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Driving in Britain: Yikes, give a Yank some room

By on November 27, 2018 in Travel with 0 Comments

Fast speeds and narrow roads made driving in Britain nerve wracking. Behind the foliage on the left is a rock wall.

By Phil Rasmussen

In September my wife Lovelyn and I took a do-it-ourselves road trip through England.

We have driven in Europe before, but as we planned the trip, the thought of driving on the “wrong” side of the road made us more than a little apprehensive.

With our 1,600-mile English adventure behind us, we now have a reasonably complete picture of British driving in practice. Becoming acclimated to driving on the left side of the road was important, but it was only one part of the experience. I’m hopeful that our personal experiences and surprises may be useful for someone planning a driving trip of their own in the UK.

In preparation for our trip, I ordered a copy of The Highway Code for the UK from Amazon. This helpful booklet familiarizes the reader with road signs and general rules of the road that are mostly similar to our own.

It didn’t cover everything. There are features of the British road system that challenge our America driving paradigms. Descriptions of box intersections, bicycle reserves, and multi-lane traffic circles in The Highway Code are one thing; experiencing them for the first time as a driver is another.

Our trip did not get off to a smooth start. I had reserved a compact car with automatic transmission. I’ve learned that smaller cars are a benefit in Europe when dealing with narrow passages and parking, and I had decided that shifting manually with my left hand might be an unnecessary distraction.

Well, the compact wasn’t ready. No problem, there would be a free upgrade to a nice Mercedes C-class, somewhat larger than our planned ride. We loaded our stuff in the trunk. Oops! The C-class navigation was haywire. No problem, there would be another free upgrade to a Mercedes E-class. Very nice car. Larger car.

A single track road near the Welsh border.

Approaching a village near Welch border. Note houses are at edge of the road.

An hour had now passed. We took it, in retrospect a mistake.

Reading The Highway Code did NOT prepare us for the narrowness of the roads, the tightness of the turns, and the obstacles we would encounter.

I now have a great deal of respect for the Brits as drivers. They are as a whole more highly skilled, more focused, more courteous and faster drivers than the average in the U.S. Given their streets and roads, they need to be focused in order to get anywhere in a reasonable period of time! We saw no one texting or talking on a phone during our entire three-week trip.

All of the English roads are narrower than their counterparts in the U.S. and the secondary or rural roads are especially narrow.

A typical lane width on state highways in the U.S. is 11-12 feet; lane width in the UK on similarly classified roads is nine feet. UK rural roads are not unlike the orchard roads in the Wenatchee area, except perhaps smoother, and may be lined with hedge rows, stone walls, or a stone wall behind the hedge leaves (my wife’s personal favorite.) The speed limit on these roads is a rather astonishing 60 mph unless otherwise marked, and most Brits seem to drive close to the limit where they can.

Lovelyn visits Port Isaac (known in TV land as Portwenn where Doc Martin has his home and office.) The Doc was out.

I have driven sports cars on tracks at very high speeds, but on our first day in England, I was not comfortable exceeding 50 mph or so on these roads. My mind told me that either the left side of the vehicle was about to be in the bushes or the mirrors on the right side were about to be taken off by the approaching car or (outburst from spouse here) semi-truck.

The lanes are that narrow. We would occasionally have to pull to the side at a wide spot to allow the local traffic to move ahead. This was not just my reaction to the roads. We met Australian couples with the same complaint, and they drive on the left like the Brits.

Brits do not seem to slow for oncoming vehicles unless the road narrows below two lanes, which is a frequent situation.

You can tell when the road is narrowing because the centerline is simply eliminated as if to say, “you’re on your own.”

When meeting another vehicle in these spots, one vehicle will need to stop in whatever wide spot might be available to allow an oncoming vehicle to proceed. In some cases one driver may need to reverse to find such a spot.

Flashed headlights from a stopped vehicle generally mean for you to proceed through the narrow area, in which case drivers thank and acknowledge the courtesy with waves.

Vindolanda, Roman garrison near Hadrian’s Wall in the far north of England.

We encountered a similar situation in villages where vehicles must be parked with their wheels on the sidewalk on one side, and the other wheels half into the traffic lane on the other. In the evening, parked cars may occupy a whole block leaving just one path for traffic.

And then there are the traffic circles!

The UK has employed these for years to good effect. We encountered very few traffic lights outside of city centers during our trip.

Lesser circles work just like our local Wenatchee area circles. But the similarities end there. Primary highways, including “dual carriageways” (like our non-interstate divided four-lane highways) intersect with other roads using traffic circles of up to three lanes.

As we approached a major interchange, there would usually be an electronic sign with the message, “QUEUES LIKELY AHEAD.” The two lanes of traffic would then be directed to three or more lanes… the left most for the first turnoff in the circle, middle lane for the second, and the right lane for the third.

In a few instances, we were one of three vehicles entering the circle at the same time in our respective lanes. Flow is very brisk, so timing is everything. British drivers signal their intent upon entering the circle with a left turn signal for the first exit, and right turn signals for exits two and three. It looks strange to see cars moving clockwise to enter the circle with their right turn signals blinking, but the signals help to sort out who is planning to go where.

First stop was Highclere (Downton Abbey), an hour from Heathrow.

A certain popular TV travel host recommends — rather nonchalantly as I remember — that American drivers, ”just go around again if you miss the turn.” It’s much better not to miss it in the first place. If you do, on the multi-lane circles you will be in the outside lane when you shouldn’t be.

I admit to incompetence when it comes to navigating (even helped by GPS) the old walled cities of England. It was a painful ordeal to reach our hotel in York, and even more so in Oxford.

I chose hotels near those city centers for walking convenience, but we had to work for it! As for London, I wouldn’t even attempt driving there. There was an immediate sense of relief as I handed over the keys to our rental car at the Heathrow car return.

Some final advice from a Yankee amateur. Consider taking a day to rest after your flight before driving a car. We did so and were glad we did. Leaving Heathrow in a mental fog could be deadly.

Second, take a GPS with a large screen or include one with your rental vehicle unless you have a navigator who is expert in paper maps or smart phone navigation apps and is immune to motion sickness. (A very slick aspect of navigating in Britain is that you only have to enter the postal code of your destination in the GPS and you will eventually end up exactly at your goal.)

Rent the smallest car you are comfortable with. The difference in width for major brands between “compact” and “intermediate” is six to nine inches that makes a difference in driving and parking. An automatic transmission will make one less thing to think about.

And finally, buy the full coverage insurance. My rental had several yards worth of “hedgerow encounter” scrapes on the left side by the end of the first day. I’m glad it wasn’t my car.

I certainly don’t mean to discourage people with this account.

Advance preparation helped a lot. And while the initial uneasiness about driving in England didn’t entirely go away, what was left was converted to heightened alertness.

We drove from the extreme south of the country to the Scottish border and many points in between.

In the end, it would not have been possible to see the things we saw in that beautiful country without driving ourselves.

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