Bin doin' some hard travellin'

8th October 2004 at 01:00
There is, in all inspectors, more than a little of Mr Toad. In the winter months, rising before a mizzling dawn to face the M25 or the M6 demands fortitude. But between March and October, the joy of the open road is almost unalloyed.

Like most of us, I have spent great swathes of my working life in an office, at a desk, or at least in the confines of one building.

From winter's dawn till dusk, I grew used to a wholly artificial world, sans weather, sans seasons, sans everything. A kind of sensory deprivation set in. It was at its worst during six years of daily railway commuting from Winchester to London.

Door to door, on a good day it devoured four hours, half a working week on top of a working week, every week.

On a bad train day, of which there would be least one a week, the whole grisly experience could take six hours; six hours of rage at leaves on the line or the "wrong kind of snow" or fog or gales. I felt like a serf.

In the great gale of 1987, or was it its successor in 1989, I walked out of my office in Southampton Row to find London unnaturally quiet and dark. I hurried on to Waterloo. Large parts of the roof were down and hushed clumps of people stood around. There were no trains. Or, at least, one would be announced every half hour or so going nobody knew where, and we would all rush to board it. Almost anywhere is more hospitable than a London station at night.

I ended up in Alton in Hampshire, which was pitch dark. I groped my way up the station entry to the high street. Some way along, a freak of electrical dislocation cast me from Stygian gloom into brilliant illumination. And there was a pub, full of men eating and drinking and lying to their wives on the telephone about the hardships they were enduring. I joined them.

Some hours later, I was collected, modestly elated, and driven home by Land Rover through lanes half blocked by fallen trees and threatened from above by weighty branches, ready to break off in the great rush of wind.

Such things give one a sense of helplessness that no amount of exhortation about the virtues of public transport ever dispels. Give me my own, air-conditioned, high-speed world any time, with Mozart or Patrick O'Brian on the CD player or John Humphrys flaying a politician on the radio. A friend used to say that to drive a BMW convertible at 70 mph on a summer's evening, with the Goldberg Variations playing on a Blaupunkt Berlin, was an experience which no generation of human beings in history had ever had before. It was unique. It was glorious. It was sensory satiation. Poop, poop!

I am, perhaps, less romantic than Mr Toad. However, the first lambs, the first fuzz of green over dark hedgerows as the blackthorn breaks into leaf, the heady reek of resin from pines in mid-summer heat - all these things make me glad to be alive.

There is no record of Toad's visits to Sheffield on a wet Thursday or of him revelling in the drive from Cambridge to Salisbury on a Friday evening.

At pound;7 each way, he might even have been tempted by the plane from Exeter to Newcastle.

But for most inspectors, released from the stay-at-home life in college or company, the sense of independence and of being your own boss which travelling around this beautiful country brings is a gust of fresh air. It reinvigorates. It is the elixir which makes arrival at the most dogged and uncooperative provider on a Monday morning, a time of keen anticipation. It is the balm which makes the journey home from the most depressing set of grade 5s on a Friday evening, a time for pleasurable relaxation.

The Adult Learning Inspectorate's teams drove nearly three million business miles last year. We hit other vehicles a mercifully meagre three times, and never hard.

We had our moments stewing in traffic outside Stoke-on-Trent, perplexedly lost in Birmingham or snowbound in Norfolk. But many of those miles took us to places we would never otherwise have visited. Have you seen that amazing church in Gloucester, the top of whose spire fell off to be replaced with a stumpy cone and a crown? Have you stayed in that extraordinary hotel in Brighton where the beds have velvet drapes and mirrors up above? Have you been packed off to Germany or Nigeria or Bahrain at a day or two's notice?

You can keep your regular hours, nicely below 48 each week. You can keep going home to the same bed every night. You can keep meeting the same people every Monday and being in full control of events. Give us the gypsy life, the life of variety and surprise.

Poop, poop! Poop, poop!

David Sherlock is chief inspector of the Adult Learning Inspectorate

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