Tuesday, 1 November 2011

Lightning Past:- An A1 Odyssey.

The A1 (M), AKA the Great North Road, a trunk road that becomes a motorway whenever the mood takes it, has been doing sterling service whittling people from London to Edinburgh for a long, long time. This week I gleefully accepted the mission of delivering a car to a client in Edinburgh and returning in the car he was trading in; a 900 mile return journey.

I'm currently training to change roles at the dealership, a new exciting job beckons involving higher degrees of knowledge, skill and authority and, eventually, if my luck's in, maybe some more money. So, until the role goes permanent, I'll grab the chance exotic trips like these whenever they come up.

The fun started this morning at 5:45; the client wanted his car for 8, so I got ready sharpish and abandoned the unabashed luxury of my £42 a night Travelodge room, in pitch darkness, to cover the the remaining 55 miles from Berwick Upon Tweed to Edinburgh. With just 15 minutes between being under the duvet and behind the wheel, I have to admit to being slightly disorientated, the roads were dark, wet and mysterious. But gradually the light started to take hold, until, a little over an hour later, Auld Reekie glowed before me in the milky morning sunshine.

One excited client and feverishly dispatched car handover later, I was on my way again, immediately causing a chorus of annoyed horn honks as I completely ballsed up the first junction of my return journey. No matter, with my Garmin GPS hanging from the windscreen, Radio 1 dialled in on the original-fit Mercedes radio-cassette, and the low fuel warning light poised to come on at any moment, I was well on the way.

The car was a 2001 CLK 230. Sensibly specified, reasonably well maintained and with an unusually low 63,000 on the clock, we had taken it in as trade for just less than two grand. My mount for the return journey, all I wanted was for it to not break down- anything else was a bonus.

I knew I would inevitably end up writing something about the operation, and whatever I'd write would need some kind of accompanying images, so I set about looking for photographic locations along the route of the A1, the road I would be following for the next three hundred plus miles. As luck would have it there are plenty of pleasant enough sights to be seen along the stretch before you get to the English border, the road undulates alongside lush green fields, with the sea often visible if you look to your left. Me being me, of course, I opted for a backdrop of Torness Nuclear Power Station. 

As if to admit that my choice of vista had been hopeless, I was much enthused when I saw a road-sign for the approaching English Border, with its parking area and viewpoint. I dived for the exit, parked and dismounted, only to find that whatever view there had been was obscured by a wall and some unruly foliage. Never mind, welcome to England.

At this point, having been driving for over two hours, I was famished and all I could think about was the McDonalds next to where I had started my journey at six o'clock this morning. It was almost a foregone conclusion, then, that my next stop would be the Golden Arches for a healthy dose of morning cholesterol. The simple truth is that the McDonalds Hash Brown is one of my guilty pleasures and I had three of them today, as well as a cup of coffee that was slightly too harsh for me, and I'm famous for liking robust coffee. Still, the brekkie was just what I needed and could attack the rest of the journey with gusto. I flooded the tank with petrol from the Morrisons supermarket next door, £1.30.9 per litre, the cheapest I'd see all day.

On leaving Berwick the A1 runs as a single-carriageway road for what seems like miles, occasionally splitting into dual-carriageway. Here the traffic that has bunched up behind lorries gets a chance to escape, although this is often foiled by lorry drivers hell bent on passing each other with a speed differential of 0.02 mph, thanks to both lorries being limited to 56mph. It was fun to see, every time this happened, the frustrated motorists blitzing past the lorries with white knuckles and soaring blood-pressure levels.

I passed what I assume was a new Range Rover prototype undergoing evaluation, being disguised under a typical black and white vinyl camouflage, but still readily identifiable as a Range Rover. The manufacturers love doing this, and you can guarantee that the car would garner far less attention if it were just painted. That's the crux of the matter; scoop photos of the new product they “don't want anybody knowing about” makes for fantastic free publicity. Alas, the intriguing machine was far gone by the time I could wave a camera at it.

When the road widened in a more determined way, the occasional overhead gantries, with no actual traffic news to report, instead helpfully asked “Is your car ready for winter”. Note the lack of a question mark. I must be obnoxiously pedantic, because I hate things like that, especially when perpetrated by official government bodies who should bloody well know better. I expected to read a sign suggesting “Please check you're tyres”, but none was forthcoming.

Soon the view ahead was of the hills of Victorian terraced housing that signifies Newcastle. You get to see very little of the city by breezing through it on the A1 like I did; although I eagerly looked both ways as I crossed the Tyne bridge there was nothing to see that particularly defined Newcastle; cities all look very similar when you pass them at 70mph. Having said that, as I reached the city limits, the sinister, rusting figure of the Angel Of The North loomed large. Whatever you think of this gargantuan sculpture, at least it's unique.

Between Newcastle and Scotch Corner you become aware that the you've already passed the most scenic stretches of this road. There are 12 miles of roadworks with a blanket 50mph speed limit in force, this has become a staple of the A1. It's now dual carriageway non-stop to London, the road passes roadside farms and occasionally carves through small towns which, you reckon, must have been idyllic before the motorway arrived. Still, I was enjoying myself, the sunshine was glorious on the occasions that it broke through the thick, angry clouds.

The Garmin was still gamely issuing instructions, although they were mainly redundant as I know my way home from here with my eyes shut. I kept it on for early warning of speed cameras, as well as finding it amusing when the road had been realigned and deviated from the Garmin maps, a situation that has the GPS stuttering, panicking and not having a clue what to do. It came up with some hilarious ideas on one stretch, including doing a U-Turn for some reason.

