John Walsh: 'February isn't the ideal time to visit Sligo's drizzly fields, but I had high hopes'

Tales of the City
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The Independent Online

A week ago, I wrote about snow as a visitation from paradise, a transforming, elemental, alchemical process that turns both the landscape and men's hearts into things of loveliness and decency. This week, I return to the subject from a slightly different angle.

I hate the stuff. I loathe the ghastly, points-freezing, wheel-spinning, slush-inducing, white-confetti rubbish that screws up people's days. I have gone Christian Bale about it. I abhor the snow. But not as much as I hate whichever misbegotten wretch plonked Luton airport's Parkway Station two miles from the airport.

Let me explain. I was due in Ireland on Friday to spend the weekend travelling in Yeats country, the family turf of the great poet who died 70 years ago. I had an itinerary of castles, hills, lake-islands, waterfalls, elderly fishermen, parks and museums to inspect for their poetic associations. February isn't the ideal time to visit Sligo's drizzly fields and mountains, but I had high hopes and a ticket to Knock airport.

Of course I'd read the weather reports, but I was quietly confident. Luton airport, I told myself, could take a smattering of the white stuff. If it could withstand that Lorraine Chase novelty song in 1979, it could survive anything. I left home in a positive mood, with my suitcase bearing two Yeats biographies, jumpers and hiking boots – for, as I purposed, climbing Ben Bulben. The case was heavy but had, you know, wheels.

By the time I reached my local station, at 7.15am, it was starting to snow. Kids' stuff, feathery nonsense. By the time we reached Farringdon, it was coming down hard, as if several hundredweight of crustless sandwiches were being hurled through the sky. By St Albans, there was hardly a gap in the white cascade.

At Luton airport Parkway, I boarded a shuttle bus and sat basking in the warmth. And sat and sat. After 15 minutes, I asked a bloke in uniform when it might move. "It's not going anywhere," he said, without interest. "Airport's shut till 12 noon." Where, I asked, could I find a taxi? "You'll be lucky," he said. "I ain't seen one in three hours. Roads all blocked."

Gradually, the ghastly truth emerged. A month's snowfall had engulfed Bedfordshire in 10 minutes, and brought chaos. Two lorries had jackknifed at roundabouts and traffic was at a standstill between the airport and the station. Airport traffic was gridlocked. The shuttle buses couldn't handle the icy gradients.

But I had to get there. I was on an assignment. Vital insights into the greatest Irish poet of the 20th century lay a 90-minute flight away. I couldn't give up. "Scoop" Walsh had to get through. I dug out the hiking boots from my luggage and set off to walk to the airport.

How can I describe the horror of the next hour? Trudging two miles uphill in pouring snow, past queues of stationary cars and glumly fuming drivers, was no fun. Pulling my suitcase brought a silted-up mass of claggy snow in front of the wheels, and I had to stop every few yards to manhandle it forward. Christ, it was heavy. My breath wheezed in the frozen air like a knackered accordion. The veins in my forehead stuck out like water-snakes. Around me a ragged army of couples in rucksacks laboured along, while deranged pilgrims stumbled downhill towards us, advising us, wild-eyed, to venture no further into the hell-hole of the airport, with its ranks of on-screen cancellations and suave reassurances from Ryanair. It was like the Retreat from Moscow, only worse.

At the airport, hundreds of us listened to footling promises about Runway Inspections every three hours. Travellers hoping to take a plane to their destination from Stansted were told they couldn't get there, as the M25 was kaput. Everything was kaput. The only way out was via the far-off train station. But could anyone face a two-mile trudge through driving sleet, dragging four tons of salient facts about Yeats's life in a suitcase? I couldn't. Shackleton himself would have given in by now.

So I stuck around, fortified only by a noodle franchise and M&S fudge. And having no one to blame for the snow, I resolved that I'd track down the genius who built a station two sodding miles from the airport it served; and that, when I found him, I'd kill him like a dog. Mark my words, there's only so much frustration the travelling Yeatsian can take.