It was 2am and I was stranded on a busy motorway with two children in the car
I've just completed a round trip of the United Kingdom. Northern Ireland to Scotland via the ferry; Scotland to England for a short stop-over at dad's in Lancashire; NW England to SW Wales on the motorway and then back in the opposite direction.
It was a long journey - about seven hundred miles, give or take a few for detours and diversions - and took more than two full days to complete, but it was worth every minute because I got to spend all that time with my younger son Finn. He was returning for the second year at his university in Cardiff and the car was packed to the roof with another year's worth of gear.
It may sound sad, or even selfish, but a long car journey is a captive audience and a rare chance to really catch up. In fact, it would have been a lot easier and cheaper for him to fly and keep his stuff in storage, but I really treasure these days with Finn just as I did with his older brother before him, when he was a student in London. I wasn't going to give that up for the sake of convenience.
So we had a lot of laughs and a few heart-to-hearts along the way, listened to some great music (we have exactly the same taste and even share CDs which does help), stopped for the occasional service station picnic and took a few selfies before eventually arriving at his new pad, unloading the car and then finally saying our goodbyes.
All that driving - especially the drive back home alone - also gave me an opportunity to reminisce on some of the epic car journeys of the recent past, when the kids were both little.
There was one trip in particular that stands out as the most eventful and potentially perilous and, when I look back on it, I still have a sense of dread mixed with relief that we all survived in one piece.
It was February 2001 and I was embarking on a trip back home to England - with the two kids - for my mum's 70th birthday celebrations. I'd decided to take an evening crossing because - in theory - the roads would be quieter from Stranraer down to Preston. Or so I thought. As we prepared to disembark, my heart sank as one after another, an entire lower deck full of juggernauts and lorries were let off in front of us. I knew that virtually all of these would be heading in the same direction and it would be 100 miles until we reached the motorway. I settled both boys into their car seats, tucked them in with blankets and teddies and then rolled off on to terra firma just as the clock struck midnight. With miles worth of lorries in front of me, the journey seemed endless. I barely got beyond 30mph and even when overtaking lanes appeared, all I could do is move up the queue, swapping one articulated outrider for another. Eventually, after hours at crawling speed along the A75, we finally got past Dumfries and onto the open road of the M6.
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Of course I put my foot down at this stage. I was determined to get past all of the lorries and so I stayed in the outside lane and thundered past them all. I had a sense of defiance as I visually ticked them off one by one in my rear view mirror. Both boys were soundly asleep. All I had to do was keep my eyes wide open, ignore the creeping fatigue and plough on to Preston, another 100 miles or so down the motorway. Then, just as I was going through the most remote spot of all - the cavernous and spectacular Shap Valley in Cumbria - one of my tyres blew out and I almost lost control of the car. I just managed to swerve back into the inside lane before grinding to a halt while the smell of burning rubber filled the air.
I looked at my phone. The low battery alert sign was flashing. It was past two am, in the most treacherous part of my M6; pitch dark and unlit, and I was alone with two young kids, both asleep. Finn was just a toddler. If I got out to walk to the motorway's emergency telephone I'd run the risk of one of them waking up, disorientated and getting out of the car to look for me. By now, all the lorries were hurtling past and the consequences just didn't bear thinking about. I had to stay put. I estimated I had just enough battery to make one brief call, so I phoned my dad.
All I had time for was to tell him approximately where I was and why I was calling and then the phone went dead. All I could do then was sit and wait. I didn't even start imagining that deranged axe murderers or werewolves or vampires were on the loose as I sat there in the dark waiting, because the reality was scary enough already.
All's well that ends well as they say and within an hour the AA appeared, sent by dad, and we were towed off to the next junction where everything was fixed. As it turned out, the boys never did wake up on the journey and so missed the whole drama. As for me, I still have nightmares about it 16 years later.