When I began my solo UK road trip I had a certain advantage: I’d been in the UK for several months and had been a passenger enough times to know that the driver’s seat is on the right. Yes, there had been many an amusing, “Oh, are you driving?” moment when I attempted, as the passenger, to enter through the driver’s door, but I had gotten over that.
I had other advantages, as well. As a rider I had marvelled at the speeds at which Brits zoomed along tiny country lanes whilst miraculously avoiding head-on collisions. I had learned a bit about narrow road etiquette and negotiating roundabouts. But there was still so much more to learn.
Driving the UK is a blast, though, and anyone can do it. Here are a few tips to get you started.
1. Operating instructions
You’ll pay premium prices for automatic transmission, both in rental fees and increased fuel costs; manual is the norm in the UK (and probably most countries). I know how to drive a manual but shifting gears with my left hand was strange; it took a few days to stop my right hand from swiping the door as it attempted to reach for the shifter.
It should go without saying, but be sure you know how to operate lights, wipers and gears — I was parked on a bluff where going forward was simply not an option when I realised I didn’t know how to put my car in reverse. Fortunately Brits are kind, helpful people and someone came along to help me out — I don’t know if I would ever have figured out that I needed to pull up on a little collar under the gear shift knob.
2. Gas (petrol) prices
Before you get excited by the low gas prices in the UK, remember that petrol is priced by the liter, and there are 3.8 liters to the gallon.
3. Spatial perception
This was the biggest surprise for me. Driving on the right side of the road, my brain effortlessly and unconsciously calculates where I am in space in relation to my surroundings, even on narrow roads. But driving on the left threw my spatial perception for a loop. I found myself constantly checking my sideview mirrors to make sure I was in my lane, because I just couldn’t confidently judge how close I was to either the centre or the edge of the road. And as blasé as Brits seem to be about passing oncoming traffic with just inches to spare, I cringed and held my breath almost every time.
Single lane roads will have frequent turnouts on alternating sides. Remember that your turnouts are on your left; turnouts on your right are for oncoming cars. Whoever reaches a turnout first pulls over and lets the other car pass. If you see an oncoming car and the first turnout you come to is on your right, stop right where you are and wait for the other driver to pull over, then proceed.
When passing a bicycle, UK law requires you to give it the same amount of space you would give another car, so be patient and don’t try to pass until you have plenty of room. In some cases bicyclists may pull into a turnout to let you pass.
Some places will have a lot of them, especially during the spring lambing season. They may be safely fenced in, but in sparsely populated countryside they may roam freely. Always slow down and proceed with caution if unfenced sheep are anywhere near the road, as they may take a sudden notion to dart out just as you approach. In the unfortunate event you do hit a sheep, you are required by law to report it to the police.
7. Traffic signs
If you’ve driven in other European countries you will recognise many UK traffic signs. Otherwise, be forewarned you will not be able to intuit the meaning of many of them, and you need to study up before you start driving. I was stumped, for example, by a round sign depicting a red and a black car — how does that communicate “no passing” (or in UK-speak, “no overtaking”)? And what about a round white sign with a black diagonal line? Even Brits I talked to didn’t know that means the national speed limit applies; they thought it probably meant no speed limit applies, which is how they tend to drive anyway.
The best advice I ever got about driving in the UK was, “It’s perfectly fine to go around the roundabout twice.” If you’re not sure which exit to take, don’t panic; just keep going around until you figure it out. That being said, I highly recommend learning about how roundabouts work before you ever try one. I found it helpful to watch a video.
There are all kinds of roundabouts in the UK, from the mini ones where you just kind of pretend to go in a circular fashion to multi-lane urban monsters. Most importantly: Stay calm. Every time I entered a roundabout I repeated aloud to myself, “It’s perfectly fine to go around twice.” That little mantra prevented many an impulsive, premature exit.
I’m a big fan of maps, and I believe everyone should know how to use them. But when driving in a foreign country — especially if you’re going solo — you have enough to think about already. I made it from Cornwall to Wales with a paper map, but the directions to the Snowdonia hostel were so complex even a helpful Welshman finally gave up and suggested I buy an inexpensive SatNav (aka GPS). I almost cried the first time it told me where to turn, I was so grateful for the help. You should still have a map, and you should still know where you are and where you’re going, but a little navigational assistance is a wondrous thing. Be aware, though, that the GPS unit you use at home may not work in the UK, and the one you buy there may not work at home.
10. Aggressive driving
As polite as Brits are in person, they are animals behind the wheel. They drive fast and they expect you to do the same, or get out of the way. Don’t let yourself be pressured into driving faster on narrow, winding roads than you feel is safe, but be aware of what’s going on behind you and be prepared to pull over as often as necessary to let faster traffic by.
So should you road trip the UK?
Yes! It’s a small, drivable country with an astounding variety of landscapes, and food and accommodation are easily found everywhere you go. My UK road trip was my first solo road trip ever, and it was such a great experience I went on to drive the Faroe Islands and Iceland as well!