Travel: Simon Calder column

The only reliable way to reach Heathrow, I concluded, was by walking ...
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The Independent Culture
HEATHROW, HERE we come. Over the next few days, expect to see dozens of races comparing the time taken to reach Britain's busiest airport by various modes of transport. The trigger for these, of course, is the opening on Wednesday of the Heathrow Express between Paddington station in (or close to) central London, and the airport.

The least reliable airport link anywhere in the world is the steam train that puffs wheezily from the capital of Paraguay to Asuncin airport; a close second is the Piccadilly Underground to Heathrow. Furthermore, my attempts to reach the airport by bus, taxi, cycling and hitch-hiking have all proved to be alarmingly haphazard, and on the first day that the Heathrow Express ran through to the airport the train I was on shuddered to a halt in the middle of nowhere four times, issuing disconcerting clouds of smoke on each occasion.

So the only reliable way to reach Heathrow, I concluded, was by walking.

And what a fine experience it is. Allow four hours from Oxford Circus (where I began), or longer if you get diverted by the many attractions en route: first the benign urban jungle of Marylebone and Paddington, Notting Hill and Shepherd's Bush; then leafier Chiswick, where I diverged slightly south of the direct track to glance past the Thames and head out to Hounslow Heath - a piece of wilderness that used to conceal highwaymen.

Now the walk becomes implausibly rural. You turn north towards Feltham, and scramble along the bank of a fast-moving (for Middlesex) river.

Then across some protected land harbouring chattering birds unperturbed by the one-Jumbo-a-minute drone, up a steep incline, and suddenly Heathrow appears before you.

Well, Terminal Four, at least. Your hike ends with the ignominy of a bus ride to the main part of the airport, which is now entirely inaccessible on foot because the old pedestrian and cycle tunnels have been given over to cars. But at least you'll doze contentedly on the flight.

WHOSE FLIGHT, though? The last time I flew on Virgin Atlantic 3019 to Newark (from Gatwick), I found myself aboard a Continental Airlines DC- 10. So when I checked in for the Virgin flight last Sunday, I was expecting to travel on Continental, Virgin's code-share partner - but saw that the plane was painted in the colours of VASP, a Brazilian airline based in Sao Paulo. Does anyone have a more extreme example of flying with a "friend of a friend" airline?

MY COLLEAGUE Hamish McCrae has observed that a number of people equivalent to the entire population of Britain passes through Heathrow each year.

For many British travellers, the easiest way to reach Heathrow used to be to fly there. But people coming from Inverness, Newquay and Guernsey, for example, find themselves disenfranchised; air services to and from these locations have been scrapped so that the slots at Heathrow can be used for more profitable routes.

A TRANSATLANTIC flight to Boston last Boxing Day led to an adventure for Richard Downs of Cheshire, who sends in the latest episode in the US car rental saga. He and his wife had planned to make the three-hour drive to the aptly named ski resort of Mount Snow in Vermont. At the Alamo depot, it wasn't just a question of the booked car not being available: "We were told by several disgruntled British holiday-makers who had arrived two hours earlier that there were no hire cars at all at the depot."

The Alamo people explained that no one had been able to return a rental car because of the depth of the snow, and told customers to take a taxi to their destination - which for Mr and Mrs Downs could have cost more than the flight from Heathrow. "There was, however, a small bus at the back of the building which might be going in our direction. Were we interested? We certainly were.

"This turned out to be one of the airport shuttle buses, driven by a Haitian who had lived in America for only two years, had never been outside Massachusetts and didn't generally drive outside the airport perimeter.

"There were seven of us on board, the other five going to Killington. We left everyone else from both flights behind when some unseen force told the driver that it was time to leave. It turned out that he had volunteered to do this in his own time in order to help us; he had just finished his shift.

"The journey took us seven hours, as long as it had taken to cross the Atlantic. Our travelling companions had no American money with which to tip the driver, and as we were the last to be delivered we felt obliged to try to make it worth his while. What we gave him in no way compensated for his efforts, especially since he faced a seven-hour return journey and the next day's shift."

Vehicle-less in Vermont, Mr Downs spent the next two days on the phone to Alamo in Boston - during which he was told variously that he had cancelled the car, and that one had already been delivered. Finally one arrived. "It came on the back of a transporter, to save the mileage, and was indeed the one I had ordered, down to the ski rack on the roof. I still wonder, however, what happened to our driver, and whether his act of heroism ever went rewarded by his employers."

Enough US car rental stories for now; what about more tales of workers in the oft-maligned travel industry going beyond the call of duty?