The life coach: overnight to London
Who would make the 12-hour journey from Dublin to London by ferry and coach? The hard-up, the environmentally-conscious, the aerophobic and the contemplative, among others
I don’t know if there is a kind way to describe some of the people in the queue at Busáras, in Dublin, for the 8pm bus to London. I could be mean-spirited and say it feels a bit like The X Factor when they bring back all the awful auditionees for a final second of fame.
In the middle of the waiting room one woman has been talking to fellow passengers nonstop since queues began to form here, at 7pm. She curses from time to time into her mobile phone before resuming conversation with anyone within earshot. Another man wears ear protectors and looks at a map on the wall through an eyeglass while muttering to himself.
There aren’t many families, most people are over 40 and the choice of luggage is more Centra plastic than Louis Vuitton leather. I try not to think of the quote, often misattributed to Margaret Thatcher, that “anybody seen in a bus over the age of 30 has been a failure in life”.
But that was before climate change, and perhaps Ryanair, made air travel less desirable. Despite the 12 or more hours it will take to get from central Dublin to central London, this bus is pretty much full. As we get ready to leave, people are a lot chattier than they might be on a plane. One person is asking about the likelihood of making a 9am connection; it sparks a conversation between half a dozen other passengers.
A couple approach the coach. “I’m just escorting my wife to the bus. I’m not travelling with her,” says a man carrying a large suitcase. “I wish I could do the same with my one,” replies Richard Flood, one of our two drivers, as he puts on Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons, closes the door and heads for Dublin Port.
LEAVING DUBLIN ON IRISH FERRIES
As Ulysses pulls out of Dublin Port, Jimmy Delaney, a 42-year-old from Inchicore, orders a pint and stares out of the window, drinking to the last he’ll see of Dublin for a while. He is returning from a five-week break, having left Ireland for what he thought was a holiday with his mother when he was 15. Delaney has lived in Birmingham since then, working as a French polisher, although in recent years work has not been as plentiful as it was.
Delaney rattles the change left in his pocket after a few weeks of heavy drinking back home, staying mostly in hostels. He has a fresh scar on his forehead thanks, he says, to Arthur Guinness. It is more than a decade since he last took the boat; the amount of luggage he has today makes it the most cost-effective way to travel. “It’s hard leaving Ireland. I always hate it. Ireland is the country that made me,” he says. “I’m at a bit of a crossroads in life now. My mother had a stroke four years ago, so I take care of her, everything from paying all the bills to doing the grocery shopping and the washing. I’d make a great housewife to somebody, what? The way I see it, she looked after me when I was younger. It does wear you down. On the whole, I take life as I find it.”
Delaney never married, but he came close on one occasion when he was in a relationship with a girl during his late 20s. “We used to see each other four times a week, and once we went to the same pub on a night when we weren’t meeting each other. She was there with another guy. I think I loved her. She said it was a once-off, but that was the end of it for me. I think I’m a nice fella. I don’t go to nightclubs any more. I like going for a meal.
“Online dating is not for me. You could end up going home with an axe murderer or something. I try not to put too much pressure on myself. There’s always someone out there for everybody. I do think I’d make a great father. [At] home this time, my cousin has two kids, and they were all about their Uncle Jimmy. That’s nice. I have a lot of patience with kids. I suppose it is because I’m just a big kid myself.”
Delaney hopes to return to Ireland for good one day. He tried to find out about getting on the housing list when he was home but found all the red tape off-putting. For now he has his mother to look after. “I love this bit, pulling out of Dublin. The last time I was on the boat I was talking to a girl. We were at the back of the boat watching Ireland disappear, and it made my eyes well up a little bit. I hate leaving, I really do. [Your] own people get you and there are no airs and graces about them. I hope to die in Ireland.
“I’ll get into Birmingham at 5.10am, and then I’ll get a normal bus to Stechford. It’ll take another 40 minutes to get home from there. It’s back to reality then, what?”
Stretched out near Delaney, Aidan Dobson from Oldcastle, in Co Meath, is eating a sandwich. He is visiting his daughter on the Isle of Wight, and says the logistics meant that the bus was the best option. “It is quite social,” he says, “Everyone is friendly, and we have a little chat with whoever is near. It’s my grandson’s 18th birthday, so I’m visiting them for a few days.”
Dobson says the ferry is very different from when he first travelled to the UK, more than 30 years ago. “I can remember standing the whole way in those days, both on the train and then on the boat. Back then flying was very expensive, and when you’d travel back to Ireland you had to have your own transport.
