So, You Think Driving a 7-passenger Van on the Wrong Side of the Road in a Foreign Country is Crazy?
Authors' note: This is the 2nd of a series of blogs about our adventures traveling in Europe together in 2019. They will appear here on the 4th Thursday of each month, and will eventually be compiled into a book entitled:Taking Chances, or How to See the World Living with Chronic Illness.
Last May 2019 we spent 2 weeks in Southwest England, Wales and Northumberland, and then 10 days in Scotland with our dear Danish friend Henning Sondergaard. It was our fourth trip to England and third trip to Scotland. Each time we've rented a car and driven at least part of the trip.
I'm always surprised when I tell friends and acquaintances, "Yes, we drove 2,100 miles in the U.K. in a rental car and then a rental van from Dorset on the English Channel coast to the northern regions of Scotland." I'm usually met with a look of amazement or even horror, and the response, "Oh, I couldn't possibly drive on the wrong side of the road." I find it a nice change from driving in the U.S. It's all in your perspective. After all, we travel to experience how others live.
This picture was taken on an earlier trip to Scotland, in Maillag, Western Highlands. My wife Linda is standing next to a rental car, not ours, that we discovered one night on a walk after dinner. Yes, it’s midsummer and still light around 10:00 PM.
We like to drive and set our own itinerary. We've been doing it for years, whether in the U.S., Canada or Europe. I'm not a good bus traveler, and bus tours make me antsy unless I'm the tour guide, which I did frequently during college-sponsored, summer session trips. Driving oneself gives you the freedom to go when and where you want, and carry the odd piece of luggage or two or three you may need, which was the case with Henning in Scotland.
When I agreed—wholeheartedly—to join David Rosenbloom and his wife, Linda Chiavaroli, on the Scottish part of their British Isles trip, I thought of it as a vacation. A lot of my travel since I started on dialysis had involved my work as a kidney patient advocate—conferences, speaking engagements, participating in panels and the like. But none of that was what I would call proper vacation. Only rarely was there enough time for leisure activities.
It was quite different from my former life where I had traveled all over the world. Having lived in Europe and North America and traveled extensively in both places, and writing most of my Master’s Thesis in a village in northern Thailand at my stepmother’s house, suddenly being confined to hotels in large cities when I was away from home had been quite a change for me. In that light, I was sure this trip was going to be something special.
At Aberdeen Airport, David and Linda were waiting for me as soon as I wheeled out with a helpful assistant, who was very curious about all the things I was packing.
David had secured a vehicle large enough to carry three adults with their luggage and all my medical equipment, supplies and wheelchair. He’d found Hertz's wonder woman sales agent at the Aberdeen airport, Bridget Spink, and she reserved a 7-passenger VW Caddy Max, about which I knew nothing before this trip to Scotland. It carried the three of us and all our belongings all over Scotland for 10 days and got 50 mpg to boot. You can't rent a VW Caddy online, so David was in constant communication with Bridget. (His sleuthing ability and diligence is beyond impressive.) The trip as we planned it would not have been possible without this shiny black transport.
Our VW Caddy Max rental van in Scotland
My contribution to a smooth road trip was of a slightly more modest character albeit equally as important as having a good, comfortable and reliable vehicle. It was my handicapped parking placard. Such a placard is like a “get out of parking hell for free” card. Unless you are in big cities in Europe, it is usually easier to find designated handicapped parking than regular parking, and on top of that it is usually closer to where you want to go.
The reason it is important for me to mention the placard (beside the fact that David and Linda thoroughly enjoyed the magic that came with it) is that I nearly forgot to bring it. I obviously did not need it in my own van when parking at the Copenhagen Airport. After having checked in for my flight I returned the van with my father who had brought me there, before I could go to my gate. I did, however, almost forget to go back to the van for the placard. I am so used to going straight from the check-in area and to my gate.
So, now that I had it with me, it was also the first thing I whipped out of my pocket as we got into the VW Caddy Max from Bridget, to the amusement of my fellow road trippers. But they soon got to love it for the convenience it brought to our vacation.
Driving in the U.K. is really not that difficult. Their "M" highways are like our limited access Interstates
The two main differences are driving on very narrow country roads and dealing with roundabouts. A good navigator is a must. Linda armed with a map is superb at giving directions—even better than a GPS unit. And I do recommend an automatic shift model. Even if you drive standard shift—still quite common in Europe—it adds another driving dimension you don't want to deal with.
Country roads, like those in Dorset or Northumberland are a real treat. You can't go very fast, since they curve a lot and have hedgerows immediately off the pavement. So, you relax, stay within the speed limit and enjoy the beautiful English scenery. Let the big luxury cars like Jags, Mercedes and Audis whiz by. You're on vacation and in no hurry.
Roundabouts take some getting used to. They replace our four-way stops, but go in the opposite direction, clockwise, unlike the traffic circles in the U.S. Caution is required at all times, since cars are entering on your left from different angles. But all roundabouts are clearly marked and signage is very good. Just wait your turn, get in the correct lane, and follow the road signs. You'll get the hang of it after a few tries. and having a navigator issue instructions, such as, "The A57 is at one o'clock!", is very helpful. If you miss your turnoff, simply go around again. No sweat.
Entering a typical roundabout in the United Kingdom
One-track country roads are another story. They are common when you are touring coastal islands, mountains, rural villages and the like. They are narrow and provide only enough room for one car to pass. But invariably, passing places are provided—room to squeeze over to the left and let the other car, truck or bus pass on the right. It's a bit hairy, but there is always just enough room.
Passing an oncoming car on a one-track road in Wales
Sometimes you come across an usual road obstacle, like a herd of sheep or cattle. On an earlier trip to the Hebrides—the Scottish Western Isles—we encountered a herd of Highland cattle: big, shaggy, red creatures that easily outweigh a little economy rental car. Linda was driving. She slowed down and said "What do I do?" I instinctively said, "Don't stop! Just go very slowly and they will move out of the way. Otherwise we could be here all day."
And so we passed though unscathed. But I will never forget the one cow who looked at me inches from my door window, which her whole head seemed to fill.
Encountering Highland cattle on the rural roads of Scotland