Harlan Hague



It's possible to see bits and pieces of the British countryside from the window of a British Rail coach, and it's great fun as well. You can travel in comfort from London to Oxford, for example, then continue your journey to Moreton-in-Marsh in England's north Cotswold Hills.  
From Moreton station, it's only one block to the village center and pleasant shops and tea rooms, small restaurants and comfortable hotels. If you arrive on Tuesday, you can wander through one of the best weekly markets in the region. If you prefer tranquillity to the bustle of market, take the footpath north of the village toward Bourton-on-the-Hill.

But that's about as far as you will venture from the train station. If you're traveling by rail, you will missTarn Haws in Scotland Stow-on-the-Wold, Upper Swell, Lower Slaughter, Bourton-on-the- Water, Shipton-Under- Wychwood, Great Tew, Little Compton and Chipping Campden. To see the north Cotswolds, and indeed rural Britain in general, you must stiffen  your back, grit your teeth, rent a car and drive.

Now, most Americans balk at the prospect of driving a car with the steering wheel on the wrong side. Many who decide nevertheless to give it a try are terrified when they are first poised to enter a flow of traffic streaming down the wrong side of the road.

Not me. I have lived my life in a right-handed society that only just tolerates left-handers. So I escape as often as I can to a land where the virtues of the left are paramount. The British walk on the left, and--bless them--they drive on the left.

It wasn't easy, even for a left-hander, to make the adjustment. Just as my kindergarten teacher tried to persuade me by subtle pressures to adopt the correct right hand, I had to adjust to the correct left-handedness of British driving.

Elated as I was at my first opportunity to enter the rational world of British driving, I was careful. I arranged to pick up my rental car at the most distant tube stop in north London. I would then, I thought, have a straight shot to the country.

Wrong. The rental agency was on the busiest street in north London, which was at the moment of my arrival filled with four lanes of fast-moving traffic. My car was parallel parked at the curb. I opened the door on the left side, then fumbled in the glove compartment so anyone watching would not think that I had opened the wrong door. I closed the door and walked around to the driver's side and slipped behind the wheel. I started the engine, tested the brake, accelerator and clutch. I turned the wheels to the right, raced the engine, found a break in the flow of traffic, let out the clutch to shoot out into the flow, and smashed into the van parked directly in front of me. Only then did I see the large fellow sitting at the wheel of the van, which was facing my car.

I reversed the car slowly until I was parked again at the curb. I got out of the car even more slowly. The van driver sat for a moment longer, then got out. We walked together to observe the damage. My car appeared untouched, but I had destroyed his headlight and crushed the side of his grill. We looked at each other.

"First time?" he asked.

I wasn't sure whether he meant "driving in Britain" or "driving."

"Yes," I said. He smiled, much to my relief.

"Why don't you be on your way, and I'll take care of this." It was the rental agent who had stepped out of his office Picnic beside a streamwhen he heard the crash. I remembered that just a moment ago in his office I had decided to pay an extra daily fee to add the collision damage waiver. I thanked him. The large van driver shook my hand, wished me good luck and gave me a pat on the shoulder as I turned to go. The expression, "Baptism By Fire," had new meaning for me.

Happily, my experience is not a required initiation into British driving. The first thing to remember, and to keep repeating for the first few days, is that the bulk of the car is on the left side of the driver, not the right as in American cars. Keeping that fact in mind will help you remember to drive on the left side of the road. The most likely place that you will forget is during a turn. If you keep saying to yourself, "left side, left side," then you should have no trouble in completing the turn on the left side of the street.

Watch out for the roundabouts. This brilliant alternative to the four-way stop can be confusing until you become familiar with it. First of all, avoid the temptation to speed around the circle counter-clockwise. Remember: "left side, left side." Stop at the edge of the circle, and look right. Traffic already in the roundabout has the right of way. When you see a break, enter the flow slowly, keeping in mind that other vehicles will be trying to edge into the left lane to exit. This is especially important when you are not exiting at the next street.

If others are riding with you, encourage back-seat driving. Passengers are going to be on the edge of their seats anyway, until they begin to have confidence in your left-handed skills. Welcoming their cautions will let them share the learning experience and the terror.

Since your purpose is to see the country, stay off the motorways. Drive the "A" and "B" roads, even the unmarked routes, assuming that you have a detailed local map. Roads with only one lane, marked "Single Track," are risky. That's one lane, not one lane each way. Some locals drive these paved paths as if they were closed race courses. They can be especially dangerous if high hedges block the view around curves or corners. British drivers in the countryside tend to be considerate, but the passing places never seem to be in the right place at the right time.

This is not to say that the British are not aggressive. Most "A" and "B" roads have only one lane in each direction. By American standards, the lanes are narrow, and there isA welcome sign: B&B usually no shoulder. More often than not, the edge of the road is a cobblestone curb about three inches high. While tourists of any nationality tend to drive casually, British locals drive fast, follow close enough to read your dash instruments, and pass on hills and curves. Above all else, remember this: if you round a curve and see a car ahead in your lane, coming at you, squeeze left, not right.

Off the busy roads, the pace and pulse are slower. The winding lanes between the smaller villages are the least crowded and the most pleasant to drive. It is not unusual to see a car parked in a layby or on the verge, with folding chairs and table nearby, spread neatly with a cloth and afternoon tea. Since you won't likely be so equipped, don't fail to stop in a village tea room for a nice respite.

My family and I stopped beside a narrow lane one day for a picnic lunch. The grass was still moist from an overnight rain, but we found a log at the edge of the wood to sit on and enjoyed our sandwiches and the spring sunshine. When we finished, we climbed into the car. I started the engine and put the car in gear, but it would not move. The tires simply spun.

I got out and saw that the rear tires had sunk about four inches into the mud. What I had thought was a grassy hard surface was really a camouflaged quagmire. I tried rocking the car back and forth, stripping gears in both directions. With my wife in the driver's seat, I pushed while she spun the wheels and sprayed mud on my pants.

A car drove up slowly from behind and stopped in the middle of the lane. A man opened the door and Rescued from the mudstepped out. He was dressed in a neat tweed suit. "Trouble?" he asked. Without waiting for a reply, he went to the back of his car, opened the trunk and took out a pair of rubber boots and a shovel. While I watched, he pulled on the boots and came over with the shovel. He dug a few spadefuls from the front of each of the back tires, then filled the cavities with rotted bark and gravel from the roadside.

"Now try it," he said. "Gently." I tried it, gently, and the car rolled slowly onto the road. I thanked him and pumped his hand.

"Not much you can't do with Wellies and a good shovel," he said. He pulled off the boots and threw them and the shovel into the back of his car and drove off.

I drove ahead and turned into the "A" road, mumbling "left side, left side."

This article published in International Travel News (March 1997). Write to the author.

Caveat and disclaimer: This is a freelance travel article that I published some time ago. Some data may not be current.

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