Every so often, I have flashbacks to long journeys. They were mostly adventures, finding new places in the spirit of the old explorers. It was a happy car with music and badinage flying between its expectant occupants. But there is one journey I only ever did alone; it was the daily commute. Big deal, you may say but two and a half years of happy motoring between Tunbridge Wells and Walworth became an epic in its own right.
Before I moved I had assumed leaving at seven o’clock would suffice; giving me enough time to prepare for the school day. Well I left at seven and arrived at eight fifty. All was going well until the Blackheath turn off from the A2.
I’d been in traffic snarl-ups before but there was something different about this. It was ominous. It was sending countless doom-laden messages. The sense of permanence was all-pervading. It was permanent because the sad endless queue of smoking vehicles had no discernible sense of motion. It was permanent because I had chosen to flee the great city and was now strapped to my steering wheel for a considerable part of every working day. And it was permanent because of my commitment.
I was working at a fantastic multi-ethnic school on a huge estate. It was feeding so many of my working class principles. I wanted to make my mark on the place. I needed to be there a while.That morning, I walked into school with the air of a zombie.
Some thinking was needed. Firstly my departure time was to be five thirty. Doable? Only time would tell.
As far as the logistics of the inbound journey were concerned it worked. I was knocking up the caretaker at six twenty. I had two and a half hours before the school day started. At that time of the morning Tunbridge Wells was a ghost town. I looked at the other motorists; shift workers. There were nurses in Fiats, men in old Fords and Nissans and a small army of pick-ups. In each pick-up would be three or four smoking men crammed into the cab. In the back was a confusion of mixers and spades plus the inevitable broom, slotted upside down in the frame. It was the flag of the tar men.
Somewhere on the main road out I would espy a little group of street cleaners. The same mad haired brush laden skivvy would be standing, leaning on his broom, teetering on the edge of the kerbside altar. With fag hanging he’d be perusing the contents of said altar before diving in with his grabber to relieve the bin of its stinking contents. I had a secret admiration for this invisible force. Nobody saw them turn up in all weathers to ply their filthy trade. And people would still complain about the mess on the road.
Now we all know the M25 is never not busy. But at this time, my little section between junctions five and three was less busy. So was the A20. On my right, the speed merchants and the pick-ups would go flying by whilst I chugged away in my little diesel, ears pinned to the traffic news, thinking of the day ahead.
Off the A20 I’d go through Leigh Green followed by that great manor of twentieth century architectural majesty we know as Lewisham.
Then finally, the final hurdle was Peckham. Is there life in Peckham? Well yes, if you consider life to be living in one of the countless blocks and sleepily driving like a complete arsehole to your job as a manual worker in a nearby borough.
So much for the journey in. It was so much better in the summer when it would be endless daylight. Mind you, in any light, New Cross is not pretty.
The return journey was more complicated. Having consulted with colleagues, I decided on a comprehensive use of the “back doubles”. This would be a more involved route avoiding the main clogged up arteries. Due to bridges under and over railways the was always the possibility of bottle-necks but that was the gamble.
I developed a genuine hatred for Brockley Cross and Ladywell with their nasty pernicious mini roundabouts.
There were also railway crossings. It was like sailing upstream into a delta; sooner or later many waters converged into one. The best way I could describe Brockley is Peckham without the class.
After these two potential black spots the route was almost interesting. After crossing the glorious high street of Lewisham, I would climb up through Hither Green before finally bursting onto the real road to hell. I don’t regard the M25 as the road to hell. The perpetrator of that song had obviously never driven on the South Circular.
The South Circular was a confusion of lanes and motorists turning right to utilise their own private back double. The big roundabout and the world of leather meant it was back to the A20, M25 and A21. Plain sailing? Well there was a sting in the tail; Tunbridge Wells.
Away from the loneliness of the early morning commuter, the grand entrance via Southborough was a nightmare in its own right. It still is today. One cold December night, after a huge delay in Lewisham; I was going that way to avoid road works, I was coming to the Tunbridge Wells turn off to find the traffic stacked right up.
It had taken me just under three hours to meet this wall of angry cars. During that day, not one but two sets of traffic control had been installed on the A26. It was another forty five minutes before I opened my front door. The writing was on the wall. I had to make a big step towards sanity.
Later on in the summer term, I’d woken at a frighteningly early time on a Sunday morning. No problem; I’ll go and get some newspapers. But the lovely Mr Patel on St Johns Road informed me that “the van” hadn’t arrived. Undeterred I remounted my steed and headed north. I found the van on the northern edge of Tonbridge and duly purchased my Sundays.
I commuted for one more year. My final journey home felt like a victory parade. It was a long parade but the sense of permanence was finally broken. Every morning at my new local school, I would start the day with tea and toast. I felt like royalty.
Thank-you for reading.