Stay Left, Hug Right: Driving in the UK

 

If you want to venture outside of the cities and towns, you might need to rent a car. There are coach tours that take you around, which are a great way to see the country’s main attractions, but if you crave more independence and solitude, you can hire a car. 

The first time I drove in the UK was 1990. I was 20 years old without a fear in the world. I remember the novelty of driving on the left, and the biggest problem I had was when I turned a corner. My instinct and training wanted to bear right, so I had to keep repeating “stay left” to myself as I turned.

Other challenges were shifting, as it was a standard transmission. I was no stranger to standard transmission, as the piling bills of clutch repair over my first four years of driving had already piled up. Turns out I had a tendency to “ride the clutch.”

Still do.

At the time, I wasn’t worried about the clutch. I was focused on staying left while chatting with my dear friend Janet as we drove from London to Redding to Weston-Super-Mare to Bath to Stratford-Upon-Avon to Glastonbury. Perhaps if my mind had been more focused on driving, I wouldn’t have hit the door every time I reached out to shift gears.

The gearshift, of course, was on my left, not the right where I was used to it. Fortunately, the pedals are in the same place. From left to right: clutch, brake, gas. But the gearshift was on the left because I was on right side of the car, normally the passenger side.

The gearshift wasn’t the only thing to my left. Janet was also to my left. I’ll never forget her saying, “I can’t help noticing that where your car ends, I begin.” She said it with a light tone, but I’m sure she was concerned. As a Londoner, she didn’t drive, as there was no need with London’s excellent transit system. It was prohibitively expensive to own and keep a car, and it was a living nightmare to try to drive in London anyway.

Where my car ended. She began.

I did all right staying left, and after hitting the door with my right hand dozens of times, I finally remembered to reach left to shift. But the one thing I never got down on that trip was to hug right.

Even after 4 years of driving on the right-hand side (and moreso after 30 years) judging your position in a lane of traffic becomes second nature. Without conscious thought, a driver knows where the white line falls in their view. Oncoming traffic passes on the left without fear. Without thought, really.

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Narrow Roads

At 46, after driving in the UK a few more times in the past 25 yrs, I still have to repeat to myself: Stay Left, Hug Right. The roadways and lanes are very narrow, much moreso than in the States. Some country roads are only one lane! But even the city roads have narrow lanes, and the parked cars fill up half of the driving lane in many places. Navigating around them can be challenging.

When you’re on the opposite side of the car, you unconsciously position yourself as if you were still sitting on the left side, and this causes you to be far too far to the left side. When oncoming traffic passes on the right, no matter how far to the left you are, it still looks as if they are coming straight for you. Thus the mantra: Stay Left. Hug Right.

What you must remember is that you’re always closer to the left than you think. I’ve hit more than one curb that way. I’ve even dropped off a shallow shoulder due to driving too far to the left.

Similarly, you’re always further from the right than you think. After this past weekend of driving around the Scotland in all its magnificent glory, I had to visit a Physiotherapist to relieve the stress and tension caused by those three days of driving. For each time I was on one of those narrow roads (and there are many), where the lane is barely wider than the car, I clutched the steering wheel tightly to ensure it didn’t move an inch when an oncoming car passed me. My eyes darted from one side mirror to the other, ensuring the side of my car were within the white lines on either side while chanting (often outloud): Stay Left, Hug Right. Stay Left, Hug Right. Stay Left, Hug Right.

Once the car (or huge lorrie*) passed, I had to forcibly relax my shoulder and arms and remind myself to breathe again. It was ever worse at night, not to mention the near-constant rain and limited visibility.

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Roundabouts

One might call to mind European Vacation when Clark Griswold went around and around and around for hours because he just couldn’t get left. “Look kids! Big Ben! The Houses of Parliament!”
They’re actually one of the more pleasant parts of driving in the UK.

Janet taught me how to use my first roundabout. Basically, you stay left if you’re taking the first exit. If you’re taking the second or third exit, you enter the roundabout into the inside lane and move into the left lane right before your exit.

Easy peasy.

Driving Speeds

Perhaps it’s because of my relative discomfort and anxiety driving in the UK, but those around me seem to be driving really, really fast. Come to think of it, even  in London when I’m walking, I notice how fast people drive. Ever ridden in a Black Cab? Let’s put it like this: when the cabbie gets you to your destiation you will fall to your knees and kiss London’s cobblestones, thanful you survived the journey.

You get the idea.

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Stormy Weather

As I mentioned above, it rains here. It rains a lot. I mean, virtually nonstop. November in Scotland is very wet and very grey, just the way I like it, actually. Still, it makes the harrowing driving expeience even more intense.

More dark clouds and rain come out of nowhere.

I love every minute.

Lost in the Cities

Frankly, it wasn’t so bad on those narrow roads in comparison to the cities. It took me 2.5 hours to drive 30 miles from Edinburgh to Milnathort. The first 90 minutes was getting lost in Edinburgh, taking wrong turn after wrong turn. Even though I was following my iPhone map, I wasn’t familiar enough with the road markings and signage. After all, it had been 15 yrs since I last drove a standard transmission on the left side of the road.

Plus, there is no parking! If you happen to pass that elusive empty parking space, it’s on the opposite side of the road across oncoming traffic.

On the way to Loch Lomond for a Sunday hike, I got lost in Glasgow.  With no more data for directions, a dying iPhone, and desperately in need of a loo, I decided I’d have to stop to regroup. After driving in circles for 30 minutes looking for a parking place,  I saw one! I actually parallel parked with relative ease and grace, and I rushed to Starbucks to use their facilities, WiFi, and electricity while enjoying a cappuccino. However, I failed to notice that I had parked in a disabled space, an oversight that cost me £30.

Needless to say, my plan to hike Loch Lomond by that time was impossible to realize. It was nearly 1pm, and Loch Lomond was still a 90-minute drive. I wouldn’t get there until 2:30, and it starts to get dark at 4pm in November. I’d be driving home in the dark again, something I didn’t want to repeat from the previous day, so I just took the car back to Edinburgh a day early and cut my losses. 

Cost of Petrol

Even with prices soaring near $4/gallon at times on the West Coast, gas is cheap in the USA. Seriously, we don’t know how good we have it. It likely has to do with our politics and wars around oil, but I won’t digress into a political tirade.

Petrol* in the UK is sold by the litre instead of the gallon. Currently, petrol costs between £1.09 and £1.17 per litre. There are 3.8 litres to the gallon. The current exchage rate is $1.52 to £1.00.

That translates into £4.14 – £4.45 per gallon, or $6.29 – $6.76 per gallon. It costs £50 to fill up a compact car’s fuel tank, equalling $76.

Seriously.

In short, take the bus and train whenever possible. 

More Transportation Tips

  • Don’t drive in London. Ever. It’s not only an exercise in frustration, it’s dangerous, too.
  • In fact, I’d extend that to any city in the UK. At the very most, rent a car there and beeline out of town.
  • Better yet, take the bus or train to a car rental location on the outskirts. The extra few £s is well worth the saved frustration.
  • Don’t solely rely on your smart phone navigation. There are many areas in girl Scotland there is no service whatsoever. Plus, you blow through your data.
  • Carry food and water with you, as those things are few and far between in the Highlands and countryside.
  • Bring a car charger for your phone.

*lorrie = commercial truck

*petrol = gasoline

Note: pictures in this most are some of the things that I saw on my driving tour through the lower part of the Highlands. They include Glencoe, Milnathort, Loch Eil, Glenfinnan, and Edinburgh.

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