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Staying alive while driving in England

Jetlagged, but ready to hit the road, Doug Belknap at the AVIS counter at Heathrow Airport.  Barbara Belknap
Barbara Belknap
Jetlagged, but ready to hit the road, Doug Belknap at the AVIS counter at Heathrow Airport.

This summer was all about travel. We signed up for a Grand Circle Travel boat trip from Honfleur to Paris on the Seine, a pre-trip tour of London and a post-trip tour of Paris. Our plan was to go to England a week early, rent a car, see the sights, and then join our tour in London. A highlight would be a few days in Tottington, north of Manchester, to meet my husband Doug’s distant relatives on his grandmother’s side. So, it was to be seven days of touring, genealogy, and fun.

I ripped out the two pages of Great Britain from our Rand McNally “Atlas of the World”, taped them together to make one map, and got out my Sharpie. Stonehenge just outside London. Circle. Bath to the southwest. Check. Doug’s relatives in Tottington north of Manchester. Circle. The walled city of York to the northeast. Check. Stratford-Upon-Avon near London. Circle. The route made a nice little loop around England. We could do all this and have plenty of time to look around London before our tour started.

I called our friend Patricia to run it by her. She and her husband, Tony, live in England part of the year, and have family there. I read off my itinerary. Patricia sounded concerned, “Now, Barb, it’s not the same as in the states. It can take longer to get places.” I said, “Yes, but according to Mapquest, it’s only a few hours from London to Bath.” Patricia, steady, but insistent, “Outside the motorways, the roads are narrow and it just takes longer.”

Heaven knows she tried. Tony was thrilled that we were going to his homeland, and he also cautioned us that driving on the opposite side of the road in England can be a challenge for Americans. Both wished us a wonderful trip. I didn’t change the plan one bit, and added Oxford University and, for good measure, Highclere Castle, where the PBS series “Downtown Abbey” is filmed.

Doug reserved a compact car with AVIS (petrol is about $10 a gallon in England), and made sure it was an automatic. He also ordered a GPS and paid $115 for it. I suggested we could use a good old-fashioned map, but he insisted, saying that he didn’t want to depend on a map in a different country. The word here is “prescient”.

We arrived at Heathrow Airport around 10:00 a.m., rumpled, sleepless, and jetlagged. We retrieved our two suitcases and caught the Tube to AVIS. The place was so familiar, even if the accents were different. I grabbed a couple of maps off the counter while Doug inspected our little burgundy Peugeot. He noted some scratches on the front left side of the car and several dents in the front left hubcap. The rest of the car was pristine. The AVIS guy initialed the paperwork, we loaded our suitcases in the “boot”, and smiled at each other. Our long-awaited adventure had begun.

Anxious to get on the road, Doug handed the GPS to me, started the car, and headed for the exit. Now, I have used our Garmin GPS many times, but this little Tomtom GPS had no resemblance whatsoever to ours. Doug is now on some kind of ring road out of the airport, asking, “Where’s my exit?” Still pushing buttons, I answered, “I don’t know yet. Take any road that says West.” A little anxious now, Doug asked, “What does the GPS say?” Me, “Nothing! I can’t figure out how to work it, but go west. Stonehenge is west of London.”

By now, we were on a freeway called M-something. Doug asked, “What’s next? What does it say?” I pushed all the Tomtom’s buttons that seemed relevant, could feel Doug’s anxiety, panicked, and punched “Reset to factory settings”. Up popped what looked like the Russian alphabet, but could have been any Eastern European language. Blimey.

I grabbed the AVIS map and started figuring out where we were, and where we needed to be to get out of the Heathrow vortex, and on our way to Stonehenge, which was a mere two inches on the map kind of southwest of London. When the next sign came up on the Motorway, I said, “Go west!” Doug asked, “You’re sure?” In my most self-assured voice, I said, “Absolutely.”

We drove west on M4, a roadway with exit signs for villages, but no road signs saying “Stonehenge”, or telling us if we were even on the right track. We stopped in Andover at a Kentucky Fried Chicken (really) for lunch, where we had our first encounter with two-way traffic and roundabouts. We went round and round on that roundabout. Later, when we were back on the motorway, I tried to joke that we went “over Andover and over”, but it was too soon to be funny.

