Firstly, and I’m a big believer in doing ‘firstly’ things first, let’s put our hands together for the title of this little post. Words like ‘genius’ and ‘Einstein-esque’ get thrown around a lot when I’m around but I think find themselves a relative home here. Relativity indeed.
Ok, setting my own narcissistic tendencies aside, I’d like to talk about a little driving trip I undertook recently. To where? Why Scotland of course! I had a list of tasks to complete for the 4BallR and just 24 hours to complete them in. Sounds a bit like a tasty challenge I know, but in actual fact it was just me having to get things done in a tiny window of given-opportunity. My objective? I had to get to Luton airport for a 9am flight, land in Edinburgh, collect a hire car, drive for a meeting at Le Monde Hotel, conclude that meeting, shoot across to Inverkip - to the west of Glasgow for another meeting, wrap that up tighter than a cheap Christmas present and haul-ass North on a four-hour jolly-jaunt to Kinloch-Hourn on the West Coast just inside from the Isle of Skye. By then things would be getting a bit dark, and that’s not just my sense of humour after being in the car for so long, that would be the setting outside and due to some tight finances, my plan was to spend a few hours sleeping in the car before heading to Loch Lomond for a sunrise and Glasgow airport for an 8am departing flight back to Luton.
Now, on paper, with times and locations all mapped out, it was all very do-able. So, with that in mind and fresh from the EasyJet website a mere £130 lighter, I was set. It’s probably best at this point before we relive my 24 hours in Scotland, to mention why I was doing all this in the first place and why I didn’t just spend more and make things easier, faster and a damn-sight more comfortable. Enter my event, the 4BallR.
As a (very, almost microscopic) small number of people know, I created the 4BallR to finally fulfil my dream of being involved in a large multi-country driving event, details of which can be found at 4BallR.com. As we are spending two-nights in Scotland on said-trip, someone had to go up there, cross-the-tees and dot-the-lower-case-jays. In effect, visit three-sites and share plans, discuss extras and haggle over pennies. The haggling bit was very important as, well, funding for the 4BallR comes in a personal form and let’s just say it’s not quite as limitless as one would like. In fact, throw in a job-change and a dwindling of savings prior to this trip and pennies needed to be saved. Hence why even a Travelodge was too much of a premium to be considered. Ugh. So, a reclined car seat on a dark road it would have to be. No one remembers those nights you slept well, anyway.
5am. Saturday morning.
I awake to an evil-sound. It’s that phone alarm again. Today of all days, its penetrating my eardrums at an ungodly hour. No biggy, after a few seconds of absolute rage and thoughts of Armageddon, my brain engages and I realise why – I’m off to bonnie-Scotland today for a rather busy adventure. Excitement starts to creep in and I fly from bed into clothes and towards the door in an almost contraptual-motion not unlike something you might see in an Aardman production. I begin to drag my slightly-squared two-wheeled flight case along the pavement outside towards the MGF – a £140 rolling-restoration project that will probably perpetually-roll. My thoughts whenever I hear a suitcase being dragged down the road is how long it will be before the world realises someone is going somewhere far away and how soon they will burgle that house. “Not today guys, I won’t be long!” I want to shout before realising that it’s still just half-five and a mouse dropping a piece of cheese would be considered a loud and outrageous act for this time on a Saturday morn and silent death via a neighbour would almost certainly be the only outcome. Thankfully the MGF has a solid set of pipes and starts reasonably quietly, otherwise I’d be pushing the two-seater to the bottom of the road before bucking-up the courage to turn the key and run.
After about twenty minutes of driving, the cabin moisture has cleared off of the windscreen and I can actually see where I am going once more. It’s a joy to push the MGF on corners and roads that usually are nose-to-tail with commuter traffic. Every traffic-light is a sea of green and before I know it, I’m on the M11 heading towards the M25, towards the M1, towards Luton Airport. London-Luton Airport in actual fact, like Luton is now part of the big smoke. Looking forward to landing at London-Edinburgh in a few hours’ time.
