Sunday, 28 December 2008

Away From it All

It's my second day back at work after Christmas and I'm on my way to the small town of Coleford in Gloucestershire to deliver a VW Golf to a dealership there.

Coleford is easily accessible by main roads but my sat nav has chosen a more adventurous route and is leading me up a winding country lane through the Forest of Dean.

About five miles from Coleford there are signposts for Symonds Yat Rock, a beauty spot I have heard of but never visited. It's just after nine thirty and the bus I'm intending to catch out of Coleford doesn't leave until half past eleven, so on an impulse I turn off the lane and follow the signs down a track that leads into the forest.

The visitors' site lies about half a mile away and contains a parking area, an information centre (closed), toilets (open), picnic tables and, surprisingly, a pay-and-display ticket machine. Parking is charged at a discouraging flat rate of £3 per day. As far as I can see there are no staff around, and it's hard to imagine an inspector turning up here in the middle of the Christmas holidays to issue penalty tickets. However there is a notice next to the machine explaining that the money goes towards the upkeep of the site, so I grudgingly pay up.

Next to the notice about parking is another, warning that a herd of 'semi domesticated boars' have been illegally dumped in the forest and are to be treated with caution if encountered. I can think of any number of things that an unscrupulous person might try to secretly dispose of in the seclusion of the countryside, but a whole herd of boar? Whatever their reason for being here they are nowhere to be seen today.

There are a couple of viewpoints nearby, where steep drops down to the distant River Wye are fenced off, and the fences decorated with 'danger' signs.

symonds yat

At one viewpoint there is a display about the peregrine falcon, which can be seen flying around here in warmer months. With a top speed in excess of one hundred miles an hour these are apparently the fastest animals in the world, which is something to bear in mind for the next time anyone tells you that this accolade belongs to the cheetah.

The site is kept in pristine condition, with not one piece of graffitti or litter to be seen anywhere. There is hardly anyone else around, just a couple of family groups, a couple of dog walkers, and a guy jogging. All are dressed appropriately in sensible walking gear (or running gear) and seem far more purposeful than me. I'm in my everyday black coat and white jeans, and have neglected to shave for over a week.

I'd always thought that the proper etiquette when walking past people in out of the way places like this is that you exchange a glance and then a one word greeting - 'morning,' 'alright,' 'hi,' etc. But apart from one chipper man in one of the family parties, people seem reluctant to meet my eye. I feel as if I should have smartened up a bit before coming, and ought to have a better reason for visiting here than simply having a spare hour to kill.

In the end I stay only about half an hour and then drive into Coleford to drop the car off before walking into the town centre to wait for the bus. The air is not quite so clean here and the views not so long, but it seems far more relaxing to be strolling around these streets amongst other casually dressed guys who could be up to anything or nothing, and nobody cares much either way.

Friday, 19 December 2008

Memories of Darkness

It’s early evening and I’ve just got off a train at the small village of Heyford in Oxfordshire, not far from the middle of nowhere. I’m on my way to pick up a van from Upper Heyford airfield, which is about three miles from here. The site was formerly used by the US Air Force during the Cold War but these days is only used, like many similar airfields around the country, to store cars by the thousand on runways that are no longer needed for their original purpose. This is handy enough for the transport firms who have all this relatively cheap space at their disposal, but not so handy for the platers who have to make their way in and out of these isolated places.

In the past I’ve usually hitched into Upper Heyford from the M40, so the route from the train station is new to me. The few commuters who also got off here have quickly disappeared into waiting cars and I’m now alone. The station is on the edge of the village and after looking around for a minute to get my bearings I set off down the lanes. Neither the moon nor any stars are visible overhead.

When was the last time you found yourself out of doors in complete darkness? I don’t mean streetlit or moonlit darkness, but the more thoroughgoing, uncivilised kind that renders everything more than ten feet away from you into an inky nothingness?

As I’m walking along an odd thing happens - two long forgotten, insignificant memories pop suddenly into my mind. The first is of walking down a dirt road on a family holiday in Corfu. I was probably in my early teens and for some reason I was walking alone at night back to the apartment we were staying in. The recollection contains no details, except that it was as dark then as it is now.

The second memory is even more vague, and not linked to a single situation but a collection of them – the scout camps I went to when I was a kid. I have an indistinct image of woods at night, whenever I left the tent or the camp fire for one unrecalled reason or another, probably to piss behind a tree, and was alone in the dark.

Perhaps my brain is responding to the threatening darkness by trawling through the past for any relevant experiences that might be of use. Maybe this is why, when people believe they are about to die, their whole life can allegedly flash before their eyes - a last desperate scouring of the memory banks in the hope of finding some forgotten scrap of knowledge that might save the day.

