Clarkson on: the British road system
Ever wondered why so many people from countries that don’t have proper facilities want to come and live in Britain? State handouts? Our multi-cultural capital city? Or maybe it’s because you can learn English here which is useful for when you move to America? I think not.
When you move to another country, it’s good to have reminders of home. And the fact is in many ways, Britain is the same as Bulgaria was in 1955.
Yesterday, I came here from France on the mole train, and as I emerged into the daylight, I thought I may have been on a time machine. It was like moving backwards 200 years. Very quickly, for instance, you find out why Kent is called the Garden of England: it’s because driving up the M20 is like driving over someone’s rockery.
It is staggeringly rough, with potholes and craters big enough to swallow a small car, and ridges big enough to launch even a heavy truck into orbit... if it were going fast enough. And it is made from concrete which is fine if you’re building a block of flats in Uzbekistan or wishing to bury a business rival in New York. But using concrete to surface a motorway is idiotic because it’s so damn noisy.
Pretty soon, I needed some petrol and a pee, (and some ear plugs), so I pulled off at Maidstone Services – it was like refuelling in Cuba. The pump had the sort of readout that was amazing in 1974 and the lavatories looked like they could double up as a KGB torture chamber. Bog roll? Forget it.
Even the Polish truckers I found in there were standing with their hands on their hips wondering how the country they learned about at school had become so filthy and broken. Especially as most had arrived from France where things are a little different.
The fuel over there is delivered from pumps that McLaren would consider to be fast. Whoomph and you’re full. The lavatories come with baby changing facilities and I do think they mean just that. They’re so clean you could indeed perform major surgery on even the most brittle of newborns.
What’s more, in France you can buy sandwiches that you might actually want to put in your mouth and coffee which is delicious. All I found to eat in Maidstone was fat or lard. So I paid for the fuel, made a mental note to get a tetanus jab and skidded back to the car on a river of spilled diesel.
Pretty soon, I was on the link road from the M20 to the M25 which, presumably to save money, was built along the lines of a Lake District back road. And it was full of people sitting far too close to the wheel, in awful mini MPVs, in the wrong lane.
Not once in France was I held up for a second by inattentive or bigoted driving. But in Britain, that’s the norm. Move over? For someone in a big, fast, loud car with white stripes on the bonnet? No chance. That might imply that he’s better than me... And to think, James May calls the French communists.
“Kent is called the Garden of England: it’s because driving up the M20 is like driving over someone’s rockery”
Stuck resolutely behind some bitter and twisted failure in an N-reg Peugeot of some kind, I hit the roadworks on the western fringes of the M25. We’re getting used to them now, of course, but if you stop and think for a moment, how can it take two years to build 14 miles of road? The Romans could do 10 times better than that 2,400 years ago.
And when, in the 19th century, the Great Western Railway was converted from a seven-foot gauge to 4ft 10in, do you want to hazard a guess how long it took? I’m talking about lifting up a length of rail all the way from Bristol to London, moving it exactly 2ft 2in and then attaching it to the sleepers again, without the benefit of any cranes or mechanical devices? Well I’ll tell you. They did it in one night.
Mind you, they weren’t stuck with a herd of Health and Safety officials, which is the problem today. No one you see working on the M25 these days is actually working. They’re just walking around backwards in high-visibility jackets, making sure that all the other Health and Safety officers don’t fall over.
In France, earlier in the day, I’d seen a pretty big crash. A small Toyota had plainly hit the central reservation and then buried itself underneath a large articulated lorry. Here, the road would have been shut for two hours while men in hi-vis made sure the surface and the barrier were fine, whereas over there, there was a sign asking drivers to slow down a bit and that was that. They hadn’t even closed a lane.
And then there’s the business of speeding. The French are having a crackdown, for sure, but when you’re caught, the police don’t act like you’ve just anally raped President Chirac. They just take 100 euros from your wallet and that’s that.
Here, it’s a very different story. On the M25, each gantry was showing a different limit. One minute, it was 60, then 40, and then 50 and woe betide anyone who failed to comply because there were cameras every 500 yards. You can’t help thinking that the variable limit varies this much simply to confuse everyone. So they trip the light fantastic.
The cameras, we’re told, are to keep speeds down and save lives, but we all know this is horse shit. In France, they put up a blacked-out human silhouette at the site of every fatal crash. And let me tell you that’s scary. After I passed the fifth in 50 kilometres, I realised I was going too quickly and slowed down.
Of course, you pay lots for the privilege of using a French autoroute. Getting from Millau to Paris the previous day had cost £30. But you get the impression the money is actually being spent on the road, which is smooth, clear and well serviced with amenities.
I mean have you seen that epic new motorway from Montpellier to Clermont-Ferrand? And the bridge they’ve built at Millau, the one so tall you could get Canary Wharf underneath it?
Did you know that one in four people in Britain today is employed by the state? The government employs more people than live in Sheffield. And despite promises to cut the civil service, the only redundancies so far have come from the forces.
This is why our infrastructure is so dreadful. It’s why the M20 is as rough as the surface of the moon and why the roadworks on the M25 take so long. Because government agencies don’t work.
And that’s the bitter irony of today’s immigration problem. You have thousands of people coming here from behind what was once the iron curtain, only to find that behind Mr Blair’s smile lies half a million Bolsheviks. And that rather than moving to Britain, what they’ve actually done is moved back in time.
That’s why immigration doesn’t worry me at all. Because one day when we’ve got enough Polish plumbers and Bulgarian car mechanics, we might get rid of the grinning jug-eared ape. And replace him with a road system that works.
This article was first published in December 2005.