Posted in Travel

Do Traffic Signs Drive You To Distraction?

Old-fashioned road sign from Highland Folk Museum, Newtonmore
Road signs from the early days of motoring had so much more charm

The 380-mile drive home in our camper van from Stirling, Scotland, does nothing  to diminish my aversion to electronic motorway message boards. These huge signs have popped up alongside many British motorways lately. They must be costing the Ministry of Transport a fortune, as well as causing chaos through necessary lane closures and traffic disruption.

You know the sort I mean: ominous big black boards displaying a grid of light bulbs, selectively  illuminated to spell out the message of the moment. They’re sinister, unattractive and dull, a far cry from the carefully designed road signs from the early days of motoring. Those had a real charm about them; it must have been a pleasure to observe them and obey. Their messages were much more considered too. They had to be, given the long hours required to construct a sturdy metal sign.

Old fashioned road sign frequently seen in the Scottish Highlands
For ships in the night

I suppose I should be grateful that modern technology makes it possible for today’s driver to receive up-to-the-minute motoring news. But I seldom see any useful messages on these boards. The first one we pass today is a case in point: “Please drive safely.” Oh, and there was I planning to slalom all the way to Gretna with my eyes closed!

And, Ministry of Transport, please note: it doesn’t calm any driver’s road rage to be told “Queues Ahead” when you’re already stuck in the middle of one.

But as the nation has invested in these message boards, I suppose we must make the best of them. To this end, I’d like to suggest some more  constructive uses:

  • To convey calming, philosophical thoughts at times of peak traffic, such as rush hour: “This too will pass” or   “There’s a cup of tea/glass of wine/cold beer at home with your name on it”
  • To lift the weary driver’s spirits and take their mind off the traffic: “You’re looking well today”; “You look so much younger than your years”; “That colour really suits you”
  • To divert restless young passengers with travel game ideas: “Let’s play I-Spy!”, “I went to the market and I bought…”, “Who will spot the first yellow car?”; “And now it’s time for a keeping quiet competition!”
  • To answer the children’s repetitive question: “No, we are NOT nearly there yet!”
  • For a more subtle approach, a series of messages on that theme: “We’re nearer than we were the last time you asked” or “Not much further now” or “For every time you ask, it will add five minutes to the journey”

Alternatively, the boards could try to replicate pleasing road signs from the golden age of motoring – or those from other countries that have made you smile. (Any suggestions, anyone?) To end on a more cheerful note, here’s one that we spotted last week in Applecross, in the north west of Scotland. Forewarned is forearmed, as they say.

Road sign seen in Applecross, Scotland, cautioning "Men In Kilts Walking"
You have been warned…

And if that rant wasn’t enough for you, here’s my post from last summer on the same theme:

Rage Against The Road Signs

Or on a lighter note, a mystery solved about French lay-bys:

A Layby By Any Other Name

Posted in Travel

The Secret World of Hawkesbury Upton

English: South of west from Bath Lane, nr Hawk...
(Photo: Wikipedia)

As I was running along the “Yellow Brick Road” in the first ever Hawkesbury 5K last month, the lady next to me gasped with surprise.

“But it’s lovely up here!” she said, as wistful as Alice peering through the tiny door into Wonderland’s gardens.

“You should see it on a sunny day,” I told her proudly, though not expecting one any time soon. “Then you would see both Severn Bridges.”

When she looked as pleased as if I’d given her the password to a secret society, I realised that many people living nearby never discover our fabulous views, unless they are (dog)walkers or runners. They might recognise the village name from a roadsign, but if they’ve never taken that road, they have no idea what it’s like.

English: Automobile Association Village sign T...
Photo: Wikipedia

If I hadn’t got lost 21 years ago, this could have applied to me. While househunting between Bristol and Chipping Sodbury, we took the wrong turning for the M4. As we headed north on the A46, we spotted a signpost to the left indicating “Hawkesbury Upton”. We’d never heard of it.

“That’s a pretty name,” I remarked. “That would look good on a change of address card.”

We turned left. We had no estate agents’ fliers for the village (there was no online searching in those days), but we thought we might spot some “For Sale” signs. And we did: outside a small stone cottage on France Lane.

“That would do us,” said my husband. “Let’s go and take a look.”

We did, and we bought it, and the rest is history. And that is the story of how – neither a runner nor a walker in those days – I discovered the secret world of Hawkesbury Upton. The road sign is right – “Hawkesbury Upton: You’ll never leave.” But that’s fine by me.

Village sign at Hawkesbury Upton

This article was originally written for the Hawkesbury Parish News, July 2012.

If you enjoyed this post – or if indeed you like road signs – you might like this: Rage Against the Road Signs

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”.