I’m not a petrolhead, let’s make that clear. The most stupid thing I’ve seen this week is someone driving into Ikea Bristol in a Lamborghini. Whatever they purchased would have to be packaged like origami to get it into the tiny boot. Or perhaps they were going to strap a wardrobe to the roof. Either way, stupid car.
I do, however, have a soft spot for Land Rover Defenders. It isn’t just the name, reminiscent of an armoured guardian to take you hither and thither, it’s something about the styling, the practicality. I appreciate that the one I was parked next to in the supermarket yesterday was a top of the range model, it was the SAS of Defenders, sleekly grey and with all its windows in tact. It was a great, vast bus of a thing looming over our Peugeot. They are the yummy mummy sort of vehicle, I know, the kind of off road vehicle they chug round Chelsea with. In all honesty they are not really the Defenders I am talking about.
If I happened to go to a dealership it would have to be one run from a tumbledown shed, probably in Devon. The cars would be ranged in mud puddles and hiding in the hedgerows. There would be chickens roosting in the big old green one. Another would be up on blocks awaiting new tyres from the nearest scrapyard. Rust would play a part in the colour scheme. I like a Defender that is a grand old girl, something knocked about with no heater and holes in the skylight windows. The bench seats in the back will have been shat upon by weasels. There might be an emergency pork pie rammed into the glove box. The gloves of course, gauntlets.
My love of this vehicle stems from student days. I went to Warwick University and lived in Leamington Spa at one point and in order to get to campus I had two options; catch the bus, always a lovely ride, or hitch a lift. We had a hitchhiking system in place which was to keep us safe. There were specified ‘Hitching Points’ in Leamington where students waited for other students and on occasion, lecturers or professors, to sidle by in their cars. We would all pile in and pay 20p for the fare into campus. It worked alright. I was a nicely brought up young woman, taught to fear everything from paper bags to shallow water and so hitchhiking was quite the adventure. I didn’t do it on my own at first, my other half was keen and so we hitched in together once or twice. Another time I had missed the bus and my hand was forced. Hitching was the only option because, as a nicely brought up young woman I understood it was impolite to be late for something like a lecture. I was also brought up that it was rude to brush your hair in public or put your lipstick on on the bus. I leave psychiatrists to pick the bones of all that.
In the end hitching appealed because I liked to get into other people’s cars and smell the smells and see the rubbish or lack thereof. There is a lot of personality in a person’s car and so, as a budding writer, I found it more fascinating than earwigging on people’s conversations on the bus. I soon got into the habit of hitching.
One morning there were three of us waiting. No one I knew so we all stood there in studenty silence. I’m quite cheery in the mornings, to illustrate, just think of Snow White tra-la-laing in the dwarves garden and all the birds gathering on her fingers and shoulders to help with the chores; got that? That’s me in the morning. I know, terrible for those who are otherwise; hungover, half dead or morose. However, at that point in my life I was much shyer so I did not try and engage anyone in annoying small talk. Several cars wheeled by and no one seemed in a mood to take us. Then, a rackety old Defender pulled into the kerb and we all piled in. Through the back door. A hatch really.
This old girl was venerable and it was the first time I had travelled in such a vehicle. I was smitten from the moment the back door swung free of its crust of mud. Inside the bench seating was scuffed and torn, there was a crack in the skylight of the roof so that the drizzle and the wind dropped in. The whole chassis rumbled and thundered along.
In the front seat the driver was a student. I have no idea who he was, I never saw him or the Defender again, but I remember him vividly. At least, the side and back of him.
He was in the driving seat, obviously. Beside him on the long bench seat (torn/worn) was a paper bag and a wholemeal cottage loaf. As we chugged along his hand reached out to pick morsels from the body of the bread. There were crumbs everywhere and a scent of bread mixed with the scent of damp upholstery stuffing and diesel. Penhaligons take note, this is a fragrance opportunity. The young man was scruffy in a cord jacket that had clearly been passed down, probably through a hedge or the digestive system of a cow. His shirt was softly old and worn and his skin had a patina of dirt that any antiques expert would have swooned over. His hair was mouse brown, I mean that in a rustic and animistic way, wildly curly and also matted here and there, a stranger to a brush, as my grandmother might say. I couldn’t tell you anything about any of the other travellers that day. This student held all my attention. I had never seen anyone so at home in themselves. He was slight and wiry.
There was no sound save the engine growling, no music playing, just the whistling of the window in the roofline, broken as it was. He did not once speak or acknowledge us, his eyes on the road ahead, and at journey’s end, we dropped the coins for the ride into his outstretched, breadcrumbed hand.
Whenever I see a Defender I always think of that ride, of the soft pinch of grubby fingers in newly baked loaf, of the cold metallic scents of the car. Always. It was one of the most perfect journeys I have ever made. I have no idea why.
Photo from Cornwalls.co.uk Cornwall Guide: a Defender in the wild.