Sunday, August 21, 2016

England, 2016, Part 8: Driving Across England

Okay. After spending all morning making bad TRAIN CHOICES, it was time to Drive Across Rural England (or ‘DARE’ for short). 

Let’s, do this?

It had seemed like a logical conclusion, way back when we were safely in the sensible states, surrounded by civilized, large-landmass folks who naturally drive on the right.

But now we were at Gatwick Airport, South of London, headed for Stonehenge (due West of us) and then Glastonbury (also due West). There were modern highways (Dual Carriageways) that looked like they linked these places. And there was not an easy train or bus plan that would have taken us to these places in a timely manner. 

After two nights in Glastonbury we would travel to the stone circle at Avebury and then back to London, again a royal (Royal) pain on public transport.

It seemed like a good plan, on paper.

Now, seated behind the wheel of this rental car, it did NOT seem like a good plan. Because the wheel was on the right.
Our home for the next 9.5 hours

But there was nothing for it - I slipped our perfectly square Mercedes coupe into drive and emerged from the parking lot, making a left - into the left hand lane.

WHILE EVERY FIBER OF MY BEING was screaming at me that I was now driving THE WRONG WAY.

Driving on the right is so automatic and Universal (except amongst the worlds current and formerly British Islands) that none of us even think about it. 

(Along with looking to the left when crossing a street. That is also unconsciously ingrained. Every intersection in Greater London is marked for we Continentals to overcome this. When you step off a curb there is a sign painted in the road that says “Look Right”. When you reach the traffic island in the middle of the street there is another asphalt sign that says “Look Left” for oncoming traffic the other (opposite, WRONG) way. 

This system of reminders saved my bacon (Baked Beans) many a time. Without these constant reminders the streets of London would be clogged with the surprised corpses of many of its tourists, still clutching their flattened Rick Steves travel guides to their crushed chests.)

But, I’m driving, and no cars are flying at me. They are alongside me, giving me dirty looks for going so slow.

Karen, navigating, steers me though a few colossal round-a-bouts and then onto the M23, one of the major highw - sorry, “dual carriageways” of this strange and silly island. I’m doing okay. Surprisingly the human mind can flip to the ‘drive on the left’ fairly quickly, especially on a multi-laned road with traffic going in your direction.

Humans, go with the flow, as you always have.

Our next challenge is to go West on the M25. We exit the M23 - to the left, of course, enter a gigantic round-a-bout, cross over, go through another gigantic round-a-bout and are safely headed East on the M25. Easy-peasy.

Something like this. Now, consider getting through
this WITHOUT a dedicated navigator with GPS.
Except we need to be headed West on the M25. 

I have no idea how we screwed that up, but no matter we’ll just take the next exit……...........................................................................................

Good God (Benedict Cumberbatch) where are all of the exits? It was a good 10 miles (16 Kilometers) to where we could exit the highway (Dual Carrai - oh, bag this [tea bag?] I’m just gonna call it a ‘Motorway’, K? [Km?]). And even then it was not onto another road, but into a combination gas station / hotel complex that wasn’t connected to any other roads. It was a parasitical convenience stop. But we saw a bridge over the Motorway, so there must be a way to turn around and enter the M25 from the other side. 

I think the take-away here is GIVE WAY.
Karen went into the motel to get the scoop while I sat in the car and just, kinda, didn’t have to think for awhile.

She came back laughing and said that what we were attempting to do was “highly irregular” (It just Isn’t DONE), but the nice ladies at the front desk eventually gave in. We had to drive on an unmarked frontage road and then drive around the signs that said “Do Not Enter” before finding our way onto an intersection (YES! A god-damned intersection. USA! USA!) Turn right (into the left-hand lane!!) and cross-over the Motorway. Then turn right again (into the left-hand lane!!) and find your way down to the onramp.

Whew. Back on the M25, headed West this time. I relaxed.

Bad move. Karen, in the left-hand shotgun seat, began crawling over her seat in terror. Apparently, when the driver is not paying 100% active attention, they (He) will begin to drift back to the left.
Also, you have to look left to use the rearview mirror.

See, its not just that you are driving on the Left. Your brain switches that fairly quickly. The bigger problem is that the steering wheel is on the right. That’s harder to process, and if you aren’t actively fighting it, you will slowly, unconsciously, drift back to where you should be in the car, on the left. 

So I was sloooowly moving into my adjacent lane without looking, and Karen, who had a helpless front row seat to this situation was justifiably freaking out.

This phenomenon would be repeated - and magnified later on. FORESHADOWING.

