Land of Hope and Glory
Driving in London just for fun is as sensible as rollerblading on the autobahn. Enlisting a young fresh-off-the-boat Yank to indulge in such folly should be a felony. Yet there I was, strapped behind a steering wheel located where the glove box should be, with a carload of norteamericanos who had entrusted me with their sightseeing and their lives. As an avid reader of British car magazines who watched BBC documentaries on PBS, I convinced myself that I possessed the knowledge required for such an undertaking. I'd already shown courage under fire, surviving several days as a pedestrian on these streets without being hit, not even once. All we needed now was more petrol, and a bank loan to pay for it.
The driving truths Americans hold to be self-evident are nowhere to be found in the Land of Hope and Glory. English traffic engineers appear blissfully unaware of grid systems and four-way stops. Using street names to navigate can only lead to despair. Someone saw fit to bolt all those placards to the sides of buildings, out of eyeshot where they wouldn’t spoil the view.
You couldn’t design a street plan like this without a hangover and a sense of humor. That centuries-old monument dedicated to King Somebodyoranother commands your immediate attention. As luck would have it, it’s in the middle of the road, and we’re heading straight for it. This marble relic has no patience for ambiguity. Choose sides. Left or right. NOW. No wonder we’ve been driving only ten minutes, and we’re already lost.
No matter. Losing your bearings doesn’t get much better than this. Stateside rental cars of that era were often shaped like soap bars and didn’t smell nearly as good. But in Old Blighty, even a mundane family saloon like this Ford Sierra could connect with your inner Schumacher.
For a kid raised on Tempos and Festivas, this shade of blue oval was nothing short of a revelation. The 1.6-liter mill wound out in ways that would have left many a bulkier Detroit four-banger for dead. The dash displayed Teutonic earnestness, controls placed where they should be. The shifter was nimble, albeit a bit awkward to an unfamiliar left hand. (Slam your customary shifting hand against the car door enough times, and you figure things out eventually.) While the passengers gawked at old buildings, my heel and toe enjoyed a workout on the roundabouts. This $4 gas was worth every pence.
Urban architecture gave way to suburbia, then to rolling verdant countryside as we barreled southward through Surrey toward West Sussex. The tourist office was kind enough to quarantine the English rain, replacing it with a glorious, warm sun. We’re not in Kansas anymore, and they’ve got the blacktop to prove it: tidy, properly paved tarmac, an invitation to dance. A Crown Vic would have been left flummoxed, but the Sierra remains composed, a willing partner for sharing this music.
We happen upon Arundel, a village known for a well-preserved castle doing double-duty as a tourist trap attraction and family home. (Note to self: Life in a drafty old house with a cover charge is overrated.) At the local café, my order of breakfast tea at 2PM was scandalous enough to unravel decades of Anglo-American diplomacy. At least we still had the car.
Back on the highway, I acquired a newfound appreciation for yellow paint. In the New World, we use it to separate opposing traffic from unplanned encounters. The Brits, however, reserve this shade to demarcate their omnipresent parking restrictions, preferring white striping for virtually everything else. Seemed like a harmless cultural difference, until a large lorry began playing chicken with us in what I could have sworn was my passing lane. With the aid of divine intervention, I hastily found fourth gear, redline and a slot on the left, barely avoiding a nasty rendezvous. One life down, eight to go.
Thankfully, the motorway spared us from further overtaking trauma. The limit was allegedly 70 mph, yet the natives took no notice. The speediest traffic easily surpassed the century mark, as slower members of the species respectfully dived out of the way. I had stumbled upon an exotic land where turn signals, courtesy and lane discipline were ways of life. As the lights of London loomed ahead on the M4, I prayed that I could be granted citizenship and a parking space.
But alas, that England is one for the history books. The new Cool Britannia is choking on the gristle of speed cameras, more speed cameras, congestion charges and $8 diesel. At this rate, it’s a matter of time before the Brits will have to pay just to think about driving.
Living in the past is looking like a better bet. It’s much faster there, and I can almost afford it.
BostonTeaParty on May 19, 2008
Ahhh the roads of blighty how my family misses them. Yes got to admit that road signs in the suburbs on corners of buildings or hidden by an over grown hedge is really annoying. However drivers back home tend to be able to drive, guess it's because of the rigurous testing you have to go through to get a licence. (couldn' believe how easy it was here, and there as we were worried about it when we came)I've driven through London and Paris where to say the least it's manic at best, but have never been as scared as when i've driven in the States, particularly Michigan. At least the UK has roads without potholes, the drivers can drive, use mirrors, indiscators, move over etc when they see a car coming behind them and not thinking its their god given right to drive in a particular lane. The place would be much better with a better testing system, some people should definately not be on the road. And what is it with americans and roundabouts? Everyone feels they have the right of way, no ones read a rule book obviously, but it is a brilliant piece of traffic management in the right locations. A good road to try if you ever go over to the UK is the new toll road that skirts Birmingham, hardly anyone uses it, fresh tarmac, its your best bit of open highway for fun impeded driving. But the list could goes on and i have work to do, so many good roads so little time!!
Joeaverage on May 19, 2008BostonTeaParty: However drivers back home tend to be able to drive, guess it’s because of the rigurous testing you have to go through to get a licence. (couldn’ believe how easy it was here, and there as we were worried about it when we came) Yes, easy indeed. I got my motorcycle license here in TN by passing a multiple choice test and a ride around the license center's parking lot with the state employee watching me for blinkers... I guess they figure you'll be dead in 10 miles if you really inept... FWIW The driver's license wasn't any harder. Can we talk about southern Italy now???? VBG! Racing through narrow Naples at 60+ mph on cobblestone streets. Short cuts by going the wrong way on one way streets... Driving on the sidewalk in my Beetle to avoid getting run over by a city bus... 100 mph+ on the cross town highway (Tangenziale). La Domitiana = four lanes of traffic with street vendors on one side and no formal traffic flow - drive where you fit and 50+ mph. Locals call it the death road b/c there have been so many fatalities... Roads that are SLICK b/c the aggregate used in the asphalt may contain marble. Now the good parts: roundabouts. I LOVE them. I know of two in TN. Well, three. We have one in our town but it's mostly decorative. Drivers who know a little something about driving fast. Drivers who know how to drive fast on the Autostrada without getting killed. Blink the high-beams to pass actually works. Left blinker means I'm in the fast lane and am really moving, stay out of my way. Large vehicles that actually STAY in the right most lane and operate at a reasonable speed (62 mph I think it was) instead of dominating the roads with heavy loads and poor handling/brakes. Driving 80 mph with a 1.2L engine, 120 mph with a 1.8L engine. Getting passed by a 135 mph VW Jetta with a VR6(?) Getting passed at 150+ mph by big Mercs and BMWs. Truly redefining what "performance vehicle" means by the experience... IOW a muscle car is not the pentacle of the motoring experience if you are trying to go somewhere fast.
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