1985 and a new adventure. In the first weekend I packed my suitcase
and caught a train from Marylebone to Seer Green & Jordan Station. Where, I hear you ask. Well, just outside London in the home county of Buckinghamshire. Jordan had rather radical roots as a Quaker village, but Seer Green was very conformist. Into this village of just over 2,000 people which was 98% white came I and a number of other volunteers from the UK and other parts of Europe to work in the Princess Marina Centre, a 52 bed care home for people with cerebral palsy. Included in this number were Emine and Fusun, from Istanbul. I worked in a small unit where people developed some independent living skills in order to enable to move out into community settings. Which many of them did, to Milton Keynes of all places. Perhaps they were more progressive with their housing policies in the mid to late 1980s. I worked with many wonderful characters but the star amongst them was Derek Ireland, who had many catchphrases such as ‘I’m half Irish, but I don’t know which half’ and ‘I’m not all bad!’ Derek was the proud owner of a mobility vehicle called the Invacar you don’t see so much of nowadays, pictured here.
They only came in one colour, blue and they were all owned by the government and leased to disabled adults as part of their disability benefits. In 2003 all these vehicles were recalled and scrapped as they no longer met minimum safety requirements. It had all the stability you would expect from a 3 wheeled vehicle. Our Derek was well known locally in the local pubs where he operated a bookmaking business as a sideline. Stories of him being found by local police in a ditch and escorted home are legion in the parishes of Seer Green and Chalfont St. Giles. Years later big Mo in Eastenders would talk about suffering with ‘my chalfonts’ which I presumed to be a reference to ailment of ‘piles’.
When not fetching Derek a cup of tea I assisted people to make meals, have a bath and on occasion would accompany the residents to local social events. Queen of social events was Maureen, the resident nurse who also arranged all the social activities. Events included going to football matches, Tottenham were particularly well regarded for their facilities for disabled adults. Also included were gigs, and I went and saw Desmond Dekker in the 100 Club in Oxford Street and a night out in the Slough Irish Club on the occasion of St. Patrick’s Day. Maureen also took a group to Wembley for Live Aid that summer. Maureen was from Clifden, County Galway in the west coast of Ireland and she and her daughter Andrea remain friends to this day. Maureen has since retired and returned to Clifden. Maureen recalled one trip to the races and they phoned Derek up, who at that time was poorly and asked his advice on which horses to back. Every single one of them came in and the group returned to the Princess Marina Centre, via a detour to the hospital to celebrate their success with him.
I hitch-hiked with Andrea to Birmingham and got a taste for it which I utilised later in the year. My stay in south Buckinghamshire was enlivened by visits from friends in London. Yat, Alf and a few others came up for my birthday in April with a few cases of lager which went down well with my colleagues after they’d left. We went for a night out in Chalfont St. Giles and Yat allowed Alf to drive so he could enjoy a drink. But he was less impressed with Alf causing some bodywork damage on the car when parking up. ‘How could you not see the rock?’ Yat asked. Yat was the first of us to drive and he had I think a red Ford Escort at the time.
I decided to end my placement in August of that year, eight months after arriving and it so happened that in my last week I supported residents in an exchange holiday with another care home in Perth, Scotland. It was my first trip north of the border. My plan was to finish my stint whilst there and then travel across Scotland to Clifden, Ireland via Northern Ireland. I purchased a ticket from Perth to Belfast and made my way south to Edinburgh, then across to Glasgow and then south again to Stranraer where I caught the ferry to Larne. Arriving in Larne I caught the train to Belfast, arriving at 6:17 pm. There was just one problem, the last train to Dublin left at 6:00 pm. I went into a Wimpy and had some supper whilst I decided what to do. The sight of tanks in the street and few civilians didn’t encourage me to spend the night in a Youth Hostel in Belfast. So I set off to hitch-hike to Dublin.
When not being given lifts I would walk towards my destination with my thumb sticking out to attract passing cars. Being August it didn’t get dark until about 9 pm by which time I was still in Northern Ireland. I had prepared myself to get out of sticky conversations about politics by saying I was neither Catholic nor Protestant but that proved unnecessary. I had made it as far as Newry, close to the Republic of Ireland when I got picked up by two guys who were going all the way to Dublin, what luck! We got there close to midnight and they put me up for the night in their flat in a Georgian south Dublin suburb. I told them of my plans to set off at 7 am to get to the west. They laughed, ‘Irish truck drivers don’t get up that early’ they said. But I wasn’t deterred and left the flat quietly just to find out they might have had a point. Progress across the west was intermittent. One middle aged man, upon finding out I was from London, proceeded to tell me of his trip to London, and more specifically to Soho. At times you have to pretend to be interested when travelling with strangers, who have only really picked you up to alleviate the boredom of travelling alone. I made it to Galway eventually and carried on westwards to Clifden through the beautiful landscape of Connemara.
One lift I had was with a farmer on his tractor. I could barely hear him as he chattered away, so noisy it was. But I was learning that if you nod and make the occasional facial gesture you could get by, a lesson I have used many times since when necessary. Hitchhiking through Connemara I noticed that the bulls grazing had no fencing to keep them between me and them. I kept an eye out for trees or other means of escape if they came charging at me. I finally arrived at just after 6 pm and spent two weeks with Maureen, her mother and daughter Andrea. It reminded me a little of Cyprus, every one knew each other so a trip to the shops could take quite a while. I warmed to the custom of being offered a shot of whiskey whenever we visited or were visited by anyone.
After 2 weeks, it was time to return. I got the bus to Galway, the train on the Dublin and the ferry on towards Holyhead. So in short space of time I’d visited all four parts of the UK as well as the Republic of Ireland. The night time crossing across the sea proved useful as myself and an American girl found a truck driver who was travelling to Amsterdam through London, this was before the M25 was built. He stopped at a service station in the Midlands where we bedded down for the night behind the seats. The girl decided that a trip all the way to Amsterdam was too good to miss. I got dropped off just after midday on the A1, otherwise known at the Holloway Road, and walked ten minutes to my mum’s for what was to be start of another adventure. But one I didn’t have a clue about.
Things I recommend; living on your wits when you’re young, before fear overcomes you.
Things I don’t recommend; sex talks with middle aged men.