I just had one of the best days of my life. But maybe when you read this you might not understand how this could possibly be counted as one of the best days of my life or maybe you will be left thinking whether all of the other days are even more full of “fun”.
Well, to place the setting I should explain a bit more than the day itself: Steffi and I were at a festival in the truly beautiful Portmeirion in North Wales – “Festival No. 6” to be precise. Maybe the most beautiful place I have ever visited in the UK. Unfortunately it had been raining all weekend but this just didn’t matter. There was mud ALL over the place – every previous strip of grass however small was now transformed into what looked like Tesco’s own brand of brown sauce … but about knee deep. Which was fine as long as we stayed there. But by Sunday night I was a little bit worried how I was gonna get my cases across the fields and back to Manchester Airport and if Lufthansa would actually allow me to check in 2x 23kgs of what would look like shit. And then I stopped worrying as I decided to try and see if some of this summer’s Buddhist teachings would work: whatever you need to happen will happen – probably not what you want – and that all will work out well. When I look back life had so far proven this but this was a great time to test it again live and so let go of the worry and potential panic. What we had actually wanted to do was to stop off at North Wales’ best chippy at Tremadog and then hit a pub in Liverpool for some ales on the way to the airport.
And I guess this is the main thread in the story.
Having realised already on Saturday how difficult it was going to be to get off the campsite through the increasing mud I had started looking for a solution but not found any. And then suddenly on Sunday night – without looking for it we stumbled across a path we hadn’t yet seen from both ends and realised this was going to help. We decided to get up early but both had no battery left in our phones when we went to bed so couldn’t set an alarm. Without us knowing it our neighbours had decided the same thing but somehow got woken and so as Monday morning started they were up noisily taking down their tent which woke us and motivated us to move.
Time to take off: 11hrs.
The rain had luckily turned into a kind of soggy fog which was easy for the shammy leather to deal with and this together with the teamwork meant we were quickly packed up and ready to go.
Time to take off: 9.5hrs.
This was for me the first mystery: how did we manage to get up, do our abolutions, pack cases, deflate mattresses, sleeping bags and deal with the tent all in 90minutes.
Then, just as we were leaving, two other people left our field through the one corner I had left unexplored and Steffi saw that doing this we could avoid the first swamp and so make it almost directly to the path we had found the night before with little to no wading. It worked and with surprisingly little effort we were on our secret path. We were about to head down the last furlong and had a quick breather and chatted to one of the security blokes who told us that Park&Ride was in such a bad state cos of the rain that it had closed and from his story it sounded like we were in a disaster movie where the organisers were setting up life saving rescue services for drowning Ford Mondeos.
We reached Portmeirion Castle at the end of the trek with our cases miraculously not looking like piles of shit and roughly the same weight as when we left the site.
Time to take off: 9hrs.
It was raining so I suggested we have a quick breather in in a large marquee setup there for the staff to eat their breakfast in only to find Hannah, a new friend from Saturday night, sat there reading the paper. She’d already learnt the tricks of the trade and told us about free tea, coffee and toast we could sneak out of the staff serving area. But first I found what seemed to be the only toilet left which still had toilet paper. Whilst I was off enjoying the luxury of a flush toilet Hannah had asked Steffi if she thought I would mind if she joined us on the rest of our journey. On the way back from the toilet I had heard from another security bloke that now 2000 cars had apparently been written off at the Park&Ride so I said of course I didn’t mind but I was thinking that it was like betting on a blind jockey to win the Grand National and had no idea why on earth Hannah would want to travel with us of all people!!! 🙂 I would have chosen to take the train.
But there was no deterring Hannah so Steffi and I sat down to eat our “borrowed breakfast” whilst Hannah packed up her tent.
Time to take off: 8hrs.
Hannah came back to pick us up and we tried to work out how we were gonna get past the queues of people to board the shuttle bus down – we were still in the first 5% of people leaving the site but 5% of 10,000 guests is still 500 people. As we were working out the logistics a man drove up in a beautiful official Festival No.6 Volvo SUV and asked if we would like to drive with him to the Park&Ride. We of course thought he was taking the piss but after the third incredulous “REALLY??!!” and “are you sure we can sit on your lovely cream leather seats in these dirty clothes?” we threw our stuff in. And so Saint Nick, as he was newly christened, drove us in style down through the wonderful Portmeirion to Porthmadog’s rugby ground. Well as we got closer it looked more like Porthmadog’s water polo park but amongst the debris I spotted our car, still shiny and white and above water – infact still perched on one of the rare patches of green. Saint Nick dropped us at the best spot he could – in the bus park – not allowed for normal plebs – but as Hannah was wearing an official disabled armband and he hadn’t seen her dancing the night before we were allowed. 😉 We said bye to Saint Nick, still feeling a bit guilty about sitting on his cream leather seats in our FILTHY trousers and FILTHIER wellies.
