Driving in the U.K.

I just got back from my four week Ireland and England trip, and I know you are all wondering: what were the roads like?!

I spent nearly two weeks exploring the British countryside with four friends in a massive rental car. I maneuvered a boat-size Toyota Avensis up tiny mountain roads, through narrow stone passageways, across busy highways (or, “carriageways”), and in and out of city parking lots (“car parks”). It’s probably a miracle I covered over 900 miles in relative safety.

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Many roads in the U.K. are lined with stone walls, like this one in Wales.

So what is it like driving in England? Here are some of my observations:

It’s really easy to get the correct documents because… there aren’t any. Did you know you do not need an international drivers license to drive in the U.K.? Because Ireland, England, and Wales are English-speaking countries, you do not need an international drivers license. All you need is your up-to-date American license.

Driving on the other side of the road is like getting your permit all over again. Driving on the “wrong side of the road” (the left side) is harder than it looks. It’s not simply driving on the other side of the road. You have to get used to the fact that you have an additional four feet of car on the left of you. You, the driver, are on the “wrong” side of the car. My friend in the front seat: “Wall. WALL! We’re getting close to the WALL!” It’s like I was 15 all over again.
It takes a bit to orient yourself to the left side of the road. Because I was sitting on the right side of the car, I found it hard to line up my car between the middle line and the left shoulder. The other disorienting thing was making right-hand turns. In the U.S. we get used to only looking one way (to the left) when turning right. But in the U.K., a right-hand turn is equivalent to a left-hand turn, where you have to look both ways because you are crossing a lane of traffic. Once, I pulled out to turn right, and mid-way through the intersection, I realized I forgot to look both ways! Thankfully, no one was coming!
They say that Americans driving in the U.K. find the third day to be the worst day. At first everything is new and exciting, and your concentration is at its peak. But by the third day, you’re starting to relax, yet you’re not totally accustomed to the roadway system, and this is when mistakes are made. For me, the left side didn’t seem normal until the second week.

The traffic signals aren’t hard to figure out, but navigation is impossible without a GPS. One note I will make about road signs is that in Ireland and Wales they are all bilingual. Besides English, there is Gaelic in Ireland and Welsh in Wales. It’s all very culturally interesting to read the languages, but it can be very distracting if you are the driver because you have to wade through a lot of text.
Another observation is that the roads are poorly marked in the rural areas and even in some cities. Also, carriageway signs do not feature a direction (North, South, East, West) but simply the nearest big city in that direction. Which is great if you are familiar with the location of all British cities. (I’m not.) We bought an atlas, but we ended up not using it because our car had a built-in GPS. However, the GPS had no input for a street address, so we were left to simply punching in the town name and following tourism signs once we arrived (or asking the local friendly pub owner for directions). Once we arrived at our destination, parking was always an issue. You can park on the street, but there are very specific laws and special markings (double lines, single lines, yellow lines) that mean the parking is/not/sometimes allowed. (?) We found it easier to just find a nearby “car park” and pay the parking fee so as not to incur a ticket. My favorite parking memory: ordering pork steak at the Roman Baths Kitchen, then huffing a half mile back to the car park to put five more pounds in the parking meter so we wouldn’t get a ticket. Bonus: by the time I got back from my hurried walk, my pork steak was ready.
One last note: WE DID NOT DRIVE IN LONDON. No one drives in London. Just to be clear. Park north of the city and take the Tube in.

In cities, the street signs are attached to buildings rather than poles in the ground. Baker Street, London.

The roads are in good repair, but why are they so narrow?! I know, I know. Everything is just “bigger” in America. Let me tell you, the streets in the U.K. are narrow! Which is why they drive smaller cars. But this here American was traveling with four other people with weeks worth of luggage, so she rented a mid-size car. My knuckles whitened, gripping the wheel, as I slowly climbed up mountain roads in Wales, ancient stone walls inches from my mirrors on either side. (If you ever meet another car on these roads, you either squeeze off to the side, or one of you backs up to the nearest passing spot, a place in the road where a car can pull off to let the other car pass.) It was my luck that I met a bus on this steep road. I tried backing up, but there was a car behind me. Some of my friends hopped out and tried to help me back into this little open area by a nearby building. We were all yelling and motioning, and then I hear a $$$$$ scraping on the car. (Later, we learned it was only scraping on the muffler, not the bumper. What a relief!) I recommend renting a European size car if you can manage.

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Steep, narrow cobblestone streets in the little town of Haworth, Charlotte Brontë’s hometown.
Small cars for narrow roads. Jane Austen House Museum, Chawton, Hampshire, England.

On speeding: no one drives the speed limit, and there are never any police cars in sight. None. I never saw one. That said, there are traffic cameras everywhere in the city, so you should obey/disobey speeding laws at your own risk. (Our rental car had a built-in traffic camera sensor, hee hee hee.) I finally resorted to keeping up with traffic only for safety’s sake, but I’m still watching my mailbox for a send-out ticket.

Watch out for reintegration. Coming back to the States, I thought driving on the right side again would be no problem. I was pulling out for church one morning, and I automatically turned left without looking right. Suddenly, I remembered half-way through my turn that a left-hand turn is once again crossing a lane of traffic, and I need to look both ways! Thank the Lord no one was coming! Right after the turn, I had this terrifying moment where I had no idea which side of the road to drive on! It was a very funny disorienting feeling! When reentering the U.S., make sure that you take the time to look both ways.

Happy driving!


5 thoughts on “Driving in the U.K.”

  1. Oh, yes, we recognize these things. Especially your last paragraph . . . who would have thought it would be an adjustment to drive after getting back to the US?!? Crazy, but true. I’ve loved reading about your trip. But it makes me miss you!

  2. I thoroughly enjoyed your trip posts!! Sounds so familiar. In 2012, I went on a 4-week trip to Ireland, England, Scotland, Wales & Poland with a sister and 2 friends. I blogged about it in case you care to read it. Check the Europe tags. My sister drove in England and Ireland. What a hoot! I helped with the navigating so I was the one in the passenger seat occasionally worried that I was going to get scraped onto the stone walls along the narrow roads. 🙂

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