In which The Author is left in charge of the travel arrangements
A very long time ago (so long, in fact, that I can’t even remember what year it was), my friend Arwyn landed himself a job interview. He’d seen a newspaper advert for a company recruiting photographers to work on cruise ships, and Arwyn had sent his CV in. He was a keen amateur photographer, but had never undertaken that sort of work before.
This was the late 1980s or early 1990s, though. It was a good time to be young and confident. We were young and confident, and in those days we sent our CVs in to any job ads for which we were remotely qualified and/or experienced.
To his amazement, he was invited to meet the people involved at their headquarters in Esher in Surrey. He told us the good news when we met up for our regular weekend beer and nonsense session.
At the time, we were drinking in The National Wine Bar in Aberdare. There’s a whole host of stories to be told about that place. It was an old school building which had been converted into a bar-cum-nightclub-cum-pizza restaurant by an English chap named Brian W. (If you think young people go out binge-drinking now, you should have seen us twenty-odd years ago.) Brian had his fingers in lots of pies: he was involved in the buy-to-let housing market, and rented the ground floor of The National out as small retail units. Brian was a bit of a caricature of the London wide boy, and always had deals going on. It was quite hard to tell whether some of them were entirely legit. He was a nice guy and we got on well, but there was definitely a touch of the Delboy about him. He was a very 1980s character.
Anyway, Arywn told us about his job interview, and immediately started worrying about how he was going to get there. Arwyn knew that his own car probably wouldn’t make the journey, and wondered aloud where he could hire a car at fairly short notice.
I said, ‘We can hire a car from here!’, and went up to the bar. The bar manager (whose name I can’t remember. Let’s call him Mark, for the sake of argument) was serving a couple of customers. When he had time to chat, I asked him about hiring a car. He told us that we had a choice of a Ford Fiesta for fifteen quid, or a Ford Escort for twenty quid – for the whole day. We just had to pay for the petrol. It seemed like a cracking deal.
I took a fiver out of my wallet and said, ‘Okay, we need a car for Thursday morning. Here’s our deposit for the Escort.’
The rest of us decided that it would make a change from being stuck in Aberdare, and immediately volunteered to go with him, to share the driving and help find the place. The road trip was on.
I arrived at the National at our appointed time on the Thursday morning, but there was no sign of Arwyn. Wendy, who looked after the cash side of things, was in the office, and Mark arrived a couple of minutes later. Shortly afterwards, Ross arrived. There was still no sign of Arwyn and Gareth W., who were heading down from Hirwaun in Arwyn’s car. It was a good thing we’d left ourselves plenty of time.
We sat in the office for a while until the boys strolled in. In line with Arwyn’s prediction, his own car hadn’t even made it as the washery of Tower Colliery before breaking down. They’d had to catch a bus into Aberdare, leaving his car where it was. Gareth, who was to be our main driver, filled in the paperwork and we paid the balance of the hire fee. We were good to go.
Then we encountered the next problem.
If you’ve got a nice new suit, but wear only the trousers regularly, leaving the jacket in your wardrobe, repeated exposure to the elements and frequent washing mean that eventually the colours won’t quite match. That was exactly what had happened to Arwyn’s suit – the jacket was several shades darker than the trousers. Luckily, Ross was wearing his trenchcoat, which fitted Arwyn acceptably well. If he kept it on throughout the day, we figured that the mismatch wouldn’t be immediately obvious.
We left Aberdare and headed straight to Cwmdare to pick up Rob H. We’d calculated that there’d be room for five people, so we’d invited Rob to make up the numbers. However, when Ross knocked his front door, Rob’s father answered.
‘Rob must have forgotten about it. He’s still asleep,’ he said apologetically. ‘He’s dead to the world. I wouldn’t want to wake him now.’
So then there were four…
The drive along the M4 was uneventful, marred only by the fact that we’d forgotten to bring any music with us. Arwyn had a single tape – a weird indie-pop mix on one side, including Martha and the Muffins’ ‘Echo Beach’ and a Tom Waits LP on the other – which we listened to several times throughout the journey. I’d been left in charge of sorting out a route, so I was armed with an AA road atlas and the A-Z of Greater London (which covered the area as far out as Esher, fortunately.) As we made our way east, I kept switching to the local BBC radio stations, to make sure we wouldn’t be up against any unexpected detours. The other boys took turns driving, and we’d made excellent time when we arrived at the M25 intersection.
I’m not a driver, but I already knew that the M25 has a fearsome reputation as one of the most congested and accident-ridden roads in the UK. Even though we’d only be driving for a short stretch, the boys weren’t confident about approaching it. The four lanes of extremely heavy traffic were as intimidating as we’d expected; even so, it wasn’t until we came off the motorway that disaster almost struck. We miscalculated our speed on the approach to a roundabout, and nearly ended up being shunted side-on by a London bus. From then on, we were on our best behaviour.
We arrived in Esher and found a little car park near the address which Arwyn had been given. We parked up, wished him well, and then explored the high street for a while before hitting a pub. We all felt that we’d earned it. A quick pint and a bar snack restored everyone’s spirits, and we amused ourselves for a while by looking at the house prices in an estate agent’s window.
Arwyn joined us after his interview, and told us that the whole set-up had seemed rather odd. He said that the company was based in ‘a lock-up’, and that they had a few Apple computers. We pulled his leg for a while. I told him that it was possible to lease an Apple computer for a reasonable sum of money. Ross said it was probably a front for a drugs cartel, and that he should be very careful if they asked him to carry any packages through customs.
We decided not to hang around, as we wanted to try and get some distance between us and London before the evening rush-hour started. In addition, the boys weren’t keen on the idea of hitting the M25 again. I told them to leave it to me. We drove back onto the high street, and I pointed them in the direction of a blue ‘motorway’ sign.
