By the time you read this, readers, I shall be far far away. Well, not that far. I’m just being dramatic. But a bit far. Like 100 miles – see? There – there! There I am! – crying in a layby on the edge of a road I thought was the A30 but was actually the A303. There I am again, needing a wee on the B391 and feeling too scared to go into the nearby hostelry. I am plunging into the southwest. We townies hugely look forward to leaving London sometimes, especially when the city’s residents are bent on smashing everything to smithereens. I love motoring, and am determined to make my trips to the southwest as pleasant as possible. I do them bi-annually and it almost always ends in – if not tears – then me staring quizzically at a elderly pig in a field, which my SatNav has directed me to, thinking : and this is my destination? It never quite works out. The map begins as my friend and ends as my nemesis. Illusions of stopping in a 16th century tea room for scones and cream on the way, or pulling in for a frothy pewter full of beer halfway down a swerving, sunny West Country B-road slip away, and suddenly the reality is this : we’re lost on a main road in Wiltshire in the fog and rain, we’ve argued about the route, fallen out, I’ve told my husband that if he knows everything about maps then he can walk back to London, and we are very out of sorts indeed. On arrival, we look like dogs who have been left out in the rain; unkempt, askew, wet, unloved, hungry.
Other members of my family do this routine journey without breaking a sweat, and look aghast at me when I say I got horribly lost, as if I was a simpleton. Which I probably am. It is true of the road and it is true of life – off the A roads, without my proper boundaries, wheeling through tumultuous country lanes and seeing nothing but green fields, I unravel. Perspective is lost, and you cannot live on your senses navigating in a car through complicated rural hamlets. You just cannot. It’s that terribly hollow feeling of absolutely, undoubtedly knowing you are utterly powerless and haven’t the tiniest idea of where you are. My thoughts, usually overwhelmingly sunny, turn melancholy. That thought process is in this order:
1. What what would happen if someone tried to kill me? No one would hear me scream, nor hear the scrape of Gap denim against wet mud when my body is pulled into its shallow grave. I doubt the elderly pig would be much use. How easy it would be to bury me here, where I would be dug up in 400 years when someone jabs into my make up bag whilst digging for gold, and exhibits me homo sapiens, West Hampsteadius in some appalling museum. I could die here, couldn’t I? I COULD DIE HERE.
2. Why is there no decent radio in the countryside? Must I listen to “kill-me-now” tragic music on Radio 3? I have spent the last 50 miles having conversations with myself and singing the entire score of “Annie” the Musical. Must I continue to do this?
3. Sixpenny Handley. Gussage St Michael. Ebbesborne Wake. Why do English villages sound like 18th century novels?
4. I could die here.
My destination (which I shall not tell you, lest you all turn up and mock my navigation skills) is in a valley where mobile phones are rendered powerless, where SatNavs go spastic and where GPS doesn’t work. It’s like a 1970s horror film. The elements rule, night falls, there are no lights and you dread breaking down. The deep orange lights of the nearby satellite town are like seeing an oasis in a desert. But if you end up there you’re going in totally the wrong direction. The Romans built roads ludicrously straight. The English didn’t really do this. The roads wiggle and bend, and steer and trudge and ripple, for no apparent reason. This is because the English are naturally perverted. Strangely, it is simple to leave this place, veer onto an A road and leap onto the M3 back to London. It is difficult to get into, but easy to get out.
On my worst attempt, it was four hours. On my last attempt, in the depths of winter, my car got a little agitated on single track, rural icy lanes. “Someone’s following us!” said Mr Bluebird, in the way that people not used to the countryside do, steadfast in the belief that the fear of being killed in the middle of nowhere is about to become hideous reality, as an estate car jiggled along on the road behind us flashing its lights.
“AAAAAARGH!!!” I shrieked, calmly. The skies seemed to close in and our wiggly lane seemed to get smaller.
I still pottered on, shoving my exhausted, ancient four wheel drive into second gear. It protested forthwith, and responded by sliding slowly, and most unhelpfully, into a hedge.
“‘What are you doing?” asked Mr Bluebird.
Trying to drive on ice, was the answer I ought to have given. “Trying to not be killed,” was the answer that came out. Still the car behind me is flashing it’s insolent little lights, its inhabitants probably laughing at how filthy our car was whilst preparing for murder and sharpening their axes. It’s going to end here. We’re going to be hacked to death by a Somerset madman. It has come to this. I thought of all that wasted life – the journeys untravelled, the books unread, that half chewed bar of Galaxy in the fridge that I would certainly have eaten had I realised I was going to die, and the embarrassment of being found dead – in 400 years – in mismatched undies. Like the degenerate townies we were, we froze in fear of impending horrible-ness. We slid, ungracefully, through a village called Butterbean Huddersfield (or similar) with our hearts hammering and the bile rising in our throats.
Sanctuary was offered by the miraculous recovery of one bar on my mobile phone reception. “Please help – we’re lost,” I blubbered to our hosts who – with the calm and a tone of voice that suggested “You’re not lost AGAIN,” read through the remainder of our journey ; through the village whose name sounds like a type of cheese, onward, not left at the fork, no, right at the next fork…..Within moments, it seemed, the house loomed out of nothingness into a welcome blaze of light, and warmth and strong tea. Once inside, of course, with the dark outer world seemingly a universe away, oh how we laughed about our 130 mile journey from London which ought to have been 110. How we guffawed when we reminded ourselves how futile and close to tears we had felt lodged in that fat layby 50 miles from anywhere an hour before. It was lovely to be deep in the countryside, once we had found it.
Before supper someone thrashed me at table tennis and I went to retire into a hot bath. Over dinner we eat hot lamb and drink some dessert wine my brother collected from a supermarket 30 miles away which tastes of vanilla cake. Exhausted, I flop onto the settee and adjust to the blacker-than-black skies, the sound of….well, nothing actually, and the dream of turning into a peaceful country bed. My brother maintains that I would have found the right house sooner, or later, after all, despite our screaming. Screaming? Yes, he said, unless it was just me singing again – he thought he heard shouts, when he was following us and flashing headlights at us from his car directly behind us, offering to help us to our destination.
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