Sunday Column: Peter Griffiths – Valet Parking

The road stretches out ahead of you. Even as you sit at home days in advance and plan out what you’re doing and where you’re going with all the stops and logistical complications, the road stretches out ahead of your mind’s eye. The anticipation of a long journey in a car with either good company or your own thoughts is in itself half of the enjoyment that can be had even before you get behind the wheel.

For myself there are several important factors that make a great long-distance journey by car, most importantly – obviously – which four-wheeled companion is to bear you onwards, but also it’s important to have everything else in place. Imagine if you got 50 miles down the road into a 650 mile trip to realise you’ve left your phone charger behind. Do you turn back or buy one at the services or just deal with it?

Obviously such things as that are on your list to pack for the journey because preparation is everything. Even forgetting a smaller detail than a charger can, for me at least, leave a nagging sort of cloud over the journey. I really enjoy having all the mobile technology set up in easy reach as if I were Alex Roy on the Gumball rally, or the drivers of the CLK DTM AMG who had no fewer than 7 telephone lines in their road-rally-prepped Mercedes. Setting the cabin up like the cockpit of Concorde is a big childish thrill.

The icing on the cake has to be the music selection to set the tone with. It seems that every journey ends up being defined by a particular album or band. In some cases it has been compulsory to listen to a particular band or album while driving through a particular place at a particular time. Personally it has become customary to line up Radiator by Super Furry Animals while traversing Sutherland and Ross-shire. Again Creedence and The Band have come to make driving through Inverness-shire feel like shaking hands with an old friend.

The Skoda shoots through Sutherland with ‘Radiator by Super Furry Animals’ marking the moment

 Those are the roads less travelled, regrettably, but sit in the memory easier as a result. Still less travelled, and even more regrettably, are the roads of Europe. The last great jaunt I had the pleasure of helming saw my mission set quite clearly – get a Mercedes from London to Bordeaux because it’s a present from a man to his mother. No pressure then.

The responsibility of this particular trip didn’t lessen the sense of anticipation. If anything it actually increased it as being a part of such a cool thing to do for a mum was a good feeling and I looked forward to playing my part. The plans were set, all the timings for the connections worked out nicely, and the weather reports were all favourable despite my not being concerned about the weather – it just adds to the challenge!

One car. 12 hours. Destination Bordeaux .

As for the car itself, it was a Mercedes SL280 (pictured) and was a great example of the old 80s cruiser. In 1989 Merc found themselves a winning and popular formula in the rounded edges of the R129 so had no trouble in keeping the same model running for 13 years. This 2000 model was the best to be found in the UK at the time of asking and the colour combination worked perfectly together.

My personal preparation for this trip was, quite simply, to set up a French house music playlist on my generic mobile music storage and replay unit built in to my telephone. Apart from wearing comfy clothes, soft shoes and remembering the international necessities, I couldn’t think of anything more important for the journey. As it turned out, I was right.

So came 0315hrs and my departure from west London, to the strains of some American heavy metal as there was no sense in wasting good French house on English soil. Navigating through town at that time of the morning reaffirmed my belief that if you need to drive through London then you really only have a three-hour window to do it in. The small hop to the Chunnel gave time to familiarise myself with the car on home roads before hitting the Continent.

Familiarised with the Mercedes Benz, the French leg was near…

Having driven abroad before, the prospect of European driving was not a worry. The only concern was fending off tiredness when it inevitably hit. I was due at my destination 12 hours later and there was just enough room to fit in the legally advised breaks but it meant staying consistent and not making any wrong turns. One of the enjoyable parts of driving on the continent is that of representing British drivers. I know I don’t have to, it’s not my job, and you might not care, but I do and felt proud to bear the GB logo and just drive properly so they had nothing to kick me out over.

Creeping off the Chunnel, into northern and industrial France, to the moody tones of Laurent Garnier’s Unreasonable Behaviour seemed to really fit the mood of the morning. The multi-coloured fluorescent lights flashed by, the beats rumbled on, and my journey began in earnest. It’s then that the relative enormity of the journey sinks in and there’s a shuffle to settle into the seat and a final check of the large numbers on the sat-nav bringing a curious combination of contentment and determination.

The journey flashed by in a steady rush of speed-monitoring, courtesy, and finger-tapping to such quality tunes that time really flew very well. The car did the job brilliantly despite not endearing itself to me in any way apart from the notably comfortable seats. In planning this article it began as a chronological series of events but that very quickly dropped off the agenda as – really – road trips are ultimately quite boring! Driving for an extended period of time on motorways, overtaking lorries, and getting petrol is just as tedious as it sounds.

Mulsanne straight achieved

Saying that, half-way down, between lunch at Le Mans and the last fill-up before Bordeaux, one of those moments that I’ve described before just washed over me. It was that feeling of being grateful to be alive, to be doing something I really enjoy doing, to be successfully completing a mission, and having remembered to take everything I had planned to take to make the journey absolutely perfect. All this serves to ensure that the thrill of the road trip will endure.

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