I travelled from Oxford to Caen for free… Wait, what?!

On the weekend of 7th-8th February, my friend Julian and I took part in Oxford Jailbreak 2015, an event in which teams of 2 or 3 students have 36 hours in which to get as far away from Oxford as possible without spending any of their own money, in order to raise money for charity (Oxford Homeless Pathways, KEEN Oxford, 28 Too Many, and Against Malaria Foundation). In the process we busked in Oxford, got compared to Romanian gamblers in London, got a free ticket on the Eurostar by total coincidence, almost got free flights to Istanbul, got a whole ferry terminal to ourselves for the night, got free Portsmouth-Ouistreham return ferry tickets, got on a bus to Caen not knowing if we would be able to return, made friends with a very friendly music-loving man in Caen, and busked on the Château de Caen esplanade. Now if that doesn’t make you think I’m totally crazy I don’t know what will.

Our adventure started at 7:00am on Saturday morning. We left college and walked along the dark High Street to the Student Union where we picked up our insurance papers, t-shirts and GPS tracker, got outside, and then wondered, ‘Where on earth are we going to go?!’ The prospect of going anywhere in the world was overwhelming.

University College at 7:00am on Saturday morning

University College at 7:00am on Saturday morning

We first of all asked for free tickets at the bus station and the train station but were unsuccessful. So we turned to our back-up plan – busking! I busked (sang and played the ukulele) on Cornmarket Street while Julian explained our situation to passersby. After 45 minutes, we had raised £27 and so headed back to the bus station to buy two single tickets on the Oxford Tube to London.

Busking on Cornmarket Street

Busking on Cornmarket Street

When we arrived in London, we went to STA Travels across the road from Victoria Bus Station to enquire about free plane tickets. We were instead given a VERY long list of phone numbers of airline companies which we started to work our way through while walking in the direction of King’s Cross/St. Pancras. We gave up after the first few phone calls, and decided to prioritise getting to King’s Cross/St. Pancras as soon as possible.

So after passing Buckingham Palace and wishing that the Queen would come out and offer to sponsor us, we settled down busking in Green Park. After about 10 minutes, two police cars approached. I hesitated, wondering if I wasn’t allowed to be busking there, but they drove on past so I continued. They were arresting some people up the path. About 10 minutes later again, a man dressed in ordinary clothes approached me, flashed a police ID at me and asked whether I knew anything about the Romanian gamblers up the path. When I replied that I didn’t, he proceeded to inform me that we were committing two criminal offences: 1) playing a musical instrument in a royal park, and 2) interfering with the public by asking them for money. Unaware that we had been doing anything unlawful, we apologised profusely and moved on.

Busking in Green Park

Busking in Green Park

We used the money we had raised to get from Green Park to King’s Cross, from where we walked across the road to St. Pancras. Then one of the biggest coincidences of our whole trip occurred. When we walked into the booking office in St. Pancras, out came a woman desperately trying to get rid of a free ticket on the Eurostar which was leaving in an hour. We were shocked, amazed…words can’t express how happy we were. To be honest I think she was just as shocked when we told her why we were so happy that she was giving us a free ticket. But we only had one ticket and one hour in which to get hold of a second ticket. Unfortunately we were unsuccessful in this.

The lovely woman who gave us a free Eurostar ticket

The lovely woman who gave us a free Eurostar ticket

Our hopes dashed, we went back to King’s Cross where we got some much-needed sustenance and warmth and enquired about train tickets to Inverness, which turned out were going to cost £150. But then…

Julian’s uncle works in a company in Austria which has offices in Istanbul. After a few phone calls, it became apparent that the Chief Executive of the company was willing to fly us in his private jet from Istanbul to the Black Sea if we managed to get flights to Istanbul. Julian’s uncle and his colleague Stephan agreed to sponsor us these flights if we managed to find a reasonable quote. So using the money that we had left from busking, we took the underground back to Victoria, went back to STA Travels and spoke to the same sales assistant whom we’d spoken to that morning. Sadly the flights were too expensive and the flight times didn’t work for us (I had to be back in Oxford for an orchestra rehearsal at 10:30am on Monday, meaning that we would only be able to go as far as Istanbul and then have to turn back immediately).

