14 December 2022

Back in a ‘Winter Wonderland’
after a snow-bound escapade
and an unplanned night in Dublin

‘So that the villagers can say / “The church looks nice” on Christmas Day’ (John Betjeman) … Saint Mary’s Church, Shenley Church, in winter snow earlier today (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2022)

Patrick Comerford

As I waited in Dublin Airport for (yet another) delayed flight to Birmingham on Tuesday morning, childish shouts of joy and glee echoed around the departures gates as voice announced boarding for the Ryanair flight to the North Pole.

Of course flights constantly fly overt the North Pole on routes to Anchorage and Japan. But what inner child could not resist the idea of wanting to go to the North Pole and visit Santa with less than two weeks to go to Christmas.

Many bleary-eyed adults – and not just parents – must have wondered how a snow-bound Santa had magically managed to wangle this one route that was not delayed or cancelled due to snow on the runways or dense fog enveloping the airport.

I spent almost 36 hours in transit, between leaving the front door in Stony Stratford early on Monday morning and arriving back late on Tuesday afternoon. In between, there were five bus journeys, two delayed flights, one cancelled flight, one delayed train journey, one cancelled return train journey, one cancelled lunch, one taxi run, one short airport monorail transfer, countless double espressos, and three hours of intermittent sleep in an airport hotel – all to complete an undertaking to bring Christmas presents to family members in Dublin.

I had intentionally booked return flights between Birmingham and Dublin on Monday in the hope of avoiding Tuesday’s train strikes in England. But Monday’s early morning train journey from Milton Keynes to Birmingham provided the first premonition that all was not going to go well throughout this escapade.

The train was late, and as a consequence got stuck among commuter trains between Coventry and Birmingham. A plan to arrive at the airport in plenty of time to get through security came to naught. As the queues snaked out of the security area into the main airport and the monorail area, rumours passed down the line that it would take an hour or an hour and a half to get through to the other side.

Thankfully, airport staff members had the wit to call people out of the queues as the screens began to warn that boarding gates were about the close.

It still took almost 1½ hours to get through from one side to the other. The staff were doing their best, but not enough security staff are available. It’s easy to calculate how many staff members are needed on mornings like this – after all, all flights are booked in advance. I put this down to recruitment difficulties created by a government that refuses to give enough work visas … and for that I blame the post-Brexit racism that is endemic in this Tory government and its decision making.

I made it to the boarding gate with just five minutes to spare – only to find that the flight to Dublin was delayed … and delayed … and delayed yet again.

A call had to be made to Mykonos, one of my favourite Greek restaurants in Dublin, to cancel the table for three booked for 1. But at least I had time to return to the duty free shopping area to buy some of the liquid items that could not have been bought beforehand because of security restrictions.

It had been a 5:15 start in Stony Stratford; eventually, I arrived in Dublin at 3 pm. In normal weather, journeys to Greece or Italy would take far less time.

Lunch in Mykonos had been cancelled and we made do with coffee together in Dublin Airport.

But even as three of us tried to catch up with one another, I was interrupted with a text from Ryanair telling me flight FR 670 at 20:00 on Monday evening had been cancelled. I would have to rebook with Ryanair, and I would have to find an hotel room near the airport.

Hundreds more would-be passengers were going through the same experience, over-and-over, in queues throughout the airport. The Clayton Hotel let me know I had managed to get the one last available room that night.

By then, eating a proper meal had also become a priority. But I had also travelled without my medication for my sarcoidosis and without a toothbrush.

Leaving the Clayton Hotel in Dublin with its Christmas tree and decorations (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2022)

I managed to sleep for about three or four hours, but I was back on an airport bus from the hotel at 4:15. Leaving the hotel, The Christmas tree and Christmas lights in the hotel entrance and lobby looked like so welcoming in the winter darkness, and I was regretting leaving without even a short opportunity to get to see Dublin city centre in all its Christmas glory, even for an hour or two, the previous afternoon.

When it comes to morning queues and security clearance, Dublin Airport was a pleasure on Tuesday morning compared with Birmingham Airport the previous morning. There was time for breakfast, time to catch up on emails, time to enjoy the sight of children excited about the promise of a flight to visit Santa at the North Pole, or at least a Ryanair flight from Dublin to Lapland, landing in Rovaniemi in Finland.

The flight to Birmingham was called on time. Now all I needed to worry about was the rail strike in England. I did not want to spend another night in another airport hotel, and needed to book a National Express coach from Birmingham Airport to Milton Keynes.

But the escapade seemed to be in danger of being prolonged once again. After a brief run along the runway, the plane returned to the gate. A change of crew was needed, and we sat on the tarmac for another two hours … and waited.

Eventually, when I got to Birmingham. The National Express driver was flexible and I changed onto an earlier coach, going through Coventry and Northampton.

Winter snow at Saint Mary’s Church, Shenley Church, earlier today (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2022)

Milton Keynes looks like a ‘Winter Wonderland’ after the snowfalls earlier this week. The roads and paths and fields are covered in snow, and the gritters are out keeping the roads open. The Peace Pagoda with its gold trimmings stands out in the white-covered park, and it is possible to imagine how Willen Lake could freeze over.

In all of this, full marks and my thanks, praise and gratitude go to the Ryanair cabin crew on Flight FR 666 from Dublin to Birmingham. In my fraught confusion and tiredness, I had left my wallet and all cards on the seat beside me on the plane. They chased after me, called out my name, and found me just moments before the bus pulled off for the airport buildings.

The environmentalist Guy Shrubsole says in an interview with India Bourke in the current edition of New Statesman that the idea of England as a ‘green and pleasant land’ has not been true ‘in the last century and probably longer.’ Nor is it Santa’s ‘North Pole hideaway in Lapland’.

But, despite all its problems – from the post-Brexit economy with food shortages, rising inflation and fuel and heating costs, and the wilful political neglect of the NHS and public sector workers to a kleptocratic government riddled with racism, indifference and self-serving cronyism – it is good to be back safely in this ‘Winter Wonderland’ in time for Christmas.

Stony Stratford looks like a ‘Winter Wonderland’ after this week’s snow (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2022)

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