14 February 2008

"It's F.O.G. - Foot Off Gas"

I'm impressed with Norwich. The section of the city near the football ground seems to have undergone a serious regeneration programme. We parked up, walked through a new expanse of smart flats and elegant shops and found our fellow bescarfed colleagues in the local Wetherspoons. We only had time for one drink, as finding the right parking place, according to the rules of the stewards and police, had left us with little time to stretch legs and activate livers prior to the kick off, but I liked the look of the area greatly as we walked, drank and then walked back.

Into the stadium then. At fourteen quid a ticket, it was a sell-out (Wolves charge twice as much as that, and more, for away supporters) and as the discount had been extended to away support (which was nice of them) we also took our full allocation and took every seat available. Both teams were on good runs - us losing just once in nine matches, Norwich undefeated in a dozen - so a mouth-watering occasion was ahead of us.

The match didn't disappoint and ended 1-1, not doing either of our chances of further Championship progress any harm whatsoever. I missed out on Delia's extremely tempting-sounding cheese, mushroom and garlic pie at half time because they'd run out by the time I reached the front of the queue, but the sausage rolls were very good.

So, all in all, a good evening. With one exception.

Would somebody controlling the purse strings in the Department of Transport please give the furthest eastern patch of the country a motorway? I found myself wondering whether the reason Norwich seems so pleasant and unspoiled is because nobody can actually get there.

From Hull, it should be straightforward. The sensible commuter crosses the Humber Bridge and heads downwards. Except you can't, as from north Lincolnshire down to Suffolk - a hell of a distance - it's all A-roads, of the type which involve multiple roundabouts, accident blackspots (Lincolnshire is awful for these), sharp bends, archaic speed limits and cameras, unlit areas, tractors and cattle grids. A lone driver without satellite navigation needs also to be able to read pre-printed directions while negotiating these numerous obstacles. And woebetide you if any of your bumpy, narrow thoroughfares are closed, as it is illegal to re-programme your satnav while at the wheel...

All of this, apart from the road closure bit (mercifully) happened to me the first time I ventured from Hull to Norwich. I took the nearest route to crow flight and very nearly didn't make it. And I was commentating, so it wasn't even Hull City I went to watch. So this week, my third visit in total to Carrow Road but the second one from Hull, I decided to take the longer mileage route which would be recompensed by easier roads (the M62, M18, A1 and A47 - all three-laned, 70mph byways except the latter) and therefore would still get myself and my willing four passengers to the game in time for a quick livener in that very Wetherspoons.

This was fine in theory, although I eventually switched the satnav off as it kept telling me to U-turn back to the Humber Bridge (even as we passed A1 junctions for Newark it was doing this) and then insisted I took every single turn off for some miles prior to the one at Peterborough, the A47, for which I actually had opted.

We got to the A47 in reasonable time and had 80 miles of it to traverse in order to reach Norwich. This was the longest 80 miles of my entire life. My companions, always tolerant on our long journeys, even regressed to the age of seven apiece as their patience snapped (apparently due to unduly numb buttocks) and, with about 20 miles left, asked: "Are we nearly there yet?"

I didn't blame them. I was bored, thirsty and unmotivated. This was because of the 80 or so miles we needed to cover, only about ten of them in total were dual carriageway. This is a major route that connects the easternmost area of the country, on the chin of England and including a major city in Norwich, to the rest of the nation, and yet the traffic is largely expected to trudge through in single file. As it was around 6pm by this point, it was also rush hour as the Midlands commuters made their way back to their idyllic homes in Swaffham or King's Lynn.

And let me throw in one final word.

Fog.

I can drive when it's snowy or icy, as our council tax has, in recent years at least, finally persuaded our local authorities that gritting our motorways and major roads is A Good Thing To Do whenever a threat of sharp or extreme weather and temperatures is predicted by meterological types. Driving rain is fine. Heatwaves? Not an issue.

But fog? You can't do anything about it.

You can put on your fog lights, of course, but these crucial attachments to the back of your vehicle are of no use in slower fog-bound traffic, as the pace of the movement means you can see what's in front of you most adequately. Sometimes they do more harm than good, as I would say more drivers than not forget to switch them off when out of foggy conditions, thereby blinding whoever is behind them.

Fortunately, the fog was only sporadically heavy in East Anglia and, indeed, when we got close to Norwich it had disappeared, thereby making the game not a doubt.

Driving home was different.

Fog lights are more vital on roads clearer of users at off-peak times, naturally, and that's what we had on the A47 on our return journey. But if you think driving on a mainly single-carriageway road, in the dark, in fogs of varying levels of thick (from quite thick to peasoup), with tiredness setting in, is in any way a doddle or joy, you're mad. Or sadistic.

I have a comfortable, warm and reliable car, and eating 80 miles up is something it can do in no time at all on a proper road at a proper hour in proper weather. But what is proper in our world had ceased to exist. Conversation among my passengers about the game we'd just seen was restricted and muted as each of us tutted and wondered out loud about how much road I could see and how quickly or otherwise I could get us all home.

We trundled along, feeling like the only car in the world at the time, while also feeling thanks to the density of this ridiculous meterological phenomenon that the world was about 14 square yards big. Once the local football traffic had died out, it was ages before we saw another car, and the hours passed with much fewer miles covered than we could have wished for. Each road sign which told us how many miles to Peterborough, and the hoped sanctuary of the A1, brought a collective groan from my compadres (aside from the one who had fallen asleep when we were still in Norwich) as we realised we had wished for more miles than we'd covered.

