Dispatch: Driving Mad Around Britain's Ridiculous Roads
The wife shouts that in .2 miles I would be entering what will have been my 158th roundabout of the day, while my eyes attempt to ignore the Scottish precipice that means certain death to my right and the ridiculously close wall and pot-hole-marked side on the left. All the time I keep my eyes straight ahead, notice the sweat building in my clenched hands and think, taking the train doesn’t seem like such a bad idea at the moment.
Did you know that driving for 15 minutes in Britain expends about as much adrenaline per milliliter as jumping out of a burning airplane while drinking a Red Bull? At least that seems to be the facts as pertains to my highly unscientific experiments around this country of roundabouts, “Give Ways” and supermarket gas stations—the latter of which is usually run by people who hilariously don’t drive, so don’t bother asking for directions.
Now before we get too far along in this rant, let me say that I went from Salisbury to York with the freedom afforded by a car and made it safely. In the end, I would recommend hiring a car, because there is really no better way to see some truly amazing villages on a packed schedule.
There are, however, some things you should know.
“Scenic Route” means your life will flash before your eyes:
Roads through the minor byways are ridiculously small. American drivers are used to space in all facets of life: We like big booths at restaurants, big aisles at grocery stores and big cars for our big American roads.
This, however, is not sensible. And as you quickly realize, the UK is a nation of sensible people doing sensible things in sensible ways. So you have lanes about as big as your car, deviate a fraction and you hit the side of the road, which is usually just a muddy outcrop that will give you a brief reminder that you are not being very sensible.
When I made it to Scotland, the GPS took us to Edinburgh by way of A701 (Scenic Route). While having that name, it was as pleasant as a picnic at a Slipknot concert.
The lanes were, yes, very small. But they also overlooked grand valleys that rested hundreds of feet below the road.
Let’s just say that my stop in Edinburgh began with a stiff drink followed by a stiffer chaser and a big beer.
At some point in the illustrious history of these very sensible people, someone had the grand idea to do away with proper right turns and introduce roundabouts. Perhaps the alternative we Americans are used to is just too quick and efficient a means of transport. Why turn immediately right when you can take a leisurely jaunt past one, two, sometimes three stops to get you on your way?
In any case, entering a roundabout is kind of like entering a bull fight without any training. I am assuming here you have never fought a bull.
I have entered about 458 roundabouts—give or take a few hundred—and that is with driving just a week in the country. So I know the anticipation, stress and perspiration upon entering one is about on par with fighting a several-ton death beast.
Britain may be messing with us with their traffic signals:
Unlike in America, a yellow light precedes a green light, so you can get ready to set off for your next roundabout like you are Cole Trickle in Days of Thunder. The only reason I can think of is this is a giant goof these people are having at visitors’ expense.
At least that seems to be the case for some stop lights that are red but also feature green left and straight arrows.
Britain: Keeping us on our toes since whenever roundabouts were conceived.
Where we are going we don’t need road names:
As with petrol-station clerks, the same applies to the general population when asking for directions. Nobody knows how to get where you want to go and nobody knows street names. That makes sense when you consider streets randomly change names with the same nonchalance that David Beckham changes hairstyles.
Broad street changes to Kings Arms, which changes to Pleasantgate and then to York —all in the span of three blocks.
If you don’t have a GPS, take a yearlong course in circumnavigation of modern British motorways. That would be my only suggestion.
It seems, and this is pure observation here, speed limits are just suggestions. Drivers either abide by them strictly or completely ignore them like Jeremy Clarkson at a BBC production meeting.
That is what I found driving from Salisbury to Bath to Stow on the Wold to Edinburgh to York. I would do it again, because there is hardly more beautiful countryside to admire while driving.
However, I would recommend having a pub at the ready the minute you park your car for the night.
Never, ever drink and drive. Drinking after driving over here, however, seems to me an imperative.
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