Time to take off: 7.25hrs.
Hannah was left with the luggage and the two of us walked off in our wellies into what was somehow a cross between a river, a marsh and just piles and piles of mud to work out the next step. Incredulously we saw that despite the surrounding end-of-world landscape the car was perfectly fine but there was no way without somehow finding Q and asking if he had some free time from meddling with Aston Martins for James Bond that our Ford was gonna get out of the mud surrounding it. But luckily there were 18 tractors busy at work towing cars out in what seemed like a random order. So how to get some kind of priority position? Steffi was just about to wander off and try and explain to one of the farmers that we had to make an early evening flight when a tractor just headed straight to us. I have a feeling it was because most other cars were only full of blokes waiting to be towed whereas we had been lucky enough to have Hannah look after our luggage AND Steffi had driven four wheel drives a bit while working for the UN in odd bits of the world. Which meant that Steffi was there, without our luggage thanks to Hannah, and for a farmer who has been up all night towing blokes out of the field the site of a pretty Austrian lady must have been more attractive than another fat Welsh bloke. As it was a rental I had NO idea about the car or where I could fit the towing hook or infact even where the towing hook was. And the farmer’s explanations were in such a strong Welsh accent I wasn’t actually even sure if he was speaking English or Welsh to me. He must have guessed based on my blanker than blank face and worked out really quickly that it would be quicker to do it himself than explain to me – he jumped off his tractor and was on his hands and knees in the mud and in no time had us all setup. Steffi steered as he pulled us through the mud and loved every moment of it. We were soon up on the ramps setup above the mud and able to carry on. The only thing I did understand from what he said was when he mentioned he was doing this voluntary and if a tenner would be ok as payment – little did he know I would have paid ten times this to get out of this situation so paid gladly.
Time to take off: 6.5hrs.
Then our first bit of bad luck hit us: one of the other guests trying to walk to his car pointed at our tyre. I jumped out to see that the tyre had completely come off the wheel rim. Having never seen this happen before I was slightly confused what to do next and remember we were actually still in the middle of the field on some flimsy aluminium panels so I realised it would have been like changing a tyre on the Bridge On The River Kwai. At least without the Japanese soldiers but not much easier. So there was only one way to go: forward and hope we didn’t damage the wheel or axle.
We made it to the car park where the first policeman of the day immediately guided us to a pop-up free car wash – probably saving our lives – as we later found out without this our brakes would have had NO chance of working. After this and messing around a while trying to swap the tyre on gravel the first policewoman suddenly appeared and told us about a nearby garage. Then the third bobby appeared and ushered us very officially onto a tarmac area ignoring the rules from the festival organisers that only shuttle busses were allowed there.
Time to take off: 6hrs.
It was then I noticed the little sticker in the car saying “if you have a problem with crash or tyres call 0800-….). One of the few mistakes I made all day. I didn’t realise this was a mistake until much later as the message was quite reassuring: in 90mins a man from the AA would be there with a full sized replacement wheel. So I didn’t bother changing the tyre and instead we took the opportunity to get out of our wellies, wet trousers, sticky muddy coats and other smelly clothes into some of our remaining dry clean clothes. It was then that it became apparent how dirty WE were – my hands/fingers/nails looked like I had been digging a rabbit warren with my bare hands for a week.
Then another miracle happened: we had parked the car next to one of those motorway mobile cafes and they had bacon baps which I had been trying unsuccessfully to get all weekend – always managed to either not be hungry when they were available or no bacon / closed / no baps when I was starving. AND they had brown sauce.
We continued to meet interesting people – my favourite of whom was probably Doug who had decided to go bare foot and whilst others were hosing down their wellies was busy cleaning his feet. His highlight of the festival has been finding a womans fur coat which despite being about 5 sizes too small he proudly presented.
