Driving to Devon

David Quantick drives from one home to another exploring England’s finest; from Stonehenge to Little Chef.

Spectacular View of Stonehenge from A303

David Quantick

Biographer to the musical heavyweight, Ex-NME journalist and… 2005 contestant on Come Dine with Me

@quantick

Published

12/12/13

I don’t know where I am. That’s the thing about satnav. You can drive around the world without ever looking at a map, asking for help or even using a road sign. These days when people say, “Have you ever been to Doncaster?” I just don’t know. I may have driven through it but the satnav voice will have just gently guided me without using any proper nouns. It reminds me, as most things do, of Philip Larkin who once said something along the lines of “Writing a novel is like going on a long car journey: you know where you’re starting from and where you’re going to, but apart from a few landmarks along the way, you have no idea how you’re going to get there.”

And so it is that once again I find myself making a Larkinesque, satnav-led journey. I know where I’m starting from – Hastings, where I have lived for the past four years since moving out of London (my home, insanely, from 1979 to 2009) – and I know where I’m going – Devon, where I grew up, and where my parents and my sister (and her family) live. I’ll be as it were hemming the skirt of England on this one, avoiding the big motorway (I can’t remember the names of motorways) and travelling on an A road whose name I know only because it’s the same as a famous drum machine, the A303. (At some point in the journey, I will inevitably turn to my wife and say, “Everybody loves an A303.” She probably won’t laugh.)

 The dog can be charming and lovely but most of the time he’s like one of those people at festivals who’s taken too many drugs

But that’s pretty much it. There are some towns and villages I know we’ll pass through (Honiton, which I think is near Exeter, and is probably a town, even though it’s about the size of my foot) and some landmarks (Stonehenge!) but the rest is all “Turn left” until we have reached our destination. So we load up the car. There’s Jenna, my wife, there’s me, there’s the baby and, if the people of Devon are particularly lucky, the dog. The dog can be charming and lovely but most of the time he’s like one of those people at festivals who’s taken too many drugs and spends the whole weekend spinning round and jumping in the air while waving his top in the air. The dog doesn’t have a top but if he did, it would probably say KEEP CALM AND GO MENTAL.

This wasn’t always my driving life. When I lived in London, I would make journeys on my own, in a smaller car. It was a Toyota RAV 4 and its claim to fame, literally, was that I bought it from Graham Norton’s boyfriend. (Scott is now married to another, lives in Los Angeles and runs the brilliant Dearly Departed death tour of Los Angeles. You should go). But now I am a family man, I have a Peugeot 308, with sort of roof rack bars on top, and it’s very roomy, except when there’s two adults, a baby and a dog in it.

New Spice in Robertsbridge offers a Chicken Biryani for a reasonable £7.55

The drive begins, through Hastings (Sainsbury’s, Pets At Home, Dunelm Mills) and several unconvincing villages, whose main point of interest is always the local Thai or Indian or Chinese restaurant. I picture the owners and staff, far from their original homes and wonder what chain of events put them and their families in Hurst Green or Robertsbridge. (I also thank God they’re there; I grew up in towns where ethnic Devonian people ran the Indian restaurants. White people can’t curry.)

We’re on the A21. I know this because it’s on the nav. I also know this because we will spend half the journey charging down dual carriageways and half chumbling behind some local sloth in a little purple car. I don’t know what it is about slow drivers, but they always seem to feel more secure in very small, very purple cars.

I’ve been to Reading a lot – I saw a Sigue Sigue Sputnik gig here, and I used to go to Lenny Henry’s house nearby to do writing…

The next part of the journey is the scariest because I get a bit Asperger’s spectrum about directions sometimes and Jenna has to shout “Turn here! Not yet! Here!” at certain points or we will end up at Heathrow. But now we are on the M25, I expect, and heading past Reading. I’ve been to Reading a lot – I saw a Sigue Sigue Sputnik gig here, and I used to go to Lenny Henry’s house nearby to do writing – but I don’t know it, and I don’t understand how it can take up so much of England that every sign I pass for two hours indicates that we are still on the outskirts of Reading.

Finally Reading recedes and we are in the Country of the Service Stations. There seem to be hundreds on the M3 or 4, all with names like characters from the Princess Bride, like Gordeno or Sir Dukeleigh and they alternate their attractions, so that one will have M & S, the next Costa, the next Burger King and so on. McDonald’s are a rarity, but we favour the Little Chef, which has now turned itself into a kind of Toytown Denny’s, offering scaled-down versions of American diner food. National House of Pancakes, perhaps.

Little Chef ‘a kind of Toytown Denny’s’ on the A30

Past Swindon, where I interviewed XTC and photographer Kevin Cummins was hilariously rude to Colin Moulding, past Hungerford where the first modern British gun massacre took place, and finally a sign – WELCOME TO DEVON. I love the British practise of marking county boundaries, as if pregnant cricket fans were driving round, looking for a place to birth a Yorkshire-qualified baby. It also brings to mind a horrific postcard of my youth, featuring a bearded yokel leaning on a gate with an accompanying poem that began, “Y’m be welcome to dear old Deb’n/ Us folks here do think ’tis Heb’n.” I remember getting a cheap laugh on a school coach by suggesting that the reason other people were welcome to Devon was because we didn’t want it. Oh, I was funny in those days.

I love Devon, even though it’s really quite similar to Dorset and Somerset (Cornwall is different, being full of Guardian readers pretending to be Celts with stupid KERNOW stickers on their Volvos like they’re in Grand Theft Game Of Thrones Auto). There’s Dartmoor in the middle, full of bogs (I got my infant sister stuck in one once, she lost a Wellington boot) and escaped prisoners (maybe) and china clay pits (they really do look like the Moon, no wonder Doctor Who liked them so much). There’s Plymouth, where I grew up, where everyone is mad and jumps into the sea off the city walls in the summer). There’s Exeter, whose cathedral has the first flying buttresses in England, and whose rock history, bizarrely, consists of Radiohead, Coldplay, and nothing else ever.

Commando Training Centre for the Royal Marines, Lympstone.

We speed past the Royal Marine Training Camp where I had my best ever summer job. We pass the inevitable “twinned with” and “Britain In Bloom” winner sign which all Devon towns must have.

And here we are, home stretch, where all the towns and villages begin with Ex. Exeter, Exford, Exwick, Exliontamer, Exbox… and Exmouth, where I spent my teenage years. Where I had my first slow dance (10cc, you can guess the song). Where I taped my first punk album off Graham Burch (The Clash, but I preferred the first Buzzcocks album). And where I didn’t know I wanted to leave until I did leave.

Exmouth Beach

We park on the sea front for a moment so the dog can spray everyone in Exmouth with wet sand, and then we drive to my mum and dad’s house. My home is in East Sussex on the other side of England, but it’s also here, two hundred or so miles away. Which is why cars are great.

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