Learning to Drive on the Wrong Side of the Road


4th July, 2016

Independence Day! The plan was to get up, get to the airport, pick up the rental car, and drive up to Godmanchester (north of Cambridge) to celebrate America’s independence by having a few beers and a cook-out with an American friend. Sounds easy enough, right?

Because our last foray with baggage on the train was completely un-fun, we decided it would be best if I take the train by myself to get the car and then come back to pick up Nathan in time for our late check-out at 13 hours. My intention had been to wake up early and get everything sorted before I left. I slept in, so I was throwing this into that before I headed out.

I left Liverpool Street Station on the Tube at not quite half-ten (that’s 10:30 for Americans), and had an easy transfer on the Brighton line for the National Railway. It’s a 45-minute train ride to Gatwick, so I sat back and caught up on social media. I realized it was a battery killer, but I had my little portable battery pack stowed in my day pack, and it was supposed to charge my phone from empty to full 8 times. And I’d fully charged it the night before. So, no worries. Scroll, like, post, repeat. And so on.

I was a little worried about driving on the wrong side—well, on the left side, anyway. The right side would be the wrong side in the UK. Never mind all that business about who invented the car. In England, you keep to the left of the line.

My intention was to just follow traffic, so I thought it wouldn’t that hard. Mostly, I was concerned with shifting with my left hand. It just seemed like it would be too weird to adapt to at all. Even though my current car is an automatic, I learned to drive on a manual, and that’s what most of my cars have been. I can drive a stick shift in my sleep. But even when I’ve assisted with a shift from the passenger seat, I’ve used my right hand.

So this is what I told myself: get the hang of the left-hand shift and everything else will be easy, hmmmmkaaaay?

When I got the keys and went out to the car park, the first thing I did was get into the passenger seat. Whoops. Try again. So I got into the driver seat and set the GPS on my phone for the hotel. Then, I reached over my left shoulder to get the seat belt. Whoops. Try again. I turned on the car just fine, but when I went to put the car into reverse, my right hand bumped into the door handle. Whoops. Expected that one.

Time check: 11:47
Time to hotel: 1 hour 10 minutes

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Nope, not nervous at all!

I maneuvered out of my spot and immediately went the wrong way, down a “do not enter” road. I tried to back up, but there was someone behind me who honked immediately. I had no choice but to enter. It was a huge lot of cars (with stacked rows), likely from the rental agencies, and they were parked so tight you could barely fit a hand between them. I made my way very slowly through this tunnel of compact cars to the end, where I found a large gate keeping me in. I turned around and headed back out. When I got toward the end of the lot, I encountered my first oncoming traffic and immediately veered over and passed them on the right. He just threw his hands up at me. Doh!

Once I made it out of there, I had to negotiate my way out of the rentals car park, and cars were just as tight in there, only there were people all over the place and rental agents zipping cars in and out of spaces. By the time I made it out of that little lot, my hands were sweaty and my mouth dry. I didn’t even have time to think that it might get easier from here before the craziness of the airport exit roads started.

Roundabout, roundabout, roundabout, and, guess what, another roundabout. I exited wrong a couple times, and went around twice on one of them. I had no idea how to read the roundabout signs, or how to count the exits at first. I swear, one of those roundabout signs had about 8 different directions coming off of it. I had no idea which way to go, or even which way I was allowed to go, especially in the roundabouts that were 2 or 3 lanes deep.

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I probably should have studied for this driving test.

Eventually, I got out of the confusion of the airport roads and onto the motorway. I quickly learned that people pass on the right (which makes sense), but then I realized I had no idea what a lot of the road signs actually meant. (There are so many that weren’t intuitive, or that I guessed wrong at first, that I’ll write another post just about road signs.)

So, I’m staying left, going along at 60 mph, which seems a a reasonable speed for that size of road—I can’t find a sign to tell me what speed I should be going anyway. Suddenly, the left lane says “Local Traffic Only.” Before I process what that means, I’m spit out onto a roundabout in a town. The GPS re-routes and I make 15 turns to get back on the highway—no U-turns here. When I look down at my phone, I see it’s on 7%. Crap.

