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To University

To University


It is a long drive north. I struck out in a straight line from the secure bubble of south east England with the confidence of having not yet made any grave missteps, which is not to say that everything had gone entirely to plan. It hadn't. I had intended to go to university in London, but I found myself setting out for the north-east, heading for Durham: the university - but not the city. My choice of course had assigned me to a new campus in Stockton-on-Tees. I had no prior notions about either Durham or Stockton, particularly the latter, but I was a pragmatist and content that I would find out soon enough.

I was fortunate to have inherited a little white Ford Fiesta from my aunt which either she or I had named Hugo, so it made sense to leave for university under my own steam, or internal combustion engine. I ruled out spending 4 or 5 hours on the achingly boring M1. It is safe to conclude that the early novelty and modernism of that particular maiden motorway has lapsed. It is no longer celebrated on postcards displaying eerily empty twin stretches of tarmac. You would think, given the armfuls of research showing that boredom while driving contributes to fatigue, the Department for Transport might purge some inefficiencies and award cash to Robert Montgomery or Alex Chinneck, in exchange for something diverting between Edgware and Micklefield. Fewer drivers might conclude their journeys in the central reservation. I chose the A1 to wend Hugo and I up the country.

Cobbled together from chunks of the historic Great North Road and other local highways and byways, the A1 has a friendly, human scale, but also a sense of possibility. Keep going and you will end up in the capital city of a different country, with its castle perched upon a volcanic crag! It is a road that appears in songs and stories, or at least its forebears do. It carried Dick Turpin, the pox-marked butcher and highwayman, in his flight away from misdeed. It is the road that ends in London's gold-paved streets.

As far as I know, the M1 has not been immortalised in song. Although now I think of it, Black Box Recorder's dreamy but sinister "The English Motorway System" conjures the meditative state required to tolerate this most monotonous of roads. The song threatens:

"The English motorway system is beautiful and strange
It's been there forever, it's never going to change
It eliminates all diversions, it eliminates all emotions
(All you got to do to stay alive is drive)

The places the A1 passes by are close at hand, visible from the road, giving a sense of progress and place which I never felt rushing past the engineered embankments of the M1, with its acoustic fencing and pine baffles stretching to convergence. The A1 would take me 200 of the 300 miles I had to cover, through other people's home towns. Places I had only seen on maps, but which reassured with their stolid middle-aged man names: Stevenage, Peterborough, Grantham, Doncaster. On future journeys, passing through Pontefract never failed to perk me up. The name was pleasing to my ear. Ponte fractus. Broken bridge. What historical mishap had befallen the place? On each journey past the town, I would scold myself for not thinking to pack Liquorice Allsorts to assuage my inevitable craving for the sweet-salty black stuff.

My car was laden with the music, books, pots, pans, soft furnishings and other sundry goods I imagined I would need for this embryonic, independent life I was speeding towards. Speeding? Perhaps not. Perched under the car bonnet, a small 1.1 litre engine suggested I had over-packed and so, to avoid aggravating my fellow drivers, I had to keep my foot on the floor. My journeys north were plagued by numb feet. A snowstorm of electricity would blossom in the balls and toes of my feet before fading, leaving behind dead lumps of meat. I felt sure that if I removed a shoe, I would be faced with something blunt and grotesque, like a Dahlian, toeless witch's foot.

300 miles is a long way on any road and, despite the jukebox of Radiohead and grunge tunes supplied by the portable Sony Minidisc player I had plumbed into the car's radio, it was boring. As tedium and pins and needles set in, the needle of the speedometer fell in sympathy.

At the mid-way point, I would break up my journey with a fry-up at a truck stop, attracted by the anachronistic 50s-style diner clad in chrome, which had probably not landed from outer space in rural Lincolnshire. As a lone, teenaged female, my presence was also anachronistic. I slunk behind my enormous mug of tea and outlandishly large cooked breakfast and tried not to feel intimidated by the burly, red-faced truckers who had definitely noticed me.

I would be momentarily tempted to stop at a Little Chef and eat a plate of fried carbs and protein there, instead, in a heady daze of nostalgia. The outlet transported me back to the 1980s and happy holiday car journeys with my grandparents. Sitting unrestrained in the back seat, ticking off road signs, foreign license plates and roadworks in my i-Spy book. A stop at the Little Chef (or his arch nemesis the Happy Eater) meant the unbeatable fat-sugar combination of chips and an ice cream sundae. The A1 truck stop's fare was cheaper and better, though, so I did not.

I have never enjoyed driving. Perhaps it is the undeniable and imminent threat of death that we brush aside as we step into our little tin cars, in one of many mundane, quotidien examples of our management of terror. Tyre tracks on the asphalt, crumpled corrugated steel flanks, glassy carmine chips of break light sprinkled on the carriageway. I have noticed that when we talk about the driving experience, we are missing from it. "I missed the turning." "I ran over a pigeon." "The man reversed into me." Our vehicles are so highly engineered with their ergonomic seats curving around our spines, responsive controls designed to be in easy reach, that drivers feel like the car is a part of them. I don't feel this way. On the motorway, I am continually and acutely aware that I am hurtling along in a sheet metal box. Taking corners at speed gives me a feeling something like vertigo. It is exhausting. While I may have developed habitual memory, so I no longer have to think check mirror, indicator on, break, clutch in, change down, the vehicle is not in any way an extension of me, or if it is, it is a poorly-fitting peg leg.

It took me four attempts to pass my driving test. My first instructor barked arbitrary-seeming instructions at me, and when I had the temerity to ask why I need to change into second gear, he would reply with irritation "Because I am telling you to!" I changed instructors, got a handle on the gearbox, failed one more test (the examiner's anorak was too loud, ok?) and eventually passed. On my first solo journey, I pinged someone's wing mirror - a curt reminder that I was not a good or natural driver.

Restored by an ocean of tea and the tastier parts of a pig, I would drive on. And on.

The final stretch of the journey was the most scenic, as I neared the North Yorkshire Moors. My eye always snagged on the form of the deliciously named Roseberry Topping; a hill with a distinctive cone shape and drooping ice-creamy summit. In the months and years to come, the moors would be a refuge. Hugo would hug the twists and turns of rough country roads carved through the soft purple haze of heather, vivid moss and grey crags in search of demure tea rooms, with tablecloths, un-artfully mismatched china and good cake.

Like my home town, Stockton-on-Tees is also a market town. But it is a town on the rise from the slump caused by the retreat of heavy industry from the area. Twenty years or so ago, it was still struggling and, while I ended up feeling at home by the river, in the town's characterful pubs, enjoying live music and the nascent arts scene, I felt the absence of something when I arrived. As I neared my destination, I found myself in a modern roadscape, unrelieved by any specific geography, bar the railway lines which were heading steadfastly towards other destinations. I was almost there, but it was difficult to grasp where that might be. I suddenly felt a little lonely and at sea. I reminded myself that, on the contrary, I was going to be sharing a flat in halls with a friend from college, we were even going to be on the same course! I sat a little straighter in my seat. A little further onwards, and my map indicated that the cluster of modern sandy-coloured buildings ahead was home for the next year. Soon the shadowy forms of my four other flat mates would assume flesh, bone, gender and personality. I would learn how the railways shaped this part of the Tees Valley, which were the best charity shops for second hand books, what a parmo was, and how to avoid the eye of the elderly, garrulous drunk propping up the bar. I would befriend a determined Vietnamese powerhouse, fall in love, drip diluted drugs onto the dissected ilea of guinea pigs, cut off all my hair, and pore over the surprising pink-purple beauty of histology slides.

But first, I needed to find somewhere to park my car.

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