You can rely on the A303, a sinuous, sun-drenched ribbon of tarmac that takes ecstatic holidaymakers towards the wild West country. Then, later, our heads filled with visions of explosive coastlines and tumbling forests, it provides comfort, soothing us on the homewards journey to somewhere far more mundane.
The A303 flows in more of a trickle than a torrent, ambling through villages of sandstone and flint. At its most memorable point, it tips its head in a reverent nod to Stonehenge, which it skirts at a respectful distance. Soon, though, the current grows stronger and you know the A303 has run its course. It’s time to batten down the hatches and prepare to face the M3, a furious tumult that has seen many a traveller perish.
It’s a fool who takes on the M3 in failing light, and an even bigger one to face its wrath in the grip of an autumn storm. An absence of druids around Stonehenge should have clued us in to the conditions ahead, and the cattle had been lying down, too. A mist of gentle rain had appeared soon after, but strengthened as we headed east. As the signposts began to mention Basingstoke, though, the spits had turned to rods, and the patter had passed through rhythm and was now heading for crescendo.
All light disappeared in full as the channel widened and we braced ourselves for the traffic-strewn battle that lie ahead. Sometimes the M3 is calm; sleepy, even, but this was not one of those times. As if driven on by the harsh weather, the traffic roared northwards, seemingly in a rush to escape from the South.
What I knew to be head and tail lights were obliterated on my windscreen. My wipers were struggling to keep up with the downpour, and the lights that surrounded me were refracted to oblivion. From the pools of colour, though, I recognised when a vehicle in front was applying its brakes, and a high concentration of orange hinted at the presence of a big lorry. I matched the pace of one of these — the banks of amber lights above and below windscreen height gave the impression that it was a big wrecker or recovery truck; a useful ally when the roads turn to rivers. Gradually, the amber lights fell behind me, but before long, both of us were were slowed to a crawl.
Any port in a storm
The automaton behind the KFC counter continued to smile, unaffected by the storm outside despite rain drumming a cacophony on the metal roof. I took my three-piece variety meal and bottle of Tropicana orange over to a vacant two-seat table. There were plenty to choose from, the service area at Fleet was nothing close to capacity. Those present sat quietly, hunched over their meals or, in some cases, going without food but lovingly cradling a steamy cup of tea with both hands. As I looked up from my hot meal, I noticed that the man at the neighbouring table wore a green hi-viz jacket, bearing the M+M Recovery logo. I wondered if it could have been the driver whose marker lights had given me company out there in the wild. I chanced an exchange.
“I bet you’re glad to be inside” I enquired, in a measured, grave tone, leaving out the full stop to encourage a response. It came after a pause for thought.
“Terrible, mate.” He paused, as if collating information for a detailed response. “I’ve only been out in weather like this once before.”
I took my next piece of crispy-coated chicken ready to eat as his tale unfolded.
“It was in the spring of ’89. We were stationed Northbound on the M1, just near Watford Gap. There was four of us on duty that night, waiting for the call. When that squall came in, we knew it was going to be a busy night.”
He took a long swig of tea, patted his lips and continued.
“It was only the two of us in the Scammels that went out that night. The Roadrunners wouldn’t have hacked it. All through the night that rain came down, and it was one call after the next. I pulled four big lorries in that night, loads and all. Jack-knifes, most. Brakes had locked trying to slow down. Carnage. Nobody hurt, but a lot of bent metal. It was the weather, see. People just don’t account for it. You’re bearing down on somebody, all 37 tonnes of you, and they carry on regardless, fixed on the guy in front.”
His eyes narrowed, as if he was recalling a scene that still troubled him after all these years “I was thankful for the Scammel. Thankful for the right vehicle. That heap I’m lumbered with these days; forget about pulling Scanias in. Feels more like I’d need rescuing myself.”
I felt almost guilty that mine was a journey of leisure. A pleasure trip. Like the day sailor who goes out for a sunny passage, only to have the lifeboatmen risk their lives in steep seas hauling him to safety when the weather changes. I continued with my meal in silence as he finished his tea, sighed and shuffled up from his seat to head back out. He tipped me a nod as if to wish me luck, and trudged out of sight as the rain roared on.
