Saturday, 16 February 2019

On The Road. Driving Stories From The E40

samuele-errico-piccarini-me and the road road trip stories

Six years ago I made the decision to leave home and move across Europe to begin a new life in the UK. Looking back at this stage of my life now I couldn't have done this move without my loyal car - a Vauxhall Agila. People usually laugh at me and my car since it is quite old and very retro-style. It doesn't have heated seats nor electric windows and its acceleration is the lowest on the market. When I bought it, it didn't even come with a CD player so I had to build one in. My Agila is classed as a minivan since I prefer "boxy cars" and not snazzy sports cars but you know, no matter how often people would judge me that I drove that "crappy car" it has never let me down in a single moment of my driving life. 

I bought it back in 2011, at 25 years old and fulfilled myself a dream. I always wanted to get a car in between my bachelor and master's course with the aim to drive to the UK. The timing was perfect since I had no academic obligations or "work" to do for once, so the 15 weeks of a break were all to myself. I used that break for an epic road trip to Cornwall - but that's a story for another time.

Point is that from my first road trip I would have never thought that I would drive that distance Germany - UK - and back a staggering 15x between the years 2011 and 2014... and most of the time drive those 900 miles all by myself. Oh, those were the carefree days of freedom and adventure and I can't deny how much I actually miss spending some time on the European Road by myself and learning new things as I drove along the empty roads. So I've compiled a few memories from my driving days and hope you'll enjoy. 

Knowing My Way


My usual route was from Leipzig in the far East of Germany to the Forest of Dean near Bristol which would take me approximately 19h. I would spend the longest part of the day on the main motorway E40 for a good 9h to Calais so I planned to start my trip early in the morning. This would allow me to have the main chunk of driving during the daytime which would keep me awake. I broke up the entire route into three stages: Germany (6h), Benelux to Calais (3h), Crossing and UK (5h). 

The longest part was crossing my country and I usually got stuck in traffic near Brunswick, got bored by the time I reached Porta Westphalica and knew I was close to my first stop when the radio station would only broadcast English chatter since the area in West Germany used to have a couple of American and British army bases. After 5h of driving, before entering "The Pott" (Ruhr area) it was time for a break. Just outside of Dortmund, exit Lippetal there is a great little car stop with a Mc Donalds and a cheap petrol station. By then my tank would need refueling so it could take me for another 300miles. Plus I always stopped for some chicken nuggets and fresh air before making my way back onto the road. Resistant to long-distance driving, it was helpful for me to mentally break down the route as it made me feel that I made progress.  

on the road in the netherlands

After crossing the bridge in Duisburg I would always say "Goodbye" to my country since this was the last sign of civilization as for the next 1 1/2h Nomandsland lay before me. In between Germany and The Netherlands, there's absolutely nothing for miles and the road is in pretty rough condition as well. No petrol station, no houses, only wilderness, and dead wasteland. Good luck if you break down in Nomandsland!

The first signs of settlements come back around Eindhoven which has a modern glass complex of a university, and no matter how well I had planned my day I could be certain to get stuck on the ring road in Antwerpen. Even on my way back, I would hit the morning traffic and the ring road is complete chaos as it already is. After Antwerpen, I always took the wrong exit and made a detour through Ghent instead of bypassing it. Once I got past Bruges, France tended to be very abandoned again. My last petrol stop was a small station shortly before Calais with a really narrow exit so I had to pay attention to not miss it. Another tank full, I would then make the final 10miles to the ferry. 

boarding the car ferry in Calais

I made it once very last minute to Calais with only a short 10-minute window to get my ferry. Luckily the border control staff weren't too strict so they would let me on. The crossing itself is unspectacular. I usually found a quiet spot and fell asleep until it was time to get back to my car and be prepared for the next 4h. The great thing about driving in the UK is that the roads are all very well lit. It's not like on the continent when you suddenly hit a dark black hole. Instead, there's light and to be honest with you, with all the roundabouts I feel a well-lit road is absolutely necessary. Especially around Bracknell.....dear me how many roundabouts do you need in one tiny little city? It's a weird area down there driving-wise and I found myself often praying to not break down there. It's again an area which is mostly deserted with barely any other cars passing by. I was happy to get back onto a motorway and do the final 2h in a smooth go until I had reached my destination. Goes without saying that the next day was spent mostly asleep and relaxing.      

Alone In The Car With Britney


I once left for the UK in a very ad-hoc moment. I know this sounds very random and I need to give you some more context so you will understand what went on in my crazy mind in that "spontaneous" moment. It was November 2011 and I had just returned from working at the Cheltenham Literature Festival. It was my first week back at uni although the term had already started.....because of the Festival I had missed two weeks...in fact three because I had met someone at the Festival and I wanted to spend some time with him before I would return to Germany (and risking to potentially never seeing him again). So it was my first week back at uni, the people were all grumpy and everyone had already teamed up for course assignments so I felt bored with most of my master modules. My mind was still very much somewhere else. One evening, after a long day at uni I sat at home alone in my flat in Leipzig. I made brownies to take off my mind and later I was skyping with the guy I had met. He was telling me all about his plans for the coming week and that he would take his mum to a music gig in Cardiff. And suddenly I got very upset and missed him like crazy. We were talking all evening and then I made literally the most irrational decision I've ever made. I asked him "Do you think I could come over?"....like as if it was the most casual thing ever. "Can I come over?"...like yeah sure, there's just this one problem that you live 900 miles away. 

