I’ve made the same trip to Inverness so often I could probably do it in my sleep. The same routes, the same bus and train connections, the same airline, the same sections on foot. And yet, given my love of the destination, it’s a journey I’ve been all too happy to keep repeating.
Up at 7.20 am, courtesy of the alarm on my phone. I dearly wish for another half-hour of sleep, and unwisely allow myself a few minutes of it. Springing out of bed in a panic at the tight window of time I’ve left myself, I wolf down a bowl of cereal while waiting for the water to heat up, then shower with barely enough time to get dried, hurriedly pack everything I need for the trip into my rucksack, and rush for the school bus two minutes around the corner from my house in Broughshane. Mercifully, I make it, and allow myself to relax a little as the bus heads for the Pentagon in Ballymena, where I get off and walk the remaining few minutes to the station, partly to kill time, partly for at least a little bit of exercise- something I get nowhere near enough of. A purchase of a newspaper in the Kiosk shop proves initially pointless, as I spend the majority of the train ride to Belfast asleep, having made that particular journey more than enough time since starting university in 2007 not to feel cheated of the scenery.
At Great Victoria Street, I unwisely spend a few minutes magazine-browsing in WHSmith, and just about make the bus over to George Best airport. One particular woman who’s often driving that shuttle must be one of the cheeriest employees Translink has, with a persona some of the drivers back home, often with faces like Lurgan spades, could learn a thing or two from.
The trip through the airport is the usual fare- over to the Flybe Kiosk to print a boarding pass, then straight through security, where it’s always 50/50 whether I’ll be frisked or not. Getting my belt back on is always the most irritating bit- somehow you feel like everyone else is watching as you do, even though they’re patently not. Up the stairs in the lounge, I’ve time for a bit of food and a browse-through of the paper, usually containing at least one story daft enough to make me glad to be leaving Northern Ireland for a few days- one example being a protracted dispute at a church in the greater Portadown area over the sermon style of a ‘too-modern’ vicar. Snore.
The flight is usually about half-full- Belfast-Inverness on a weekday perhaps never destined to be jam-packed. But that just makes it feel more like my own hidden gem, my secret refuge- the same peaceful retreat it was when I first started making the journey in 2013. That familiar feeling of affection only increases as the captain announces the final descent about 40 minutes in, and I glance out the window to see Inverness in miniature, temporarily disappearing from view as the plane heads onwards and down towards the airport eight miles out.
The flight arrival coincides well with the connecting bus into the city centre, and in no time at all I’m heading away from the tiny airport towards the retail park just outside the city centre, where my friend will be waiting for me to walk the rest of the way into town from his workplace. The bus gets closer and closer to the centre, and the familiar landmarks begin to slip into view- Raigmore Hospital, the Beauly Firth, breathtaking as ever, the bridge, and there, in the distance, Craig Phadrig, the hill walk I’ve done several times before. All of it brimming with happy memory, and hopefully, the promise of more to come. Nothing perhaps as iconic and grand as London or Edinburgh, or any of the more obvious UK tourist spots, but, for me, much more resonant and significant- it’s mine, an escape I found and made for myself, off the beaten track, home to a best friend and honorary family who’ve made me feel like it’s as much my home as theirs. Over the weekend, I’ll walk along the River Ness, hopefully catch a movie at Eden Court, enjoy the best hot chocolate I know at So Coco, maybe take the canal walk up to the Firth, savour the quiet beauty of the Crown area, just up and around from Stephens Brae, and probably rush in a panic for the airport bus at Falcon Square on Monday afternoon when it’s time to head home. And even though I will look forward to getting home, with Northern Ireland, Belfast, and indeed Broughshane still holding a lot of emotional significance for me, I’ll equally enjoy this home from home while I’m here- my idyllic escape from a busy world.