Ordeal on the M11

A short story by David Joberns

It was a very cold winter’s day with a few inches of snow lying on the frozen ground as I turned on to the M11 at the Redbridge roundabout.

The evening gloom was already setting in, with plunging temperatures set to go to minus 4 degrees centigrade. I was travelling after work and had to get to Loughton to deliver a package to the carriers before they closed at 6pm.

I had bought the car, a Fiat 126 only a week before and was very pleased with it. Was a little worried about the fuel gauge which showed just a quarter full. There was a petrol station just after the Loughton turn-off and I had decided to pull in there. The intersection was only a few miles up the motorway.

About a mile and a half from the Loughton turn-off the engine developed a heavy misfire. I recognised the symptoms, it was running out of petrol! Nursing the car along, I came to one of the emergency phones and decided to stop there. Well, the car decided to really, it had had enough of kangarooing along! I was about a mile from the turn-off, what rotten luck!

I picked up the phone and explained what had happened. The guy at the other end was very sympathetic and asked me if I was a member of any rescue organisation. At that time I wasn’t and he warned me how expensive it would be if anyone had to come out to me with a gallon of petrol.

He then said I could walk off the motorway to a petrol garage and started to explain where it was. I told him it was the one I was going to go to anyway. He said that from where I was I ought to be able to see the beginning of the slip road in the distance and indeed I could. So that was what I decided to do.

It was bitterly cold and I had only my suit on with no other protection. Walking smartly and keeping very close to the edge of the hard shoulder furthest from the almost deserted motorway, I was deep in thought.

Now half way down the slip road I was frightened out of my life by a very loud warning device on a Range Rover that had crept up behind me, and which I had been unaware of. It was a police vehicle. It stopped alongside me.

The policeman on my side asked me what I thought I was doing. I explained what had happened and he said it was illegal to walk off the motorway. I agreed but pointed out that the guy on the phone had advised me to do it. The policeman said the guy would never have said that and was about to check on his radio when his companion stopped him, for some reason. I said that the guy would probably deny it anyway.

The policemen then told me to get off the motorway immediately, and not to return on the motorway or he would report me, and that he would be watching to see I did not do this. I asked him if I could at least go to the end of the slip road but he said no, I was to get off there, or he would report me. I climbed over the crash barrier and cut across the field to the main road that was the intersection with the M11, about a couple of hundred metres across a layer of quite deep snow.

Getting back to the car, in the now rapidly deepening gloom was almost impossible without walking to it. It would mean thumbing a lift back to the Redbridge roundabout, then again back to the car. That could take hours, and the car was on the hard shoulder without lights and was a danger to traffic.

Trudging along to the garage, I decided it ought to be possible to walk back to the car using the fields, and therefore off the motorway, and probably out of sight of any watching policeman as the land dropped away from the motorway for most of the time and was lined by small trees and shrubs anyway.

The garage had nothing to put the petrol in, so I bought a 5 litre can of cheap oil, tipped it all out into a container showed me by the attendant, and filled it with petrol.

I then started the walk back, retracing my steps across the field but not returning to the slip road, keeping a few yards between me and the motorway. It was nearly dark now, and very cold. As it happens I was at that time suffering from an injured spine which was causing me considerable pain due to a trapped nerve, and the rough ground, hidden by a layer of snow, was not welcome.

At least the motorway was out of sight, and me from any watchers. Every now and then I had to get through a field hedge and sometimes the grass was very thick. With this layer of snow on top and I had no idea what the ground underneath was. I found many a hole, filled with frozen water which broke when I trod in it. I soon had very wet and cold feet, and an aching back. At one point it involved crossing the Ongar branch underground line which was overground at that point, with the attendant dangers of the live rail.

After negotiating a small pond in the gloom and frightening away a Heron, I suddenly realised that a heavy fall, perhaps breaking a leg or something, could result in me being stuck out there with little prospect of rescue, and with the temperature dropping like a stone, the result would be inevitable.

Anyway I plodded on, gritting my teeth. Feeling that I might be near the car now, I risked walking along the side of the motorway, but still in the fields. The car was a few hundred metres along. I got level with it and had to scramble down an embankment to get to it. First thing I did was to put its side lights on.

I then emptied the petrol into its tank and got in. Praying that the battery was good, because the petrol would not come through immediately, I turned the key. The engine turned for about 30 seconds, then fired. Hooray! After a minute or so I moved off, taking the proper precautions, although the motorway was very quiet.

I called at the garage and filled up, got to the carriers a couple of minutes before they closed so even got that done too. With the heater going full blast I was rapidly recovering from what could have been an absolute disaster.

This story happens to be completely true, and occurred in the late 80’s.

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