Tag Archives: snow

Awesome Abisko Aurora

I was lucky enough to go to Sweden last year to see the Northern Lights. I confess I have seen them before so I already had a pretty good idea of how to photograph them, but I was really excited just to play around and see what I could capture.

We booked a trip where cameras and tripods were provided, and a guide is on hand to give advice and tuition during the evening. Although we had cameras of our own, it seemed like a good idea to book a guided trip, and there was a great balance between having some down time, and getting out doing other activities in the daytime.  The company is called Lights Over Lapland and for anyone who wants to experience the Aurora Borealis, I whole heartedly recommend booking with Chad and Linnea at LOL.

We were met at the airport and transferred from Kiruna up to Abisko, enjoying the snowy landscapes on our way. We had time to pick up our kit – cameras and overalls, and then had a gourmet dinner before we headed out for our first Aurora experience.

Not far from the hotel, we found some open space with a few trees for foreground interest. Our first night was out of this world. When the aurora “kick off” it’s called a Corona and the lights move so quickly that it looks like a bright green ribbon is waving across the sky.

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One of my lasting memories of that night was Chad shouting out “We’ve got a Corona … woo-hoo” and it echoing around the valley.

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The aurora displayed for a long time that night, and by the end of the evening we had full memory cards, cold hands and feet, and a sense of having experienced something totally amazing.

The next day we had a trip on a helicopter through the Abisko National Park. We saw fantastic landscapes, an unusual trapper’s food store, and stunning reflections in the lake.

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We then had an afternoon to ourselves, and so took a walk down towards the lake by the hotel.

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That evening, the weather was a little uncertain, and so we jumped into the van, and headed down to the waterfront. This was my absolute favourite landscape view. We were treated to another wonderful display, and also managed a great group shot, as well as some portraits / selfies!

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Our third day saw us being driven over into Norway to the town of Narvik. It was great to see more of the landscapes and local area, and having a picnic lunch by the sea was superb! We spent time taking a few photos, and learning to skim stones.

That evening, we walked down to the lakefront to try to see the auroras again, but sadly the clouds just didn’t want to move, and so instead we made s’mores and drank my home-made sloe gin! Not a bad night after all!

Our last full day was filled with a lovely hike through the winter birch wood. It was fun to take time to enjoy the park, the trees, the snow, and just stretch our legs!

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That night, our last night, we went up to the Sky Station which is located on the hill above Abisko. We had to wait till 9pm for the chair lift to open in order to get up to the station, and up to that point, the aurora were being rather shy – just showing on the horizon as a misty green glow.

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As we got onto the chair lift, and started travelling up the hill (with our cameras on chairs behind us) the aurora decided to kick off in another absolutely incredible display. We had no choice but to sit back and enjoy the light show. There was such a multitude of colours, and again really fast-moving auroras that just blew us away.

Having reached the station, we were able to grab some photos and it was great getting different compositions, as well as a couple of other group shots / selfies again!

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Before we knew it, sadly it was time to head home. The memory cards had been filled many times over. We’d been treated to some of the most amazing aurora displays I could have imagined, and met some fellow aurora-obsessed new friends.

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I am definitely going back for another chance to see the lights in 2015. If you’ve not seen them, it seems Abisko is a really good location for them – there is a micro climate that gives you a higher than usual chance of seeing the lights. You can fly from London via Stockholm up to Kiruna, which is about 90-something kilometres from Abisko. There are a couple of guesthouses in Abisko. We stayed at the Tourist Station hotel, which serves fantastic food – including delicious gourmet dinners to keep you going as you head out into the cold to see the auroras! Highly recommended. Check out Lights of Lapland if you want a high quality organised trip however, as they took all the stress away and I would say for all first timers, it’s worth the expense. Tuition so you get the best shots out of the camera, flexible evening plans so as to ensure you have the best chance of seeing the lights, and overall great hosts too!

Hope you’ve enjoyed this update – feel free to ask any questions.

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Into the Realm of the Polar Bear, June 2013

This year I decided to return to Svalbard for a week long holiday on a boat. The goal of the trip was to circumnavigate the islands, but of course, all things are weather dependent, and on arrival we were told that it was about 95% sure that we would not be able to get very far around to the North due to the amount of pack ice that there was still in the area. But, being that I had booked on an adventure, I was happy with whatever our expedition leader, John, decided for us. After all, pack ice meant a higher chance of seeing polar bears, as they live on the ice edge, so there were advantages to too much ice! 

