The road chronicles.
Long journeys take a long time. Even at a rip roaring six hundred miles per hour, flying takes time. And when on a fast bicycle with a fit and able rider (yes, I was that rider), getting from Birkenhead to Chester took its time. Coming from Wallasey and living in East Sussex, I am an experienced victim of the corresponding car journey. I can give a succinct but emotional description of trip up north: A21; hated yet loved; M25 poor overworked sausage, it’s just as well I feel sorry for you. I’ve come to know you well from a static point of view. M1; the old sage. M6; always the bridesmaid to the M1. Works hard. Abused in the West Midlands. M56; intitial joy turns to resentment of its secret little handshake with the M53. M53; small town bully. The Dock Road; iconic yet ironic.
Hint; it’s best not to dwell too much on these assertions as one may be prone to spontaneous human self-inflicted road rage.
Can you imagine lines of stationery driver piling out of their cars outside the RAC control centre on the M6 to vent their anger on the poor suffering asphalt? Branches and sticks would be grabbed from the hard shoulder to beat the rutted surface below their feet. Someone could create a west end show based on the concept. Title? “Dried Up River Dance”?
There are some long car journeys in particular which stand out. One took me from Spain to England. It was in the Summer of 1994. The second half of the last term of school had been hot. I spent between one and a half hours and two hours every week day getting home from work. Through the streets of South East London, I’d crawl among the other hapless commuters. I had my little points of reference. The most volatile was Ladywell. Some days I would sail through.
But when I saw the cars stacked up before I could see that poxy little roundabout, my heart would sink. The heat just made things worse; I couldn’t afford air conditioning. In short it was a nightmare. This meant that driving my car on an empty road was a pleasure. To be able to open up and trundle along without having to stop at every cough and sneeze brought a smile to my face.
I liked my car; a five year old diesel Fiesta. I liked to drive it. So when the Summer holidays came along, I’d arranged to meet friends in Malaga and then La Linea (By Gibraltar.) It was one of those blow-out holidays. We’d all worked hard and needed to relax. There were long sunny afternoons languishing by the tent sipping cool Spanish lager before strolling down to the bars and restaurants of Torreleminos.
We moved further south ending up in Tariffa. At the end of our holiday we sat in the morning sun on the pavement cafe outside the bus stop to Malaga.
I left everyone waiting for the bus to the airport to the smug banter of those who were anticipating a smooth journey home. They were going to get home before me of course. There I was, gurgling off in my little diesel wondering how long it would take me. Well I had enough time to think. So I thought: “Well their flights are about two AM, two and a half hours, leaving Gatwick at about six and getting back to London two or three hours later.” yes, they will be home before me.” Then I thought again. “Their flight over was delayed. Was it industrial action by French air traffic controllers?” Well the motivation was there. Just as I looked left to see the inviting blue sea beyond the vibrant colours that made up Cadiz, I knew I could do it. The foot went down; it was going to be a none stop one thousand four hundred and sixty-six miles of motoring. Deep breaths. The journey across Spain, going diagonally towards San Sebastian was long and dull. The landscape was barren.
The road was superb; beautifully maintained and empty. There were long climbs and sweeping descents through dusty sterile plains. I was making good time. In the early evening, I stopped to fill up with fuel and food. On the radio was the early part of the Woodstock reunion festival. I had no cassette player so it was a reasonable source of music. It was only a brief stop for a typical garage sandwich. They are the same all over the world. It was dull like my surroundings.
On one climb I glanced in the mirror to see a scampering mass of black smoke. I assumed it was a passing smelly old HGV. I was wrong. It was me. Going through Almeria over two weeks previous by trusty little warrior had passed the hundred thousand mark. It was showing its age.
Then coming down from one peak I cantered round a sweeping bend to see a crashed MPV; one of the original Toyota Space Wagons. It was on its side, wounded like a dying colossus while three or four of its passengers sat stunned around it, silently thinking through the last rites for their old faithful. In an instant lives had been ruined. It’s that quick. The emergency services were there. There was no need for me to stop and gesture sympathetically.
At midnight I crossed into France. I was unshaven and a little dishevelled. My car looked a mess. I had the back seat down to accommodate all my friends’ tents and equipment.
Coutumes françaises pleines de pénis
A French customs man addressed me with a mixture of boredom, arrogance and contempt. Your average middle aged French official does not like stubble. The hatchback was opened and the sniffer dog stuck its nose into every nook and cranny. It seemed very keen on the rucksack I’d used for food. The handler’s eyes lit up. But he was disappointed.
“Pour manger?” he asked pointing to the bag. There was no way I was going to say “Ouis.” I looked confused. I shrugged my shoulders. They left and I was off. France awaited.
The motorways of France are expensive and empty. I went into some sort of concentrated zone of driving concentration. There was nothing to see. Previously that year I’d read about modern day highway men in France forcing tourists off the road and robbing them blind. This thought helped keep me awake and alert.
It was only when dawn was breaking near Paris did I feel the need for a power nap. I parked up in a service station and snoozled away. It was an hour before I shook myself into some sort of conscious state and carried on. I was thirty-eight years old. Despite being diagnosed with MS earlier in the year, I still had boundless energy.
As I was thinking about the delights of the Parisian peripherique, a little old Renault ahead of me clipped a roadworks sign and bounced through several somersaults in front of me. I pulled over behind this inverted old gem of French economy and ergonomics. Fortunately two other cars were already in attendance. A shocked terrified arm-flapping mademoiselle wriggled through the front window. I nipped out onto the road to drag the sign back to the hard shoulder. That was my job done. The poor girl was white. Did she actually say “Ooh la la”?
At eight-thirty on a Sunday morning the peripherique was wild; not a place for the half asleep.
But I was wide awake. I had the eyes of a child on Christmas eve. The thought of getting home was too exciting.
Once I was past Paris it was the final two hundred mile dash to Calais. It was a race track. No more peages. No more speeding fines. Five miles outside Calais, some arrogant French car was flashing at me to move over. The car was flash and ostentatious. “So what?” I stood at the quayside looking across to Blighty.
It was eleven thirty. The warm sun flashed a warming glow across the Channel. I breathed in the fresh ozone sea air.
Speeding along the M20, the car that was flashing me by Calais was dithering. I flashed him and flashed him and flashed him and….well it had been a long journey.
The rest was straightforward; apart from that double decker holding me up on the road from Maidstone to Tonbridge. But I was back in The Huntsman at Eridge by half-past two.
There was a cool pint of King and Barnes Festive Ale in front of me. After three weeks of cold continental lager it was nectar. Later that afternoon I spoke to all the answerphones of my friends. They weren’t back. At two o”clock on the Monday afternoon, I awoke to find a symphony of abuse on my own answerphone.
I still got back before them.
Thank-you for reading.