Learning to drive a car

“Stop at the next power pole.” My father barked the order. I checked the mirror, no vehicles behind, so I hit the anchors and pulled up sharply adjacent to the power pole. “I didn’t mean that one” Dad exploded, “I meant the next one. You’ll ruin the brake pads if you slam on the brakes like that.”

“Here we go again” I thought as I eased through the gears back up to the 30mph speed limit.

Five minutes later the order came again. “Stop at the next power pole.” This time I slowed carefully to the power pole. “I didn’t mean that one. I meant the one before that. What are you going to do when you have to stop in a hurry? You’ll kill someone.”

I swallowed my rising fury, switched off the engine. “That’s it, I don’t want any more lessons, I’m not interested in driving, I’ve had enough.” I climbed out of the car and walked home, from one end of Pickering to the other. It was a long way.

I’d been desperate to get my licence, couldn’t wait to turn seventeen in March so I could get my “L” plates and go out on the road. I’d spent hours on my own in the field overcoming kangaroo petrol, grinding my way through the gears on the old Jeep, learning how to double declutch, learning how many times I had to turn the steering wheel to make a connection with the wheels. I was keen to graduate to the car and get onto the road. The car was a Renault Dauphine, grey from memory and its gear stick was on the steering column which was different from the Jeep. It also had the engine at the back, where the boot should be, so it probably was rear wheel drive rather than front wheel drive or some such technicality understood by males of the species, but not the females.

Dad was also very keen for me to get my licence, then I could run errands for him, collect drench, pick up stock feed, take eggs to the packing station, deliver sheep to market; the dreaded breathalyser was on its way and I would be a useful designated driver. I could see that getting the licence would be a double edged sword. Dad wanted me to become a messenger for him. For me a driving licence was my ticket to an extra few minutes with my beloved horses each morning and evening.

Each day for the past six years the alarm clock had roused me to go out into the cold winter mornings and bike down to the stables. They were well over a mile away, along Middleton Road, down Potter Hill, right into Train Lane past the goods yard, left into Southgate, over the rail crossing then across the bridge over Pickering Beck, along Hungate, right at the Forest and Vale, down Malton Road and left into the delightfully named Eastgate Backside. It was down here, at Mickle Hills we had “The Ranch” where  we had a large shed full of hens on deep litter, a few breeding sows, some geese, a flock of Scottish Blackface sheep, the odd heifer and my beloved horses. A car would get me there a few minutes sooner.

The bike was a Pink Witch bike. It was hot pink and turquoise and was very smart when I was given it for passing the 11+ exam. Now it was in need of a good clean… the bike was not a loved possession, it was my means of getting from A to B faster than the old Mobo scooter.  One day I had hit black ice as I zoomed into Train Lane. Bike and I skidded across the road, skating head first towards the beck near the Memorial Hall. Luckily I hit a barrier before getting a chilly dunking. Yes a car would be warmer than the bike on these icy mornings.

Once at “The Ranch” I mucked out the stables, took a pony for a brisk ride to keep us both fit, then it was a quick groom, fill the water bucket, refill the hay rack and finally dish out the breakfast ration of oats, bran, kibbled corn and carrots. Then I had to pedal all the way home, this time up Potter Hill before I grabbed a bowl of porridge, changed into the hated bottle green uniform then I trudged up Swainsea Lane to Lady Lumley’s School.

When the final bell of the school day rang at 3.45pm I raced back home, flung satchel and coat into a corner as I ran upstairs to change into jodhpurs. Then it was onto the bike again, back to the stables for the afternoon ride, shovel, groom, feed before settling the pony down for the night. Yes a car would make it all so much easier, the travelling would be much quicker.

But I was not going to learn with my Dad.

The days of refusing to get in the car with him stretched to weeks, the weeks into months. Mum realised this time it was very serious. She was a nervous driver herself, due to Dad’s histrionics, so she understood how I felt. She decided something had to be done so, without telling Dad, she took me for drives herself. We’d go round the local villages till she had confidence in my road sense. I graduated to shopping trips to Scarborough and even to York. My confidence grew. Mum persuaded me to go for ‘polishing’ lessons with Bob England in Malton; this was where I would have to go to take my driving test. It was a much busier town than Pickering so it would be good to be familiar with the places where I’d have to do the dreaded hill start and three point turn that were compulsory parts of the test.

Mr. England explained just what he wanted, where he needed me to go and stop; he corrected the many faults I’d picked up from watching and copying my Dad’s driving. After a few lessons he said I could apply for a date to take my test.

The day of the test dawned cold and frosty. I was anxious. I was missing a morning of school. Mum took me to Malton. On the way down we passed class mate John, on his way home after failing his test earlier in the morning. I became even more nervous. I was wearing that hideous bottle green uniform and white ankle socks, real badges of my youth with no chance to boost my confidence with a more sophisticated image.

The examiner took me up Church Street, so narrow, so steep. He got me to do the three point turn here on the hill, so I had to combine it with three hill starts. Luckily I’d done it before; no kangaroo petrol, no missed gear changes, no backward slips. I drove home in triumph, no more need for the “L” plates.

Thursday 19th November 1964 I finally became a licensed driver. And from then on I learned how to really drive a vehicle.


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