Simon Calder: A question of travel to Essex and beyond

The man who pays his way
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The Independent Travel

What's going on? In travel, that is the daily puzzle. From ever-tighter aviation security to the eternal enigma of whether any guest has ever used a hotel trouser-press, the business of transport, hotels, and holidays is never short of questions that demand answers.

As part of a never-ending bid to unravel travel, on Wednesday I went to the town of Burnham-on-Crouch to find the answer to the question: what happens to the soil dug from the Crossrail project? It turns out that the mud dug out daily during the tunnelling for the fast railway beneath central London is being spectacularly recycled.

Big barges laden with mud from the project sail daily from the capital down the Thames and around to the River Crouch. Their contents are unceremoniously dumped on an island across from pretty Burnham. It lies amid the indistinct, muddy blur between Essex and estuary. But within a decade it is intended to become a tourist attraction.

The island is being built up and will then be flooded with sea water to become one of the biggest wetland reserves in Europe. The plan is that both millions of seabirds and tens of thousands of nature-loving tourists will converge on south-east Essex.

One question answered: but on my way back, another was posed.

The air of mystery that seems to prevail in Essex intensified when I reached Shenfield station. Not the quotidien matter of "Where's the 7.37pm to Liverpool Street when you need it?", but something much deeper.

On Platform 1, a large sign has been put up with the message: "? Romford". Is it a statement questioning the value, or the very existence, of this outer-London suburb where the footballer Frank Lampard was born? Or could it be a clever marketing slogan, signifying in just eight characters the thought, "Have you ever considered visiting Romford? We have East London's last remaining greyhound track and a newly refurbished Travelodge with double rooms tonight for just £50." Neither of the above. When a London train finally turned up, the friendly driver explained that the sign comprises a helpful reminder for him and his colleagues on the Southend-Liverpool Street line.

There are three trains an hour. All of them call at Southend airport, Shenfield and other eastern treasures, but one in three stops additionally at Romford. The sign reduces the risk that drivers might pause in error, adding a couple of unplanned minutes to the journey –and to prevent trains inadvertently whizzing through Romford at 90mph to the consternation of passengers hoping to get on or off. Yet it really should become the suburb's slogan.

Lots more Scot hops

At the top end of Essex, Stansted airport is soon to be snowed under with Scottish flights. Just when you imagined everyone should be travelling by train between Scotland and England, Ryanair is going head-to-head with easyJet from Stansted to both Edinburgh and Glasgow.

Now, there have been flights from London's third airport to the two biggest cities in Scotland for years: first with Air UK, later with Go – BA's short-lived budget offshoot, later bought by easyJet. The present schedule has two easyJet flights each way to Glasgow, three a day to Edinburgh. Attempts by other airlines to compete have always failed. But now along comes Ryanair, which from late October will add three return trips daily to both cities from Stansted.

The one-word question for the Irish airline's chief marketing officer, Kenny Jacobs is: "Why?" (or, in Romford-speak, "? Why").

"It's great to be back running domestic routes," he says. Ryanair cut its British teeth 20 years ago on a Stansted-Prestwick link. Until now, Ryanair has avoided Glasgow's main gateway in favour of the Ayrshire coast airport. But, says Mr Jacobs, "We've got a good deal from Glasgow." He insists "There's plenty of demand," and has a message for rival airlines: "We expect some of our competitors will have to reconsider their schedule."

You will find very few other "airport-to-airport" pairs on which easyJet and Ryanair compete. Despite Europe's two biggest low-cost airlines' apparent antipathy, they prefer to avoid straight fights of this kind. Past experience suggests that you can expect some very low fares this winter, which will ripple well beyond Essex to other London airports. But I don't expect the price war to last more than a year.

An absent friend

On the day I turned 15, my father sat down at the breakfast table, wished me happy birthday and said: "When I was 15, I hitch-hiked across Europe. What are you going to do?"

Nigel Calder loved the world. He wanted personally to go out and experience as much of it as possible, and he encouraged us five fortunate children to do the same. From mission control in Crawley, he and my mother, Liz, invited us to set off and explore, and do our best to enrich lives –including our own.

While as a father he unlocked the planet for us, as a science writer he sought to unravel the universe for everyone. The main purpose of many of his voyages was to meet scientists. He traced the frontiers they were exploring, then transmitted their discoveries to the world: from continental drift to climate and onwards to the furthest reaches of the cosmos.

In contrast, when I was 15, I hitched no further into orbit than North Wales. Yet it helped to open my eyes to the Earth's possibilities.

My father passed away peacefully last week, aged 82, surrounded by the continental drifters he nurtured so wisely and generously. He was a wonderful man and is now, sadly, an absent friend.

For Simon Calder's Q&A about enhanced airport security, see