The problem of concentration was exasperated by the fact that we were headed West, away from the English Capitol on a Friday, apparently along with every resident of London, Lisbon, Madrid and Paris. The Motorway was packed, bumper to bumper.

Leaving us plenty of time to contemplate another thing we completely take for granted in America: Breakdown lanes. 

There ya go. Every 10 miles, one of these.
That's your breakdown lane. Go crazy.
You probably just had to think for a second about what I’m talking about. And that’s the point: That ‘extra lane’ on either side of our Highways serves a grand purpose, and you never notice them or appreciate their function, until you are in a Highway System that doesn’t have them and hates you.

In the civilized landmass-based world, when you car breaks down, you get a flat, or somebody drifts over into your lane and dings you, you just pull over into the breakdown lane and fix the car / change the tire / have a fistfight - whatever it is you need to accomplish. 

In Britain you just stop your car and stop every car behind you for hours because THERE ARE NO BREAKDOWN LANES. 
And if there IS a 'lay bye' its filled with local,
enterprising farmers. Thanks, Guv'na!

Now think about the vehicles that need to get to you: Tow trucks, Firetrucks, ambulances……They are all stuck in the horrendous traffic jam that you caused because you have a problem. If you could pull over - into a breakdown lane! - traffic would flow much better and emergency personnel could reach you and your soon-to-be-born-child (or whatever) so much quicker.

But no. The ‘Dual Carriageway’ became a ‘Single’ over and over again, as we creeped past someone waiting for a mechanic (don’t hold your breath), then two miles of normal speed, then stop and go for an hour until we pass someone frowning into their cell phone (Mobile) then two miles of normal speed, then stop and go for an hour until we pass two guys have a gun battle (must be Americans) and on and on…..

We’re from L.A. though - we and traffic are old drinkin’ buddies. So this little problem we could handle.


Our bigger problem was finding Stonehenge. We didn’t think this would be a problem in our planning stage, because 1,366,765 folks visited it in 2015, making it one of the 10 most visited places in Europe. Surely there would be a sign….

"Hewn into the living rock - of Stone'enge...."
And there was! But we were so freaked out by the lack of exits on this Major Motorway that when the closest town to Stonehenge appeared (Amesbury) we just took that. Surely there would be a sign……and there was! For the “sports centre”. 

We went through a roundabout. No stone circle, but the Sports Centre was on our way. Another roundabout - the sports centre was some other way now. No national treasures indicated. Another roundabout, thoroughly lost now, but the sports centre was just ahead somewhere.

Here’s the thing: England is a country without breakdown lanes or intersections. Roundabouts are more efficient (and cheaper) than intersections because they do not need to be regulated: you just enter it and go around and exit somewhere. 

But what we take for granted on the sensible, non-island mainland is that intersections allow you to stop periodically, gather your thoughts, look at your map, and otherwise reset yourself for the next section of driving. 

Admiral Karen with the cloud parade
In Britain there is nowhere to pull over and because of the roundabouts YOU NEVER STOP. So if you make one little miscalculation, miss the proper exit of one roundabout, allow your sense of direction to waver for a moment - then the rules of physics simply do not apply anymore. You become a quantum tourist, traveling an endless mobius fractal of round-a-bouts, able to neither locate nor measure yourself because you are perpetually in motion. 

Somehow we were totally lost AND doing laps at the same time. From Amesbury to Tanker Wind Fanny to Horwood Mud Thong to Slack Over Prick to Wet Pickle Puddle, none of whose round-a-bouts would take us to Stonehenge, but all of whom were on the way to the fucking (Fooking) Amesbury Sports Centre.

We saw a Stonehenge sign just once, outside of Horwood Mud Thong, and we were so shocked that we missed taking that exit from the round-a-bout and then we were back in Wet Pickle Puddle and when we turned around in the round-a-bout there and headed back the sign had disappeared - because we were now in Tanker Wind Fanny. 
This is the fucking Sports Centre, right next door to "The
Stonehenge School". You can't make this stuff up.

I finally dove into a gas station and mercifully stopped the car for a minute while all of us cooled down a bit. The attendant laughed at us when we asked directions: “Just head back to the Motorway, Mate.” 


“Just head up that way towards the Sports Centre -“


But his stupidhead finger did point us in the right direction, even if I wanted to bite it off. Boom, we were back on the Motorway, and voila! over a gentle rise in the landscape appeared one of the most photographed sites in the world. 

Stonehenge. Wow. We were blown away - but not by the site: by the landscape. 

I’m not dissing the rocks. There is a stark majesty to the trilithons and bluestones; a holy geometry to their placement and arrangement. But its a picture that you - me - everyone has seen a gazillion times.
Crows rule, everywhere, as they always have.