Remember how I described the dire-state of available funds for the trip? Yeah, that extends to airport parking, too. It’s about fifty big ones to park on site at the airport. Now, that’s a third of the value of my vehicle, not to mention a third of the budget for my entire trip. A certain no-no. I call in the help of Google Maps and find myself a suitable residential road a couple of miles away where the MGF can duck and dive for 24 hours. I wish her well and begin dragging my case once again on a two-mile walk in what now feels like freezing rain. Bugger.
A slight-underestimation of how fast I can complete two miles has now caused a delay. Einstein-esque at times, but one has forgotten to allow for the added rolling-resistance of an old flight-case over two miles when calculating walking speed. Ah. Arrival in the airport has taken longer than anticipated, and longer begins to become the theme of the trip so far – the queue getting through security is well, longer than expected also. I clear the scanner and begin with what starts as a light jog, but then quickly escalates into a sprint as my gate begins to audibly-close over the tannoy. Fuck. I arrive at the gate to a frowning tangerine-faced assistant in a frowning-tangerine uniform. I’m through though and heading down the tunnel at least. Note to self: learn to run with dignity.
My one wish and hopes for some cashews on board are dashed by the presence of an allergy-sufferer on board, we are informed. Fantastic. I do the unspeakable and order olives at 9am on a flight to Edinburgh. The low-carb diet is rather under-catered for on cheap flights, it seems. Still, I’ve got a book handy and a black coffee, so off I go. Now, as Luton is, from my house about half-way to Edinburgh anyway, the flight was a rather fast one. So quick in fact, that my black coffee was still scalding-hot as we descended into Scotland. And there was me thinking that you were not supposed to use boiling water on coffee grounds? I will be in touch, Sir Stelios. Chronically-burned coffee aside, we touched down and I was clear of the airport and heading for my rental by half-ten.
This would be a great time to mention that I always, always rent a Fiat 500 whenever I get the chance. My first car was a Fiat Cinquecento (Sporting, I might add) and I’ve owned two original Fiat 500 restoration projects in the past. I drove the new one in Italy when the first arrived on the scene and loved it. This will be my third and most modern 500, an 18-plate 875cc twin-air turbo. On a bike you’d say that sounds astonishing, in a Fiat 500 its well-suited if left feeling a little breathless at times. It was at least bright red which made it feel faster, and its check-pattern seats seemed appropriate given the destination. First stop? Le Monde Hotel, George Street.
What a place to start things off. I absolutely adore Edinburgh - the buildings, the history, the people. Although this was my starting point for the day, it’s in actual fact our finishing point for the 4BallR in June. I was there to check out the suitability of the Dirty Martini venue for our final nights’ shindig. As it turned out, seeing it in the flesh made it all the more perfect as our finishing destination. A great venue in a perfect city. That backdrop, that castle. The meeting was stitched up and payment secured. I thanked the staff and began my run back to the car. It was now midday and I had about a million miles left to complete and the clock seemed like it was being particularly tight today. Foot to the floor, double-espresso in hand, I skirted the traffic and pushed on to Glasgow. I arrived in Inverkip at 1pm. The traffic gods had looked down upon me kindly and I arrived at our second nights’ camping spot, which, due to the sensitivity and security of the event, I shall keep quiet. Would all the cars fit? Could we get a toilet block delivered on site? What direction did the wind come from in June? How boggy did certain areas get, and where was the surface run-off when it rained hard? Temperatures, wind-speeds, ground-clearance for the low cars. It all has to be checked and deemed suitable before you can call it home for the night and I’ll be damned if I take fifty-cars somewhere that isn’t 100% suitable. All boxes ticked, I scrambled for the 500, left two skinny-lines in the gravel and put the thimble-sized turbo to work. Now the fun bit, a four-hour drive to Kinloch-Hourn on the West Coast.
2PM. Somewhere outside Glasgow.
The A82. Possibly the greatest road, ever. Views that change-lives. Driving North on this amazing road past Loch Lomond was stunning. It was nearly three in the afternoon but traffic was light and I was able to push the Cinquecento towards its limit. Its limit, it seems, is hard to reach. Hard because you can throw it into bends at whatever speed you deem appropriate and it just grips a little more and gets on with finishing the corner without drama. It’s a car that is very hard to unsettle, sure it’s pretty-slow and its brakes large, and due to its light-weight and small dimensions, you’d have to be an utter lunatic just to get a tyre to squeal, let alone move in a direction other than forward or backwards. I was desperate to stop and take a few photos for the album but there is only one way you are going to shave seconds off of a four-hour drive and it surely isn’t by stopping to take pictures or pissing. My bladder would have to work harder than the turbo on this one.
