I’m back from a whirlwind tour of England which included two jam-packed days of driving the southern parts of the country (and a third on the speedy Eurostar to Paris). The occasion? My girlfriend, Breeah, was celebrating her 25th birthday and that usually necessitates a trip (what else would you expect from a guy who edits a travel blog?). Why not fly to England to take in some of her family heritage (in and around the Gloucestershire area) and then, what the heck, take a day trip to the famous City of Lights. Yes, we had three full days in Europe. Who does that? We still got a lot done…
The greatest risk in this whole plan was my idea of renting a car to take in some of the English countryside and sites outside London (the general American tourist is glued to London upon arrival, or hitched up to a tourist bus company). Well, we had a few places we wanted to go that no tour group or train could easily get us to and relying on our own transport would allow us to see a lot more in a tight amount of time. So without hesitation, I jumped right into the bizzaro world of the British road-system.
Now, it is true that many countries and various territories (many former British colonies themselves) adhere to the left-handed driving system. In fact, they account for nearly 1/3 of all countries and territories. That said, a far larger majority (and more major populations) drive on the right, so it’s still looked upon as being a “very UK” thing.
Oh, and can I give one major warning. I can’t overstate this. Please try not to drive in the U.K. right after getting off your flight if either 1) you’ve never driven on the left-hand side before or 2) you’re seriously lacking sleep. I satisfied both qualities and hit the roads on barely an hour-and-a-half of rest. I was awake, running on some serious adrenaline and caffeine, but had to maintain so much concentration on the new rules and regulations that it almost hurt my brain. Here’s a short list of the various freakouts I can remember from Day 1:
- 1) Getting outta Heathrow! Holy cow – how many roundabouts can be linked together in one place? We drove through the maze for about 15-20 minutes before getting on the right road (the GPS couldn’t even help!). Getting back was just as difficult, but a series of correct, educated guesses got me there. I’m not sure what I would have done if I’d seen this…
- 2) “OMG You’re about to hit the curb!” Yes, being on the left-hand side, your not used to being so close to the median – so your general sense is to keep a safe distance from it. That means your passenger (in my case, my lovely and scared-to-death girlfriend) is getting an up-close view of the sidewalk
- 3) “OMG You almost hit that car!” And no, not on the road… Cars are parked up on sidewalks, which places half of their body on the road. On these narrow, shoulder-less streets, you have to drive into the other lane to avoid these parked cars. I came a little too close to clipping some mirrors.
- 4) Roundabouts galore! There are far more roundabouts that stop lights (and nearly no stop signs that I noticed). Only in major cities is there a worry about stop lights as most of the country roads keep traffic flowing with roundabouts, so get used to it. I did, after awhile, but even when you know they are approaching, it’s difficult to see exactly when to stop – I ended up braking hard a few times. Tip – take it easy and just assume there will be traffic coming on your right. You’ll get the hang of it, you’ll definitely have plenty of chances to practice.
- 5) Meeting head-on on a one-way road. Yes, most one-way roads can be driven both ways – and it really gets fun if you meet another car going the opposite direction (you can add to this mess if you just add more traffic behind you or them!). I didn’t run into this that much (thankfully), but early in our first day I had to turn around on a one way road and met a car turning blindly into me. We both hit our brakes and he backed out for me. Breeah was certain I made a mistake, I told her we both had right-of-way. She was certain we weren’t going to survive another 30 minutes!
- 6) “OMG You’re going the wrong way!” OK, it happened to me. In Stratford-upon-Avon, at the end of our long first day. Breeah and I were getting a little frustrated by the fact we hadn’t ate and our stressed-out-stomachs were finally craving a little something to chow on. As we exited Stratford, we planned on hitting up the first place we saw. So, naturally, in our true American spirit – we found a large shopping center and I decided to take a chance on it. I rolled over onto an entrance lane, thinking it was a one-way entrance for my side of the road. Nope, I was wrong. I heard Breeah gasp as a red car made it’s way right at me. I slowed and moved to the curb while the driver of the red car slightly hit the brakes, drove around me and likely cursed us for being stupid Americans. In all seriousness, we weren’t in much danger in that particular instance and the driver didn’t even honk. In fact, I never heard one horn directed at me.
Oh and if you ever get the urge to drive in Britain like I did, get an automatic. Yes, it costs more but there’s no need to add extra confusion to the mix. After our initial road lessons, I felt I had a good grip on the road and the last two days of driving were quite easy. Granted, I was hesitant to get too comfortable, since in unfamiliar territory every corner could have a hidden surprise. All in all I’m proud of myself for tackling left-handed driving and feel comfortable enough to do it again should I ever have to. I wouldn’t recommend the U.S. change things anytime soon, though, let’s stick with the current system as it is…