On Saturday evening I had a restaurant table booked in London for me, my wife, and two dear friends whom we don’t see as often as we’d like. It had been arranged several weeks ago, and I was looking forward to it mightily.
When I awoke in Manchester on the appointed morning I found that a good six inches of snow had fallen during the night. The radio told me that thousands of drivers had been trapped on the north-bound M6 overnight, and that travel was chaotic in many places. However, the forecast for the North-West was dry, although there was some snow forecast for Southern England later in the day. What to do? My journey from Manchester to West London normally takes me a shade over 3 hours. So I decided to leave at 10am, leaving me, say, a good seven hours to get back, allowing for a quick shower and change and a tube to Central London in time for our table.
Not content with that calculation alone, I checked the Highways Agency website constantly up to the point of departure. It assured me that the M60, the M6, the M42, and the M40 were all flowing freely. I felt that there was no need to cancel my dinner to everyone’s disappointment, most particularly my own, since the only possible fly in my travelling ointment was snow near London later in the afternoon. But I should be home shortly after 1pm, 2pm at the latest. My biggest worry was about whether when the snow came “later in the afternoon” it would disrupt the Central Line on which we depended to get to the restaurant. As I made my final preparations for my 10am exit, I heard a Highways Agency representative on the radio advising motorists against all but essential travel. This seemed at odds with the more complacent advice on the agency’s website, but in any case, what exactly is essential travel? Is a long organised and cherished assignation with good friends an essential purpose? Or is that only the case if you’re perhaps acting as courier for a liquid nitrogen cooled liver for the use of a reformed alcoholic?
I got to Birmingham by just before midday, which was pretty much what I would have expected. The M60 where, don’t forget, there was 6 inches of lying snow in the car-park of my block of flats but 20 metres from the motorway, was entirely clear. All three lanes looked as if there’d been nothing more than a passing shower. The same was true of the M6. I was feeling confident, and justified in my decision to travel. That meal, for its part, was feeling more delicious than ever.
As I was choosing not to enrich the private owners of the M6 (Toll) the snow began. The M6 through Birmingham was busy, and the snow was beginning to settle, but the traffic was moving freely enough, or at least as freely as it ever does on the approaches to Spaghetti Junction. The snow got heavier. And heavier. As this seemed to me to be neither “Southern England” nor “later in the afternoon” I was a little put out. By the time I reached the turn off for the M42, things were getting more serious. The M42 to the M40 junction is about 10 or 15 miles. It took me about 2 hours. Suddenly, as the restaurant called me at about 1.45pm to confirm my attendance, I had my first pangs of doubt. But I still had plenty of time. I told them I fully intended to be there. On the M40, at 15.45, and perhaps a handful of miles further on, I phoned to cancel.
Between phoning my wife at 4.30pm, and texting her at 6.15pm I think I managed about 4 miles. At 7.15pm I came to a full stop. A full stop that lasted for the next 5 hours, punctuated only by a couple of 100 yard dashes at 2 miles per hour. Birmingham to Oxford is perhaps about 50 miles: it took me 11 hours. Eventually, just before junction 8a on the M40 at the Oxford services, the traffic began to move a little more consistently, perhaps averaging 10 mph. Unsurprisingly, a lot of cars left the motorway at the junction – if for no other reason I imagine than to allow their female occupants to relieve themselves. At least I and other men had had the opportunity to create little yellow hollows in the snow, albeit in the disconcerting glare of others’ headlights. One can only hope that women were either immune to embarrassment, possessed of gigantic bladders, or had waterproof containers to hand in their vehicles.
Almost immediately after the junction, for reasons that are entirely incomprehensible to me, the traffic melted away with an ease that the snow was refusing to emulate. Having been party to a vast communal car-park for the last 8 hours, I was suddenly driving lonely as a cloud. Gradually I was able to drive at a breathtaking 40mph. And then 50mph. After Stokenchurch Gap, as the motorway rises spectacularly up the escarpment of the Chiltern Hills, things got more difficult again, but I finally made it home at 2am. 16 hours in total and a mere 7 hours late for my restaurant rendezvous.
One thing in particular remains in my memory, and it’s not the cold, the boredom, the hunger, or the irritation of missing my dinner. It was the comment made by a very cross officer of the Highways Agency that was endlessly broadcast by the media as we sat in our icy prison on the motorway. “It seems”, he fulminated, “that drivers have ignored our clear warnings not to travel today. I’ve never seen so much traffic on a Saturday evening. People need to take more notice, look at our website, listen to the radio. Now our gritters cannot even get to grit the roads for all the cars littering the carriageways. We need total access to the road network at the weekends to ensure they are clear for the commute to work on Monday!”
Ah. I see. Essential means work. Not frivolous appointments at fancy restaurants with friends you haven’t seen for ages. And I was just one of the thousands of irresponsible citizens who brought it all on ourselves.
Actually, Mr Clever-Cloggs Highways Agency Spokesman, I beg to differ. I am not irresponsible, but I’m not psychic either. I did all the things you said I should have done, except at 10am your website wasn’t saying what you might well have been saying at 1pm once the snow had started. But that was a bit bloody late for me. No, I was not irresponsible. I was unlucky. And by the same token, I do not blame the Highways Agency for the fact that they failed utterly to keep the M40 clear of the prodigious amount of snow that fell in a mere couple of hours. Although after hearing your irritable, self-righteous comments for the 10th time, I was mighty tempted. I don’t blame you. And next time, perhaps you’d kindly refrain from blaming me.