Travel: Silent night, lonely flight: On Christmas Day, Britain's transport system gets away from it all, says Simon Calder (CORRECTED)

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The Independent Travel
CORRECTION (PUBLISHED 1 JANUARY 1994) APPENDED TO THIS ARTICLE

At midnight each Christmas Eve, Britain grinds to a halt. It is commendable that almost every employee in the British travel industry can enjoy Christmas Day off, but the consequence for anyone without a car is collective immobility on a scale that sets us apart from every other nation on God's earth. The only way out is by air.

UK airports are open for business on 25 December, even though flights are few. Last Christmas, for example, 5,000 travellers departed from Stansted, Essex, on December 24, but only 100 used the airport on Christmas Day. I was one of them, and a bleak midwinter experience it was too.

We were flying to Havana. Cubana, the national airline of Cuba, shares Castro's contempt for Christian festivals, and was not going to change its schedule for anyone.

British Rail, sharing our Government's contempt for the non-motoring classes, declined to run any trains. So I was obliged to hitchhike from London to Stansted, which I reached by cramming into the back of a generous soul's Metro. The only airport catering laid on for the prospective passengers was a single coffee machine. It was broken.

Meanwhile, the rest of the world had not taken the day off with quite such conviction. At Gander - the Newfoundland airport where the idiosyncratically designed Russian aircraft was obliged to refuel - everything was working. Even the tourist office was open, presumably in the hope that Caribbean-bound travellers would defect in favour of the snowy wastes of northern Canada. No one did. Havana was a right old mess, but the buses were running and the bars were open.

This year, I set out to discover where you could go next Saturday. A timetable of the public transport operating in the UK on the day would not occupy many column inches. It is as simple as 1-2-3: a nation that once ruled the waves can muster a single ferry; Britain's car owners will share 225,000 miles of road with only two bus routes; and the country that invented the railway offers just three train rides (rather fewer than will be available in battle-scarred Nicaragua). Whatever is the opposite of infrastructure, Britain possesses it in spades on Christmas Day.

Those wanting to take their cars abroad will find themselves utterly marooned. Seekers after boat trips must head for Portsmouth. Britain's only ferry departs at 10am across to Fishbourne on the Isle of Wight, returning at 11am. Every other line, from Caledonian MacBrayne to the Woolwich free ferry, is firmly at anchor.

If you want to catch a bus, you have to start off at Victoria station in London. The only services are the Airbus to Heathrow and the Flightline to Gatwick. Should you wish to travel on either, you will have to get there early, since both finish at lunchtime. And hope that Aunt Fiona puts a few quid in with her card, since the Gatwick run makes the most of its Christmas Day monopoly: at a special Yuletide fare of pounds 12.50, the airport trip works out at 50p a mile.

Advice to anyone south of Watford planning a day's train-spotting: don't bother. British Rail bestows its full festive fervour upon the Midlands, and on 25 December travellers can choose from the tail-ends of three late-night Christmas Eve services from Birmingham. Get yourself to Warwick station at two minutes past midnight, and you could let the train take the strain all the way to Leamington Spa (arriving four minutes later). Latecomers departing Droitwich at 12.11am could still catch most of Midnight Mass at Worcester Cathedral, by alighting at Shrub Hill.

Britain's last train of the day is breathtakingly early: it leaves Long Buckby just 15 minutes into Christmas Day, non-stop to Northampton. Still, this is a better record than the London Underground, where the last Christmas Tube train ran 14 years ago.

Across the Channel, meanwhile, almost every train will be operating normally - even some of the boat trains are scheduled to meet non-existent ferries from England. We may be slipping down the international league table in most areas, but no one can close down a country like we can.

If you can get yourself to the airports in London or Manchester, the world suddenly opens up - although the only way to fly between the two cities is to go via Paris or Hong Kong, since there are no domestic flights on Christmas Day.

Several 747s follow the stars in the eastern sky to Hong Kong, where you can ride the Star Ferry across the harbour.

To reach Tinseltown is no problem, either, with direct flights to Los Angeles and a short bus ride to Hollywood.

Or you could emulate The Pogues by spending Christmas in New York (the Empire State Building opens from 11am to 7pm).

The delicious prospect of turkey in Turkey can be a reality if you catch British Airways' only European flight bound for somewhere other than Paris. BA is rather better with long-haul flights: a hop to Singapore, and you're not too far from Christmas Island.

Book today, and you could find yourself in Christiania, Copenhagen, on Christmas Day. Plenty of space is available on Scandinavian Airlines for pounds 150 if you pay a week in advance.

Christiana in Pennsylvania is easily accessible on BA from Heathrow, and is pleasingly close to Paradise, PA. It is, however, dangerously near Intercourse, PA. Head north instead to Nazareth, via Bethlehem, PA.

The little town of Bethlehem, Israel, is accessible on El Al's flight from Heathrow to Tel Aviv, but only business class seats ( pounds 709 return) are available on 25 December.

You pay less to reach the City of David - not the 'Once in Royal David's' one, but the wonderfully ramshackle version in Panama. Take a flight via Miami, then a bus to this gently decaying colonial outpost. In the mountains above the city, the village of Concepcion is truly immaculate.

Anyone who has a real aversion to Christmas can avoid it completely by the judicious use of a trans-Pacific flight: leave London for Auckland on Christmas Eve, and 25 December will vanish as you cross the international dateline. (Your flight, however, will traverse the Christmas Ridge in the Pacific.)

Conversely, you could have twice the fun by flying east from New Zealand on Christmas Day: spend the day in Christchurch, catch an overnight flight to Hawaii, and say 'Aloha' to the second Noel as you touch down in Honolulu. If you wish it could be Christmas every day, you can get no closer than this.

CORRECTION

Better bus service

OUR feature on Christmas Day travel (18 December, Independent Traveller) claimed that only two bus services operated in London on 25 December. In fact, there were four: our apologies for omitting route 700 serving Orpington and district, and route 715 from Shepherd's Bush Green to central London.

The 715 is run by Routemaster Travel (it operates only the classic London Routemaster bus). The company's operations director, Colin Tassell, says that it did good business last Saturday, with 549 single passenger journeys. Most of the services ran to Russell Square, but there were four trips to St Paul's Cathedral, to coincide with its services. Routemaster Travel is on 081-868 7575.

(Photograph omitted)

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