Delivery Trucks and Village Gossip on the Cornish Roads

On Monday, I drove to a nearby hamlet to pick up a couple of blueberry plants. The hamlet’s locally famous for its road, which is one lane wide, closely hedged on both sides, and shaped more or less like a gigantic Z. Periodically, a delivery truck will get stuck on the one or the other of the Z’s angles. Or maybe that was only one truck, one time, but by the time the story worked its way to our end of the parish it’s happening once a week, and the trucks get stuck so thoroughly that road only stays open because of a Bermuda Triangle effect: No sooner does a new truck got stuck than it’s wafted bodily to wherever it is that trucks go when they’ve been not just good but a tiny bit careless as well.

Irrelevant Photo: Late Afternoon Light

Irrelevant Photo: Late Afternoon Light

So there I was, leaving with my blueberry plants, and what should I end up following but a truck. It was a blocky, one-piece thing—the kind that could deliver a dining room table, say, or a couch—and it was moving creeping along the way driver do around here when they’re looking for an address, which is another way of saying that it was lost. Except for one small patch of the village, addresses out here have nothing to do with street names and house numbers. Most of our roads don’t have names and most of our houses do, although they don’t necessarily display those names where you’d think to look for them. Most drivers find the post code they’re looking for, then wander helplessly, hoping to spot a name plaque.

Abandon logic, all ye who enter here.

I should have turned around and taken long way home, but—I guess it was curiosity that made me follow the truck. Here was parish legend, about to enact itself in front of my eyes. How could I turn away?

The truck reached the bend and stopped.

It sat there.

I sat there.

Beside the bend is a farm gate, and from behind the gate a dog barked.

I walked up to the truck to ask if they were okay. I mean, what with Bermuda Triangle effect and all, I might be the last person to talk to them. Before I could ask, though, the driver jumped down and asked if I knew where Tre-something was.

This being Cornwall, half the houses are called Tre-something. “Tre” is the Cornish word for homestead. Or according to some people, place. Or town. I don’t speak Cornish, so I can only report the muddle that’s passed around in the name of wisdom. Half the villages are also Tre-something, so I expect the rumors are right: It means both.

The villages that aren’t Tre-something are Saint Whosit.

I’m not good at remembering which house is named what, so I didn’t have a clue where Tre-something was. I asked about the post code and the passenger called it out to me from inside the truck.

This might have been helpful, but I didn’t know the hamlet’s post code.

I can’t think what they’d have done if they hadn’t run into me.

At this point in most can-you-tell-me-how-to-find conversations, the driver decides I’m not worth listening to because with my accent I can’t be local, but these guys didn’t do that. They were desperate, on top of which I hadn’t offered any information for them to dismiss, but even so it made me absurdly fond of them.

Finally the dog barked long enough to bring first one person out of the farmhouse and then two more. The driver asked the first one asked about Tre-something and she asked the other two, then one of them asked who lived there and all four of us shook our heads and said we didn’t recognize the name. At intervals, one after another, we repeated “Tre-something” as if that would help, and we shook our heads some more.

The dog kept barking. I began to suspect it knew Tre-something.

I asked about the farm’s post code and we established that it was the same as the one the guys in the truck were looking for.

If we’d gone on any longer, we’d have asked what they were delivering and what color it as and whether it matched the curtains, but instead one of the people from the farm said he was fairly sure Tre-something was on the other side of the ford. I was fairly sure it wasn’t, not because I knew the first thing about it but because I was convinced that post codes change when they cross water. But honestly, I’ve lived in the parish for eight years. The people on the other side of the gate have spent their lives here. I know—on rare occasions—when to shut up, and I did.

“If it’s not there,” the man said, “you can ask at the post office.”

This is the universal answer to can-you-tell-me-how-to-find questions. The driver headed for his truck.

At this point, I noticed that the truck’s front bumper was snuggled sweetly into the farm’s stone wall, which forms the most unforgiving part of the Z bend. The truck wasn’t, strictly speaking, too big to make the turn, but it was big enough not to make it easily.

I backed up to give it space. It backed up, with the help of some gesturing from behind the fence. In addition to an altruistic desire to help, the people behind the gate wanted to protect their wall.

Before the truck had backed far enough to try the bend again, I understood, with all the clarity of revelation, I didn’t want to be behind it if and when they didn’t find Tre-something on the other side of the ford. The road doesn’t make any sharp bends on that side, but it’s still only one lane wide. If they got into another long conversation, it wasn’t going to be as interesting—especially since I’d be out of excuses for jumping out of my car and joining in. So I backed up 100 yards (I’m making up the numbers, as I make up most numbers, but it was a fair distance) before I could turn in someone’s driveway, and I went home the long way, sacrificing my chance to see if the truck made the turn.

By the time I passed the post office, the truck was parked outside.

I never found out what they were delivering, but I bet someone in the post office did.

