Less than an hour from the house where we stayed in Derbyshire, England is the Peak District. Not really known for its peaks, it’s a region of rolling brilliant green hillsides traversed by ancient rock walls,
With tree lined streams bubbling through the dales,
With caves hollowed out from ancient limestone outcroppings jutting from the hillsides
And with sheep
It was my first real test driving on the left….well, driving on the left side of the road, but the right side of the car. I’d been nervous about doing this ever since we arrived in England, but it is very difficult to see the Peak District or other parts of rural England without renting a car. Lois was very encouraging, but on the drive home from the airport rental car lot, she seemed more fidgety than usual. She kept flinching and cautioning me that I was a bit too close to the left side of the road. At first I thought that since she was on the left side of the car, things looked disproportionately large to her from her vantage point, but I began to suspect that there was something to her concerns when the car ran up on the left curb (more than once) and pedestrians on the left side of the road started to scatter as I approached.
Roads are narrower in England. I had to orient the car’s right wheels so that they seemed to ride on the white line in the middle of the road in order to avoid objects on the left. So, naturally it appeared to me that I was about to crash head-on into every car that approached from the opposite direction. I was pretty much a wreck after every driving experience. The Peak District was a special challenge. The country roads could only be called ‘two-lane’ in the sense that they allowed two motorcycles to pass each other. The Peak District is a National Park, and in England the National Parks attempt to preserve ancient cultural artifacts; for all intents and purposes even the landscape is largely a cultural artifact, albeit a lovely one. One of those ancient artifacts is the network of rock walls in the parks
Unfortunately for the American driver those rock walls also hug the left side of roads that were originally designed for horse-drawn carts. As oncoming cars approached and I drifted left in a desperate attempt to make room, Lois was able to inspect those ancient walls in very minute detail as they flashed by inches from her window. At the end of one particularly narrow, rock-lined stretch of roadway, I realized that all of my fingers had gone numb as a result of my death grip on the steering wheel. Although Lois had no steering wheel to grasp, her fingers had gone numb simply because her body’s natural survival mechanisms had moved all of her blood from her extremities toward her heart.
Another charming cultural phenomenon one actually finds in small city centers throughout England is that cars are allowed to park on one side of certain stretches of a two-lane roadway in the town center, effectively making those roads into one-lane roads.
The idea is that if you find your lane completely blocked by a long line of parked cars, you glance ahead to make sure there is no oncoming traffic, pull into the wrong lane and gun it for all you’re worth. If an oncoming car appears, you do your best to direct your car into the nearest driveway, bus-stop or pond. I would feel jubilant at the end of the day simply because I’d had the unexpected good fortune of getting the car back to the house undamaged.
Toward the end of our stay in England, Lois mentioned that even though it would be more expensive to add her as a second driver when we rented a car in Ireland, she would really love to learn how to drive on the left side. It was an offer that demonstrated that she possessed both tremendous tact and a robust survival instinct. Ireland is one of the few countries in Europe in which the accident rate is so high that your credit card will not cover the collision damage waiver for a rental car. Guinness and Jameson may be one reason, but it can’t help things that Irish country roads are often just a pair of hedgerows lining parallel asphalt tracks with flowers in between.
An Irish highway
I gratefully accepted Lois’ offer to drive in Ireland.