Something told me she was lying but I still wanted to believe it was true. “In a quarter of a mile, turn right”. She’d been right many times before, and the prospect of a right turn in a quarter of a mile was normal enough, so despite the unmettalled surface of the road down which she was directing me, I ventured onwards. I was further seduced by the fact that the area is criss-crossed with many equally small, seemingly impassable but metalled roads which DO lead somewhere. There, I’ve given the punch line away. My satnav lady was indeed leading me down a road that led nowhere. Or at least, nowhere from whence I would be returning that evening, or at any time without ropes and shovels.
I looked down to check the little map that was unfolding before me on the satnav screen, bemused that it would choose this route. As I did so (I later found) I omitted to notice and therefore drove past a sign which said “Not suitable for motor vehicles”.
It was dark, and as I drove into the road, I could see that I was driving downwards, through a wooded area. The “road” was getting narrower. It was now a footpath. I thought maybe I should turn back, but the lady said, “In four hundred yards, turn right”. Ok, I thought. She sounded good-looking, which didn’t help. I think I am programmed to obey good-looking women. On I drove. In any case, it was dark, and I was now far enough down this track to realise that reversing out was not an option. Tree roots started appearing to the left and right of me, further narrowing the bridle path which the road had now become. I was now driving with nearside and offside wheels up on the mud bank, in some cases several feet from the ditch below. The canopy of trees was now low enough to scrape my car, and on two occasions I experienced the “holly tree carwash”. By now, all I was hoping was that I could somehow get the Bentley through this ditch and that the woman would not have been lying, - that that the right hand turn that supposedly lay tantalisingly ahead, would indeed exist, and that I could get through this ditch before it became completely impassable. At this most lonely of moments, feeling like Mr Mole lost in the Wild Woods, and now with my nearside wheels in the ditch and my offside wheels six feet up on the mud bank, so that my car was at 45 degrees to the ditch (the ditch itself being too narrow for the Bentley to be driven horizontally) I heard the reassuring, fresh sound of this lovely girl saying “In two hundred yards, turn right”. Yes! So there WAS a turn in two hundred yards! What did it matter if my car was scratched to hell, it was only a car. Only a Bentley. I’d get it re-sprayed. It would be an insurance job, but I’d be free, and home again soon for a pint with my son before closing time.
It was not to be. The little yellow line which followed the little green line on my screen showed me I was nearly at the corner. Possibly with my suspension in a mess and my car needing to be completely rebuilt, but NEARLY AT THE CORNER. I turned right. To my dismay, the road she had promised would be there wasn’t there. I was lodged at 90 degrees across the farm track, with no room behind me, just a high mud bank, two feet of grass in front of me, then a strong stock fence and no way of manouvering because every time I tried, my wheels spun hopelessly. I got out for a good look, leaving the engine running and the lights on, as there was no other lighting in this Nowhere Land. Realising I was completely and hopelessly stuck, I decided that the time had come to make a phone call to a rescue service. Except when I tried to open the driver’s door, it had locked itself. Engine running, lights on, I’m nearly out of petrol and my phone is on the car seat. “Bollocks” was the word that came into my mind first. I’ve had this car for three years, since it was new, and because I’d locked myself out of it before, when I first got it (late for a meeting, stopping to get something out of the boot) I knew there was no way to get into the car other than to break the window. On that first occasion the guys at Bentley had said, “Oh yes, it does that. The only way into the car is to break the window, Sir”. So, knowing there was no point in calling Bentley, - and it was 10pm at night anyway, - I looked around for something heavy that I could use to smash the window. A large log seemed promising, but after slamming it against the offside passenger window three or for times, I gave up. There now seemed no option but to walk back up the quarter of a mile ditch, leaving the engine running and the lights on, but at least the car was locked.
