Monday, December 20, 2010

here, there and everywhere - but not on a bicycle

One of the things you I forget about the run up to Christmas is all the extra stuff that needs to get done. In my case I had planned to drive down to Bath to pick up my son at the end of term and then visit Liverpool on the way back to deliver Christmas presents for my Mum and sister and aunt. Not all in one day, we planned to stay overnight with my Mum.

There was an immediate hitch I had forgotten that on that the day I had planned to go down to Bath we were going out with some friends for a Christmas meal in the evening. So the journey got shifted by a day. You might wonder why he wanted collecting when there is a perfectly good train service between here and there. Well he has some exams after Christmas and wanted to bring his books up as a security blanket for revision. This meant two large plastic crates full of books sufficiently heavy that I didn't even try to lift them, I left that up to him.

The trouble was this meant my journey down was now on Saturday with weather warnings in action. To be fair there were also warnings about not driving unless it was essential. The trouble is what is essential? I am never sure quite how essential a journey has to be to qualify. Clearly my journey was not life and death essential - however he would have had a pretty sad Christmas on his own in a bedsit and my wife wouldn't have been happy. Anyway I might moan about my Landrover Discovery but it is right sort of car for this sort of weather - so I set off.

When I was younger and lived in the Mendips we often had snow up on the hills and would go out in our old cars to do a bit of skidding on the empty roads. So I have practised a bit in icy and snowy weather. My most memorable skid was unplanned though. There was a lot of snow lying on the road, several inches at least and very few cars around. Which is what I like - however as I was driving quite slowly down a hill where there were dry stone walls on each side of a road of moderate width a car failed to stop on a side road and slid out slightly. I did what you shouldn't do and braked - old habits die hard, I also turned the wheel. At this point the car lost all grip and I did a neat 360 degree spin in the middle of the road - I sat there thinking how lucky was that and then carried on. There was no skill - just luck.

This time, when I set off the temperatures were around -5 to -6C according to the car thermometer and despite it probably being a very busy last shopping Saturday before Christmas I decided it was better to take the Motorway route (M11, M25, M4) rather than the shorter more direct cross-country route. I had allowed myself plenty of time and set of around 9ish to allow the rush hour (those people working on Saturday) to clear, but before the shoppers descended upon the roads.The roads were good, well gritted and dry so I made good progress along with the rest of the light traffic. The M11 was fine, even the M25 was pretty clear, despite the road-widening works taking place.

It all changed when I reached the M4. As I turned off a clear M25 it was if I had been through the Narnia wardrobe - suddenly there was snow on the road and more snow swirling down. As I got closer to Reading it got worse with most of the traffic driving in the middle lane and snow collecting on the first and third lanes. My average speed also dropped dramatically. What did worry me was every now and then a car, or more commonly, a speeding van would pass one one side or the other churning up snow.

The trouble is with that sort of behaviour is that it is selfish, the risk of an accident massively increases and when a Motorway gets blocked in the snow it turns into a car park, sometimes for hours and hours. A few years ago under similar circumstances (taking my son to Bath) a white van whizzed by in the snow lane, much faster than the rest of the traffic. Not more than 10 miles down the road the same van was slewed on the hard shoulder. Judging from the skid marks he had skidded slightly, hit the central barrier and then ended up on the hard shoulder. Fortunately he did not appear to have done too much damage to the van, although I am not sure it was drivable and he had not blocked the road for the rest of the traffic.

At this point I rang my son (hands-free) to find out what it was like in Bath and to find out how bad the snow patch was. Apparently it was sunny in Bath, although they had had snow and the smaller roads were tricky, including the small hill where his flat (think bed-sit) is. It also seemed that the snow storm around Reading was fairly localised. After a while the falling snow seemed to lessen and two lanes became drivable (by normal people rather than van drivers) and the driving got easier and the skies bluer.

I did find myself using lots of screen wash and decided to pull into the Motorway Service station at Leigh Delamare, just before the Bath turn on the M4 to pick up some more screen wash (and for a wee, I'd been in the car longer than originally planned.) This is the road into the car park at the service station - a very picturesque row of snow-covered trees and a few inches (and even more centimetres) of snow.


