I like to think of myself as a Driver. Not just someone who happens to drive, mind you, an actual Driver. With a capital D. I see a car not as an object or a tool to be controlled, but as an extension of my own body. The wheels are my limbs, gripping to the road and telling me all about the road surface. The engine is a muscle, delivering power when and how I determine, and which needs rest and exercise to operate properly. And the driver’s seat, the steering wheel, the pedals, the gear stick, are all part of my central nervous system, delivering the impulses from my brain to the respective parts of the extended body. Driving, for me, is not about getting from A to B – it’s about living life in an augmented reality.
And the A303 is a fantastic road to experience that reality. I’ve been driving on it a lot recently, and each journey has built upon the last my love and appreciation for what, for many, is just a road. You see, the A303 isn’t like a motorway. It’s slower, certainly, but it’s more scenic, more interesting to drive, and requires more skill to navigate effectively. Now, I’m not saying that you have to be a qualified driver to make it all the way down the road, it’s not exactly precarious, but being a Driver means I can appreciate and embrace all the twists and turns, the adverse cambers, the ever-changing gradients, the varying speed limits, the wavering lane widths, the unpredictable surface quality. For someone trying to get from A to B, the A303 is an inefficient pain in the neck that urgently needs resurfacing and making dual-carriageway the entire length of it. And that’s why I love it so.
On Friday we went to Exmouth to visit my grandparents. We took the A37 from Shepton Mallet down to the A303, which became the A30 before joining the M5 for a single junction, and then peeling off onto another A road that took us to Exmouth. And in the evening, after much chat and a lovely lunch, we came back.
Then, on Saturday, having discovered that the puppet workshop that had prevented us going to the family party that afternoon had been cancelled at the last minute, we drove to Exmouth again. It was an unexpected joy to be able to join the family for Grandpa’s birthday, and it was wonderful to see everyone. It’s been a while since their front room has been that crowded!
And in the evening, instead of repeating the journey again, we turned left at the M5 and headed down the A380 to Paignton to stay overnight at my parents’ house. We went to church with them on Sunday morning, said hello to lots of old friends, showed off our Samuel, and after a Sunday roast we headed home, back along the A303 again.
So you might say I’ve had more than my usual helping of A303 this weekend. And despite an aching lower back and very tired eyes, I loved every minute of it.
There are some high points that I’d like to share with you, but I’d actually like to start with a particular favourite that happens to be on the A30, heading away from Exeter. Once the noisy concrete dual-carriageway melts away into country lanes and we begin the climb into the Blackdown Hills, there is a beautiful stretch where the trees envelope the road like a tunnel, wrapping you in a warm, dark blanket of leaves and dappled light in the summer. And in the winter when the trees are bare you can peer through the gaps and see out over a wide and glorious valley, with houses nestled in the hills on the far side.
Then the A30 melts into the A303, and the thrill continues to grow. The hills come one after the other, with not a straight bit of road to be seen. At one point there is a tight corner, signposted at being 25mph maximum. With an empty car, with firm suspension and precise balance (like a Mini, for instance), this corner can be taken at 40mph at least by someone with skill and guts. I know. It doesn’t take a car with an enormous engine to enjoy good handling, I did it in a 998cc Mini City.
All along there are corners of various tightness, some requiring more concentration than others. There are plenty of opportunities for making use of the whole width of the lane, clipping the apex as you go round, and taking a series of successive bends as if it were a chicane. There are hills both steep and long, each requiring a different timing for an effective down-shift. Changing gear, after all, is not a science – it’s an art; beautiful in its arrangement, flexible in its execution, expressive in its delivery. You can tell a lot about a person by the way they change gear. And the A303 is a wonderful road to exhibit all these different driving skills in a safe environment, without the danger of a rally course or race track, without the speed, without the risk to life and limb. It’s just a road. It just happens to be a beautiful one, that brings out the true colours of a person’s driving.
And yes, I am a geek, for all that, if only because I know about hitting apexes and think about cars as body parts. I am, after all, a Driver.
P.S. While writing this post I came across a fantastic road dictionary, complete with cartoon illustrations. Well worth a read for anyone interested in knowing a little more about our roads.