Monday, June 7, 2010

Phoole's Pilgrimage: Muncaster Castle Festival of Fools 2010, Continued

Jane & Fasso
Brilliant photo by Graham Farey, whom I heartily thank for the use of the image. See more of his excellent work here!

When I last journeyed to Muncaster Castle in 2007 with the intrepid Jenny Higgins (henceforth known as "Jiggins"), we timed things well without even knowing it: quite by happenstance, we traveled on days when no one else was traveling, and from the States to the Castle, we enjoyed on-time flights and mostly-empty trains with no delays.

So it never occurred to me that traveling on the Friday and Saturday of a bank holiday weekend in the UK, with storms predicted in our flight connection city, would present any obstacle. After all, my 2007 trip had been nothing but ease, so why would I expect hurdles?

In Atlanta, our flight to Manchester was delayed an hour while the entire airport shut down due to frightening lightning-rife thunderstorms. Arriving in Manchester, we were tangled in delays at the airport there as well, and we struggled with our monstrous luggage onto already-packed trains.

We did manage to get seats on the first train, from Manchester Airport to Lancaster -- albeit the folding jump seats in the vestibule. Sometime after my 2007 visit, Northern Rail and TransPennine Express seem to have invented a new Seat-Reservation system for coach-class passengers, and though we've been riding trains now for several days here, we cannot make heads nor tails of it. The seats aren't actually reserved for any one person, it appears; the seats are tagged with little cards on the backs of the seats, and they're reserved for people getting on at certain stops and getting off at certain other stops. But there are other rules as well, and they seem completely inscrutable. So though we found the train to have a lot of empty seats, we couldn't actually use any of them, and we had to huddle in the baggage area, mantling our giant trunks as they tried to roll all over the train.

The luggage-rolling dilemma was soon solved by 100 other people piling their luggage on top of and around ours; we grimaced at the imminent rummage to get our stuff out from under the pile at Lancaster, but that was an hour away. The seats soon filled up, and I'm not sure if the reservation system was paid any heed by anyone else -- no one seemed to get ousted, regardless of where they got on the train or what their seat-card said. The train could easily have done with two more cars, and soon the entire train was packed, with people standing in all of the aisles.

A very nice older couple joined us on the jump seats after a few stops, and, jointly horrified at the mountain of luggage, we worked out together how we'd Tetris the upper luggages down into the spaces occupied by our trunks so that we could all detrain at Lancaster. They were off to visit children and grandchildren in Lancaster, and they enjoyed finding out that we were continuing on to Ravenglass for a festival dedicated entirely to Foolery, the discussion of which eventually turned to amateur fools (a.k.a politicians) and the state of the world. Their perspective was kind, worldly-wise and charitable, and we greatly enjoyed passing the time talking with them and solving the great crises facing humankind. They had actually traveled much more of the world than either Tom or I had -- they'd ridden elephants in India and visited Africa and all kinds of remote places. I greatly enjoyed the short time we spent talking together, and though it's unlikely, I hope we get stuck on a crowded train again with them someday -- we rearranged the teetering luggage-pile quite efficiently and brilliantly, and if it weren't for their patient assistance, our motleys may have gone on an adventure without us!

We'd hoped for a less-crowded train to take us the remaining two hours to Ravenglass, but no joy: the next train arrived crammed to capacity already, without even jump seats being available, so we braced ourselves against our trunks in the vestibule and prepared for the worst. At many stops, we had to get off the train with our trunks to let passengers off, let new passengers on, and then cram ourselves and our trunks back into the vestibule for the next travel segment.

We discovered hordes of holidaymakers were bound for different coastal towns -- many happy young families and older travelers cheerfully emerged at Grange-over-Sands for a fete, and a rowdy crowd of already-drunk youths roared obscenities at each other and bellowed with laughter until they exited at Cark for the Cartmel Races. At that point we turned to a handsome couple with whom we'd shared the cramped vestibule, and I said, "It was efficient of them to get endrunkened in advance! They seem high-spirited holidaymakers," to which the other gentleman responded, "Yeh, we've got a different term for them: d***heads," and we all had a loud laugh at that. The guy in that couple had really rugged good looks, we remember -- short-cropped hair, well-weathered oxblood-colored gloss-finish leather coat, lots of woolen layers under, gruff voice but arch and articulate, good choice to have on your side if anticipating a sudden brawl. The woman with whom he traveled was smaller, seeming of Indian descent, impeccably stylish, and also a good choice to have on your side in a brawl.

Jostled over the miles in the crowded vestibule, through fogged windows, we got glances of a rainy coastline, with lambs hunkered down in sandy pits to avoid the chill misty wind. When Jiggins and I had made the trip in 2007, the sun had come with us, and our comfortable seats afforded views of rolling green Tolkien hills full of fat frolicking fleecy sheep. But as the rain slashed against the packed train on this trip, I began to despair of fulfilling my promise to Peter Frost-Pennington that we'd bring five days of sunshine for the Festival.

In Barrow-in-Furness, a twenty-minute stop stretched into an hour as we learned we couldn't go on because the train no longer had a driver. Loudspeakers announced that another driver was on his way down from Carlisle, but no one knew when he'd arrive. Then announcements came that once the driver arrived, trouble on the tracks ahead would need to be resolved before we could go. The train lurched ahead 100 yards, giving us a heartswell of hope, but then it stopped again and we waited. I tried using our rented mobile to reach Sadie at Muncaster, but the service coverage was spotty, and the signal went in and out and finally completely dead. I hoped the main details had gotten through -- that we'd be delayed; that we'd hoped to arrive by two o'clock but probably wouldn't actually get there until after five. At least we'd been able to find a couple of seats by then, though we were sure that at any moment, a conductor would come through and chase us back to the vestibule, as the seats were probably "reserved" for someone or no one else.

Finally, FINALLY we made Ravenglass, and I got through to Sadie, who said Peter would be at the Ratty Arms having a pint, waiting for us. And the adventure continues in my next post, when we finally get to the castle!

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