The other day I went on quite a long car journey and arrived back home late at night. The road I drove down, doing my best, in the dark, to concentrate on the white lines and cats-eyes unrolling in front of me, was a relatively new one to me. My routes are chosen partly by contingency and partly by what I want to feel as I travel. I have to admit the nostalgia suckers me and the route I took holds my interest more than the newer, faster, more uniform A1. Twilight enhances the effect: the fading of the sun changes the world from
colour to black and white, surely the medium of preference for the lost world I’m dreaming of. The A1 cuts a line North across England, to the East of the Pennines. Here and there, along its length, sections of older roads shadow it, often just beyond the wooden fences and the recently-planted trees that border the new road. These areas of so-called “soft estate”, designed to screen out the road from the outside evoke, from the inside, a half-imaginary distant past of continuous forest and wild land. However, I’ve taken to traveling on those old, straight roads beyond the fences. When I do so I always feel an elusive sense of a more recent past – of non-dualled “A roads” dotted with occasional lay-bys, garages, lorry parks and cafés.
My first journeys were made in a succession of second hand Lada estate cars. These were great. The British motor-trade used to endlessly denegrate the Lada: they were cheap cars and I can only think they knew that if everyone realised how good they were, more people would buy them. They were good, too, in an age when one could realistically fix one’s own car. I used to change the plugs and the oil myself. Once, I corrected an electrical fault by dismantling, fixing and rebuilding a relay.
Frequently in those days I found myself driving from where I lived in Halifax to my parents’ house in Wensleydale, usually with my children, who were very small then. The road out of Halifax climbs almost up to the level of the lowest South Pennine moors. You pass the forest-lined Ogden Reservoir on you left. On the moor above it, there used to be a pub, The Withins Inn. When we first moved to Yorkshire, we went there a lot. You could go for a walk on the moor and buy a pint of beer and a cheap lunch afterwards. It was a good morning out for hill-loving adults with small children. Last time I drove past it, it was a private house. The moor beyond it is dotted with white wind turbines.
Whenever I drive that first leg of the journey -from Halifax to Keighley- I imagine the area I’m traveling through being used as a location for a film of Lord of the Rings. This is my Mordor. It’s a land of marginal-looking farmland divided by tumble-down, blackened stone walls. Wuthering Heights country lies just over the hill. It’s grim. At least, it feels that way, to me.
Beyond Keighley, the land softens a little. At Skipton, the gritstone gives way to limestone. The whole landscape seems lighter. I find it impossible to drive up Wharfedale to Kilnsey and beyond without wanting to stop, get out and walk on the hills. In fact, it strikes me now that to drive, to travel along lines from one places to another, is often associated, for me, with walking fantasies. Something in me wants to make the journey I’m making on foot and -where there are hills- along the hilltops. From the comfortable interior of a car, all seems effortless. The windscreen can so easily become too like the screen of a silent film. You think you’re in a place – but you can’t smell it or hear it. Is it warm or is it cold? You can’t feel the breeze on your face. If it’s raining, the wipers brush the water aside. You’re hardly there at all. It comes home to you when you cycle the same route and you experience all the missing elements. You realize, too, how steep the hills are. It comes home to you, too, when things go wrong.
Once, I was driving through Wharfedale in the dark, with my two small children in the back (it was before the third was born). Not far from where the road passes Kilnsey Crag, I found myself driving through a deep puddle. It came up to the bottom of the door, and seemed, in the dark, to go on forever. It had never happened to me before: I did what I’d been told to do and came out safely the other side.
Then the car stopped. I tried to start it again, but nothing happened. I was sat, in the dark on a remote road with two (for now) sleeping children in the back. What does one do? It was before the days of mobile phones. After a few minutes, another car came came down the road. Sensing a problem, the driver stopped. He said he’d be coming back the same way in a few minutes and if I was still here, he’d tell the garage in Kettlewell. It was good of him but there was no need. A few minutes later the electrics dried out and the car started.
I think of this every time I pass Kilnsey Crag. I don’t drive past it very often these days but when I did, years ago, I’d often stop to watch rock climbers attempting the overhang. Something about the cliff captured my imagination. My father painted me a watercolour of it. It’s hanging on the wall over my left shoulder as I type.