02 September, 2011

Hurricane Season

If Heathrow Airport is the busiest international airport in the world, then King’s Cross, with its fraternal twin, St Pancras, and the fabulous new Eurostar terminal at St Pancras International, is one of the busiest train station complexes in the world. Thousands board trains bound for the north, north-east, Midlands and Europe every hour. Thousands more, speaking a Babel of tongues, disembark and crowd on to the underground platforms or trudge to nearby hotels.  And, just unveiled, is THE JAVELIN, the express underground train that will ferry passengers directly to the Olympic site in Stratford in just 7 minutes, a rail version of Usain Bolt, the fastest man in the world.

No time is busier at King’s Cross than a Friday afternoon when holiday makers crowd the waiting rooms and the concourse in front of the departure board, waiting for the announcement that the 14:30 to Leeds is leaving from platform 5, while the Flying Scotsman is boarding at platform 3. It is as if a starting gun had fired. Hundreds spring into action: luggage is shouldered, children are ‘buggied’ and the race for the platforms is on. Woe to anyone who innocently obstructs this steamrollling mass. Meanwhile retailers like Café Nero, the Whistle Stop, and W H Smith sell their overpriced drinks, sandwiches and confectionery to the endless stream of customers. Tourists crowd the information booth, families with children, camping gear and bicycles queue for tickets, and, unique to King’s Cross, young  ‘Potterphiles’ search desperately for the peripatetic platform 9 and 3/4s. 

Just after 2pm on Friday August 19th, 34 Ithacans, newly arrived on the Piccadilly Line, entered this cauldron of confusion and wearily dropped their bags before the departure board. Jet lagged and eager for food and a shower, the group , bound for the Edinburgh Festival on the 15:00, had been force marched from Heathrow to King’s Cross in a record time of under three hours. The London centre’s ‘AGITLOLEPT’ reception regime – arrive, greet, identify, transfer, luggage, orientate, loo,  eat, PHOTO, tube –had worked so well that the group had arrived with 30 minutes to spare.

The group leaders snapped into action with a plan for the unexpected extra waiting time. Amidst the hubbub of the station they passed among the group suggesting buying some lunch, using the loo, even visiting platform 9 and ¾ if it could be located [It is currently some distance from platform 9 because of ‘works’ in the station.]

Then, without warning, it happened.  A booming noise crashed through the station, overwhelmed the tannoy announcer, sending passengers scurrying backwards and forwards between platforms,  and causing children to drop their ice-creams as they clutched their ears. Hearing aids screeched; security guards rushed mindlessly about; the manager of Burger King dialled 999, ATMs shut down in mid-transaction, London underground closed down the tube station causing thousands to miss their train, and ‘Potterphiles’ discovered that no matter how hard they pushed the trolley they couldn’t access platform 9 and 3/4s.

No, a train had not crashed, nor had the roof collapsed. It was Hurricane Anna, Reetz to be specific,  who had taken  the matter into her own hands. Loud enough for the Queen to hear in Buckingham Palace, 4 miles distant, she exclaimed: “You’ve got 20 minutes. Get some food, use the loo, check out Harry Potter, but be back here in 20 minutes.” The leader, staggered that his message could be transmitted so easily, thanked Anna who replied nonchalantly, “Ithaca College, Stage Manager.” ENOUGH SAID!

Later that afternoon, on the train to Edinburgh,  Anna dismissed Network Rail’s six figure offer to be the station announcer [without a tannoy system] for 4 London stations, the 3 at King’s Cross and neighbouring Euston just a half mile up the road. “Not challenging enough,” she replied.

*Tannoy is English for a public address system.
The Edinburghers, outside the ICLC

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