After 90 minutes the AA called me back with some slightly annoying news: the type of wheel we had was not available anywhere in Wales. Despite finding it incredibly ugly I never realised the Ford Mondeo was soooo unpopular but guess the Welsh must have the same taste as me. Our next choice was option#1: get picked up with a lorry and driven to Manchester Airport or option#2 have a mechanic come and change the tyre for us. The second option didn’t sound too promising as it meant driving max 50mph on the spare all the way to Manchester which was a bit more than the recommended max 200miles. So we chose option 1 – the only problem was that it was going to take another 90minutes for the lorry to arrive.
Time to take off: 4.5hrs
Some good luck: only 60minutes later I got another call this time from the AA lorry driver – he was already here – 30mins “early”. And then the next AA screw up – he was here for option 2 which I could have started 2.5hrs ago and after my winter tyre experiences I would have taken max 30mins to swap to the spare so we would have been almost in Manchester by now. Although without bacon bap.
But no time to complain or regret – onwards – at 50mph hoping that the tyre would not disintegrate after passing the 200mile mark around Runcorn. Calling the AA again and waiting for another lorry would just have taken too long and who knows if the next lorry would have had the same problem.
At least I (and everyone else in the car) didn’t have to worry about me not having put the wheel on properly or maybe the axle being damaged too as the mechanic would have seen this.
As we left the car park the level of disaster became apparent and our minor problem of tyre off really was small compared to other car damages.
Time to take off: 4hrs
After a while of driving I did the maths and I realised with 50mph we were never going to make it. So pushed the car to 60. Hannah realised with 60mph we were never going to make it so I pushed it up a notch to 70mph and kept silently repeating a Buddhist protection mantra.
While I was driving Steffi made two important but frustrating calls to Avis and spoke to a series of machines until finally getting through to a human which was probably even more frustrating as despite the AA having failed (which from my contractual perspective meant that Avis had failed) Avis would show no flexibility to where we could drop off the car. Before the third call we hatched a plan and so then Steffi no longer asked them for advice but TOLD them that we would be leaving the car in the short term car park near departures for Terminal 1 and if they wanted to see their car again they should come and meet Hannah who would be waiting with the key. This seemed to do the trick.
We finally saw the sign for Manchester Airport exit.
Time to take off: 60mins
We arrived at Manchester Airport, thanks to Hannah immediately found the short term car park but the first three levels of the car park were full. On the fourth floor the car in front of us missed seeing a spot at the end and I drove in there skewed and we jumped out.
Time to take off: 45mins
We left the keys and rental agreement with Hannah grabbing our cases shouting our goodbyes and running blindly to check-in based on Hannah’s hurried directions. Up one level and finding the signs to check-in gates 60-64. We got there.
Time to take off: 38mins
The wonderful lady at check-in, oblivious to our adventure, told us that we were too late and that check-in for Munich was closed. We would have to buy another ticket via German Wings across the way. This felt a bit like losing the 100ms to a photo finish. But we hurried over to the ticket office but as we arrived and started to explain our situation the lady there got a call: the Munich flight had decided to let us on-board; check-in was open again! So we ran back over to check-in and the lady there looked very confused as she said “Munich decided to let you on after-all”.
We got a priority ticket for the fast-lane security, had to take our luggage to a special heavy goods check-in so that it would get on in time and ran through the airport passed what seemed like endless corridors of duty-free and clothes shops. We got to the gate just as the last passengers were getting on-board.
We had made it.
Time to take off: 15mins
We boarded and I walked quickly to the back of the plane and begged for a big bottle of water from the Lufthansa stewardesses. Unlike Avis they were flexible and were happy to help a man with a serious need.
It was quite surprising that we landed in Munich and boarded the flight to Vienna with no adventure. And then as the adrenalin levels started to sink on the flight to Vienna I had my very favourite part of the day as Steffi fell asleep exhausted on my lap.
What an amazing day to have gone through all of what happened and neither of us lost our temper with the other; we kept laughing with high spirits; we helped each other when things were getting hard; we took turns in making decisions; we worked like some amazing pre-prepared team who had been training for this “event” for the last 12 months. And we managed the impossible despite new obstacles being laid at every turn … but also magically a host of angels, saints and fairies appeared to help us along the way.
It would have been lovely to stop off for fish+chips and an ale but that would never have been as good as this day.
So how could this NOT be one of the best days of my life?
If you want to see a little more about the park&ride check out: BBC: Festival No.6: Inquiry call after hundreds stranded