Welcome to Summer (or Coming-into-Winter as we have re-named it). We were all awake bright and early today to pack the buses at 3.30am and depart the Manchester Novotel by 4am. We were given a packed breakfast in a brown paper bag but most just wanted to clamber on the bus and quickly resume their slumber. Our trip to London took around four and a half hours, and apart from the broken air conditioner, which led to an over-heated cabin, we had a good journey.
After arriving at St. Pancras International Railway Station, London, at around 8.45am, we were given tickets for our Eurostar train, which was scheduled for a 10.58am departure. A highlight of the morning was meeting with our Latrobe City Mayor, Cr. Dale Harriman, as well as Sharon Olivier, who played baritone in the band for many years until moving to Melbourne for university studies. Both Dale and Sharon have now joined the band for the France leg of the tour.
After lining up in international departures for over 90 minutes, an announcement was made that all departures had been suspended due to a fatality on the tracks, further down the line. One hour turned in to two hours until the scheduled morning train departures were eventually cancelled. Meanwhile, the departure area was filling with hundreds of passengers, all unsure how long it would take for services to recommence or indeed whether they would be able to get tickets for onward travel at all. Behind the scenes, Jacqui Ingram (our travel agent) and Alan had set themselves up in the business centre of the Renaissance Hotel, St. Pancras, and were frantically making phone calls to try to reschedule almost 60 people to get to France. Today. Options included: train to Dover followed by a ferry across the English Channel and then coach to Lille; direct flights from smaller airports; or an overnight stay in London followed by a morning Eurostar departure.
As per our itinerary, we had an incredibly busy afternoon scheduled in France and Belgium, and as time passed, it seemed less and less likely that we would make those commitments. We were to arrive in Lille (northern France) via the fast Eurostar train at around 1.30pm local time and then transfer to two coaches that would take us north into Belgium for a concert and street march in Ypres, commencing at 4pm. We had then planned to stay at Menin Gate, Ypres for the nightly Last Post service, which has run every single day since 1927, apart from the four years of German occupation during WW2.
In the railway station, our large group had split up into smaller groups, making it easier for people to move around and find cafes and amenities. The station was gradually filling with thousands of people, all stranded due to the halt to services. The Medhursts and Mayor decided it was time to visit Kings Cross Station nearby to see Harry Potter’s Plaform 9¾. I don’t know who was more excited: the mayor or Lee Medhurst, but according to Phil, when the Mayor invites you to Platform 9¾, you can’t say no!
Others at the station had found an array of resting places: bars, cafes, restaurants and shops. By 12.30pm we decided that it was time to start half-hourly transit group leader meetings to check on progress and keep everyone updated as we were all spread throughout the incredibly busy station. Jacqui continued to work non-stop behind the scenes to secure a transport method that would see us in France by night-time. Of course there were a thousand other issues to consider also: the coach company that was scheduled to meet us in Lille, the Battlefield Guides who were also due to meet us, the Australian assistant and guide (Mike Lee), the trip to Ypres and the concert and service at Menin Gate, the ‘Man and a Van’ who had taken all our instruments and half the cases to meet us in Menin Gate, the possible change in accommodation, the possible coach hire to get us to Dover before 6pm, the ferry tickets for a group booking of almost 60, the coach that would then have to meet us in Calais. The list went on. And Jacqui had it all covered. Just as she was about to pay for coach and ferry tickets, we heard an announcement that the afternoon trains were running again, thus alternate plans were put on hold whilst she tried to make a group booking through Eurostar again. Eventually we had the wonderful news that we were scheduled on the 5.04pm Eurostar to Lille. Then began Jacqui’s cancellations of all the possible alternate options. Group meetings continued, and eventually everyone’s boarding passes were re-issued and we were able to sit and relax for a moment.
Robbie continued to sleep on the floor on the upper level of the railway station, opposite the Champagne Bar (which of course Debbie and Co. had earlier located), unknowingly hosting a ‘Homeless – please leave coins’ sign that the others had placed alongside him as he slept. We were all in fits as everyone took photographs of the self-damaged sleepy boy. Others played cards for hours at their tables (a big thanks to Monique and Tom who taught the young Wilson children how to play), Jennie’s bag was broken into (luckily nothing was taken), Sue Hill found the world’s best staircase, Nelson was thrilled with his hipster chorizo and kale soup, Brad and Barney discovered that they can drink in public in the UK, the pink transit group found seats in a fantastic café and perched there for hours, drinking lots of tea, Chloe bought a colouring book, and everyone just waited. And waited. And waited.
Prior to eventually joining the mile-long boarding queue, Alex took his children to the bathroom to be greeted by an Aussie voice saying, ‘Hey, you’re not supposed to be here!’ It was Ashley Proctor, one of our cornet players and his family, who had arrived from Heathrow Airport to board the 5.04pm train to Lille also. Ashley had had commitments with work and had planned to arrive in Lille to meet with us after we returned from the Menin Gate evening service.
Our 5.04pm train eventually departed at around 6.30pm to the sound of cheering and the sighs of great relief. After more than 9 hours at a railway station we were thrilled to be heading to France. Gone were our plans of an evening visit to Menin Gate, but it looked promising that we would be able to visit this important venue early in the morning. Many slept and missed the whole English Channel Tunnel, while others finished the card games they had started in the London railway station throughout the day. We arrived to the friendly smiles of our Battlefield Guides who had been waiting all afternoon for us, and were immediately taken to our hotel at around 9pm, where a lovely 3-course meal was awaiting us. Despite the unexpected change of plans, most traveled well and took it all in their stride, before collapsing into bed exhausted.