The Petrolheads of Cheddar Gorge

A crack like a gunshot echoes through the gorge. Some frost-loosened fragments of the limestone cliffs reverberate, considering if this is their time to let go, and plummet 200 feet onto the road below. It’s a turbocharged VW Golf from 1982, backfiring somewhere along the sharply meandering course of the B3135. At the wheel is a youngish bloke – perhaps mid-20s, short back and sides, stud in his left ear. Next round the bend is a Ford Cortina, a classic of the 1970s and looking well polished – full throttle towards the narrowest point of the gorge, where there’s only just room for a single track to squeeze between the abutments of rock.  He cuts the corner then brakes hard and screeches tyre on tarmac coming to the pass. On top of the outcrop, two goats look on in motionless stupefaction, glowing in the golden sunset, beards blowing in the wind. A haze of burning tyres and brake pads hangs in the air.

As night starts to fall, a police car joins the rally of vehicles going up and down the road, headlights flashing into the caves where Neolithic people sharpened their bone tools. Local people have complained about dangerous driving and noise from cars. It is anti-social: it stalls on the responsibilities afforded by the freedom of the road, blights this landscape of the ice age. For 30,000 years, these cliffs have silhouetted the horizon, reminded the traveller they are home, stood monument to a human endeavour that has led us from bone tools to fudge shops and the smell of fish and chips. We want these cliffs to carry our souls in perpetuity, as strata that are slowly dissolved into stalactites, slowly drawn into the mantle of the earth; we don’t want forever to exist as frantic gear shifts and a blur of wheel trims and spoilers, as if trapped in the coruscating violence of sub-atomic world.

The gorge lies on the edge of town: quiet housing on the glacial valley floor gives way to shops and restaurants for tourists, strung along the road until the terrain forces their abatement – though there are a number of dwellings within earshot of the ravine. Only the drivers of the vehicles, the odd walker peering over the cliff edge and the goats hear these thundering exhausts, catch the glinting of the alloy wheels. What incidents have led to the gorge being a place of terrible folklore after nightfall?  The devil drives a hatchback.

Why do the drivers come here, to the gorge, to test out the power of their engines, to impress with the noise of their exhaust or suddenness of their acceleration?  What is it about the cliffs that close in on either side and estrange the sky, the sharp twists and turns of the road between the carboniferous strata?

We can look at images of cars – gracefully emerging from Alpine tunnels, or cruising the California coast road at an indeterminate speed, waves almost breaking against the wheels – and have a spell cast over us that this is the experience of driving.  If ever we are trapped in a tailback on the motorway, or plodding between the roundabouts and traffic lights of the ring road we feel disappointed: this is not the world that this car belongs to: forces beyond our control have taken away the salty wind in our hair, the adrenaline of crossing the Teufelsbrücke, meltwater tumbling through the ravine below.

What images has the bloke with the short back and sides grown up with? Was he born with an innate awe for the rocks, for the millennia which have hewn them out from the landscape, leading our eyes upward, to the winds and skies that eternally frame our travels, on whatever set of wheels? Was he born to feel insignificance against the thundering of engines, the terrible precipices? Was he born to feel transience in the thrill of speed, between climatic changes great enough to reshape the life and landscape of this valley?

And what of the local people, in whom the turbocharger ignites a sense of alarm – can they remember their first experiences at the wheel? Does the smell of petrol evoke the fleeting intensity of their youth – the feeling of escape in the back of a Fiat as the street lights and watching shopfronts were left behind. Can they remember the trill of uncertainty, of not knowing where the journey into the darkness will take them?

Another vehicle roars around the corner, a spotless BMW 3 Series from 1991, and joins the rest in the car park at the foot of the cliff, partly fenced off where a number of shards of the cliff face have shattered, scattering fragments over two or three of the marked bays, as far as the speed limit signs, newly tarmacked into the ground.

%d bloggers like this: