Some eight years ago, driving backing home along the old A4 late one evening (the M4 had been closed), I caught the flash of a speed camera out of the corner of my eye. The road was nearly entirely empty but I had clearly drifted just over the speed limit. Annoyed with myself, I waited and wondered whether I would receive a letter – which of course I did. Geordie, with his Mr Perfect hat firmly on, exclaimed helpfully “I don’t believe it” – consolation on this sort of occasion is not his thing. Anyway, I had a choice. I could either add points on to my driving license or attend a speed awareness course which, naturally, was the better option.
I duly arrived on the appointed date not sure what quite to expect. I suspect like everyone else there, I was a mixture of emotions: self-righteous thoughts about my speed being fine at that time of the evening given the circumstances, annoyance at being caught and resignation that I had indeed been breaking the law.
I found the day unexpectedly fascinating and a timely reminder that we are each asked to compromise our everyday behaviour for the benefit of others. It does make a huge difference to reduce your speed to less than 30mph in order to save lives in the case of an accident in built up areas where other people are pottering about their business. Cars can give us a false sense of security and, whilst always alert and trying to anticipate the behaviour or accidental mistakes of others, there may not be enough time if driving too fast. Throughout, the focus was all about other people.
The power, the speed of the engine of a car is measured by horsepower. Horses have allowed us to travel long distances for thousands of years and their measure of strength has defined our new method of travel over the last one hundred years. They were and are still not necessarily safe modes of transport. Stage coaches and carriages turned over whilst going too fast, or horses shied or slipped. When motor cars first appeared, they frightened some people and the railways companies used this emotion to push forward a law whereby someone had to walk in front of the car waving a red flag to signal the danger. This was not compassionate so much as an attempt to make sure cars travelled far slower than trains so as to not break their monopoly.
Others, however, welcomed the new technology with enthusiasm. The 5thEarl of Carnarvon loved the excitement of the new technology and was one of the earliest car owners and drivers. His first driving license was French and, from trialling early protypes in the late 1890’s, Lord Carnarvon then bought a number of Panhard Levasseurs, one of the most prestigious cars of the first decade of the 20thcentury.
The cars were not reliable by today’s standards and on longer journeys he was followed by another car with mechanics in it. His reputation as “Motor Carnarvon” was to drive quite fast (if well!) and, en route to various races, both horse and car, he incurred a number of speeding tickets. Very soon after he therefore also retained the services of a barrister to ensure they could all stay on the road, adding to the expense of his hobby.
It was a catastrophic car crash in Schwalbach, Germany some years later which was to change the course of his life. Sailing over the. brow of hill, he swerved to avoid a cart pulled by oxen. Overturning, he nearly died, with badly damaged lungs, a crushed skull and a damaged jaw. To aid his recovery and support his now fragile health, Lord Carnarvon’s doctors suggested that he avoided the wet damp winters of England. Thus he chose to spend his winters in Egypt, with its dry warm air, a country he was already fascinated with following many previous trips.
Over the course of his life, the 5thEarl owned more than 60 cars (although none are sadly here now) and the archives are full of photographs which are testament to his abiding interest in car racing and early planes. One of his favourites was a 1912 Bugatti which he and Howard Carter collected from the manufacturer on their way home from Egypt that same year. Just before his untimely death in 1923, he had been planning to purchase a new Bentley having already equipped his Egyptian expedition with a Ford to help travel to and from the excavations following the discovery of Tutankhamun. In the end you could say that the car crash and speeding contributed to his death just as the Boy King Tutankhamun’s prowess and accidents with chariot racing contributed to his.
Cars are such an easy way to travel, especially for those of us based in the country rather than in cities. Thinking of the safety of others is a small price to pay for the convenience and so careful speed was added to my ever-growing list of “everything in moderation“– along with cheese and chocolate and possibly numbers of dogs too – according to my husband.