As I had every morning that week, I was awake at 5am on Sunday, 23rd June. Before we left the house, I would need to pack and make sure everything was organised for the packers on Thursday. We made time for a last, hurried breakfast at the Sandfiddler Cafe with my brother and sister-in-law, but otherwise, it was all work—and maybe one or two points of shouting at the kids because I was too frazzled to accept anything but instant comprehension and compliance.
Their father came over shortly after 10am to pick up the cats. They had seen our suitcases, so they knew something was up but they were expecting us to leave and were most perturbed when we put them in the car. It's a 3-4 hour drive to DC from our place, and we didn't want to add that time in a carrier, so we put them loose in the car with some food/water and a disposable litter tray in the footwells. I'd been trying to take them in my car semi-regularly to get them accustomed to traveling that way, but this was a different car and a different person. They weren't buying it.
When their dad tried to get in the car, Meg made a run for it, jumping out of the car and then leading us around the bushes before slipping back through them and into the garage—luckily my daughter caught her there, and we popped her back in through the car window. Reportedly, they behaved pretty well through the whole trip, but they never used the litter tray... it was worth a try!
With the cats gone, The Move had officially begun. My daughter and I hugged each other there in the garage as we started crying. Two hours later, my brother was driving us to the airport.
I've never had such a hard time leaving a house. We loaded the car, and I went back upstairs for a final check, but what I was really doing was taking a last blurry look at the view: our lake, our trees, our birds, our sky... When our plane took off, it was over the Botanical Gardens, where the children and I had so often picnicked while watching planes coming and going, and over our inlet, where we could strain to see our house... and then Norfolk was behind us.
The good part of being en route was that I no longer had to worry about what else I should be doing. This was either going to work or it wasn't. Even the children were upbeat now that the day of reckoning had arrived; they were focusing on the prospect of British chocolate being readily available and beans on toast being an anytime meal instead of a gourmet dinner.
We landed to the notification that the cats had been checked in safely, although there had been some logistical difficulties when the carriers had to be scanned in without the cats but once scanned could not be taken out to the car to bring the cats into the building. Their dad had had to carry them in from the car, fearing an escape attempt the entire way.
I spared a thought for the cats somewhere out there as the children and I found a pizza place and picnicked on the floor of the airport before boarding our second flight. This also went smoothly, though my son had a minor migraine and spend the first few hours struggling with the artificial light until they finally turned it off for us to sleep. Thankfully, he didn't throw up.
My biggest concern for the entire trip was figuring out how to get the five of us (cats and humans) from Heathrow Airport to Cornwall.
- I wrote off driving myself fairly quickly as I'm a mess on UK roads at the best of times.
- I had looked at taxis down to Cornwall, but was worried about finding somebody who would take pets—not to mention we weren't sure when the cats would be ready to go which made booking difficult.
- The train posed more problems as we would still need a taxi to and from Heathrow Animal Reception Centre, and then going from Heathrow to Exeter (not in Cornwall, but close enough for my parents to pick us up from) would require two changes. We had two suitcases, three carry-ons and the cats in their carriers. We couldn't handle all that through a station.
Enter Charlotte. I'd known her in my first year of University, and we'd met for dinner last year. She lived half an hour from Heathrow, so I had reached out to her asking if she could help me at all. She immediately arranged for her husband to send her children off to school that morning and promised us herself and her people-carrier for the day, along with a picnic. Over the course of several excited Facebook messages, we decided that she would transport us from Heathrow to HARC to get the cats to Reading Station where we could get a direct train to Exeter.
It's always a pleasure to be see a friendly face at the airport, and Charlotte with her boundless enthusiasm proved to be the perfect person to take us in charge. She had even brought a thermos of tea with her! We first tracked down the HARC to check when the cats would be ready—no easy feat, as Google Maps proved to be very ambiguous with its lane preferences in navigating Heathrow. We got there shortly after 8am, and were told that the cats would take about 4 hours. The good news was that they had passed their pre-check on the second submission so everything was in order. Also, they had survived the trip, which I had been secretly nervous about, my son had been secretly nervous about and my parents had been secretly nervous about.
I'd eaten the plane's breakfast, but the children hadn't been hungry that early, and now they were pushing for food. I needed to buy a railcard so that I could get cheap tickets, so we drove to Hayes' station and stopped in at a greasy spoon cafe for sausage, egg, beans, and a decent cuppa. Not a pancake or waffle in sight.
While this was a fantastic return to British-ness, the cafe was a very low-budget one and lacked a toilet. So did Hayes station, which was more of a ticket desk and platforms. After acquiring a railcard and making sure I actually had train tickets on my phone, we attempted but failed to find a shop where I could get a phone plan. By this time, two cups of tea had worked their way through my system and I was in pretty desperate need of a loo, but we couldn't find a public one and I didn't recall seeing one at Heathrow Animal Reception Centre either. (As it turns out, there's one in a neighbouring building.)
Just as we were giving up on Hayes and heading back to HARC anyway, we spotted a Lidl. Chain stores for the win! I bought the kids a couple of comics, and we made good use of their facilities before returning to HARC. It was about 11am now and I was hopeful the cats might come out early.
While we were out, I received an email from the UK government informing me that my Transfer of Residence had been approved and granting me the number I'd been needing. This was awkward timing as the cats' paperwork had long since been submitted, but I asked a member of staff at HARC if it was too late to add in the number. She looked a little blank: "I've never been asked that before!"