We left the interesting town of Longyearbyen on a sunny afternoon, with temperatures above freezing and light winds.

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We were to be based on the M/S Expedition for a week – it’s a converted ferry that makes its way from Antarctica, up the West coast of Africa, and on up to Scotland, Norway and finally Svalbard.

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Although you could see the tell-tale signs of its old life as a ferry, the boat had been totally overhauled by G Adventures, and our cabins were spacious, and very well looked after!

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We headed up towards Nordenskioldbreen, the glacier in front of which we anchored for the night! What a view over dinner and from our cabin porthole! It was a great start to our trip.

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It was actually my birthday on that first evening, and I was presented with Champagne and a cake at dinner time, and also had all the wait-staff sing to me … they then queued up to give me a hug and a kiss! It was an embarrassing but great way to start my holiday!

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The next day was another pretty sunny day, and we headed over to Pyramiden which is an abandoned Russian mining town.

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Well, mostly abandoned. There are still a few Russian inhabitants, and they are always delighted to share a glass of vodka with you, and tell you all about the mother polar bear and cubs that wandered through the town the previous day!

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Aside from the bears, they have other local wildlife keeping them company, like the reindeer

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Many of the buildings have also become key nesting sites for the birdlife too. Kittiwakes have made nests on air conditioning boxes, window sills, airbricks, and anywhere that there is a small hole to perch on! They are very noisy neighbours, and in summer, that is potentially 24 hours of noise!

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The Russians always ensure there are a few people still at Pyramiden, and we discovered what they do to keep themselves occupied during the winter polar nights (where the sun never actually breaches the horizon) … they build houses … out of what they have to hand … and it seems they have a lots of bottles to hand!

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It’s amazing to be in a place that is effectively a small town, with only a handful of residents. It’s feels a little like we were urban explorers!

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The next day, we headed off out to sea, going North up the coast to find Magdalenefjorden, which we were told was a place with lots of bird and wildlife.

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As we got out of the shelter of the fjord, the visibility really closed down, and we were travelling in temperatures of around freezing, and we had both fog and snow to contend with! How different to our first day!

We did however brave the zodiacs, and had a cruise along the tidewater glacier to take a closer look at the little Auk colony (otherwise knows as Dovekies).

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We then headed out to Smeerenburgfjorden which is a very scenic fjord complex with some historic sites along the way like a whalers camp at Smeerenburg. The scenery was beautiful even in less than great visibility

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We then had our first ice-based large wildlife sighting … of a bearded seal. The captain, Thomas Roder, slowed the boat down, and we crept forwards as quietly as a large ferry can! We managed to get pretty close before the seal decided he’d go for a long swim!

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Later that day we reached our most northerly position of 76° 57.76′ N. We cruised along the Polar Ice Cap. Everywhere we looked there were sheets of ice in all directions.

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The next day, with good visibility and temperatures of about a degree and plenty of clouds in the sky, we continued along the Ice Cap edge, and saw a huge walrus who was kind enough to wait for us to approach before abandoning his resting place!

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We then decided due to the lack of available routes to continue East along the top of Svalbard, to head down into Woodfjorden. We came into the area known as Reinstrandodden, and were excited to see a pod of around 100 beluga whales. At this time of year they are very yellow, and that is because they need to exfoliate! Usually around July time, they will find somewhere that is fairly shallow, where a river empties out into a larger body of water, so that they can rub off their old skins, and return to their paler white colour. But for the time being, they are yellow!

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Our expedition staff were very excited by this sighting, as they are a rarer sight even than polar bears! Going by this revelation, we were getting pretty excited about our chances of seeing a bear! We followed them for a while, but as they continued to move away from us, we left them to their journey, and carried on further into the fjord.

Then Katharine, our expedition musician, shouted out that she had spotted a Polar Bear on the ice at Lemeroyane! Our first bear! It was our fourth day, and we’d seen a polar bear! It was a long way off, and in an area that was incredibly hard for our captain to maneuver the boat, so although we watched him for a while, it was pretty hard to see him.

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It was a very exciting time, but we decided to move on as the fog came right down, and it became increasingly hard to see the bear as he walked across the ice. We knew where he was, so could always return and scout the area again.

