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Journeys Taken on Mother's Knee
Kit Chapman


As the crow flies it was a hundred and forty four miles from our village in Staffordshire to Sydenham in London. Nothing these days. Jump into the car and zoom up the Motorway, with perhaps only a stop for a coffee or pee at the Rank Services to break the journey. Sitting in an air conditioned car with satellite navigation systems, radios, play stations and all the paraphernalia we take for granted to smooth our way. Three hours maximum, perhaps another half hour accounting for the rush hour.

 

But how different fifty years ago when I was a young ten year old. Twelve hours minimum along the A5 with more than the occasional stop to replenish father at various hostelries en route, not to mention the break downs. Journeys in old cars, long before MOT's were heard of, in austere times when Motorways were a far away dream and pot holed roads, ravaged by wartime use were not high on the list of repair priorities by Government departments.

 

Mother, father, various dogs and yours truly made this journey at least three times a year to visit grandparents. Christmas, Easter and school holidays were the agreed times, and now in hindsight all the journeys were horrific, or wonderful according to how you remember them. For a start the cars were nearly always pre 1930 and none of them cost more than fifteen quid. None of them had heaters and most of them had hoods which were torn or held together with sticky tape or coat hanger wire. None of them were capable of more than forty five mph and that was down hill, with a following wind. Brakes were a hit and miss affair, almost literally and head lights were as dim as a nun's nightie. Street lights were the same… if there were any. White lines with cat's eyes suddenly seemed to veer off into muddy ditches or fields and road signs pointed the way to intended destinations via bridle paths and farm tracks.

 

However we didn't know any better, it was a way of life, it was normal and so were the drink and drive laws. Father wouldn't contemplate such a monumental expedition to the Metropolis without a monumental amount of alcohol to steady the nerve. Anyway he always drove better after a couple or six. And he was a Barrister!

 

So picture a typical scene. The day before Christmas Eve and Mum and I are all packed and ready for father to come back in the car he has been testing after a day spent underneath putting in new piston rings. Its now early afternoon and father disappeared at eleven. We both know that he's at the Bull, fortifying himself for the journey ahead, but more than that, being a crafty devil, the journey, his journey is planned according to pub opening and closing times, and there are lots of watering holes along the A5. We stare out of the window; we always stare out of this same window at these times, we've done it for years. Any thought about phoning the pub was as alien, in those days, as drinking and driving is today.

 

Eventually we hear the car, it's now about three in the afternoon, and father pulls up outside. He gets out, gives a front tyre a perfunctory kick and opens the bonnet. This is all show; we know that. He thinks we will think he's been having more trouble with the engine and has spent the last two hours fixing it. We say nothing.

The car is a Morris Cowley. A fine motor car in its day, unfortunately its day was in 1928 it is now around 1954. The hood is in tatters and my seat, which should have been in the dickey (The specially designed boot seat), was taken up with luggage. Eventually we were ensconced in the car, me on mother's lap, the dog under the dash board. Three flasks of sweet tea and Marmite sandwiches catered for our hunger pangs and hot water bottles provided the heat, as did various blankets and at least four layers of clothing. The hood was kept down as father thought that the various draughts induced by the exceptional speed he could now induce out of the finely tuned engine would give us lumbago.

 

 

 

 

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