Like the crisp white shirt of a managing director's suit, we have tucked ourselves neatly inside London's commuter belt. We are in Hertfordshire where we have once again been treated to some fine pub-related entertainment, of which more in a later post, celebrated a birthday (ditto) and seen some stunning scenery. Today, Alan and I walked a few miles of the Ridgeway, a massive chalk ridge cutting across the south of England from the West Country to Hertfordshire. Its rolling hills, crumbly escarpments and velvety grassland contrasted strongly with the urban-ness we chugged through last week. But, although the scenery is breathtaking, the icy hiss of the main road is never far away and has of late become a more frequent unwanted companion.
Cars are pretty useful and that, but they are, essentially, crap. They are greedy for fuel, insatiable for land and burp out the dark wind of our future destruction, and so I suppose it is probably a bit churlish of me to focus on how bloody noisy they are (a bit like eating a death cap mushroom and getting all shirty because it tasted minging). But there is no noise more guaranteed to drain my capacity for happiness than the persistent scaly rumble of car tyres pressing their way over a Tarmacked road. And don't even get me started on the roads themselves. Recently we cycled through Milton Keynes, a city which I am sure would be staunchly defended by some of its inhabitants but which to me resembled a former collection of nice small towns and villages vomited on by a giant Tarmacadam monster in the 1970s. Obviously the town planners took one look at us and our fast growing love affair with unnecessary car journeys, concluded that - the way things were going - legs would evolve out of fashion anyway, and gave us the city we deserve - sterile strips of grass verges lining endless stretches of tarry black road, interrupted only by the occasional green blob of a roundabout where the motorist can then vary his or her journey by turning onto an identical road perpendicular to the one they have just left. Nice.
And once you've negotiated the grim grid of dual carriageways (and, presuming you've read this far, the previous excessively over-long sentence), you should find yourself in the giant car park that is Milton Keynes City Centre. Which is great, because here you can get out of your car and take the air for the 30 or 45 seconds it will take you to walk into the indoor shopping centre, which is essentially a city centre designed for people who will presumably vaporise if they are left outdoors for too long.
Now of course, I must not have a go at cars (or Milton Keynes) without acknowledging that I myself have been using a form of motorised transport these past few months. But a narrowboat is, I would argue, more efficient than a car. It uses far less fuel than a car per hour travelled; in sixty minutes you will get no further than 4 miles, and even then you would have to be some crazy Evil Kenivel-style speed demon. Also, as you travel, your engine is giving you all the hot water you'll need and producing your electrical power for you. You can also live in it, a service to which most people choose not to press their car. A narrowboat's engine does make a noise, I'll grant you but, unlike a car, a boat makes no nasty tyre-noise. Actually, that's a lie, mine does; it's got four recycled moped tyres acting as bumpers to protect the boat from any knocks I make when my co-ordination has buggered off on holiday to the daydream-district of my brain, leaving my clumsiness in charge. But the tyres on my boat make nothing more offensive than the odd squelchy or farting noise when squashed up against the bank. Car tyres on the other hand are the noisiest things about your average motor. If you don't believe me, the next time you are standing in a park, front room or field and think you can hear the distant motorway, stop for a second and see if it is the car's engines or their tyres you can hear.
O'course, I know that cars have got their uses – they'll get you out of Milton Keynes a darn sight faster than a narrowboat will for a start – but, during the five months we have spent exploring England, we haven't been able to help noticing just how many spectacular hills, lively communities, nice local parks and lush swathes of countryside – some of the Good Stuff that belongs to all of us – have been shat on by roads with too many cars on them. If you really need to drive there, then drive. So would I. But if you can walk it, cycle it*, bus it, tram, train or jog it, hop it, pogo it or get someone to give you a piggyback there, then leave the car. Go on. Please. And then maybe, just maybe, not all of the UK will end up looking like Milton Keynes.
Right, now I've got that off me chest. I'm going to write something jolly about pubs next...
* My dear departed nan used to say, in a thick Durham accent I am too young to remember, that “The only thing that gets a ride on a bike is your arse”. She had a point, but there is still nothing like getting somewhere under your own steam – especially when every three miles cycled equates roughly to one medium sized guilt-free pork pie.