Friday, August 15, 2014


As you travel around Britain, you encounter all sorts of things that leave you scratching your head.  Take driving as an obvious example.

Now, I know that most folks from the States would rather jump off a cliff than try to drive in the UK because of the unsettling fact that in Britain they drive on the other  often referred to by Amer'cans as the "wrong" side of the road.  But that is simply a convenient way to avo
id the challenge of driving in a foreign land.

We had to get from London to Glasgow, Scotland over the course of five days.  We're talking about a distance of 500 miles.  And in England predicting the travel time from one town to another can get very, very sketchy.  On the major highways you can usually go sixty miles in one hour, no problem, just like in the States.  But as soon as you get off the motorways, all bets are off.  For instance, on the Isle of Mull, where we would end our vacation, it took an hour to go ten miles on a single track paved road.  My basic rule of thumb is that it will take you twice as long to get where you're going in Britain as it would in America.  So, sixty miles on an undivided road will probably end up taking you two hours, what with all of the twists and turns, the fact that the roads have no shoulders and are bordered by scary stone walls or hedges, and the cute little towns.

After leaving London, we planned on stopping at Cambridge, Lincoln Cathedral, York, Durham, and Edinburgh, so trains, planes, or even buses were not a viable option.

We needed our own car and ended up renting an automatic Volvo 70 from Hertz at their Victoria Station office.   It had been about ten years since I last drove a car in Britain. So essentially, it was like remembering to drive back-asswards again, starting in Times Square, because we had to navigate the four busiest parts of London  Piccadilly Circus, Buckingham Palace, Parliament and Westminster Abbey in order to catch the motorway on the north end of town.


Because we rented a car with a GPS  an absolute must for getting around Britain  and the happy English lady giving the audio directions on the state-of-the-art guidance system, who always said "please" before telling us where to turn, picked the most direct route north out of town, which was right through the heart of jolly old London at midday. 

It was a completely insane ride  like a scene from one of the "Cannonball Run" movies.   We had some close calls and a few irate drivers even leaned out of their windows and shook their fists and fingers at us in a rather threatening manner, but after about thirty minutes of white knuckle driving through chaotic London, we were on the three-lane M11 Motorway and heading for Cambridge about 70 miles away.   And like riding a bicycle, my twelve years of driving in Scotland  albeit many years ago  kicked in and I was soon driving 90 mph like the rest of the happy motorists around me and loving life.   Everyone was zipping along, some well over 100 mph, and I asked Inna if she had seen a speed limit sign.  
She looked a bit puzzled and said "No".

As far as we could tell, there were, in many stretches of the motorway, no rules, other than the right lane was the fast lane and you could go as fast as you like. 

Some of our American friends subsequently told us that the maximum speed limit throughout Britain is 70 mph, and some sections did indeed have the little round bulls eye speed limit signs with a 70 in the middle, but many long stretches of highway had absolutely no posted speed limit, while others had even bigger numbers.  So if there is a maximum speed limit, then it's a well kept national secret — then again, maybe they meant kilometers.  It all got a wee bit confusing.  The GPS lady used YARDS to describe distances, further muddying the metric system waters.  So, in the end, I just put the pedal to the metal and drove the length of England as the mood hit me, thoroughly enjoying the ride.
When we returned from our trip, I did a little bit of research on the whole British speed limit rules and it turns out that my American buddies were indeed correct.  The speed limit is 70 mph. (see below)
National Speed Limits
Type of vehicleBuilt-up areas mph (km/h)Single carriageways mph (km/h)Dual carriageways mph (km/h)Motorways mph (km/h)
Cars and vehicles (including dual-purpose vehicles and car-derived vans up to 2 tonnes maximum laden weight)30 (48)60 (96)70 (112)70 (112)
Cars towing caravans or trailers (including car-derived vans and motorcycles)30 (48)50 (80)60 (96)60 (96)
Motorhomes or motor caravans (not more than 3.05 tonnes maximum unladen weight)30 (48)60 (96)70 (112)70 (112)
Motorhomes or motor caravans (more than 3.05 tonnes maximum unladen weight)30 (48)50 (80)60 (96)70 (112)
Buses, coaches and minibuses (not more than 12 metres overall length)30 (48)50 (80)60 (96)70 (112)
Goods vehicles (not more than 7.5 tonnes maximum laden weight)30 (48)50 (80)60 (96)70 (112)
60 (96) if articulated or towing a trailer
Goods vehicles (more than 7.5 tonnes maximum laden weight)30 (48)40 (64)50 (80)60 (96)

But it really didn't seem to matter because no one paid any attention to speed limits out on the freeways.  Apparently the speed limit is based on the honor system, and many British motorists know what's best and tend to drive like it's a race.  After ten days of driving from London to Scotland, we never saw a cop or a speed trap.  And it was incredibly liberating. 

