Gas, ass or grass; no-one rides for free.
Between 18:00 on Nov 14 and 6:00 on Nov 16, I participated in Jailbreak with a uni bloc kmate. What is Jailbreak? From the website of the campus charity we did it for, Enactus (a charity that we rapidly found out nobody outside of the campus has heard of, and one that has chosen the same colour scheme as Children in Need, just to add to the confusion):
[g]et as far from Lancaster as possible in 36 hours, in teams of 2 or 3, wearing ridiculous costumes. That about sums it up, and so I found myself waiting for nine hours in a service station just off the M25 dressed as Santa, complete with a rapidly unpleasant-becoming pillow shoved under my shirt; but I get ahead of myself.
The day before Jailbreak, disaster strikes another group from our block who were planning on participating when two of their number are incapacitated by a particularly violent game of football. Our sympathies are with them, and the third of their number, but me and The Bear assume it means nothing and that our Jailbreak shall still go swimmingly. Oh, how naive we were.
We arrive at Frankland Lecture Theatre and have a photo taken of us with a sign bearing our team name: The Winning Team. There is no way that will become embarassing. After a long period of waiting we go outside to Alexandra Square where we spend another ten minutes trying to get an entire Jailbreak photo taken by about eight different people. One of the members of the incapacitated team has come to see us off. The whistle is blown and everyone rushes off; some in the direction of the Underpass, some towards Grad Village, whilst others simply disappear into the night. We wait to get a photo with the guy who saw us off in order to cross off the first of our checklist, completion of which gets us one of the many prizes available:
- Photo with a native
- Photo with a tourist
- Photo of national cuisine
- Photo of someone in national dress
- Photo of someone’s pet
- Photo of a tourist attraction
- Photo under a bridge
- Photo with a flag
- (BONUS) Photo with a famous person
18:30 Day 1
Deciding foolishly to leg it halfway across campus to the A6, which we then walked down attempting to hitch unsuccessfully for twenty minutes. On the way we met a couple other groups with the same idea and upon arrival at Galgate found three or four more groups milling about. Setting up before them, by the crossroad lights, we started to pester every parked car when the lights turned red. Soon enough, we’d realised that by pressing the crossing button every time the lights went green again, we both increased the amount of red light time and probably messed up traffic halfway down the A6. Eventually we got a lift with Steve who took us to Fornton Services.
19:20 Day 1
Upon arrival we were greeted by the contents of an entire stretch Humvee, each of them pissed as a fart, all of whom wanted to take a picture with the two prats dressed as Santa. Alas, their alcohol-fuelled stretch Hummer was full and my heart was broken, so we kicked around for a while trying unsuccessfully to blag another lift. Over the time we were there, no less than three other groups showed up and got lifts.
20:20 Day 1
Our salvation turned out to be the very last person we asked in the services; Dr Carl the South African psychiatrist. After ten to twenty minutes of him moving things around in his car, we were off! Destination: Birmingman (Walsalle, but close enough). We talked to Based Carl about South Africa and Rhodesia, student drinking and drug use, psychiatry’s ups and downs and how he was so based.
I always hear students saying how much drink and drugs they consume, and I’m always amazed until I remember that I did the same when I was in university.
22:20 Day 1
Disaster struck when the area between junctions five and six of the M6 turn out to be closed due to a chemical spillage; these just so happen to be the junctions we most need to cross to get to Dover. Based Carl, despite having a hotel room waiting for him in Walsalle, offers to drive us further on to somewhere that should be easier to hitch from, and so we end up at Norton Canes Services off the M6 Toll. This shouldn’t be too tricky.
23:00 Day 1
Huh, this is taking a while. Probably nothing. Got a picture of a stray cat though, which probably once counted as someone’s pet.
00:00 Day 2
Y’know, at least we found another Jailbreak group here, so it’s not all bad. Also, we got a picture with a flag! An EU flag on a car’s license plate, granted, but it still counts.
01:00 Day 2
We are rapidly becoming best friends with the two girls working at the Costa Coffee here. An hour long chat after buying a coffee makes the time go somewhat faster, and the offer to sleep on the sofa in the back is appreciated, but not taken. We’ve only got thirty-six hours! Even if we have walked between the services and the petrol station roughly twenty times by now. We’ve got the photo under a bridge crossed off the list though, even if I did shred my Santa costume getting under it.
