One of the reasons we travel to other countries is to enjoy experiences that are different from our regular day-to-day. This statement might conjure images of mysterious mountain temples shrouded in mists, sparkling azure surf rolling onto white sand beaches, or ancient tribal dances conducted under savannah stars. But today I’d like to tell you about a recent experience that might sound mundane, but which brings with it thrills, chills and a profound respect for another culture: driving on the wrong side of the road.
So there I was, in rural England, being handed the keys to the rental car charged with transporting my family around on our two-week vacation. It was a fine machine, a Ford Kuga (similar to the Escape available here in North America), with a throaty diesel engine and six-speed manual transmission. I’d enjoyed the smooth ride down from London the day before – comfortable in the hands of my English born and raised wife at the wheel – and was eager to take the conn myself. I belted up, adjusted my mirrors, and hit the road.
Now, the definition of “road” is a flexible thing in England. Out in the country where we were, deep in rural Devon, the road leading away from our house was honestly little more than a muddy cart track. And the roads that it led to were, in every direction, strips of raw asphalt barely wider than a single car, with no shoulder and massive hedgerows that grew ten feet high on either side. This in itself would have been okay, except for the fact that these roads were two-way: that is, cars could appear from the other direction at any time. Did I mention that there were no shoulders and ten-foot-tall hedgerows that grew right from the edge of the asphalt?
Oh, and did I mention also that the legal speed limit on these roads is 60 miles per hour? (Yes, my Canadian friends, that’s 100 km per hour.)
So not only was I hurtling as fast as I dare down this rural labyrinth, with leaves rustling against both wing mirrors and the ever-present threat of oncoming traffic appearing around the next blind corner with the closing speed of your average sea-skimming anti-ship missile, I was doing it with really no sense of where my vehicle was in space.
Let me explain. Here in North America we drive on the right. The UK is one of many countries in the world where cars drive on the left, or wrong, side of the road. Not really an issue on the Devon back lanes no wider than two Roman ponies pulling a cart. But a corollary to this is that I was seated in the driving position on the right side of the car. The pedals were the same, the wheel was the same. Operating the gear stick with my left hand wasn’t too hard. But instead of the great mass of my car extending naturally away to the right of me as it would back home (and which all my driving instincts expected) it now spread out most unnaturally to the left, and with my eyes riveted dead-ahead for hairpin turns, ambushes by oncoming cars, and random foxes, sheep and cows, there was no way I could keep looking to my left to get a sense of how far my car actually extended. The rustling of brush against the passenger mirror was a good indication I was too far over, as were the occasional hisses of fear from my wife/navigator, but these were hardly reassuring.
Star Wars fans will understand when I say that it was very much like driving the Millennium Falcon. I felt like I was perched out in this little cockpit on the starboard side of a massive vehicle hurtling through wild, dangerous territory. The rolling hills of Devon were transformed into a life and death struggle between the hedgerows, akin to an asteroid field or the interior of an under-construction Death Star. Strangely, I took comfort in this, reached deep within to channel my inner Han Solo, and pressed down on the accelerator.
How did things turn out? Stay tuned…
Continued in – Mayhem, Mistakes and Mastering the Motorway
Typical Devon Road by Bennett R. Coles – All Rights Reserved
Map of UK from Wikipedia
Avoidance Manoeuvre © Lewis Clarke – All Rights Reserved