What Karen and I liked (besides being out of the car after 5 hours of tense driving), was the setting of the stone circle. Every picture of the stone circle - even mine - focuses on the stones, but they are impossible to appreciate unless you are there and can see how perfectly placed they are within the context of the landscape around them. 

Wiltshire isn’t like the utterly flat American Midwest, where the highest point in Nebraska is a Freeway Overpass. The neighborhood of Salisbury Plain is one of gently rolling hillsides, subtle high grounds, and occasional ditches - like the new one that slyly hides the A303 and leaves Stonehenge in peace - finally.

The Henge, with its ditch and bank, barrows and mounds sits on a small peninsula of flat land, that slopes away on 3 sides and then rises into a series of low hills around it. It is the Land that dictates that this is the obvious place for a ritual center based on the moon, stars, seasons and cycles of Nature. The setting is the thing - the stone circle is just the result of this glorious landscape.

Here is the old configuration, with the feeder roads trapping
the henge and strangling it. In the new (2013) configuration
the bottom road is lowered and the left and upper right roads
have been removed and erased. Also the parking area and
trailer-based gift shop are gone, replaced by a discreet
turnaround for the quiet buses that ferry the tourists from the
large, first-rate Visitors Centre a mile away.
Also, we were lucky to visit on a perfect weather day. The huge open sky was hosting a fluffy white cloud convention, and the late afternoon sun (how did it get so late?) was lighting up the sarsens like a Hollywood movie set. I wanted to live there in a thatched-roof hut and just worship this landscape.

The new visitors centre is first rate, with cafeteria, museum and extensive gift shop - but also a re-creation of what the locals homes looked like 5,000 years ago. But the best thing about it is that the visitors centre (and the Costco-sized parking lot) are now located 1 mile (2km) away from the Henge - with a small stand (Forest) of trees blocking the view. 

From the rings of stones you just see a sliver of the highway a-ways away, and facing the other direction, the occasional bus depositing more tourists at a small turnaround nearby. Its about as good as you can make it - and I was delighted that Stonehenge finally is getting the quiet respect that it deserves.

Karen and I however got no respect. All we had to do to finish off this epic day was find Glastonbury. And since I was now navigating it was up to my phone to save the day. 
Your 'umble author with the 'Enge. Go Giants!

It did not. 


The day could not be saved. It was now late afternoon and we were on the country lanes that would take us somehow, sometime, someway to the witchiest town in the world.

I was getting increasingly frantic phone calls from the host of tonights B+B. “Where are you now?” she would ask. “Um……’Lickey Beef Beaver’…..I think….” 
“Jesus! (Kit Harington!)”
“Yeah I know, but we’ll get there. Hold the room!”

Karen, now at the helm of the perfectly-square-meaning-way-too-wide Mercedes, definitely pulled the short end of the stick. I drove on the line (Queue) for the roller coaster - she got to ride ON the roller coaster. All of these little country lanes had no shoulder, of course, but the widths of the road would vary too, meaning that there was no guarantee that you and that car up ahead (on your RIGHT) would be able to pass you safely. So she kept drifting left, just as I had done earlier on the Motorway.

I'd call that, oh, a lane-and-a-half, maybe....
But now I was in the shotgun seat (on the left!) helpless, as bushes and fences and parked cars and trees came flying at me, and then just by me. Mostly. We took out a bunch of sticks and leaves and the occasional curb as we went through the endless round-a-bouts.

Oh yes. You don’t think we left them behind, do you? Each one would have an overhead schematic on a sign about 70 yards before it, showing where all of the exits (anywhere from 2 to 8) would go. 

Here’s the deal: 
  • Sometimes the labels would be for the next town on that line, and sometimes it would be for the ultimate destination of that line. With no way of knowing which one it was
  • Each and every sign was partially to fully obscured by foliage
  • And these roundabout happened about every half-mile 
  • Each one was different in shape and diameter 
  • We were going as slow as we could, which meant we always had some local on our tail
  • And there was nowhere to stop and get our bearings or catch our breath
It was absolutely terrifying for both of us. But “Keep Calm and Carry On” as they say around here.

You enter from the bottom and if you want
the M4 (for example) you take the 4th left. See?
A great plaque available on eBay. 
I had to navigate this deadly pachinko machine with just my phone, while keeping an eye for the proper round-a-bout exit and trying not to gibber at the walls and bushes that are passing by RIGHT NEXT to my side of the car.

We improvised a system to get us through the thousand round-a-bouts. Karen would tell me that yet another one was coming up and I would tell her how many lefts this one was, meaning how many exits to pass before diving off on one. 

