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Self-drive Britain? Better by bus…

“Looks like you got an upgrade,” the UK Auto lady said as she walked my wife Mardena and me to our rental car. I recognized the logo on the car’s hood–Mercedes. Back when I’d made the reservation, I’d asked for something much smaller–an “Opal or similar.” I was a little miffed.

But I thought about it. The miles per gallon, I knew, would be worse with a Mercedes, but if we had an accident (this actually crossed my mind) I figured we’d be safer in this thing. Besides–and this was most important to me–the Mercedes was an automatic. No way I was going to fumble around learning a left-handed stick shift. It’d be hard enough steering from the righthand seat, driving in the left lane, and negotiating roundabouts clockwise, all opposite the way we did things in the U.S. So I stayed quiet.

I’d read up on the challenges of driving in Britain and I’d memorized British road signs before we ever left the U.S., but I was still a little uncomfortable. It was the roundabouts that worried me the most. I’d driven the one near our house a million times, but it was only a one-laner; Britain, I’d read, had something called multiple-lane roundabouts. On top of that, my guidebook said that British roads would sometimes “slingshot” you from one roundabout to another in a figure eight. I couldn’t imagine what that would be like. And then on the morning we left Bath, our first home base, to pick up our rental car, Ling, the woman who ran our Bath B & B, warned me to make sure I exited multiple-lane roundabouts from the proper lane, otherwise “they’ll bump you.”

So, with that mental baggage firmly in mind, I climbed in the Mercedes, tried the headlights and wipers, and eased us from the parking lot. Following the UK Auto lady’s directions, we found the A36 motorway and started toward Avebury, our first destination. A tiny village about twenty-five miles east of Bath, Avebury was famous for the stone circle that surrounded it and for Silbury Hill, both of them human-made structures built thousands of years ago by people who’d settled the area.

The A36, a multiple lane motorway akin to an American Interstate, was a breeze, and I adjusted surprisingly quickly to the roundabouts along the way. What I wasn’t prepared for were the two- and sometimes one-lane rural roads that ended up fraying my nerve ends for the rest of the trip.

Avebury, England

The first rural road we took, the one off the A36 toward Avebury, was typical. To my American mind, the road seemed half as wide as it needed to be for cars ripping past each other at fifty miles an hour in opposite directions–especially when one of the cars was as big as ours. On some stretches, four-inch curbs, hedgerows, rock walls, even hedgerows concealing rock walls, squeezed right up to the edge of our lane, a barrier against bailing onto a shoulder when my nerve failed. But I bailed anyway, scraping leftside tires against curbs with exasperating frequency.

I did even worse once we got to Conwy, a small walled coastal town in North Wales that served as our home base for hikes in Snowdonia Park a few miles inland. The roads into and out of the park were so narrow and tortuous that I caught only an occasional glimpse of the spectacular ribbons of whitewater that cascaded hundreds of feet down mountain sides into the valleys below. With oncoming drivers zipping toward us, I’d constantly lurch us way left of the center line, ricocheting off the roadside curbs on our way into the park and on our way back out.

Once we’d made it back to our Conwy hotel, I announced that I wasn’t going to touch the car again until we left town. That was fine with Mardena. All through the park she’d spent inordinate amounts of time exclaiming “Paul, get over, you’re too close to the wall,” or blurting “GET OVER!” at oncoming drivers for whom the center line seemed wholly discretionary. That evening she asked Henrique, the shaggy-haired manager of our hotel, “What do you do when a truck is coming at you and you can’t move over because there’s a wall at the edge of your lane?” “Deep breathing,” he said.

The Brits we talked to seemed to appreciate the challenges driving posed to visitors. When we first arrived at our B & B in Keswick, a town in England’s Lake District, Andrew, the perky Scotsman who greeted us, asked how the driving was going. “About like it’s gone for every other American,” I said. He laughed. He said that when he’d offered to park a car for one of his American guests, the woman had replied, “Oh, would you?” and hugged him. When I mentioned that part of the problem was that our car was bigger than what I’d wanted, he said, “They give the small cars to the locals.”

At breakfast the next morning, a woman from Lyon, France, told us that on an earlier visit to Britain, she got so nervous in her family’s rental car that she climbed to the back seat and stayed there for the rest of the trip. This time, she and her traveling companion, a woman she’d known since high school, were traveling by bus. I told her I’d heard that in parts of England the buses were unreliable. Not so, she said: “They’ve been on time and fast and relaxing.”

Lake District, EnglandThat was good enough for us. That afternoon, Mardena and I caught a bus for the nine-mile ride to Buttermere Lake. I savored every moment of it, sitting and staring out the window while the bus driver negotiated the skinny, twisting roads. At one point, both our bus and a car passing in the opposite direction stopped and spent a good ninety seconds inching past each other on a stretch of road that was way too narrow for two vehicles. I was practically gloating with self-congratulation.

Our last stop before dropping the car off at the airport outside Edinburgh, Scotland, was St. Andrews, a busy college town best known for the world’s oldest golf course. Given the fame of the Old Course, I’d have thought the road into town might have been more forgiving. But it wasn’t. It was as narrow and nerve-wracking as any backroad we’d driven. I had a hard time imagining the world’s best golfers having to navigate a road that must have tied their stomachs in knots when they drove to St. Andrews every few years to play in the British Open.

After a couple days at St. Andrews, we drove to Edinburgh airport, found the UK Auto dropoff, pulled in and dragged our backpacks from the car, and waited. Pretty soon a guy in a UK Auto uniform came out of a booth up ahead, and without even glancing at us sauntered over to the left side of the car, knelt down, and ran his hand over the front tire. We shuffled around behind him. “See that?” he said. We did, a round protrusion about an inch in diameter where I’d scraped the tire a hundred times. It was a little disheartening, but in an odd way sort of impressive, too. The guy was a pro. He wasn’t about to waste time puttering around looking for nicks and dents. He knew exactly where the damage would be and went straight to it.

The tire added about $200 to our rental bill, but the expense was beside the point. I’d opted for a car because I thought it would give us more flexibility than public transportation. And it probably did, freeing us from the constraints of bus and train schedules. The problem was, I was so fixated on the road most of the time that I seldom had a chance to take in the beauty of the British countryside.

Worse yet, the whole thing was unnerving. I spent so much time with my jaws clenched, my arms tense, my hands glued to the wheel, and my eyes riveted on the center line that even now, months later, the stress of driving is etched in my memory more clearly than the bucolic landscapes of Avebury, Snowdonia, and the Lake District. But at least I learned my lesson. Next time I’d do it the easy way: slow down a bit, set aside more time for getting from place to place, and take the bus.

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