Driving in England: A Yank’s Perspective

Driving in England. Photos by Mary Charlebois
Driving in England. Photos by Mary Charlebois

You won’t believe how bad my driving was in England

By Mary Charlebois

On a 30-day road trip in England, I drove alone on the backroads of Herefordshire, Shropshire, Cornwall, and Kent.

Narrow streets and stone walls in Ludlow Shropshire England
Narrow streets and stone walls in Ludlow Shropshire England

It’s a landscape of fields, livestock pastures, farm buildings, and woodlands.

Narrow country lanes are bordered by hedgerows and stone walls.

The earth is golden with late summer grain, or green with rows of potato leaves, asparagus, or corn.

Apple and pear orchards are frequent. An occasional farm stand sells fruit, vegetables, flowers, honey, and eggs. Payment is made in an honor box.

Cattle graze, sheep forage.

Micro-Villages of Stone Cottages

You pass through micro-villages of stone cottages, or a small town with a pub and food shop. Patches of woodlands shelter the hillsides. Occasionally a river rolls under a one-lane, arched-stone bridge. The word bucolic was coined for these agrarian landscapes.

Those scenic drives were incredible, but at times, took years off my heart. You haven’t lived until you stare down a modern hay combine on a ten-foot-wide road with a stone wall on one side and a twelve-foot hedgerow on the other.

My journey would have been easier had I prepared a little. I’m a good driver and an excellent navigator. I didn’t give England driving preparation a second thought—that is until I was sitting in the seat of a right-hand drive, standard-shift Vauxhall, driving in the left lane through London.

My biggest glitches…

-I didn’t anticipate how different the road signs would be.

-Google GPS often seemed as lost as I was.

-Shifting gears with my left hand was challenging.

-I wasn’t prepared for the total panic I would feel when seeing an oncoming car in the right lane

…and how I could have avoided them

In this case of “Do as I suggest, not as I did,” I have some recommendations for knowing the rules of the road, staying calm, avoiding repair bills and expensive parking tickets.

Rent the smallest car

that will hold your party and luggage, especially if you plan to drive off the thruway on secondary roads, they can be narrow to incredibly narrow.

A small car fits the road and makes for easier passing oncoming cars. I used Rentalcars.com. They are a car booking site similar to Expedia, but for autos. They search for all rental car companies for you and show all the prices and terms.

When I had a question that wasn’t answered on the site, I telephoned and spoke to an extremely helpful customer service rep. The site is easy to use and there are no ‘surprise fees’. website

Steering wheel on right, drive on the left.
Steering wheel on the right, drive on the left.

Get an automatic—even if you’re an Indy champ and can change gears like Andretti.

Left-handed shifting is distracting, it takes time to adjust.

Tea-time on the Thruway in rural England.
Tea-time on the Thruway in rural England.

Use thruways for longer distances when possible. They are well maintained and well-marked. Traffic moves fast, but can be very congested around urban areas.

You’ll find fuel and eats along the way. Some major highways have large service areas that have petrol stations, shopping centers, food courts, hotels, and picnic areas.

Country roads and lanes are beautiful but can be tough to navigate when you first arrive. Take your time, stop for tea or a photo op.

Road signs. Signage can be a real challenge for Americans. There are many types of signs for the same instruction. Some signs are small and hard to see. A navigator in the passenger seat will be a great help.

Direction signs in Shrewsbury Shropshire England
Direction signs in Shrewsbury Shropshire England

Study, then test your knowledge of English road signs HERE. (There is a phone app also.) You will be glad you did. There are hundreds of signs that are symbols only—no words. For example, what do these mean? (Answers at the end of story)

Sign A
Sign A
Sign B
Sign B
Sign C
Sign C

Navigation – Use GPS. SatNav, or Satellite Navigation, is the common English name.

Have GPS available and working when you pick up your car. You will need it immediately.

On a Smartphone, consider using the Waze APP. It seems better acquainted with English roads than Google was. Several London taxi and Uber drivers recommended it highly. website

On Amazon, I found a SIMMS card from 3-Network. I installed it in an old Smartphone. It worked very well and cost about $40 for a month.

Check into GPS rental units that can be shipped to you, used in Europe then you ship back via return package. One of the companies I found, AutoEurope, has units available for $1 per day. website

GPS is an option installed in some rental cars, but it can be pricey.

Roundabout in Cornwall England
Roundabout in Cornwall England

Roundabouts – The source of great anxiety until I got them figured out, they are common and unfamiliar to Yanks. The first rule – keep to the right on the roundabout until you need to change lanes and exit. Second rule, if you miss your exit, go back around and try again.

Fuel station on English Thruway.
Fuel station on English thruway.

Petrol (fuel) is costly and not always easy to find on country roads. On thruways petrol stations are frequent and accessible.

Parking – Expect to pay for parking. Be prepared with cash, although many lots take plastic. Parking is inexpensive outside cities. Park there and take a train or bus.

Parking on the outskirts of villages and historic districts may be necessary. Some have streets so narrow, modern autos can’t squeeze through.

Narrow streets of Bishop's Castle in Shropshire England
Narrow streets of Bishop’s Castle in Shropshire England

Don’t drive in cities, especially London. Parking is hard to locate and the cost is exceptionally high. London traffic is notoriously snarled.

Also, you will pay extra tariffs on your rental car for driving in the city. Instead, from your arrival airport, take the train into the city. From the station, walk or taxi to your hotel.

When you move on, take the train to your first destination outside a city and pick up your rental car there.

Car service from airports may seem expensive but can be a bargain in the long run if you consider the cost of a rental, parking, fuel,  and city terrifs.

SuperShuttle has several options available from Shared Ride vans to private Black Car Service. website

In London, take a taxi.
In London, take a taxi.

Insurance – Be sure you and the vehicle are covered. If you have an accident or theft, chances are your American insurance will not cover you. Check with your insurance company and with your credit cards that offer extra insurance for rentals.

I was covered under my Allianz annual traveler’s policy. Good thing, I was a hit and run victim in a tight parking lot. Allianz helped me get the info I needed to file my claim and worked with Hertz to settle the $1900 owed for damages. website

Driver licenses – Be sure your US driver’s license from your home state is up to date and will not expire while you are out of the country. Consider an International Driver’s License. Some rental car companies require it. They are around $20 at AAA offices in the US. It makes a good backup ID when needed.

Take it easy, breathe deep, and carry on. England has some of the loveliest country roads and lanes you’ll encounter anywhere. Do some homework, get the right car, and you’re in for the drive of a lifetime.

SIGN QUIZ – SIGN A: National speed limit applies   SIGN B: No Motor Vehicles   SIGN C: No overtaking (passing)

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