Tuesday, June 3, 2014

Keep To The Left

Friendly reminders greeted us upon disembarking
(and they were needed)
This past weekend we escaped to England for a few days. While we've done a lot of traveling over the past few years, this was our first trip to the U.K. and we were excited to explore the Kent countryside. And because we drove over through the Channel Tunnel, the first thing we noticed was the need to drive on the left. Yes, for the first time we found ourselves in a country where driving on the left is the law and it flew in the face of what we were accustomed to. Obviously we knew about this rule before arriving but finding ourselves on the road and actually having to drive in the "wrong" lane took some time to get used to.

So why do the British, and drivers in most other Commonwealth countries, drive on the left side of the road? The explanation (or this story at least) is actually quite logical and dates back to the 1700s. Because most people were right handed and therefore carried their weapon in their right hand, smart travelers always wanted to keep the people they passed on their right. But along came Napoleon who was left handed and in order to keep his sword between himself and his enemies, his armies started to march on the right. Americans, eager to shake off any remnants of colonial rule, followed suit and took to traveling on the right. American car manufacturers obviously built cars whose steering wheels were positioned on the left for right side driving. As the international market for American vehicles grew, more countries switched from driving on the left to driving on the right. But not Great Britain. Or so the story goes......

So what was our driving experience like? Fortunately Glenn did all of the driving by as the co-pilot I found myself repeating the mantra of "stay to the left, stay to the left" every time we got into the car. On the narrow country lanes that allowed for only a single lane of traffic to pass, we had no problem. In fact, we spent hours exploring the quaint villages where every house had a name and lush countryside that is Kent. These roads with charming names like Old Wives Lee, The Downs, and Fairy Close, and were alternately paved, hard packed dirt, or wet mud, forcing us to go slow and take in our surroundings. Just about every road was crisscrossed with pedestrian right of ways (walking trails) and lined by high hedges. Many felt like tunnels of trees with branches arching high over the right of way. It was simply so peaceful. We passed riders on horseback, people out walking their dogs, and too many sheep and rabbits to count. On the rare occasions we encountered an oncoming vehicle, one of us would carefully back up until we reached a wider section of road or one of the strategically placed pullouts and allow the other car to pass with a smile and a wave. (It felt as though the drivers here were so friendly).

This street was named......The Street
But then we encountered the highways where on and off ramps were accessed from the left and slow traffic kept to the left rather than the right. Intersections required the repeating of our mantra, following the verbal guidance of Sir Colin, our trusty GPS, and focused concentration about turning right while sticking to traveling in the left lane. Traffic circles, which were many, were much more difficult. Traffic moved clockwise forcing us to have to remember to look right instead of left for oncoming cars before nosing out into the traffic. Fortunately the signs were all in English (this was the first trip in three years where English was the local language) allowing us to focus on the cars rather than the signs. We counted the off ramps and somehow survived unscathed. I guess you could say that the driving was a bit exhilarating but I found myself longing for more quiet country lanes and fewer highways. There the driving was almost carefree.

So, when in England keep to the left, keep to the left. Until the train spits you back out on the Continent and then it is back to the right.

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