It is not often a volcanic eruption seriously interferes with one's intention to travel to West Sussex. But such was the case on Thursday. My plan was simple: give a speech to a gathering in Marino, outside Rome, head for the airport, take a plane to Gatwick, and get home in time for a lateish tea. And then, just as I was about to rise to my feet, came my wife's text: "Cloud of ash from Icelandic volcano. All UK airspace closed. No flights today."
I spoke, left and, confident such bizarre nonsense could not last long, headed for Fiumicino airport. The position of easyJet's check-in desk did not inspire confidence. In the bowels of the terminal 2 building, it appeared as a dark, Soviet sort of place from which all will to win had been siphoned. At 2.50pm, two uniformed women were dispensing defeatist talk to a small but despairing crowd of fellow passengers. "No seat until Monday," they said. "But it's Thursday," I replied. A shrug of epauletted shoulders.
I went upstairs, saw the Hilton Hotel's gaunt outlines several hundred yards away, and knew I wanted out. I wandered into terminal 3 and stared at another departures board. Iberia had a plane to Paris at 5.05pm. I bought the last seat. I took a book on the plane, but read almost none of it. Instead, I agitatedly flicked pages as I turned the possibilities over and over in my mind. Perhaps the cloud had passed and I could buy another ticket to London. If not, a late no-show on the full-up Eurostars. Or a train to Calais, ferry and, maybe even tonight, the seagull sounds of Dover.
At Orly, not only were there no London flights, but the airport was in the process of closing. We were the last plane in. I shared a cab to Gare du Nord with Darryl Cornelius from Hayling Island, an entrepreneur, Gordon Brown voter and, even more unusually, ticketed on Eurostar. He was optimistic I'd get on the train. At the station, no chance. Not until Sunday. So which platform for Calais? Sorry. Last train gone. At 8.15pm.
I was standing by a ticket machine when I heard a voice. It was perky, young and female and came from Ms Backpack, who was talking to Slightly Worried British Couple. We started talking. None of us intended to just stay in Paris, waiting for magical winds, or, even more miraculously, Eurostar to have the wit to lay on extra trains. We hatched a plan: a train to Lille and then cab to Dunkirk for the all-night ferries. The SWBC bought their tickets. I went next. No more tickets. SWBC went off, leaving Ms Backpack and me to go for a smoke and a think. Her name was Francesca Levey, reading history of art at the Courtauld Institute and vaguely Keira Knightley-looking behind her glasses.
I had a mad idea. A cab to Calais, ferry, and freedom. If we could find two more companions, it would cost about €90 (£80) each. We went along the long ticket queue calling: "Anyone here speak English and want to share a cab to Calais?" Most looked rather resentful at this intrusion, but finally a young Canadian couple – Margaret Laffin and Phil Pedersen – responded. Engineers from Calgary, they were trying to get to Liverpool by Monday in time to see the West Ham game. Margaret was a big football fan.
All moneyed up by the cash machine, we headed outside to find a cab. We selected a guy in a suit. He couldn't do it, but had a friend who could. He was black, called Jeremy, and we piled into his Merc. Francesca's iPhone – the only one of ours with a connection – was almost out of juice. This was serious. Her net-connected mother, Michaela, was our informational lifeline. Then we saw Jeremy had an iPhone. And a charger.
Francesca called again. There were no places for foot passengers on any ferries, but could Michaela have our names? Ten minutes later, she rang. She had booked us all on the 5am vehicle-only ferry out of Boulogne. She was now getting into her car in Wiltshire and driving to Dover, where she would catch the 2.30am sailing, pick us up, turn round and bring us home. Genius.
Jeremy dropped us by the Boulogne port entrance booths at 11.40pm. There was no waiting room, and it was freezing. We stood, shivering, knowing we had four hours to kill in this cold. Then a head popped out of a booth. We couldn't stay there, she said. "Sorry, we'll go for a walk," we said. "No," she replied, "I mean you need shelter." Security was summoned, our passports examined, and we were piled into a port minibus. It took us to a warm Portakabin with drinks and food machines and clean loos.
We talked, ate, read a little, talked, and laughed, especially when Michaela texted to say "International Rescue about to dock". The minibus came back, took us to the entrance, and there, minutes later, Michaela's Renault Clio came into view. We all embraced her, Francesca, of course, going first. She will always be my hero, this occupational therapist married to a very senior officer serving in Afghanistan. Problem solving was what she, and her husband, did.
We sailed, and laughed a lot amid the bodies of truck drivers sleeping in the boat's lounge. In the half-light, the Grey Cliffs of Dover came closer. Michaela drove me, Margaret and Phil to the station, and, having exchanged addresses, she and the equally wonderful Francesca drove off. I saw Margaret and Phil on to the London train, and, minutes later, my son and wife drew up in our car to take me off for breakfast, home, a quick change of shirt and the office. Colleagues were surprised to see me.
There is no moral to this story other than this: keep moving in the right direction and talk to people. Eventually, one will be a Francesca who will have a mother like Michaela. Thanks, guys.
Stranded: Kate Simon, Travel Editor
I'm stuck in the Algarve – so what's the problem? It hardly sounds like a trial. But, of course, I must get back for work. I am due to be flying from Faro to Gatwick but, as I write, it looks likely that the flight will be cancelled and I'll join the long queue to rebook, probably securing a seat home next Friday at the earliest. So a group of guests at our hotel have come up with a cunning plan. Four drivers, one guest's large car, and 1,500 miles of pedal to the metal all the way from Sagres, the most westerly point of the Algarve, to Gatwick car park, via Eurotunnel. We should be back in time for work on Monday. We've managed to book Eurotunnel. The ferries were out of the question – they're chocka till the middle of next week. We may have a long drive ahead, but we could be among the lucky ones.
Most airlines will offer a full refund or an alternative flight, so I'll be seeking a refund and jumping in the car. Indeed, it's time to go. Must fly – if you know what I mean.