A Country Life: The days of speeding have passed

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The Independent Online

Anyone who has moved from the city to the country will be familiar with this paradox. You leave behind traffic hell, only to enter a different kind of purgatory - an unhealthy reliance on the car.

Anyone who has moved from the city to the country will be familiar with this paradox. You leave behind traffic hell, only to enter a different kind of purgatory - an unhealthy reliance on the car.

In London we had just one car. Here we need two, for all those mornings when Jane has to get the kids to school (11 miles), and I have to get myself to the station in Worcester (22 miles). In neither case is public transport an option. Buses are rarer than the splay-toed armadillo, and the Great Western Railway's east-west branch line service was discontinued before I was born.

There used to be four trains a day between Worcester Shrub Hill and Leominster, with eight scheduled stops and two halts. I have a 1944 timetable, which I look at forlornly from time to time. Sixty years ago, I could have cycled a couple of miles to Steens Bridge and caught the 7.17am train, arriving at Shrub Hill at 8.28. On the other hand, 60 years ago, I might have been getting killed in the Battle of Monte Cassino. That's life, I suppose; a series of swings and roundabouts.

Speaking of a series of roundabouts, the ring road in Worcester now is festooned with speed cameras in much the same way as Blackpool promenade is festooned with illuminations, the difference being that the speed cameras are more fun to look at. My apologies to Blackpool, incidentally, if the lights have been tarted up over the past few years. But the last time I went, they were unbelievably humdrum. As Bill Bryson put it in Notes From A Small Island: "I suppose if you had never seen electricity in action, it would be pretty breathtaking, but I'm not even sure of that."

Back to Worcester. In the past year I have received speeding tickets for driving my little Volkswagen Polo to and from Shrub Hill, through a non-residential area, at speeds of 37mph, 37mph and 38mph. I now find myself perilously close to disqualification, which would be tolerable in the city, but is unthinkable in the sticks. Unthinkable for a working journalist and father with three children, at any rate.

Of course, I have only myself to blame. And speeding is speeding, whether at 37mph or 137mph. Moreover, I don't want to provoke the rather histrionic response I got last time I raised this issue, when I suggested that a three-points endorsement was a bit stiff for exceeding the speed limit by seven miles per hour in a light-industrial area late at night, and that a fine, perhaps with a one-point penalty, ought to be enough. I deserve the rap, and that's that.

What seems unfair is that I now get to feel like a 97-year-old grandpa in a checked flat cap, driving my car at 29mph through towns and 49mph along A-roads while a stream of traffic overtakes me. I've never been one for fixing stickers to my rear window - in fact, I'm sometimes tempted to drive alongside anyone with one of those "Baby on Board" notices and parp my horn really loudly just to wake the little cutie up - but I wouldn't be averse to displaying a sticker that said, "I'm not 97 and I don't have a checked flat cap, I just can't afford another bloody endorsement."

Still, at least you don't get abused for keeping within the speed limit in the countryside. In rural Herefordshire, road rage, like buses, is as rare as that splay-toed armadillo I was talking about. Which can't, of course, be said for London. We went down there for a party last weekend, and as I turned off Hornsey High Street having tootled along at my now-standard speed of 29mph, the man in the car behind called me something that no human-being should ever call another. "Ah," I thought. "It's nice to be back."

Wolseys need not apply

Hampton Court is still for sale, for around £10 million. This is not the johnnie-come-lately Hampton Court on the Thames, but an altogether more venerable place about 15 minutes' drive - within the speed limit, naturally - from us. It was built by Sir Rowland Leinthall, who, on 6 November 1434, was granted licence by King Henry VI "to crenellate, turrelate and embattle" his manor - the 15th-century version of getting planning permission for some stone cladding, I suppose. Sir Rowland did a fine job; the house has retained its grandeur through civil war, numerous changes of ownership and occasional penury.

It enjoyed one of its grander periods in the time of Thomas Coningsby (1656-1725), a favourite of William and Mary, although a bit of a nutter, whose quick temper was satirised by Swift. Coningsby's father-in-law, Ferdinando Gorges, was the nephew of Sir Ferdinando Gorges who (I hope you're still with me) was known as "the father of colonisation in America" after signing the charter by which the Pilgrim Fathers were allowed to set sail in 1620.

So it's fitting that Hampton Court should end up in American hands. It was bought in 1994 by Robert and Judith Van Kampen, of Michigan, who spent a fortune restoring the house and more especially the grounds, which are open to the public and utterly wonderful. Sadly, Robert Van Kampen died and his family have put the place up for sale, in the hope, although not with the condition, that the next owner keeps letting in hoi polloi. I can think of nothing I would rather do with £10 million.

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