This is a true story.
On Wednesday afternoon I travelled to the south coast to stay overnight with my 90 year old father, this in advance of travelling yesterday to Fulham for the 10.30am funeral of one of his oldest pals – they had first met at school in 1939 and had been in pretty much regular contact ever since.
We had agreed in advance that we would set off to drive to London – anticipated as an ordeal because it would ordinarily involve joining the dreaded morning commuting rush hour via Guildford and the A3 – at, or if possible before, 7.30am in order to allow for contingencies. Being an habitual early riser, I had then surfaced about 2.00am and had spent the next four hours online, stacking a dishwasher and firing up the central heating, my next task being collecting the newspapers from the local village at some point after 6.00am.
“Morning …” said my parent, coming into the drawing room at 5.55am fully suited-and-booted, ready to depart, in the process causing me to jump out of my skin at the computer desk.
In the end we departed for London as early as 7.08am.
Having recently travelled to the coast via the A3 during the morning rush-hour and thereby witnessed an approximately 12-mile nose-to-tail queue going northwards from the Hog’s Back all the way through Guildford and up to the M25 junction, I made an executive decision to take avoiding action by going along the A27 to Southampton and then all the way into London via the M3.
Having hit slow-moving (‘variable speed 40mph’) or occasionally grid-locked sections of traffic periodically all the way to Winchester on the M3, two things had become patently clear. Firstly, in terms of ‘best route and/or traffic-avoiding options to be chosen’, on this day there was going to be a distinct element of “Whatever you do is wrong”. And secondly, driving to London – or indeed anywhere – yesterday was going to be necessarily a case of ‘keeping relaxed, avoiding stress and accepting that it was just going to take as long as it was going to take’.
We finally reached our first port of call (my home) at about 9.35am – a journey that in ‘normal’ traffic conditions that would have taken 90 minutes either way but yesterday had taken us an hour longer than that.
After a swift comfort break we continued our journey.
We crawled along towards Putney, every traffic junction rammed with cars going in every different direction, getting in each other’s way as they tried to ‘cheat’ the lights and got stuck in the yellow-painted ‘keep clear’ junction boxes, and so on.
In desperation I rang ahead to indicate that we were up against it time-wise. Other family members were already at the church and the clock was ticking towards 10.00am, just half an hour to the start of the service. We were still only edging towards the Rosslyn Park rugby ground at the bottom of Roehampton Lane.
In an effort ‘to do something‘ I improvised and took a shimmy-left to nip down towards the river at Putney past ‘Marc Bolan’s Tree’ (where the 1970s pop star met his end being driven home after a gig by his girlfriend and at which a constantly-renewed shrine maintained by fans).
It made no difference. We joined the road to Putney Bridge by the Spencer Arms. Every direction was still grid-locked and, worse, not moving at all for four to five minutes at a time. At 10.25am – still approximately three or four miles from the church – I rang ahead to indicate there was no way we were going to make the start of the service.
The suggestion was made that we abandon the attempt to go over Putney Bridge and instead make for Wandsworth Bridge. This proved impossible. Turning off to attempt it, we met a succession of cars coming the opposite way, equally as desperate as we were in seeking a route to get across the river into town. In all probability they had made their first effort at Wandsworth and were now trying Putney as an alternative.
Defeated, I did a left, left and then right sequence to get re-join the road to Putney Bridge. And we then just sat there.
Finally a white van came in the opposite direction and, stopped by the traffic in front of him, wound down his window, helpfully giving the news:
“You’re fucked mate – the road’s closed”.
Almost immediately cars in our line uniformly began doing three point turns and heading off back towards the way they had come. We followed suit and then nose-to-tailed it towards Castlenau and Hammersmith Bridge. It was another crawl all the way.
Finally, at about 10.20am – now an hour into the Roman Catholic mass-type funeral we were supposed to be at – with the fuel needle near the red-zone, we inched towards a garage and opted to refuel for the hell of it. (Why not? Even taking ten minutes out doing that, we’d only lose about half a dozen car lengths in the queue).
As I jumped back into the car after paying, I looked across at my parent and asked what he thought. The funeral (being RC) might be longer that an average C of E version (and maybe take up to 90 minutes), but at the rate we were progressing – still 300 yards from Hammersmith Bridge in a slow-moving queue – we’d only get there, if at all (and it really was ‘if at all’), in time to go for a cup of tea at the reception afterwards.
He paused for a minute and then responding “Sod it, there’s no point. Let’s go home. I’ll have to write to [the widow] and explain …”
And so that’s what we did.
We eventually reached the coast at about 1.20am, having undertaken a round trip of a shade under six and a quarter hours’ duration with just two stops of ten minutes each (one a comfort break, the other a refuelling one) and in the process failed to make the funeral of my father’s oldest friend.
Two points to finish:
Firstly, the stiff gin-and-tonics we poured ourselves on the sun-drenched terrace immediately upon our arrival back at my father’s house were most welcome.
Secondly, what the hell was going on with the traffic all across the south-east of England yesterday – and then particularly in the south-west London area – is unfathomable. I have never experienced anything like it.
My reaction was inevitably that there are just too many people and too many cars in the world.
My second was a feelings of sympathy for those who commute from the south coast up the A3 into London every day because, as far as I can tell, they experience these kind of traffic conditions twice every weekday – i.e. once when going to work and then, from 4.30pm onwards, going back home again.
It’s no life for anyone …