My wife Cheryl and I settled on a two-week British adventure: one week in London and a second week driving around southern England.
Despite having driven in England once before, doubts started to creep into my thoughts about one minute after booking the trip. Would a 64-year-old brain still retain the ability to drive on the left acquired years ago? The answer turned out to be “sort of.”
At the end of our week in London, we picked up our car at Heathrow. All went swimmingly and we were soon sitting in a lovely little Kia Cee’d heading for the multilane M25 motorway.
I was still nervous and a little rusty. Cheryl, however, was very nervous being disoriented by the 180° switch in perspective and alarmed at my apparent inability to keep the car a safe distance from the curb.
After hearing “you’re too close, you’re too close!” several times, I seemed to be getting my bearings. But then, less than five minutes into our trip and about ten seconds after Cheryl encouragingly told me “you’re doing really well”, I missed a slight curve in the road and drove the Kia up and over a raised curb that punctured the left front tire.
The rapidly flapping and clanking sound coming from the left suggested we were now well beyond the flat tire stage and quickly verging on the driving on a rim stage. I finally stopped the car on a busy off ramp.
I got out and examined the left front tire which was no longer a tire but more a large black pretzel twisted around and over the wheel rim. What right-hand drive confidence I had possessed mere minutes ago had entirely dissipated and I was wishing for nothing more than a rescue from this motoring nightmare.
Luckily, the rescue came. Cheryl called the rental car emergency number and managed to arrange for roadside assistance. Within twenty minutes, not one but two Royal Automobile Club vans appeared to remove the dead tire and replace it with the temporary spare from the trunk.
Somehow we made it back to the rental car lot where we dropped off the crippled car, completed an accident report form and surprisingly were given another car to drive. We headed out again, this time with a brand new Ford Focus with all four tires. Before I knew it, we were on the M25 heading east.
Eventually, we made it to our first B& B in Hawkhurst, a small village in Kent. After a fitful night of sleep, I felt somewhat prepared for another day of driving. After all, we were staying in Hawkhurst for two nights and would only be making relatively short daytrips to local historical sites. I assumed the driving would be somewhat easier. It turned out I was wrong.
As we drove onto smaller and smaller roads, they became narrower as shoulders disappeared and were replaced by hedges, stone fences and hedge-covered stone fences. When we passed through small towns and villages, the navigating became even trickier with local vehicles parked right on the street.
Savvy drivers knew when they could make it unscathed past parked cars and, when they couldn’t, they stopped and waited for the opposite lane to clear before proceeding. I thought I was catching on to this space-judging thing until I errantly tried to squeeze by oncoming traffic and a line of parked cars taking up half my lane.
Just as Cheryl shouted “watch out!”, I heard a dull thud. Our passenger side mirror had taken a swipe at the driver’s side mirror of a parked car as we passed and I feared the worst. Luckily, both mirrors collapsed but didn’t break. Ours suffered nothing more than a slight black mark but my driving confidence took another big hit.
The next six days were a blur of narrow roads, roundabouts and hedge-covered stone fences but somehow I survived. At the end, thanks to Cheryl’s now expert navigating skills, I even managed to safely exit the M25 and find the rental car lot.
At first, I swore that I would never again attempt driving in England. Yet after a couple of weeks, like the mother who suffers through childbirth, I was quickly starting to forget the pain and stress of my British driving experience and entertaining the possibility of doing it again.
Why not? The next time we wouldn’t undertake as extensive an itinerary, we’d book a minimum of three nights at each B&B and Cheryl could take on some of the driving duties. Maybe we’d even rent a car right away after getting off the plane at Heathrow and drive straight to Cornwall in one five-hour mad dash. Then again…..
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