One of the many hopeful phone calls

One of the many hopeful phone calls

Our hopes dashed for a second time, we decided to take a rest in Wetherspoons in Victoria Train Station for food, warmth, phone-charging and some time to think. We brainstormed tons of ideas, and then…

While Julian was on the phone to a friend who worked in a logistics company, I was browsing our Twitter timeline. Right at the top was a conversation in which Brittany Ferries had offered another Jailbreak team free tickets to France. Amazed, I hurriedly tweeted Brittany Ferries and received this tweet in reply:

Jailbreak_1

We were SO happy. Julian’s uncle and Stephan agreed to sponsor the £30 for the London-Portsmouth bus journey, and so finally we set off with a purpose, knowing that we were going to get out of the UK. To top it off, the amazing communications manager at Brittany Ferries with whom we were in contact on Twitter offered to put us up in the ferry terminal in Portsmouth, which is normally closed to the public until 6:00am. And on top of that, a lovely woman on the bus who had overheard our conversation offered us a lift from the bus stop to the ferry terminal, saving us a 20-minute walk in the cold and dark or £5 for a taxi.

About to board the bus to Portsmouth

About to board the bus to Portsmouth

On board the bus to Portsmouth

On board the bus to Portsmouth

After arriving at the ferry terminal and being met by the guard ‘Smudge’, we were treated to a very comfy night sleeping on Costa sofas. I never appreciated the comfiness of Costa sofas so much before. Even the fact that we were woken up at 5:30am by a group of French schoolchildren didn’t diminish this luxury.

We had the whole ferry terminal to ourselves

We had the whole ferry terminal to ourselves

Our bed for the night

Our bed for the night

And so…WE WERE ON OUR WAY TO FRANCE!!! When we got on the ferry, we gave ourselves a few hours to rest and work out what to do next. Our friend, Michael, agreed to donate £10 if we managed to meet up with his friend, Victor, who goes to university in Rennes, 2 hours’ drive south of Caen (which itself is 20 minutes’ drive south of Ouistreham, our destination). We asked drivers on a car-pooling website if they would give us a lift to Rennes for free, but our comments were removed by the moderators. Then we asked other passengers on the ferry if they would give us a lift to Rennes, or anywhere south of Ouistreham, but most of them either had a full car or were going in the wrong direction, and in the case of the lorry drivers their insurance wouldn’t cover us. One couple agreed to give us a lift south, although they couldn’t tell us exactly where until they checked their SatNav when the car deck opened. They offered to take us to Argentan, and so we agreed that if we didn’t find anyone else in the next 20 minutes who could take us to Rennes then we would meet them outside the ferry terminal and take up their offer.

Julian's dad agreed to donate £10 if we got a photo with the sub-captain

Julian’s dad agreed to donate £10 if we got a photo with the sub-captain

WE'RE IN FRANCE!!!

WE’RE IN FRANCE!!!

Sadly we didn’t find anyone to take us to Rennes, and when we got through the ferry terminal and stepped outside we didn’t find the couple who were going to Argentan either. Our hopes dashed yet again, we took the bus from Ouistreham to Caen, not knowing if we’d be able to return in time for our 23:00 ferry since this particular bus company didn’t run a return journey. But we decided to go for it anyway.

When we got to Caen, we found another bus company which would take us back to Ouistreham, although their latest bus left at 18:20, giving us only an hour and a half in which to leave Caen and return. So alas there was no time to go to Rennes. To look on the bright side, this gave us some time to look around Caen which was beautiful. We walked past about five stunning cathedrals and abbeys, walked up to the Château de Caen where I busked on the esplanade, and walked around the castle grounds. We met a lovely man who sang us a song about a ukulele, expressed his love for Oxford, philosophy, music and singing, and told us about his choir’s recent performance of Brahms’ Requiem – all in perfect English.

Here are a couple of videos of me busking in Caen:

Statue of Joan of Arc who was born in Caen

Statue of Joan of Arc who was born in Caen

One of the cathedrals in Caen

One of the cathedrals in Caen

On the Château de Caen esplanade

On the Château de Caen esplanade

Caen skyline

Caen skyline

In the castle grounds

In the castle grounds

Our new best friend

Our new best friend

Then it was time to turn back. We got the bus back to Ouistreham where we had to wait for a few hours in the ferry terminal, during which time we had something to eat (typical delicious and nutritious French vegetarian food, of course…), uploaded a couple of videos of me busking, and did some logic work (I think you can guess that this was Julian that did this, not me). When we were through passport control, we met another Jailbreak team from St. Peter’s college, Oli and Alex. They had had to pay for their return ferry trip and so didn’t have a cabin to sleep in, so we offered the remaining two beds in our cabin which they gladly accepted. Unfortunately I woke everyone up an hour too early since I forgot about the time difference…but thankfully no one was too annoyed with me!

