I haven’t done long hours in a car on the motorway since I was a child holidaying with my family or driving up to university in Lancaster with my then boyfriend, Jamie. I had imagined romantically that the long hours spent on the road up to and home from Carlisle would be spent in happy conversation, listening to music and basking in the warm glow that only a mini-break can provide. Obviously, I have spent long, long hours travelling with TA before: plane journeys to Australia, a trip to Penrith on the train. And I have spent time navigating for TA while he drives before, once in Australia and a couple of times when we have moved. So I realised that TA gets fractious when he travels and stressed when he drives, however, nothing had prepared me for the grim realities of our road trip – a pleasure jaunt it was not.
First off, the roads were horrible – the M6 was bumper to bumper from Birmingham to Preston (on the trip home we were virtually stationary for hours between Oxford and home) and the radio didn’t work so we were stuck in traffic without any distractions. TA’s first observation of the M6 held true for the entire journey: “it’s just one long line of disappointment.” Second, TA is a bit of a softie when it comes to driving (understandable, since he drives about once a year) and required frequent stops – when Jamie and I used to drive up to Lancaster he’d not stop unless he absolutely had to, we’d burn up the M6 listening to Terry Pratchett books on tape and get there in less than six hours – so I was a bit surprised by this need for breaks.
At our frequent stops there was nothing to do except eat and avail ourselves of the facilities. The facilities were, predictably, a bit grim…but the food was unbelievably ghastly. I’d never eaten at a motorway services before – since with Jamie we’d never stopped and when travelling en famille my mother had always packed a picnic, which would be eaten in a field or the car a few miles away from the motorway. I think over the course of the weekend we had four meals on the road. The last dinner (at Oxford: if you ever need to stop there, don’t) was beyond my powers of description. TA had some ‘award-winning’ sausages. The menu didn’t say what the award was for, quite possibly they won the ‘least digestible and most revolting’ award. By all accounts a rat on a stick would have been more palatable. I had been fooled by the food on display into choosing a one-pot pie and chips combo. La! The pie was an optical illusion. The greasy skinned troglodyte unfortunate who was trapped behind the serving counter (I believe that his feet were chained, certainly he moved very slowly, and his name badge could well have said ‘Igor’) shuffled to a cupboard. Out came an empty pot into which he ladled dark brown lumpy goo. He then lurched over to another cupboard with a pair of tongs. A pastry – I use the term loosely – lid was perched on top of the sludge. Despite every fibre of my body screaming “No!” I took a bite of the pastry. It tasted as though it had been deep-fat fried in oil extruded from adolescents with acne. Vile. The brown sludge was marginally more edible and I even managed to identify some of the vegetable components, but the variety of meat eluded me. Finally, although the chips were golden, upon eating them it became apparent that they were raw.