Yesterday our dead car was taken away on a car transporter. The engine failed 2 weeks ago, at the start of our journey to London. The friendly Toyota garage tried to see if anything could be done – but alas, the costs of fixing it would outweigh the value of the car, and our budget does not stretch to a replacement.
It makes me reflect on a car, and on all that driving means and has meant over the years. At age 17 passing the test was a rite of passage. Over the previous year various friends had taken and passed, and failed, the test and were now driving various different small cars around the Guildford area. In the youth group I attended (Guildford Crusaders) cars and transport featured higly – I remember 9 of us travelling around in Volvo estate for Friday evenings one year. I remember the minibus journeys in the Crus minibus (“Von”, after the registration plate) which had rust holes in the floor, but still rattled along at high speeds – especially downhill… I remember car journeys on summer camps, being introduced to music – U2, Queen (my sister listened to Queen, but listening to it at Crus in a different car made all the difference!). As a leader I remember escaping into co-leader’s cars to talk and plan and pray.
Having a March birthday meant I was ideally placed to learn and take the test in the summer – no night driving, no icy roads, very little rain. Having briefly toyed with the idea of insuring me on my grandmothers old car (a real mini!) but realising how expensive that would be, my parents very kindly put me on their insurance, so I got to drive their Golf around – although since we grew up in wealthy Guildford the automatic assumption of friends at school and church was that I was driving Mum’s car (Dad presumably driving a company BMW or similar) – rather than the family car that it was.
It meant I got a taste of independance, and also the horrible feeling of fear of anything happened to the car (like when I drove half way across Guildford with the handbrake still on, wondering why pulling away was so hard…). I drove to such exotic and dangerous locations as the Crusader (Christian youth organisation – in Guildford a slightly rowdy group of 11-18 year old “lads”) Hall on a Friday night – enjoying the chance to give lifts back to friends, especially those who lived in far flung villages such as Shalford (googlemap to spot the irony…). I even got to be a “roadie” (spelling?) to my sister and her drum kit for band practice – a double advantage because it meant that I got to both drive the car and avoided listening to rehearsals of “Paint it Black”…
During my first spell back in Guildford I continued to drive my parents car when I needed it for Crusader purposes – with particularly fond memories of driving their Golf behind my co-leader’s red, rather battered old Polo, which had a bass box filling the entire boot, and which could be heard coming from several miles away (he graduated to a black Escort, and then on to BMW’s with age and income – and the bass speakers have shrunk slightly too). Another driving memory from leading with that particular co-leader was the need to be careful when he slowed down just before the turning off the A3 for his parents house – for if an unwary friend tried to overtake, he would then speed up and leave the friend stuck on the A3 until the next turning (a good few miles up the road) – thankfully I avoided that fate… The other vehicle I learnt to drive at this point was the Crusader minibus, and then other hired minibuses – earning something of a reputation somehow for “crashing” buses – I guess on one noteable summer camp I did manage to scrape the side of the bus down a stone bridge and on one journey scrape the roof 3 times on car park entrances…
My first car came with a job at a church in Harold Wood. I was living in Upminister, only 4 miles away, but impossible to sensibly do by public transport – both locations on a train line to London, but nothing in between, so my parents graciously purchased a “salmon red” (according to the log book, although the untrained eye often said “pink”) Polo. I owned the car for 6 years, in the period between then and getting married, and I have many good memories of it, and memories of significant times. Late night drives with U2 blaring out of the radio between Upminster and Cockfosters, and back to Guidford at the end of the year, trips down to Cornwall to prepare summer camp series. Driving around Guildford on a Friday for Crusaders, giving lifts back at the end of an evening with Stereophonics and other similar music of the era. Driving then meant independance and ability to travel, and it also meant relationships and conversation. Lifts in the car were good times for chats – I think for guys especially the car is a great place to talk – perhaps because there is minimal eye contact.
The car was also my main means of transport to work – a place of listening to Radio 4, or pehaps some music, or maybe a sermon series – St Helen’s Bishopsgate lunchtime talks being the perfect length for the 25 minute journey. And towards the end of my time with the car it was also the way to get from Guildford to Leicester – 8am every other Saturday for a year up the M1 – driving to see Roz. Then time in the car driving round Leicestershire during a lovely April in 2007. My final trip in the car was Leicester-St David’s-Guildford, before inheriting my parents superior Polo for the start of married life.
