7 Dec 2012

"Show Me The Way To Go Home" - Sharon Endacotte Column

In which Sharon Endacotte endeavours to understand why she never ends up in the place she initially intended

I like driving. That probably goes without saying, given that I’m writing for a website like this one. It’s just as well really, because when I drive anywhere it generally tends to involve many, many more miles than perhaps it should.

You see, brothers and sisters, I have something to confess to you. It’s a terrible thing to be burdened with, and something that brings me great shame (along with that brief period of Datsun ownership in the early 90s, and the fact that the first draft of this column was written – gasp – on a National Express coach), and it is this:

I have absolutely no sense of direction whatsoever.

I don’t mean that I get a bit lost but I’m generally in more or less the right place, either. No, we’re talking a complete, profound, almost congenital failure of my internal compass.

A while ago, I had a job that involved a twelve mile commute each way. I knew it was theoretically possible to make the journey by bus, as there was a bus stop at the end of my road and one near my office, and I’d noticed that they were both on the same route, but why would I want to catch a bus? Aside from the vagaries of the timetable, there is always at least one proper weirdo on every journey, and he always sits next to me and talks about herring or teeth or transcendental meditation.

No, thank you. I’ll take the car.

Fine in theory, but stuck in a rush hour traffic jam in a part of London where I don’t live, facing what the signs assure me is the wrong way, in a very fragile old car that suddenly smells a bit wrong? Let’s just say that for a moment I found myself reconsidering my position. Mind you, I’d no idea how to get myself back until an unlikely saviour rumbled into view in the form of the bus that ran past the end of my road.

So I followed it. All the way home. Every day until I’d memorised the route.

I know, rubbish. But I’m afraid it was a far from isolated incident.

In desperation, I was once forced to phone a friend.

“You know Epping?”
“How do I get home from it?”

I’d somehow overshot a four mile journey by some 38 miles, at one point finding myself in the middle of a fish farm. I aimed at Epping because it was the first place name I’d recognised since taking the wrong exit off a roundabout and blithely heading into the kind of countryside you normally only ever see in the kind of films where unwary innocents accidentally drive into the territory of the local murderer.

Still, at least the weather was nice.

The problem isn’t restricted to driving though. After that particular incident, I came to the conclusion that some kind of satnav would be a worthwhile investment, but then I used the GPS on my phone to get myself to an interview and walked out of the nearest Tube station in completely the opposite direction. It wouldn’t have been quite so bad if I’d been trying to find a coffee shop, or even an office, but to lose an entire university campus takes some doing. So I wouldn’t call that my finest hour either.

No, I think that was probably the time I spent 40 minutes trying to find the bar in a hotel. It wasn’t a particularly large hotel - it was built on a barge – and to be brutally honest, if I’d thought about it, I could have navigated by smell. The hotel is long since gone, and that’s probably just as well because otherwise there’s a fair chance I’d still be there, trying to find my way back to my room.

But here’s the strangest bit.

A while ago I had to drive from where I live now to where I used to live, a trip of about 250 miles each way. And I think I can guess what you’re thinking… but I bet you’re wrong.

Since I always end up taking the scenic route anyway, I decided I may as well plan it that way from the outset, and since there’s no nicer way from the south east to the south west than the A303, I decided to get directions from the AA website before I left. I told it where I was starting and finishing, and that I wanted to avoid motorways as far as possible.

It told me to go via Manchester.

Even I know that’s not right. You don’t get from Essex to Devon via Manchester, even if you’re me. So I tried again, and it tried to send me via Bridgend.

Bridgend?! That’s not even in the same country!

At that point I gave up, got in the car and aimed more or less at the M25, which it turns out is absolutely lovely at 6am on a bank holiday. I knew that from there all I really had to do was look for road signs pointing me in roughly the right direction, and it wasn’t too long at all before I was admiring Stonehenge in the early morning sunlight as I crawled past a jack-knifed caravan.

I think I’ve had trips to my local mechanic four miles from home that have seemed longer and been more stressful.

And as I sat eating my Olympic Breakfast in a Little Chef somewhere a few miles down the road, I was struck by a realisation: it’s not so much that I don’t have an internal compass as that for a compass to be any use, you also need a map – and mine’s the wrong scale. It’s like I’ve got the Big Book of Motorways and Major Roads, but the concept of the A-Z has completely passed me by.

This theory was completely borne out on my arrival, when I pulled off the A38 at the end of my journey and arrived in the town where I lived for almost fifteen years.

And immediately went the wrong way.