I reach into my bag and the charging cable isn’t there. Then, I remember: I put the battery pack into my day pack, but put my charging cable into my travel pack—which was back at the hotel! At the same time, I realize that my driving map is in another bag at the hotel. I don’t even have my backup plan now.

I know I’m roughly 35 minutes from the hotel, and also that 7% on my phone battery means less than 10 minutes of screen time. All I can do is put it into power saving mode and hope for the best. Lucky for me, I start seeing signs for Central London. I think, I shouldn’t need no stinkin’ GPS. I lived 34 years without a phone telling me where to turn. I’ll be fine once I see the buildings, yeah.

As soon as I think that, there goes my lane into another “Local Traffic Only” lane, and this time, I know what’s coming, but can’t get back over into traffic. There’s no re-routing on the GPS now because the phone’s dead, and once I’m in the town, I have to figure out how to get turned back around. As I’m doing leaving out the village another way, I slow for construction—or, as I heard it called here, a “work restriction.”

Then, there’s a pop. Oh no. My tire pressure gauge comes on immediately, so I pull off. I know my tire’s flat before I even get out to look. Sure enough, it’s not even full enough of air to limp along to a service station (not that I could see one from where I stood). There’s nothing sticking out of the tire to tell me what I’ve run over, not that it would make a difference.

Luckily, my rental agreement had a phone number for breakdowns, so I grabbed that and my phone and set off back toward the village to make a call and/or pick up a phone charger.

There are plenty of places I could’ve broken down that wouldn’t be nearly as idyllic as where I did. Across the road from where I was broken down, was a large field with people picnicking and children playing football against the backdrop of an old cathedral. Despite being frustrated at the car situation, it was hard to be annoyed when strolling through somewhere so quaint.

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All Saints’ Church in Blackheath Village

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A closer look, because it’s so pretty

My first few attempts to get help weren’t met with the friendliness I expected in the small village. No, we don’t have phone chargers and no, you can’t use the phone. One man didn’t bother to look up from his newspaper. I found a travel agency, and all of them had iPhones, so they couldn’t help with charging my phone. They gave the sad news that a phone shop was the one thing missing from this village. There wasn’t even a phone box.

At the last news stand in the village, the proprietor was looking over my phone to see if he had a charger. Let me say here that my Samsung charger is not standard—it looks like a conjoined twins made up of a micro and a mini USB plug. He was scratching his head and looking my phone over, but still hadn’t responded to my request to borrow his phone.

And then my hero stepped in—an older blonde lady buying cigarettes and a newspaper came over to ask what’s gone wrong. I just needed help with a phone call, well sure. She flipped open her phone and dialed the breakdown number for Avis, then handed it to me. Of course, I didn’t know the answer to the most important question they had: was there a spare in the car? Because of that, I’d have to call back once I knew.

I felt a little defeated as I handed the phone back to my kindly stranger and told her I’d have to walk back out of town to check the car for a spare before I could call them back. I thanked her for her help and started to walk away. She said, “Well, it’s not that far. I’ll come with you so you can call from there.”

Her name was Toni, and she was a native of this place, called Blackheath Village. On the walk back to the car, we chatted about the village and about Kentucky. She’d never been to America, and I’d never been there before, so there was a lot to go on about.

Of course, as soon as we arrived back at the car, I could see a police officer beginning to write a ticket. He looked at me skeptically when I told him I was waiting for help, and then Toni stepped in to rescue me again, saying, “Come on, man, she’s broken down. Give her a break.” He did, but warned that a colleague might come back and ticket me later.

I checked the boot. No spare tire.

When I called the breakdown service back, I had no idea where to tell them I was. Thankfully, Toni was there to rescue me once again. Especially because where I was stranded was just off the map they had available to them at their call center over in Gloucester (pronounced glau-ster). At one point, she said, “I can’t help your map, but I can tell you I’m standing right here and it’s real, man.” She then proceeded to give him some very precise directions to my spot from the local pub, The Crown, and then gave her number to call back if they got lost.