4PM. Glen Coe.
Remember what I said about not stopping? Well that was the plan until I drove through Glen Coe. My word what a place, what views. I tried hard not to, but I had to stop along with many others and just marvel at this place. It’s almost alien, so remote and so far visually from anything else in the UK. Probably the most scenic place I have ever had the fortune to empty my bladder. The sun would soon be falling out of the sky and I was up against it. If I arrived too late at my next stop, it would be too dark to survey the site and the trip would be wasted. This couldn’t happen. I decided now that the plucky Fiat would have to run flat-out whenever it was clear and to hell with fuel-consumption, we were on a mission. Quiet roads certainly helped me munch the miles’ from here on. Glen Coe was to be the only stop on route to my destination. I had a passenger-seat full of snacks and a bit more caffeine should I require it. My initial thoughts were that I would a bit later on..
5.30PM. Kinloch Hourn.
The satellite navigation informs me that as I turn left, my destination is on this very road. It also shows that I have a whopping 45 minutes left to drive. How is this possible? Little did I know but the single-track road I was about to venture down was an absolute treat. Twenty-two miles long, single track and an absolute white-knuckle ride the whole way along. Get a corner wrong at points along this one and believe me, you and your car will simply cease to exist. I really wish I could say I was joking. After a few minutes I knew that it was getting darker due to rain-clouds but that this road really was too risky to push. Problem was, it was just too damn-tempting to do just that. What ensued was a rally-style drive for the best part of 40 minutes, arrival on site with a slither of daylight remaining and my hand-grip marks permanently indented on the steering wheel, which I might add is far too large for such a small car. I was alive though, and I had a bloody-great smile to show for my efforts, in part due to my heroics on that road, but also because I had made it with a few daylight minutes to spare. Sure, it was now pissing down and a local pony had started to harass the poor Fiat, but I had made it. I found myself grateful that I had been in a slow car with sharp brakes and not my MGF. I wouldn’t be writing this now if I had have been.
6.30PM. Same place.
The meeting had been very encouraging indeed. The clouds had now cleared allowing for a brighter than usual evening but the thought of heading back up that road at dusk did scare the shit out of me. What made it worse was that I had somehow now obtained two female German hikers who wanted a lift to anywhere I was heading. It was hard to refuse standing alongside my empty over-sized rental car. I can now confirm that two huge backpacks can indeed fit in the back of a Fiat 500 as long as one of the German owners in question is rather slender and open to a wee bit of contortion. The meeting was all it could have been, the land was stunning and the price favourable. All I had to do now was keep the Italian and the Germans out of the Loch. I now had three-lives to protect rather than just my own. Extra weight meant I was slower anyway, and not wanting to kill the little turbo up long inclines, I decided to take it easy. Imagine braking down on a road like this, I thought. Imagine being mauled by a bear. Conversation was slim due to a slight issue on the translation-front and Spotify hadn’t seen a single bar of signal since I turned down the crazy road. What we were left with was me nervously babbling on about this road and how I thought I was going to die as I approached every bend. I also mentioned the fading light, my extreme tiredness and rogue animals that liked to jump out whenever I needed a little extra scare. All in all, I think the one that spoke some English performed a quick hail Mary on every apex and we powered on.
8PM. Fort William.
