Surprises always carry some element of risk. So when I headed off down to Essex I just had to cross my fingers and hope for the best. But that made it exciting.
It required careful planning and some subtle questions. I booked time off work and the ticket. Then I asked where to send a birthday card, and whether it would be ok if it arrived a day early. I was arriving then as I had plans on the Friday – my friend had booked time off work to visit me and as she lived in London had kindly agreed to make it a road trip. I knew which station was closest as I had visited my boyfriend before. Then I had to find out what sort of birthday cake he wanted. So I said I was going to buy him a cake slice after work, what sort did he want. He was home the weekend before, back from working down in Essex. We had a rather heated discussion with him saying he didn’t want me to buy anything and with me still trying to find out what he wanted. I probed further at Birmingham, when as chance would have it we walked past a Patisserie Valerie counter in the Bullring shopping mall. I had already decided this was the most suitable option. I had previously spotted the cafe whilst trying to locate Boots in both stations to get an urgent product for a friend. Instead of having a cake going off on the train journey down I could buy it fresh there. Perfect! I love Patisserie Valerie. It’s so pretty and tasty and the cakes are unlike anything else I have seen.
So once at St Pancras I walked over to Kings Cross as the cafe is larger there. I picked up the fruits of the forest tart which I had discovered was the ideal birthday dessert. I was a bit worried it would get squashed on the connecting tube journey but luckily it was fine and in good packaging. Five hours later I was at a station in the middle of nowhere. I tried to call my boyfriend and it went to voicemail. I paniced a little. Plan B had not been settled upon, as I knew where my boyfriend was staying and what time he finished work. So I text him and then read a book about walking through Istanbul. It recommended the Galeta Bridge for a view of the ancient buildings. I decided Plan B was waiting until 9pm when he would have finished work at the latest and then getting a £25 taxi. This would cost as much as the cheap advance fare down covering two trains and the tube, for what was a 40 minute bus journey.
I breathed a sigh of relief as I saw my boyfriend calling. He didn’t sound as delighted as I had hoped, but that was due to a 6am-6pm day. He assured me in the car that he was delighted and seemed surprised by the Patisserie Valerie bag. He said he had no idea what it was. He’d obviously forgotten our discussions on two occasions on the subject with the amount of 12 hour days he had worked.
We checked in to his lovely four star hotel and had a family room with two double beds. I looked forward to a good night’s sleep without the covers being pulled off me or being rolled into or trying to fit around a sleeping starfish. Like the Marriott the bathroom was all marble, with gold taps. They could have been cleaned a little better but after reading a microbiologist’s recommendations on hotels I knew that didn’t really matter, walking round in my flip flops. I was annoyed I’d forgotten antibacterial wipes which the article had said should be used for wiping down door handles and remotes. I’d checked it when I last stayed at the hotel when wondering whether to use the bath, and in the absence of a “chlorine bleach wipe” decided not to.
We went out to a Chinese restaurant, as the hotel’s restaurant menu is a bit limited. It looked like a former pub and had the words “Chinese, Thai and English cuisine” plastered on the front. The decor was lovely, all red Chinese lanterns. I chose the Thai menu and had a lovely creamy coconut and green curry soup with prawns and some rather interesting meat that tasted a little too slimy to be chicken. It was delicious though. Then I ordered pork sweet and sour. I imagined thin beef sirloin strips but instead I got fatty deep fried pork. I struggled through it as I didn’t want to cause a scene for my boyfriend’s birthday meal. An hour or two later I felt quite queasy- as I have IBS my digestion doesn’t cope well with fatty food. I made myself try a bit of the birthday tart – I wanted to see whether it was value for money. However it was just a biscuit base, some cream and some fruit. I was a bit disappointed but it looked great and my boyfriend enjoyed it. He saved some for work in his hotel fridge.
When I settled down onto the bed once again I was disappointed that it was a firm mattress. This meant I couldn’t sleep. My boyfriend can sleep whenever he wants to, as long as he’s not too hot or cold. But I woke up every hour or so and in the morning awoke after a fitful sleep with a sore back. A double-blind study has confirmed this link. Jonny rushed off in the dead of night taking the tart for his colleagues to enjoy.
I now had the mission of getting to Edgware station. I had to take a bus in the middle of nowhere. Google said it was opposite the hotel but after walking around for some time I couldn’t see a stop. So I waited on the grass verge with cars whizzing past, one honking its horn at me. I started to feel a bit silly and wished I could hitch a lift. But miraculously the bus appeared from nowhere. The first one had not been until 9am, so I had told my friend the earliest I could arrive was midday. This meant we had more motorway traffic. I was the only person on the bus and told the driver to tell me when we got to the destination. I got off on a narrow country lane and walked round the corner to the next stop. Thankfully this time there was a bus shelter. No information though and I was unsure if I was on the right side of the road to do the next leg of the journey.
Then some old ladies turned up, all made up with bouffant dyed hair, talking about how they were going on holiday and how one of them had been exploring the local area with her free bus pass. It was a small village and they clearly knew everyone. I relaxed a bit when I heard one of them say that she was going to the station I was going to.
After winding round country lanes I queasily arrived at the station and felt proud of myself for getting there and saving £23.50 in the process. I did miss a train due to a typically slow bus but luckily the next train was delayed by a minute, arriving just a couple of minutes after my scheduled one. Then I took two tubes to complete the three hour journey. It was wonderful to make it to Edgware solely on public transport and to be able to plan with accuracy using transportdirect – I had reliable times, maps and plenty of details.
My friend then drove us with her friend for five hours up to London. It was a Friday and traffic meant a stop-start ride. I ate chocolates as I watched the entertaining sight of a bus going backwards – it looked like it was being driven instead of towed. I also enjoyed a hot spiced apple drink with cinammon and star anise in Costa Coffee, my favourite drink.
I had a lovely time in Essex although next time I think I’ll order something different at the Chinese, or perhaps try pub food.