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The holiday journey on a highway to hell

By Frances Burscough

I'm just back from a mammoth journey. Belfast to Liverpool on the ferry (eight hours), followed by a 230-mile drive (five hours) down the M6, M50 and M4 from Merseyside to Cardiff to help my son, Finn, move out of his university halls of residence, and then all the way back again.

But the journey gave me plenty of time to reminisce about similar car journeys when I was a kid and to marvel at how my dad coped.

In those days, from the mid-Sixties to late Seventies, all 10 of us took our annual summer holiday in places like south Wales, Cornwall, and Devon or beyond. Dad drove us there and back in a battered old Bedford van that had been converted to become our family vehicle with plastic seats and no mod-cons whatsoever.

Imagine the discomfort and the stress, driving hundreds of miles with nine agitated and over-excited passengers.

So one year dad decided enough was enough. He finally sent the rattly old bone-shaker to a scrapheap and invested in a modern Peugeot 504 estate with three rows of seats and a sun-roof, no less.

The interior was plush fabric and felt completely luxurious compared to what we were used to. The rear seats were so high up that I liked to pretend I was a diplomat in a fancy stretch limo, being driven somewhere by my private chauffeur.

Heck, it really was the most amazing car we had ever owned and I just could not wait to set off for our long drive down to Dorset for our summer holiday. Instead of being an ordeal it would be a sheer pleasure, or so I thought.

There was just one slight problem. The extra seating meant that the storage space in the boot was limited, so he had to fit a temporary roof-rack onto the car, just to carry the extra gear. But there was just one slight problem with that too. The sunroof.

Dad would have to set the rack on top of the sunroof and the suitcases on top of that and just hope that it stayed firmly in place for the 350-mile trip. The following day, we all crammed into the new car, along with our five suitcases - a half-suitcase each - with three in the boot and two on the roof.

There was a sense of relief as we set off down the M6 from Preston, heading south. But just as we were about 10 miles into our journey, going at a steady 60mph, disaster struck.

What sounded like a massive explosion above our heads was actually the noise of an over-stretched, ill-positioned roof-rack actually ripping off the roof. All of its cargo crashed down onto the motorway behind us, smashing each suitcase with the impact and sending our worldly goods ricocheting across all three lanes. OH. MY. GOD.

Dad screeched the car to a complete halt amid more swearing than I've ever heard in one breath before or since. I screamed as I saw my favourite doll bounce away and then disappear under the wheels of an oncoming juggernaut. My big sister, Louise, cried as her favourite dress got torn to shreds and all her shoes, knickers and bras were scattered far and wide.

But what happened next was incredible. Three approaching lorries all stopped, in a line, and created a temporary roadblock.

One driver jumped out of his cab and ran behind it, warning any oncoming traffic with a flashing hazard sign. Meanwhile, the remaining two drivers ran up and down the lanes, grabbing the busted suitcases and their contents and hurling them into their vans.

"You'll have to get out of here quick, or the police will have you for dangerous driving!" one of them shouted. "Go on, and we'll meet you at the next services!"

Thankfully, they did what they had promised and gave us back anything salvageable. By the skin of his teeth, dad had avoided the police and a fine. He was so grateful he gave them each a handful of notes and a firm handshake.

Meanwhile, mum prepared to give dad a piece of her mind over his botched DIY job. The event went on to become a family legend and a lesson well-learned: Never try DIY when you DKH (Don't know how).

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