Friday, October 17, 2008


I had a choice last night and an extremely cunning plan.

Due to a boring set of circumstances, a work meeting fell through and I found myself with a hotel room I couldn't cancel. I decided to drive South anyway and use it as a base for going into the heart of London for beer and curry with a few dozen techies, some of whom were potential clients.

Now, my hotel wasn't a perfect base for my assault on London. It was in a sleepy town about half-way to the south coast, with a rail service that would take over an hour to wend its way to the wrong side of London.

Hence my extremely cunning plan - to drive into the heart of London.

Yes, I know it sounds like lunacy but I had a few things going for me :-
  • If I timed it right I would be crossing the Congestion Charge boundary just after 18:00 and so wouldn't need to pay.
  • I have a sat-nav so my shocking sense of direction wouldn't be an issue.
  • There's a car park near the meeting place in Trafalgar Square that has a special night rate.
I have also been driving for the best part of twenty years, so how hard could it be ?

Really quite hard as it turns out.

The first part of my plan succeeded and I hit the charge boundary around 18:10. Traffic was fine through Hammersmith, but as I closed in on the centre, things became strange.

My car appeared to grow larger as the roads narrowed. Everyone started driving like they were on crystal meth, swapping lanes and yelling out the window. There seemed always to be something stationary or coming towards you in the inside lane - usually a taxi, but often pedestrians or builders' vans.

Jane, the voice of my sat-nav, relayed instructions but as the turns became more frequently, even she sounded stressed. 

Eventually the inevitable happened, and to avoid colliding with a skip lorry, I ended up in the wrong lane and missed my turn. This was in China Town in the heart of the rush hour, so there was no prospect of obeying Jane's command to "Turn Around When Possible". I ended up going down a narrow alley between two low rent Chinese restaurants and I swear there were live angry chickens flying past my side windows as I squeezed through.

Eventually Jane told me that I had reached my destination, but there was no sign of the car park. Instead there was some on-street parking that was free of charge since it was just after 18:30.  I am not going publicise where this parking was : I don't want everyone to know about it.

So I saved myself the price of a train journey, had a life-changing experience and when the event was over I was only two minutes walk from my car. The drive home was quite stressful, but if you've braved the A4 Cromwell Road at rush hour, then there's little in this world that can phase you. 

Would I do it again ? Probably not. I don't know how anyone drives in London without having accidents and picking up penalty points twice-daily. The experience made me feel like a country cousin, chewing on a blade of grass, out of his depth in the big city. Driving through a northern market-town during the school run time will seem restful in comparison.

If you do decide to take your chances, one piece of advice : the only variable you can control is the amount of space you leave between the front of your car and the manic death-racer in front of you, so make sure you leave more space than the London taxi drivers think sufficient. And ignore the hooting - it is probably you they are hooting at, but there's probably nothing you could have done about it.

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