Driving in Britain, Part Two
Town and country driving in the UK is an almost complete contrast to the motorway experience. For Britain’s town planners (and car park designers), the motor vehicle is, at best, an irritating and inconvenient afterthought. Many if not most of the UK’s towns and villages predate the combustion engine by several centuries at least. Some are older than the Romans (who, incidentally, invented driving on the left), who did their best to cut straight tracks whilst being continually harassed by naked, sword-wielding, blue-painted Barbarians (these folk, let’s not forget, were the ancestors of today’s British drivers).
Off the Beaten Track
Villages (another relative term, a village in Britain can have 30,000 people) mostly still reflect an age when it was considered incomprehensible that any town could possibly have TWO people who owned a cart for their horse, and roads are, consequently, only wide enough for one. Factor in the complete failure to consider any need to park on the sides, and driving through high streets, back lanes, and open countryside alike, becomes a matter of literally playing dodgems, at sixty miles an hour. I swear I’ve spent more time driving on the right-hand-side of the road in Britain than I have in continental Europe – when the entire left-hand lane is one long car park, there aren’t many other options.
Half-on and half-off the footpath is a fairly standard practice, even if it isn't very convenient for anyone at all - but what else are you supposed to do?
Impenetrable thirty-foot hedges spring perpendicular from the very edge of the tarseal, and by that I mean on both sides. It’s literally like being in a tunnel, and not a very wide tunnel at that. Dual-wheel tractors materialize from nowhere; when the tractor is 15 feet wide and the road is only 12, it doesn’t leave much room for passing (even if it does keep the hedges pruned).
Even new towns and subdivisions are built this way; it’s as if no-one has ever stopped to ask why. The idea that roads could actually be built wide enough, or that people might like to pull off them and park up every now and then, is a completely alien concept.
Fortunately, the same rules of politeness and etiquette apply; “you go first”, “no, you go first”, “thank you very much”, “up yours, knob head”, etc.
Don’t get me wrong, I love the Poms (a term of endearment used by Australasians to refer to British people in general, and the English in particular). But it has to be acknowledged that they drive like psychopaths. Courteous psycopaths, but psychos nonetheless. It’s a very strange dichotomy.
A first time visitor to Hong Kong might presume that all the taxi drivers there had learned their skills from the Portuguese, so….ummm….. flamboyant and assertive were their habits; however it's entirely plausible that they actually learned from the British.
On arrival in Britain, a newcomer could be forgiven for thinking that ‘Wyatt van Mann’ was an angry Dutchman, who quite a lot of English people knew. Turns out he’s actually ‘White Van Man’, a euphemism for anyone who drives a white van.
In this case, ‘anyone’ is typically white (like his van), male, comfortably if noticeably well-nourished, naturally or deliberately VERY short-haired, late thirty-something through to late fifty-something, usually a tradesman/delivery driver/Council employee who’s generally angry at the world, and more particularly angry at anyone daring to drive on HIS roads, mostly because they’re rubbish at driving, and out to get him.
Wyatt is fond of expressing his displeasure, and is equally at home with utilizing either fists or profanities to get his points across. Afterwards, he will customarily soothe his nerves with 17 or 18 pints of strong lager, before driving home to his very understanding wife.
Actually that last bit isn’t very typical. One thing the Brits genuinely frown on, as a nation, is drink-driving. Some of the realities of DUI in Britain are these:
1. You will get caught
2. You will go to jail for your first offence
3. Not even your best friends will be sympathetic, and everyone else will visit the prison to poke you through the bars with sticks.
The only reason towns and villages don’t have stocks for locking drunk drivers up and throwing rotten fruit at them anymore, is the LACK OF BLOODY PARKING needed for the crowds it would attract.
And no, a car park is a car park. It isn’t a car and doors park. That’s why, when you open said door, it crosses the white line into the next space. This becomes an issue when someone else is parked next to you, which is all the time. The painted lines are wide enough for a car – getting in and out of the vehicle is your own problem. Folding-in wing mirrors help, but no-one has yet invented folding in stomachs, and sometimes the maths just don’t stack up.
All that said, it’s still worth visiting. There’s a lot to see – if you dare take your eyes off the road.
- Richard Prosser