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Taking a Road Trip

by Dawn Copeman

Pevensey Castle SignWhy take the car when you come to Britain? Why not relax and take the train? Well, travelling by train might not be as relaxing as you think. Firstly, due to a variety of political reasons, there are no trash cans and no left luggage lockers at our stations, which mean our stations are dirty places where you need to lug your luggage around with you all day. Secondly, our rail fares are the most expensive in Europe despite the fact that our trains are notorious for being late, so much so that our newspapers publish tables every quarter that show which train operator was late the least often in the previous three months.

So it is hardly surprising then that the British population, if they are travelling anywhere, prefer to go by car. Nearly three-quarters of the British population have access to a car and a quarter of the population have two cars or more.

Now whilst it is true that life for the driver is far from rosy -- the British motorist has had recently to contend with the introduction of motorway tolls on a stretch of the M6, bus lanes on the M4 and speed cameras on almost every stretch of road -- travelling by car is still the best way to get around Britain. This is because driving enables you to set your own timetable, to explore the British countryside, to go off the beaten track when you feel like it and maybe even indulge in some brown signing (see below).

So what do you need to know about driving in the United Kingdom, other than we drive on the left? Firstly, you must be over 17 and under 70 and ensure that your driving licence has twelve months left on it before it expires. Secondly, you need to make yourself familiar with the Highway Code. No, this has nothing to do with Dick Turpin; it's the quaint name we have for the rules of the road.

Most of our road signs should present no difficulty to you. We have three types: circular signs are orders or prohibitions, triangular signs are warnings, and rectangular signs give information.

Speed limit signs are a number in a red circle. A black diagonal line in a white circle means that the National Speed Limit applies. The speed limits for cars generally are:

  • 30 mph in built up areas
  • 60 mph on single carriageway roads, such as A or B roads
  • 70 mph on dual carriageways and motorways

Bear in mind, however, that these limits can be reduced, so keep an eye out for speed limit signs on normal roads or flashing lights on motorways reducing the speed limit.

Speed limits are a sore point in Britain at the moment, as speed cameras have been set up all over the country. Ostensibly, these cameras are set up at accident blackspots, but many commentators, including several members of Parliament and organisations such as the Royal Automobile Club, feel that the true purpose of speed cameras is to generate revenue. A British motorist caught speeding by a camera or a policeman will have to pay a £60 fine and have three penalty points placed on his licence. The points last for three years and if a driver gets twelve points, they lose their driving licence for a full year.

If you are a tourist from out of the country, however, the police have limited powers to deal with you. There are moves to enable the British police to issue on-the-spot fines, but at present if you speed, you are most likely to be given a warning. In extreme cases you could have your vehicle seized or you might be arrested and held in detention until a court date could be set up, but this is only likely if you have been driving dangerously.

And dangerous driving is what you could be charged with if you are caught driving whilst using a handheld cell phone. This is illegal in the UK, except if you are dialling 999 for the emergency services. If you need to use your phone whilst driving, you must use a hands-free voice activated one.

Finally, you must always wear a seatbelt in the UK, even in the back of a car. You will be stopped by the police if you are not wearing seatbelts.

After you've got to grips with our driving laws, the only other area which might cause you problems is roundabouts. The basic rule is as you approach a roundabout you give way to traffic already on the roundabout and to traffic coming from the right.

National Trust SignSo, now you've got your hire car, let's go brown-signing. This involves driving around the countryside looking for a brown sign, then following it to see where it leads. Brown signs are basically tourist information signs. All English Heritage and National Trust properties are signposted with brown signs, as are other museums, historic buildings, natural attractions, zoos, theatres, gardens and theme parks. Tourist facilities such as pubs, restaurants, hotels and picnic areas are also brown signed.

My husband and I regularly go brown-signing, especially when we are in a part of the country we don't know very well. Some days we hit the jackpot and find astounding places; this is how we first discovered Kirkham Priory before we joined English Heritage. On the same day we also visited a Neolithic monolith and the earth work remains of a castle. On other days we don't fare so well, but the thrill is in the chase and the fun of brown signing is that it is like a mystery tour of the past.

So, read the Highway Code, hire a car and head off into the big brown yonder! Who knows what you might find?

More Information:

Highway Code

Dawn Copeman is a freelance writer and commercial writer who has had more than 100 articles published on travel, history, cookery, health and writing. She currently lives in Lincolnshire, where she is working on her first fiction book. She started her career as a freelance writer in 2004 and has been a contributing editor for several publications, including TimeTravel-Britain.com and Writing-World.com .
Article © 2006 Dawn Copeman
Photos courtesy of Britainonview.com


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