Monday, September 27, 2010

Disconnected - Part II

Driving in Britain is always a crap shoot.

This is a country, after all, where one well-timed accident can make three quarters of the population late for dinner, and where a stiff breeze brings transportation to a standstill.  Consequently, Britons possess a skewed idea of how long it should take to get somewhere.  “Three Days” covers most trips within a hundred mile radius, while anything longer requires you to begin sometime last week.

Add to this their astounding reservoir of detail, and their willingness to share it, and you will understand why I never ask for directions.

If you do innocently let it slip that you are planning a trip to Ticklebottom, your companions are sure to give you detailed directions urging you to take the Bilgewater Bypass to East Periwinkle and turn left at the Slaughtered Duck toward Bobbin Upendown and other mysterious instructions that you will promptly forget.

Your best refuge, in these instances, is to nod knowingly as if you are thoroughly familiar with these locations because if you let on you’ve never heard of the Swingsan Roundabout, your guide will begin naming equally unfamiliar landmarks until you admit your ignorance or your ears start to bleed.  The safer alternative, therefore, is to feign understanding and hope there won’t be a quiz at the end.

They also possess an unnatural ability to recall where traffic tie-ups are likely to be, and offer various ways around them.  If you tell them you are leaving on Wednesday, for example, they will tell you about the big Wednesday Afternoon Car Boot Sale off the Chuckablock Turnpike that causes an eight mile tail-back from Tuesday evening until Thursday afternoon.

So I never tell anyone where I am going or give the faintest hint that I don’t already know how to get there, which, in this case, was a shame because they could have told me about the traffic jam at Stonehenge.

Now, I’ve driven past Stonehenge a number of times, so I should have remembered, but traffic jams, to me, are like birth pains: I hate them while I am stuck in the middle of them, but as soon as I am on my way again, the relief of revving up to 60 MPH makes the misery melt away as quickly as the memory of labor dissipates when the mother is presented with her new baby.

My decision to plot a route past Stonehenge was due to two factors: 1) we couldn’t check into the cottage until 3 o’clock, and 2) I am in the middle Sarum, Edward Rutherford’s fine book about the Salisbury Plains.  This was a great opportunity, I reasoned, to see the area I was reading about, and for a while it was.  The green and undulating landscape rolled by easily until I crested a rise some eight miles from Stonehenge, saw the solid line of brake lights and, like the forgetful mother, recalled the impending unpleasantness only when it was far too late to do anything about it.

The traffic jam outside of Stonehenge is nearly as old and immovable as Stonehenge itself but, ironically, has little to do with Stonehenge.  The causes are more due to A) Devon and Cornwall, B) people’s desire to be there, C) the A303 being a major artery to facilitate that migration and, D) the insanity of squeezing this surfeit of traffic from a four-lane divided highway into a two-lane road.

With all the opportunities the British have to practice merging, you’d think they would be better at it, but they continually manage to make a hash of it, causing traffic to back up for mile after mile because they can’t figure out how to smoothly converge from two lanes into one.  And so we sat, rolling forward inch by painful inch, watching as vehicles ahead of us arbitrarily switched from one lane to the other, driven by the desperate but misguided certainty that traffic was moving faster in whichever nearly stationary lane they were not in.

We put the time to good use.  We read War and Peace, did a 10,000 piece jigsaw puzzle and then watched Rocky movies until the battery on my laptop ran out.  Eventually, we caught sight of the vortex that spawned the jam.  It was a quarter mile—or about half an hour—in front of us, and not far beyond sat Stonehenge, looking like a scattering of small rocks nestled in the triangle formed by the A303 and the A360 bypass.  We admired it for, oh, about two minutes, then started reading Moby dick.

If I failed to be amazed by Stonehenge on my previous visits, I am doubly un-dumbfounded since reading Mr. Rutherford’s account (a guess, admittedly, but a scholarly guess) of how it was built.  Surely it was a massive undertaking, but the technology was not a mystery and the whole project could have been completed in ten years.  In my view, the most amazing thing about Stonehenge is that it is still there.  It was an ancient and useless ruin by the time the Romans landed and managed to survive only because people who found it in their way over the ensuing centuries couldn’t be arsed to do a thorough job of erasing it from the landscape.  Even as late as the 1940’s the British military was lobbying to have it removed because it was impeding their exercises.

Now, thankfully, the world has recognized that Stonehenge, by virtue of its age alone, is worth saving.  Unfortunately, while having been named a World Heritage Site might protect it from intentional destruction, it has not placed it in the most capable of hands.  Instead of treating it with the reverence it deserves, it is displayed like one of those 1950’s roadside attractions in America that promise the world’s largest ball of tinfoil or the Amazing Glowing Rock.  And like those attractions, every time you visit, the display seems just a little more tatty.  So if you do visit, expect to be underwhelmed.  And if you visit in ten years time, don’t be surprised to find it under a tarpaulin.

At length, we eased into an orderly, single-file line and the speedometer climbed into double-digits.  On the next rise, just beyond Stonehenge and less than a mile away, we could see the tail end of yet another traffic jam on the A303, caused by an overabundance of holiday makers and the junction with the A36 at Deptford, over thirteen miles away.

Happily, that had nothing to do with us.  We veered off onto the A360, sped past Stonehenge, the parking lot filled with tour buses, the lines of cars parked along the roadside where people had stopped to see Stonehenge without having to pay, and out into the Salisbury Plain.

And promptly became lost.


  1. This from the man who got lost coming up the A3 to meet me a couple of years ago!
    I have to laugh at Americans touring around the UK. They put a ruler on the map, calculate the distance then estimate it'll take them an hour or so. What they fail to account for (hence the "assistance" from the locals) is that a) the roads aren't usually straight (unless they're Roman), b)sometimes they're single lane, and c) often there are huge traffic delays at specific times of the day which you would do well to avoid.
    But no - bloody Americans just point the car in the general direction of their destination and then have the cheek to complain about the driving conditions in the UK!

  2. I hate to say this but I cant resist: if you had told me you were going past Stonehenge I woulda told you about the Great Stonehenge Traffic Jam. ;)

    Probably best that you didn't tell me.

    I hear there are plans for a bypass. Fingers crossed. About every three years I get stuck in that neck of the woods. Once, blindly stupid to the astrological omens (summer solstice), I drove past--no, I slowly edged my ford focus past, while stoned 'druids' overtook me on on foot in the inside lane that had been blocked for the purpose of crowd control. Now THAT was a traffic jam to tell the grandchildren about.

    Funny post! right on the money once again.

  3. MikeH, I don't quite understand how you can be so mystified about the average Brit's obsession with traffic jams - you know how the English just love to queue!

  4. I loved your agonizing tale of driving in England. I would be terrified to drive on the wrong side of the road. Watching re-runs of Two Fat Ladies and their motorcycle excursions
    is enough for me!