Spiritual journey: The A303's enduring appeal

view gallery VIEW GALLERY

The A303 is a road like no other, a route that has become part of the English way of life. In this extract from his new book Highway to the Sun, Tom Fort highlights its appeal.

The A303 extends from just west of Basingstoke to a few miles east of Honiton in Devon. The distance is little more than 90 miles, which makes it a baby among major arterial routes. (The A1 is 400 miles, the A38 290.) But the A303 straddles spheres.

It can take the adventurer from cosy, commuter-belt Hampshire to the threshold of another land entirely, one of wooded dales enclosing tumbling streams, steep hillsides and old stone farmhouses, purple treeless moors, eventually rocky headlands and sandy beaches and the surging sea. It is a road of magical properties.

From the late 1950s, for 10 or 12 years, Linda followed it each year with her father, mother and younger brother from their home in Buckinghamshire. Their first car was a Hillman Minx, their destination a caravan site near Weymouth. As their circumstances improved, they migrated further west for the annual holiday, to Devon and later Cornwall, and it grew from one week to two.

Linda's father, a clerk with the Gas Board, would really have preferred to have spent his leave entitlement at home tending the garden that he loved with a deep, quiet passion. But Linda's mother insisted that they must go away, and as he loved to drive, he drove. He wrote down the route on an envelope: across to Basingstoke, A303 to Honiton, A30 further west – the destination always a caravan site.

Linda's mother did not drive and could not read a map, so Linda sat next to her father, passing on the instructions when it got complicated. The end of the road varied, but there was one constant. Linda would ask if they were going past Stonehenge. When, inevitably, they did, they would stop and climb on the stones and wander among them and wonder at them. Each year, the monument which had delivered different messages to so many over thousands of years told them that they were on their way.

Linda's father liked the A303 because it was faster than the narrow, winding A30. The A303 gave the journey a firm, propulsive shove. He liked it even more when they widened stretches of it into dual carriageway. Stuck behind a crawling lorry or – worse still – a tractor dragging a stack of hay, he would become silent and tense. Then a section of dual carriageway would beckon and the mood in the car – later a Triumph Herald, later still a lime-green Ford Capri – would lighten as the accelerator pedal went down.

Simon and his family went every year to Devon or Cornwall, always staying on a farm, always taking the A303, always stopping at Stonehenge for their picnic.

Simon's father was an Austin man: the family progressed from Austin 7 to Austin 55 to Austin 60. He had all the maps covering the South-west and had – or felt he had – no need of a map-reader. "Dad was in charge of getting us lost," Simon remembers. When Simon, as a young man, took his girlfriend to Yorkshire for a holiday, he felt they were going the wrong way. It was unnatural not to be on the A303. The road was in his blood.

There are plenty who still follow the same path. I went to find a random sample of them on a Friday in the 2011 summer holiday season. It was grey and drizzly, the forecast dodgy. The traffic was heavy but not exceptionally so, just the usual solid stream. The car parks at the service areas were full.

Humour was good despite the weather and the traffic. A family from Hatfield in Hertfordshire – father, mother, two kids, two grandparents – were heading for Exmouth, their seven-seater packed to the roof. "Always take the A303," Dad said, "less boring than the motorway, and you've always got Stonehenge."

Derek from Newmarket was taking a cup of tea from a Thermos in the shelter of his boot-lid as the drizzle drifted down, his team – wife, daughter, two grandsons – tightly packed into a blue saloon bound for Bridport. Derek had seen a BBC Four programme I'd made about the A303. "Here, meet the wife," he said proudly. She, he confided to me, would rather be heading east to see the sun – Yarmouth or somewhere like that – but he made the decisions and one of them was the A303.

An elderly couple in the queue for a cup of tea were doing as they had done most years since 1957, when as honeymooners they set off for Devon in their Austin 7. Now they had their 10-year-old grandson with them.

They had had their foreign holidays since then and there was nothing wrong with them, but there was something about the South-west, something special, and this was the way to find it.

An old rocker with a ponytail told me that it had begun for him in the mid-1960s folded into the back of the family Mini, and he'd finally settled in Cornwall and not come back. "It was part of my childhood, the A303," he said, speaking slowly and nodding in that old rocker's way. "So part of me."

There were more of the same, taking the road not because they had deep feelings about it or had ever thought much about it, but because it was part of a familiar and comforting act of escape. Everyone knows the motorway is quicker from anywhere in the East and South-east of England: M25 around London, M4 to Bristol, M5 to Exeter. But the A303 belongs in the ritual and the motorway doesn't.

Everyone moaned about the traffic, but in a good-humoured way, almost affectionately. It was part of the A303; what else could you expect on a Friday afternoon in the holiday season? Don't fret, mate, we'll all get there in the end.

Coming back is something else. Same road, but not the same at all. For a child, there is an almost physical ache as the special place is left behind, and even as adults we feel the sadness. The road is complicit in the loss. The landmarks in their reverse order remind us of what we are leaving behind.

We twist our heads for a last glimpse of the cottage or caravan or campsite, catch a last gleam from the lake or the sea. Ahead is home, work, school, routine, daily shaving, uncut lawn, unpicked veg, duties, appointments. It is the road that is returning us to this enslavement and we resent it.

"You can let yourself go on the 303," pounded forth Kula Shaker. "You can find your way home on the 303." The song celebrated in enigmatic lyrics the way to "the land of the summer sun" – presumably Glastonbury, where the band was born at the 1993 festival. Each June the Glastonbury faithful still follow the road in pursuit of some kind of escape or release, a few days of another kind of life.

