An everyday tale of climate breakdown

Axminster station. Photo by Geof Sheppard Wikimedia Commons

I was recently invited onto the board of trustees of an inclusive cycling charity called Wheels for Wellbeing, which is doing amazing work, changing attitudes and the road network, to make it safer for everyone who cycles, regardless of ability or disability.

I had to go to London for a meeting with the other trustees; it was a morning meeting but it’s far cheaper to travel to London the night before you need to get there, so I booked a ticket for the evening train, and planned to stay overnight with one of my many friends in London. It was a bank holiday so, as happens more often than not, the weather was wet; in fact where I live, in Exeter, there was a spectacularly loud thunderstorm with torrential rain. I left our back door open whilst I was working, as I love the sound of the rain falling into the leat outside.

Luckily my cycle ride to the station coincided with a pause in the storm. The train arrived, I folded my bike up, hopped on the train, pulled my tablet out, started work, and off we went. Everything seemed tickety-boo.

When we got to Axminster, though, the train stopped as usual, but then didn’t pull out of the station again. We sat and waited for an announcement. Eventually the driver told us that there was flooding on the line ahead, and then – after another wait – that if they could, passengers should maybe make other arrangements to continue their journeys. By then some people had already given up and left the train. The young woman sharing my table now decided to get off, although almost immediately, and unannounced, the train started moving again.

It stopped at Crewkerne and then at Yeovil, where the driver abruptly told us the service was terminating and that a coach was being arranged for the rest of the journey. After a wait, it transpired that there was no coach after all, but at least we were told (by someone who said he was a cleaner, just trying to help because the station manager wouldn’t come out and talk to us!) that the rail company would pay for onward travel – in whatever form it took.

I decided I’d cycle into Yeovil and hole up in a hotel for the night: the weather forecast didn’t show any more rain, so hopefully the flooding would subside by the morning and the railways would be back up and running more normally. I unfolded my Brompton and cycled off.

The first three hotels I tried were fully booked, as was the fourth, but it had a bar; so I ordered a pint, sat down and started to ring round. The next eight hotels were all fully booked or didn’t answer the phone. The bell rang for last orders and I switched to ringing taxi companies. The first two didn’t answer, the third quoted a wait of two to three hours, but the fourth was called Mo and he offered to drive me to London for £300. Since South West Rail had said they’d pay, I said “Yes!”,  finished my pint and waited for Mo.

Twenty minutes later he arrived and we set off for London; but we’d only gone a few miles when we were confronted with a flooded road. We could see blue lights further on and some of the other drivers were doing U-turns; Mo did the same, and we headed off in the other direction. First a fire engine passed us with ‘blues and twos’ going, then an ambulance, then a police car, and around the next corner we were faced with another flood. Mo said he wasn’t confident he could get me to London – nor was he confident he’d be able to get back home afterwards. He suggested I ring the Travelodge at Podimore, probably just far enough out of town not to be booked up. I rang. They were booked up.

Ironically, I’d ordered a bivvy bag and was expecting it to be delivered to my home whilst I was away for this trip. Here I was, stranded, without anywhere to sleep, but I did flippantly wonder when a bivvy bag will become standard equipment, just in case, for people taking evening train journeys in the UK. Probably sooner than most think.

As we talked to the driver of a 4×4 who’d decided not to risk the flood, my phone rang: the Travelodge had had a cancellation and there was now a room available – did I want it? I didn’t even need to think. “YES PLEASE!” Mo said it would usually take five minutes to get there but tonight it might be a bit longer – half an hour, as it turned out.

The first London train the following day was at 0630, but I couldn’t find a taxi to prebook for the journey to the station in the morning, so I gave up and went to bed. The next morning I rang a few cabs, but to no avail, so I decided to cycle to the station in Yeovil. After only a mile I met with a flood that went around the corner out of sight. I didn’t know how deep it was or how far it went. A small van emblazoned with ‘BBC Somerset’ had stopped nearby; the driver turned out to be a journalist and after he heard about my journey, he asked if he could interview me.

I said this was the first time that the climate and ecological breakdown had had a direct impact on me. There have been plenty of occasions when climate change has had secondary effects on my own life, but millions of other people’s lives are affected every day, often in devastating ways, in  Bangladesh, Myanmar, Canada, Australia, the Horn of Africa,  and many other countries around the world that experience regular wild fires, flooding and drought – sometimes, as in Somalia, drought and flooding at the same time. I was only experiencing minor disruption; my family and I would still be alive tomorrow, we wouldn’t lose our home or go hungry.

I had no choice now but to turn round and head back to Podimore services. I bought coffee but they couldn’t accept card payments, because owing to the disruption caused by the floods, they’d been unable to tally up the previous night – so “Cash only please”.  Lots of high-vis-adorned workers were turned away without breakfast, as they didn’t have cash. They would probably not realise that it was climate change which had disrupted their morning routine.

I started ringing round the taxi firms; this time, thank goodness, I only had to phone two, and was soon at Yeovil Junction station. There I was told the next train would take me to Basingstoke, from where I could catch another service to Waterloo. When the train arrived I boarded, got organised and we set off.  I thought I was home and dry. 

Then there was an announcement from the driver: connecting trains from Basingstoke to Waterloo were disrupted due to a landslide on the line from Southampton! I’d have to see what the options were when I got to Basingstoke. I passed the time by talking to ‘Greatest Hits Radio Somerset’ after they rang me and also asked me for an interview, which we conducted by WhatsApp ‘voice notes’ and finished before the train pulled in at Basingstoke.

In Basingstoke I had to wait another 40 minutes for a train to Waterloo. It arrived, we boarded, the train journey to Waterloo was smooth. I got off in London, cycled to Roots and Shoots in Lambeth, and finally arrived; I was thirteen hours late. But I did have a really enjoyable meeting with Wheels for Wellbeing.

Being a climate activist operating at the radical end of campaigning, I accept that being in civil resistance will bring drama and disruption into my life. In fact, I court this drama at times. On this occasion, my patience and persistence had paid off, but for a simple train trip to London, to suffer such compound disruption was unexpected. As the climate and nature crises worsen, we can expect more frequent and more extreme weather, which will cause more disruption. Stories like this will become common and the disruption will be more extreme.