I had taken my camera with me, but it is a bit tricky taking pictures when driving and unlike on a bicycle not so easy to stop when a picturesque scene unfolds. This is one of the trees in the car park, with the Petrol sign peeping through.


The car park was not that busy, which shows there were fewer people about on the roads. They did have screen wash though so I picked up a gallon (£5.49) - mind you the screen wash tank on the Disco holds over a gallon (5.8l / 1.3 gallons) - but it is better to be prepared. Mind you even with concentrated screen-wash in these freezing temperatures it has frozen up and seems to take ages to un-freeze.


The rest of the journey to Bath was uneventful and when I arrived at the little lane where my son lives I maintained reasonable momentum up the hill alongside the flats, despite the compressed snow/ice on the road. In fact I was so keen on going up the hill that I drove past the entrance to the car parking area so I turned into the next driveway just a little bit further up the steepening hill thinking I would reverse of go back down. As I reversed out of the drive back onto the hill slightly sidewards the car started slipping down the hill side on. I stopped and got my Son out to act as a spotter and set the car into snow/gravel mode and panicked carefully thought out my options. I have done some off-roading and as there was no chance of turning round I decided to attempt to reverse down the hill. It was no fun, but the electronics managed to find bits of grip and I slipped and stopped, slipped and stopped, back down the hill to the point where it was not quite so steep and I was able to park in the car parking area.

Once we had loaded up the car - (so much stuff that we didn't have space for his bicycle) we set off back down the hill - it was much easier facing forwards although we still did a bit of slip and stop until we reached the cleared bit of road at a junction with a main road. Then we set of up to Liverpool. Once again the Motorway (M4 to M5) was clear and with blue skies and sun it was delightful although as we progressed up the M5 there were worrying reports of a problem on the M5.

It turned out that there were problems near the M42 with a jack-knifed lorry and then off-ramps at other junctions were too slippery because of snow and at each traffic bulletin the reported delays seems to get longer and longer. As we approached, within 15 miles of the trouble the snow got worse and then the number of snow-clear lanes dropped to one and then none and then we basically stopped. At this point we had a look at the map and looked at alternative routes. to both the East and West, however to the East it sounded even worse. So to cut a long story short we queued for a while (at least an hour) before deciding to bail out and try out an alternative route. By now three lanes were full of traffic and every now and then a stream of vehicles would disappear up the hard shoulder. The traffic news also played clips from people stuck on the M5 further up and it seemed to be getting worse, not better. In the end I think some people were stuck for around 6 hours.

Our new route took us through Kidderminster and although there was a lot of snow around and a lot of care was required to drive on the roads they were moving and we by-passed the Motorway problems and rejoined the route on the M6. Although there were reports of problems with snow slowing down traffic, as we went further North, the roads got clearer and the last third of the journey was uneventful. I never feel the anti-lock braking kick in normally it happened more than once on the middle bit of the journey. (As well as on the hill in Bath!)

We managed to get up to Liverpool later than planned but still earlier than we might have. At one point I did think we might end up sleeping on the M5. (I had plenty of fuel, I never let the tank go below half-full and as well as coats and gloves and we had bags of my son's dirty washing as a last resort.

Overnight it got very cold and despite all the anti-freeze in the screen wash I had to wash the windows by hand and had to stop every now and then to clean the windows. At first I used the screen-wash (applied with a hankie) but it seemed to dry to a smear. In the end I used a dry cloth to polish the dirt of the windscreen and it stayed clean for much longer. Because of the problems the day before we also decided to head East rather than back down towards Birmingham - just in case. We went down the A50 which was clear. The only challenge was watching the temperatures drop from around -6C at my Mum's to, at one point, -11C. We also had to call in at a village near Leicester and once or twice the steering went "light" as we passed over black ice on the country lanes.

The rest of the journey was easy. There had been snow in Cambridge, but the roads were clear. Mind you I was pretty tired by the time we got back. Two days of having to really concentrate on driving is quite tiring. I know it was my choice - but it was still tiring.

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