Posted in Personal life

What’s in a Car Name?

Photo of my car on a road
Bye bye, Ka

Last month, the law of unintended consequences dictated that I should acquire a new car. Dropping in to a local garage to chivvy progress on my dad’s car’s MOT, I found myself wandering around its used car lot and falling in love at first sight with a Fiat Panda. If only actual pandas had the same impact on each other, there’d be a lot more pandas in this world.

For some time, I’d been meaning to replace my aging Ford Ka. It had a lot in common with the proverbial spade that the old man claims was his grandfather’s before him – except the handle and the metal part have each been replaced several times.

Pandas on show float
Laura on our Edinburgh Zoo themed float at last year’s village show

Sublime & Ridiculous

Although I loved my Ford Ka, I’d been constantly irritated by its name. I could never decide whether to pronounce it to rhyme with “car” or as the initials K A. The only redeeming feature was the suffix “Sublime”, in honour of its leather seats and air-conditioning.

In the same way that you get “Friday afternoon cars”, haphazardly assembled by demob-happy workers, the Ford Ka brand name must be a Friday afternoon marketing job. It’s about as sensible as Mr Kipling launching a new product called “Kayke”, hard to differentiate from the rest of his exceedingly good cakes. (He hasn’t done this yet, by the way – but, Mr Kipling, if you’re reading this, please don’t go there.)

But what’s not to love about a car named after an iconic and lovable animal? Not to mention its endless potential for jokes.

“There’s a panda in my front garden,” I’m able to say to anyone gullible enough to listen to me speculating as to whether Waitrose stocks bamboo. Or “I’m thinking of taking my panda to the zoo at the weekend.” You get the picture.

Edinburgh Zoo panda eating bamboo
Breakfast with a panda at Edinburgh Zoo last autumn

Faster than a Speeding Panda

Other cars named after animals are usually associated with speed: Jaguar, Cougar, Impala. Even a beetle moves fast in relation to its size.  Pandas are famously inert, as our visit to Edinburgh Zoo two summers ago hammered home: the crowd jumped the first time Tian Tian moved.

Optimistically, the Zoo has installed a “panda cam” so you can watch live action footage around the clock. Most of the time, there’s not much difference between the video and the still photo at the top of the webpage. If it’s action you’re after, click on “penguin cam” or “squirrel monkey cam”. It must have been a close call in Fiat’s marketing department one Friday between the Fiat Panda and the Fiat Sloth.

Still, it could have been worse: I could have opted for a Vauxhall Nova, which may sound fine and shiny-new till you drive to Spain, when it morphs into the Vauxhall Doesn’t Go. Which is where I came in with my Ford Ka.

(As the BBC likes to say, in the interests of fairness, other makes of car and cake are available.)

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This post first appeared in the Tetbury Advertiser, June 2015.

Posted in Travel

What Size is Your Jersey?

This exaggerated-colour image of Jersey was ta...
Satellite view of Jersey (Image via Wikipedia)

Collecting our hire car at the airport, I wonder whether fuel will be cheaper on this island, renowned for its lenient taxation.  I don’t have the chance to find out.

“The tank’s half full but don’t bother replenishing it before you return the car,” says the chirpy young man at the Hertz desk.

“But we’re here for five days – will that be enough?”

He smiles kindly, as one might at a child who’s just asked a sweetly naive question.

“Jersey is a small island, you know.  Half a tank will last you more than twice five days.”

I accept his advice.  I’m never one to rush to the petrol pump, the red zone on my fuel gauge being a familiar friend of mine – as is the area just below the letter “E” for “Empty”.  This approach always makes for a more interesting journey.

Prior to our trip, I’ve read in the guide book that the roads in Jersey are very narrow.  This does not worry me.  Where I live in rural Gloucestershire, there are plenty of single-track roads.  Provided you make a mental note of the passing places as you drive, the worst that can happen is that you have to reverse more often than you’d choose.

What I hadn’t expected was the island’s low speed limit.  It’s just 40mph at its fastest, 30 or less in built-up areas and down to 15 in “Green Lanes” (whatever they are).  As most of the roads are barely the width of our hired Ford Ka, I’m not sure how the road network can accommodate the cars of affluent residents.  (I spot more Rolls Royces in our five days on the island than I’ve seen in Gloucestershire all year.) The few roads that are multi-laned are always packed bumper-to-bumper with slow-moving traffic.

