After a working life that involved hour after hour spent behind the wheel, some times driving more than 50,000 miles in a year, retirement offered an opportunity for change. Also with advancing years, being a Council Tax payer in London, came the Freedom Pass offering free public transport throughout London. And being over 60, a Senior Rail Pass gave access to meaningful discounts on the UK rail network. At the same time, the oil companies and the Government – sorry I meant to write “market forces” – made driving for leisure a luxury item in the family budget.
So for the past ten years time spent behind the wheel has diminished year on year. The second-hand SAAB 9-5 purchased 8 years ago with 35,000 miles on the clock has just passed the 70,000 mile mark. To save you the calculation, that’s an average of less than 5,000 miles a year.
The poor car is beginning to look quite neglected. It can sit for weeks at a time and not be called into service. And that’s not good for a car as I am learning at some cost. For example, tyres don’t like sitting in one position day after day. The battery likes to be exercised, discharging and recharging are what it’s designed for. The brakes soon start to corrode if they don’t get their daily dose of friction to remove the rust. The list goes on and on. An unused car can become an expensive asset, if “asset” is the right word.
The approach of a major event in our family gave cause for a rethink of the “let the train take the strain” lifestyle, at least on a temporary basis.
My mother was born in January 1913 which means that this January a big celebration was in order. A stranger meeting mum would not believe that she was anything like 100 years old, probably in her 80’s, if it were not for the crippling arthritis which makes walking difficult and very painful.
The celebrations had been a year in the planning and every living member of her family including wives, husbands and partners were coming from around the UK, France and the US. As mum lives in Grantown-on-Spey just 30 miles south-east of Inverness in Northern Scotland the travel logistics were complex. Kirsten, my daughter, who lives in London along with husband Julian and 8 month old daughter Martha, decided that a 550 mile journey in one leg would not be a good idea. So a plan was hatched whereby the London based contingent would travel in a loose convoy and all stop in the Lake District on the journey north and south. In addition we wanted to visit Margaret’s family in Glasgow. The whole journey was going to take about two weeks. There was only one practical answer, take the car.
So on the 16th January, the SAAB was loaded up with all our needs for the trip. Apart from the actual birthday which would require smart clothes, there was also a Burns Supper planned for the Saturday before the birthday, some walking in The Lake District, where it’s often wet, and more walking in the Cairngorms where it would be very wintery at this time of year. Many changes of clothes and options for all weather possibilities were essential. As it turned out during the two weeks we met every weather condition from heavy snow to heavy rain and days when the temperature didn’t climb above zero. Occasionally there was even some welcome sunshine. Every garment we took was put into use. And to add to the load it had been agreed to have a late Christmas present exchange with our US based grandchildren. More bags and bundles.
The day we left London it was cold, a little above freezing, and completely overcast. A quick stop for petrol and the first shock. A tank full now costs nearly £90. When I bought the car £50 would fill it – some inflation. The route took us out by the M4, a single junction north on the M25 London Orbital then onto the M40 heading north west towards Birmingham. As we left the relative heat of London and climbed up into the Chilterns the temperature plummeted. And disaster struck.
Suddenly the car windows completely steamed up and visibility deteriorated to a few yards. Frantic wiping with a sponge restored some vision and a rather scary manoeuvre from lane 4 to the hard-shoulder got us to safety. Was this the end of our journey?
At the time of writing I still don’t know what is wrong with the aircon but it had been serviced in December. Another garage in the north looked at the problem but couldn’t identify a fault. Anyway sitting on the hard-shoulder for ever was not an option, so all the glass was cleaned, the rear passenger windows were opened to create more airflow and we headed out into the traffic sticking to lane 1. Again the condensation started to appear but now, being prepared with a sponge each, we were able to keep a safe level of visibility. As the air temperature gauge rose above zero the problem eased.
And so the journey north continued – with an eye on the air temperature gauge. An accident ahead of us on the M6, just south of the Thelwall Viaduct over the Manchester Ship Canal and the River Mersey, resulted in a 20 mile tailback from Sandbach in South Cheshire almost to the bridge. Combined with the delays caused by the condensation problem we didn’t arrive at the Horse & Farrier in Threlkeld until about 7pm – nearly 7 hours to cover a distance of about 300 miles that, in normal conditions, takes 4 1/2 to 5 hours. We were more than ready for a pint of the best Cumbrian Jennings Bitter.
In the bar there was time to reflect on the difference between the car journey and travelling by train. The train from London Euston to Penrith in Cumbria takes about 3 hours, it’s an hour from our home to Euston and about 20 mins by taxi from Penrith to the inn. So a saving of 2 1/2 hours over the car. With our Freedom Passes the journey across London would have been free, a single ticket with Senior Railcard would have been a little under £30 each and the taxi would have been £25-30. So for the price of the petrol alone, not taking in to account all the other costs of running and owning a car, we could have made the journey for a little under the original £90 spent on petrol. Of course we would have been exhausted carrying all our necessary luggage but the train wins hands down on time and doesn’t do too badly on cost.
