It turns out that the dash down to Peterborough to get a new passport wasn't all that stressful at all. I'd spent much of Friday worrying about whether I had all the relevant bits and pieces. I couldn't imagine anything worse than driving down to Peterborough and being turned away without my passport. I discovered to my horror that in the photos I was planning to use, the ones I had taken for my Glastonbury pre-registration thing the other day, I was wearing a hoodie. I ummed and ahhed for a bit, and then had some more taken. It wasn't just that I was worried that they would reject the photos because the hood was partially obscuring my neck or something... did I really want that as the photo that will follow me around for the next ten years? Probably not.... Also to be on the safe side, I got that upstanding pillar of the local community, Lord Bargain, to witness that it was indeed me in the photos. You only have to do this if you have significantly changed from the photo in your current passport... but I've lost a lot of weight and a fair bit of hair in the last ten years, so I thought it was probably better to be safe than sorry.
My appointment was at ten and I arrived early enough to scout out the Passport Agency and to head back into the market to buy a paper and to have a breakfast baguette and an expresso from the greasy spoon. It was delicious too - all greasy and smothered in brown sauce. I gobbled it down and headed over to the big glass-fronted building over the road from the market. As you might expect, there are quite a lot of quietly desperate looking people hanging around at the Passport Office on a Saturday morning. The first thing that you have to do is to join the queue to be processed by reception, where they check that you have an appointment and they make sure that your passport photos are of the required standard. The guy just in front of me walked up to the desk and handed over four pictures of his kid. The receptionist put them into some sort of "ready reckoner" type affair and looked back up at the guy:
"The eyes aren't in the band"
"What do you mean?"
"I can't accept these photos as the child is sitting too low and the eyes aren't in the middle of the picture. You'll need to get some more photos done."
"But I've driven down from Burton"
"Have you not brought your child with you?"
"No, I brought the photos. Are they definitely not good enough?"
"No. We can't accept them. Were you wanting the passport today?"
"Yes. We're leaving tomorrow."
"If you want the passport today, it needs to be processed before 11am."
Burton is at least an hour away from Peterborough. There was no way this guy was going to be able to do it, and he walked away a defeated man to see if he could work miracles with his phone. Before you feel too sorry for him though, apparently the reason he was in Peterborough today was that he had tried to get the passport done at the London office on Friday and had been rejected because his photos weren't right. Nothing like learning from your mistakes, eh?
Ten minutes later, I had been processed and was just queuing up at the cashier's desk to pay. There were two guys just in front of me and we were on the home straight now. The first guy turns back and says to us:
"Until I have that thing in my hand, I'm not going to believe that everything has worked out"
I smiled, but the other guy shrugged. "You've done the difficult bit. The only way I won't be walking out of here with my passport is if a bomb goes off or something".
At this point he was called up to the cashier and he swaggered over to the counter.
"Can I pay by cheque?"
"Yes. Have you got your cheque guarantee card?"
"Do I need it.....?"
It's not really a happy place, and the air is permeated by the faintest smell of desperation. Mind you, it turns out that the other bloke in the cashier's queue was there for the same reason as me - his passport expires in less than six months and he's travelling on Thursday. I told him that I had found myself in the same boat.
"Oh yes? Are you going anywhere nice?"
"Oh really? My wife is from Ecuador!"
We then had a quick conversation about what a lovely country it is and how I really needed to do this and to do that and to eat this and to drink that.... small world, eh? (he was also from Nottingham).
I had been completely processed by 10:15 and set out into the town to kill the four hours before my passport was ready to be picked up. I wandered around browsing camping shops and looking at rucksacks and gaiters and the like, as well as discovering that the local MINI garage had a display model in the shopping centre that I killed 15 minutes having a little play around in before wandering up to have a look at the cathedral. I don't really know why, but I'd never really thought of Peterborough as being the kind of town to have a cathedral at all. Well, they do, and it's a really nice one.
It can date its foundation back as far as 655 AD, is probably the finest Norman cathedral in Britain and can boast things as splendid as a painted wooden ceiling in the nave that dates back to 1230, a thirteenth century west front that has been described as "The most magnificent portico in Europe" and also houses the tomb of Catherine of Aragon and the original resting place of Mary Queen of Scots.
It was quietly and modestly very impressive indeed, and I was reminded all over again how calming I find monumental architecture like this (Nottingham has none). I was in the cathedral when I received the call to go and pick up my passport. I actually stayed on for another 15 minutes just enjoying my surroundings before heading off to collect my passport.
When I picked up my new passport, I saw it had this symbol on the front
It's a biometric passport - it has a little RFID chip in it, and as I discovered from the little machine you can have a play with in the Passport Agency, when it is scanned, it calls up my photo and details from some kind of central database. I understand that when I pass through the USA on my way to Ecuador in March, I will have my fingerprints taken and my retina scanned. I can only assume that this information will probably be added to my database entry, and *pop*, there go my civil liberties.
I don't remember being asked about this.
Anyway. At least I had my passport. I got back to the car, let out a big sigh of relief and started the engine. As I looked into the rearview mirror before reversing, I noticed that my face was covered in odd blotches. I had a closer look.
Ah. Dried brown sauce.
I'm so smooth.