We continued down into the fjord, and came down to the Emmabreen glacier, where we spotted two polar bears – a mother and her young cub. It was very hard to be able to see if it was just a bear, or a bear and cub, but eventually through comparison of various photographs, we figure out there was indeed a cub present.

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So we were up to THREE bears, all on the same day! Next stop, was to head down to Vulkanhamna, where the ice was classified as 10/10 which basically is the thickest ice, and would need an ice breaker to move through it. Our boat was only “ice strengthened” which means we could get out of trouble, but couldn’t break through large quantities of pack ice.

We came to rest a short distance into the ice at Vulkanhamna, as there had been ANOTHER bear spotted! This time, it was a mother and her yearling, and she was hunting the seals who had pulled themselves out on the pack ice. We were all out on deck watching the hunt unfold, as the fog rolled down and it became almost impossible to make out the distant shapes of the mother and cub. Everyone was trying to watch either from the main deck, the top deck, or even from the dining room! But we couldn’t see anything!

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So, we all went to have some dinner, as although it looks daylight in the photo, it was about 8pm by now! Needless to say, after dinner, everyone was straight back out on deck to see whether we could see the bears, and to see whether they had been successful with their hunt. Sadly, they hadn’t managed to catch the seal (apparently the stats are that only about 1 in 20 hunts are successful). We watched them for a while, and then suddenly we noticed that the cub was obviously bored with waiting for the seal to appear, and had decided our boat was far more interesting. He was making his way slowly towards us.

We had been instructed about sightings like this. We had to remain calm, quiet and above all NOT make any sudden movements. We all watched, not daring to breathe, as he made his way across the ice, getting closer and closer. This was AMAZING. He just kept getting closer and closer, whilst we were all rather stunned! The expedition staff were going (silently) crazy as this was the best sighting most of them had had!

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As he got closer, his Mum followed him at a distance, happy that he should make his own way, but being close enough on hand to keep an eye on him!

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It wasn’t long before he was right up in front of the boat

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The view from the top deck was by this stage slightly obscured – so the photo below is courtesy of a fellow passenger Chris Westwood who was kind enough to share his photo of the trip with me!

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The yearling was so incredibly curious, when he couldn’t find a way up the front of the boat, he came around to the side to see if any of the port holes could offer a way in …

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His mum kept a close view of what he was up to

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She eventually decided he’d seen enough and  called him away …

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He went, although not overly willingly! She had to huff and puff a few times to get him to move away! And, his curiosity soon overwhelmed him again, and he came back again for a second look

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Then Mum called him away again, and this time was more successful at leading him a short distance away.

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There was a lovely moment where he sat down and looked back longingly at us. I wasn’t sure if he was thinking we were dinner, or just potential playmates!

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Then I took my favourite shot of the holiday – a wonderful moment of interaction between Mum and cub, where you can see their affection for each other, which will only really be present for another 6 months maximum before the cub heads off to lead his own independent life.

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As she led him away, it became clear just how much of a child this HUGE bear was – his behaviour was like any child who spots puddles … he just needed some wellington boots!

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Once he’d stopped playing in the puddles, he followed his mum who walked around the boat to investigate where we’d broken through the ice. The cub used it as an excuse to jump in and have a swim!

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Eventually, they walked off up the ice edge and disappeared into the wilderness. We all retired to the bar to celebrate our incredible experience and stayed up far later than was wise which I blame partially to the fact that even at 2am, it is bright daylight!

After that amazing experience, it was hard to imagine how the next day would top it. We had remained in the area overnight, and so we headed out to see Monacobreen up close in zodiacs, first passing the face of Emmabreen to see whether we could see the mother and cub from the previous day. Emmabreen was a particularly beautiful glacier, and the weather had cleared up considerably enabling us to see a lot more clearly compared to the day before.

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The water was calm and glassy, and Dr Tom was out scouting for bears!

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He found a lone bear on this area of ice – bringing our total sightings to SIX. However, the bear was a long way off – so even if I pointed out where on this ice he was, you’d be unlikely to see him!

We then headed south and cruised along the Monacobreen – a stunning glacier that looks in places like a castle.

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After getting up close and personal with some icebergs in the iceberg field in front of Monacobreen, it was time to move on, heading north up Woodfjorden.