01:50 Day 2
The other two went to the petrol station ten minutes ago and now they’re not there. Did they get a lift? Oh come on, there’s no way. Hey, a truck driver! And he’s going to Dover! But he only has one seat. Balls.
01:54 Day 2
There’s the other two; they thought we’d got a lift too. Looks like we’re here for a few more hours.
01:58 Day 2
The truck driver comes back out of the shop and asks if there’s four of us. We say no, we’re two groups, and he says that he can give two of us a lift. We look at the other two, they at us. We’re about ready to run for it when they concede that we
did see him first. Feeling awful and overjoyed at the same time, we clamber into the cabin and we’re off. Sorry Oli and Sarah.
03:00 Day 2
George the truck driving ex-Para entertains us with an inveterate hatred of the French (to whom apparently the money from the M6 Toll inexplicably goes) and the kind of anecdotes to be expected from a man who served eighteen years in the army. We learn after a while that when he said Dover, he actually meant he’d be dropping us off at Beaconsfield Services. The name sounds familiar, so I rack my brain and remember why I’d heard of it; it’s the only service station with a Wetherspoons! Of all the service stations, in all the towns, in all the world, we walks into that one. I’m pretty sure I remember reading that it opened at 5:00, so we look set to enjoy a delightful pint before our next ride. Things are looking up.
04:15 Day 2
We say goodbye to George and survey our new home: a dead service station, a dead car park, a dead truck park and a dead petrol station. Promising; at least there’ll be pints in forty-five minutes.
04:50 Day 2
Not long to wait now; the place is no deader though. We found another group, too, but they got a lift to the next service station along. Jammy gits.
04:55 Day 2
We can almost taste it.
05:00 Day 2
Or perhaps not, as they don’t start serving alcohol until 9:00. Looks like my dreams of a drink in the world’s most ill-advised Wetherspoons are dashed; there’s no way we’ll still be here by then.
09:00 Day 2
The pint is okay, but the fact that I’ve lost my debit card somewhere in our travels and tried to pay with my Costa Club card puts a dampener on it somewhat. By this point we know half of the service station staff by name and are probably going to be invited to their Christmas parties. We may die in this service station. The pints serve as out picture of national cuisine, however, and we find a guy with some dogs in case the stray cat earlier didn’t cut it.
10:00 Day 2
It’s light now, and we’ve just been told we can’t stand on the petrol station forecourt without high-vis jackets on; we’re dressed as Santa Clauses and have just spent the night standing around without issue. Clearly sanity is slipping away and we need to escape from this place as soon as possible.
11:30 Day 2
We’ve had enough. Even a cardboard sign reading
anywhere but here has proved fruitless. Beaconsfield Train Station is a twenty minute walk, so we flee from our vile prison. The air is easier to breathe almost immediately. Birds sing, and a single tear rolls down each of our faces.
11:50 Day 2
Beaconsfield Train Station lays before us. We ask the ticket man about getting on for free and get the number of the area manager to call. We do so, and he says he’ll check if there’s anything available and get back to us in a bit.
12:10 Day 2
We’re expecting his call back any minute when a voice comes over the tannoy.
Due to a person on the tracks at another station, all services are cancelled for the forseeable future. A few minutes later,
due to a fatality on the tracks at another station, all services are cancelled for the forseeable future.
13:50 Day 2
After spending quite a while being pissed at a person utterly unproductive to be pissed at, we start circulating around the many people having to change their travel plans in the hopes of blagging a free ride or a paid-for taxi trip. In the meantime, the man running the shop on the train station gives us free coffee and pasties before they all go in the bin. After a while, and a few promising leads that didn’t pan out, we get invited into a taxi with four people off to Wembley. We make sure they realise that we can’t pay and they’re cool with it, so we’re soon off in Zahid’s taxi.
14:05 Day 2
We explain about Jailbreak during the journey and when we reach Amersham, Zahid decides not to charge us a fare. We thank him and leave the car, looking around for the next lift location, when the people from the taxi call us over to the train station. Telling the woman on the ticket gates that we’re with them gets us through and onto a train to St. Pancras. Things are looking up again.
15:50 Day 2
We arrive at St Pancras new men, bouyed by success as we make our way directly to the Eurostar information point. Dover, here we come! That is, until the French gentleman looking disdainfully at us as we saunter up puts the kibosh roundly on that.
Non, he says, his beret practically falling into his escargot with surprise at our impertinence.