So I began my journey up through the pitch-black woodlands, protecting my face with my arms in case of brambles and sticking-out tree branches, using my feet to feel the ground before taking each step. I knew there were some houses at the beginning of the ditch. When I arrived at the “civilised” end of the ditch, I walked into the well-lit, gravelled back yard of the first house and knocked on the window, where I had already been spotted by the occupant, Mr Suspicious, who frankly I don’t blame for deserving his title. Opening the kitchen door just enough to talk to me, he seemed incredulous that anyone could get a vehicle down through the ditch, and I must’ve presented quite an unusual sight, - stressed and filthy, wearing just a shirt and trousers on a cold night. To him, I must have been Mr Potential Axe Murderer. “Didn’t you see the sign saying Not Suitable For Motor Vehicles?” he said. “No, I think I must’ve been looking down at my satnav” I replied. “I’m a member of the AA, would you mind letting me use your phone to call them?” Still acting with extreme suspicion, he looked up the AA in the Yellow Pages and handed be the phone through the three inches of open door.
“Hello, my name is Batt, I’m a member, can you please help?” I said. They couldn’t find me on the system. “Wait a minute, Sir, I’ll search the system”. He put me on hold, and on came Greensleeves or some other non-copyright tune. Then I realised. Shit! I wasn’t a member of the AA, it was the RAC that I was a member of! “Oh damn, I’ve just remembered I’m an RAC member, not an AA member!” I said, realising that Mr Suspicious was now becoming Mr Very Suspicious and I had just become Mr Dickhead as well as Mr Potential Axe Murderer. Nevertheless he looked up the RAC and posted the phone out to me again. “Hello, My name is Michael Batt.” I began.
“Do you have your registration number? Sir?” the guy says. I didn’t. I’ve never known my registration number; it’s never been something I’ve treasured as memorable or interesting. “NO, I’m afraid not, but my car is a quarter of a mile down a drainage ditch in woodlands, I’m locked out of it, the engine is running, the lights are on and I’m running out of petrol do you have me on your system?” I couldn’t help allowing a certain degree of stress and urgency to permeate my delivery.
“Yes, Sir, it’s a black Bentley Arnage T, you are on our system but we can’t help you unless you give me the registration number”. I couldn’t beLIEVE it. “So I have to ring my son, who hasn’t been answering the phone because he’s playing loud rock ‘n’ roll music, try to get him to answer, and then ring you back, while I’m standing in the FREEZING cold outside someone’s kitchen, on a cold night with just a shirt on?” (I made sure Mr Suspicious could hear; he had now been joined by Mrs Suspicious But Seemingly Less So).
“I’m afraid so, -you can call us direct at this office instead of the main RAC number” came the reply.
“Well give me your number then” I said, disgruntled and irritated.
There was a silence. Maybe he hadn’t heard me. “Will you give me your telephone number please?” I said. “Ah! You’ve said ‘please”. In that case I’ll give you the number” came the sanctimonious reply.
“Are you telling me that if I hadn’t said “please” you wouldn’t have given me your number, when I’m a fully paid up RAC member?” I asked, incredulous. “Yes, I am saying that, Sir, I don’t like your tone, and was about to terminate the call”. So the RAC man didn’t like my tone. I hadn’t even said “bloody”, although I had NEARLY said “You nasty little c**t”. I was a little stressed, for sure. I was stuck a quarter of a mile up a ditch and the man wouldn’t help, even though he knew I’ was paid up because I was on his system, but he wouldn’t give me the number because he didn’t like my tone when he told me he wouldn’t help. So anyway, everything’s alright now because I’ve said “please” and got his number. Now I have to try to get through to my house so my 18 year-old son can look up my registration number in the book, or, knowing what a petrol head he is, he probably knows it anyway. Trouble is, he’s playing loud rock ‘n’ roll on his guitar and can’t hear the phone going.
