OPINION: Acceleration of Norfolk traffic is driving me mad

Quieter times on Norfolk roads when the heart of Long Stratton rarely suffered from car-diac arrest!

Quieter times on Norfolk roads when the heart of Long Stratton rarely suffered from car-diac arrest! - Credit: Keith Skipper Collection

I have pedalled and parked my trusty old bike of belligerence down this cul-de-sac of controversy many times before. And I couldn’t give a bollard if I betray the odd dash of reluctance to embrace some generally accepted ways of our wondrous world.

As one of Norfolk’s most experienced non-drivers – that’s more of a proud boast than a humble apology – I used to steer clear of smug condemnation of scary behaviour on our increasingly full and dangerous roads.

Even so, all those years of loyal service as passenger, pedestrian and public transport user have provided an ideal box-seat when it comes to weighing up a fair number of the good, the bad and the downright demented.

My decision to stay away from the driving wheel altogether was influenced considerably by a flock of test examiners in the 1980s who hinted strongly it might be best for all of us if I left the highways to those who had some idea what they were intended for.

Sadly, I can only assume that highly commendable brand of judgement did not apply to many who came before my decisive pit-stop or to countless drivers since with scant regard for basic tenets of road safety.

An epidemic of mobile phone use while driving is far from over. Yes, the occasional purge has pricked a few consciences while headline cases about hideous crashes caused by blatant texting and chuntering bring renewed warnings from police and gasps of disbelief from the public.

It’s still too easy to stand at the side of any busy road in Norfolk and tot up a dozen or more flagrant transgressors in full cry within a few minutes, especially as holiday traffic mounts and tempers fray among children in the back. Dad and Mum are otherwise engaged.

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Don’t tell me or other public-spirited citizen to stop gawping and counting and “get a life”, or the supreme irony of that glib response being used in such a context will come into play to haunt certain people for rest of their driving days.

I lost my mother and a young sister in tragic road accidents in the 1970s, long before the current pandemic of alarming antics on far more congested and dangerous highways. Other relatives and close friends have shared their anguish and anger since my own heart-breaking episodes.

They could well have taken toll on prolonged but scarcely resolute efforts to absorb and retain enough skills and confidence to hit the road on my own. In any case, my absence has been vindicated all too often, not least by limited but excruciating experiences of motorway madness as a passenger.

I recall a nightmare trip about a decade ago when we returned younger son to university studies in Southampton. He travelled by train as a rule but extra gear for final year required a packed car boot, mum’s driving skills and dad’s useless impression of a seasoned spectator.
White knuckles and weak jokes about civilisation teetering on the verge gave me away just through Barton Mills. 

Lashing rain and next-door sight of the driver of a thundering great lorry busy on his mobile phone did little to endear me to Essex and its Sunday afternoon delights.

As weather cleared and we moved through a succession of beleaguered counties, I started to wonder how many cherished homes, family farms, buttercup meadows, wildlife havens, rural retreats and uplifting views have been wiped away since 1958 when the Preston bypass opened as Britain’s first stretch of motorway and the initial eight miles or so of the M6.

Anecdotal evidence from regular users, including several who have decamped to Norfolk for health and sanity reasons, points firmly at an environmental price of cataclysmic proportions.

Yes, an eventual takeover by electric vehicles should make our roads cleaner and quieter – but worship of King Car threatens to exhaust any system to stall fears of bigger queues, longer delays, shorter tempers and nasty accidents.

I suspected specimens and speeds might multiply as soon as vehicles moved too quickly for me to jot down number plates at the edge of country lanes in the early 1950s. Now, I watch cities, towns and villages struggle to cope with an ever-rising rampage of traffic.

Glossy advertising, motor show trumpeting and ageing schoolboys showing off with expensive toys on certain television programmes feeds a religion failing markedly to give a prayer for life along the quiet track. 

Bruce Robinson

Bruce Robinson - Credit: Submitted

Skip's Aside: Endearing echoes of 1966 and all that from a much-admired colleague of my football reporting days helped keep emotions and expectations in check during recent weeks of “Coming Home!” frenzy.

Bruce Robinson, this paper’s Norwich City man for 11 seasons before I took over from him in the 1970s, had no truck with hyperbole or hysteria.

Indeed, both were conspicuous by their absence from his Monday morning match report of England’s victory over West Germany at Wembley and in a fascinating blog he wrote to mark the 50th anniversary of that big occasion.

Bruce died at his Sheringham home in June, 2016, just before his 81st birthday. He was much more than a soccer scribe, also excelling as historian, author of over 20 books, long-distance walker and comb–and- penny football player on train compartment tables during our away match trips. I suffered constant relegation woes at his supple hands.

His account of that historic 1966 encounter still reflects a marked shortage of over-the-top reactions from players, spectators TV viewers and the media in general: “We had come to see England win, not a game of chess. It was not a game of South American temperament and daintiness. It was European to the core.

“And Wembley, like a maiden aunt dusted and polished for the occasion, quivered with Anglo-Saxon delight. Was it war, as some said? If it was, it had to be war of the most satisfactory and sensible kind”

In his reflective blog 50 years on, Bruce remembered “an open, fresh-faced, entertaining and tension-packed encounter, almost leisurely by today’s speedy standards, with space all over the pitch and emphasis on attack …”

He also noted sharp contrasts with much of today’s on-pitch behaviour: “Brief shaking of the hand and congratulations when a goal was scored. No rolling around on the pitch feigning injury. Everyone (well, nearly everyone) obeying the referee without demure. Quite simply good behaviour from all concerned”.

Thanks to Cynthia, Bruce’s widow, for sharing these precious souvenirs of a day that still stands alone in our football history.