Delay Reaction: Doing time at Gatwick

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The Independent Travel
YOU ARRIVE at Gatwick airport to find French air traffic controllers, Greek baggage- handlers or unspecified 'operational difficulties' have caused a delay. Do not despair and drink the duty-free - this guide provides ideas to keep your blood pressure low and your spirits high.

DELAY DATA

Gatwick is the world's second-busiest international airport (after Heathrow).

Last weekend the worst delay was eight hours on a Dan-Air flight to Berne, with long waits also for Air 2000 to Mombasa and Caledonian Airways to Malaga.

For flight information call 0293 535353.

AIRPORT FACILITIES

You could live at Gatwick - dress from neck to toe at Tie Rack, Burton, Dash, Knickerbox, Sock Shop and Dolcis; be entertained at a huge amusement arcade, and pray at the chapel in either terminal. The official spectator area (South Terminal, fourth floor) opens 8am- 8pm; for better views and more fun, ride the driverless trains that shuttle between North and South Terminals. These are especially soothing for fractious children.

Eating is grim: Perfect Pizza in the North Terminal looks the best of a mediocre lot, but is positively Soviet in terms of the lack of correlation between the menu and what is available. The best and healthiest deal is unlimited salad for pounds 5.35 at Garfunkel's in the South Terminal. The Village Inn next door resembles the worst sort of New Town pub but has a decent pint of Tetley's at pounds 1.48.

Work out your frustrations by taking advantage of the best bargain in the whole airport - day membership of the Health & Fitness Club at the Forte Crest Hotel (North Terminal). For pounds 5 you have the run of the facilities including pool, solarium, sauna and gym. The club opens daily at 7am, closing at 8pm at weekends and 10pm on other days.

THE OUTSIDE WORLD

Check your expected take-off time and inform airline staff before taking off on your own. Gatwick's built-in station makes getting away easy. The airport lies within the borders of Crawley, a New Town that has reached the urban menopause. But it has the largest shopping centre in Sussex, a fine country park and a lively arts centre that stages shows for children on summer afternoons. You can reach the town centre in eight minutes by train from Gatwick (three an hour, pounds 1.60 return).

Eating and Drinking: Alan Minter, the former world middleweight boxing champion, has a restaurant in Crawley High Street. The buffet at the Copthorne Hotel is more accessible (by a free shuttle bus from the airport) and has an excellent buffet for pounds 15, with a good children's menu. The White Horse at Turner's Hill is the best pub in the area, with a beer garden and good food. A taxi costs around pounds 4 for the three-mile journey.

History: just off the flight path is one of the most perfectly preserved first-millennium structures in Britain. The ancient Saxon church at Worth is a couple of miles from the end of Gatwick's runway. Services are still held within its deliciously simple interior. The beauty of the surroundings is diminished by the construction of a mock-Georgian housing estate around it, but a visit is strongly recommended.

Arts: Crawley's Hawth Centre is a new and innovative centre for the arts. Today, for example, it has an Indian Family Festival; tomorrow you can enjoy free performances from Cuban and Kurdistan ensembles. Telephone 0293 553636 for more details. The Cannon cinema in Crawley High Street has three screens (0293 527497 for recorded information).

Sport: county cricket is played at Hove (Sussex) and the Oval (Surrey), both easily reached by train. Anyone tempted to watch Crawley Town FC play a pre-season friendly at Town Meadow definitely needs a holiday.

Parks and Gardens: the nearest park is Tilgate, five miles ( pounds 7 taxi) from the airport. It has the boating lake where the Campbells once tested their record-breaking craft, an endangered species park (containing rare breeds, such as sheep with ingrowing horns) and a colourful Peace Garden. Unfortunately, the peace is eroded by the constant rumblings of the M23 a few hundred yards away.

Of the many splendid gardens in Sussex, Nymans - nine miles away at Handcross - is the loveliest. This National Trust property has extensive grounds looking south to the Downs, with the finest collection of rhododendrons in the country. It opens 11am-7pm daily except Monday and Friday, admission pounds 3.

Beaches: the nearest sea is at Brighton, pounds 5 and half-an-hour away by train.

NEXT WEEK: Simon Calder escapes from Manchester, via Jodrell Bank to Forte Crest.

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