But it doesn’t matter that every journey is slow, because the distance to be travelled is tiny. Looking at the map, you assume a trip to the other side of the island will be a pleasant day out, so it comes as a shock when you arrive at your destination in less than half an hour.

We are staying in St Helier on the south coast. The drive to the zoo, near the north coast, takes about five minutes.  So although we are forced to drive slowly, it still feels as if we’re driving at great speed because we reach our destinations so quickly.  Sometimes it’s not even possible to map read as fast as we travel. I feel like I’m queen of the island, I’m mistress of the entire Jersey road network.

The low speed limit also makes the island seem bigger than it really is.  If we applied normal British speed restrictions, it would seem even tinier.  Any small state despot should follow suit: it will make him feel much more important.

If we were using at a road map that included the European mainland visible from Jersey’s east coast, we’d soon gain a true sense  of perspective.  But as the only land mass on our tourist map is the island itself, it’s easy to forget  how small it is – especially when the brochures are constantly boasting that we’re on the largest Channel Island.

I’m reminded of the long-suffering Miss Hardy, who had the misfortune to be my Geography teacher before the subject became cool.  The environmental movement must be a gift to Geography teachers everywhere, making the subject  relevant to pupils’ every day lives. I still struggle to find a practical use for my intimate knowledge of the jute production cycle. No wonder we got bored enough to play pranks, one by one hiding under the desks whenever her back was turned until the classroom seemed empty.

Despite our bad behaviour, Miss Hardy’s face would light up whenever she talked about a year she’d spent on an exchange in  an Australian school.  She told us once “I said to my hosts ‘You are so lucky to live on an island!’ and they said to me ‘But you do!'”  What a delightfully colonial mistake to make.  And if a Geography teacher can get confused about scale, I’ll not be too harsh on myself for my own misconception of Jersey.

I’m less sympathetic to the couple in front of me at the admissions desk to Jersey Museum.

“The island’s so much bigger than we thought it would be,” the woman was saying in a plaintive voice.  “In one episode of Bergerac, we saw John Nettles  on the north west coast, and the next minute he was in St Helier.  It took us half an hour to make the same journey!”

The lady behind the desk gave a wry smile.  I don’t think it was the first time she’d fielded this complaint.

“That’s just the editing,” she said patiently.  “It’s what television people do.”

Good old Bergerac, he must really have boosted tourism to the island – no wonder the museum attendant rushed to his defence. But I don’t think I’d choose him as my tour guide.

Posted in Travel

The Camper Van Salute

Orange-White Volkswagen T2 Camper Van with ope...
Have camper van, will travel (Image via Wikipedia)

We realise early on in our ownership of a camper van that there is a special action that drivers of such vehicles use to greet each other.  Whenever they approach each other on a road, they must slowly raise their right arm, not really in a wave, but more of a casual, off-duty salute.

It’s generally the duty of the driver to offer up the camper van salute.  But if the driver is engaged in a particularly tricky manoeuvre, the front seat passenger assumes responsibility.  And when both driver and passenger are in a particularly happy frame of mind, as at the start of a new trip, they may throw caution to the winds and both offer this distinctive cheery wave.

When we first latch on to this tradition, we hail our kindred spirits self-consciously, embarrassed if the approaching van driver does not reciprocate. But now we’re old hands at it, if you’ll pardon the pun, we’re expert.  And we rank salutees after they’ve passed us.  We’re pleased if we get a double response, dismissive if ignored.  When abroad, we check out the country sticker after they’ve passed.

“Ah, les Francais,” we murmur sagely, or “Nederlander”, “Italiano”, as appropriate,  if their nationality is the key to their response.

This harmless fun adds interest to a long journey.  It soon becomes a habit so ingrained that we sometimes forget that we are not in our van.  Pottering through Cotswold lanes in my little Ford Ka, I occasionally raise an arm in fellowship to an approaching motorhome towering above me.  Even more foolishly, I’ve done it once or twice on my pushbike.  In those circumstances, the camper van salute is about as likely to get noticed as a sailing dinghy hailing a cross-channel ferry (and we’ve all heard stories about ocean liners arriving at their destination with dinghies splattered across their bows like summer flies on a car windscreen).  But even if the drivers do notice my gaffe, I don’t suppose they mind.  We camperers are jolly, sociable types and we’re very forgiving.  I’m just slightly on my guard in case I ever do it to Germans: I’d hate them to get the wrong idea.

