Previous reviews are at Mack Pitches Up

Thursday, October 1, 2009

Holiday Post 1 - Driving in the U.K. : A Yank on the Left

The first photo shows us beaming as we turned in our car hire at Heathrow without having to pay the damage deductible.

I would say that the Brits are good drivers and they know how to maneuver. My fear was that I would zig when they expected me to zag.

If you are a Yank driving in the U.K. for the first time, I recommend:

  • Automatic transmission - I don't care how skilled you are in the U.S. there will be Many times when you don't want to be fumbling for the gear shift.

  • Get something small. That large car might be great leaving the airport on the motorways but wait until you move on to the A and B roads, driving between hedgerows, and town and village driving.

  • A GPS might be something to get with the car hire. We spent a lot of time trying to find a place to turn around after missing a turn. This is harder to do than you might think.

  • If you are going to do a lot of country driving, invest in good maps. That Michelin map of Great Britain & Ireland you purchased in the U.S. is great for getting an idea of distances but won't work on a smaller scale. Fortunately someone left a road atlas at the car hire and they loaned it to us. Even that wasn't detailed enough at times.

  • Someone in the front passenger seat is quite helpful. I found it difficult to judge distances on the left when driving in towns and villages. The streets are narrow and you are usually driving past parked cars while facing fast moving traffic that appears to be occupying the same lane as you.

  • Have a mobile phone. Seriously. Check with your service at home to see the available options.

  • Look up road signs and driving rules before you go over. There are many good web sites including this one for a brief overview. Just do a google search for UK driving

  • I thought about this after but I wonder if someone driving in the U.K. for the first time could get a New Driver magnetic sign for the back of the car? I saw one of these on several cars.

  • See if Jason Statham (the Transporter) is available as a driver.

The week I spend driving in the U.K. was the most intense experience I have ever had behind the wheel. Once you get off the motorways (equivalent to our interstate highways) you find yourself on small, often very twisty roads with blind curves that would be adequate for a Mini Cooper but are bi-directional and driven by all size vehicles including buses, delivery vans, Land Rovers, etc.

My first experience with intense town driving was in Bovey Tracey on the way to Dartmoor. Due to a missed turn I found myself driving through town center - one lane, vehicles parked on the right, bi-directional traffic, vans, buses, other cars including Land rovers. The traffic flow almost seemed choreographed with cars shifting right and left in an instantaneous judgement of who needed to give way to an oncoming vehicle. Also very polite, you get a nice wave when you have yielded. No place for competitive, "I gotta get there first", driving.

Once we made it to Dartmoor we found ourselves driving between very high hedgerows on a single lane road with blind curves and no idea if there was an oncoming car. Occasionally there would be a 1.5 foot widening so that you can pull over to let someone by but there are times when a driver has to reverse to give way. But it works and I can't say I was ever close to a head-on.

The U.K. has, roughly, a trillion roundabouts, maybe a trillion five, some within yards of each other. I learned to love the roundabout. Sometimes the signs within the roundabout would be different than the diagram on the sign leading into the roundabout which made it interesting to figure out which road to take. The Brits, as I observed, know when to yield and traffic generally flowed smoothly in and out.

While filled with anxiety and tension, driving was an interesting part of the experience of being in the U.K. and I won't hesitate to hire a car on our next trip.