After some consultation with other members of staff, they told me to notify Virgin Shipping, which was handily on speed dial in the waiting room. They said there was still time, so they took the number and I avoided having to pay an unknown amount of VAT on two cats with no official monetary value.
(In case anybody's wondering how much it costs to ship pets across the Atlantic, I paid $2,439.80 for their plane travel. That doesn't include the $50 apiece for their airline approved carriers nor the $38 to endorse their health certificate. It's just as well they're the only part of the move we have to pay for.)
We were assured that the cats were next in line, so we settled in, crossing our fingers that we would be able to catch the 12:30 train but confident that we would at least get the 1:30 one. Here, Charlotte really came through for us. She had brought games so we learned how to play Dobble and Rush Hour while snacking on our picnic: we had been promised sandwiches; what she actually brought was an insulated bag of sandwiches, crisps, fruit, pork pies, biscuits, brioche, chocolate, juice cartons and a bottle of prosecco. It was fantastic.
|Party at the HARC!|
Some years back, the HARC had been the subject of a reality / documentary series called Animal Airport and episodes of that were playing the waiting room, which allowed us to see what would be happening to the cats behind the scenes: I was reassured to see that they would be in their own enclosures with food, water and a litter tray. The children were fascinated by the show itself. They never got bored in that waiting room... they had a TV, games, food—and when they did get rambunctious, Charlotte took them outside for a run around the building.
However, as 12:15 came and went, I started getting anxious about the delay. Finally a woman came out with a piece of paper for me to sign, assuring me that once I had done that, the cats would be brought out. Fifteen minutes later, she came out with another piece of paper and the same assurance. It was now past 1:30, we had watched numerous other people being reunited with their pets, and every time the door opened we gazed at it hopefully... but our cats were nowhere to be seen.
I don't know whether there was some delay or if HARC just aren't reliable when it comes to assessing times, but eventually our cats did indeed get brought out. To my relief, Meg looked quite perky and wasn't growling at all. Trog, however, was trembling in his cage. The man who brought them told us that Meg had only come out of her carrier right at the end to eat, but she hadn't used the litter tray. Trog hadn't come out at all.
Unfortunately for the cats, I didn't want to get them out of their carriers until we were done with the train journey, so they had another few hours of confinement ahead of them. We loaded them in my friend's car—luckily, it had a high roof and the carriers fit nicely on top of our suitcases, and we set off for Reading station, 45 minutes away.
Our ETA was 2:23. The last train I could use my ticket on was at 2:30. We tried to make it, but we knew ahead of time this was unlikely and discussed alternatives. Sure enough, Reading is not an easy station to navigate with luggage nor were the guards interested in assisting us. By the time we found a trolley and stacked the cat carriers on it, we had already missed the train. Charlotte waited with the cats, posing glamorously, while I went to the office to upgrade our tickets to slightly-less-off-peak.
The next direct train was at 3:30, so I notified my parents and we settled in on the platform for an hour's wait. We were all exhausted by this point, and I was definitely feeling the frustration of just wanting the journey to be over—thank heavens for Charlotte, who stayed cheerfully upbeat for us all.
|Looking for platform 9 3/4|
When the train arrived, we made for the back, but the mildly horrified train manager caught up with us, enquiring if we'd paid for excess baggage and if we'd notified the guards that we had this much with us. Paying excess baggage had never even crossed my mind (oops!) but the guards had most certainly been aware of our luggage issues and they weren't present, so we cheerfully pinned the blame on them.
Looking severely put upon, the manager patiently escorted us to the rearmost vestibule and let us load our various belongings, though he almost shut the door on Charlotte before we managed to explain that she wasn't traveling. We all hugged her goodbye: she'd more than earned that!
Once the train was moving, my son discovered that the luggage racks at the opposite end of the carriage were all but empty, so we awkwardly transferred all our things through the carriage, apologising to the passengers as we lurched past them. We took shifts in standing there with the cats, since Meg got cranky every time we walked off (it didn't seem to make much difference to the wide-eyed Trog).
The train got delayed, so the journey took twenty-four minutes longer than predicted, but I didn't really mind. The main concern had been getting us onto it in the first place. The children were a little concerned that we wouldn't be able to all get off again in the time we had on the station, but I felt confident we could manage that. I had told my father exactly which door we would be coming out of, and sure enough, he was waiting there as I more or less threw cases outside followed by the cats. (Though I did allow passengers with connections to disembark first. We're not barbarians!)
At the car, we took out the litter tray from my daughter's carry on, along with a bag of litter (this had got dusted for drugs at airport security, but the guard never batted an eye when we explained what it was). Trog was put in the back with the kids; Meg went in the front, while my father and I disassembled their carriers, as they wouldn't fit in the car otherwise. Neither cat was wildly happy, but as we set off, they settled down. Trog used the litter tray at length (I had brought one in memory of how, thirteen years earlier, he had peed on the floormat of the rental car following our flight to the States,) while Meg settled on my lap and purred and purred.
The last hurdle was for us to wait in the car while Dad greeted his dog and took him into the back garden before we sneaked the cats upstairs.
Then that was that. We're Cornwall-resident, though The Move won't be properly concluded until our things get shipped over and we're in a house of our own. Next update: Cats vs. Dog.