After the best part of an hour stumbling along the lanes I arrive at the entrance to the air base, although the van is still about a mile away, outside the security guards’ portacabin, beyond a maze of old hangers and empty concrete buildings.

Just at this moment a small, single decker bus comes grumbling along behind me. Its interior lights reveal rows of almost empty seats and suggest a blissful degree of warmth and comfort as it rattles past and onwards down the lane.

It never occurred to me that there might be public transport around here at this time of night. I wonder whether it stopped at Heyford station, although even if it did it would not have got me here any quicker and I would have been deprived of those strange memories which I never even knew I had forgotten.

My memory is generally appalling, even for recent events, even when I've made a special effort to retain the information. However I doubt that I’ve ever thought about either of those two insignificant situations even once in all the years since they occurred, and yet they have obviously remained between my ears somewhere, awaiting a chance to be useful.

I wonder if all the rest of my life is still crammed in there as well. I’d like to believe that it is, but given the circumstances in which such things seem to be revealed, I think I’d prefer to never find out.

Saturday, 13 December 2008

Still Free

It's just after eight in the morning and I've pulled into Hilton Park services on the northbound M6 to fill up the screenwash on the Vauxhall Astra I'm delivering to Chester. At the side of the petrol station forecourt is a small machine with an airline and a water hose sticking out of it. A few years ago all these machines were free to use, but recently one or two places have decided that they can't just go giving away air to anyone who wants it and have begun to charge for this.

Today, I've pulled the water hose out, put the end of it in the top of the screen wash container, pressed the trigger several times and wondered why nothing was happening before realising that I've now found a machine that charges for water as well. The price depends on how long you use it for, but the minimum is fifty pence.

A few months ago I picked up an Audi A4 whose near side rear tyre looked slightly low. I pulled into the first garage I came to to top it up and found that this would cost me twenty pence. I had the money on me, and if I was prepared to be laughed at I could probably even have claimed it back from the office. But in an act of principled petulance I decided to wait until I found somewhere where I could do it for free, only to have the tyre blow out on me a few miles up the road.

With this experience in mind, and knowing that on the wet motorway the car windscreen will be caked in salty grime within a couple of minutes I feel that I have no choice but to part with the money. But as I'm reaching into my pocket a car pulls up a few metres away. The driver winds his window down and shouts something that sounds like a question with the word 'water' in it.

'Yeah, but you've got to pay for it here,' I reply, taking a guess at what he has said. But he gets out of his car and walks over to me, and I can now see the Moto logo of the service station on his sweatshirt. He repeats himself, in a strong Black Country accent -

'Yam after water?'


'Ere, save y' poyin' forrit,' he says indicating behind a strategically placed green board only a couple of yards from the machine, where there is a tap in the wall and a container underneath.

'Ere's y'tap and ere's y'can,' he continues, pointing them out.

'Cheers mate,' I say, and he turns and goes back to his car.

While I'm filling up, a white van pulls up next to me and the driver gets out, evidently after water himself. He watches me for a couple of seconds and then nods towards the machine -

'Is it broke?'

'No, you've got to pay fifty pee for it here.'


I finish filling up and then hand him the can. I don't doubt that if someone else came along before he left he would do the same thing himself. This is the tragedy for those managers of petrol stations who have made the effort to convince themselves that it is justifiable to charge people for fresh air and water. There are too many people around who disagree and who would rather talk to a stranger than see them part with an unnecessary fifty pence.

Friday, 5 December 2008

Strange New Men

It's early afternoon and I'm on a train from Stourbridge to Birmingham, en route to Redditch to pick up my last car of the day.

The carriage is empty except for a couple of young guys, probably about twenty years old, sitting on the opposite side of the aisle. I get the impression that they are college students. They talk about drinking and girlfriends and anything else that occurs to them. They seem able to chat away to each other about everyday, inconsequential things with the kind of relaxed ease that men rarely seem to possess.

At one point they begin talking about shaving and the reliability of different kinds of razors -

'I've got to get a new one anyway,' says one of them, 'I shaved somewhere else.'

'Ew!' replies his friend.

'Didn't do avery good job of it though,' he laughs.


'Never do these bits, you get loads of spots.'

I don't like to look but I think he is pointing to somewhere around the top of his crotch.

'What, like a rash?'

'No, just spots!'


And so on.

Since when did men talk to each other about things like this on trains (or anywhere else?)

Now that I'm forty I feel almost duty bound to start passing judgment on the younger generation, but I really have no idea whether such changes in men's attitudes are a good or bad thing.

These two guys seemed happy enough anyway, regardless of the extra time they probably spend in front of the mirror, and the extra spots they have to deal with.