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Wednesday, 14 September 2011

CoLJ 15 - A Day's Driving Not to be Forgotten!

We, Natalie and I, left The Conifers, our final holiday cottage on this trip, on Saturday 3rd September for the drive through Southern England, France and Spain, in our trusty 2007 Hyundai Getz, and arrived home, in Orihuela Costa, on Monday 5th September. The second and third days driving went without any problems and on schedule, cruising the motorways south through Europe. The same cannot be said for day one, which was predominantly in England, with a little section in Northern France to get from the Channel Tunnel to the south western suburbs of Paris.

Our aim was to get to our hotel for the first night at 20:00 hrs. including stopping 30 minutes for morning coffee, 60 minutes for lunch, 35 minutes through the tunnel, and a further 30 for afternoon tea. A stress free day was the plan.

It all started to go wrong after just an hour into our driving when we were delayed for a half an hour near Stamford in Lincolnshire by the multitude of vehicles clogging the A1, trying to enter the Burghley Horse Trials. The drivers didn't seem to understand the instruction “For Burghley keep in left-hand lane”.Once past this problem the traffic began to flow freely; that is until ten minutes later when we reached the beginning of the A1M section near Peterborough.

The motorway section was completely closed in both directions. Having taken 20 minutes to exit the slip road, as directed by the diversion signs, there was a distinct lack of any more assistance from the highways authority as to which way to go to continue south towards the A14 and M11, our route for the morning. It seemed to be a case of 'we've got you off the motorway – now you are on your own'. At first SatNavratilova was of no use either as she kept insisting on directing us towards the closed A1M. Out came the historical road map from the boot of the car, below the suitcases of course, a diversion route was determined, and we proceeded for some considerable amount of time along countryside A and B roads until we rejoined our initial route. Having put up with SatNavratilova telling me she was “recalculating” for some 15 minutes she eventually agreed with my old fashioned planned route and decided to take over the navigation again.

By the time we joined the A14, had had a very quick toilet break at some services, well can't ask a lady to go behind a hedge, we had lost almost two hours of our time. Never-the-less she, who doesn't like to have to recalculate, was telling us that we could still, if we didn't have any rest breaks, just make the channel tunnel before the departure gate closed at 14:12 hrs. and catch our planned for train departure at 14:42 hrs. When we left the M11 and joined the clockwise carriageway of the M25, heading towards the Dartford Crossing she was still confident, with our arrival time of 13:55 hrs. glowing in the bottom right-hand corner of her screen.

Having negotiated the many slip lanes to get into the flow of traffic, I was feeling confident, thinking to myself that the traffic on the dreaded M25 was flowing quite well and did the road really deserve its bad reputation on everyday. This was a Murray Walker 'Murrayism' moment. A few nano-seconds later Sally Traffic's week-end colleague announced on BBC radio 2 that traffic proceeding clockwise on the M25 in the region of the Dartford Crossing was not! There were delays of 45 minutes being experienced. It was an interesting time watching the lane swappers in their unsuccessful attempts to regain seconds of their time.

Eventually we had crossed the Thames over the impressive Queen Elizabeth 11 bridge, Natalie had accurately thrown our £1.50p toll fee into the urinal lookalike chute, to catch the pennies, at the toll booth, and we were heading for Folkestone our gateway to France, and freedom on the motorways. Of course there was just one problem. Our train would be halfway through the Channel Tunnel without us when we were now scheduled to arrive at the terminal!

As we neared the slip road from the M20 into the tunnel terminal I once more glanced a look at the fuel gauge which was registering that the tank was approaching only a quarter capacity left. Remembering the extortionate price of unleaded, sans plomo 95, sin plomo 95 petrol in France, and that there is not a petrol station on the entrance to the tunnel, because Euro tunnel prefer vehicles not to have a full tank of fuel on the trains, I decided to take 10 minutes to divert and call into the local Tesco garage to top up with fuel at the best possible prices. A saving of approximately £4.00p on 30 litres was worth a diversion of less than 3 miles. Time didn't matter as much now as we were already late. Mission accomplished we arrived at the check-in booths 1 hour and fifty minutes later than planned, having had no lunch, and only 7 minutes before our pre-booked train was to arrive in Calais.

Arriving at the deserted booths, and selecting one with the ticket dispenser on the left of the car, so much easier for a left-hand drive, I input our reservation number. I was asked to confirm I was me via the console touch screen, which after checking myself in the internal mirror, I did. I was then informed that we had missed our train! As if we hadn't realized! As I pointed out to the inanimate touch screen, in a polite verbal manner of voice, I knew this fact, true to its advertised policy this wonderful computerised component offered a new selection of alternative train departures to choose from. We chose the train just one hour after our original reservation. At no extra cost. Take note Ryan Air of good customer service.

So, after all the problems of the journey to the Folkestone terminal we would arrive in France just one hour late. The rest of the day's, sunny early evening, travel on the French motorways and the Paris Western and Southern Périphérique to our hotel would be easy! There wouldn't be any need to stop for petrol, and as we ate our late packed lunch whilst travelling through the tunnel, there wouldn't be any need to stop for tea. We could be at the evening hotel by 20.30 hrs. just 30 minutes later than planned; so I thought!

Two hours of easy driving on a motorway and we began to notice the ash grey clouds building ahead of us. A quarter of an hour further they had changed to battleship grey with hints of lightning flashing across the sky. Five minutes later the clouds are a dark slate grey verging on a crow black, coal black, the lightning is forking to the ground, and the heavy rain is drumming deafeningly on the roof of the car. The windscreen wipers are on at the fastest speed and not coping with clearing the water. The drains on the motorway surface are not emptying the water away quick enough. The motorway has become a canal. We passed a road sign reminding us that when it's raining the maximum speed limit drops from 130 kph. to 110 kph. I looked at the speedometer; we were travelling at 65 kph., keeping pace with the red tail lights ahead, and struggling to see where we were going. We wondered at the kamikaze captains of the speedboats in the outside lane. For an eternity, probably almost 30 minutes, we drove into the unrelenting waterfall longing for the exit from the motorway. We wondered if we would be able to read the road-signs, through the deluge, telling of the right slip road, when SatNavratilova reassured us with her instructions of “exit right in 1 kilometre” then “exit right in 500 metres” and finally “exit right”. I wasn't going to doubt or argue with her. In a minor way I was like a pilot landing his aircraft under IFR(Instrument Flight Rules) conditions. Unfortunately though she didn't see the lake on the slip road, neither did the drivers of the two vehicles in front us. As they both hit the water it was like a water main had burst through the tarmac. The 5 metre scarlet fountains either side of them visible in my headlights and the red brake lights of the cars, a warning to me.

It seemed as though the rain weakened shortly after we left the motorway, helping drastically with visibility on the roads through the Paris suburbs making it easier to follow the calm, clear instructions from SatNavratilova, leaving me only to concentrate on the black wet shiny roads, the multitude of bright traffic lights, and the erratic lane changes of the Paris drivers.

At last at 21:30 hrs. her confident voice assured us that we were “arriving at destination on right”. The hotel sign a glowing beacon of safety from the coal black wet night.

We had had a day's driving not to be forgotten and hopefully never repeated!

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