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Looking backwards gave us a stunning view of Monacobreen as a whole … I love the falling sunlight on the right hand side …

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As we headed North, the expedition staff again became very excited, as there was a sighting of a blue whale! For those of you have have visited the Natural History Museum in London, you will be aware of the size (and rarity) of these mammals. And here was one swimming in front of us!

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Along side the blue whale was a fin whale, and some minke nearby too. What a collection of whales! And a great way to end another day in the Arctic!

Next day, the weather had taken a turn for the worse again and we had fog and snow to contend with! However, it didn’t stop us from cruising along between Hambirgbukta to Sjettebreen in the zodiacs. We passed more little auk colonies, and then found a small bay where 6 walrus had hauled out for a rest! There was also one in the water as well!

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After that, we headed back to the boat, and cruised along to Ny London, where we landed in pretty miserable conditions, but were able to walk around and stretch our legs, whilst hearing of the history of the place when it was a marble mining town.

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The next day was our penultimate day of exploring, and we headed further south to Ny Alesund in Kongsfjorden and had reasonable weather – a balmy 4 degrees! Ny Alesund is historically important as it was not only the location of Nobile’s airship attempt to fly over the pole, but it was also a coal mining settlement and still has polar research facilities.

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From Ny Alesund, we were able to send postcards from the “Most Northerly Post Office” in the world, and get a stamp in our passport!

After we left the town, we headed off to Regnardneset to go for a walk along the tundra, which again allowed us to stretch our legs, and attempt to find our shore legs after 7 days on a boat!

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The views were fantastic.

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As we headed off from this position, to start our return journey to Longyearbyen, it was clear that the ice situation was only getting worse, and we had a few issues exiting the fjord. Luckily for us, our captain was an Ice Master, and he really proved himself getting us out through the pack ice, even if it took him several hours to achieve that!

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That night, our last night on board, we again got caught out by the forever daylight and found ourselves in the bar way beyond 2am. However – you’d never know it!

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The next day it was an early start, and transfer over to dry land at Longyearbyen. Our trip was over, and we were all rather shell shocked that we had seen so much, and that the week had flown passed so quickly! It was an amazing adventure, one that changed regularly according to the weather and ice conditions. We saw so much, and the landscapes were so beautiful, and it’s definitely a place I’d recommend everyone to put on their wish list. If you want to see more photos, then there are more on flickr:

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Hope you have enjoyed this post.

Photos: Copyright Clare Forster

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Iceland in November

I have always wanted to see the Northern lights, so when a friend proposed a long weekend away in Iceland, I signed up straight away. We did some research, and ended up booking a 4 night trip that covered both Reykjavik and Akureyri in the North.

We arrived late into Reykjavik, and after a few hours sleep, headed off the next day for our internal flight up to Akureyri. On arrival, it was just beginning to get light – at 10am! There was plenty of snow on the ground, and by the time we had checked into the hotel it was light enough to have a walk around the town.

The winter light was stunning and I really enjoyed getting the camera out for a few photos.

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We started by going for a swim at the local baths – all naturally heated spring water! The main pool was a leisurely 27 degrees – but there were a couple of jacuzzi baths that were 35 and 42 degrees! It was amazing to be outside in the snow, sitting in a very hot pool of water! Reminded me of ski holidays where there has been a hot tub at the chalet! It certainly warmed us up for the rest of the day.

In the afternoon, we opted for a boat tour. They called it a whale watching tour, which seemed unusual as all the info I’d read up on before arriving said that whales went south to warmer waters in the winter. It was the tour company’s first Winter of running the trip, so we headed off to sail due North up the fjord. Image

We got dressed up in all in one warm suits, and headed out, breaking our way through some ice as we went.

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It wasn’t too long before we realised we were going to be very lucky – the Captain spotted some humpback whales further up the fjord. And there were about 8 spread out over about a mile of water. And before we knew it, we were along side them and watching them breach. Image

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It was amazing to be so close so these beautiful mammals. We stayed in the area for about 45 minutes. Before we knew it, it was time to head back to Akureyri. Image

When we got back, we had just enough time to grab some dinner, before we headed out in a coach with some other guests to go and visit a waterfall … in the dark … there’s a first time for everything! The idea had been to go Northern Light hunting, but as we drove onwards, it was clear we were heading into snowy weather and there would be no lights tonight!

