Tuesday, January 08, 2013

Stalwart fellow

An Alvis Stalwart. Not a Fiat 500
According to reports on the British telly, 2012 was the wettest year since 2000, and that was the wettest since records began. Beloved Wife and Goat arrived in a damp but mild Blighty just before Christmas, and headed from the Heathrow terminal by fun-bus to collect the extremely Budget rental car. And the rain started.

The Goat has picked the cheapest available car from a rental firm that he’d actually heard of, and ended up with a Peugeot 107 (which is identical to a Citroën C1 apparently), a minuscule five door hatchback suitable for five adults and their luggage. Human adults, each carrying more than an iPad? Probably not. They wuz havin’ a giraffe, innit? As it turned out, neither Budget nor Avis could find a Peugeot 107, having left it behind a waste paper basket, and thus offered a free upgrade to a Fiat Cinquecento. Joy: only three doors, but a tarmac-rippling 1200cc powerhouse instead of a mere 1000cc from Peugeot-Citroën.

The Goat flattened the rear seats and shoehorned both suitcases into the back of the Fiat, and then set off with Beloved Wife and her new GPS (Clarissa II) attached by suction cup to the windscreen. New Clarissa had some interesting ideas. Instead of the most obvious route from Heathrow to Plymouth, which is along the M4 to Bristol and then M5 to Exeter and A38 to Plymouth, Clarissa decided that the A303 was cheaper, shorter, and would burn less fuel. The Goat was too tired to argue, and so the A303 it was.

In the dark and in the rain, the bendy comedy roads were a rude awakening for a Goat who’s not driven in the UK for nearly two years. But he reminded himself that these were the conditions on every driving lesson he ever took, way back when dinosaurs roamed the Earth.

Somewhere between Yeovil and Taunton, the increasingly-erratic Clarissa decided that a jolly around some tiny country lanes was in order. They got smaller and damper until one lane involved a rather deep puddle. The Goat figured that as the grass verges were visible, the puddle could be forded. Onward! More narrow bendy roads, no other traffic, no signs of civilisation. No, wait, a village (Ottery St Catchpole, or something) with a church and pub, and then more lanes and another puddle. This time, the Goat had seen red tail lights ahead, and he figured that a main road must surely be near. The puddle got deeper and deeper. It was time for bottom gear and slipping the clutch. Beloved Wife held her breath. The only sound for hundreds of metres was the bubbling of a submerged exhaust, a revving Fiat engine, and mumbling that “If I have to get out and push, I’m gonna divorce him.”

A nearby upturned wheelie bin indicated probably 15 inches of water, and the rest was creeping through the door seals and soaking the carpets. Clarissa declared that a right turn was in order at a T junction, but as this was in the direction of a river, the Goat turned left in the hope of finding higher, and more to the point, drier, ground. Beloved Wife breathed again as the Fiat shook itself dry and drove past the back of a “Flood. Road Closed” sign.

The Fiat 500 Stalwart performed faultlessly before, during, and after this incident. Fifteen inches (which is 381mm in Centigrade) is well beyond the design parameters and the warranty, one suspects. A filthy tide-mark halfway up the doors was soon washed away by the rain, but the leaves and twigs remained stuck in the car’s teeth for the whole holiday.

Foul weather continued. The national news carried stories and video showing that the main West Coast rail line had been washed away in Devon (again), and a landside near Swindon had effectively killed all rail services between London and the South West and Wales. The Goat’s decision made months previously to rent a car rather than rely on public transport had been vindicated.

A quick shout-out to Tiger Treats of Looea traditional sweet shop recently purchased by some of the Goat’s very old friends. This was part of some pre-Christmas tourism, that also included the magnificent Burne-Jones (yes, that Burne-Jones, and constructed by William Morris both associated with the PRB) window in St Germans church. Tiger Treats specialises in liquorice, and the Goat insisted that they be cleaned out of Spogsthat are otherwise inexplicably Not Coming In Dubai.

St Germans church. The Burne-Jones window
Following Christmas presents chez Nanny Goat, everyone trooped over to the Goat’s sister and family for dinner, which was predictably huge, unsurprisingly excellent, and was followed by the inevitable tryptophan coma.

A brilliant plan to drive up to Dartmoor for a brisk Boxing Day walk was thwarted by the unutterably foul weather. There were crazies running a lap (or more, who knows?) of the road around a full to overflowing Burrator Reservoir. Beloved Wife wanted warmth and dryness. This was first provided by Fiat, and then by the local cinema. On the subject of cinema, the Goat drove over Sheepstor, which is where some scenes from War Horse were filmed. Beloved Wife was not too fed up of water to see Life of Pia film involving a tiger and the entire Pacific ocean.

Burrator Reservoir, full to overflowing
Beloved Wife and Goat took the Goat’s youngest nephew to see The Hobbit the following day, before leaving to see various of the Goat’s other old friends. Thank you for your hospitality, everyone. At random, the Goat took Beloved Wife to Winchester to see the oldest pub in England (since 1030AD, allegedly) and the even older cathedral. And they also seized a brief respite from rain to visit Portchester Castle (since about 200AD)

Portchester Castle

The nave of Winchester Cathedral.
Given that it was Sunday and all the wards and protections would surely be in place, the Goat still managed to get in. He's Lawful Good after all.
Eventually, early in 2013, the rain stopped for a couple of days. The Goat returned the rental car to Avis, who made no remarks concerning compost in the grille, and purchased Oyster cards to use on London’s public transport. Beloved Wife’s treat would be a London visit, including going to see the excellent show Wicked. And more Pre-Raphaelite art at the Tate, as it turned out. A bonus was a saunter along the banks of the Thames and Lambeth Palace; the walk from Green Park to Victoria turned out to be longer than expected, even if views of Buckingham Palace are better from ground level than from the Victoria Line.

Lambeth Bridge. Lovely weather for DUKWs

One thing that was surprising was how mild the weather was. Most of the population was in winter coats; the Goat and Beloved Wife found sweaters more than adequate to keep warm. How can this be, given the thinning of the blood and intolerance of cool weather that years in the Gulf are supposed to produce?

And Clarissa? Clarissa has been reset to devise either the "Fastest Route" or "Shortest Route", and none of this "Route that drowns fewest polar bears" nonsense.


1 comment:

Ian the Dog said...

Having just done the similar journey from London to Kingsbridge (just short of Plymouth), I can tell you that the M4/M5 is longer in distance and no shorter in time that the A303 - provided you ignore Clarissa II. A303 joins A30 just before it hits the M5, and requires no village detours. Yes, it's a bit narrow in places but 95% is dual carriageway, and you get to see Stonehenge well.


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