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Drivin’ crazy in England

Here’s the thing about driving in the United Kingdom: driving on the left-hand side of the road is the easy part.  

Tiffany Gee Lewis’ family of six prepares for a road trip in our VW Touran. It got them to Scotland and back and has only died once.
Provided by Tiffany Gee Lewis

Here’s the thing about driving in the United Kingdom: driving on the left-hand side of the road is the easy part.

To be sure, it takes a bit for the brain to adjust, like batting left if you’ve always batted right.

However, once you line yourself up properly with the middle of the road and practice turning across traffic to the right, that part is a piece of cake.

The real tricky business is that English roads are built wide enough for exactly one and a half cars. These are former cart tracks, paved over from the days when two-way traffic meant a single horse and rider coming either way.

Narrow roads mean there is constant maneuvering going on as two cars traveling from opposite directions come nose to nose, and one has to give way to the other. Throw in a double-decker city bus and three children on bicycles, and you have a real-life game of Frogger. I’m convinced driving in England is the best video game ever invented.

Take speed limits, for instance. In most villages, the speed is 30 mph. This is a reasonable request, since you spend a lot of time driving up on curbs and squeezing within a hair’s breadth of oncoming vehicles, knocking each other’s side mirrors like a passing high-five.

Tiffany Gee Lewis’ son Preston braves the back seat of their Touran on a road trip north.
Provided by Tiffany Gee Lewis

Once you’ve exited the village, onto those slender country lanes with rock-solid hedgerows on both sides, the speed limit ratchets up to 60 mph.

You are expected to zip around blind curves on a road made for 1½ cars. If you don’t keep up the speed, you get a pileup of angry drivers behind you, revving their engines. I’m speaking hypothetically, of course.

I haven’t even come to the roundabouts. The British love roundabouts. They love miniature roundabouts stenciled onto the road in neighborhoods and behemoth roundabouts in the cities. I’ve driven roundabouts so large that after five minutes my kids have remarked, “We’re still in the roundabout?”

When we first arrived here in England, we were anxious to purchase a car. We landed upon a Ford Galaxy. It had ample trunk space and enough leg room to accommodate our growing teenage boys.

The dealership was out in a field. It looked more like a junk lot than a place that sells cars. On our test drive, the van jerked a little in first gear, juddering as we sped up. The interior was old, the underside suspiciously rusted.

We weren’t born yesterday, but we ignored all warning signs and bought the car.

It lasted 10 days. We had family in town and took them out to see the picturesque Cotswolds. On the outskirts of Chipping Campden, the car gave a warning shudder, heaved a final breath and died.

To save us from being stranded all day, a gracious friend from church, Dan Snow, drove the 30 minutes to rescue our family.

We towed the car back to the dealership and set off to buy another at another sketchy junk lot, because we are apparently slow learners. The salesman ushered us to a van parked in a thick bed of weeds.

The car wouldn’t start.

“Probably dead battery,” the man said, nonplussed. “Just a moment.” He popped the hood and hooked up jumper cables.

We backed away as quick as we had come. “No thanks!”

We found the next car lot in the pouring rain. This van had a crack that ran the width of the front windshield. All the cup holders and compartments inside the car were broken, as if kicked out by an unruly toddler. The car was listed as a 2015 but looked 10 years older.

The engine rattled as we drove the van down the street. The gas tank was on empty. We coasted back to the dealership on fumes.

“We think this car might have problems,” we told the seller.

The man peered out from under his dripping umbrella, his face as forlorn as the weather. “Yeah,” he said. “It’s been sitting here since April. I’m going to lose so much money on it.”

We were getting desperate. We had booked a family trip to Scotland. All we needed was a car to get us there.

Early on a Saturday morning, we drove to the outskirts of London to look at a VW Touran. The Touran is like a shrunken-down minivan. The trunk is four-inches deep. Our teenagers would be sitting in the back with their chins on their knees.

But the car was clean, inside and out, with an engine that purred like a cat. The dealership had an honest-to-goodness office with chairs and a desk. We were sold.

“We’ll take it,” we told the dealer. “Right now.”

We drove back to Oxford, picked up our four boys from church camp and left for Scotland that same day.

I’m happy to report that the Touran is a much better car. It transported us up through the bonnie Highlands without a hitch.

In fact, it has only died on us once, last Saturday, when I was driving the kids home from a church activity in Reading. We were on the highway, 30 minutes outside of Oxford, when the car jerked forward and began shaking. I pulled onto the narrow shoulder. This was all feeling eerily familiar.

As luck would have it, our friend Dan Snow was three miles behind us, on the exact same road, heading home in the same direction. I’m not making this up.

In an incredible deja vu moment, he pulled over behind us. His car already had seven people inside. We defied all odds and all British laws by cramming in another four passengers. It’s a ride home I will never forget.

So it seems we will make it fine in England, as long as we keep cycling through cars about once a month, as long as I patiently take my turn on narrow lanes, as long as I keep to the speed limit, and as long as our friend Dan Snow is always trailing three miles behind, waiting to pick us up when our cars inevitably die in the middle of the British Isles.

Tiffany Gee Lewis is a freelance journalist and children’s book author. Based in the Pacific Northwest, she and her family are on a yearlong sabbatical in Oxford, England.