We found our way to M4 West, then crested a hill and there were the iconic monoliths of Stonehenge right off the motorway. It was amazing to actually see those huge stones in person, so to speak, and try to imagine how they got there. After taking lots of pictures and some photos of a lovely Indian family at their request, we got back on M4 and started looking for the exit to Bath. We had a reservation at a B&B there and were more than ready to stop moving.

This is where we segued from the motorway to the picturesque country roads of rural England. Glued to the little map, I would call out the exit I thought was right. Then we would pull over at the first opportunity to make sure we were still going the right way. I was so wrong so many times that we spent a lot of time going over hill and dale trying to find our way back to the motorway.

After it just got too ridiculous, Doug pulled over, took the Tomtom, and got it working in just a few minutes. I took back all the bad things I’ve ever said about using a GPS, and the Tomtom and I became inseparable.

Remember the hullaballoo years ago over the roundabout in Douglas? Roundabouts in England can have from four to eight exits, and they are everywhere. (Patricia told me after we got back to Juneau that there are even roundabouts within roundabouts. Thank heavens, we didn’t encounter those.) The roundabouts showed up on the Tomtom as wheels with the spokes poking out. The correct exit would be in white. She would warn us they were coming, tell us which exit we needed, then guide us into the vortex, and spit us out the other side. My job was to count, “One, two, three, four, NOW!”

All the while we were moving along, I was nervously watching the curb and shrubbery on my side of the road, and Doug was watching got traffic coming at us at breakneck speed on the right side and from behind. He was nervous. I was nervous. We were both exhausted by then, but adrenalin was keeping us on high alert. The only calm one in the car was the woman in the Tomtom.

The streets in the villages were narrow. Ancient farmhouses had barns so close to the road that they had yellow caution signs on them. We scraped curbs. We hugged curbs. We noticed that many of the villages had little cement jetties that forced one lane of traffic to stop and wait until the coast was clear before they could proceed. Some had a mailbox or a fire hydrant on the jetty, but the purpose was clear – SLOW DOWN. That first day was harrowing.

As Patricia told me later, many of the roads in England are paved over the original Roman roads. They could easily accommodate horses, ox carts, wagons, or chariots, but two hurtling automobiles, or heaven forbid, trucks coming at each other is another thing entirely. Last week, a woman told me that even the English tourists do something called “finger mapping”. One person keeps their finger on the map at all times tracing the route. This woman also told me that when she and her husband rented a car in Italy, the roads were so narrow that their rental car got stuck between two walls. So, it could have been worse.

We finally made it to Bath that evening. Patricia was so right. The two to three hours I thought it would take to get from the airport to Bath ended up being closer to six hours. Lesson learned. Then we got lost looking for our B&B. Even with the GPS and stopping for directions twice, we could not find it. If we had been five years old, we would have been throwing tantrums and refusing to budge another inch, but we finally got to our B&B, and the owner was very sympathetic, “The roads are all higgledy piggledy. Nobody thought to use a grid in those days.” Ah, how true that turned out to be everywhere we went.

After our third day in England, we had become used to driving “on the wrong side of the road”. We had a few close encounters coming face to face with a shocked driver, but no wrecks. Nobody was rude about it. There was nothing about us or the car that said “Tourists”, but they all knew just the way we often can spot a tourist off the cruise ships from a local in our downtown.

While I loved the countryside and the bucolic villages, my blood pressure and heart rate stayed normal when we traveled on the excellent British motorways with four lanes of traffic all going in the same direction, albeit a lot faster (90-100 mph) than we were used to driving. The rest areas were a far cry from ours with their gas station and convenience stores. Each British rest stop was a little oasis with Starbucks or Costa Coffee (the British chain), and Marks & Spencer grocery stores. Britain has by far the coolest rest stops we have ever seen.

After we left Stratford-Upon-Avon, I scratched Oxford and Highclere Castle off the list, and we headed back to Heathrow Airport and AVIS. When we pulled into the AVIS lot to return the Peugeot, Doug started to say something about the scratches on the left front and the dents in the hubcap, but the guy just waved us on.

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