Wright's Aerials

A severe fright near Hemel Hempstead

Late one evening about 25 years ago I set off from central London to drive the 170 miles home. I'd just completed a gruelling few days’ work, probably for Visnews, I can't remember. I was really tired and in two minds about stopping somewhere and having a good kip, so when the north-bound more or less ground to a halt just before Junction 8 the decision was made. When I finally got to the exit slip road I took it, not caring where it went. I took the first exit, then after a short distance came to a roundabout. I was looking for somewhere quiet to have a snooze, but I was also thinking that I might have to map-read my way north to the next junction if the M1 remained blocked, so I took the right turn.

This turned out to be a narrow and bumpy lane with trees along the left side and fields to the right. It was very dark indeed. After about half a mile I found a field entrance on the right, so I parked up with the van facing the M1. I put the kettle on, then got out and felt my way to the back wheel where I had a piss. I had a rudimentary bed in the van amongst the stock, so I put the interior light on and made it a bit more comfortable. With the light off again I could see the motorway, and the traffic had stopped completely, so I decided not to even set an alarm clock. I don't like sleeping in the van with the door unlocked, so I felt my way around the outside locking up, and then sat in the driving seat with the sliding door open, just sort of calming down and getting ready for a snooze. It was very dark indeed and all I could see were the stationary lights on the M1. For the first time in several days I relaxed.

My reverie was abruptly interrupted when the ignition keys just in front of me rattled. The realisation that a hand had reached in and removed them came just as a bright torch shone in my face and a quiet voice in my right ear said “This is the police. Put your hands where we can see them and get out of the vehicle. Don't reach for anything.” I wasn't convinced that this was the police, and I had spare keys in my trouser pocket so there was the option of reversing away, so I froze. I considered my options. The voice repeated what it had just said with rather more urgency. I was attempting to compose a suitable reply when there was a sort of a bang-wumph noise and the whole area was bathed in bright white light. I didn’t move a muscle but In my mirrors I could see a Range Rover with ‘POLICE’ writ very large upon it, so that removed the option of suddenly reversing. I got out of the van, to see three more police vehicles in the lane, including one with an enormous light at the top of a tower. They had, I assume, freewheeled down the lane, which had a slight gradient.

“Err, what's all this about then?” I asked. The question was answered with another question, in fact a series of them. Who was I? Where did I live? Why had I parked in that particular place? Where were the others? Meanwhile the back doors of the van were being opened very gingerly and a search made.

The radio crackled with the PNC report that I was who I said I was, and the atmosphere became rather less tense. They explained that I had parked in a ‘sensitive area’. This was just after the IRA had been using vans like mine to launch bazookas (including one aimed at 10 Downing Street). I asked why this dark lane in the middle of nowhere was a sensitive area, and the officer gestured towards the trees. Now the big light was on I could see camera towers, and some enormous things like municipal gas holders. I'd parked up in exactly the position and alignment to launch a bazooka into the middle of the Hemel Hempstead oil depot (later to become well known when it blew up without the intervention of terrorists). It seems that my arrival had caused great interest, and by infra-red they had watched me get out, have a piss, get back in, get out again and lock all the doors except one, and then apparently sit and wait.

After a little jolly banter about simple northerners and Manchester United they sent me on my way. I looked at the motorway and it was clear, so I went back to Junction 8 and then headed north. I stopped at the first service station and got my head down, but I couldn’t sleep.

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