest hotel rooms for the night close to the airport, had been in the region of 400 pounds. The queue quickly started to get stroppy due to lack of information and the people for Europe added to the noise level by wanting to know what was going on as their flights were being called and they still have to check in. Eventually, another balcony opened with a harassed woman trying to work out how to separate people into some form of order. Although the majority of us had our pre-printed boarding cards, some hadn't and did not know how to cope so had to be helped by other passengers. Then the rumour came down the line about we now had to print our own boarding flight tags and the more computer literate in the queue helpfully aided some rather haughty and unimpressed European ladies. All in all it took an hour to get to drop off my bag - glad I got there early. Heathrow is still in need of a rethink on how it treats and communicates with passengers. Passing out bits of paper for people to comment on, is hardly what is needed.
The next chaotic scene was customs. Obviously Heathrow caters for thousands of passengers but attitudes are unhelpful, unfriendly and in some cases, downright obnoxious. In the queue to have my handbag x-rayed I was astonished at the rude way that was used to tell people that if they had not put their electronic devices into the tray, they would be confiscated and it would at least 45 minutes before they got them back. I know it is a difficult job that the customs people do, but surely a "please" and "thank you" is not too difficult ask for. I felt very sorry for some of the foreign travellers with limited knowledge of English being treated so roughly. A very unpleasant experience.
I just had enough time to grab something to eat - I wandered around aimlessly looking for something healthy that did not need an overdraft and found the cheapest option was an Italian restaurant. Cheapest meant over 10 pounds but it was well cooked and the wine was nice for the exorbitant price. Same BA flight experience with cold wrap option and coffee so it was a relief to fly over Portugal and land in sunshine.
I will return but possibly not for quite some time and perhaps I may well choose another option for travel.