On my husband’s recent solo jaunt around the Scottish Highlands, (“This van is my passport to the Munros!”), he befriended a German camper van driver.  His new German friend, also travelling alone, confided in Gordon that he’d had an unpleasant experience the night before.  He’d just stopped for the night in an empty, isolated car park, when a group of boy racers turned up out of the blue.  They proceeded to drive menacingly around his camper van at high speed, shrieking and mocking.  Eventually they got bored and drove off, leaving him shaken but unharmed.

“I do not know why they do this,” he told Gordon plaintively.  “I worry that it is because of my German vehicle sticker.  They see that big D on my bumper and they think of what my country did in the war.”

My husband rushes to reassure him.

“Oh no, it won’t be that, I’m sure.  We’ve all forgotten about the war a long time ago.”

He wonders why the German is looking less than convinced.

It’s only an hour later, undressing back in our camper van, that Gordon realises he’s wearing a Dad’s Army t-shirt, bought for a snip in Stornoway at a Tesco’s post-Fathers’ Day sale.

So he’d mentioned the war, but this time I don’t think he got away with it.

Posted in Travel

Rage Against the Road Signs

Buffalo road sign at Delta Junction, Alaska
Image by Arthur Chapman via Flickr

“Please take care whilst overtaking.”

For the next few miles, I’m too busy thinking up less pompous alternatives to “whilst” to pay much attention to my driving technique.  (Any passing motorist from The Plain English Society would throw up their hands in horror at this road sign – never a good move behind the wheel of a car.)

Some distance north, another sign urges further caution: “Better late than never. Don’t speed.”

What nagging fishwife has been let loose in the signage department today? Whatever next?  “Driving like that won’t get you there any faster, will it?”

These aggravating signs are not confined to English roads.  A half-term trip to Scotland yields some prime examples. Driving out of Tyndrum, an area in which my mobile phone has no signal for some miles, I am implored to “Don’t text while driving – don’t risk it!” Chance would be a fine thing. On the M9 near Perth, I am bizarrely urged to “Think Bike!” – even though bikes aren’t allowed on motorways.  Heading home, as we near the border with England, we are advised to “Plan ahead – visit trafficscotland”.  Surely it would have made more sense to promote this service to visitors entering Scotland, rather than those about to leave?

I really question the value of these new motorway signs, whose big black gantries sprang up all over the country a few years ago, in a flurry of pre-recession investment by the Ministry of Transport.  A civil engineer friend enlightened me when I wondered why so many cables were being laid alongside the motorway.

“The new driver information system,” he advised. “They’ll reduce road rage by keeping motorists informed.  It’s a good thing.”

Well, so far, they’ve not improved my mood.  The  only traffic-related messages I’ve seen on them have borne no relevance to my journey.  Each time I see them looming, my heart sinks, assuming they are preparing me for an imminent traffic jam. But driving from Bath to Bristol, they inform me of road closures in Devon.  Heading from Bristol to Bath, pile-ups on the M25 seems to be their main concern.  It’s as if the person responsible for updating the signs nationwide regularly drops their box of messages and inadvertently muddles them up, with the result that each message is input in the wrong location.  As I furrow my brow on the M4, are Devon drivers and M25 motorists puzzling over hold-ups affecting my route?

Then two weeks ago, after joining the M4 at Junction 19, for a single-hop journey home from Junction 18, I finally came across a message that was meaningful to me:  “Junction 18 closed – one night only – tonight!” The tone was proud and celebratory, as if this were a special offer and a cause for rejoicing.  Too late to change my route, I had to sail helplessly past the closed-off Junction 18, now cheerfully bedecked in orange traffic cones.  I had no choice but to continue London-bound, my home metaphorically receding in my rear-view mirror.  My twenty minute journey ended up taking over an hour, thanks to the unexpected diversion.

But I’ll not despair.  One day I’ll find a motorway sign that really hits the spot for me. And I know just what it will say:

“Caution: Irritating Road Sign Ahead”.