On Friday, when driving up to Pimlico to get my new passport, I went the wrong way to Vauxhall.
Bear with before we get into the philosophical discussions about “So what?” and “Can there ever be said to be the wrong way to anywhere?” etc.
Firstly I am going to explain to you why this is remarkable.
I’ve lived in London all my adult life, from 1977 to date; that’s forty years for you non-mathematicians. And before that too actually, from 1970-1973.
And, before buying my own first car in 1979, I went everywhere on the bus because you are above ground and you can discover the way to places. Once I’ve been to a place once, I know the way. And often I don’t actually need to go to a place to know the way. I can be a bit of a know-all like that.
As soon as I decided I was going to drive up to SW1 on Friday I knew which way I would go, and why. One often starts, as a Londoner, with which bridge you will cross and I knew I would go up via Vauxhall Bridge and back via Chelsea Bridge and as my friend Susie (of which you have heard much before) would say when asked how you know something, the answer is because “I just knowed it, Miss”.
And I just knowed it because I’ve driven everywhere in London since 1979. I know the way to everywhere by road, I’ve no idea how to do it on public transport and have to point all of my visiting clients at the Transport for London website which does know how to do that.
I’ve lived mostly in South West and South East London, but I have also lived in Central London (known as the W postcode, though it’s not really west at all, it’s in the middle although you could conceivably give me an argument that it is, to some extent, west-ish) and in East London in Canary Wharf. And I’ve driven into London from all of those places all of the time and I know all of the routes and I know the way the buses go and even the way the taxis choose too, though they often ask me which way I’d like to go. I clearly look like a woman who knows the way to everywhere. Tourists certainly seem to think so.
I don’t have a sat nav. I am the daughter of a Royal Marine officer, with a fabulous sense of direction in-built. I know which is north, south, east and west without consulting the sun or the stars, it’s just in my body, in my knowing, in my DNA. I’m not sure I’d know which way is up if disoriented below ground or in deep water, but I’d know which direction is which, assuming I hadn’t had a bang on the head. You can tell I read/watch too much crime, can’t you?
I do like a map as it happens, though I only consulted one re Friday’s trip to see where I might park in the extremely unlikely event I couldn’t find parking easily on the street. That’s why I chose Vauxhall Bridge, because I wanted to sneak up on the passport office by turning right just after Pimlico tube station and driving up Belgrave Road and parking in the environs of Eccleston Square.
But I don’t really need a map in London, in the main. All the places I want to go to, I know the way. And I know where the parking is too though I will tell you that on Friday afternoon I discovered some absolutely stonking parking for the Passport Office, only right outside the bloody front door! And yes, in your head, you can read those words as if you were Michael Caine, in Cockney, in The Italian Job. You may also use the expression “back doubles” in that same voice too.
In this day and age I wouldn’t want a map map anyway, a digital one is fine. I’m even prepared to have that man on Google Maps shout directions to me, up to a point. My brother seems to have a woman bark directions at him and, like me, he mostly ignores her, saying things like “Oh, I wondered why she was insistent I should turn left on the A2!” As it happens he was wrong that day and went Far Too Far Round.
A sense of direction is just a thing you have in your bones. I have it. So does my brother, so did my Mum. And so does my middle nephew who was able to do it from a very young child. Once he sat in the back of my car in a tiny knitted blue suit (let’s blame a Grandma for that) and he guided me around Surrey after some family do. Memory does not tell what the do was, just that G knew the way. Tiny he was, miniscule.
In America they have this lovely thing – either dashboard mounted or, probably more likely these days, on the place where you see the speedometer and the petrol gauge etc (what’s that called?) which tells you the direction you are driving in – south, south west, south south west, etc. I LOVE that as I always know, even in a foreign country, which direction we should be driving in and if we are not going in that direction, then we have a problem, Houston.
I’ve been a taxi driver. Yes! Not many people know this (channeling M. Caine Esq again) but when I was a feminist way back in the Seventies, when it was a requirement (and sadly I may have to take up this stance again, thanks to The Orange One in charge pro tem of the USA), I drove my white Mini Metro(!) for a North London based feminist taxi service which drove women around at night in safety, decades before Uber and Lyft though I’m not sure how safe either of those are for women. Wouldn’t need to know, would I? I’m driving myself.
My Mum drove cars for a living from 1970 until she retired in the mid-Nineties. She loved cars and driving too. One summer she drove a massive stretch limo for a Saudi family living in North London! She was fearless behind the wheel.
I can remember every car I’ve ever owned – Mini Metro, Opel Monza (a massive 3.5 litre engine), a BMW 3 series, a BMW5 series, both drivers cars, a Vauxhall Frontera (not my choice, but fun all the same), a Honda CRV, two Volkswagen Beetles, the second one a convertible, a Nissan Qashqai and a Nissan Note and yes I am well aware that these last too vastly reduce my cred in this context.
I can even remember the ridiculous colours the car manufacturers tried to persuade me my cars were – ermine for white, lapis lazuli for blue, cappuccino for what TfL prosaically call beige. Quite.
I love driving. I’ve driven to and from Italy. By myself. Twice. With my own driving directions on the back of an envelope, worked out the night before. Must have done that from one of those enormous big map books of Europe, since this was before the Digital Age.
OK, I think you have enough context now, and why it is remarkable that I drove The Wrong Way to Vauxhall Bridge.
Yes, I corrected my journey once I realised the error of my ways. I had decided (erroneously) to go through Brixton and I should have gone left on the A203 up to Stockwell and then up South Lambeth Road, past where Joanna Lumley used to live and possibly still does for all I know. What on earth was I thinking continuing up Brixton Road?
Once I realised the error of my ways I hung a left on Caldwell Street, then doglegged across Clapham Road into Dorset Road, eventually finding my way onto Fentiman Road (which is within the Division Bell area, did you know that?) and onto South Lambeth Road that way.
But what on earth was going on? If you want to go to Vauxhall Bridge you probably don’t go through Brixton and yet I did, not spotting my error until well into my journey.
This is nothing short of weird.
I know you won’t think so.
But I do.
So there. It is remarkable. And now I’ve remarked.
I did go through Brixton and The Right Way to Vauxhall after lunch when I went back to fetch the passport and I hadn’t been up that road for decades but I was happy to know that The Right Way is still in there. Inside I still just knowed it.
One of the things I love especially about London is that there are multiple choices and you can mostly take any direction you like at any point in your journey, at any traffic light, to vary the journey and still get to where you are going. There’s also The Wrong Way which won’t get you there without correction. And I did one of those on Friday morning.
I’m still getting my head round it. As you can tell!
Vauxhall Bridge. You know, with MI5 (think Judi Dench, M and Bond) over my right shoulder and the place where Jeffrey Archer lives/lived just next door. Does he still live there, I wonder? And that funny bus garage and, I noticed on Friday, now there’s a Little Waitrose and a Foxtons. My, I thought, Vauxhall has come up in the world!
And while we are on that topic, Stockwell. Now there’s a funny pedestrianised bit which means you sort of have to go round a roundabout-type thing the wrong way, as you have to now (and for a while) at St Thomas’ Hospital where they’ve built that hotel in the middle of what used to be a roundabout. Sorry, this is a driver’s tale and you probably stopped reading ages ago unless you too have been driving in London for as long as me and notice these same oddities.
It was a day of wrong ways, but it ended up alright in the end as it always does. Read into that whatever you will.