Okay, so you’re going to rent a car in Britain. And, okay, so they drive on the wrong side of the road. I mean, how hard could it be?
You might suspect the biggest problem would be all those cars rushing at you and by you on the right (wrong) side of the road (terrifying). Or you might suspect that the real problem would be your automatic reflexes in an emergency (suicidal). Then, too, you might worry about coping with oncoming trucks on those narrow roads (also terrifying). Or perhaps your greatest worry would be trying to cope with all that in the charming English weather (beyond fickle).
Actually, it is none of the above.
Oh, they are all real enough and give you a permanent we’re-not-in-Kansas-anymore angst. But, oddly enough, that’s not the part that constantly leads you astray and occasionally tries to kill you. Instead, it’s two elements that sound innocuous and bloody well aren’t: Signage and roundabouts.
Back in 1940, under imminent threat of Nazi invasion, the British took down their street signs to confuse the enemy. There are lots of propaganda pictures from that era, showing very nice finger post signs pointing to Exeter, Hull, or whatnot, being taken down by the local constable while the admiring citizens watch.
Let me tell you, they never got over it.
Maybe we’re just spoiled, but there are certain types of signage we expect. Like street signs on posts at the corner with one finger sign pointing up one street and another indicating the name of the cross street. Or like frequent signs on the highway telling you what highway you’re on, particularly after a major intersection. Or freeway signs that warn you of upcoming exit ramps long before they arrive and tell you where the roads go.
Let me tell you, if you want to get un-spoiled, just drive in England.
Street signs? Rare as hen’s teeth. And if they exist, they won’t be on posts at the corner. They’ll be some number of feet down the road, maybe high up on a house wall or low down where you haven’t a hope of reading them.
Should you find yourself on a highway, you’d better have a good GPS, because British highways are coyly anonymous, modestly disinclined to tell their names to complete strangers.
Off ramps will often have signs, but they are deliberately designed to be as useless as possible. Suppose you want to go to Runnymede, where the Magna Carta was signed. It’s just off one of the biggest freeways around London, but don’t expect a sign to tell you that. Instead, you’re likely to find a sign telling you that the ramp leads to either some little village you’ve never heard of (Puddleby-on-the-Marsh) or to some far distant city that the road eventually wanders to (say Bristol, over on the west coast). Neither will help you find Runnymede.
All of this might strike you as quite adequate to confuse the stout-hearted drivers and eliminate the weak ones.
But wait, there’s more.
Not content with missing and/or deceptive road signs, the treacherous British engineers invented their own version of the roundabout. If the word “roundabout” makes you think of some traffic circle around a grassy little park with roads radiating from it like spokes, where you may find yourself going around again and again to find your street, you’ve got the wrong picture.
Instead, try to imagine a random collection of different shaped islands (some just oblong speed bumps blocking intersections) where streets come in at any angle they please and the lanes painted on the road provide mere suggestions which every experienced driver ignores. You will soon learn that you will be lucky indeed if you happen to find one that lets you orbit around trying to pick out the right road. Instead, you will probably find yourself, willy-nilly, forced down some road that might, or might not, be going somewhere near where you wanted to go. Road signs? Don’t make me laugh. And if you have a GPS, get used to the sound of “Recalculating.” That’s the only clue that you’ve gone the wrong way.
Think I’m kidding?
Driving from Salisbury down to Dorset turned into a scenic tour of the lower half of England. I’ve never made so many wrong turns in my life. And since no road in England keeps going in any particular direction for very long, you can’t even guess if the new (wrong) road you are on will eventually lead you Zionward.
What happens is this: You see a sign for a roundabout you think you need. It is crowded with too much information and none that is useful. You enter the roundabout and find yourself unaccountably on the inside track, which means you probably can’t exit without changing lanes. You think the exit you want is coming soon, so you frantically try to move over. But some experienced driver, moving at twice your speed, wants to go there, too. He honks his horn (the English are remarkably free with their horns), causing you to swerve back and miss the turn. Now you want to go around again, but find yourself unaccountably fed off onto another exit at approximately 120 degrees from the direction you want to go. You look around madly for a street sign while your GPS happily sings out, “Recalculating.” Five miles down the road you finally find a wide spot where you can turn around. Back to the roundabout where you get to do it all again.
You may think I’m being a bit hard on British engineering, but I swear the roundabout was designed out of sheer bloody-mindedness. Don’t believe me? Then consider their masterpiece, the famous roundabout in Swindon that even the English can’t navigate. They call it “The Magic Roundabout” because once you enter it you never know where you’ll exit. It’s a big monster with five (count ’em, five) smaller roundabouts inside. I’d love to come up with a clever line to describe it, but I think I can’t do better than showing you its sign and a diagram of the real thing.
God Save the Queen!