Making motorway minutes count

It is said that travel broadens the mind and I would heartily agree in almost all circumstances bar one. Gill and I have just spent three hours driving down to Gloucester on the M6 and M5 and despite the best efforts of Radio 4 I can’t help but feel as if I have just lost those precious hours of my life forever. There is something absolutely unique about the tedium of motorway driving despite the fact that the volume of traffic requires constant vigilance. I made a concerted effort today to get something positive from the experience but it wasn’t easy.

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I could make the same journey in any other way and get something from it. Walking the 200 or so miles would be a serious adventure over a couple of weeks and it would leave a legacy of valuable memories. Cycling the same distance over three days would be a real challenge and provide a great sense achievement and satisfaction. Even driving via smaller, quieter roads would make an interesting day out with stops for lunch and afternoon tea. On a train I could have focussed on a good book or the radio without compromising my safety, or that of other travellers. Then there are the many eccentric options such as roller skating, skateboarding or maybe travelling by pogo stick. A flight in a microlight would turn the journey into a thrilling experience or maybe it would be possible to navigate by canoe or narrow boat. Anything but the motorways.

I understand the importance of motorways and their contribution to the efficient transportation of both goods and working people but boy oh boy are they boring. For me the driverless car just can’t come soon enough.

I can think of a positive slant on today’s experience though. Whilst the journey may have felt like a waste of three hours there is, at least, a valuable lesson to take from the experience. It reminds me of why it is so important to treat not just every day but every minute as if it was your last. Put another way, if I was told I had three hours to live I wouldn’t be making a bee line for the M6 or any other motorway for that matter.

I’m sure there were plenty of people on the road today who would completely disagree with me, even some who enjoy motorway driving but the message remains the same. When you are forced by circumstance to do something boring and apparently pointless you can at least use it to remind yourself how precious every minute really is. I may feel like I wasted the best part of two hundred minutes this morning but isn’t that all the more reason to treasure all the ones that follow?

Dawn chorus

Usually when people set their alarm clock for 3am it’s because they have a flight to catch. More often than not the flight will be taking them to some warm and possibly exotic place to start their annual holiday so the pain of the alarm is quickly replaced by excitement. The cruel interruption to our sleep had an altogether different purpose. No sun soaked beach or lazing by the pool with a G & T for us. Our destination was a stretch of the Lancaster Canal and the dawn chorus.

Sunrise was at 5am and the first birds usually begin to sing an hour earlier so I was worried we might have cut it a bit fine as we made our way down to the tow path. I was also disappointed to hear the steady drone of traffic from the distant M55 motorway. It’s becoming increasingly difficult to get away from road noise these days, even pre-dawn. The motorists were probably all heading for Manchester airport and a flight to some …. oh hang on, we’ve done that already haven’t we?

As we descended to the water’s edge the noise faded as this part of the canal is deep in a cutting and we were blessed with near silence. It was cool but perfectly still, not a breath of wind to disturb the atmosphere. The rich smell of damp earth rose to meet us, so much more distinctive this early in the day. We’d made it just in time because the silence was broken at that moment by the beautiful and distinctive sound of a robin announcing the start of what we had come to hear. It was still dark enough to require care as we walked slowly along the path listening to those first few notes. Robins are often the first to sing and this one was soon joined by others and the silence was gradually filled with their cheery song. These soloists were quickly accompanied by the blackbird and its flute like mellifluous tune cutting clearly through the crisp morning air. We startled, and in turn were startled by, a moorhen which skittered across the water calling in alarm, its cries of panic momentarily drowning out the early song birds.

Creeping past the live-aboard narrow boats so as not to wake the occupants we reached a bench where the canal passes through dense woodland and settled down to listen to the performance. By now it was possible to make out the outlines of the trees against the lightening sky and the mist that was forming at the edge of the woodland. A heron took flight just fifty yards down the tow path and settled under the arched stone bridge to patiently watch for its first catch of the day. By now the bird song was unbroken and first the wood pigeons and then the fabulous wren joined the orchestra. A bat was patrolling on a regular patterned circuit making the most of the final cover of darkness. It would soon be replaced by the swallows. There would be no respite for the flying insects today.

Heron's fishing spot

Heron’s fishing spot

We strolled on, passing under the bridge, forcing the heron to relocate temporarily and as we left the woods behind a spectacle of pure magic unfolded. Patches of dense mist clung to hollows and along stretches of the water creating a mystical feel to the scene. In places the water provided crystal clear mirror images of the trees on the canal bank but then the mist would swallow the image in its cold silky veil. The tranquil scene was broken as a male swan chased away a family of Canadian geese that were getting too close to his mates nest.  He flared his wings in a threatening gesture, swimming fast at the goose and letting him know who was boss. The female swan looked on anxiously then settled down again on the nest, fussing to ensure she had her eggs perfectly protected. Calm was restored.

Two trees for the price of one

Two trees for the price of one

Shhh, they may be asleep

Shhh, they may be asleep

The hedgerow was full of the song of wrens and the remarkably loud call of a warbler scolding us roundly for threatening her unseen nest. As the sun finally broke the horizon we turned tail and headed back towards home. The mist was clearing and the cacophony of song had now been replaced by the more familiar individual calls of pheasant, crow and wood pigeon. The performance was over for today and soon it would be over for this summer. For many of these early morning choristers the focus now will turn to raising their young and then preparing for another hard winter or a long flight home.

Sunrise, one hour after the dawn chorus begins

Sunrise, one hour after the dawn chorus begins

Our experience was well worth the pain of that early awakening and we had the advantage of heading home now to tea and bacon sandwiches before climbing back into bed to catch up on the lost sleep. I couldn’t help but think about those early morning travellers, no doubt waiting nervously in their boarding queues checking and rechecking their passports and tickets. I had to admit to a tinge of envy when I thought of them soaking up the sun but then I reflected on the last two hours and remembered that sometimes the magic is right on your doorstep if you just go and look for it.

Tranquility

Tranquility

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