I can see why driving is fun. This lesson, P. took me up familiar roads first, Colwell Road and on to Alum Bay and the Needles, including coaching me through the exit from my driveway onto the main road. The fear of the my driveway has been building over the week, as it is curved, sloped and goes onto a bend that is if not quite blind, then at least partially sighted in both directions. My steering was decidedly jittery for 15 minutes until I settled back into driving – being away for a week with no practice in-between doesn’t help.

We then went on a major detour form what was normal and familiar, heading from the Needles past Farringford (formerly the home of Tennyson), into Freshwater Bay and up and along the Military Road. The Military Road is one of my favourites as a bus passenger, with striking scenery and a steeply climbing, cliff-edge ride, and so to tackle it as a driver for the first time was fantastic. The sun was that brilliant pale golden colour it gets to in winter, illuminating West Wight with an almost painterly quality. Of course, it was horribly low and, on a west to east morning journey, dazzling to the point of needing the sun visor down.

The main purpose of this lesson was to get me into fourth gear, as the Military Road is one of the few long stretches of tarmac that allows Island residents to travel at more than 20mph. The Top Gear crew used it for one programme several years back, where no doubt they drove a car at more than the 60 mph limit… But back to the driving, I still have trouble in gear changes where I haven’t get learned to take my foot completely off the gas while using the clutch, a matter of co-ordination that I’m sure will come.

We went through to Brighstone, where again reactions were good enough for me at an uphill T-junction to stop as a van whooshed past on the main road as it came round the wall by the church. And I didn’t drift backwards into the car behind either. 🙂

I got to practice an in-road turn (or three-point turn as it used to be called), and marvelled that you have to actually do this without bumping the kerb come test day. I didn’t – but then the road was quite wide at that point.

And then it was on along the winding Island roads to Mottistone and Brook, back along the Military Road, through Freshwater and home. All in all, about 90 minutes out on the road. Again, I felt quite good at the end of it all, but I can understand why on long journeys two hours is the recommended break time – I’d certainly be feeling quite twitchy by then.

In the evening I sat down with the computerised version of the theory test. For fun, I went through a mock test, scoring 46 out of 50, which would, remarkably, have passed me. I then revised the section on accidents, and realised then that knowing the Highway Code is just part of the theory. I did find the overall selection of questions repetitive, with various takes on what to do when, say, a motorcyclist is on the road injured, but I guess it drives everything home.

No lesson now until next week, but I hope to cram in some more driving time providing that someone is brave enough to sit with me.

WaitLink ferries

Wight Link recently switched its service on the Lymington to Yarmouth route to a 45-minute schedule. For months it had been failing to keep to timetable for its 30-minute schedule, and frequently missed bus or train connections at Yarmouth or Lymington respectively. Waits were inevitable.

The switch to one ferry every 45 minutes, instead of one every half hour, was done without consultation. It just happened, with Wight Link citing speed limits in the Lymington estuary as one of the main reasons, along with age of the ferries meaning they could not make up time. The truth is simply that it cannot load and unload the ferries fast enough, because timing the journey shows it still takes 30 minutes to get from one side to the other. The speed limit in the estuary has been 4 knots for decades.

You’d think that adding 15 minutes to the schedule would make a difference, but no. On Friday and today I had the misfortune to travel this route on my way to and from Warfare. I arrived in good time for the 15:30 sailing from Yarmouth, which only managed to arrive at 15:38; it obviously left late and, of course, missed the connecting train to Brockenhurst. A long wait ensued at Lymington Pier, allowing a lovely sunset to be recorded.

On the way back today (Monday) I arrived when the service had switched to hourly, after the usual 25-minute wait at Brockenhurst station for the Lymington Pier train (the mainline train just misses it by a few minutes). at Lymington there was another 25-minute wait for the 13:15 boat, which duly turned up late, and then refuelled, prolonging its departure by another five minutes. I eventually arrived in Yarmouth at 14:05, missing the one-an-hour bus up to my neck of the woods.

The lamentable crapness of WightLink on this route is not hard to fathom. It is using passengers as helpless pawns in its battle with the residents of Lymington to get its new, larger ferries into service. Lymington’s finest have reacted to the ferries in the typical traditions of nimbyism and simply don’t want the new boats. West Wight, however, would be paralysed without them: the ferry link is vital for foot passengers such as myself, and for motorists seeking to travel to the west and south west of England.

The existing boats have severe limitations: their radar doesn’t look low enough for them to be used in fog without the risk of a collision with small boats. The mezzanine deck loading mechanism for cars at peak times is slow and therefore contributes to the delays in getting the ferries away. And like their smaller predecessors they now are showing their age.

The journey to Brockenhurst from the time of departure at Yarmouth should take 55 minutes. Thanks to WaitLink it often takes me two hours. With frequent visits to hospital in Southampton back on the agenda now that J. is on her second course of treatment, even the bus combo involved in travelling from Freshwater to West Cowes and then across by Red Funnel’s RedJet service is beginning to look attractive – and I never thought I’d ever say that.

47… 46…

C. took me out for a second driving lesson on Sunday, to a quiet and flat stretch of road next to the Turfwalk in Totland. The Turfwalk was a stretch of tree-lined grass at the top of Totland Bay that fashionable Victorian society used to promenade along. It is now a stretch of tatty grass dotted with odd trees and shrubs, and whose sole purpose is to harbour the excrement of man’s best friend. Walk there now, and it’s like stepping into a minefield of dog turds.