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Next day, despite some severe weather warnings, we headed off to do some exploring. We revisited the waterfall – Godafoss – so named as the story goes that when Iceland converted to Christianity, their pagan god statues were thrown into the waterfall.

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We then went on to Dimmuborgir – the home of the Yule lads trolls. It’s a lovely place with amazing volcanic rocky areas. The idea is that they could be hiding in them – which at Christmas time, they do!

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After that we headed off to another local natural bath, so that everyone could soak their cares away!

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Then it was time to head back to our hotel. We had a bit of a tricky time getting back through the pass to Akureyri – but eventually we were back in the bar and enjoying getting warm by the fireside.

Next day it was already time to head back to Reykjavik, where we had a trip booked to drive out to the Gullfoss waterfall, and the geysirs.

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After that, we had a little time to rest, before our final adventure began – which had been due to be a boat trip to try and see the Northern Lights! However, following on from the snow storm in the North, the boating trip was cancelled, and instead we jumped into a mini bus and headed off to find the lights! The forecast was very poor, but ever optimistic, we kept our fingers crossed!

And we were rewarded.

We saw the lights. Not for long. But we saw them.

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But more about that another time …! I appear to have run out of space for now!

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Stranded in the snow

I love snow. Whenever I hear the forecaster announce we’ve got snow on the way, it brings to mind images of blue skies, pretty snow everywhere, and a great opportunity to get my camera out to try to capture next year’s Christmas Card photo. It puts me in the mind of ski holidays when I get to spend quality time with good friends, throwing myself down mountains with only two piece of wood under my feet! It’s a happy time when I think of snow.

But Tuesday night wasn’t a fun night thanks to the snow …! I had jokingly asked my boss the previous day what the procedures were if I got snowed in. I really didn’t expect we would – but it’s always best to be prepared. However, not expecting it to happen, I didn’t take the laptop home, or anything else I needed, as the snow wasn’t going to be THAT bad was it!!!That meant, when snow had indeed arrived on Tuesday morning, I had to venture into work in order to pick up the laptop and other things I needed if the snow got any worse.

So, I arrived at Reigate station on Tuesday morning, as the snow was falling, to be faced with a very busy platform, and virtually no indication of what was going on. The electronic board just said delays. Everything was delayed. No announcements came over the tannoy, there were no guards to be seen, and the ticket office man just said he was “waiting to be told”.  Some of us figured out that there was a broken down train between Redhill and Reigate when a Reading train was told it could go no further towards Gatwick, and had to reverse from Reigate back to Reading!

I decided to join that train, as it went via Dorking, and I knew from snow earlier this year that I could get up to London from there. However, no one could tell me if I could use my train ticket – or whether Dorking trains were running ok! But I figured it was worth the risk. Dorking were indeed letting people through the ticket barriers, and I got up to Clapham Junction, and over to Richmond a mere two and a half hours after I left home. Usually I take around 65 mins!

As the weather in Richmond was wet most of the day, I kept an eye on the Reigate weather. It was snowing hard by all accounts. I decided about 4pm to take an earlier train home – better to get home and wonder why you worried, than spend hours on the journey. Or so I thought.

I went from Richmond to Clapham with no issues at all. I felt a little foolish worrying, because the station wasn’t too busy and things seemed to be moving well. That was until I got to my platform. There were people about 8 deep on the platform, and at 16.50 the next train advertised to arrive at the platform should have passed through at 15.30 … oh dear! Delays were inevitable heading south – but delays of over an hour? A train arrived, not going anywhere near where I needed, so I let the crowds push around me in order to get onto the train. I was then about 3 deep from the front the platform. Progress I thought! And being in the midst of the crowd of people made me think about the penguins … the ones in the middle stayed nice and warm whilst the ones on the outside took the brunt of the bad weather. 3 deep was looking a good position to be in!

After being on the station for a further half hour, some people in front of me decided to call things quit. They’d been hoping to get to a business meeting, but had been waiting for over an hour, and finally decided they’d never make it in time – and even if they did – would they then make it back home. So, they moved out of the queue – and suddenly I was at the front! But that’s the cold position!! But, at least I was at the front IF another train ever arrived! I was there for about another half hour, before the next train arrived that was thankfully going in the right direction – it would stop at East Croydon, and then head down to Coulsdon South, Merstam and Redhill – then onto other stations to Three Bridges. Perfect I thought! Even if I had to walk from Redhill, I would at least get home fairly easily. By this stage I had left work about an hour and half ago!