Over the next two weeks using car really did start to get in to its own. There is no direct train service from Penrith to Aviemore, the station for Grantown. The journey requires a change of train and station in Glasgow. By car the journey was simple with motorways and fast dual carriageways until north of Perth. From Perth the road and the railway run more or less parallel to each other through magnificent mountain and river scenery. Covered in snow the landscape was especially attractive. Fortunately there was little snow lying on the road so driving was easy.
On the following day, Saturday, we were all eagerly awaiting the arrival of Oliver our son, from Little Rock in Arkansas where he lives with Katie and our two grandchildren Henry and Beatrix. But not to be. Snow at Heathrow resulted in the cancellation of their flight from Dallas. After a lot of queueing and negotiation they were rebooked for Saturday night via Detroit, Amsterdam and Aberdeen. A gruelling journey. As a result they missed the Burns Supper on the Saturday night, an event enjoyed by all including, of course, mum.
When they arrived on Sunday morning they knew there would be no time for rest. Andrew, my brother, had arranged a visit to the Glenfiddich distillery in Dufftown about 30 miles away and with no public transport. So the whole family, all 19 of us, piled into cars and set off. And this was a journey we had to make as the distillery had a present for mum to commemorate her 100th birthday. It took the form of a personalised bottle of Glenfiddich 15 year old Single Malt Whisky. A perfect present for someone who does like her nightly nip of the hard stuff. The journey back to Grantown was accompanied, totally understandably, by the gentle snoring of the long-distance travellers.
The BIG DAY itself was a great family occasion and appropriate amounts of bubbly and whisky were consumed – just to keep mum company you understand. The party took place in The Grant Arms Hotel just across The Square from her home. Spud the Piper, piper to the famous including Madonna and an old neighbour of my mum’s, got the celebrations off to a great start with his rendition of “Happy Birthday”. Everyone joined in. Then the local paper arrived to take photographs – see the article in The Strathspey & Badenoch Herald. A special treat for mum was the arrival of a coach load of friends and family from Dundee, the city where she was brought up. It was definitely “a day to remember”.
Whilst in Grantown the car proved invaluable. Without a car there is plenty of walking in the area and buses run to Aviemore and Inverness but with a car so much more can be achieved. There was plenty of snow but all the main roads were being kept clear. Amongst the trips made was a nostalgic visit to Loch an Eilein where mum and dad lived for many years in an isolated cottage looking out over the loch – a magnificent panorama of water, island castle, Caledonian Pine Forest and the Cairngorm Mountains. On another day we visited Inverness to take mum to Marks & Spencer where she could spend a voucher received on her birthday. This was followed by a late lunch at The Snow Goose, then a very moving visit in the cold late afternoon to Culloden Battlefield, the site of the defeat in 1746 of the Jacobite army by the Duke of Cumberland commanding the government troops. Some of our ancestors, members of the Clan McIntosh, fought and died there.
By Sunday, with the US contingent back in the skies and after a long farewell with mum, it was time to start the southward trek. Our first stop was to be in Glasgow to see some of Margaret’s family. Snow had started to fall again and the journey over the Drumochter Pass, rising to 1,500 feet, needed a lot of care. As we descended to the Central Lowlands the snow turned to rain and that’s the way its stayed for the next three days. In Glasgow the rain was unrelenting, so not a lot was accomplished apart from some excellent family time. After a couple of days we set off south again to spend a couple of days with Kirsten & Julian & Martha in a cottage they had rented in an isolated part of the Lake District not far from Lake Windermere. The car was the only practical form of transport. There was a bus service from Kendal to a point three miles from the cottage, but only on Wednesdays!
The rain continued but it didn’t stop us going out for a ramble with the pushchair. Somehow – bad/good planning? – we managed to finish the walk at one of the best pubs in the Lake District, The Britannia Inn at Elterwater. A good lunch was had by all.
So now our two week trip was coming to an end. All that was left was a drive down the M6 and M40 motorways and back to Richmond, a journey that went very smoothly in not much over four hours.
Was the choice of going by car the right one? Of course it was. Without the car our travels would have taken us to Grantown, on to Glasgow and back to London all by train. With a bit of advanced planning the train tickets, even in 1st Class would have worked out cheaper than the petrol alone. But on this occasion, the car enabled us to do a lot more, to break the journey at will and to comfortably carry all the paraphernalia needed for the such a varied trip.
Having said that, as I write this blog, the trusty SAAB is sitting outside having only been used for a couple of local journeys over the past two weeks since we returned. Maybe we will use it a little more over the coming months but I know we will cover many, many more miles by public transport.
HAPPY BIRTHDAY MUM