Round about 1995, I left the University of Wales Aberystwyth, where I had a good wage, academic surroundings, interesting work, sociable students, friends and the chance of a beer almost any night, to take a job near Oxford where I had a better wage and almost none of the rest. I put it down to some kind of mental aberration on my part, the same one that has guided all my smartest decisions (like digging out a foot of soil and laying flags in the front garden on a hot weekend recently - that was another sound idea). Hence I found myself driving back to Aber on as many weekends as I could possibly scab floor space in which to crash.
The journeys between Oxford and Aber are remarkable; I still remark often on the stultifying dullness of each possible route. Initially, I drove straight along the A44 (the most direct route on the map), which takes you through several excruciatingly twee Cotswold towns that you will grow to loathe in detail, due to being stuck behind doddering old fools in British-made cars and several heavy juggernauts, with absolutely no prospect of passing any of them. (I could now publish a convincing examination of the case for bombing Broadway and Evesham.) There is the fiendish and terrifying Worcester one-way system to negotiate, unless you can locate the magic entrance to the Secret Bypass. Another bypass allows you to miss Leominster, although by this point you’ll be wondering if you shouldn’t stop for the toilet but no, you have to keep going. Through Pembridge, a sleepy medieval village where you would not be surprised if the inhabitants left their thatched cottages to shout, “Hey, you in the iron chariot, what news of General Cromwell’s campaign?!” Zip round Kington (another bypass) to finally pass the blessed runes of “Welcome to Wales/Croeso i Cymru”.
Later on, as my quest to knock off the journey in the fastest possible time gathered urgency, I started using the A40 to Gloucester, because most of it was dual carriageway and thus one was able to overtake the lorries (or at least hang back in frustration while they overtook each other in a bid to see who could reach 58mph first). They actually built a bypass around the town centre while I was living down there, purely to keep me and my homicidal tendencies out of it (I think). Gaining momentum from several circuits of the final roundabout, I would be flung off up the A417 to Ledbury and Hereford.
Here, time recedes. Actual Middle England lies in this region and, while theoretically it is mapped, in practice it exists only in limbo. It is Nowhereville, leaving barely the faintest impression of tiny, deathly quiet villages and tight bends in the memory. The thought of living in any of those places, miles from Anywhere, constantly haunts me and fills me with quiet horror. They remind me of the village in The Monster Club that cannot be escaped and whose zombie inhabitants are partial to the ritual sacrifice of lost motorists. I may be doing them a disservice. Perhaps the occupants of Staunton and Maisemore have a right old knees-up on Friday nights. More likely, I suspect they stay indoors smoking substances that quench consciousness and render time without meaning. If I lived there, I know I’d be so toked up to the eyeballs that even the Big Bang and the last chime of the clock would seem indiscernible.
Skirting Hereford, there is a choice of three roads to take you up to the A44. One is marked as a red ‘A’ road on the map, while the other two are yellow ‘B’ roads. In practice, there’s no difference as all of them are narrow, twisty lanes where you frighten the owners of overpriced cottages by roaring past them as they mow their verges, trying desperately not to lose control and go straight through their carefully cultivated hedges. This is a place where men sculpt hawthorn to take their minds off the terrible passage of millenia. I took my mind off it by doing my damnedest to shorten the journey time, nearly shortening my time on earth as well. Just how fast could one take those bends? Despite my many heroic/stupid efforts, the total duration always seemed to be fixed at four hours, probably because of all those bloody lorries. The blindness of my obsession was brought home to me when I shot past a policeman’s futile attempts to wave me down as he directed traffic around an obstruction; I spent the next week waiting anxiously for a summons in the post that thankfully never came.
Past Kington, you put your foot down as you enter the Welsh mountains, still desperate to avoid staying any longer than necessary in Walton (a hill and a dip) or Crossgates (crossroads, scabby truck stop) lest you become stranded and forced to live there forever. Hard right at the clock tower in Rhayader (almost a proper Welsh placename at last, yay!), praying that the people in front of you don’t carry on driving at 40mph long after the speed limit ends. This is almost a fast road now, if there are no trucks making late deliveries (if there are, they’re almost certain to be heading to the same destination as you, it being the only major town in mid-Wales). Worse, you face the bane of the Welsh road: the caravan. On holiday, no rush to get anywhere, happy to amble along admiring the view, does not have a pint waiting at the bar for them that they can almost sniff. At only a slight risk (cough), I once overtook an Avondale that was barely managing fifty only to receive an angry flash of headlights as I moved in front (I waved in return). It was then that I first conceived of the roof-mounted bazooka, an invention that would spell the end of overtaking. And caravans.
Coming down from the Rhayader road, you approach the roundabout outside Llangurig. This is IT! This is so close, you can almost taste the
sea air beer at Aber. Your pulse quickens. There’s still another long and winding mountain road to face, including two incredibly tight bends (if you’re doing sixty, that is) and more lorries but psychologically, you’ve practically got your foot at the bar. You’ve certainly got your foot to the floor. The light is fading fast now (the pub! the pub!) but we didn’t endure the barren wastes and infernal damnation of Herefordshire to lose heart here. Bouncing over the uneven kink in the road at the Red Kite Cafe, maybe some quick overtaking of the stragglers (only sixty-five? pah!) on the straight stretch past Goginan, carefully threading the car down the winding descent to Capel Bangor (don’t spill it!) … ghod, this is just down the road! If you weren’t trying so hard to best one final lorry at the junction to Capel Dewi, you’d lift your hands from the wheel and punch them through the sunroof in triumph.
Time begins to slip again - how much farther is it?? - but eventually you swerve under the railway bridge outside Llanbadarn with a whoop (whoops, bit narrow, sorry mate!) and reluctantly slow to thirty at the lights before the final putter through evening streets to your weekend bunkhouse, your mates and the PUB. Home! Aaahhh….
On the other hand, by Sunday I would be staring the inevitable reverse journey starkly in the face. Aber always conjures up a pleasant sunny evening on these occasions. A last circumnavigation of the town on the one way passes students popping to the Spar, only vaguely aware that tomorrow they would blissfully awaken here while I was staring wide-eyed in confusion at the white walls of a rented granny flat in Woodstock, Oxfordshire. I have no idea whether I ever really drove this bit or whether I was always transported instantly to the A40 junction past Gloucester with the gathering darkness now seeming to forebode only mortality and doom. I could have turned back, found a cheap bedsit on the seafront, signed on the dole and had my stuff sent to me but no, there’s that bloody mental aberration again.
It’s the best worst journey in the world, if you’re heading in the right direction.