Where the A1 merges with the M62, at Pontefract, the smoking coal-fired monster of Ferrybridge announces that you're now entering Power Station country, several sets of huge, unlovely 1960s cooling towers can soon be seen between the horizons, Eggborough and the dramatically named Drax both smoking like troopers so North Midlanders can boil their kettles with impunity.

The roads are a bit of a tangled mess around here, and I try and fail to visit Ferrybridge service area for a quick wee, but am foiled by taking a wrong turn that heads me towards Castleford. I leave at the next exit and have another stab at things from the other side, but there's annoyingly no access to the services from my direction. Not to worry, i'll try and put thoughts of urination out of my head until another opportunity arises.

All the sign gantries told me I was heading for THE SOUTH, which was good news. I've always thought this an amusing quirk in British signposting convention, the fact that no matter how far towards THE SOUTH you go, there's never any confirmation that you've got there. We do the same thing for at least two other points of the compass, though I can't actually recollect ever having headed towards THE EAST. This is strange, considering that's where I live.

From ten o'clock BBC Radio 1 fails to deliver anything to hold my interest so I retune to Radio 2. I eschew the commercial outfits altogether as they broadly just annoy me with inane DJs with ideas above their stations, and the same shit pop music being pumped out 24/7. Radio 2 usually offers just enough variety to keep me happy, so I set and forget. Suddenly a thought hits me; did the previous owner think to empty the CD changer? Well, it turns out that he hadn't , and had left a home-recorded hip-hop compilation behind, of quite some diversity, taking in the extremes from Skee-Lo to Sir Mix-A-Lot and beyond. This kept me entertained for a good hour.

Aside from that, life in the CLK was proving very bearable indeed, except that I couldn't quite get comfortable as the seat has less adjustment than I'm used to. The car still felt fresher than its age would suggest, still accelerated briskly; that supercharged four-pot mill still expressing enthusiasm for its job, and still changed gear smoothly. The trip computer claimed that we were averaging 37mpg, which was probably bollocks. Nevertheless, I was enjoying the car.

Actually, I always liked the C208 shape CLK, a handsomely bulky coupé with square shoulders and an imperious look about it, somehow more Mercedes-ey than the C209 that followed it. Such a shame that it had such well earned credentials for rusting away before your very eyes, though this late car is commendably free of rampant tin-worm. I wasn't making very high demands on the car on this journey, and nor would I for the remaining hundred and fifty miles or so.

The sun was still playing peek-a-boo and this led to me having sneezing fits. I'm prone to these whenever there are sudden changes in temperature, the symptoms are very similar to hayfever but totally unrelated. Hugely unpleasant when you're trying to hold an even course, though, and unwise to have your eyes closed, no matter how involuntarily, for any period of time when you're driving at speed.

The lead image to this piece is of one of the most striking sights to greet travellers on the A1. XN728 is an English Electric Lightning F2A, one of the legendary supersonic interceptors that protected European airspace in the cold war era. Built in 1961, XM728 spent much of its service life operating at Mach 2.0 out of Gutersloh in Germany, decommissioning coming in 1977 and then a spell as a decoy aircraft at RAF Coningsby. She was bought privately in 1983 and installed as a static exhibit at a commercial vehicle dealership in Balderton, Nottinghamshire. And there she would remain.

The plane was well looked after until the collapse of the dealership in the late '80s, after which she was left alone on an otherwise empty lot. It wasn't long until the inevitable happened, and the vandals, graffiti artists and souvenir hunters moved in. The land changed hands several times, and yet nobody showed any interest in either preserving or restoring the Lightning, which was still complete with its afterburning Rolls Royce Avon 211 engines. Every time I passed the Lightnings resting place in Balderton I would gaze reverently at her, she was a much loved and quite famous fixture on the A1 corridor. Today I set the GPS to remind me to look, but she was gone.

A little Google research reveals that the XN728 was finally broken up for scrap on the 9th of September, this year; the value of aluminium obviously being too high for the owner to ignore. Looking in my diary, the last time I had seen her must have been literally hours before the bulldozers moved in. I drove on gloomily, unhappy that I'd never see the likes again, but pleased that I have had the pleasure of hearing Lightnings fly within my lifetime.

The rest of the journey home fades into a single blur of uneventful tarmacadam. There was a nasty accident on the other carriageway as I approached Peterborough, a generic Asian hatchback, difficult to identify due to damage but possibly a Toyota Auris, lay on its roof in the fast lane. The police were in attendance but evidently hadn't been there long as the queue was only in its infancy. Soon, if the traffic news broadcasts were to be trusted, a static queue would go on for several miles South. I sincerely hope the occupants are OK.

The closing eighty miles or so of the journey passed in a grey mélange of familiarity and weariness. I refuelled near Ipswich, and, well, that was it. I'm now at home, reflecting on the whole experience. I'm actually quite knackered, yet also quite impressed that the car and myself had covered the distance without cause to get even slightly flustered. Extraordinary to think that I had been in Edinburgh before breakfast, and here I was, back in THE EAST. 505 miles covered. Extraordinary to think that a journey like that has become, well, so ordinary.

Lead photo credit due to TZ Aviation, via Airliners.net, other Lightning image thanks to Gary Parsons, via Air-Scene UK. All other images are MINE.