The nightmare is less frequent now, but I can still see thousands of headlights bearing down on me in my lane of traffic. There is no place to escape. I cannot stop — thousands more headlight pairs are on my bumper. I wake up in a cold sweat.
Driving in the United Kingdom on the left side of the road with a brain programmed over four decades for driving on the right is a nightmare that may never go away.
In November following a visit to a large farm equipment show in Italy, my wife Georgann and I visited the English countryside for a farm tour of a rich agricultural area 100 miles north of London. From the London airport, we planned to take the train to Kings Lynn, England. The information booth fellow said it would be a 55-minute train ride into London and then another couple hours to Kings Lynn. My bride cannot grasp the concept of packing light. (The shuttle driver in Italy who took us from the airport to our hotel looked at our luggage and asked, “Staying for the whole year?).
With so much luggage and having traveled by train in Europe once before, we knew it would be a hassle traveling by trains with so much luggage, so we inquired about renting a car. Fellow at the airport information booth said it would be an easy three-hour drive to Kings Lynn, and we would have no problem negotiating UK highway. If I had copied his name, I would have him arrested for impersonating a truthful information desk person.
Should have realized trouble was ahead when the left side of the rental car looked like it had been buffed with a metal grinder.
Buckled up; hands firmly surrounding the steering wheel on the right side of what I think was a Renault station wagon that looked like a small silver shoebox, we were off. The accelerator and brake are operated like American cars. The rear view mirror was to the left and up. I did not find it for 45 minutes.
Not 200 yards from the terminal, was the first “roundabout.” In America, they are called traffic circles.
Bridges and overpasses are few and far between in the UK and reserved exclusively for freeways. There are none on rural highways and no intersections with stop signs. Only roundabouts every five miles with two sets of signs indicating what will happen if you take each of the four to six escape routes off the roundabouts. They are building new ones all the time. They announce them proudly with signs that read “New Roundabout Ahead.” I still see those signs in my nightmare.
Aerial photographs of mysterious circles and designs in UK grain fields attributed to aliens often appear in newspapers worldwide. Little spacemen do not create those designs. It is English traffic engineers with time on their hands before they design the next roundabout.
No tarrying is allowed at a roundabout. English drivers are courteous, but impatient. A couple of times I plunged into a roundabout deciding I would go around a time or two, arriving at an exit decision while circling. First time I circled, I started singing the old Kingston Trio “MTA” song…”Will he ever return, no he'll never return and his fate is still unknown‥”
A couple of wrong roundabout decisions hurled us into English rural towns with street widths as narrow as the Biblical eye of a needle. There is no parking space beside roads yet people still park their cars on the street, using half the sidewalk and half the street. There is an old Volkswagen with one less right side mirror in a town whose name I forgot.
We made it to Kings Lynn with only one shattered mirror and the dreaded anticipation of driving back. It was raining when we returned to London. That only added to the excitement of the return. Fortunately, we did not encounter any more solid objects. The car rental clerk inquired calmly, “Is there any new damage to the car?” In the U.S., they ask if the rental car has a full gas tank.