The first time I drove a car was in India. A friend taught me the basics in his father’s 1960 Fiat that had doors opening from the front. The road had no markings. The general sense was as long as one stayed on it one was fine.
In Dubai, I learned that the road had two sides. One drove on one side of the road and returned the other. The Malayalam speaking instructor, Hamza, introduced me to the concepts of clutch, gear, leg and hand brakes, accelerator, ignition, and the steering wheel. With daily practice I was able to coordinate them all in a couple of months. I passed the stringent UAE test in a manual white Toyota Corolla on the second attempt. For the next two decades or so I drove only automatic cars. Till my wife, in the summer of 2018, hatched a plot to travel across England!
Growing up I’ve followed British authors painting the English countryside with colourful words. This left a permanent mark in my bucket list under ‘Driving through the English countryside’.
When the UK travel plan took shape, booking the car took most of our time. Renting an automatic car for 15 days was almost double the price of a manual. So we pondered on it and pitched the idea to a few friends who had lived in the UK and driven there extensively. They vehemently shot down driving a manual. The price difference weighed on our minds and seeped into our dreams. We doggedly settled on the manual transmission but decided to rent it outside the city of London.
Then it dawned on me: the blind decision to drive manual transmission in a foreign country without any practice amounted to sheer stupidity. A week before the trip I began researching for comments, ideas, and a crash course [very punny!] on driving a manual car [www.shifters.ca]. I found one and managed to fit in an hour-and-a-half session the day before my flight!
If one were to divide the world into countries driving on the right and left sides, then Canada and the USA got it right! The UK, on the other hand, is a major upholder of what’s left in doing things the traditional way. Countries like India are a strong proponent of the Non-Aligned Movement and have adopted a general middle-of-the-road approach.
When we got the car in Oxford, a Vauxhall Astra in steel grey, my wife had the good sense to go around and click pictures. A short spin in the neighbouring parking lot of a trucking company gave me the courage to conquer the English countryside.
There is a sense of absolute power in driving a manual car. My left hand caressed the leather-bound shift and refused to leave it. I learned to drive with just my right hand. It took me some time to sub-consciously open the correct door to get in and drive! By the end of the day I thought the constant shifting of gears and flexing of elbows and knees would take its toll. But I was surprised at how well my body accepted the challenge.
My wife and I were very vigilant to keep to the right [left!] side of the road and getting into the lane early enough at roundabouts. I kept repeating in my head, “Keep left”. My wife kept repeating, “Keep your distance, watch the lanes, to the left, to the left”. After a long stretch of highway I forgot about the clutch, the engine turned off, and we jerked into the middle of a roundabout! Luckily there were no other cars bearing on us.
Roundabouts in England come in different shapes and sizes, and few of them have stop lights. A stretched roundabout can bridge over highways and let loose six or more exits. Getting into the dedicated lane before entering a roundabout takes coordination between the navigator’s interpretation of Google maps and the driver’s skill to push into other lanes. We went round and about a couple of times doing complete loops at many roundabouts before exiting. We took the wrong exit a few times and came back fighting among ourselves and our egos. Soon I learned to don the mask of a Brit with a stiff upper lip.
On the first day itself we drove down a narrow country road; ‘was it deliberate or an accident’ is still a matter of heated discussion. At a blind turning going downhill, we stole up in front of a massive farm tractor with a zillion attachments hogging the road. All of us stopped and were taken aback for a moment, even the cows in a nearby farm; in a situation where size mattered my car, and then my resolution, meekly gave up. I reversed the car up the hill into a lay-by; this is probably the highlight of my skill in learning-to-drive in the UK.
Every once in a while there were dug-outs on both sides of a country road for letting oncoming vehicles pass. Both drivers acknowledge each other with a gesture. Unknowingly I have tried different ones with no rebuke.
Everything in the UK was a bit squished, especially when one visits from Canada. Roads ran across the countryside with a narrow frame of mind, some more so with brooding rock walls hugging its sides. In some places there were cattle grids to prevent sheep from venturing into fresher pastures. Twice we coaxed sheep and cows out of our way!
Two places in England really tested my levels of anxiety and driving skills. Haworth, or Bronte country, had really steep roads. I reversed at the mouth of one side road that fell down at a 40 degree angle. I had to get out to see the road drop! In Clayton, we went up a really steep narrow road praying that no other vehicle ventured opposite ours.
Despite the minor challenges it was a pleasure to drive around the English countryside. The vast undulating expanse of Yorkshire dales and moors forced us to stop every once in a while. The beauty of Cotswolds and Lake District combined with the moody English weather left an undeniably strong urge for us to return! At least once more. This time I’ll be better prepared.