Finally, having explained that I need a hammer to break into the car window, and for another reason I was about to find out, Mr Suspicious suddenly becomes Mr Friendly Samaritan and invites me into the kitchen, something his wife has been silently urging him to do for a while now, by the rolling of eyes and the exchanging of glances. He offers to come with me, with a torch and a hammer, down the quarter of a mile woodland path to the car, to smash the window, switch off the engine and the lights, and get the registration number. I thought at first it was because he fancied the fun of breaking into the Bentley with the hammer. Maybe indeed I should by now have been regarding him as Mr Potential Hammer Murderer. But as we walk like two old friends, down the bit-that-looks-like-a-road-before-you-get-to-the-narrow-bit-where-you-can’t-turn-back, it all becomes clear. He says, “You’re not THE Mike Batt are you, the music bloke”. Ah, so now I know why I’m not still standing shivering outside the kitchen door. “It’s just that my daughter’s a brilliant singer – although I’m biased, being a bit of a proud father! Sings in the Hampshire Youth Choir, you know. Maybe you’d like to listen to her sing? She’s a huge Katie Melua fan, so even an autograph would be great”
We get to the car. Mr Proud Father rubs his chin and agrees I’m stuck. “The neighbours won’t believe this! Pity I don’t have a camera”. I’m thinking, “Thanks Christ he hasn’t got a camera”. I tell him to stand back and protect his eyes while I swing the hammer, and after three blows, it shatters. I reach in, open the driver’s door, switch off the engine, get my phone, write down the registration number and we start back up the ditch towards his house. Now the conversation has become music, how lovely Katie is, what do I think of the charts these days?
Now that I’m no longer Mr Potential Axe Murderer, I’m invited into the kitchen again. By now I’ve decided the RAC can go fuck themselves and we ring the farm near where the vehicle is. The lady is very helpful, but says it’s actually the people next door I should be talking to. I ring the people next door, and the lady tells me it really is rather inconvenient to have a Bentley at the bottom of her garden at 11.30 at night and that her husband has called the police because a lot of stolen cars get burned out in this area. By now I’ve told her that it’s a hell of a lot less inconvenient for her than it is for me, but I thank her for her trouble and I call the police myself, directing them to the address of Mr and Mrs Rather Nice After All. Soon, Police Constable “I Used To Be In The Met But Crime’s Worse Around Here I Can Tell You” arrives in a panda car. I tell him about the RAC. He says,” Would you like me to call our recommended contractor and get him to haul you out – but it’ll cost”. I say yes, just get my bloody car out of that hole, I don’t care any more. The policeman is quite enjoying this job. “Who’d have thought it, an Arnage down there? I can really sympathise”. He calls the garage that they use for this kind of job.
“You’re not THE Mike Batt are you?” says the copper. “Well, yes, I’m afraid so, - it’s a dirty job but someone’s got to do it” I quip.
Now that the policeman has arrived we get offered the cup of tea that would have been a lifesaver an hour ago, before they realised I was THE Mike Batt. We wait forever for the towing bloke because the policeman has given the wrong address. Mr Nice Bloke After All tells him three times what the address is, as we wait by the gate, - the policeman’s preferred place to wait, so he can have a fag. He’s supposed to be off at midnight but he’ll stay and see this one through, he tells us. He’s obviously dying to see the Bentley in the ditch. By the way, he says, what do I think of the charts these days?
Then the copper gets a call from the towing man saying he’s arrived at the address he’s been given. Mr Nice Bloke After All points out politely for the fifth time that the address was wrong. “Just leave this to me if you don’t mind, Sir” says the policeman, jumping into his panda car and speeding off. Returning HALF AN HOUR later with the towing man who has one MASSIVE recovery vehicle and one big one, driven by his younger pal.
So we walk down the gully again, me, PC Leave It To Me, Mr Nice Bloke After All and the Towing Man.
“I couldn’t get a mini down here, never mind a Bentley,” says the copper. “My four wheel drive couldn’t get down here,” says Mr Towrope. And we are still at the wide bit, - we’ve only walked 20 yards. As we get into the ditch bit, they are saying stuff like “How on Earth did you get a car down here” and “My God, this is going to be expensive!”