For the generation before them, the lure was Stonehenge and its Free Festival – music, drugs, free love, hugs and acid smiles and signs of peace, a repudiation of the cheerless world of career and mortgage beyond, and the grim, dangerous world beyond that. Down the A303 the Love Convoy rolled, until Mrs Thatcher and her ministers and the Daily Mail decided that society had had quite enough of that sort of useless parasitism, thank you, and put a stop to it.

There was no psychedelic rock for me at the end of the road, and certainly no free love, just flowing water and the sweet, fulfilling joy of casting a fly for a fish.

Since 1945, the car – a vehicle built of steel, powered by petrol, owned by us – has become a dominant influence on the way we live. It has enabled almost all of us to embrace a frantic fluidity of movement that has progressively determined how, mechanically, society should function. Other forms of transport – horse, bike, train, bus – have been unable to stand against it. It made possible the immediate gratification of every fleeting desire to be somewhere else. It put within everyone's grasp a vision of mobility that abolished constraint and reduced the world into a mesh of manageable journeys. We were all seduced by its central principle: go where you like, when you like, as you like.

Its flaw is that it is fabulously wasteful. It consumes resources of energy, space and time as if they were inexhaustible.

They are not. Little by little the vision's sources of nourishment are beginning to run out. The price of fuel has risen to a point where only the rich and the stupid no longer pause to consider if a journey is worth it. At the same time, insurance premiums have been driven up to levels way beyond the means of many recently qualified drivers. The roads remain clogged; journey times rise inexorably.

A new model of mobility is needed. Already in the cities some people are giving up their cars in favour of a rental service available via a phone app that enables them to pick up a vehicle when they need it and drop it off when they have finished with it, paying an hourly rate for the use. Far from finding their freedom of movement restricted, they discover that they have rid themselves of a bundle of irritations (breakdowns, punctures, where to park, getting fuel, remembering tax and MOT), not to mention the expense.

The age of the motor car has been with us for little more than half a century, and there is no reason to believe that it will last for ever, any more than did the age of the train or the stagecoach. True, for much of the world it has only just begun and still has its course to run. But in traffic-strangled Western Europe its days are probably numbered.

When the new age comes, its people will look back at our system and consider it startlingly wasteful, destructive and crude.

It's a fair bet that they will not be hopping into their plastic, hydrogen-powered micro-cars on a whim and nipping 80-odd miles down the A303 for an evening's fishing and 80 miles back again. But there will still – unless we mess everything up – be fishing. And there will be an A303. It will still be assisting tomorrow's travellers to accommodate the chronic restlessness of the species. It will still enable them to pursue their dreams and to live and relive remembered joys in one way or another.

The A303, Highway to the Sun by Tom Fort (Simon & Schuster) is out now, priced £14.99

PROMOTED VIDEO
Independent Travel Videos
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Amsterdam
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Giverny
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in St John's
Independent Travel Videos
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Travel

    Recruitment Genius: Personal Trainer / PT - OTE £30,000 Uncapped

    £25000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: The fastest growing fitness cha...

    Investigo: Finance Analyst

    £240 - £275 per day: Investigo: Support the global business through in-depth a...

    Ashdown Group: Data Manager - £Market Rate

    Negotiable: Ashdown Group: Data Manager - MySQL, Shell Scripts, Java, VB Scrip...

    Ashdown Group: Application Support Analyst - Bedfordshire/Cambs border - £32k

    £27000 - £32000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Application Support Analyst - near S...

    Day In a Page

    Isis in Iraq: Yazidi girls killing themselves to escape rape and imprisonment by militants

    'Jilan killed herself in the bathroom. She cut her wrists and hanged herself'

    Yazidi girls killing themselves to escape rape and imprisonment
    Ed Balls interview: 'If I think about the deficit when I'm playing the piano, it all goes wrong'

    Ed Balls interview

    'If I think about the deficit when I'm playing the piano, it all goes wrong'
    He's behind you, dude!

    US stars in UK panto

    From David Hasselhoff to Jerry Hall
    Grace Dent's Christmas Quiz: What are you – a festive curmudgeon or top of the tree?

    Grace Dent's Christmas Quiz

    What are you – a festive curmudgeon or top of the tree?
    Nasa planning to build cloud cities in airships above Venus

    Nasa planning to build cloud cities in airships above Venus

    Planet’s surface is inhospitable to humans but 30 miles above it is almost perfect
    Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history - clocks, rifles, frogmen’s uniforms and colonial helmets

    Clocks, rifles, swords, frogmen’s uniforms

    Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history
    Return to Gaza: Four months on, the wounds left by Israel's bombardment have not yet healed

    Four months after the bombardment, Gaza’s wounds are yet to heal

    Kim Sengupta is reunited with a man whose plight mirrors the suffering of the Palestinian people
    Gastric surgery: Is it really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

    Is gastric surgery really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

    Critics argue that it’s crazy to operate on healthy people just to stop them eating
    Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction Part 2 - now LIVE

    Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction

    Bid on original art, or trips of a lifetime to Africa or the 'Corrie' set, and help Homeless Veterans
    Pantomime rings the changes to welcome autistic theatre-goers

    Autism-friendly theatre

    Pantomime leads the pack in quest to welcome all
    The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

    The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

    Sony suffered a chorus of disapproval after it withdrew 'The Interview', but it's not too late for it to take a stand, says Joan Smith
    From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?

    Panto dames: before and after

    From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?
    Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

    Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

    Booksellers say readers are turning away from dark modern thrillers and back to the golden age of crime writing
    Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best,' says founder of JustGiving

    Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best'

    Ten million of us have used the JustGiving website to donate to good causes. Its co-founder says that being dynamic is as important as being kind
    The botanist who hunts for giant trees at Kew Gardens

    The man who hunts giants

    A Kew Gardens botanist has found 25 new large tree species - and he's sure there are more out there