‘It’s a short cut to the motorway,’ I assured them. ‘Just follow the road and we’ll be fine.
I think we’d been travelling for about half an hour or so before Gareth voiced his suspicions.
‘Shouldn’t we have seen Windsor Castle by now?’
I said casually, ‘No – its about twenty miles in that direction,’ and pointed more or less to the north-west.
To demonstrate how little attention the boys had paid on the way up (and so that we could take full advantage of having a reliable car!), I’d guided us onto the M3, not the M4. This is the main motorway from the outskirts of London to Southampton; we were heading miles out of our way. In fact, I think I’m right in saying that it was the one and only time I’ve been into the county of Hampshire. We stopped at a service station just before the A303 intersection, and then embarked into unknown territory again.
The A303 runs more or less diagonally across Salisbury Plain, with Stonehenge lying alongside it just outside the small town of Amesbury. As a special treat, I thought we could reward ourselves with a glimpse at Britain’s most famous prehistoric landmark before heading for home.
By now it was getting dark, and we were in the rush hour traffic. To make matters worse, we got confused at a roundabout outside Amesbury, and ended up at the site of the lesser-known Woodhenge. Until I found it marked on the map, I’d assumed that Woodhenge was nothing more than a haunting LP track (and b-side) by Mike Oldfield:
It’s an actual place, though – but without very much to see. In the gathering darkness and light rain, we were disappointed by the small concrete mushrooms which mark the positions of the original wooden structure. We found our way back to the A303, and soon saw Stonehenge in the gloomy distance. It was completely underwhelming, seen from the road in the semi-darkness. We couldn’t even pull over for a decent look at it. The visitors’ centre hadn’t been built in those days.
The drive across Salisbury Plain was fairly uneventful. However, we were highly amused by some triangular warning signs which we encountered on the war. We were all used to seeing the silhouette of a sheep on warning signs on the Brecon Beacons; on the M50 through the Forest of Dean I’d seen similar signs with a silhouette of a deer. On Salisbury Plain, ringed as it is with military bases and firing ranges, the warning signs featured the silhouette of a bloody tank! Indeed, from time to time there were huge tyre marks ground into the thin chalky soil, where heavy artillery had obviously been on manoeuvres recently.
[A digression: On a different road trip across Salisbury Plain, Pam and I spotted a policeman standing outside an isolated house beside the road. When we looked again, we saw that he was armed with a sub-machine gun. We could only guess that it was the holiday retreat of a high-ranking politician or military officer. Salisbury Plain is weird, to say the least…]
We joined the A4 and made good time into Bath, where we decided to break our journey and have another pint. I’d been to the city a number of times, so I found our way to a car park and we headed out in search of a decent watering hole. We stopped some youngsters, who were probably students on a night out, and asked them to recommend a good pub – ‘the sort of place where musicians and artists hang out.’ They pointed us in the direction of The Salamander, in the quaintly-named Quiet Street. It was an excellent call, as things turned out.
The Salamander seemed to be the sort of backstreet boozer which every reasonably-sized town (and certainly every city) had back in the day, before the plastic pub chains took over. The customers were bearded, dreadlocked, tie-dyed, denim- or leather-clad, and the place was pleasantly smokey. Considering that we’d all drunk regularly in The Carpenters in Aberdare, it was almost home from home. We bought our drinks and headed for a table in the corner, where there was a very nice ice bucket on the windowsill. I can’t remember who thought it would be a cool souvenir of our day trip, but I have vague memories of playing rugby with it once we’d left the pub.
On the way out of Bath my navigational skills let me down for the first time that day. There’s a really tricky junction on the A46 which should have led us straight back to the M4. Unfortunately, it was dark and I missed it. We were stuck on the A4 for the duration. I didn’t know my way around the back roads, so we had no choice but to follow the main road until we reached a point where we could turn around.
Unfortunately, it turned to be the centre of Bristol. I’d never been there in a car, so I was navigating on the fly. After driving around aimlessly around for a few minutes, we managed to find the start of the M32 and headed out of the city as quickly as we could.
The last stretch of the journey was fairly unexciting. We drove back into Wales and headed north, before realising that we still had some petrol left to burn. We didn’t want to return the hire car with any more than the bare minimum of juice (after all, we’d paid for it!) Thus it was that we headed straight up the A470 and stopped in Cefn-Coed-y-Cymmer, just north of Merthyr Tydfil. We bought some chips to round the day off, then drove on to the point where the road to Aberdare runs across the southern edge of the Brecon Beacons. I’m fairly sure that, for sheer mischief, we drove for a couple of miles with the lights switched off, which I wouldn’t recommend in a hurry (see Night Terrors.)
A couple of weeks later, Arwyn had to travel to Esher for a second interview; this time, I couldn’t make it, but I was able to give the boys a very comprehensive set of directions which got them there and back without a hitch. The upshot of the whole palaver was that Arwyn got the job, and spent several happy months onboard cruise ships in much warmer climes, before moving on to work for the UK Meteorological Office.
I’ve been meaning to tell you about this trip for a while, but I heard ‘Echo Beach’ a couple of days ago and it prompted me to recall it in detail; that record always reminds me of that day (for obvious reasons!) Nowadays, I’m fairly sure a hire car would cost a lot more. I was in Bath a few years ago and The Salamander had changed into a gastropub (albeit one with a fine selection of cask ales.) We probably wouldn’t have been able to steal an ice bucket without being caught on CCTV.
Of course, nowadays there’d be no need for an AA road atlas and an A-Z. I’d be well and truly surplus to requirements. Arwyn would just type the postcode of the company into Google and obtain a route within seconds. I still think my way was more fun,though.