Summer on the road and we are travelling at speed of an escargot
August Bank Holiday weekend represents what is probably the worst 72 hours in the Westcountry traffic calendar – Martin Hesp takes a wry look at seasonal motoring mayhem.
Here's a recipe for motoring madness: take a big area of land, stretch it out in to an ocean so that it tapers to a thin point, surround it by lovely beaches, make the sun shine, and give all the schools in a nation exactly the same holiday period over six weeks every summer and chuck in a Bank Holiday for good measure.
The further west you get in July and August, the more clogged the roads are guaranteed to get – especially when there's a universal day-off in the offing.
Here's a local analogy: on Exmoor they still gather the wild ponies into big V-shaped areas called drifts once a year – and that is exactly what happens on a massive scale in terms of travel in this long thin peninsula when the sun comes out during school holidays.
Humans not ponies, dotted all over Britain's wider acres, become more and more concentrated after they pass Taunton on the M5 motorway.
The whole congested shooting-match reaches its go-slow climax over the August Bank Holiday weekend – a time which the French, who have a system of colour-coding related to national traffic-flows, bring out their dreaded 'black-day' warnings.
I know people in that country – which is a lot roomier and less-clogged than ours – who will begin journeys at midnight on black-traffic days rather than face the motoring mayhem. And I have often wondered why we don't adopt a similar system for our worst traffic days.
The answer is probably that nine-out-of-ten people would simply ignore the warnings. I'm talking about the kind of motorists who double the geographic space they take up on the roads by towing caravans or boats – or others who move about in those great big camper-vans which the French call "escargots".
The Gallic reference to snails is meant to reflect the idea of taking your home on your back – but it doubles nicely to describe vast campervans' lack of speed. .
The more area the travelling rigs take up, the slower they are certain to go – and the overall effect is like watching a massive Grand Prix when officials get the yellow warning flags out.
Where once the hordes were hurtling across the Somerset Levels, by Wellington they've slowed. Come Exeter they've changed down a gear or two. By the time they get to Braunton, the wheels have ceased to turn.
I mention that hapless village because it is the worst-hit place in the entire clogged region when it comes to sunshine traffic. Go there on a Friday (which seems to increasingly be "change-over-day" instead of the traditional Saturday) and you will get a taste of Zen Buddhism and learn what it's like to sit and stare.
Of course, all these sometimes motionless visitors need feeding and watering – which is why well-known agriculture writer Graham Harvey was once able to stand on a bridge above the motorway near Taunton and count something like 500 food-and-drink related lorries entering our region every hour.
Big lorries. The type that don't exactly help the rapid flow of traffic. Lorries that are allergic to caravans and campers in long thin villages like Combe Martin.
Which is the longest thinnest village in all of England – the clogged community to which some genius at the Devon highway's department diverted traffic when they closed the busy A3123 holiday route to the North Devon beaches the other day.
I was caught out by the diversion and found myself obtaining an intimate knowledge of every square inch of Combe Martin's kerbs, gutters, manhole-covers and other roadside features and furniture. Like many people obtaining the same unsought-after knowledge, I had an appointment to get to – and it would have been interesting to measure the collective blood-pressure of the imprisoned local drivers in the long, long street.
I'm sure the agitated visitors were suffering too – especially the caravanner in front of me who stood more chance of getting to the moon than he did of reversing his gigantic two-wheeled appendage. But for visitors, motoring mayhem in narrow country roads is an occasional inconvenience. For we locals it is a big part of our lives that shadows a third of our year.
Just before the weekend, for example, I drove a 54-mile round trip to Taunton and back to attend a hospital appointment. I was late andyou can imagine how irritated I felt travelling along behind a massive camper.
My car has six forward gears – in those 54 miles I only used the first three.
Here's a thoughtwhy don't we upgrade train services in and out of the region and make grants available to persuade tourism businesses to include the price of train travel in their offers alongside minibus pick-ups from nearby stations?
That might sound expensive, but the unseen costs of the annual summer-standstill in this region must be mounting to countless £millions.