This Side of the Pond – Sept. 7

By Sarah Pridgeon

All appearances to the contrary, I wasn’t always a city girl who struggled to understand the concept of wide open spaces. I may have spent my early adulthood in one of the busiest cities on the planet, but I grew up among fields, rolling hills and sheep. Our skies weren’t as big as Wyoming’s, but they seemed that way to a child.

I was reminded of this fact when I heard about an unusual attraction at this year’s Great Dorset Steam Rally. This would be my home county’s version of our own annual fair, albeit with fewer industrious kids and a lot more antique machinery.

One of my favorite authors, Sir Terry Pratchett, passed away in 2015. He didn’t want another author to finish the half-written novels on his computer, so he asked his assistant to destroy them on his behalf.

Being a man with a well-documented sense of humor, he requested that this be done in style: by running over the hard drive with a steamroller. And so, the organizers of the fair agreed that one of the antique steamrollers on display should be given one last purpose; at six-and-a-half tons, the Lord Jericho seemed a great choice to carry out the destruction.

Most newfangled contraptions can barely stand up to a drop of coffee (I speak from experience), but it seems Sir Terry wanted one last giggle. The stone blocks underneath the hard drive were annihilated, but the hard drive itself came out of the experience intact.

It had to be put in a stone crusher to finish the job, but the author’s final request was carried out. The mangled bits and pieces will be put on display in a museum, such that thousands of Pratchett fans can gaze at it wistfully and wonder what books they’ll never get to read.

Obviously I was not present at this year’s fair to witness the excitement, but it’s a place with which I’m more than familiar. The Great Dorset Steam Rally was the anchor to my summers, as a child who grew up in a family that preferred to enjoy camping, hiking or hunting as a spectator sport.

The fair, you see, was a favorite of my grandfather, known to everyone as “Pappy” because four-year-old me was already a budding writer; I decided he needed a name that would be a rhythmic match to Mummy, Daddy and Nanny. Every year, Pappy would take me to the fair to gawp at gigantic tractors, combine harvesters and vintage horse carriages (all while eating as much candyfloss and cinder toffee as I could convince him to buy).

My beloved grandparents were big fans of trundling round the countryside in their hatchback and the steam rally was a great excuse to do exactly that – but it wasn’t the only one. My introduction to the great outdoors came via the long drives they would treat themselves to almost every afternoon.

The routine was always the same and I spent several weeks of each summer adhering to it. Following the midday meal, Nanny would watch her stories in the form of Neighbors, a truly terrible Australian soap opera, and then dress up in her freshly pressed going-out clothes while Pappy warmed up the car.

She would then grow temporarily crotchety to see he’d already pulled the car to the end of the drive when he knew full well she hadn’t put her lipstick on yet, which, naturally, he did on purpose. Meanwhile, being young and carefree, I would fail to put on my shoes.

Once we’d all piled ourselves into the car, the dog-that-didn’t-know-it-was-a-dog would teeter on my knobbly knees as we left the tranquility of home to head for…somewhere. It didn’t really matter where, they could always find a reason to go.

Once a week, they would drive half the length of the south coast to buy eggs from a farm shop. Just eggs, nothing else, but most of the neighborhood became convinced they were the best eggs in existence and the pile of cartons we brought back got taller every time.

Sometimes it was to the beach so I could search for fossils in the sand, other times it was to some far-flung branch of a chain store that Nanny could perfectly well have visited two miles away, but where would be the fun in that? On one such occasion, at the age of five, I apparently plucked up the nerve to question where we were heading.

“We’re going to Marks & Spencer in Dorchester to buy you some new underwear for school,” Nanny replied. I’m told there was a minute or so of silence before a little voice piped up from the back.

“That’s a long way to go for a pair of pants,” I said.

And thus I spent my summers enjoying the clean air of the countryside from the air-conditioned interior of a small Ford. I didn’t much mind, because Pappy always kept a tin of “travel sweets” in the glove compartment: boiled candy dunked in powdered sugar, just for me. This, when I was little, was a perfectly reasonable basis for an afternoon drive.

Remembering this part of my childhood was something of an epiphany for me, as it sure does explain my behavior today. Whenever we travel this great state of ours, I’ve always expected to become hypnotized by the beauty of the land – but now I understand why I feel no particular urge to get out of the car.