So a few afternoons ago we arrived in Nairn and, yes, we had to queue down the main street, braking and accelerating over yellow hatched boxes inbetween cones and traffic light changes like some four-wheeled version of Hopscotch. Goodness me if the guys trying to reinstate some tarmac didn’t cause us a good 4 minute delay! I would’ve been traumatized and overwrought – had I even noticed the inconvenience. But I was too sunk in stimulating conversation to pay attention to a few minutes of bottle-necked traffic.
I’ve lived in the Highlands for almost 28 years now. And you get used to the open space, the fresh air, the absence of crowds and the relative ease of car travel. There was a bit of a hold-up in Nairn that afternoon, sometimes Kenneth Street gets gridlocked at around 5.30 (especially if the Tartan Heart Festival at Belldrum is chucking out), and the Kessock roundabout is locally notorious for the unhelpful sequencing of it’s traffic light changes, but on the other hand you can look up your destination on a map (or the satnav) and work out that, even though there’s quite a distance to cover and the journey will take 2 hrs plus, it’s really just a case of head north and take a left half way. As long as there’s not 2 ft of snow, it can be extremely pleasurable to drive the Highlands.
A few weeks ago I boarded a plane for England with only a few specific activities to undertake in the Wolds and an optimistic assumption that, as I was about to travel 600 miles in just over an hour, and all my planned destination points down there were 45 miles or less away from one another, a total 48 hr turnaround for the trip ought to work out just fine.
I’d forgotten some things. I’d forgotten that the weather at the moment is exceptionally good in England and that makes the population want to get out and about. I’d forgotten that parking in country towns could be a problem at ‘peak times’ even when I’d lived there 28 years ago. I’d forgotten that nose-to-tail traffic on every road you travel is the norm. I’d forgotten that there’s a very practical reason, related to anticipated traffic density, for motorways to have 3 lanes. I’d also forgotten how long I’d been in voluntary exile in the Far North. Over 28 years it had all become so much more congested.
So at Bristol Airport I pick up the worst Hire Car I’ve ever driven. Think it was a Renault – only tried to remember the make so that I could avoid it FOREVER. Feels like the gearbox has been lubricated with sand, and the brakes don’t actually deploy until they’re pressed fully to the floor and electrocuted with my terror. There’s an odd rear-view vampire mirror that sucks the colour out of everything reflected in it and, although it’s a very small, under-powered, bottom-of-the-range vehicle, it’s as easy to park as a Volvo estate with no wing mirrors. Ensconsed in my ill-behaved, clunky, visibility-constrained Baked Bean tin on wheels, I also have the English Roads to contend with.
Google tries to be clever and, magically knowing (well I don’t know how it does it, do you?) that the major routes will be traffic-clogged beyond all human comprehension, it tries relentlessly to direct me down single track roads. Now Google, here’s the thing about English single-track roads – everybody uses them. And not only that, they’re the short-cuts all the Locals are very, very familiar with. So familiar that they choose to drive them at a steady 40 mph, blind bends, high hedgerows and all. Me then, in the Renault Trashcart, never getting above 15 mph because every time I notice the Cow Parsely on the opposite verge start to shiver ominously I have to slam on the anchors, I mean fully depress the brake pedal and hold it there till my knee wobbles with the exertion, whilst simultaneously crushing myself into a hedgerow in the face of on-coming, risk-oblivious traffic.
M5 is not better. The Renault Turdmaster seems to reach terminal velocity at around 70 mph. A deep vibration develops threatening the kind of in-transit break-up only witnessed in satellites forced to re-enter the earth’s atmosphere without sufficient preparation. All 3 lanes carry nose-to-tail traffic, slowing down and speeding up according to how many times and in what order the vehicles some miles ahead applied their brakes 10 minutes ago. I pass the same wagon full of sheep 3 times, in 2 different directions.
My airbnb is in one of the older streets of a busy country town. I think it might have been the Owner’s garage once, which is fine I suppose, but it’s also very close to the neighbour’s boundary and the neighbours have 2 overheated 11yr olds and only 1 bike. The argument goes on and on, sometimes there’s screaming, I think they came to blows at one point, and my head is throbbing so hard I seriously consider leaning over the wall and asking if they’d let me buy them a 2nd bike.
And I stop even trying to find places to eat out. They’re just all too hectic for someone used to northern calm, and I’m not up to parking my 4-wheeled companion-in-motoring-hell in a 1.5m long parking space which may or may not accommodate us without some superficial but nonetheless expensive bodywork scuffing. Supermarket car parks become my refuge, each with their own perfectly unintelligible rules and restrictions, all of which I ignore.
Having survived the experience, on the plane home I succumb to an unexpected upsurge of sympathy for the 53 million inhabitants of England who have to put up with living, or more specifically, travelling regularly in these conditions. Since I had spent at least 36 of my 48 hrs down south painfully stressed and mostly unable to give my mind to anything beyond my chances of survival during the next 10 minutes, I began to wonder whether the current political climate may have less to do with xenophobia and more to do with claustrophobia. Living up here, on the threshold of some very wild places, I take the mental health and wellbeing benefits of open green space, traffic-free countryside and access to wilderness very much for granted and see positive moves toward things like electric cars, emissions reduction, a switch to green energy as something to be undertaken in a measured way. We will test and see and deploy when ready.
England though. 53 million people and 37.5 million vehicles on the roads. In January to March 2017 959,000 new vehicles were registered in Great Britain – the highest figure ever recorded. https://www.gov.uk/government/statistics/vehicle-licensing-statistics-january-to-march-2017
I wonder if England doesn’t urgently need some kind of green revolution before cars, roads and claustrophobia cause the kind of human meltdown that has nothing to do with hot asphalt and rising temperatures?