Portsmouth, England (AFP) April 22, 2010
Britons left stranded by the ash cloud voiced their thanks and relief after a warship came to their rescue and brought them back home.
The 280 civilians who hitched a lift on HMS Albion could wake up Thursday and reflect on a trying week that for many turned into the experience of a lifetime.
"When we came off the ship, my son and daughter said to me, 'do you know what -- that was so good, I'd like to go back and do that all again'," said Liam Cotter, 51, an insolvency practitioner from Wetherby in northern England.
Cotter and his family were among those brought back from Santander in northern Spain alongside 450 troops returning from a six-month tour in Afghanistan.
The troops and travellers arrived in Portsmouth on the southern English coast late Wednesday after a 36-hour crossing. Spain had acted as an air hub for flights unable to enter British airspace due to the volcanic ash cloud.
Dossing down on a warship with troops fresh from the frontline might not be everyone's idea of a great holiday, but the British civilians sent ashore with a packed lunch tucked under their arms said they had had a jolly good time.
"The navy could not have done more for us," said Sarah Widgery, who had been on holiday in Spain with her husband and their four daughters when the Icelandic volcano erupted.
"They took all the worries away after six days of nightmare in Madrid -- it was just what we needed because the stress levels were so high.
"And they gave up their beds for us, that's the most incredible thing. They all slept on the floor down below and we got the bunks."
At least 150,000 Britons were stranded by the Thursday-to-Tuesday lockdown caused by the volcano and fears that the ash could wreck jet engines.
Prime Minister Gordon Brown -- whose party is trailing in opinion polls ahead of the May 6 general election -- put the Royal Navy at the ready to rescue stranded travellers.
Philip Carlin, from Manchester in northern England, had been stuck in Istanbul but caught a flight to Barcelona.
"We were on the quayside at Santander, we thought we'd never get on," the priest told AFP.
"But the captain was so willing to accommodate us and he didn't want to leave anyone behind.
"It gave us some understanding of what the troops have been through. They've obviously been working really hard in far more difficult conditions than we've been in."
Janis and William Brown, from Aberdeen in northeast Scotland, said there was great camaraderie on board.
"We've made so many friends from all over the country," said Janis, a 58-year-old optical consultant.
"It's nice to be back on British soil.
"It's an experience we could never have paid for, absolutely amazing and you feel really humble being with the troops."
Among those on board was Stanley Johnson, the father of London Mayor Boris Johnson, returning home from a reporting assignment in the Galapagos Islands.
"We've had a most wonderful time. I thought the navy did an absolutely superb job," he said.
"And who was the beneficiary of all this? Some stragglers, some stranded British people like my wife and myself, who have made our way to Santander and piggybacked on the Albion."
The military personnel on board included members of RAF 9 Squadron, 33 Medical Regiment, the Royal Anglian Regiment and battle group support staff.
"It was very entertaining," said Cotter's 11-year-old daughter Faith, who was given a signed camouflage floppy hat by one of the troops.
"I thought being a child I would get quite bored but it was just a really friendly atmosphere, everyone was really kind."
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