Friday 10 March 2006


It has been noted before that I wasn't looking forward to the journey, it really is the getting there that does it for me.

Still, I left on Wednesday morning (1/3/06) well stocked up with wood and warm clothes and a reasonable grasp of the route to Poole. The journey down along the A34 went fairly well although the last eleven miles from Ringwood to Poole must qualify as the longest ever spanning about 18 miles by my count. Poole is a pain too, the car ferry is clearly marked from miles out but as soon as you hit the centre all the signs disappear except for a tiny arrow indicating Port Visitors. Well, I wasn't visiting was I, so around the roundabout I went a few times, eventually settling in the new Asda carpark which was much more adequately indicated. There was nothing there for me, so back to visit the Port. And lo and behold, a ferry terminal. I was only an anxious two hours too early and with Sherlock Holmes and a naff cup of coffee from the kiosk settled down first in the queue.

There was a flurry of hail just as we were being inspected in the security sheds, a very thorough inspection incidentally; it's the first time I've ever been asked if I was carrying scissors onto the ferry in my handbag (!), but I thought little of it because I was heading south. And four and half hours later we disembarked from the scary upper deck on stilts arriving safely in France.

It was dark, but I could remember which side of the road to drive on, and knowing the way so well was soon on the excessively long link road from the port to the N13. The terrain rises steeply from the sea and by the time I'd reached the aptly named La Glacerie I could see slush and few flakes of snow. I pressed on grimly, driving, at night, in France, in the snow, so many things I hate and avoid and they'd all turned out to join me.

Around the roundabout onto the main road proper and immediately chaos, there was a car in the ditch attended by blue flashing rescuers and the unsalted road was thick with confused Frenchmen unable to exercise the machismo given to them as the chosen road users of god being tamely led along by more blues. Acutely aware of the lack of tread on my tyres I followed the jostling, uneasy crowd and was nearly forced off the road by the gritting lorry looming large and irresistible. Still the salt was welcome and as the altitude dropped away from the hill of Cherbourg the road cleared. I thought I was home and dry.

Cannily, I reasoned that the almost permanently closed road through Lessay which ordinarily I would have chanced (road blocks in France almost always seem to get moved overnight) wouldn't have received any treatment so I bowled on down to Carentan and turned right for the road to bed. How foolish was that? The snow which had clearly been elsewhere on a visit remembered its main task, fell large and soft on my windscreen and settled snuggly on the road surface, pre chilled and smooth. In moments my speed was reduced to a crawl as I racked my brain for Jeremy Clarkson type information on driving in adverse conditions. There was no help there so I settled for a steady 30 miles an hour and hoped the snow would find someone else to torment. Many smug bastards in huge four wheel drive jeeps roared past me but my little Rover struggled on and I became more and more panicked. Once or twice I thought I was going to lose it completely as the traction went and we started to slip from side to side but luck rather than judgement regained the road and on we continued.

I don't think I have ever, truthfully, ever been so scared for so long in my life. I didn't know what to do, driving in a straight line towards a killer upward hill on a bend before plunging downhill into the valley where I planned to spend the night in the little house in Ouville. I knew it couldn't be done and finally when passing a lighted bar at about 10:30 p.m. pulled over and made a dramatic entrance. Hysteria gave my french eloquence "Madam" I cried, "are there any chambre d'hotes around here, there is so much snow and I'm so afraid. I can't drive anymore" and I fear I may have sobbed a bit too.

The patrons were slightly taken aback. They hadn't realised it was quite so bad but Madam was kind and got down the telephone directory. Various options were discarded, I believe some the businesses may have already failed, but on establishing I had a working french credit card the local Etap Hotel was contacted. Many assurances that it was just a couple of Km down the road failed to convince me and finally a kind gentleman undertook to lead the way, which is just as well because even in daylight I couldn't find it again when I went back. He rang the entryphone bell, the huge compound gate was opened and I reached safety at last.

It was actually o.k. as formula hotels go, warm, cheap, freshly built so reasonably clean. After a night trying to calm my still palpitating heart the weather seemed improved so I stocked up for a siege at Leclerc and finally reached home about 24 hours after I left Newport Pagnell.

It's difficult to overestimate the effect driving in snow has had on me, twice I was about to leave the house when a few flakes drifted down and I rushed back inside and as far away from the car as possible. Still, eventually I had to do what I had come for and successfully made various small trips backwards and forwards to la Rupallerie and to visit the Cat Lady so that I could explain her website to her.
Cat Refuge site

So time passed and the day for my return to England dawned, soggy and rain drenched with a soft Irish feel, quite pleasant after the icy chills of the preceding week. I cleaned the house, cleaned myself and stepped out to start the car. Which didn't. It just sat, engine turning on the starter until the battery was flat without a spark of ignition. This isn't a new behaviour, I just wasn't expecting it. I dried the leads, sprayed Easystart up the air intake, recharged the battery from an interesting cable made of several extension leads cobbled together with an English/French conversion connector at the end and wrapped around with old compost bags to prevent the persistent moisture from penetrating the joints and tried again. No joy. And so, as they say, to cut a very boring story short, it persisted for another two days.

I ran out of wood, gas, books to read and patience. I spent the time in bed to keep warm and fulminated. And on Thursday when I should have been at the National Gallery with my friend Maggie the sun finally came out. And the car started.

Home now, and this journey which was supposed to empower me with confidence in my simple abilities has proved a number of things but I'm not sure what they are yet. Maybe it'll come to me.

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