As the crow flies it was a hundred and forty-four miles from our village in Staffordshire to Sydenham in London. Nothing these days. Jump into the car and zoom up the Motorway, with perhaps only a stop for a coffee or pee at the Rank Services to break the journey. Sitting in an air conditioned car with satellite navigation systems, radios, play stations and all the paraphernalia we take for granted to smooth our way. Three hours maximum, perhaps another half hour accounting for the rush hour.
But how different fifty-five years ago when I was a young ten-year-old. Twelve hours minimum along the A5 with more than the occasional stop to replenish father at various hostelries en route, not to mention the breakdowns. Journeys in old cars, long before MOT’s were heard of, in austere times when Motorways were a far away dream and potholed roads, ravaged by wartime use were not high on the list of repair priorities by Government departments.
Mother, father, various dogs and yours truly made this journey at least three times a year to visit grandparents. Christmas, Easter and school holidays were the agreed times, and now in hindsight all the journeys were horrific, or wonderful according to how you remember them. For a start, the cars were nearly always pre 1930 and none of them costs more than fifteen quid. None of them had heaters and most of them had hoods which were torn or held together with sticky tape or coat hanger wire. None of them was capable of more than forty-five mph and that was downhill, with a following wind. Brakes were a hit and miss affair, almost literally and head lights were as dim as a nun’s nightie. Street lights were the same… if there were any. White lines with cat’s eyes suddenly seemed to veer off into muddy ditches or fields and road signs pointed the way to intended destinations via bridle paths and farm tracks.
However we didn’t know any better, it was a way of life, it was normal and so were the drink and drive laws. Father wouldn’t contemplate such a monumental expedition to the Metropolis without a monumental amount of alcohol to steady the nerve. Anyway, he always drove better after a couple or six. And he was a Barrister!
So picture a typical scene. The day before Christmas Eve and Mum and I are all packed and ready for father to come back in the car he has been testing after a day spent underneath putting in new main engine bearings. It’s now early afternoon and father disappeared at eleven. We both know that he’s at the Bull, fortifying himself for the journey ahead, but more than that, being a crafty devil, the journey, his journey is planned according to pub opening and closing times, and there are lots of watering holes along the A5. We stare out of the window; we always stare out of this same window at these times, we’ve done it for years. Any thought about phoning the pub was as alien, in those days, as drinking and driving are today.
Eventually, we hear the car, it’s now about three in the afternoon, and father pulls up outside. He gets out, gives a front tyre a perfunctory kick and opens the bonnet. This is all show; we know that. He thinks we will think he’s been having more trouble with the engine and has spent the last two hours fixing it. We say nothing.
Eventually, we were ensconced in the car, me on mother’s lap, the dog under the dashboard. Three flasks of sweet tea and Marmite sandwiches catered for our hunger pangs and hot water bottles provided the heat, as did various blankets and at least four layers of clothing. The hood was kept down as father thought that the various draughts induced by the exceptional speed he could now induce out of the finely tuned engine would give us lumbago.
By five to six we had got as far as the outskirts of Coventry and father stopped for replenishment at a pub. He said he needed the Gents, which he probably did and he disappeared with alacrity together with our hot water bottles and flasks, into the warm, welcoming bar, leaving us to shiver by the light of a solitary street lamp. The customary Vimto and sweet sherry were brought out to us, together with the newly replenished hot water bottles and flasks.
By seven thirty we were on our way again, by nine we got as far as a nice little pub near Fenny Stratford we had to stop because the engine was overheating! The fact that it is minus five degrees outside, where we are and the engine water temperature gauge registered little more than slightly warm had nothing to do with it. The same pattern follows… sweet sherry for mum and a bottle of Vimto for me, plus the necessary filling up of hot water bottles and flasks. The dog poked his nose out of the door, shivered and declined the invitation to perform against the pub wall. By nine o’ clock father in all his wisdom and swaying gently managed to sprain his wrist whilst cranking the starting handle, a not uncommon occurrence and sometimes used as a ploy to go back into the pub for medicinal purposes. This time, however, he managed to kick the engine into some sort of life by jumping up and down on the handle. Mum and I made the right noises praising his heroic endeavours and huddled together.
We made about another thirty miles before father heard a distinct knocking in the engine and decided we had to stop to investigate. Luckily a pub car park was on hand and father decided he had better go inside to phone grandfather and tell him we may be a little late as the car had developed a distinct big end rattle. The phone call took a good thirty minutes which uncannily coincided with kicking out time. The sprained wrist somehow managed to coax the engine into action and we were off again. Try as we could mother and I, who were very tuned into engine sounds, could hear no discernable rattle, but there again we didn’t expect to.
By the time we reached the outskirts of London, the car had developed a nasty habit of jumping out of gear. Mother was elected to hold it in. Along the Victoria Embankment, we heard Big Ben strike twelve and the clutch started to slip. As we edged past the Oval at a sedate fifteen miles per hour the exhaust fell off and took the brake wires with it, rendering us unstoppable. This state of affairs was not uncommon and we took it in our stride; our stride being stopped when necessary by double declutching into first and allowing the engine to stop us…after a while.
In those days, there was not the traffic that there is today, the police seemed to want to help rather than hinder and when the lights went out as the battery gave a last gasp, we carried on regardless, unworried about prosecutions and all that stuff until at last we reached my grandparents. They, as always, stayed up in case we required a tow but rarely was this necessary, and especially not by grandfather who had an old Austin seven which was more un-roadworthy than our car, to say nothing of grandfather who was himself about as un-roadworthy as a headless chicken trying to cross the road.
Whilst father usually spent the next few days, when pub opening times allowed, repairing the car ready for the journey home, mother and I recuperated from severe frostbite The journey home was just as exhilarating but we usually went the Oxford route on the way home. At least it meant a different view of pub car park walls for mother and me.