Also, back then, when fellas got on the boat over in Holyhead they’d head straight for the bar, and the boats could be very rough. It’s very comfortable now, by comparison. I left home at 4.30pm today and won’t get to my daughter’s house until 3pm tomorrow, so it is long. But you have lots of rest, and it is far easier than driving yourself.”
The ferry crossing takes less than four hours. Many of the bus passengers have brought pillows, and there is room to sleep on seats and couches in the lounges. Food is served, and travellers gather around a big television, watching the news or playing cards. The sea is dead calm.
Our drivers, Flood and Mick Murray, who are grabbing a bite to eat, point out a well-dressed man using a laptop in a corner. They tell me he is a regular. The man doesn’t want to be named, but he says he is a professional in London and has a fear of flying. “I have the whole thing down to a tee,” he says. “This is my corner, and when I get to London I have a shower and then head straight to the office. I usually get this service once a week, and it’s not so much a cost thing. I have a good job and that. If I took a flight I would worry about it for a few days beforehand. It is just one of those things.”
LEAVING THE FERRY FOR THE DRIVE TO LONDON
This leg of the journey is much quieter; 35 passengers are left on the bus. Some will get off en route, in Birmingham or Milton Keynes. The drivers talk about their decades shuttling passengers between Ireland and Britain. “The roads or buses were not as good when I started this route, 35 years ago,” Murray says. “You get some really nice people, and some not so nice.”
Flood says they noticed a big spike in passengers after the ash-cloud crisis, and some of them have remained, having realised that bus and ferry travel is not what it once was. “You’ve got a better class of person on the route since that ash cloud,” says Flood. “Some of them have stuck with us, and it helps that they don’t have to worry about luggage being overweight or any of that.”
Neither of them has had an accident, and with motorway ahead of us, and more than 300km to go, most of us decide to get some shut-eye.
We get a chance to stretch our legs just off the M6 between London and Birmingham. It’s the kind of place where you can get a bed and a burger for less than €50. I get talking to a Frenchman who is sipping black coffee. His name is Gabriel Pigache, and he is from Lille. He was the passenger fretting about whether he would make a 9am connection. He is returning from a year in Dublin.
Once he gets to Victoria Coach Station, in London, he has another 15-hour journey, again by bus and ferry, before he is home. Pigache is a Jesuit priest; he has spent the past year in Dublin completing his study for the priesthood. “After 15 years of training, this was the end of the process,” he says. “I wanted to take the bus so that I could reflect on the past year in Ireland.”
What was it like being in Ireland when the country is experiencing a crisis of faith and he was there to strengthen his beliefs? “I visited Glendalough, which as we know was a Christian community from early times in Ireland. I was thinking about the current crisis while I was there and that we need to come back to the Gospel. What is collapsing is the very conventional way of practising Christianity.”
Pigache, who turns 40 this year, talks about the birds at North Bull Island, the colours of the Irish landscape and how he spent much of the year in silent contemplation.
Two coffees later, at 5.30am, we get back on the bus for the final leg of the journey. “I could have been a good father and a good husband,” Pigache says. “But I can go anywhere in the world to serve, and I need to be available to go to the frontiers, and I couldn’t do that if I had children. It can be a lonely life. You have friends and companions in your communities, and prayer and reflection keep you alive in a way you wouldn’t expect.”
Pigache’s time in Dublin also led to a connection with Irish music. He has been listening to The Dubliners on the bus, and I have visions of him arriving back in Lille and introducing his fellow Jesuits to the spiritual lyricism of Seven Drunken Nights or Take Her Up to Monto.
VICTORIA COACH STATION, LONDON
About an hour from the centre of London, passengers began to wake up. The traffic is heavy, but we can whizz along the bus lanes. No one has sat next to me – nothing personal, I hope – so I have been able to stretch out and get perhaps an hour’s sleep. Pigache makes his connection; it feels as if we are all in it together, sharing the experience.
I can feel the imaginary hand of Trevor Sargent patting me on the shoulder as I get off, having done my bit for the environment. Taking the journey with children might be difficult, and it is probably best not to have a long day scheduled after you get off. But for less than €40, and without the hassle of customs or airports, body scanners or luggage charges, the bus to London has its advantages.
That said, I take the first available flight home the next day.
Ferry happy - The fare
CIÉ began operating coaches between Ireland and Britain in the early 1970s; now it contracts the service to the Eurolines group. About 45,000 passengers use the service between Ireland and Britain each year. Fares begin at €36 one way and €50 return. A standard single costs €48 from Dublin and €61 from everywhere else in Ireland. A standard return costs €72 from Dublin and €85 from everywhere else in Ireland.