This was the car for our honeymoon, and the car for our holidays of married life together, the first car in which we put a car seat. And then we said goodbye to that car and moved to a carless existance in Vancouver. For the most part not having a car was fine – public transport was great, we used a car-coop for a few months, and for the most part never needed the car. Sundays were hard, but we got used to the waits at the bus stop after church, and the limited options for afternoon entertainment (summer buses to the beach helped). I became aware of how good bus trips were for relationships in parenting. One low point was, while feeling fairly unwell myself, trying to get my son to sleep to help his cold, taking the 33 bus out as far as Ontario Street (so half way across Vancouver), and then walking down to King Edwards Avenue to catch the 25 home. The consolation, as ever in Vancouver, was the views and interest in analysing the different houses I walked past pushing a sleeping child. The high points were the airport trips to Vancouver airport’s viewing platform – bus to Oakridge, Sky Train to the airport – hopefully with a front seat for best views as the train emerges from under Vancouver to go over the river – and then possibly, for a full day out, Sky Train back all the way to Downtown Vancouver (with sleeping boy in pram), and on to the library (with a stop at Blenz possibly), before walking across Downtown to catch the 44 bus back up with its spectacular views over the water.
For individual transport a decent bicycle helped no end – especially as going from campus across to Tenth Church’s building it was as quick as the bus – although not so much coming back… I loved too the bike rides round the Pacific Forest Park and especially the fun of cycling down Marine Drive to Spanish Banks beach and along – back up was always hard work – whether via the slow pain of 4th or 8th, or the steep climb of 11th-15th. Vitally we benefited from others generously sharing their cars – some for a Christmas holiday period, others for evening trips to Superstore (with the soundtrack to Once playing on the car stero, as I geared up for the horror of organisation and customer service of a Vancouver supermarket), others for crisis hospital visits and some just so that we could go to the cinema in comfort.
Coming back to England we had the chance to get a car from friends moving overseas, and for 2 years it served our family well – as a means to go on holiday, for day trips, for shopping, for getting small children to sleep and us chance to talk – it has been great. Now we say farewell. We are thankful that it died just before car tax was due. We are thankful that two families at church have offered us use of their cars. We said to our eldest at the Toyota/Lexus garage while we were waiting to see what could be done that he couldn’t expect to be in a Lexus any time soon – well, we have been offered use of a Lexus!
Personally I find it somewhat frustrating not to have a car – and it is constraining – but also a reminder not to be dependant on treasure here and now for satisfaction. We lived 3 years without a car – it is possible. I’m sure we will have a car at some point in the future. But for now we figure out how to survive without it – grateful for the generosity of friends offering use of theirs and for supermarket online delivery so that at least I won’t have to do Wednesday evening supermarket trips. Cheltenham buses are not quite as baby friendly as Vancouver ones, and neither is the pricing as good, but the D bus means we can get to Pitville Park, the town centre and the station easily enough, and from Cheltenham station we can get to most places easily enough by train. The bike will get me into study into town – it is just a shame that a settlement the size of Bishops Cleeve has no decent cycle route into Cheltenham, and no safe footpath for a push chair and children. In Vancouver we regularly walked to church (1hr 15mins) – but the same distance is just impossible here due to the lack of footpaths.
We have though now found a good park within a pleasant 30 minutes walk, which with the twin buggy/stroller means we can all get there to enjoy a tall slide, fun roundabout and good swings, all with a lovely view of Cleeve Hill. Bigger trips will take more planning, and shatter the illusion of independance that a car gives. I think this illusion is what is so good about a car. Driving a car feels good because it makes me think I am independant and in control. I go at my pace, and my choice. Having a family somewhat changes this – now we stop because someone is crying or needs the toilet, but we can still set out when we choose, and take the route of our choice.
Not having a car makes me realise I need other people. I might need to borrow their car. I might need to get on a bus or a train driven by someone else, with other passengers. I see others. I begin to appreciate something of their life. At least I don’t need to be particularly awake. I might even doze off (if travelling on my own). I can reappreciate the joys of bus travel with children – their excitement at sitting right at the back, or right at the front at the top of a double decker bus, and accept that I might not get somewhere quite as fast…
Our car may be dead, but life does indeed go on…