Having eaten the components of my Variety Meal in time-honoured order – Drumstick, hot wing, crispy strip, hot wing, thigh, interspersed with fries dipped in barbecue sauce, I teased the dregs from my Tropicana bottle and cleared the unsightly carcass away, before lethargically rising to deposit the whole sorry mess in a handy trash bin.
The rain was still furiously pounding on the roof above, so I was in no rush to get back on the road. Fortunately, Fleet Services is amply stocked with methods of procrastination, so put the restroom facilities through their paces before repairing to WH Smith, that famed newsagent and purveyor of snacks at several times their supermarket price. My browsing ran in order of interest – having noted that none of the car titles offered anything new, I started with the Commercial vehicle press, then moved onto the aviation, marine and rail magazines, and was about to pick up a periodical that dealt with caravans when I suddenly realised I was wasting time. Enough was enough. I revisited the restroom for a secondary piss, and prepared to endure the weather once more.
King of the road
The huge metal shed in which I had eaten was far more of an acoustic sounding box than my car: my wipers struggled to keep up with the rainfall, yet the sound was muted as it lashed the bodywork. A little more warmth was called for, so I dialled the heater up a notch, and the hopeless daylight had now given up to the advance of night, so I switched the headlights on. With too much standing water for the road markings to remain visible, I navigated a path that merely avoided with those things I could see. At length, I made it past the near-deserted gas station and and onto the slip where I’d have typically engaged warp factor 9 to rejoin the motorway – but tonight it wasn’t to be.
The ferocious flood of traffic I had left over an hour ago, had clotted. A huge, well-lit DAF had left a useful gap in the left hand lane, so I joined and fluked a lucky slot in the middle lane, where progress immediately ceased.
I turned to the radio to provide me with company, reasoning that the unpredictable variety of the airwaves would be more engaging than the six CDs I had in the changer. The cheery DJ was clearly unaffected by the squall, and his choice of Walking On Sunshine did nothing to gel with the mood, so I retuned to a classical station that I could at least treat as inoffensive background noise. As it happens, that hour’s programming was made up of contemporary movie soundtracks, and Hans Zimmer’s score to Inception seemed a perfect fit for the scene that lay before me.
I was, however excruciatingly slowly, at least on the move, and ahead of me I could see the blockage that had stemmed the traffic’s flow. Well, I could see flashing lights ahead, some blue, some amber, prismatically split by the water as it cascaded down the windscreen. Then more lights joined the show — one by one, every vehicle ahead in the left and centre lanes, engaged their right-side indicators and — in a remarkable display of teamwork, took it in turn to join the right hand lane. I waited for the obliging full-beam flash from the Transit behind and to my right, and sharply pulled into the gap he left me. This was a great moment. A kinship, a bond between weary travellers, pulling together with a common interest — a yearning to make it home.
The lanes had been blocked by a police Range Rover, whose driver was waving traffic into lane three to trickle past safely. It seems that a family car — its outline was obscured by rain — had come to grief in some way, but it wasn’t obviously damaged. What I did recognise, though, were the clear initials in high-vis orange, “M+M” on a white background. Its driver was operating controls, readying the winch to clear the road and get us all on the move once again. As I drew closer, I recognised him as my KFC acquaintance and dropped the passenger window with scant regard to the rain. I gestured a salute, but failed to catch his eye.
And then, continuing in that orderly manner which has seemed so out of character, the single row of traffic expanded to fill the now vacant first and second lanes and everybody gradually gathered speed. The increased determination of the drivers seemed to have an effect on the weather, too, which had worn itself out and relaxed to a lazy drizzle. A radio traffic bulletin spoke in grave tones of supposed chaos behind me, but all had seemed well in hand thanks to our tea-slurping hero. So I switched to a station that was cheerily discussing discounted holidays in sunny climes, and before long, the M3 had passed leaving me with the cosily familiar M25. Then a final blast on the A12 — always a pleasure — and a cup of tea of my own at journey’s end.
(Images copyright Chris Haining 2018, from a collection of images I’ve taken while on the M3 and M25)