We stopped at a Shell garage about ten miles from the A1. I wanted fuel and was gagging for a cup of tea, as were the weary boys in the back. A very British scenario - British weather, British activity, British drink. The chap behind the counter, shouting through the kiosk shutters, served us with a smile and a degree of patience. What a dispiriting experience that must have been for him - a nightshift in a garage on a quiet A-road with no town nearby and such thick fog that fewer people would have decided to set out on their journeys. I'm really grateful, and even impressed, that he was polite to us as we each ordered varying drinks and refreshments and he ran around his empire collecting them.

The tea was good as I set off again. One by one the other boys fell asleep, waking only when I announced, not caring if I woke them briefly for my joy was so real, that we had finally reached the A1 - two and a half hours after getting out of Norwich. They were a little mumbly in their response but their gratitude was obvious, and now we had a lit road. It was still foggy, but there was light, literally, at the end of the tunnel.

The A1 has patches where it forces you to slow down to 50mph because of a nearby village, and the odd roundabout to cause you consternation, but largely you can do a straight run through and allow the pedal to go downwards a tad. But in fog, you have to make a decision now that you have open, lit road - do you try to get home quicker and defy the fatigue, relying on the fog lights on vehicles ahead to guide you round the bends etc, or slow down and make the journey more arduous but microscopically safer? Tough choice for some, but not me. The foot went down in the clearer areas.

Before too long, 70 miles had been eaten up and we were at the M18. Sorry if you feel like you're on the whole journey with us, and well done for getting this far, but it's quite symbolic that you are still reading this, considering what we went through...

The M18 is a crucial motorway for Hull folk when travelling south and back, as it means we can get to and from the A1 or M1 without having to do so at right angles via Leeds. So, it was our gateway to East Yorkshire as we reached it. James, Chris, John and Ian all expressed more gratitude for our arrival at the junction (Doncaster area) as it indicated that home was, at last, a possibility before daylight.

The M18, however, was chocka with roadworks. Now I hate roadworks, while allowing for their necessary evildom, but when they are restricting you to one lane on a three-lane motorway in fog, with "average speed cameras" primed to make you even more miserable, I get annoyed. The fog was so bloody thick here, I was fearful that I could actually give up, go to the hard shoulder and offer the lads two hours' kip (which is illegal on a hard shoulder anyway). But I ploughed on, and it felt like I really was ploughing, as the car gamely cut through the mass of woollen air which had, as we managed to conclude, done for the whole of eastern England, not just Norfolk.

Eventually, we got to the M62, the last great passage to home. Ten miles on here and we'd hit the A-road into the city. The fog remained dreadful, and our frustration was heightened by those rotten matrices at the side of the road which just flash the word 'FOG' at you. Honestly, what are they trying to tell us? That we don't know what fog is? That we would assume we'd been hit by a mushroom cloud and were all about to be systematically choked to death through our aircon systems? And, in fog this thick, we never saw the flashing signs until we were almost adjacent to them, thereby making the warning signs beyond pointless.

What would have been more useful would have been an alert via the matrices above the road on the A1 and M18 to tell us that the M62 was shut.

But no. That would be too sensible and helpful.

Had we known when on the M18, there was an alternative route via the M180, the Scunthorpe and Grimsby motorway*, which we could have used and then the Humber Bridge could have got us home, albeit three quid worse off than initially expected.

But the closure of a crucial bit of motorway was not deemed important enough at 1am for a mere matrix to tell common folk like us. So we were almost smiling as we crossed the large M62 bridge over the River Ouse at Goole, a junction away from our beloved A-road, as the cones started to fall into view.

Down to one lane, we thought. Oh well, it won't be for long. Then we ended up on the slip road.

I rather like the East Yorkshire towns of Howden, Gilberdyke and Newport. But at 2am, I really don't want to be driving through them in thick fog, dodging their pointless speed cameras. Not without good reason.

I never have found out why the motorway was closed. You don't close sections of motorway because fog is too thick. In such weather, you ask drivers to be ultra-careful. You don't prolong an already agonising journey. I was livid. I was close to tears. But, in a carful of men, I showed no emotion beyond a mild expletive and went through the diversion route.

Finally, we hit Hull. Text messages were swapped with other supporters, who had chosen different routes. Honestly, you could have gone four or five different ways, but the result was pretty much the same. The fog had significantly delayed everyone, but it became evident that an eastern motorway - Lincolnshire to Suffolk - would be most useful. Not for once a year football fans, but for everyone living in those areas. Lincoln, Skegness, Gainsborough, King's Lynn, Norwich, Diss, Ipswich - big, important, populated urban areas, and yet they have little more than a single carriageway, winding, unlit road - in all directions - to use when they need to see more of the nation. I admired Norwich City's supporters for selling out their ground for their game against us; the pocket of them which jolly it round the country for away games I admire even more.

I gamely drove round the western areas of Hull to drop each of the lads off at their respective addresses, and then headed home. I climbed into my lovely bed at 3am exactly. I'd taken the nightshift off because I thought I would be too tired to do it justice; I'm even more glad I did now, as I would have been more than an hour late for work, and the hardest thing any overnight presenter ever has to do is find someone at 3am with a) a mobile switched on; and b) a forgiving and helpful nature, willing to do a short-notice bit of deputising.

I'm sorry this has been such a long post, but it kind of fits the theme of that journey. If Hull City get promoted it'll be worth it.

*It turns out that route was closed too...

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