The first thing on most people’s minds when planning a trip to England is driving on the left side of the road.
Great Britain and most of its one-time colonies — Australia, India, Pakistan, Hong Kong, Singapore, South Africa, and some contiguous nations, and some Caribbean islands — drive on the left side, along with Ireland and Northern Ireland. Eighty-seven countries in total, says Wikipedia.
But I’m a professional, right? And I was going to do it in a McLaren, so someone was trusting me with a whole lot of money.
Flat-out shaky start: We began our journey at McLaren Technology Centre in Woking, England, just outside London.
My first smart move: avoiding London traffic. That looks nuts. We rode the red buses, where 5 pounds a day gets you everywhere, and saved driving for our trip to the Cotswolds.
Smart move number two: I took the 570S Spider for a spin around the campus, just to get a feel for things.
The pedals follow the same setup as the U.S., as do stickshift gears, which I noticed during our first taxi ride in England. The McLaren was an automatic, so I didn’t have any gears to fuss with. Still, the view alone felt odd, and I was glad I practiced.
Then the Lovely Mrs. Passenger Seat and I began our journey. McLaren rep Paul Chadderton had emphasized the roads were teeming with potholes after a bad winter, so I kept my eyes peeled.
I followed the navigation through a few small villages and really felt the sidewalk closing in on me as we weaved through narrow streets filled with traffic.
We finally got moving a little — 40 mph or so, as I recall — when BAM! I hit something with the left side of the vehicle. A pothole? No, my sweetie insisted, a curb. And now the tyre sensor (as the dashboard reported in British) told me the rear left tyre was losing air.
I felt as deflated as my newly punctured several-thousand-dollar sneaker.
Nothing to do but call for help. I drove back to the McLaren center with my tail between my legs, but at least I found the pothole that caused the damage. And let the Lovely Mrs. Passenger Seat know about it many, many times.
But hitting a curb certainly seemed believable, because feeling I was not too close to the curb was the hardest part of this new way of driving. A former colleague said he and his wife had the same feeling while they traveled England as well.
Left! Left! With our new tyre installed, we restarted our journey to the Cotswolds, and the two-hour tour was uneventful. At our small-town inn, the McLaren created quite a stir. We chatted with lots of people. A crowd outside the pub gathered to watch us exit the parking lot and head off to find some Scotch eggs and English desserts.
I saw people taking cellphone video of our exit and proceeded proudly down the street for a couple hundred feet, until I was met by an angry driver piloting his VW Golf right toward us. I was on the wrong side of the road!
I learned to think about any changes we were making. Pull out from a parking lot? Turning from one road to another? We both shouted “Left! Left!”
Watch the center: I realized I had to forget early driving lessons about watching the opposite line — a curb line is a rare thing in Britain — and use the center line as a guide. Bonus: This kept the McLaren out of most of the pothole pockets. I’m sure some oncoming drivers felt I was crowding them, but hey, I’m new here.
One lesson came as I was cruising along a two-lane highway and decided I wanted to turn left, so I could park and shoot some pictures.
As I approached the crossroad, a car came from the left side as well. My brain has long since been wired to think “Turning left? Must go past other car” and so that’s where I headed, around the car. Straight for the ditch.
I gave up trying that turn and proceeded straightaway instead.
Stay alert: Thinking so hard while driving becomes exhausting, which is exceedingly counterproductive. When you get tired, you start to forget things. Fortunately, we didn’t plan too much long-distance driving in England — something I’d recommend for a traveler’s first couple of days getting used to this.
Adding to the difficulty are England’s narrow roads. Rush hour in the Cotswolds means lots of cars zooming through winding country lanes, a la Chester County. But the roads are even more difficult than most of our county’s overworked secondary roads.
Looking backward: Using or adjusting the mirrors was extremely challenging as well. This was not helped by the McLaren, which has good visibility for a sports car but not for cars in general. Plus that early busted tire made me paranoid about every pothole in the world afterward.
And the Cotswolds had plenty of those. The country had just finished one of the worst winters in memory, and the roads are not built to withstand that kind of punishing weather.
The Cotswolds is probably special because the roads are ancient, narrow, and poorly marked. Satellite reception was spotty, so getting around could be difficult. Highway driving was much easier.
I did manage to parallel-park the McLaren in town once. Not well, mind you, but it was only about 12 inches from the curb and really close to straight, so I wasn’t going to complain.
In the end: I spent three days in the McLaren and traveled close to 300 miles. By the third morning, 200 or so miles in, I felt pretty comfortable with my new orientation.
But when I returned to France later that day and tried out the Toyota C-HR Hybrid, no readjustment was required. Just get in and go. You can read how it went, in next week’s Driver’s Seat.
Tips for left-side driving
- Don’t schedule yourself for too much travel time.
- Take some time to orient yourself in a location that’s private or not very busy.
- Use the centerline to guide you, and watch your mirrors.
- Repeat “Left! Left!” whenever pulling onto a new road.
- Remember left turns are the inside turns, right turns are the outside turns.
- Use the handsome red double-decker buses in London.
- Watch for potholes.