The Germans were hinting at a few more miles but I had decided to just blatantly-lie and drop them at Fort William. My plan was to get as far down the A82 as possible before pulling up for the night, but my body was starting to fade. I was no longer up for a bit of company anymore. The late night and early start were now showing in my driving ability and my shoulders and lower back were exhibiting painful strain. Was the Italian-stallion to blame? Who knows. After I dispatched the hikers, I made it as far as the A85 before deciding I needed to sleep. I had realised about three-seconds after opening the Fiats’ door back in Edinburgh that sleeping within one would be an issue, but had shrugged it off and left it until later on, when, presumably, I would be so tired I could sleep anywhere. Now that time had arrived and I certainly wasn’t happy about the prospect of sleeping upright in that little jellybean. Google once again came to the rescue and found me a room at the Muthu Dalmally Hotel for a snippy fifty pounds. Now, this was my only overspend on the journey so far and I knew it was simply the right thing to do. It had a bath and some of the hottest running water this side of a boiling-kettle in magma and a bed that I could lay horizontal in. Sure, the rest of the hotel was shockingly old, smelled and seemed unnecessarily dark and seedy in places but I had my little room with a sturdy door-lock and that would do. I fell into a coma about 11pm and don’t remember awaking until that bloody alarm got me once again.
5.30AM. Room 35, The Muthu.
I had arrived in the dark and was leaving in the dark. I suspected that in the daylight, the hotel would have shown up even worse, so I hopped into the chilly Fiat and looked to test the heater. It worked. Just before 6am I pulled onto the A85 on route to my sunset appointment at Loch Lomond. That little stretch of the A85 at that time on a Sunday morning, surrounded by those mountains… Oh my. The Fiat took it all in its stride and I was grateful for the opportunity, but how I wished for something faster right then. The A85 was delicious. Utterly delectable. I attacked those roads with everything the five-hundred had to offer and wore a huge smile all the way to Loch Lomond. What a place.
7.20AM. The Bonnie Banks of Loch Lomond.
As that sun rose over Loch Lomond on that Sunday morning I had a little man-cry. A seminal moment that will never be forgotten as long as I live. Words genuinely escape me when describing that exact moment the sun exploded over the Loch and filled me with intense emotion. So beautiful. What an awesome world we live in. How lucky we are, not that we know it. Validation for the 4BallR heading to Scotland? There it was. Validation for life? Absolutely. What a memory.
8.30AM. London-Glasgow Airport.
Handing the keys back, the attendant enquired about the burning smell. He thinks it’s a fire in the distance. I know it’s the brakes. Poor thing. Used and abused. The Fiat that is, not the attendant. I’ve been against the clock this whole trip and the Fiat has taken the brunt of every attempt to improve it. No time to feel bad now though, as it’s time to run yet again as, once again, I’m late and the plane is allegedly boarding. They’ll wait. Over the loudspeakers I hear that actually, they won’t wait. Ah. They’re not waiting. At this point I’m genuinely a match for Usain Bolt with or without a suitcase in tow. Come at me, bro. I make the damn plane and cashews are in abundance. I celebrate and order two packs with the hope that a night at the Dalmally hasn’t triggered any hidden-allergies. Jesus likes me today, I can tell already. I consider picking up a lottery ticket on the way home, but decide that the £2 entry fee is over-priced and well out of budget. A decision that potentially cost me millions. Ouch.
10:30AM. Outside Luton. It’s raining.
Two miles of hiking and I’ll be reunited with the MGF and its musty-cabin. It’s been raining all night and the roof has become rather porous over the years, not that it’ll matter, as I’ll be soaked through anyway. What I wouldn’t give to be back up there. Back in Scotland. Back in the little Italian. On the M1 I am hit with the stark-reality that there are no mountains to look at. It’s all flat. Nothing along the motorway other than more motorway. You are truly spoilt, drivers of Scotland. Its on the M1 that I notice that the MGF has some real-braking issues in comparison to that 500. Another fault joins the list.
I arrived home. I was tired but filled with excitement about what lie ahead for the 4BallR. In just twenty-four hours I had driven only a small part of the 4BallR route and in only one country, and yet I had been left speechless and desperate for more. The trip had not only secured some key pieces to the 4BallR puzzle, but it gave validation for the entire undertaking. This was why I was planning it. That bond between man and machine. Those roads. That scenery. All scenery. Everything a real driver could want and love, and our route has it in spades. God knows what I’ll be writing after the event, after those 4 days in June are done and dusted. Personally, I don’t think I will ever want to do anything else ever again. Who would want to? For me it will literally be the biggest moment of my life, unveiling my event to the world. It’s trips like these that often give you a sense of real perspective when all seems lost. It’s all about the experience and me personally? I’m scared shitless and can’t wait both at the same time.