Oh what a nutritious meal...

Oh what a nutritious meal…

Writing a string quartet on the ferry

Writing a string quartet on the ferry

When we arrived back in Portsmouth, we had two options to get back to Oxford: bus (this would cost £20 and the timings meant that I would miss the first hour of my orchestra rehearsal) or train (this would cost £90 and would enable me to be on time for my orchestra rehearsal). Amazingly the manager of my orchestra allowed me to be an hour late for rehearsal and get the bus, and so we got the 7:20am bus from Portsmouth, arriving in Oxford at 11:45am. Michael got the spare key to my room and met me at the bus station with my violin and music so that I could go straight to my orchestra rehearsal. When I got there, I was so tired and disorientated as to what had just happened to me that I promptly forgot how to count in 4/4. I was then so desperate to stay awake that I put myself through what turned out to be the unpleasant experience of my first mocha. Overall, Monday was a bad day for me.

On the bus back to Oxford with Oli and Alex

On the bus back to Oxford with Oli and Alex

Back in Oxford

Back in Oxford

But the exhaustion and the many ups and downs that we experienced during our trip were so worth it. An experience like Jailbreak teaches you to be more free, more sociable, more approachable, more appreciative, and ultimately happier. How I wish that I could experience it all over again.

There is still time to donate to the four charities via our fundraising page. We have raised £540 so far, but it would be amazing if we could reach £1000. So have a look at our page and consider donating, even if it is only £5. And check out our Twitter account @LesVernes – our adventure is documented there in 165 tweets. Thank you!

4 thoughts on “I travelled from Oxford to Caen for free… Wait, what?!

  1. Dear IslaI am not used to the blog site you use , this is meant to be a private message to you.I am at Tender Talents working with the choir and loving it. Florence wants me to say hi to you.I should love to meet some time soon and discuss this place.Unlike you I am not staying with Frank and Brenda, I’m too old for that at 47, am in a nice guest house at Mulago Hill.Weekends I go to sing at churches and am meeting dozens of folks here.Anyway, people here are pretty happy (I think) and also young Gaster rememberes you fondly as I know do many others.I will do a 5 week stint here this time and luckily will be able to return in June. I am even just, maybe, thinking of coming to live here for a year or so…but thats not certain by any means.Wishing you all the best, Matthew Vine ps I live in The Hague and my son is in Oxford so I am often in UK. Sent from my BlackBerry 10 smartphone on the EE network. From: Isla RatcliffSent: Tuesday, 17 February 2015 18:44To: matthewqvine@aol.comReply To: Isla RatcliffSubject: [New post] I travelled from Oxford to Caen for free… Wait, what?!

    a:hover { color: red; } a { text-decoration: none; color: #0088cc; } a.primaryactionlink:link, a.primaryactionlink:visited { background-color: #2585B2; color: #fff; } a.primaryactionlink:hover, a.primaryactionlink:active { background-color: #11729E !important; color: #fff !important; }

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    islaratcliff posted: “On the weekend of 7th-8th February, my friend Julian and I took part in Oxford Jailbreak 2015, an event in which teams of 2 or 3 students have 36 hours in which to get as far away from Oxford as possible without spending any of their own money, in order t”

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    • Hi Matthew,

      Thanks for your comment. I tried email you a reply but the email was bounced back. Anyway…

      Yes, I have been emailing Frank to organise my return visit to Tender Talents this summer and he mentioned that there was a teacher currently working at the school – this must be you! I’m glad that you’re having such a good time. I too loved my time there – hence why I hope to return.

      Ah, say hello back to Florence and all the other students from me. Tell them that I hope that they’re all very well, that they’re enjoying their studies, and that they’re making good progress in music.

      Ah great, is your son studying in Oxford?

      For easier communication, my email address is islaratcliff@gmail.com

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  2. Quite interesting Isla, May I put this up for our assembly tomorrow? I find it inspirational.Frank Frank Katoola KajengureDirector TENDER TALENTS MAGNET SCHOOL/ THEATRE P.O.BOX 26354 KAMPALA CEL. +256772420453Location: Kasangati Buyinja  9miles Gayaza Road Behind Kasangati Health Center

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