Being that I take the train every day from Clapham, my front row position also coincided with where the doors opened … so I scuttled on and jumped into a seat. Horrah! I was on a train heading South and I had a seat! I was feeling smug!

As we set off, the train driver came over the tannoy. Victoria Train Control had told him he could only go as far as East Croydon – but as he wanted to get back to Brighton to his family, he was going to see how far we could get before giving up! We all cheered at our brave train driver for such dedication!! First stop East Croydon, all was well. We sat there for a while, then got the all clear to continue South. The driver announced that Coulsdon South, Merstam and Redhill were still all on the itinerary … so everyone settled down quite happily. We’d been travelling along for about 10 mins when  someone commented that we weren’t on the Coulsdon Line. What did she mean, everyone wanted to know. She said again, that we weren’t on the right line – we’d come onto a different line. We got increasingly anxious – nothing from the driver or guard, and no way to get in touch with them. We’d been going for at least 10 more mins before the guard came on the tannoy to apologise for having to skip the intended stations, but due to two broken down trains in the Redhill area, they’d had to move onto the fast line which didn’t stop at those stations. Suddenly my smugness at having a seat AND getting a train to Redhill evaporated. We hadn’t stopped. We’d kept going. Where were we headed?

The next stop was going to be Horley then Gatwick. I decided I’d stay on the train till Gatwick – after all, it’d be warm there if I had to wait for a train going north. So I settled back feeling less panicky. As we drew into Horley the driver again apologised for not stopping as intended and said we could change either at Horley or Gatwick for a train taking us back North. People were calling out saying there was a train now heading North … so along with about 150 others, I jumped out and ran across to the other platform. But, there were no trains. The boards were no use at all just saying all trains were delayed … there were no extra guards informing us what was going on, or when we could expect a north bound train. Everyone was getting onto their mobile phones, telling friends and family they were stuck in Horley. Thing was, my phone was nearly out of battery. And who could I call anyhow? I didn’t want anyone to come out in this weather as the driving conditions were getting very dangerous. By this time, I had left work 3 hours previously.

I stood on the platform, and got very scared. It was below freezing, there were no trains going in either direction, and I wasn’t sure how many hours it would take me to walk home even if I could figure out which direction home was. My phone was down to its last bar of battery, and I wasn’t really dressed for a couple of hours walking in the snow. What made it worse was that there weren’t people at the station able to help us – no one knew what was happening, and although I tried to hold on to the thought that I was there with probably 50 others (the rest appeared to have been quite happy with the Horley destination) I was still getting scared when thinking about how on earth I was going to get home.

I sent a text to my housemate, asking her to phone our cab company to find out how long till they had a car that could come and get me. In the meantime, I checked my phone, quickly looked on Facebook to see how others were fairing in their attempts to get home, and updated my status with “Stuck in Horley”. I know not everyone has a good view of facebook – but I tell you, I am glad I updated my status with such seemingly trivial information because within a few minutes, a great mate of mine phoned, and said he was getting into his car and coming to get me! I tried to dissuade him from coming out, as it was snowing hard again, and the roads were treacherous. But he was my hero, saying that you don’t leave people stranded, and he’d driven in the snow already that day, and would come out to get me.

I could have cried. In fact, thinking about it even now, I feel tears of relief well in my eyes … I hadn’t realised until that moment quite how scared I’d become. Within about 20 mins, he’d pulled up outside the station, and I was in a warm car, heading home. Apart from a couple of slippery patches (where he teased me for being a nervous passenger) we managed to slide to a stop outside my front door. I really did nearly cry! I’d been well and truly rescued … I don’t remember the last time I was unable to do something on my own … but here I was, having been rescued due to being a damsel in absolute distress.

I walked in my door about 4 hours after I left the office, and am still very thankful to both my mate (those who know me, know who you are) and his wife for letting him go out!!! I know I would do pretty much anything for my mates, but I’m not sure you’d get me driving in the snow! Then again, if a mate was in trouble, I’d probably would give it a go. But seriously mate. Thank you. I know you don’t think it’s any big deal. But thank you for rescuing a damsel in distress. Needless to say, I have been working from home since, and am unlikely to attempt the journey into work until it can be guaranteed that trains are running again!

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