I’ve always liked an epic drive. When I first passed my test at the age of 17 I set off for France two days later in my company car, a Vauxhall Astra, figuring that if I was going to be a motorist it was better to throw myself in at the deep end. The alternative, to continue stalling, rigid with fear at the traffic bedlam around Marble Arch in central London was unthinkable. Two weeks of terrorizing French pedestrians made me all too familiar with the word “Pardon” but also imbued in me early on the confidence to drive anywhere in the world. In my twenties I took to the California coastline of Big Sur solo, from LA down to San Francisco, living the dream with Springsteen and Tom Petty blaring from the stereo of my hired convertible ‘Rabbit”, the Americans unfortunate name for the Volkswagen Golf! Later still in my late forties Angus Deayton joined me in Madagascar to tackle one of “The Worlds Most Dangerous Roads” for BBC2 and spent ten days begging for his turn at the wheel as I careered like Toad, from Wind in the Willows, with enthusiasm and speed through mud, rocks and over fragile bridges.
With so many road adventures under my belt it’s curious that when asked for my favourite car journey the one that instantly sprang to mind was made on three occasions only; all before I was 10 years old. Memories of this annual August pilgrimage, in a mustard Renault 4 to camp beside the tumble down Bothy my parents had bought in the wild west of Connemara are as hazy as they are suffused with poignancy. They each mark the beginning of one of only three holidays we ever took as a family and they ended with with my parent’s separation. Nowadays it’s a mere three and a half hour journey across the belly of Ireland. Back in 1970, before the Celtic Tiger began it’s prowl, today’s M6 motorway was just a planners dream and reaching the Wild West could take at least double the time it does today. We would set off in the dark of night, a rare treat in itself, Tayto crisps and Penguin bars to sustain us and arrive bleary eyed at dawn in the Atlantic battered, wind-whipped, peat bogged, granite strewn terrain of our holiday home. Not that we cared about the journey time, snuggled in the back of the car, backseats down to make a bed, three little trolls smothered in duvet and pillows. I remember the games we played, finding pictures in the constellations, playing iSpy in the dark (a particularly skilled feat of imagination) and singing Irish rebel songs like The Old Triangle, thrilled to be on our way and tucked up tight. Hard as I try I can find no later memories with the same sense of cosseted security and carefree anticipation that marked those trips.
In retrospect those long drives West, between 1969 and 1972 were a countdown to the end of our childhood. At the time we were blissfully unaware of the storm brewing between our parents, instead we were focused on the rare treat of doing something with them together. The excitement as we prepared was palpable. At 7, 5 and 3, we formed a pint-sized swat team, trawling the house grabbing wellington boots and sou’westers, bathing costumes and fishing lines, oil lamps and primus. As the car filled up with camping essentials, the space for our in-car sleepover shrank swiftly, so that by the time we set off, squealing in excitement, we were topped and toed, pressed together like kittens in a basket. We certainly didn’t require much space but how tiny we truly were was brought home many years later on a walking trip with my sister Danielle in Morocco. We were high in the Atlas Mountains, when we stumbled on a Renault 4, the same in every detail as my fathers, parked alone on a remote layby. It felt like the gods had dropped it there simply for our delectation. Having not laid eyes on one since the 1970’s, we rushed towards this mustard early hatchback, reminiscing excitedly about those long ago nights. Peering in the windows our chatter slipped to silence, as the memories flooded back and we understood just how miniscule the space was that had assumed such vast proportions in the intervening years.
Every frame of those three overnight drives, along miniscule B roads to our rocky, isolated paradise of Dinesh Island is suffused with nostalgia for the days when our family numbered five. Past sleeping cows and towering hedgerows we purred, just the BBC World Service, keeping Dad and I company with tales of the big wide world as the rest of the family slept. Dwelling on those westward bound drives prompts bittersweet memories of my father, who died only a few years later and fuels my determination to make my own children’s childhood’s double in length and packed with happy journeys. As for the family car, it really was a totem for our emotional lives. It was written off in a car crash, with a friend of my parents at the wheel, shortly after my father moved out. According to my mother, it was because the driver was wearing flip-flops, a version of the truth I have no corroboration for. However it’s a form of footwear I’ve never dared to wear when I’m driving. Today my children sit silently, belted and upright in our Landover, headphones on watching movies on iPads or listening to songs. I envy them their 21st century distractions but hope too that they will also know the wonder of simple, companionable, silence, long hours of cruising and happy adventures at the end of the road.