The blue autoroute sign announced that to the right one could join the A26 towards Reims. There was a racking of the brains as to why this should once have been a significant piece of information. Wasn’t this the motorway that would take one southward by passing to the east of Paris? Didn’t it connect with another autoroute that would allow a journey south to continue, allowing a complete avoidance of the congestion around the capital and the necessity of travelling on the A6 to Lyon and the A7 onward, which could be like one big car park on August Saturdays in the 1980s? Once we travelled from Dieppe to the Mediterranean overnight, arriving in the channel port at 1.30 am and thinking we were making great progress until suddenly the traffic seized up somewhere in the Rhone valley; our journey time was extended by six hours.
The autoroute to Reims was the sort of item to be mentioned on the traffic news for the coming weekend on the BBC “Travel Show”. The programme used to be broadcast on BBC 2 on Thursday evenings in the summer months. Instead of listening to the succession of depressing stories that might fill the Nine O’Clock News on BBC 1 there was the possibility of entering a world that was filled with beautiful places and attractive people (of course, the reality of the places featured was probably different, but in the 1980s, there was no Trip Advisor to tell you so).
The “Travel Show” offered both escape and melancholy. Living in Northern Ireland on clergy pay with one day off each week, the places it would talk about might have just as well have been Australia, for all the prospect there was of being there. We would journey south through France for a camping holiday each year, but only that once might a journey towards Reims have saved us journey time, we would go to the west to avoid congestion and expense. We could not complain, we were better off than many, or even most, people in the Province, for whom a camping holiday in the Vendee would have been far beyond their pockets, but there was a sense of having missed out on something.
The “Travel Show” seemed pitched at people whose lives we could only imagine, a middle class community living in the south of England who could afford regular trips across the Channel and whose plans could be disrupted by motorway roadworks and Saturdays in August when the whole population of Northern France seemed to be migrating to the Mediterranean coast.
For half an hour each week there was a window on a different world, one populated by very different people. Perhaps middle class life in the south of England did not offer the chance of cross-channel jaunts in the way I might have imagined, (certainly their clergy were poorly paid in comparison with their Irish counterparts), but the “Travel Show” seemed to represent a road not travelled, a life not chosen.
We talk often now about retirement in a decade’s time, we ponder buying a camper van. Perhaps we shall drive the A26, or, if it’s not August, the A6 and the A7