So whose idea was it to cancel all Paddington to Worcester trains anytime after 8pm each evening just as any sensible daytripper or committed commuter starts to think about heading home? Study the train timetable and you’ll find the only option after 8pm is to catch a bus at 9.45pm that arrives 4 hours later in Worcester at 2am which is really practical (what’s the driver doing, pushing the thing?) or stay at home. Shocking.
Thus it was that with a minibus lift back to the Ruskin in Oxford I had the brain wave to stay over and catch the first train back the following morning to Worcester. You shall go to the ball Cinderella, you shall, I thought to myself. Of course I considered booking a hotel room, or a room in my old college, or asking a friend for a bed, but the logistics of arriving after midnight and leaving at 6am meant I would be an unpopular guest. Aha! I suddenly remembered the family room we had years ago at the Oxford YHA when the children were young and we had been pleasantly surprised at the comforts and proximity to Oxford’s railway station; I seem to remember there was en suite, kettle in your room, and only the sound of trains thundering beneath your pillows to keep you awake at night. Would there be a room there? Handy for the station the next morning certainly; I couldn’t afford to miss that 6.56 train.
On the phone I asked the YHA receptionist if I could book the family room – barefaced cheek I know for just one (I’d have plenty of space to swing a cat and with the benefit of hind sight could at least have put the lights on). “I’m afraid our only family room is taken, but we do have a single sex dorm,” she said. With minutes to spare before I caught my train to Oxford, I took it; at least I’d have a bed for the night.
So, still on a high from my evening at the Saatchi Gallery I entered the YHA, toute seule, without the entourage of family as psychological back up. It was very late. The imagined canapes at the soiree had been non existent which meant I had gone without food since lunch time. I was tired and ordered tea and a slice of coffee and walnut gateau. As I watched the Jamaican receptionist make my tea carefully and extract a piece of cake from the dome within the chilled cabinet, the sensible side of my brain was thinking: you’ll regret this, there’s too much caffeine in that m’dear, and if you were at home right now you’d be drinking chamomile tea; and quite frankly you should change your order now and have one of those prewrapped blueberry muffins. But it was too late, I was paying.
“I’ve booked you into F” said the receptionist. “F?” I repeated timidly. “Room 101, bunk F. It’s on the bottom, easier.”
I followed the signs to the bedrooms and snuck into a room that called itself a library. Judging by the number of books on the shelves the Oxford YHA entertains a lot of Dutch and German guests who generously leave their books behind. I suddenly remembered the last time we had come when we had witnessed a fracas between an English bag lady and an American bag lady, each accusing the other of rifling her locker (apparently these women stay three nights before moving on to one of three other YHAs in the vicinity in a continuous bag packing triangle).
I found room 101 and entered the pitch black and as my eyes adjusted to the darkness I made out three slumbering humps all on the lower beds. Someone was sleeping in my bunk but filled with prosecco and high on art and conversation I wasn’t about to argue. I failed to locate a socket for the buzzer alarm clock I had borrowed from reception and fumbled my way out of the room and returned to the desk to seek help turning my mobile into an alarm clock. Returning to the velvet black of room 101 I prepared to scale Everest; I managed it, but whilst my body slumped on the top bunk with tiredness, my brain kept going, fuelled by stimulating conversation and the very recent injection of coffee cake caffeine.
So I lay there for hours listening to the cacophany of sounds only deep silence of a shared dorm throws up: the snoring, the farting, the scratching, the traffic, the trains and the doors banging, thinking I don’t believe I’m doing this. The last time I had done this I was aged nine on a family trip to the YHA in the Lake District, for heavens sake in the days of cotton sleeping bag liners and daily chores.
Needless to say I had a broken night but awoke ahead of the alarm at 6am, as you do, slipping out and away to catch my train. Arriving and leaving in pitch black darkness I’ll never know if I catnapped above the nations’ bag ladies or Europe’s well travelled youth, but with my head filled with grander plans inspired by the Ruskin Alumni Launch of the night before, I really couldn’t have cared less.