Within 30 minutes I had packed what first found my hands. I fetched my freshly baked brownies, closed the Skype session with "See you in the morning" and got into my car. On my way to the petrol station around the corner from my house, I was thinking to myself how surreal this was. Filled up the tank and drove off to the UK. It was midnight in Germany and there was me fully awake and ready to go on a very "spontaneous" trip to see my future boyfriend. Yeah....why not. 

Around Duisburg after 6h of driving, I felt in the mood for some music. The radio stations in that area are rubbish since there used to be old American army bases around and all you'll be hearing are English army officers discussing politics. Unfortunately for me, I had taken out my CD collection from my last trip so when I opened my glove compartment, there were only two CDs left.....the first two Britney Spears albums. I eventually survived the trip oversugared from the brownies and being Britney-brainwashed. At least I was able to get some musical variety in The Netherlands once I received Radio Stu Bru (they do smash out some great tunes and DJ sets). So yeah the moral of the story here is to not go on a 21h drive with Britney and a Tupperware full of brownies. And now that I'm sharing this story eight years later, the other moral is no matter how young and in love I was back then I shouldn't have gone the extra mile (in this case 900 miles) for someone who would have never done the same for me. 

jamie-street-lamppost and streetlights on the british motorway


Rest & Sleep


Back in the road trip days and when I was young and did some serious damage to my body because YOLO, I drove 21h straight. I made precisely two stops on the way. One at the petrol station in Lippetal and another forced one when taking the ferry. However, my body did not appreciate my unhealthy force of staying awake so once I got into bed it made me pay for my recklessness big time.

The sleep after the drive was very deep and dreamless. I would drift off in seconds and sleep for 10h straight. Upon waking up, I would sometimes not know where I actually was or what had happened. There were some serious blackouts and it scared me how I could do such a careless thing to myself. Waking up in a panic not knowing where I actually was before I realized that I had been on a trip across half the continent was definitely a wake-up call to factor in more breaks on the journey. I did so on a trip back to Germany. The way back was usually twice as hard as I would face an additional hour once back in France and I had to leave the UK in the middle of the night to catch the daylight for the longest driving distance in Europe. I made a break in Belgium at a petrol stop and fell asleep for 40-minutes on their car park which added an additional hour to the journey. However, I felt more awake and focused for the road ahead.  

On that particular trip, I got also stuck in traffic around Brunswick so I arrived after 22h driving at home in Leipzig. Lucky enough, I found a space to park my car down my road so unloading wasn't too stressful. BUT on that evening, I was very tired and exhausted so I decided against unloading and instead only took my laptop and my ice skates out of the car. I got into my flat, had a nice long bath and fell asleep. The next day, however, my neighbor alarmed me and pointed out to me that I should check my car. Overnight, it got burgled and the damage was done. The windows were smashed, my cellphone was gone and 90% of my wardrobe was missing (I spent three months in the UK). It was my own fault, a huge damage in hindsight and my home liability insurance only covered 1% of the damage which was pretty depressing on top. Since then, no matter how long the trip was going to be, I would factor in more breaks for resting and would completely unload my car upon arrival. 

Let's Start Living Dangerously


I get in panic mode as soon as the fuel light comes on. Although there's still enough reserve in the tank to get me 50 kms, I can't help but to get a full-on panic attack. That light seriously stresses me out! And don't get me started when it starts flashing. 

On one particular trip, I gambled with the time. I had left Leipzig rather late, taking a very slow morning and literally faffing about for a good while before leaving. Fast forward 8 1/2h and I was about to miss my booked ferry in Calais. I was on edge since leaving the ring road in Antwerpen and was close to making my petrol stop in France - but on that evening, my designated petrol station (and the last one on that road) was CLOSED. That was it. Game Over!

With a flashing fuel light and no spare canister in the boot, I was a complete wreck. I made already plans in my mind to call my dad and ask him to pick me up in the middle of the French Nomansland but then my rationality kicked in and I made sure to drive as petrol-efficient as possible. I was positive to make it at least to the harbour. Nerve-wracking 30 minutes later I actually made it but cursed the constant stop and go after border control. I have no idea how I made it, but I managed to park my car on-deck with an exhausted flashing fuel light. In panic, I explained to the deck crew that my car was basically fucked and worse comes to worst they would have to drag me off the ferry in Dover. They would have actually done that, but luckily that scenario didn't happen. No idea how I made it, but I managed to get off the ferry, speed through border control, got a green interval on the traffic lights and landed - never been so relieved to see a petrol station in my life - at the hyper-expensive BP station in Dover.

motorway outside of london

Last But Not Least From The E40


There's a beautiful dom church in Lierop in The Netherlands which you can see from the motorway. I've not visited it, yet every time I went past it I told myself that one day I will exit the road and spend some time sightseeing in the area.

My knowledge of Ghent is reduced to the crappy pothole road around the IKEA and that exit which I regularly missed making me go in circles and an endless detour around Ghent.

In Belgium, you have to tell the petrol guard before you refuel how much you want to top up and pay in advance. They also drive like the devil in Belgium so you always have to go with the flow and make sure you stay close to the driver in front of you. No gaps allowed.

Either way, I was always heading towards the sun which made a beautiful sight from my dashboard. And that's usually the direction I'd like to be heading in life. 

xan-griffin-driving west on the motorway

Thank you so much for reading. Till next time,
Carolin
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