St Peter’s Church
St Peter’s Church
St Peter’s Church
St Peter’s Church
Johannesburg - We all tend to think “big city lights and shops” when we have some hours to kick our heels at a major airport. But when I had an eight-hour stopover at Heathrow between flights recently, a chance of fresh air and exercise seemed a better option.

Besides, it was cheaper than forking out pounds in a high street glamour shop. Even an ailing pound has a conversion rate to make South Africans wince.

Our flight landed at 6.30am. An hour later I was on board a bus - there are regular departures from Heathrow. A return ticket to Staines-on-Thames cost £5.25 (R90). As the name indicates, Staines is laid out on the banks of the famous river.

History has it that it was at Staines that the English barons assembled before meeting King John at Runnymede in 1215 and the signing of the Magna Carta. In 1535, Sir Thomas More, who caused King Henry many sleepless nights by refusing to accept attempts to have his wife, Catherine of Aragon, set aside so that he could marry Anne Boleyn, was tried in the town of Staines.

Because More’s trial would draw crowds, and plague, to London, an obscure venue was chosen.

The town is hardly on “must-see” visitors’ lists, but was pleasantly surprising.

We arrived in a little over 40 minutes. It was early spring and only a man with a coffee cart was doing business. Fortified by a cup to kick-start the day, I enquired the way to the river.

“Walk down this road, love, and if you keep walking you’ll fall into the river,” said he. Five minutes later I found myself on the banks of England’s most famous waterway.

The homes of the rich, with lawns sweeping to the water where most had boats tied, were mostly on the opposite bank. On the side where I walked, the homes seemed to be inhabited by people a little lower on the social rung. Even then, they probably cost a pretty penny.

Some people were out running or walking along the paved footpath bordering the river. They were not nearly as friendly as South Africans tend to be when out on a jog. Instead of cheery greetings, I was pointedly ignored. But the walk was rewarding enough.

At St Peter’s Church, English stuffiness was banished. Warm, welcoming spirits were much more in attendance. A church créche was on the go and young mothers, full of smiles and cheery greetings for all, restored my faith in those who live in small English towns.

English rivers will always be synonymous with swans and these regal birds were indeed sailing imperiously on the water.

Given enough time, a visitor can walk for kilometres. But, wanting to see more of the town, I headed back to the main street in the area around the ubiquitous English marketplace. Shops and barrows were now in full swing, providing the convivial atmosphere not found in the city’s big stores.

Then potential disaster struck when, unbeknown to me, I dropped my passport after being required to show it in a bank. I am not usually so careless, but swathes of clothing made it cumbersome returning things to my money belt. When I realised it was gone, I panicked. How would I get out of England? What about my next flight and boat trip?

Fortunately, a kind person approached, passport in hand, having seen it fall. I felt guilty about earlier thoughts of uncharitable folk.

Not only is such a jaunt refreshing, but the scenery on the route was delightful. The bus passed fields of brilliant green grass, where sheep, still in their winter coats, grazed, plump ponies trotted importantly and daffodils nodded in the breeze.

On my return to the airport, I was ready to face another long flight.

Saturday Star