It sounded something like this:
“Kings Shank Bung coming up!”
“Er…….3rd left, towards Queen’s Plump Beans!”

“Bishop’s Buggering Bush ahead!”
“Um……..we need Satan’s Throbbing Sack - 4th left!”

“Wanker Diddling Mallet?”
“On it!…….go straight.”
“Sorry. Its just two roads crossing.”
“Take the 2nd left - in effect, straight across.”

Admiral Karen, faking the calm smile.
“Looks like Great Hose Hole is next….”
“Um…..(load, you stupid phone!)…..1st Left, towards Nether Crud Passage!”
“Got it - but the sign there says “Fattie Barking Bottom”
“Take it! Crud Passage leads to Barking Bottom”

“Mount Beer Booty”
“Shit!” (left side mirror scrapes a bush)
“Its Okay. Um……Mount Beer Booty? 4th left!”

“Spanker Panting Splat?”
(Phone rings) “Fuck!” (Answers Phone)
B&B owner: “Where are you?”
“Um, we’re in Spanker Panting Splat - 3rd left!”
Karen: “Okay!”
B&B Owner: “Wot?”
“Now we’re almost in…….let’s see…….Shitting Cock Crack”
B&B Owner: “Jesus!”
“We’ll get there! Gotta go!” (hangs up)
Karen: “Shitting Cock Crack?”
“5th left!”

It required total concentration for both of us and only occasionally would the villages be far enough apart that we could enjoy the beautiful scenery when the land opened up and showed us a vista, but of course no turn-out or parking lot (Car Park) or any opportunity for us to stop and admire the view, get our bearings, take a piss, inspect the car damage from our near misses, renew our vows, choke each other, or just rail against this roadway system that hated us so much.
Our destination on Friday Night.
Looks kinda innocent, doesn't it?

But unlike our early round-a-bout-go-round in Amesbury I knew we were making progress, and thank the gods there was no stupid “Sports Centre” near here. Driving on these country trails was sport enough, thankyouverymuch.

The afternoon wore on. We crossed into Somerset and I barely saw the sign as I was trying to get us from Swelling Clay Faggot to Bachelors Cumming Penis.

Finally, as we traversed the Somerset Broads our roads became even more twisty (Wiggledy-Piggledy) and we crossed more and more bridges. The Isle of Avalon must be just ahead then. One last set of tiny towns - 
“Whistling Brown Crap?”
“3rd Left!”
“Scratchy Licker Piddle?”
“2nd Left.”
“Titley Bosom-on-Breast?”
“4th Left!”
“Uhhhh…..the sign says Abbey”
“Abbey! What do I do?”
“Um - oh! Park! That’s Glastonbury Abbey. Park! We’re here!”

Inside though - Whole Different Situation.
She parked. ON THE LEFT! And we just kind of sat there for a minute, vibrating, breathing, enjoying the fact that we were still alive. 

Gatwick Airport to Glastonbury, on paper, was a journey of 3.5 hours. We left at 10:30am and arrived at the Covenstead at 8pm, for a total time in the car almost as long as our flights from L.A. to London. 

Plus, that morning she had been in Oslo, Norway, and I had had an epic train station crawl to get to Gatwick.

Add in driving on the left, steering on the right, being lost, stuck in a massive traffic crawl, round-a-round-a-round-a-rounding, Stonehenge! And then the pinball machine of those narrow country roads - all of this had us sore, stuttering and shivering with the concentration and exertion of this endless day.

And then we really needed to use the -
Holy Mother of God what IS this place?!
It would take one hell of a Bed & Breakfast to perk us up after that. Thankfully the one smart move I made for that day was to book us into the COVENSTEAD, and it was more than up for the task.

Angus McMahan

P.S. No, those are not the names of the villages that we went through. But all of the pieces of those names ARE used in English villages somewhere. I just gathered a bunch of them off the 'net and rearranged 'em randomly. It is, as you may imagine, one of my odder spreadsheets.

(Photos: Gigantic round-a-bouts from [Limerick, Ireland, fwiw], too many road signs from, refuge area from, the Amesbury Fucking Sports Centre from Google maps, old Stonehenge topdown also from Google Maps [update your maps, folks!], skinny-ass country road from, funny Roundabout sign from eBay. Everything else from my handy iPhone.)

1 comment:

  1. This made me laugh as i remembered similar passenger challenges (terror) as my partner drove around australia. and the roundabouts! trying to get to the rental car return and continuing to make the same mistake each time not understanding that the gps lady with the attitude meant turn right when she said third left and on our 4th go at it she finally went silent, angry apparently.