Whenever I thought about driving in Britain, I got a little nervous. Sure, I had lots of years behind the wheel, but driving in any part of Britain is different—it’s on the left side of the road.
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I wanted to see places that bus tours and trains miss, that I needed to get to on my own. But I couldn't quite picture myself driving on the left side of the road. So, on the long flight to London, I practiced in my "mind's eye" driving on the left. And, on arrival, I took the plunge and rented a car.
Only taxi drivers and the marginally sane choose to rent a car and drive from London, especially after a 10-hour flight and an 8-hour time zone change. Therefore, I caught a train to my first destination, Shrewsbury, near the Welsh border, where I’d arranged to pick up my rental car.
I took plenty of time to familiarize myself with this strange car. Now, just how did that steering wheel get on the wrong, oops, make that the right side of the car?
I discovered an extra blinker on the light switch. It's to indicate to a driver that you want to pass or that you are giving them the right of way (as in narrow streets and one way roads).
The road map had some terminology unfamiliar to me. A "metalled" road is a paved road, a slipway" is an off ramp from a "motorway" (which generally has six lanes); a "dual carriageway is four lanes of traffic, two in each direction.
The color of road signs is important, too. Blue and white indicates a motorway; green and white signs designate large towns; black and white denote villages. Brown and white signs point the way to tourist attractions.
Proceeding hesitantly out of the rental agency, I stuck to backroads rather than busy highways--a wise decision because it takes about 200 miles of driving on the other side of the car and road before everything clicks and responses become automatic.
When I finally braved the motorways, I observed that the inside lane is for slow traffic, the center lane is for faster traffic and passing, and the outer lane is for passing only.
So why was that car coming at me down the middle of a two-lane road? It turns out that this is common practice in Britain when cars pass each other, somewhat ignoring oncoming traffic. British drivers also tend to pull out quickly and cut back in immediately after passing, so I slowed down a bit when they passed my car.
There are lots of one-lane roads in the UK, especially when you travel off the beaten track. One-lane roads have "passing places" where drivers pull off to let others by. Which car pulls off or backs up? Everyone is always polite about this, but I find it easier and safer to just go ahead and be the one to pull over.
When driving in Britain, expect the unusual and unfamiliar. As I traveled through villages I noticed cars parked on the street facing the wrong way. It seems it's acceptable practice to park on either side no matter which direction you're headed. Cars often park half-on and half-off the sidewalk on very narrow streets. Parking on double yellow lines is a no-no.
And the roundabouts. Well, that's another story. I'll never forget my first venture into this spherical world of motoring insanity. Lost, I parked on the roundabout to study the map. I didn't see the policeman until he tapped on my window and said, "You can't stop your car on a roundabout, Madam.”
Thereafter, when doubtful about which roundabout exit to take, I chose the one leading to the smallest, quietest road and had another go at the map. A “3 mile to 1 inch” road atlas is invaluable. In addition, I find a larger scale regional AA or Ordnance Survey map of the area I plan to explore helpful.
More about those roundabouts. They're just what their name implies--a round intersection with exits going off like the spokes of a wheel. It takes some practice to graduate from ones so small I hardly notice them to large ones with traffic lights.
Once on a roundabout (accomplished by turning left while giving cars on your right the right of way) stay in the left lane if getting off the first exit, and watch out for cars in inner lanes cutting in front of you to reach the same exit. For any other than a first or second exit, move cautiously to an inner lane; and, when ready to make your move, proceed carefully to the outer lane as the correct exit comes up.
Allow time for adventure (this can also mean time for getting lost—part of the fun). Traffic “roadworks” delays are common, as are the sheep and cattle that block country roads.
After driving more than 12,000 miles in Britain, I can truly say the rewards of motoring there are beyond description. Indeed, when it’s done right, “driving left” is quite a trip.
Insider Tip: Join an automobile association for breakdown coverage and peace of mind on the road.