But the stretch of real road allowed me to practise starting the car and setting off, and negotiating minor obstacles, and we shortly set off up a particularly winding hill road that eventually joins the main road to the Needles. At no more than 20 miles an hour, the typical speed managed by learners like myself and a good proportion of Island residents. I stalled a lot on starting, and especially when on a second run up to the Needles from Totland war memorial roundabout, C. decided to try to get me to try hill starts. That really is running before I can walk…

Then Jimjams called, needing collecting from Yarmouth, and we drove what was for me an exciting journey of 20 or so minutes in the dark to pick her up. I cruised the Honda into the parking bay with all the finesse of putting a 72ft canal boat into a river bank… C. drove us home. I’d been driving for about 90 minutes and was a tad twitchy.

I had little time to reflect. On Monday, P. my new real driving instructor, took me out for my first full lesson. He was quite brilliant at explaining the principles, and in getting me to learn the knack of a smooth start and of shifting gear to third (I’d spent most of Sunday juddering accidentally into fifth). Some of it has stuck, and I’ve since been able to move the Honda around on the driveway without stalling.

I got praised for my steering, which I can only put down to zipping the ride-on mower around apple trees, and for my reactions when I noticed a motorcyclist appear out of nowhere at a roundabout and braked in time. I have yet to learn to also hit the clutch at the same time as the brake to avoid stalling, but P. did that using the dual controls.

I fell pretty good about driving after this and can’t wait till the next lesson. I feel very lucky to have a friend who has the patience to get me out there for my first lessons, and also to have an instructor who is so clear and who I liked within minutes. And that first lesson in a car park already seems a very long time ago.

On the road to Warfare

Warfare takes place at the Rivermead Centre next weekend (22 and 23 November) in Reading, and it has been touch and go whether I will make it with Fighting 15s. It’s an important show – certainly one of the biggest of the wargaming year – and key because of its proximity to the festive season. It’s one of three wargames show each year where I feel I make money rather than break even. But for weeks I simply haven’t been sure whether I can commit to it because I feel I should be looking after J.

J., however, went back to hospital on Tuesday and I made the decision to go. I cleared a preparatory flying visit with Mike of Black Hat, who holds my show stock on the mainland, with the joint aim of restocking my crates and picking up an order of paints. I spent a day packing the replacement blisters.

Of course things never go to plan. J. turned up back at home on the Wednesday evening saying that the hospital now didn’t want her for another week, because they wanted her chest infection to clear up before the next bout of chemo. It’s lovely to have her back, but then all I could feel was guilt about my impending day up at Mike’s on the Friday.

And then Jimjams reminded me about school assessment day on Friday, and that I was supposed to accompany her for her interview. I could see my preparations for Warfare lying in tatters…

But it worked out. Jimjams’ interview was at the ungodly hour of 8.45am and lasted all of five minutes. F.-  the wonderful driver who has been taking Jimjams to school most days – offered to drive me to Cowes from school, with the result that I bought a ticket for the Redjet at 9.15am, caught the slightly late 9.15 boat, managed the connection to Southampton Central for a  train at 10am, and was at Mike’s by 11.30am. This is public transport at its slickest – just a 20 minute wait at Basingstoke for the connecting train to Woking.

After six weeks of doing all the cooking – J. and I usually share it – it was a delight to have Mike’s wife Sarah cook lunch. It’s worth all the travel not to have the chore!

And at 3pm I was off again, fully expecting the worst. But again public transport did its best, even the Island buses working so that I was home in west Wight at 6pm. In three hours I usually can’t get to Southampton General Hospital by exactly the same route…

Still, that means preparations for Warfare so far have been one day packing and one day travelling. I could of course be at home packing shop orders and catching up with the backlog. The show itself will take four days out of my schedule as I can’t travel up and back on the days of the show itself, so that’s six days spent on one wargames show. Plus there’s the hours over the coming week casting and packing advance orders for collection at the show. It amounts to a lot of work for less reward than selling over the internet and telephone, thanks largely to the show costs of stand hire and van hire.

And wargamers wonder why some traders don’t do many shows…

To ease my worries, Jimjams has house space with friends for the Warfare weekend – she doesn’t yet want to help daddy at shows. J. goes back to hospital on the Tuesday before Warfare. No doubt I can feel guilty about abandoning her for about a week without a visit. Still, it means plans for attending Warfare are still currently intact – but there is still a working week to go.

One down, 47 to go…

Ahead of schedule, I had my first driving lesson in a wind-swept and sea-spray-soaked car park at Freshwater Bay on Sunday. C. and S. popped round to visit at lunchtime bearing carrot cake for a recovering J., who is home for just a few days, and C. took me out in the Honda, introducing me to Mr Accelerator, Miss Brake, and Master Clutch. C. kept full control of Mrs Handbrake… and described the feel of the rest of the controls as depressingly agricultural. Perhaps that’s fitting for an island of tractor drivers.

I don’t know how drivers deal with so many controls and with looking all around them in mirrors and such, and as a cyclist I have newfound caution for cars because clearly many of the elderly drivers of the area can’t cope and have sight issues too.

Still, I managed several circuits of the car park without hitting anything, and with only a few slightly abrupt stops caused by unfamiliarity with the brake. I’m used to a simple brake-clutch and throttle (which I hold up with one knee) on the ride-on mower and that’s it. And I reckon that for now I go faster on the mower.

Based on the assumption that drivers need one lesson for every year of their life, I still have 47 to go. Which depressingly means a test probably won’t loom until well into next year.

One curiosity of car insurance that this episode has thrown up is that adding my name to J.’s insurance policy ended up reducing our premium by 25 quid a year, rather than increasing it. I guess that age has some advantages.

Driven to desperate means

The world has officially come to an end: I have booked my first driving lesson. Aged 48, I have never had a driving lesson in my life as cycling and public transport has been good enough – as it will be again when I hit 70. Expect to see me on Driving School Disasters or World’s Worst Drivers in the near future.

And don’t take a driving holiday on the Isle of Wight. It just won’t be safe. 🙂