I had been staying in what felt like the middle of nowhere, in the Shropshire hills, on my way back from Wales.
I had known nothing of this area beforehand, but had quickly come to realise that it was the sort of place in which you could so easily get lost; where the name of each settlement was either ridiculously long or ridiculously short. “Twindlebury Bigbum” or “Fum” would have been quite acceptable words on the map here, and when you’re from a county where places have boring names like “Ashford” or “Chatham”, this is a particularly amusing source of entertainment.
Unsurprisingly, I knew very little about how to navigate my way around the likes of Twindlebury Bigbum and Fum, so when it came time to leave my little shepherds hut in the hills and go home, I had no choice but to put all my faith into my 2014 Satnav to direct me back to Kent.
It instructed me to turn right upon leaving the farm where I’d been staying, and from that point I became completely subservient to its commands. “Satnav really knows its stuff”, I thought to myself, internally marveling at how precise its instructions were. For quite a while, I merrily continued along the hills trying to absorb some final bits of natural beauty before I returned back to the reality of Kent, work and thinking about the pandemic.
Around twenty minutes into my journey, a large, red “Road Ahead Closed” sign appeared in the road next to some cones. I ignored it and carried on. Then another one appeared, and I did the same thing. And again. And again.
To not be able to follow the Satnav’s route would mean a very timely detour in a place like this, and I had absolutely no idea where I was, or how to get back on track if I needed to divert. My mobile had lost signal and I knew my Satnav had an unfortunate tendency to stubbornly just insist on u-turns if I ever disobeyed it. Each time I carried on past a “Road Ahead Closed” sign I became more and more fixed in the belief that perhaps I could get away with being a rebel, and that eventually the signs would stop and pay no further threat to my route home.
But then the Highway Maintenance van appeared, blockading the road and instantly crushing my ignorance and naivety. High-viz’ed men stood by the side of the vehicle, to stop people from passing any further. I admitted defeat and wound down the window to ask for their help.
“Excuse me”, I motioned their attention, “I’m not from around here, and really don’t know where to go, since this road is closed”
“That makes two of us then” grimaced the younger of the two men, “where is it you’re trying to head to?”
“Well, Kent actually”
I think he’d hoped I was striving to get to somewhere closer by, like Birmingham or Shrewsbury. But the “Kent” response had thrown a complete spanner in the works, and now we all felt equally awkward.
The two men engaged in chat, and eventually turned back to me.
“If you follow this side-road over here on the left, and keep on it, it should eventually put you back here on the main road at the point at which it opens up again, then you can carry on as planned. Good luck!”
I thanked the men for their help and did exactly what they said. Their suggested route took me through even smaller hamlets and even longer place names. I was surprised to see that one such place even boasted a barbers. “How on earth does that place stay in business?” I thought to myself, “the three people who live here surely don’t need their hair done that often?!”.
Astounded by this, I carried on driving, and the men’s instructions did eventually take me back out onto the main road as they’d promised… only at that point there was another obstacle there, in the form of another Highway Maintenance truck and a colleague of theirs stood beside it waving people away. Knowing nothing of my exchange with his peers, he motioned me back along the main road in the direction from which I’d come. Again, I did exactly as told. And then, a short while later, found myself reunited with my high-viz’ed friends from earlier.
We were all similarly as surprised to see one another again.
“I did what you said, but now I really have absolutely no idea what I’m doing or now need to do” I conceded as I slowed down past them.
By this point it was fair to say I was feeling a little frustrated. I’d been on the road for an hour by this point, and not even left the Shropshire Hills. I had at least another four hours to drive once I was away from there, and I really didn’t want to face any further delays, not only because of the impenetrable fact that there is absolutely nothing useful about those, but I also had a joint of silver-side beef freshly bought from the farm which needed to get into a refrigerator A.S.A.P. A diversion, or to go back the way I’d come and follow a different route home altogether, would have added at least another unwelcome hour to an already tight journey.
The men took pity on me, and instructed me to pull up in a lay-by whilst they whispered together a plan.
“My colleague is going to escort you through the closed road”, said the younger man after they’d spent some time conferring, “just follow him and he’ll take you to where you need to be. But let’s wait until this white car has passed; we don’t want anyone else to get wind of this, or they’ll all be asking to do it. If anyone else should stop you on the way, just say you live here and you need to get through.”
And with that, the Highway Maintenance van set off with its hazard lights on, me pathetically – yet very gratefully – trailing close behind. We carried on like this for several miles along the closed road, until we reached the part where it opened up once more.
I was then able to continue my journey home without unnecessary diversions, because of a random act of human kindness that no Satnav could ever have replicated.
It made me think about technology, and all of the faith we put into it, particularly recently. Technology has been a great saviour during the pandemic, allowing us to still “see” friends and family when rules dictate being physically apart, and it might know which way to turn when exiting a random farm, but there are still a lot of things it cannot do. Bending rules, going the extra mile, and empathising with human need, are but three of those things.
I will always be grateful to these two men for bending the rules and their professional protocol for me. They took pity on a damsel in distress and safely navigated an alternative way for me to get where I needed to. Satnav, Siri and co would not have been able to do this for me. In fact, if I’d been reliant on just technology to help me, I’d probably still be there right now, in the Shropshire hills, driving back and forth between red metal road closure signs, and desperately pointing my phone to the heavens to try and get a momentary shred of signal.
At a time where we are having to turn to the online world even more than ever before, it’s important to remember that even the cleverest, most advanced of technologies are not without their limitations.
No app can ever quite rival decent human nature and a bit of heart.
Song of the Day: Lemon Demon – Eighth Wonder
This is a pretty catchy number from musical project, Lemon Demon. I never tend to understand what his songs are about but a quick gaze at the YouTube comments suggests this one is about a mongoose who believed he was the eighth wonder of the world. More surprising still is that this is actually a true story. The mongoose was apparently called Gef, and he lived with a family on the Isle of Man in the 1930’s. I need a drink.