We arrive at the car. They are all inwardly delighted but outwardly sad to see that the paintwork is scratched to Hell. I suggest that if only Mr Towrope could get some wood blocks or planks I could drive the car out of the ditch and then do a 27-point turn through a farm gate. But we decide to knock on the door of the farm – which had been invisible to me in the pitch darkness when I had first got stranded. The lady there gets out of bed and came down, and – perhaps because the policeman is still with us, - rather more good naturedly than expected, shows us how, if we can get the car out we can indeed drive it through her neighbour’s field, although it would be a difficult drive partly across a hilly pile of dirt, instead of dismantling her stock fence. “This is the fourth one we’ve had this year, who came up the track because of their satnav” she says. In fact the other three had come the easy way, from the opposite direction, - I was the first person on Earth to drive a Bentley down that ditch from that direction, over those roots and gullies into that Place Of No Apparent Return. Mr Towrope was now becoming Mr I Can Get You Out But It Will Cost You, and saying there was no point putting wood under the back wheels, even though he had plenty of it with him. “You’ve got three tons of car there, mate, you’ll just drive the bits of wood further into the sand”. The fact that the car’s belly was beached on a mud bank, preventing the back of the vehicle from going further downwards, seemed to have escaped him. We’ll need to come back in the morning and bring our big vehicle in and use a block and tackle for this one” he says. “I’ll probably bring my boss for a look, first thing in the morning. Looks expensive, though!” So we thanked the farm lady and walked back up the gully. Mr Nice Bloke After All had already gone to bed by this time, and it had been he who had offered me a lift to Guildford Station, ten minutes’ drive away. So I asked Mr I Can Get You Out But It Will Cost You if he would could drive me, or get his mate to drive me there, - the plan being to reconvene at 11am the next morning. The young guy eventually agreed to take me when I said I’d “buy him a drink”. So off we set, and five minutes into the journey, the radio controller from Mr I Can Get You Out’s company comes on the radio singing “Underground, Overground, Wombling Free”.
“Who’s that?” I ask my young friend driving me. “Our controller” comes the reply. “Well tell him not to give up his day job,” I say. That’s the moment when I resolve to get the car out without the dubious help of these clowns OR the RAC.
At Guildford, I give the young guy twenty quid for his trouble and he drives off, happy. My son and his friend pick me up from the station, and we get home to Farnham at about 2.30am. A quick medicinal beer in the kitchen, a phone call to cancel the tow truck the next day, and I’m in bed by 3am.
Waking at 7am, I have already got a plan. I get the old Land Cruiser out, meet Nigel, our company carpenter down at the shed, and we load up with shovels, rope and wooden duckboards. I call Rosanna, my assistant, who lives over near Guildford, close to the scene of the incident. I ask her not to come directly into work this morning, but to go straight to the scene and sweet-talk the farming neighbours so that our path will be smoother when Nigel and I arrive. In the daylight it doesn’t all seem so terrible. Nigel and I arrive to find that Rosanna has made friends with both farms’ owners. The lady from the night before is a seemingly charming, horsewoman type who makes us tea and tells us that she has a daughter called Rosanna. Nigel, myself and Rosanna start digging away the mud bank so that we can roll the car about six inches backwards onto the wooden boards. Rosanna asks the horse lady if we could possibly borrow a trowel, and spends half an hour lying next to the car digging away the dirt, like an archaeologist looking for old Roman bones. We make a wooden ramp under the back wheels, so that if we can get traction, I’ll be able to drive out into the two feet of space in front of the car, make my 27 point turn drive off to freedom with a hearty “Hi, Ho, Silver!” Which is what happens. One quick turn of the ignition, a foot on the accelerator and the huge engine lifts the vehicle free, and I am able to drive it via the circuitous route through the field and the dirt mountain, up onto the hard standing that leads to the road.
Two days later, my car is returned to me by the local Bentley garage with a clean bill of health. Driving it down the wall of death with two wheels in the ditch has not harmed any of the underbelly or other parts of the car, except to loosen one small clip on one of the exhausts. More surprisingly, they manage to polish all the scratches out.
Funny, I never got a call-out bill from Mr I Can Get You Out But It Will Be Expensive. I’d love to have seen his face when and if he ever came back later that morning to be told that my secretary had dug me out with a trowel.
Mr and Mrs Very Nice After All got a Katie Melua autographed album, and our friendly farmers and tea-making horse-lady and her nice husband got flowers. I am left with a funny story to tell. The satnav company are going to get a piece of my mind; oh, and I’m going to join the AA.