Landmarks on a Childhood Journey

When I was young, we lived in the countryside about 10 miles outside of Inverness, and both sets of grandparents lived within a mile of each other about 10 miles or so outside of Aberdeen, giving a road distance of just over 100 miles between our family and my grandparents. We spent much of our holidays visiting said grandparents, driving there and back in our family car, along the A96 main road between Inverness and Aberdeen.

In those days the main road was neither a straight nor simple smooth line travelling directly from A to B. Instead it was more of a jerky, disjointed join-the-dots journey linking one town to the next always necessitating driving into whatever town, pootling slowly through the main streets then out the other side before speeding on to the next leg of the trip. Unless of course we then got stuck crawling along behind a lorry, or a tractor, or a caravan on the frequently treacherous unovertakable sections of the one-size-fits-all road, which inevitably happened more often than not. One way or another it was never a straightforward steady-speed run through for any of us.

One benefit for us as kids, though, was that this piecemeal place-to-place passage created a bit of interest on the way. Whereas our parents obviously knew the road well and could easily recite the order of the towns and villages we drove through, for my younger brother and I we liked to look out for the specific landmarks we passed and the fond names we gave them. I remember ‘Witches Hat’ being a cone-shaped stone building high on top of a hill – it always sat starkly in the distance, visibly silhoutted on the horizon, and I have absolutely no idea what it was originally, or even of it’s still there to be seen today.

And ‘Pickled Egg’ was a lay-by just outside Keith, about half-way through our journey, where we regularly stopped to eat fish and chips out of paper. Oh, that fish and chip shop in the square in the centre of Keith made such lovely fat fluffy chips, and the memory of the smell of those hot and steaming salt-and-vinegar-soaked paper pakages makes me salivate today even thinking about it. The particular name of ‘Pickled Egg’ came from one trip where my little brother had slept through our usual food stop, only waking up after we’d all eaten and dad was starting up the car engine ready to continue on our way.

Mum unwrapped my brother’s chips for him to eat on the move, but he had been promised a pickled egg with his chips and this was nowhere to be found – and so the tears began. Dad realised he’d probably bundled it up inside the rest of our used paper wrappings without thinking, and had dumped it in the waste bin in the lay-by. So dad promptly reversed back, stopped the car again and walked back over to the waste bin, fishing out our screwed-up chip papers and retrieving my brother’s well-wrapped, none-the-worse-for-wear pickled egg!

Off the top of my head I can’t immediately think of any more landmarks for now, although I know we certainly had plenty of visual milestones along the way to guide us. I haven’t made this journey for many years, but even the last time I drove between Inverness and Aberdeen I found it sadly overly sanitised. With the ‘old’ road substantially unkinked and upgraded to create large swathes of high-speed dual carriageway and with so many familiar towns now by-passed, effectively erased from sight for today’s traveller, the narrow road I remember winding almost nonchalantly through the Scottish countryside had already altered beyond all recognition.

Nowadays it is undoubtedly a shorter, quicker trip, and probably far safer for all concerned but the road trip also feels far less of an exciting adventure than it was in my childhood. And although when I started to write this post I thought it would be easy to recall those visual landmarks of a childhood journey I completed so many times, I find I’m remembering the smells far more readily. The well-worn dark red leather car seats that gave off a particular perfume all of their own when warmed by sweaty little bodies sitting on them, petrol fumes that permeated the back seat, and the aforementioned steamy aroma of mouthwateringly tempting hot food…

Yeah, it’s probably the memory of the fish and chips that did it… 🙂

Fandango’s One Word Challenge: Landmark

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