Wright's Aerials

The Annexe of Irrelevancies

Trip to London

In 1967 I passed my driving test and it wasn't long before I conceived an ambitious plan. I was just at the start of that developmental stage where you come out of the teenage dream and begin to realise in a deep sort of way that other people — your own parents even — might have needs of their own. My mum wasn’t having much fun at the time. Her legs were getting terrible and her own mother had become very dependent, so she was struggling up the road twice a day to care for her as well as trying to care for the rest of us. Mum had always wanted to visit London, so I decided to nick Dad's motorhome and take her there. When I say ‘motorhome', it was in fact a 1956 Bedford ambulance, RET 406, originally registered to Sheffield Council. Dad had scraped all the blood off the floor and made it habitable, at least to the standards of the slums and foxholes in which he had spent his formative years.
Dad was full of misgivings. How would you feel if your notoriously reckless 17 year-old son wanted to drive a large and unwieldy vehicle of which you were fond, with your wife, of whom you were also fond, all the way down the M1 to a very dodgy place full of cockneys and other criminals? The van had a huge six cylinder petrol engine and was capable of considerable speed. The brakes and steering, however, were not so clever. Neither were power assisted and both needed great strength. A three point turn needed muscles like Charles Atlas, and an emergency stop — well, any sort of stop, really — needed two heavy feet on the wide middle pedal. Such a vehicle, driven by a seventeen-year-old cab-happy semi-imbecile with his mind permanently on sex was surely a lethal combination. But Mrs Walker would look after Grandma for a day or two, so permission, to my astonishment, was granted.
I'd looked at the Esso Map of Great Britain, which cost 6d and had the whole country on one small sheet, and it appeared that the closest place to central London that wouldn't be completely asphalted over was somewhere called Watford. I told mother that we would drive to Watford, which sounded quite nice, and camp in a lay-by. We drove to Sheffield to find the M1 and then two hours and eighty miles later we were surprised to arrive at Watford Gap. It didn't seem far enough, and there was nothing there but a filling station and a café. After studying the Esso map for some time we decided that there must be two places with almost the same name. Mother said it was "stupid, and if that's how they carry on down here, giving two places the same name, I'm not surprised they're in such a pickle." I filled the radiator and the petrol tank and put a pint of oil in the engine and felt the wheels to make sure none of the brakes were binding too much (as firmly instructed by father) and we set off again. Eventually we arrived at the real Watford after only another two hours on the road. It was all houses and shops and rather dreary and we couldn't find a nice lay-by at all (we needed one with woodland adjacent for toileting purposes), so I enquired at several filling station and pubs if there was a campsite nearby. Paying for camping went against the grain — in fact we’d never done it before — but it was dusk and we were both getting tired. In a pub someone asked where we were heading for, and I said "London."

"Well you might as well camp at Crystal Palace then."

"Camp at Crystal Palace?" I echoed with incredulity.

"Have you heard of it?"

"’Course I have, it's where the TV transmitter is." The one thing I knew about London was the name of the TV station.
"Well then, off you go. You can camp there."

So we set off, and I drove into the centre of London with no real idea of where I was going, just following signs for 'The City'. Eventually I asked a policeman the way to the Crystal Palace.

"Well it's been burnt down my old san," he quipped, "But you can see the TV mast from here!"


"Look, over there!" And there it was. I seem to remember there was a single red light on it, but you could actually see the tower as a silhouette.
"How do I get there?"

“You fram ap narf then?”

“Err, yes. Doncaster.”

"I’ve ‘eard of that place! It’s where they race the geegees innit? Anyway my old san, just follow your nose and you’ll soon find the Palace!" And with that he climbed into his little Anglia and disappeared.

"He was a proper cockney!" said mother, thrilled at the exotic nature of the encounter. We headed for the red light but soon came to a big river. There were lots of lights but mum said it wasn’t a patch on Blackpool, or even Cleethorpes. Eventually we found a bridge and went over it but by then we'd lost sight of the red light. By this time it was really late. I was about to stop and ask a young lady who was loitering at a street corner but mum said, "No, don't ask her, luv."

"Why not?"

"You might get more than you bargained for." I put this cryptic remark to the back of my mind and drove along the busy high street. Some of the shops were open, to our astonishment. We stopped at a chip shop, revelling in the novelty of doing it at almost midnight but a bit shocked at being charged 3/- for two bags of chips. The person in the chip shop was in many ways quite unlike any chip shop proprietor I had ever encountered before, but he or she told me the way to Crystal Palace. Another customer came in and interjected "You can 'ardly flippin' miss it, pal! Where you fram then? You ain’t fram rahnd ‘ere are you? Where you fram, ap nawf samwhere?" I grudgingly admitted my origins and fled.

After only two minutes we arrived at Crystal Palace. We could see this huge tower (I was gobsmacked) but we couldn't find a campsite. The old ambulance had never liked urban driving and steam was coming from every orifice, so in weary desperation I just parked at the side of the road outside some nice houses. There were no bushes anywhere near so I closed my eyes whilst mum used the bucket and she closed her eyes whilst I used it. I got out of the van only to empty the bucket and put the bricks in front of the wheels (because of the handbrake problem) and then we slept like logs.

At nine am a policeman rattled on the window. There’d been a complaint, but when he saw that we were not  'Pikeys'  — the first time I had heard the word — but mere simpletons from ‘ap nawf’ he became much nicer and directed us to the campsite, which was about 50 yards away.

We had a great time in London. We went on the Tube and got lost several times each day, but we didn’t mind, in fact we laughed. We laughed a lot whilst we were in London. We went in a posh café-like place and sat on absurd steel stools and drank proper coffee for the first time, and we went to Carnaby Street and bought some daft togs including a Herman’s Hermit’s teeshirt for my sister. We peered incredulously at a newsagent's shop that sold foreign newspapers (but we didn't go in of course), and we saw the Houses of Parliament and Buckingham Palace and, oh, everything. Mum’s legs were ‘atrocious’ but she dosed up each morning on Aspros and somehow managed all the walking. She talked enthusiastically about the trip for ages afterwards, although she always added "But I paid for it after with me knees. Oh I did, I did! But it was good! It was real good!"

Bill Wright

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