AS LONG AS THERE IS GIN AND CHOCOLATE IN APPLEDORE
A trip to Appledore is a step back in time, to a gentler, simpler age. Boats bobbing on a turning tide, a postcard view from the bedroom window, an ancient churchyard sloped with the stones of remembrance to men lost at sea.
It was not my first visit. The book festival had invited me before, I think it was the Bowie book, in 2016. But this time took some getting there. Paddington station's concourse early on Tuesday morning was crammed with frustrated travellers who had been unable to wend home west after Her Majesty's funeral the day before. Two miles of GWR overhead electric cables had gone down. None of that network's trains were running when I arrived. By hook or crook, said the Girl Guide, stoutly, hopping a Reading-bound stopping train; fidgeting on the platform there beside a pregnant girl who was anxious about boarding an already standing-room-only onward train to Exeter. We crammed on together, and stood wedged in the gangway between suitcases the size of small wardrobes (what on earth do people travel with, dead bodies?), our noses flattened to the wall. By the time we had done an hour, unable to budge or wriggle our toes, the poor girl felt sick and faint. Twisting my head into the carriage, I enquired as to whether anyone felt inclined to give up their seat to a woman with child. No one twitched. Guilt got the better of the man who stood for her eventually. Plenty of women, some of whom must have been mums and would have known how she felt, just sat there.
Exeter St. David's was 'almost there'. So near, yet so far. I had missed my connection to Barnstaple, and would now miss my interview slot of 4pm. 'Jump in a cab!' advised the festival organiser. Fat chance, the taxi queue was more than fifty folk long. I fell into one more than an hour later, to endure another hour and twenty on the road. I landed in Appledore at almost 6pm, eleven hours after I had left home. Where gin and chocolate, my only sustenance all day, awaited.
They do things calmly in North Devon. 'We've put your slot back to 7.30pm,' they said. 'Some of the ticket-holders can't return, unfortunately, as they are down for the gin-tasting and they're not going to miss that. But you've got a good crowd, and your sponsors are in. We'll make the most of it.'
They did so. It was, perhaps, the best crowd I'd had all year. My ears are still ringing. The queue for signed books was out the door and round the side. I fell on the fish and chips and went out like a light to the lap of the waves. Awoken by the rising sun, I drank the view for breakfast.
The journey home was uneventful, but I still feel a bit stunned. I need my bed. I need to write another book, so that I can go back there.