Sunday, March 30, 2008

My Great Britannic Adventure, Day One

Friday, 17 March, 1989
From Oxford to Little Chesterford, Essex
Day One

Well, my great Britannic adventure did not get off to such a brilliant start. But maybe today saw the obligatory bit of things going awry and henceforth things will settle down. I survived today, at least-- I hope.

Actually, I started out rather well. I was surprisingly on-schedule, especially for me, and by 2 PM I had presented myself at the Europcar rental agency by the Texas store (I think they sell housewares and do-it-yourself supplies; odd name for an English chain, isn’t it?) on the Botley road to pick up my car.

First hitch-- Whoever took my reservation Tuesday had neglected to enter it, and no car was waiting. Easily solved: another was available.

Second problem, but much bigger-- the credit authorization people refused to take my Commerce Visa and my Centerre card has expired. This is not nice at all, for the immediate purposes and for general implications. . . .

[I spend some time and ink cogitating on what might have gone wrong, especially given that a relative in the States was keeping my accounts and paying my Visa bills]

. . . But all this was abstract at the moment, with me standing there at the car hire office, a room booked in Cambridgeshire (or is this Essex?) for the night and me legally liable for that, and my officially having given notice I was vacating the room at Coverdale* Hall today. Not nice.

The way it was finally solved was for me to take the bus back into town and get the amount in cash, £200 or so of which I’ll get back presuming I don’t do anything untoward to the car.

So by 4:15, two hours behind schedule, I had the vehicle. Headed back to Coverdale*, loaded up the waiting bags, called the people I’d reserved with to say I’d be late, and headed up the Banbury Road and over to Marston Ferry and on east.

Here is something interesting: driving on the lefthand side was no problem at all for me, and I hope things continue that way. True, I tend to be a little afraid of getting too close to oncoming traffic (or do I fear that if I drive too far to the right I’ll forget and revert to American habits?), meaning I overcorrect and was plowing the verge a time or two. Thank God I did discover that by trespassing on a curb here and some grass there, and not by sideswiping either a parked car or a passing cyclist.

The real problem is the road signage and the car itself. What they gave me was an Austin-Rover Maestro, but it ain’t no master-- of anything. Or maybe with its name it has Italian ideas of how things mechanical should run (I take that back-- Fiats and Ferraris are reputed to be excellent automobiles). Maybe a better way to describe it is that the whole car seems constipated. The trunk lock sticks, the gear shift is horribly stiff, the bright lights switch won’t stay on, and the cassette deck has swallowed one of my tapes and refuses to give it up.

The shift is the worst. It’s obnoxiously difficult to shift into first or second, with the result that I am continually and unintentionally starting from a dead stop in third or turning corners in fourth. This is rotten on the gears but so far I can’t do anything about it. That car is driving me crazy and I’m checking with the Cambridge Europcar branch to see if I can get a replacement (I want an Escort, dammit!!). At least I’ll need them to make the player surrender my Berlioz tape.

As for signage, well. A little of it is me not being used to it and also trying to navigate at night. But when you go 130± miles on what’s supposed to be a 75 mile trip . . .

I got sidetracked on the A40 when the sign for the A418 and Aylesbury came up too suddenly for me to make the turn; I got off the A40 and was on the road that goes by Little Milton before I could turn around and make my way by an alternate route to Aylesbury.

Then I missed the connection with the A4012 at Leighton Buzzard and ended up down some road, finally turning around in a farmyard past a church.

Then I made it to Woburn (pity I wasn’t there in daylight to see the Abbey) but it took me five or six passes and all sorts of edifying nocturnal side-trips to Woburn Sands, Aspley, Guise, and once a jaunt parallel to the M1 nearly all the way to Milton Keynes before I finally found the turnoff where the A4012 continues. (It was at a very nondescript, ill-lighted corner and the signs from both directions weren’t turned so car headlights could hit them). I think I took that turn mostly because I’d tried everything else. Heaven knows the sign message wasn’t visible.

Then I got a little screwed up at Clophill, but turned round at a pub before I’d progressed too far towards Bedford.

But I pulled another brilliant navigational feat at Baldock, where I forgot which town I was aiming for when I got onto the A505 at the roundabout and ended up all the way to Luton, to the southwest, instead of passing north of Royston, to the northeast.

Once I’d got that corrected, I was all right the rest of the way. And East Anglian roads are fairly straight, more like I-70 or something, and for the first time I could comfortably do the legal 60 mph. 50 down to 45 mph, up to then.

I can see that one must memorize the towns you’re likely to encounter, because that’s the only way you’ll know you’re on the right road. Besides signs that give you no warning to turn in time and ones that are badly placed, the biggest problem is lack of road numbers along the route. If you miss the number sign at the roundabout or junction, you’re out of luck till the next roundabout or junction. Similarly, you don’t see signs saying "Milton Keynes 5 mi." outside town limits, nor are the highways called out as "A507 East" or whatever’s appropriate. It’s a shame, because the landscape’s so pretty it’s rotten to not be able to enjoy it because you’re afraid of missing an all-important, unique, and perhaps badly-located sign.

At any rate, I didn’t arrive in Little Chesterford till 10 PM. The proprietors of the B&B, Mr. and Mrs. Lewis Payne, had gone out but their 16 year old daughter Vickie was home to let me in and show me the room.

It is cute-- under the eaves of a thatched house, with the timber wallplate visible about a foot and a half above the floor. The house is thatched, but I couldn’t see that well in the dark.

There was tea making apparatus in the room; I had two cups, more for the warmth and comfort than because I need any such drink that late at night.

The weather at the moment is clear and starry, most unlike the foul rain we had yesterday. The sunset sky in Oxfordshire was beautiful-- too bad no place I had to turn around could give me a good camera shot at it!


Sandy said...

What an adventure!

St. Blogwen said...

Too bad we didn't have Garmins and Tom-Toms back then!