Trips away are invariably fraught. I’m leaving behind my dogs, who are amongst my favourite companions, and I’m dealing with the incredible glamour of international travel.
My challenge for the last day was to get us from Potter’s Bar, just North of London, to Gatwick airport, south of the capital. In terms of the London orbital motorway, the M25, the two places are almost diametrically opposite. Waze suggested we go clockwise, I suspect because this avoids a few traffic hotspots. The downside is that one has to pay a toll for the Dartford Crossing. Still, £2.50 will hardly break the bank.
Off we went. The drive was on a Saturday afternoon, when the M25 is largely benign. As we hurtled along, I was delighted to see that there are no toll booths, just overhead cameras. All we need to do is log on at some point in the next 24 hours and make payment. How modern! Mrs L resolved to do it there and then, from the passenger seat. Ah the power of technology.
Except it doesn’t work. The website is down, promising to be back up a couple of days ago. Oh. Reluctantly, we called the automated phone line - a potentially expensive approach on an international cell phone. Doesn’t work either. I put it down to cell coverage on the move and resolved to make payment from the airport, once on Wi-fi.
First though, I had to return the hire car. I topped up the fuel tank and followed the signs to the Avis drop-off. We arrived at the hire-car graveyard, the place where hire-cars go to die. The tiny booth was locked up tight, and try as I might, I couldn’t find a box to deposit the keys. Eventually, we followed the signs to the terminal and the main Avis office. Also closed, but in an open plan space. Finally, I found a dropbox where I posted the keys.
Now, London Gatwick regards itself as London’s second airport. In 2022, it handled 32.8 million passengers. At 7pm on a Saturday in August, Avis was closed. Why? Larnaca airport in Cyprus handles 5 million or so passengers a year, and its desks are open 24/7.
When did the UK get so crap?
Anyway, back to the Dart charge. Safely logged on to the Wifi, I attempted to pay again. And again. And again. I’ve tried every day since from Cyprus. It turns out that in actual fact, Dart charge hasn’t worked at all for a month. I have no doubt that at some point soon, they will issue a £70 Penalty Charge Notice to Avis, who will attempt to charge my credit card.
I guess the good news is that they’ll struggle to find anyone working at the car hire company.
Overall, the UK was a mixed bag. Andover has been hollowed out. What used to be a quaint market town has nothing but charity shops and hairdressers. Multiple shop units lie vacant and the shopping centre half full. The place reeks of abandonment. In contrast, central Bristol was vibrant, alive and cared for.
London was a blast, but heavens, one pays for it.
I am consistently astonished by the mediocrity of London’s airports. They’re falling apart. There is no way in the world that a properly run airport would allow its hire car desks to close. Indeed - half the retail was pulling down its shutters while we waited in the lounge. What? Could you imagine that in Dubai? Shanghai? Singapore? Not a chance. If you land after 10 pm at Gatwick, you cannot hire a car. From anyone. I was advised that I could get a hotel room and hire a car in the morning.
The toll charge for the Dartford crossing is a government website. With the country reeling from economic mismanagement, rampant inflation and a cost of living crisis, the government is losing millions in revenue because it can’t manage a change in payment provider.
Whoever is going to run the UK needs to roll their sleeves up and get stuck in.
There’s a lot to do.
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