She then bid me call the hotel so that Nathan wouldn’t worry too much about me, and to give him her number in case I didn’t turn up. With everything squared away, Toni said cheers and to come find her at The Crown if I needed her. She also made me swear I’d call her when I was safely tucked away at our friend’s house for the night, so she wouldn’t worry after me.

Now all I had left to do was wait. The breakdown service had told me there would be some time needed to pick up a tire, and from there about 60 to 90 minutes of travel time to fix it up. So I settled in and enjoyed the landscape, alternating between staring out over the heath and watching the crows. I was stranded on a road called Tranquil Vale, so I thought I should let its tranquility take root.

 

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The crows were the only thing not tranquil on the heath

In barely an hour, my rescuer came in the form of a mobile tire service. He had everything he needed to take off my tire, put a new one on the rim, and put it back on again in his van.

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A mobile tyre fitting service you can rely on, for sure!

It only took him another 15 minutes to get it all changed and the paperwork sorted before I was back in business.

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Mid-way through the process

I’m able to get back on the motorway fairly quickly and begin following signs to Tower Bridge. Then, somehow I end up in a tunnel. Not where I was going. From there, I circle round and round for about 2 hours, going in an out of Isle of Dogs. I know I’m fairly close to my hotel, but I can’t seem to get there. Occasionally, I’d see a sign or landmark that would tell me which way I should go. Usually, it would require me to make a right turn.

In London, there almost never seems to be anywhere you can turn right.

Finally, I found myself in a Muslim neighborhood with a phone store, so I parked in a sketchy alley, which definitely had some shady dealings going down (and I got watched the whole way), and walked the three blocks to the store. I don’t think I’ve ever been so self-conscious about my tattoos in my life, because all the women I encountered on the streets were wearing a full burka.

The actual phone store was out of business, so I went into the news stand next to it, if for nothing else, to get a drink of water. I’d run out while I was still waiting for the tire service.

The shop tender was friendly and wanted to know about my accent, my home, why I was here, etc. I told him what had happened with the car and he said he had phone chargers. When I showed him mine, he said no problem, and pulled out a mini USB cable. Apparently, you don’t need the whole conjoined twin cable to get a charge on your phone! I couldn’t thank him enough, and I felt a little lighter as I made my way back through the women in burkas and the shady dealings down the alley.

Then I locked myself in the car and charged the phone until it was high enough to get a signal. Finally, I could get back to the hotel and started on the journey to Godmanchester (where I should have already been day drinking about 3 or more hours before, Independence Day and all).

Time check: 17:16
Time to hotel: 12 minutes

It actually took me 15 minutes, but it was also rush hour traffic and I was trying really hard not to squash any cyclists. And to avoid being crashed into by the motor bikes—which are downright crazy as hell.

Getting out of London was almost as bad as being lost in London, but at least I now had a navigator in the passenger seat, working GPS, and a map if that failed. Once out of London, it’s about an hour and a half to Godmanchester. All that was uneventful—I stayed on the left side, didn’t get lost, and didn’t break down. The landscape was pretty agricultural and reminded me of parts of Kentucky.

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Lots of cows and tractors along the way

By the time we made it to Godmanchester, it was nearly dark, but we had our Independence Day celebration anyway: hamburgers, hot dogs, and beers straight from the cans. But before I took my first sip, I called Toni to let her know all had gone well. She was well pissed already, having started celebrating Monday hours before. “Cheers,” she said.

I’ve since gotten the hang of driving left, and have only messed up the side a few times in car parks. I also have learned to love how well the roundabouts keep traffic moving, and I’m not sure we’ll ever get the hang of using them correctly unless we start driving on the left side of the road. Parking’s still a bit tricky, since everyone parks so closely together here, but, like all things, it just gets easier with practice.

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