January 25th, 2015


Six hundred miles in an aluminium box, part I

To get to my parents' house near Plymouth over Christmas, I would usually get the train. This year, I thought it might be entertaining to instead drive down in PEH 578L (pronounced "Phlebas"), my 42-year-old Land Rover Series III.

My general plan was to avoid motorways and dual carriageways and to roughly follow the Icknield Way and the Ridgeway to somewhere around Warminster and then get to Exeter somehow before crossing Dartmoor on the B3212. I had overnight stops booked at Streatley and Salisbury Youth Hostels on the outward and return journey respectively. I'd bought a new road atlas, and it turned out to have scenic roads marked, so I also resolved to visit those where possible.

Before I set out, I had hung tinsel around PEH's cab, fixing it in place with cable ties. This turned out to be a really bad idea. It rustled slightly disturbingly as I drove across Cambridge, but at higher speeds along the Barton Road that rustling became a loud beating on the cab roof. I stopped and took the tinsel off before it drove me mad. PEH is quite noisy enough without gratuitous additions.

Apart from the tinsel, the first day was fairly boring. I set off from Cambridge around lunchtime, stopped for tea at my cousin's house in Luton, and then followed the north-west edge of the Chilterns down to Streatley-on-Thames. The second part of the day should have been fairly picturesque, but the sun had already set by the time I was leaving Luton, so what little I saw of the Chilterns was by the light of PEH's sealed-beam headlights.

I did have a couple of problems on that first day: My navigation left something to be desired and I tended to find myself on completely the wrong road more often than I'd have liked. Also, towards the end of the day I noticed that PEH's fan belt was squealing whenever the engine revved up, so I resolved to have a look at that when it was light again.

Thus I found myself lying on the drive of Streatley Youth Hostel early in the morning armed with several spanners and a big green book. PEH's alternator is apparently held on with a mixture of metric and imperial fastenings, but I'd brought plenty of spanners and was able to get the fan belt back to a reasonable tension in time for breakfast.

The day's driving started with a trundle along the south side of the Vale of White Horse. An hour or two in, I spotted a sign on the left for the Uffington White Horse, and I felt like a break so I pointed PEH up the hill, fed the ticket machine, and ate a mince pie while walking over to see the horse. On the way back down to the main road I discovered a new feature of PEH: along with its known habit of jumping out of first gear, it will jump out of second under engine braking.

My route then took me southwards through Avebury, where the lure of a National Trust tea shop was enough to cause me to stop for a cup of tea and brief perusal of stone circles before PEH climbed over the downs towards Devizes. This was the first really scenic bit of the journey, with what might reasonably be called sweeping views over the Vale of Pewsey. After going through Westbury (fuel) and round Warminster, I stopped for lunch in a field entrance near Mere.

My next plan was to head west on the A30, which could take me all the way to Exeter if necessary. The A30 around here is mostly very nice, but it does go through the middle of some significant towns, and two days before Christmas wasn't really the best time to do that. In Crewkerne in particular I got bored enough with crawling along below walking pace that I diverted off up a surpisingly empty A-road to the north and then picked my way through narrow lanes to pick up the A30 further west. It may not have been any quicker than sitting in the traffic jam, but it was certainly more fun and PEH 578L is much better suited to country lanes than to town centres.

Eventually, the A30 joins the rather busier A303, and around Honiton it becomes a dual carriageway all the way to Exeter. This was obviously undesirable, so I diverted southwards towards Sidmouth onto a more interesting and more coastal road into Exeter.

In Exeter I ran into the problem with using a road atlas for urban navigation. The usual way around Exeter would be to use the M5, but that was obviously out of the question, so I tried to find my way around the city on smaller roads. I knew that I wanted to leave on the B3212, but this wasn't shown on most of the signs, so I ended up following signs for the A30 westbound which led me on a merry tour of the roundabouts of the Marsh Barton Trading Estate.

By the time I found the B3212, it was dark and raining. As PEH climbed up past Moretonhampstead it started to get cold as well. Happily, unlike older Land Rovers, PEH 578L has an electrical system that's capable of running the heater, wipers, and headlamps all at the same time, so with all of them on I set out across the moor.

Driving across Dartmoor at night may not provide such good views as in the daytime, but it's quite a special experience nonetheless. I stopped half-way in the deserted and very dark car park of the National Park visitor centre in Postbridge. I left PEH's sidelights on while I took advantage of the facilities: I wasn't sure I'd be able to find it again otherwise.

After descending off Dartmoor into Plymouth, I had one last bit of routing silliness planned: I wanted to take Plymbridge Road through the woods to Plympton rather than having to brave Marsh Mills. Finding the road was easy enough -- follow the signs saying "Unsuitable for heavy goods vehicles", and there followed an entertaining few minutes as the single-track road squirmed down through the woods and back up again to join a main road. I was a little confused, though, because the road signs suggested that I was still on the wrong side of the Plym. Checking afterwards, it turns out that the Plym Bridge has been closed to motor traffic for some time, so I drove straight past it and had to visit Marsh Mills anyway.

Thus it was that I arrived in time for dinner in the village where I grew up. Four days later, I was planning to do it again, backwards.