In January of the year 2000, a couple of weeks after the big Millennium celebrations, I went for a drive with a couple of friends, Kieron and Kevin, to visit Kieron’s brother, our friend Emlyn, for a meet-up and a Saturday night out.
He was running a pub in Newbury, and Kieron drove us up from Southampton. We took the M3 past Winchester, joined the A34, and after a while-
A blowout, left rear tyre I think, that terrifying zig-zag moment when you think you’re going to get hit, before the car came to rest in a lay-by.
The only clue to where we were was a signpost to somewhere called Firgo, which we’d never heard of and couldn’t find on the map. It didn’t look like the sort of place you’d want to visit on a winter’s night anyway.
And no matter – we had a spare, which we duly affixed, and after only moderate inconience delay, we made it up to Newbury.
It weren’t a great night, as I recall. We were tired and irritable, tempers were frayed, there may have been a minor scuffle at some point. Boys will be boys.
So the atmosphere was still a little tense next morning. We just wanted to get home, and silently in the car for the journey. Until the silence was filled with an uneven flapping noise, and Kieron was again fighting to keep control of his vehicle.
The spare was no good, so we found ourselves in a lay-by once again, only without a spare this time. And a glance at the signpost revealed that we’d landed at Firgo once again.
We were on the wrong side of the road to go there this time, not that we wanted to anyway – we were pretty freaked out by the coincidence, and Firgo was by now firmly established as a jinx place for us.
We managed to get to the service station at Sutton Scotney: we couldn’t find help there, but at least we had somewhere to leave the car, and we wandered into the neighbouring village on foot.
It soon became clear that it wouldn’t have a garage that was open on Sundays, but at least it had a bus stop and a huge pub, right opposite one another. There was one bus a day to Winchester, and it was due in two hours, so it was a no-brainer as to where we’d wait.
Maybe it was just because we were so highly attuned to weirdness, but the pub seemed a bit odd. For a start, it had this reverse TARDIS effect, somehow small and cramped despite its vast surface area. And we perceived the Slaughtered Lamb effect, as our entrance brought an abrupt end to the chatter of the old men frequenting the establishment, who turned to stare intently and toothlessly at us instead. And when we went to the bar to see a clock that moved backwards, we were very concerned indeed.
A couple of beers took the edge off it, the bus took us back to civilisation, and we eventually got home some six hours after the car broke down. Kieron still had to go back to Sutton Scotney to get his car fixed, but the crisis was over. Nevertheless, Firgo has been a byword for misfortune and weirdness ever since: to this day I always breathe a sigh of relief when I get past it without anything going wrong. And the weirdness endures, not least from the signs on the busy near-motorway warning of pedestrians crossing there. Who would do that?
It was inevitable then, that I would use Firgo as the setting for a story one day, and it turned out to be the shorter of two novellas which comprised my 2012 Nanowrimo campaign. In Escaping Firgo, the car that breaks down belongs to a Banker who has robbed the safe where he works, and we follow the Prisoner-esque story as he tries to get away. The pub in the village is modelled on the one we went to, and the backwards clock remains an important motif.
Three and a half years on and it’s still not published, but the hope is that it will be this year, or next at the latest. And during the intervening time I’ve often said that once it was published I’d make a pilgrimage to Firgo. But the weekend before last, talking to my father, we said we shouldn’t wait until then. Next month became next week, next week became the next day, and in a rare example of spontaneity, we set off.
I’d seen it from the A34 enough times, so we decided to try and approach it from the other side. We drove up the A3057, through Romsey and Stockbridge, and onto places that even wanderlusters like me had never heard of, Leckford, Chilbolton, and Wherwell. Then it was on to Nun’s Walk, which looked like civilisation on the map, but turned out to be a prohibitively narrow country track in the middle of nowhere. But crucially, it backed on to the dirt road/path which led to Firgo.
The route was barred by a locked gate. Of course it would be; those Firgoans are a secretive bunch who don’t like outsiders, and care nothing for the legality of prohibiting access to a public thoroughfare. But my father and I were not to be deterred, and walked parallel to the Firgo path in an adjoining field. Until we saw two black-clad figures looking down at us from the hill at the other end of the field: the welcoming committee, come to chase us away. And now we were feeling a little bit deterred.
We decided to make a retreat, no questions asked, no bother, but the two men gave chase. We had a big head start, but they had access to the path while we had soft, uneven ground to contend with, and weeds grabbing at our feet and ankles, pulling us back. Besides, my father is awaiting a knee operation and walks with a stick, and I couldn’t just leave him to his fate. The two men caught up well before we got back to the car, and with flight not having worked, I turned around, ready to fight if necessary.
It wasn’t. They were ramblers, just like us, only better organised and dressed for the part. They had cagoules and backpacks, and maps, and proper hiking boots. I had boots right enough, but the polite description of them would be ‘well-worn’. They looked like the kind of footwear Estragon would struggle to put on, or Simon Cooper would wear to a London nightclub, depending on your cultural reference point. I accessorised them with blue tracksuit bottoms, a yellow Chester FC away shirt, and an orange hoodie. But the ramblers didn’t judge; they showed me a map with Firgo on it, confirmed that the track led there. They also assured me that it was an easy walk (which spoiled the mystique a bit), and that the reception at Firgo was friendlier than across the A34 at Tufton Warren, where they didn’t like visitors. They also told me, unwittingly, just who these people were who tried to cross the four lanes of dual carriageway on foot.
Thus the plan was hatched: I would go it alone, follow the track, and see all that Firgo and the path through it had to offer. My father would go back to the car and drive round to join the A34, and we’d meet on the other side of Firgo.
So off I strode, and it was a pleasant walk on a sunny day, the rutted tractor wheel path cutting a swathe through the dominant greenery. Until the large and unsightly buildings of Firgo came into view. It wasn’t a community as I had envisioned, nor the hamlet which Wikipedia described it as; it was just a farm. Not quite sure what kind of farm: there were no obvious crops around (understandable in March?) and definitely no animals of any kind. Just buildings and machinery, which I snapped for this blog post.
At which point I did get a welcoming committee, albeit a one man one, a young and lanky man in a hoodie, and not happy to see me. He demanded to know why I was taking pictures, seeming to suspect a link between this and the recent rash of break-ins he claimed to have suffered. I suppose I should be flattered that I’m still seen as robust enough to be a potential threat in such a way.
I apologised and walked on, and decided against taking any more pictures, which was a shame because I came to a solitary, large and attractive white-walled dwelling, with its double-double garages side by side. As I made for the A road, my new friend, who was glowering malevolently at me the entire time, went into one and emerged in an angry red car, which he drove past me too fast and too close to be anything but an act of aggression. Good job I didn’t go to the less friendly Tufton Warren.
While waiting for the rendezvous with my father, who’d had to drive the long way round, I was amazed to find a bus stop there in the lay-by. It seems unlikely enough that a bus would even follow that round, and absolutely unfeasible that there would be any demand for it to stop at such an isolated outpost.
The last leg of the odyssey was to revisit Sutton Scotney village, and the little wooden bus shelter and the big pub opposite were the first things we came to. I investigated the bus shelter first, because I’m sad like that, and found we were lucky way back when – there’s no Sunday service at all these days.
And finally to the pub, for a well-earned sit down, meal and pint. But the reoccurring memories weren’t done yet – to my delight, the backwards clock was still there! The main symbol of both the book and the real incident, the big link between the two, and it’s still there. That on its own would have made the whole trip worthwhile: the sense of adventure and renewed optimism for the novella is a felicitous extra.