Brian Viner: Country Life

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AS MY late father would have said, it served me jolly well right. I was on a short assignment in Italy with three other journalists I hadn't met before, and at the bar one evening we got to asking each other where we lived. The others were based in various parts of London, and were mightily interested to learn that I live way out west, meaning not Ealing or even Ruislip, but Herefordshire.

Was that practical, they wanted to know? How easy was it for me to get around on writing jobs? Oh, I said blithely, it really isn't a problem at all. Obviously I'm not as handily placed for getting into central London as I was when I lived in Crouch End (although at the time I had friends living in Holland Park who thought that Crouch End was the very definition of the frozen north, and once arrived for a dinner party looking as if they'd crossed 1,000 miles of frozen tundra), but my job takes me to Liverpool, Birmingham and Manchester as well as to London, and they are much more easily accessible than before. Rural Herefordshire is not nearly as remote as it sounds, I added, daringly knocking back a second grappa.

The following day I found myself at Gatwick Airport at just after 1pm and got home well after nine. Instead of taking the Gatwick Express into London I had decided to wait for the 14.03 to Reading, whence I could take the London to Swansea train as far as Newport, and then the Cardiff to Manchester train to Hereford.

But at 14.15 I learnt that the 14.03 was delayed until 14.48. Then, at 14.29 came the news that it had been cancelled altogether, on account of a tree on the line at Wokingham.

The woman on the information desk at Gatwick advised me to take the 14.37 to Watford Junction, then go to Birmingham New Street and take the Hereford train from there. I did as she suggested, but at East Croydon there was an announcement: the Watford Junction train was being redirected to London Victoria, because of a faulty overhead cable.

At Victoria I found that the Circle Line had been suspended. So I took the District Line to Embankment and then the Bakerloo Line to Paddington, where I learnt that the 16.45 to Swansea had been delayed until 17.08, and would be proceeding with the dreaded speed restrictions.

Boarding that train was no mean feat. It was like the last helicopter out of Saigon, or the last lifeboat off the Titanic. Three people stood in the toilet, while by the luggage rack a woman sat cross-legged on the floor looking as if she was about to faint. I gave her my bottle of water, and a short while later spotted her sitting cheerfully at a table doing the Independent crossword, which either proved the healing powers of Badoit or the wisdom of sitting cross-legged on the floor looking faint, or perhaps both.

We eventually limped into Newport at 19.27 where, by some miracle, I just had time to buy a tuna baguette (my first solids since a cold British Airways lunch at 11.35am) before the arrival of the 19.47 to Holyhead, which duly deposited me at Hereford. Had I left Gatwick by plane instead of train at 1pm, I could have got to Mexico.

Last Thursday, I had another memorable journey. I had to get to Wantage and then to Cardiff, so, after my miserable experience of Britain's railway system at its least efficient, I opted to drive. On my way back, I left the centre of Cardiff at a quarter to five and reached the M4 shortly after six.

All then went swimmingly until just outside Abergavenny, where I noticed that my little VW Polo was worryingly short of petrol. I knew that there was a National petrol station between Abergavenny and Hereford, and reckoned I had just enough to get there, which I did. Unfortunately the garage had run out of lead-free petrol that morning, although, interestingly enough, it had abundant supplies of animal feed.

Resisting the urge to do a Basil Fawlty on the garage-owner I pressed on, and by a combination of freewheeling and prayer somehow managed to get to the outskirts of Hereford, where I filled the tank and resolved never again to boast that getting places from Herefordshire really isn't a problem at all.

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