We do not allow zee Jailbreakers on le train. We ask if anyone going to Dover is likely to and he tells us to try Southeastern. On the way we take a photo of a statue we assume might count as a tourist attraction. One journey across the length of St Pancras later and we are denied access to the Southeastern trains too.
It’s company policy not to let Jailbreakers on board, they say. However, the gate guardian tells us to perhaps try the Southeastern staff at Victoria station, who are presumably the mavericks of the Southeastern gate guardian world. We blag a trip on the Tube to Victoria.
16:30 Day 2
We arrive and it’s another no. They tell us to to perhaps try the Southeastern staff at Charing Cross; surely those mavericks will let us on. By now we’re onto their games and are having none of it. We consider begging for the money for a ticket until we look up the price. It’s over fourty quid, so that’s pretty well off the table. We blag a trip on the tube back to St Pancras; the gate guardian lets us through whilst pontificating about how we’ll never get anything for free. Apparently they are not paid to appreciate irony.
16:50 Day 2
Luckily, before we set out for Victoria we made a backup plan; if Beaconsfield taught us anything, it’s to always have a backup plan. We asked National Rail who said that if Dover didn’t work out, they could get us a train to Brighton. We return thoroughly not on the way to Dover and are relieved to the find the train offer is still available. We hop on and sleep. After an hour and a half, we transition to buses at Three Bridges because the rail is borked; otherwise we could have got a train to Dover from the National Rail people.
19:40 Day 2
We arrive at Brighton and are immediately enveloped by an unseen busker’s jazz. We make our way down the main street towards the beach, where the hostel we hastily booked on the train over should be waiting. Between the jazz, the bright lights and the sleep deprivation, the scene seems straight out of On the Road, but the sweet taste of the road has gone bitter now. After checking in at Smart Brighton Beach, we look in on how the other groups are doing. The bundle of teams stuck in Dover heartens us slightly, but the spread of others across the continent does not. We shower (and I forget to listen to Adams and have to use my hoodie as a towel; such is life on the road) and go out for our first food since Norton Canes, getting a photo with a Swede in the reception area for the tourist box on the checklist. As we step out, the queues for the clubs are already packed and a riot van has taken up position in the centre of the road, so we decide to be quick and nab a Subway before scuttling back to the hostel. Demolishing them in no time, we spend a bit of time talking to the two guys on reception and then retire to the dorm. Instead of sleeping, we spend a couple hours talking to the Japanese girl in the dorm. At around 02:00, I text Enactus that we’re calling it quits in Brighton and we all go off to sleep.
06:00 Day 3
I’m woken at 06:00 by my phone vibrating vigorously against my face. It’s Enactus, calling to make sure we’re not dead. I explain that when I said we were calling it quits, we meant the whole Jailbreak journey, not just that night’s. It’s handy my phone still had charge and that I had it on my pillow, else they’d have had to cause all sorts of police-scented fuss about us. We talk to the Japanese girl some more, demolish the hostel’s breakfast offering, go the beach for a final photo (featuring The Bear in a burgundy hoodie, which we decide counts as English national dress) and have to powerwalk shin-destroyingly far to the train station after being trapped on the wrong side of an infinitely-long funrun. We hop on a train to Peterborough and fall straight back asleep. When we arrive, Dad picks us up and takes us home for my first proper meal since starting uni, before taking us up to Lancaster.
Photo with a native Photo with a tourist Photo of national cuisine Photo of someone in national dress Photo of someone’s pet Photo of a tourist attraction Photo under a bridge Photo with a flag
- (BONUS) Photo with a famous person
Ultimately, it was a good experience. Even the time stuck in the Beaconsfield black hole gave us a story to tell. We may not have conquered the Channel as we’d originally planned, but we raised a decent amount for charity, made it 397 km away and weren’t either the team that only made it as far as Warwick (208 km) or the team that got to Cuneo, Italy (1,304 km) only to disqualify themselves by admitting to trainhopping on the campus news show. Plus we crossed off all but the bonus photo of the checklist. Most importantly, we learnt the value of pestering every train, plane and ferry company available in the months leading up to Jailbreak for free rides when the Southeastern gate guardians said we’dve been able to get on if we’d done so. With all that in mind, roll on Jailbreak 2015: The Continent Ain’t Gonna Know What Hit It. Maybe not do it on a random mid-November weekend, sandwiched by lectures we really ought to be back for, and starting at 18:00 next time?