When Right is Wrong ... (Canadians Driving in England - Part I)

The next few posts aren't so much about living in Doha, they're more about some of the inane types of things Doha-ites may do on their travels when they escape the summer heat ... (so to any readers who were hoping for Doha trivia please accept my apologies in advance).

Every June, the very morning after Kiddo’s last day of school, we escape the summer furnace heat in Doha by embarking on an indulgent vacation (read ‘Maldives’) or a long haul trip (classified as a gruelling 12+ hours flight, as in back to Canada, the Far East or Australasia).

This year, for a number of reasons, including restricted leave period and a depleted vacation budget due to my two trips back to Canada this winter, we opted for a 10-day vacation to South England, Wales, and Ireland, neither exotic nor long haul, with no pre-planned itinerary.

We landed in London at noon, already exhausted by the 3:00 a.m. wake-up call and 7-hour sleepless flight, but energised by the thought of work-free leisurely days ahead.  

Though the Customs agent at Passport Control was a little surly at first, he seemed to warm considerably as he enquired into the purpose of our trip (leisure/escape) and our plans for this holiday.

As Smilin’ Vic explained our intention to drive to Exeter that very afternoon, a slightly evil smile masked as British hospitality began to spread across the agent’s face.  ‘Planning on taking the A303 then, are you?’ he asked.  ‘Yes, answered Smilin’ Vic, we’ve booked a room at the Woodleigh Coach House.  How long a drive is it?’

 The Woodleigh Coach House, just outside Exeter.

The Woodleigh Coach House, just outside Exeter.

‘Well that would depend on how fast you’re going’, answered the ever-so indulgent evil agent.  ‘Have you driven in England before?’

Smilin’ Vic assured him that he had, about 20 years ago.  The Customs agent’s smile stretched out just that little bit further as he wished us well and said the drive should take about three hours.

We went straight to the car rental booth at Heathrow, paid up, and were given instructions to jump onto the green Enterprise Rental bus that would bring us to the car rental park 20 minutes away.

Neither we nor the driver of the green bus had the wherewithal to note that we carried an ‘Enterprise’ voucher as we boarded the ‘Entourage’ Rental bus.  We were whisked away and dropped off 20 minutes later.  Smilin’ Vic stood in line for 10 minutes waiting to exchange his voucher for a car key before being informed that we were in fact at the wrong rental zone and that he would have to walk 1/2 a mile away to the Enterprise pick-up location.  

Thirty minutes after lugging our bags across the way and finally securing our rental vehicle, we headed off to Exeter.  ‘Left is right’ became our new mantra as we navigated a roundabout going the wrong way no more than 20 meters into our trip.  Smilin’ Vic asked me to remind him to stick to the left shoulder, and I hyperventilated for the next 10 minutes as we repeatedly banged against the left-hand curb like a bumper car gone mad at the local county fair.

Kiddo was in hysterics as I chanted ‘left, left, left, CURRRRRB’ non-stop.  We finally got onto the M3, relieved to have found a stretch of road where all cars were headed in the same direction and there was a soft shoulder we could hug the left fairly safely (which in the UK, by the way, is the ‘slow’ lane).

 Finally on the M3, where left is still wrong to a Canadian ...

Finally on the M3, where left is still wrong to a Canadian ...

Finally out of London, about 40 minutes later and what seemed like 100 km (was probably more like 10, and technically not even OUT of London), we decided to stop, rest and grab a bite to eat to calm our nerves in Slough.  Big mistake.  Navigating our way precariously down the town lane, at one point we just naturally navigated to the right … because right is right, right?  

 I found myself yearning for the days of Yore as I re-considered our decision to spend the next few weeks driving at breakneck speed down one lane roads with a newfound respect for the expression 'right is right'.

I found myself yearning for the days of Yore as I re-considered our decision to spend the next few weeks driving at breakneck speed down one lane roads with a newfound respect for the expression 'right is right'.

Wrong!  If you’re in England, very, very wrong.  As we realised about 20 seconds into cursing the stupid HUGE white trolley barreling down on us, blaring horns and flashing lights.  Just plain wrong.  Fast forward to a rapid ‘so-close I smelled the oncoming vehicle’s paint job’ sweep to the left and all was again ‘right’ with the world.

We found a local pub quickly after that, relished in the fish n’ chips and relaxed atmosphere, then headed back off, sure we had covered a great distance and probably had no more than 2 hours’ drive ahead of us.

 We ordered fish 'n chips; Kiddo ordered Mac 'n Cheese.  Smilin' Vic had warned me about fried toast in England, but never would I have dreamt that it was possible to fry macaroni!!!!!

We ordered fish 'n chips; Kiddo ordered Mac 'n Cheese.  Smilin' Vic had warned me about fried toast in England, but never would I have dreamt that it was possible to fry macaroni!!!!!

In reality, we’d probably covered about 1/8 of the distance, and on the best bit of highway to boot.  What we quickly came to realise was that the more numbers the road had, the narrower and more perilous it became, i.e. M3 being 6-lane motorway, A303 being ‘barely there’ dual carriageway.

What became even more evident was that miles in England cannot be calculated using any actual logical estimation.  One mile can in fact stretch far beyond the allotted 1.6 km, extending far beyond human reason.  One mile in England could be infinity.  Or so it seems when you become waylaid on what appears to be an overgrown dirt cornrow but bears a distinctive highway marker sign reading ‘A30345’ followed by ‘Speed Limit 50 mph’ and ‘Bear far left for oncoming vehicles’ (at which point my side of the car would be completely engulfed in the foliage on the left hand side of the road).  Add to the mix a roundabout every 20 feet, and the 1-mile journey becomes a lifetime.

Add to the confusion a Western tendency to embrace the right-hand side of the road and a GPS that insists on leading you back to London, and the 10-mile journey becomes an endless space loop in which you are mercilessly suspended.  Then add in a traffic jam at Stonehenge and the agony becomes unbearable.  This is the point at which you realise the Brits have no concept of distance NOR time.

I now know this is the reason they’ve never converted to the metric system.  To do so would openly expose these failings.

Now 4 hours into our 3-hour journey, we realised we weren’t even halfway to our destination.  For every 2 miles we would drive, the GPS would tag an extra 20 minutes to the trip.  This is the point at which we began to lose hope.  We were on the verge of conceding that we’d probably never arrive at our destination. 

We decided to stop at Stonehenge because that’s what ambling tourists like us do.  As we turned into the lane leading up to the National Trust tourism centre, Smilin’ Vic had a momentary lapse of ‘unreason’, and reverted to the ‘right’ side of the road.  As if in a trance we watched the obvious tourist headed toward us, also hugging her right side of the road.  Then in a flash both we and she realised we were both driving on the wrong side, made a quick switch TO THE LEFT!!!!!!, and barely avoided clipping each other in the process.  It made for some good, nervous laughter, and relief at the pee break (‘wee’ break when in the UK) that a pitstop at Stonehenge would bring …. (to be continued).

 Stonehenge ... not a great picture; taken with the i-pad as we were stuck in a traffic jam ....

Stonehenge ... not a great picture; taken with the i-pad as we were stuck in a traffic jam ....