As I set off from Warwick on Christmas Eve, with a bin-liner of Christmas presents bungee’d to the rear carrier and wearing a stupidly overstuffed rucksack, I did just start to wonder what I’d let myself in for. It wasn’t so much that the wind was getting up. Nor that the sky had turned a blacker shade of dark – it was the horizontally flying ice and the forlorn sight of multiple cars spun into the roadside ditches along the A46 that gave me pause for thought. I didn’t know it at the time, but this was the start of the coldest winter ever recorded in that part of the world — and small comfort it would have given me had I known this.
Two hours and rather less than thirty miles later, I was still slithering towards the M6 motorway at Birmingham. At this rate my mother would be keeping my Turkey warm for Boxing Day. At which point a small icy particle of inspiration sleeted through my brain, thusly: Trains get places (eventually) even in bad weather. Trains have guard’s vans for the luggage. My motorcycle would fit in a guards van. So rather than the M6 slip, I turned directly for the centre of Birmingham and New Street station. I bought a ticket for Edinburgh, and one for my Honda, just to add some legitimacy, however spurious, to the exercise. Unbelievably, even for the time, I managed to blag self, luggage and bike onto the second train to Edinburgh, the guard on the first having exercised the micro-power of the disenfranchised in telling me to, “Sod off, sonny”. The train was so crowded that I spent the entire journey lying along the bike, my feet on the its handlebars and using my rucksack as a pillow. All whilst doing 70mph up the West Coast Main Line. I’m sure Einstein would have had something pithy to say about frames of reference…
My parents were just a little surprised when I and Honda materialised from the storm, looking like nothing so much as a rather baggy Yeti. They were even more surprised that i was actually moderately warm and dry underneath. It was some time before they realised that my final ride home had been all of the six miles from Waverley station — just as I was working myself into a Munchausenesque fable of lashed-to-the-mast heroism, my father, who’d wandered into the garage to eyeball a bike with precisely four times as many cylinders as any he’d ever owned, spotted the British Rail luggage tag still affixed to the Honda’s rack. The game was up.
So honour of course demanded that I did in fact ride back all the way to Warwick. By now it was January 2 and the storm had abated to the point where it was merely lashing with rain from a Westerly gale: sheer luxury. Waving my parents goodbye, I turned South and towards the hills of the Scottish Borders. It’s a reasonably well established fact that hills rise and that, as they rise, the temperature falls. By the time I was 50 miles from Edinburgh, I was riding in the teeth of a blizzard: not dry fluffy snow either, but big soggy flakes that hit, stuck and melted on my one-piece oversuit. This I had been expecting: I was wearing multiple layers of thermal underwear, ski gear, woolly seaboot socks, silk undergloves and those good old mainstays of British foul-weather exercise, Wellington boots. All would have been well, save for one thing: rather than having the legs of my oversuit OVER my wellies, I had stylishly tucked them INTO their tops. The rest was inevitable: the melting snow ran down my waterproofs and oh so efficiently filled up my boots. Capillary action via my socks then dragged the freezing meltwater up my rapidly chilling legs. At Coldstream, i spent the best part of an hour in the toilet of a petrol station, holding, in turn, wellies and feet under the hot-air drier.
The next couple of hundred miles are now a merciful blur in my memory. Suffice it to say that by roughly 2am I had made it as far as the Southbound M6 near Birmingham. The wind had dropped, the snow had vanished and the night looked set fair, even if I was tired beyond the need for mere sleep. But was I about to let off that easily? I think not — the fog that now descended just got thicker and thicker, reducing my world to a small yellow glowing bubble of reflected headlight and the glint of the cats-eyes marking the motorway lanes. It was so thick that I was riding by looking down to my left in order to follow the adjacent lane markers – nothing else was visible.
The rear lights of a car emerging from the mist in front of me were a welcome point of reference, so much so that I latched onto the vision and simply followed it. I held this position for quite some time, until I realised that he was driving rather more slowly than before. Figuring that he’d seem something ahead that I couldn’t, I slowed down too. He slowed down further. So did I. He then stopped. In the absence of much alternative and in my own internal fog of weariness, I stopped too. My brain was slowly processing the fact that I was now stopped, for no apparently good reason, on the M6. I hadn’t reached any sort of conclusion when a figure emerged from out of the murk, in the process of seating his uniform cap on his head. “Good evening, sir”, said the slightly bemused looking Policeman, “And can I help you?”. “Hello officer” I mumbled through helmet and balaclava, “What’s the hold-up on the road?”. “Hold-up, sir? Now what hold-up would that be?”. At this point a small swirling of the fog momentarily lifted the visibility to all of thirty feet, quite enough to reveal that the car I’d been following was a police car and that he was now parked on one of the raised “pig perches’ that are found alongside British motorways. I’d only gone and followed him onto it. To his huge credit, his reaction was one of sympathy rather than derision and, when he found out how long I’d been on the road for, he insisted on escorting me the rest of the way down the motorway until I peeled off into the suburbs of Warwick and home.
That was twenty-five years ago. Tomorrow, I’m moving house, back to Scotland after more than twenty years in Surrey. This time my motorcycle is going in the removals van and I, partner and cats are doing the journey in the heated comfort of my four-wheeled BMW. I think I’d call that progress.