Driving in Cornwall: When Good Technology Turns Bad

My spies tell me that sat navs are called GPSes in the States, but in spite of my last post about keeping my American vocabulary pure I’m going to write about them as sat navs, because I’m writing about the way they work here. And also because the idea of purity in language is complete and total bullshit and I don’t want to take myself too seriously on this subject.

I needed a spy network to pin down the word GPS because I never needed one when I lived in the U.S. Or, well, yes, I could have used one during the five years that I drove cab, but they didn’t exist yet, so the thought I need that couldn’t exist either.

Not that I’d have spent the money on one.

I’m a technophobe. I’m a techno-I-don’t-need-it, but even I have conceded that in Cornwall I need a sat nav. Or, to be entirely accurate, I don’t need one myself but will steal Wild Thing’s now and then. She’s a major prophet of the Church of We Need All the Techno We Can Get, so this seems (to me) like a reasonable arrangement.

Irrelevant Photo: Boscastle, Evening.

Irrelevant Photo: Boscastle, Evening.

Now in Cornwall, and probably in the rest of Britain, before the invention of sat navs, people would leave home with a set of directions to a place they’d never been before and 70% of them were never seen again. On a dark night, you can see the faint gleam of their headlights passing like ghosts, still looking for a house called Craggy Bottom, which was supposed to be on an unmarked road somewhere off the A39.

The incident that made me a sat nav user was looking up directions to a meeting on MapQuest or Google Maps or something like that and reading, “Turn right on unmarked road.” Which unmarked road? They couldn’t tell me. Because that’s the thing about unmarked roads: They’re unmarked. It’s one thing if a friend says, “Turn after you pass the bungalow with the brown egg box out front,” but internet directions won’t give you that level of detail.

But sat navs have their own problems. First, you become dependent on them. They tell you to cross the roundabout, third exit, and you cross the roundabout, third exit. The next time you come the same way, do you remember that? Hell no. You need the sat nav again.

But the second problem’s more serious. In parts of Cornwall, they don’t work. Some years ago, Wild Thing and I were walking the dog past a ford and waved down a guy in a delivery van as he was about to leave a paved (and unmarked) road and go up an unpaved, washed out axle-breaker of a vague memory of a former road.

“You can’t get up that,” we told him.

“The sat nav says.”

I don’t think he quite finished the sentence. He had that blank, terrified look of someone who wasn’t taking in anything we said. Part of it would have been our accents—we couldn’t seem any less local if we carried signs saying “We’re not from around here”—and part of it would have been sat nav dependence. The rest, though? When a man doesn’t take in what a woman’s saying, it’s hard not to go back to the words man and woman and think, hmmm.

But never mind. We told him only a four-by-four could handle the hill he was about to go up. We told him he’d wreck the van. He told us the sat nav said.

We shrugged and watched him cross the ford and start up the hill. If a van can look fatalistic, I tell you, his did.

He was lucky. It was a rainy year and the mud was slick, so he didn’t get far enough up the hill to wreck an axle. He slid back, still looking blank and terrified, and he drove back the way he’d come. On foggy nights, I’ve seen his headlights pass me like ghosts, still following directions from his sat nav.

This kind of thing happens all over the country. Sat navs send massive damn trucks down streets that are so narrow they get stuck.  Really they do. They send cars down stairs. Some of the problems you couldn’t predict, but some of them—well, the truly crazy thing is that people do what they’re told. And yeah, I know I shouldn’t laugh but when I see some of the pictures I laugh anyway. It’s the oldest joke humanity knows: Somebody falls down. Follow the link and see if you don’t do the same.

We’re not, all told, a very nice species.

And maybe our sat navs know that, because with the detached serenity of gurus, they’ll spend hours talking us through the mazes we’ve laid down on the surface of the earth and call roads, and then, with no warning, they turn on us. Wild Thing’s first one did it in the middle of the Tamar Bridge—a long, high bridge connecting Devon and Cornwall.

“Turn left,” it commanded.

We came out of our sat nav trance and decided maybe that wouldn’t be a good idea, so she escalated.

“Turn left immediately.”

There really is a lot of water under the Tamar Bridge. And I’m not much good with either heights or water. We turned the sat nav off. It already had a history of going wild when we crossed the moors. If you’ve read the Brontes, you probably know about the moors as a metaphor for something wild and free and frightening, and our sat nav was in tune with all that. It would tell us, “In 18 yards [and it was always 18 yards], turn right.” Or left. In 18 yards, though, there was no road, only hedge. It had an image of us, I guess, breaking loose and driving wild and free across the fields.

Wild Thing retired it and bought a new one whose quirks are more predictable. But even so, near Scorrier both our new sat nav and everybody else’s try to kill people so consistently that the county’s put up a sign, in a panicky set of colors that they use for nothing else, saying, “Turn off sat nav.” The highway entrances were rerouted at some point and sat navs seize the opportunity to send cars the wrong way down exit ramps onto the wrong side of the highway.

So yeah, you need one around here. And you never turn your back on it.