I just returned from a vacation in southwest England, where the motorways taught me a cruel lesson. Those harsh streets made me realize that I am a weak man with a fragile heart, a flappable soul and a frail spirit. I may never recover.
This past weekend, my parents and I flew into Bristol, England to hang out in Penzance and Plymouth, the latter of which you might recall from your history books as the launching point of America’s pride-and-joy vessel that was filled with rebellious Bible-thumping white Anglo-Saxons: the Mayflower.
To get to the two quaint ocean towns, we rented a quirky little Citroen Cactus with a 1.2-liter turbo inline-three and a five-speed manual. It’s a great vehicle, somehow managing the interior volume of a small SUV with the curb weight of a Miata—a miracle in modern science, if you ask me.
Obviously, we knew the car would have the wheel on the right, and that we’d have to drive on the wrong side of the road, shifting gears with the wrong hand. We’d get used to that quickly, we thought, and all would be well.
All wasn’t well.
The first few miles were fine. The shift pattern is exactly the same as any other five-speed manual, it’s just on the left side now—this was no problem for me at all, though the same can’t be said of my dad, who adopted the philosophy “if you can’t find ‘em, grind ‘em” as he haphazardly moved the shifter in what was obviously complete guesswork.
After trying not to urinate myself at the unfamiliar sight of cars barreling at me in the right lane, and my dad narrowly resisting a heart attack yelling that the whole left half of the car was dangling precariously off the side of the road within inches of immovable objects like houses and trees, I eventually got used to my new spot on the left.
The dual carriageways took some getting used to, too. The oncoming lanes on the other side of the divider are now on the right instead of the left, which, again, isn’t surprising, but feels odd to a first-timer.
But the thing that took some getting used to—and, again, wasn’t at all surprising—was that the passing lanes are now on the right—very different from the U.S., where the passing lane is wherever the hell you want it to be: left, middle, center, the shoulder, a bicycle lane, an empty sidewalk, a McDonald’s parking lot, etc.
But in England, such anarchy isn’t tolerated, and I often found myself quickly scurrying to the left lane as the image of a Range Rover quickly grew larger in my rearview.
Everything I’ve mentioned so far is trivial compared to the turning circles, which sent shivers down my spine every time I encountered that horrible big yellow or white sign. And that was often—because apparently the Brits aren’t fans of traffic lights or stop signs—instead using turning circles at damn-near every intersection.
And usually I’m a fan of roundabouts—I don’t have to stop, and I’ve read that they’re safer than traditional traffic-signal intersections. But the roundabouts I encountered in England weren’t just basic turning circles like the ones you occasionally spot on a suburban road in the U.S.
No, British roundabouts have evolved to a completely different level, requiring a Ph.D. in transportation engineering to navigate (seriously, check out this 20 minute video on how to deal with the things), and quickly overwhelming my peabrain mind.
Some of the roundabouts have three lanes, many have four or five exits, and just as soon as you think you’ve figured out which lane you’re supposed to be in as you approach the monstrous circle, you navigate the turn to realize you’re now smack-dab in the middle of yet another roundabout!
These double-roundabouts were a true nightmare, and I’m just trying my best to block the trauma from my memory, as I’m sure the poor drivers who had to share the road with me are as well. To them, I offer my deepest apologies— I frankly didn’t know what the heck I was doing.
But the roundabouts and the passing lanes were nothing compared to the narrow streets, many of which were flanked by giant mounds and hedges on either side (presumably predating the motorcar, and acting as a simple way to divide up the land).
Yes, that street above is a two-lane road. And so is this one:
And this one:
When you inevitably find a car coming in your direction, one of you is going to have to pop the car into reverse and try to find a little outcrop in the hedge to slide into, but even then, squeezing the two cars past each other likely to claim a wing mirror.
These pictures don’t even show the worst of it. There were much narrower, sketchier streets, many of which were so small, even fitting our Citroen Cactus between the hedges required us to jeopardize the paint on both sides of the car as the plants scraped along the clear coat.
Much like how you should never look at a full glass of tea while you’re walking to your table (lest you spill it), I found that squeezing past cars on narrow streets was best done by focusing ahead and not on the car or the hedge on the left. Just look forward, shoot the gap, and pray that the car gods will spare your little rental car from deep scratches.
Parking also took a few years off my life, and not just because I’m awful at parallel parking. No, finding my way into a spot wasn’t nearly as tough as getting out of one after the cars in front and behind had gone, and been replaced with vehicles that left only a few angstroms of space for me to 1,000-point maneuver out of my spot.
Between getting used to the passing lane on the right, the tight parking spots, the confusing turning circles and the absurdly narrow streets, driving in England left me older, wiser and grateful to still be alive.
The good news of all this was that roads in England are well kept and feature awesome swooping twisties, gorgeous scenery and speed limits that can seem almost too high for some roads (I wasn’t complaining).
Better still is the fact that, at least where I was in southwest England, the drivers are fantastic, putting up with my utter stupidity with nary a honk.