I HAD to drive over the Dartford Crossing the other week, which to many of you won’t sound like a major drama.
But to someone who grew up north of Watford and who only ventures south on rare occasions (being a Birmingham City fan, the last time was the League Cup final in 2011), it’s always a bit of an undertaking.
I, like most people, hate traffic. Indeed, I despise it to the extent that if ever I’m stuck in it, I get anxiety attacks and am generally unpleasant to be around, which is another of the reasons I tend to avoid driving in the south-east.
But I digress. By doing away with the toll gates, not only have the government found a way of fining unsuspecting motorists who struggle with the internet (not everyone’s there yet, you know) but on the plus side, they’ve made the traffic move at an almost bearable rate. It was a million times better last week than it was on most of my previous trips through there, which have usually culminated in a last-minute dash for a cross-channel ferry at speeds that, I’m sure, are not entirely allowed on the M20…
Most of all, though, last week’s crossing brought back a memory from a couple of decades ago, which still makes me chuckle even today. I’d done a deal on an old Jaguar. Regular readers of this column will know that old Jags are a particular weakness of mine, and this example, a Series 3 XJ6, was one that belonged to a friend of a friend, who was a fellow car trader, so I knew it was in pukka condition.
I could have it for a bargain price, too, as the trader in question specialised mostly in small cars. The only downside was that it was in Paddock Wood, and the only route to that part of Kent from the north required a ride over the bridge.
And so it was that I left my car-cleaning boy in charge of the lot one Friday, and set off down south in a recently part-exchanged Land Rover, with my trusty car trailer hitched to the back. It was all going swimmingly, too, right up until I hit Dartford, which is where I spent the next four hours of my life.
I can tell you for nothing that sitting on the approach to the Dartford Bridge in a Series 3 Land Rover, with a manual gearbox, no power steering and a crap heater is not the best way to spend a chilly March morning. What’s more, I couldn’t tell the seller I was running late because mobile phones had yet to be properly invented.
When I finally arrived, frustrated, exhausted and somewhat knackered from piloting the ancient Land Rover through heavy traffic, I was over three hours late.
The delay, annoyingly, was a broken-down horsebox blocking one lane on the bridge (why not just ride the bloody things?), which, combined with Friday traffic and manual toll booths, conspired to make the experience hellish. Anyway, the good news was that the gates were open and the Jaguar was still there.
I approached a young lad who was the only person I could find in the yard.
‘Steve’s had to go home,’ he told me. ‘But he said if you turn up, then you could pop round to his house with the cash and pick up the paperwork.’
Of course, I, too, was running late, and the missus and I had theatre tickets for that evening, so I was under pressure to get back to Birmingham ASAP, so I slipped the young lad a fiver and left my trailer with him to load up the Jag while I drove up the road to pay his boss the readies. It was mid-afternoon by this point and I was acutely aware that the traffic on the M25 would be building up.
Steve, the trader, turned out to be a smashing fella, and over a cup of tea we wittered on about all sorts, despite the fact I was up against the clock. With the paperwork duly completed, I checked my watch and realised it was almost 4pm, leaving me with just over three hours to get back up to Brum. It was going to be tight.
Luckily, it wasn’t as bad a run on the way back – not bad for a Friday night. And while the Series 3 Land Rover wasn’t the quickest thing up the motorway, the traffic was light enough for me to make it back home with half an hour to spare. Just enough time to uncouple the trailer and freshen up ready for date night.
Or so I thought – and then I realised the error of my ways. In my haste to get back in time, there was one simple thing I’d forgotten to do. There was, alas, no trailer to uncouple, as it was still sitting in a yard in Kent with a Series 3 XJ6 on the back…
I did go back for it, a week later, having sunk half my margin into an extra tank of petrol, and boy did Steve rip the proverbial out of me. But I’m glad in a sense, as we’ve been really good mates ever since!
Who is Big Mike? Well, that would be telling. But what we do know is that he’s had 40 years in the motor trade and has some incredible tales to tell.
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