Icy Roads and Ready Meals

My mother lives 65 miles away in Totnes. I don't see her quite as often as I would like due to busy schedules, so Christmas seemed the perfect time for a day trip and lunch in a delicious sounding French restaurant, La Fourchette.

Bridport was cold, but not freezing, a heavy grey sky suggesting rain later, so we diligently checked the weather forecast and road traffic news and found it all clear.

Soon the hills were rolling away on either side, gorgeous valleys and woods, little houses tucked into the folds of hillsides like coins in a fist, held tight, precious, twinkling. On the peaks of those hills was a light dusting of something that might have been snow, or frost. Behind them lay a cool misty blanket, layering the distance into gauze cut-out shapes.

On we sped with the heating high, tapping our toes, glad to be together at last and looking forward to a day with Granny Anne.

Outside, the temperature dropped steadily from 5C, to 3.5C and on downward to -1.5C. I dropped my speed correspondingly as the countryside around grew paler under the influence of a great sugar shaker and wondered aloud weather it was a good idea to continue? We figured that on a main road we should be fine, it was certainly well gritted as the constant pop and crunch of the road told us.

Before long we spotted a builder's van, jack-knifed across the road, it's front tires blown, back windscreen shattered and a horribly visceral hole in the hedge. After retrieving some tools from the bushes, he stood by his van with a couple who had abandoned their unharmed car on the other side of the road and waited for the police to arrive. I turned off the engine and we sat, glad it wasn't us. The road wasn't icy, but it seemed as though he may have shot out of a track at just the wrong time.

Pretty soon  a whole line of cars had gathered on either side of the accident, lights cutting through the frosty air, engines rumbling like bulls awaiting the red cape. Minutes later, the waiting got too much for a land rover with trailer that clattered past at speed over the broken windscreen and branches that littered the road. Nick rolled his eyes and we continued to wait patiently, holding the other cars back, engine resolutely dull.

When we were on our way again things warmed up and the well gritted road seemed fairly uneventful. I kept my speed low and my eyes peeled as we neared Totnes. Then suddenly, the road slowed to a standstill with only ten miles to go. Ahead of us, stretching into the distance as far as the eye could see was a line of Christmas traffic, inching forward frustratingly slowly, the air thick with frozen exhaust fumes.

The radio told us that Totnes was completely inaccessible. All roads that fed it, icy and treacherous. They detailed pile-ups and stranded cars in that cheery radio news voice and recommended travelers to avoid the area. Inch by inch we made our way to a slip road and crawled back to the main road home. For the next hour my mother was either on the phone or our mobiles had no reception. She didn't know that we had been so close and were now making our way home already without a belly full of French food or a Christmas kiss to sustain us.

We decided to save the day by stopping in Exeter for lunch. On the way we saw cars stuck on frosty banks to our left and fools speeding by on our right. Nearing Exeter, police cones covered the road, slowing everything down again. We glanced left to see what all the commotion was and saw a black BMW up on the bank, front wheels squashed like sweet wrappers, mud and grass spewed across the road. Danger sang in the air, high pitched and insistent. 'That car went past about 15 minutes ago doing about 90Mph I reckon', said Nick and we all sighed that anything should seem so important to risk your life over.

A steak lunch and a little mooching later we set off home. The temperature rose comfortingly as we neared the coast and drizzle shone on the road, but did not freeze. I did not grip the wheel and the banks were reassuringly free of abandoned cars.

At home I set a pot of lamb stew on the stove to warm while we kicked off shoes, coats and anxiety. Nick remarked that it was great to have a ready meal waiting for us after such a day and I laughed, because I had forethought this homecoming and thrown a stew together the night before so that we could step into supper almost before our coats were off. No foil packaging and microwave for us, but a ready meal just the same.

It was as sweet as lamb stew can be and we ate it almost in silence, in a pool of golden light, quietly thankful for a safe journey that marked the start of a few delicious days of hibernation. Home for Christmas at last.