A top hat, a cane and 10 gallons of petrol please
The band Madness once sung a song about how much they enjoy driving in their car. It wasn’t quite a Jaguar, but it didn’t matter, as they were satisfied that it got them far.
I enjoy driving in my car too. It also isn’t quite a Jaguar. It’s a Hyundai. Which is nothing like a Jaguar in reality. They both have a steering wheel I suppose, and four wheels. But it gets me to work and back, and other places I choose to be at, in sufficient comfort and convenience.
And that is half of what cars are all about. Convenience. Cars can also be status symbols, of course. But getting you from where you are to somewhere else, when you choose to do it, and not having to rely on timetables, connections or cancellations is one of the main reasons for car ownership.
It’s your own private travelling space, which enables you to do many things that you wouldn’t ordinarily do whilst on public transport. Some people sing loudly, others delve a finger deep inside their nostrils, and I’ve seen a driver have a shave once before, whilst dawdling along in slow moving queue of traffic.
But it struck me, as I was walking through town the other day, how nice it would be if cars didn’t exist. But only for the moments when I’m walking through town though. They can become invented again when it’s time to go home.
Wouldn’t it be nice, I thought, not to have lungfuls of toxic chemicals shooting down my windpipe? Wouldn’t it be nice to be able to cross the road without even thinking about getting run over? Wouldn’t it be nice, in effect, to live in any time before the Edwardian period, when cars were just beginning to appear?
Well, no, actually. You’d think that in the time before cars, all the streets in town would be quiet, empty and peaceful. But in reality, they would probably be full of horses. They’d be clattering and clomping all over the place, making noise and commotion. We know of traffic jams all too well these days, but back then, there would probably have been horse jams, complete with rude gestures and riders becoming frustrated at other riders for not knowing how mini roundabouts work.
However, just like cars, horses have their own emissions. But their emissions are visible, and all over your shoes if you don’t look where you’re going.
But what an interesting period of time it would have been to live in the days when cars were gradually gaining popularity. No longer would anyone have to stick to living in towns and cities. If you were wealthy enough, any area in Britain that had a decent road was available to visit. And you’d get there in the comfort of your own personal moving room. Assuming the car had a roof, that is.
As we all know, for cars to move anywhere, they need to be fed by fuel. And a document that a customer was looking at recently from 1927 was a plan of a soon-to-be opened petrol filling station in Lansdown, Cheltenham. [Ref: CBR/C5/6/2/20/2, plan 2428]
What is nice about this document is that not only does it show the plans for the station, but also an artist’s visualisation of what it would look like when built. And I can honestly say that this picture makes filling up your vehicle with fuel a most attractive proposition, instead of the boring monotonous chore that we all know it is.
Nowadays, we have to avoid all manner of advertisements for silly gadgets and tools that nobody ever wants to purchase. We have to spend an inordinate amount of time working out how to operate the pay-at-pump machines. And we sometimes feel a little bit daft when one realises that the petrol cap is on the other side of your car to where the pump is. But back then, in the 1920’s, what we see is a man having a stroll near the forecourt wearing a top hat. A top hat!
He’s dressed in his finest, walking merrily along with a cane in one hand, preparing to greet a young mother and her child who are cheerfully walking their dog on what looks like a very pleasant and charming afternoon.
There are tall, elegant trees growing alongside the entrance and exits and garden beds bursting full of healthy looking plants and it feels like somewhere in Los Angeles rather than Cheltenham.
Interestingly, the plan shows evidence of the overlap of traditional and the emerging transport modes of the time, with an existing horse trough appearing at the edge of the forecourt.
The petrol station is still there today. I have filled my car up with fuel from that very station. And I can tell you that in real life, it is not like that drawing at all. Not now, anyway. It’s at the junction of the A40, where Lansdown Road meets Suffolk Road, on the semi-roundabout/island thing. You too could go there and wonder where Los Angeles has disappeared to as well.
If you do go though, let me know if you see any men wearing top hats and a cane strolling by. Because that would mean that cars were in the minority. It would be madness, but it would be brilliant.
Until home time, that is.
Anthony Phillips, Archives Support Officer