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 £14.99Reuse content