It was an emotional trip back to England for the Texan. He had been there once before with his wife – doing the standard tourist thing & staying largely in London apart from the mandatory flying visits to Stonehenge & the White Cliffs of Dover. They had always promised each other that they would come back & see the real England – country lanes, villages, country markets and the like – but they had left it too long. Cancer had claimed her & he was just plain burned out from the years of trying to build a fortune for them both & seeing his dreams crumble like dried autumn leaves around his feet.
But, as he told himself, it had been a promise to her and so after he had sold the business and bought the retirement condo in Port Lauderdale, he went to his travel agent & told her to book him a return trip to England & have a hire car waiting for him at Heathrow. And she had, and now, here he was at the Avis desk, about to be turned loose on the West Country, but without the person who had so wanted to make the trip with him. And, as those thoughts swirled around his head, the salesperson handed him the keys to a Vauxhall (a Vauxhall for Gods sake – what kind of car was that) and a map & told him to "have a nice day". It might just have been the first time he actually thought about that so typical American cliché & realized how meaningless & vaguely offensive it really was.
Well, he found the car – Jesus, why do the British have to call a baby Chevrolet a Vauxhall – dumped his bags in the trunk and followed the signs leading to the M4. Reasonable highway, 3 lanes, 70 mph speed limit, and moderate traffic – so far so good. There were a few green bits over to the left but he was too intent on driving on the left hand side to really decide if they were farms or what. So, for the first few miles, it was mainly the signs announcing upcoming exits that caught his eye and triggered his memory. What was that bit of verse that had so amused his wife? Written by the Queen's appointed poet, the one with the funny name. Oh yes:
"Come friendly bombs and fall on Slough
It ain't no use to humans now"
So, pleased with his memory and with John Betjeman's plaintive lament to a lost rural society murmuring in his mind, he cruised down the motorway.
It wasn't so bad at first. Three lanes of freely flowing traffic can move you a fair distance & keep the stress level down, but as the morning wore on and the inescapable roadworks continued to narrow the road & reduce the speed he found the going tedious and the scenery boring. He decided there was nothing more frustrating than being caught in a snarl on a motorway and after inching your way forward for 20 minutes finding the way ahead was clear and never knowing what the holdup had been. In the end, it got to him so much that he abandoned his original plan to head for Bath and instead turned South at the first available exit. And promptly became lost in a variety of fashions.
You could choose to blame it on his natural instinct to turn right rather than left (as do all drivers from North America or the Continent), or a desire to get away from the trappings of civilisation & pursue a quieter existence, or simply sheer happenstance. What is indisputable is that within five minutes of leaving the motorway, he chose 3 right turns in a row that left him on the narrowest of English lanes and no idea at all of where he was going. The funniest thing was that he had no idea of how lost he was. He simply kept driving the Vauxhall down the lane and waited for the "Real England" to appear. And, of course it did.
It began innocently enough. The hedgerows gradually decreased in height, there was a sharp left turn in the lane and in front of him was a small village. He slowed the car and found a place at the side of the road and stopped. And looked!! It was like a picture post card. For a start, his was the only car in sight, all the cottages had thatched roofs, there was a village green and a duck pond and a really old church with a steeple surrounded by a graveyard. Inevitably he thought of Brigadoon with the mists & glens replaced by hedgerows & country lanes. He was caught in a time warp & "Merrie England" lay before him.
As he slowly drove into the village, he realised that he was indeed still in the 21st century – there were other car tracks on the unpaved road, there were a few street lights (albeit on decorative rather than utilitarian lamp-posts) and even a handfull of teenagers in jeans. But the overpowering feeling of being in an older slower world remained and he decided there & then to stay for a few nights and try to understand the strange appeal of it all.
.... There is more of this story ...