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April 2003 - Number Problem

Before I commence my my main dissertation for this month, I should perhaps take a moment to welcome back all my regular devotees, for yet another exciting edition; and make mention that zimmer frames will be handed out at the end, to all those who have been following since the very beginning.

For I note that the date at the top there, says April 2003, which means it is now twenty-five years since this load of old cobblers first started.

It was in April of 1978 that a first, trial, version of Comment went out on radio. Many said, at the time, that it would flop and never be a REAL success. Well, they were probably right, weren't they?

So, having digressed to the seventies, before even starting, let's now go back to the sixties!

I was driving up to Milton Keynes not long ago when I was reminded of a Bob Dylan hit from that decade. The title was Blowin' in the Wind, but the line that kept coming back to me was the one about "How many roads must a man walk down?"

I was tempted to totally misquote the following line as "before they give him a map".

The art of navigation in Milton Keynes is a numbers game all of it's own, but my problems on this occasion had started far earlier.

In order to reach that hell-hole of modern mis-planning, from my neck of the woods, it is unfortunately necessary to go via that alternative hell-hole, Oxford.

Now, anyone who's ever tried to visit Oxford and didn't know exactly where they were going in advance will probably guess what's coming.

Oxford doesn't exactly welcome visitors for some reason.

In order to make sure everybody but the locals goes round the ring road and doesn't stray into their fair city, the local council have come up with a rather cunning plan.

Once you're inside the ring road's ring, there are hardly any direction signs at all. The only ones that ARE there are simply local ones telling you where this or that area of the city might be found.

Within this magic ring, there are NO signs for any location outside Oxford whatsoever.

This strange system appears to be in order to make sure you do NOT try a short cut through the middle of the city, because you know full well before you start that you are about to become hopelessly lost.

This art of keeping the inquisitive motorist at bay has been going on for many years in Oxford and seems to be quite successful. However, the latest "Oxford trick" seems aimed at keeping you further away still.

Now, they don't even seem to want you on their precious ring road either.

Having confused you for years if you venture into the city, they're now getting you just as confused when you go ROUND the damn place.

Last time I had to go to Milton Keynes was a number of years ago, and you took the A43 north from Oxford towards Northampton.

This time, onto the ring road I go, having arrived from Swindon, and north I head looking for where you turn off onto the A43 to head for Bicester.

A43, what A43? Bloomin' thing's disappeared completely off the face of the earth. I began to think I'd get to Glasgow before I managed to find the turning; but then I came upon the M40.

Left for Birmingham the sign says, or right for London. Then, in the small print, squeezed right on the top of the sign I see A421, Bicester, straight on.

Now, in the good old days, you turned off the A43 onto the 421 about half way to Northampton, so goodness knows which heap of motorway rubble that particular junction's now hidden under.

Now, it wouldn't be quite so bad if most of the Oxford ring road wasn't the A34. By the time I'd got to the M40, I was beginning to think I was going completely mad and I'd been confusing my threes and fours for the whole of my life.

But no, it's deliberate I'm told, they just came along one day and decided to change the number of the road from A43 to A34.

If it had been a more complicated change, from A43 to A568 or something, you might have a chance of realising what they'd done; but when they just swap two digits round you end up not believing your own brain.

At least out in the real world though, they still only use M, A and B to prefix their road numbers. Not so simple in Muddle Keynes, however!

Having crossed the motorway roundabout and actually got onto the A421, I managed to locate Bicester and from there Buckingham.

Onto the Buckingham bypass, and even more signs to confuse you. Now do I want Milton Keynes North, Milton Keynes West or Milton Keynes South?

Why can't they just call it Bletchley like they used to?

Now, from this point on, and in order to save this load of old rubbish going on at even greater length, would you please assume at all times that I'm going round a roundabout.

Regular devotees of Milton Keynes will know exactly what I mean by this; I have to say that the CB'ers had the best description of Milton Keynes, Doughnut City!

After a wee bit of thought on the matter, I decide to plump for Milton Keynes South and turn off onto even more of the A421.

BUT, and it's a big but too, after some while of driving this roman style, dead straight road, you eventually, sort of, fall off the end of the A421 as we know it.

You suddenly find yourself on something called H8. Like I said earlier, I can cope with M's, A's and B's; but what on earth is H8 when it's at home?

The only clue comes at the next junction, where jolly old H8 is crossed by V1. Now are we playing chess, or battleships; or is this a practise ground for German wartime flying bombs?

When I get to my destination, the nice lady tells me that it stands for Horizontal and Vertical.

Now, most of the roads I drive on are fairly horizontal, but I can't say I've ever driven on one that's vertical.

I've driven up some pretty steep hills in my time, but a vertical road, no never.

Apparently, it's all to do with maps. If you hold your map of Milton Keynes with north at the top and south at the bottom, then all the H's are horizontal and all the V's are vertical.

Trouble is, I was taught to read my map the proper way, turning it around as I use it, so where I've just come from is at the bottom and where I'm going is at the top.

When approaching from Buckingham, this means the Milton Keynes H's are vertical and the V's are horizontal, which adds even more confusion to the plot.

So there I am, still going vertically upward on H8 and looking for V4, Watling Street. Now the Romans got it right, didn't they? Nice simple names for the roads are much easier to handle.

Onto V4 I finally go, heading upwards on my map, but downwards if you read it the Milton Keynes way.

All I have to do now is locate the Denbeigh West Industrial Estate. Shouldn't be too difficult methinks.

Like heck! They can't even call an estate an estate in Muddle Keynes, they now shorten everything to the absolute minimum of words.

I can only assume that when you've got that many thousand roundabouts, you have tens of thousands of road signs, so you need to shorten all the descriptions in order to save on the annual road sign paint budget.

I eventually twig that it's now just called Denbeigh Industry. Sounds horribly official that, doesn't it? Still, everything has to be over official in Milton Keynes.

Almost had heart failure at the point where you turn right into the estate, or the industry, or what ever you're supposed to call it.

Bollards and an ordinary junction, nothing more. By this time I'd forgotten how to negotiate anything of lesser importance than a roundabout. I'd lost track of the concept of stopping in the middle of the road to turn right.

Anyway, I finally got to my destination, had my meeting and departed some hours later to retrace the V4, H8, A421, A34, A420, etc.

Perhaps I'd have been better off staying at home and talking to the lady over the phone. No, because at one point when I was totally lost I tried to ring her from the car for directions. Foolish me, I forgot she was in Milton Keynes.

"The Milton Keynes number you have dialled has been changed. Please redial, substituting 56 for the 23 after the initial digit 7. The code for Milton Keynes has not been changed".

And, let me tell you, the code is about the only damn thing that hasn't been changed. Just about everything else has. My advice? Just DON'T go to Milton Keynes!

Well, if I find my way back here, the next edition of this load of old cobblers is at the beginning of May, so I hope you'll join me then.

In the meantime, does anyone know of any good courses being run by Ordnance Survey? Right, I'm off, where's me compass?

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