Think of how much money the Brits save by not having to constantly prowl virtually every roadway, pulling over innocent people all the time because they have exceeded some arbitrary speed limit?   Police are free to deal with real criminals, rather than lurk along the roadside like highwaymen.

 I'm sure most folks would say that our relentless traffic law enforcement in the States is really just a money generator for government in the form of perpetual speeding fines.   Like another highway tax on those who like to drive fast.

                       But how misguided and lame is that?

We make sleek, flashy cars that go 130 mph and market the whole speed thing in every commercial on television, and then we don't let drivers exceed 70 usually limiting speeds on most roads to a paltry 55 and turn a drive on every American highway into a constant vigil for police and their dreaded radar guns.   Always with the guns in the "land of the free".

And, of course, the party line would be that speed limits save lives. Which is equally lame because the Brits drive like bats out of hell and we never saw a single accident.  Apparently, they do have some really nasty crashes given the speeds, but still ...

The simple truth is that Brits are much better drivers than Americans. And as a result, they don't need to be treated like children by the law.

 Then again, we Yanks are probably still pretty much children  maybe "irresponsible teens" is a bit more accurate   and we are definitely in need of steady supervision  especially me  as evidenced by the fact that I got so turned around in York on the way to the Cathedral that I illegally drove us right through the narrow pedestrian shopping section of that Medieval city on a busy Friday afternoon when it was teeming with hordes of tourists, families pushing strollers, and geezers walking their little doggies.

We knew what we were doing was terribly wrong but once we went down the rabbit hole there was no turning back.   We were creeping along an ancient, cobblestone pathway, hemmed in by the weathered stone buildings, while the curious people parted in front of our Volvo like human waves.   And the pathway just got narrower and crazier until we came to some iron bollards that blocked our way.   We couldn't possibly turn around and we couldn't back out the route we had come in.   So, it was either abandon the vehicle or try and get around the bollards and continue our journey into the great unknown.

 I carefully snaked the car around the black and white post that was blocking our way, almost peeling off the right side of the Volvo on a granite church from the 13th Century, and we emerged into a crowded plaza with paths radiating off in different directions.  

Where to now? 

It was at that point the constable appeared, shaking his head sternly and waving for us to stop what we were doing immediately.
Inna rolled down the window and wailed, "We are SO sorry, but we got lost!"

I nodded dumbly.

The officer, a handsome, dark-haired gent in a tight-fitting black t-shirt, melted at the sound of Inna's obvious and sincere distress.  The Russian accent probably didn't hurt either.   He casually leaned into the passenger side window, resting his beefy arms on the edge of the door and said, "Where are you folks trying to get to?"

"A parking garage!" we both sort of wailed.

He smiled and proceeded to patiently direct us out of the pedestrian section of town to the Marygate parking lot near St Mary's Abbey.
As we thanked the incredibly nice policeman for his help, I asked him if he had ever seen someone do something so stupid.

He chuckled. "Well, I've never seen someone going in the wrong direction like you were heading.  And the bollards always stop them.   But not you.   So, no, I can not say that I have ever encountered a driver with such nerve and obvious determination."

He smiled and gestured for us to pass.

At no point in this comical exchange did a ticket or even a stern lecture come into play.   The constable was merely doing what I think we would ALL hope for and expect from our police, and that is to help us and keep us safe  not pounce on us, take money out of our pockets, or start in with a warning when we are in need of some assistance.

 And so I ask you: Would you agree that the British are indeed an enlightened bunch of people?

And if you still aren't convinced, I offer the following three prize winners for your consideration:

*  The Brits have roundabouts instead of traffic lights, so they don't have to spend a few weeks out of their lives each year sitting impatiently at red lights.

*  Their coffee is way better than anything we can brew.

*  And they serve a brilliant delight called a breakfast pizza.

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