Shortening miles

Leaving the school at Burnham after the meeting, I put “home” into Google maps. It told me that I would reach High Ham in thirty-three minutes. It was just before five o’clock and the traffic would be busy, there would be no motorway driving on the journey. The only explanation of the possibility of being home in half an hour was that the distance from our house to Burnham-on-Sea had grown shorter; either our hill had moved west or the Bristol Channel had moved east. The conviction that the miles had grown shorter was borne out of childhood memories: Burnham was a place you could go on a day trip, it would hardly have been worth all the effort demanded to prepare for a day out if you were only going thirty minutes from home.

The suspicion that someone was playing topographical tricks deepened as I drove south on the A38. A veteran of Britain’s trunk road system, from the days when motor cars were the preserve of the more affluent and road transport had not yet superseded the railways, the A38 still has some beautiful wrought iron road signs. One such sign, announcing to drivers that they had reached West Huntspill, had distances to the next town, south and north. Above the black letters of village name, the sign said, “Bridgwater 6,” below the name, it said, “Bristol 26.” Bridgwater to Bristol on the A38 was only thirty-two miles – this was baffling.

Anyone who grew up in Somerset fifty years ago knew that not only was Burnham-on-Sea a destination for an outing, but that Bristol was a place far removed from our everyday lives. Visits to Bristol were infrequent, and only made when absolutely necessary. The volume of traffic and the size of the city made it an intimidating place for those accustomed to very quiet rural communities. It would not have been hard to find people who had not been to Bristol for many years; it might have been possible to have found people who had never been to Bristol.

It is not just the speed of travel that has shortened the miles (though speed is not something you would associate with driving through Bristol itself), it is the thinking of those who make the journeys. To drive thirty miles is not considered to have gone far; anything less than an hour’s drive is considered local. Looking at a map now, the world in which we lived our lives  in the 1960s was a very small place.


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