I haven’t dropped off the face of the Earth, but I’ve been traveling in England and to the Isle of Man. When I’ve had time to post, I haven’t had Internet access — and vice versa. So please bear with me, and don’t take this blog off your ‘favorites’ list.
The English countryside and the English seashore are lovely and make for a wonderful getaway. Flying to the UK – primarily London and Manchester – from numerous North American gateways is straightforward, albeit often delayed. I’ve been here for over a week, first at a convention in Manchester and then to a pre-arranged post-convention trip to the enchanting Isle of Man. Now, I’m planning to see something of southeast England over the next few days. My base of operations is Brantridge Park, a stately home turned into a timeshare complex for which I proudly scored a trade. That was the good news. The bad news is that I spent hours looking for the bloody place, which why I now know what my “next time” trip tactics will be.
General Observations & Next Trip Tactics
If at all feasible, I will take the train, especially if I am traveling alone. First off, I really like public transportation. British trains and buses go virtually everywhere. A BritRail card is convenient and not excessively priced for a trip that involves many train rides. Otherwise, pay-as-you go works. Furthermore, renting and driving are turn out to be both expensive and frustrating –and I’m not referring to the expected adjustments of driving on “wrong” side of the road and shifting with my left hand.
Car rental rates are very high. I got a “bargain” from Enterprise – £134 for five days. That’s nearly $240. Also, gas (“petrol”) prices at nearly £1 per liter comes awfully close to $6 per gallon. And in many places (such as the Best Western Gatwick Moat House to which I retreated after fruitlessly searching for the place in the country where I actually should have been staying when I arrived), parking is extra. This motor inn at an airport, not a luxury center-city hotel, charges £6 ($12) a day for parking, even for overnight guests. And yes, guests also must pay extra for shuttle service to and from the nearby airport, and for local phone calls, and for Internet access. How do you say “nickel and dime” in a country that does not have nickels or dimes?
From here on in, I will only rent a car if there are two or more of us. Signage is by and large not terribly enlightening. Once off the limited-access highways (“motorways”), most intersections are roundabouts, driven clockwise and often at fairly high speeds. Advance warning is non-existent. It isn’t until you about to enter a roundabout that you find out how many degrees around it you must travel to the road on which you want to proceed. Sometimes route numbers are also painted on the pavement just before or in a roundabout, but in heavy traffic, that might be too late. Even motorway on- and off-ramps (called “slip roads”) are not marked much better. On this lush island, where everything grows lavishly, trees and bushes obscure many signs.
Traffic in a roundabout, rightly, has the right of way, but merging in can be tricky and merging outward is even worse. Usually four but up to six and even seven roads converge on a single roundabout. Anywhere from one to three lanes of traffic merge in. Drivers usually move into toward the center if they are going 180 or 270 degrees and usually stay on (or move to) the outside when they are exiting. Usually. Signaling a change of lanes seems strictly optional, and most drivers don’t bother. Other drivers roar into each roundabout. These drivers know were they are going, and they seemingly don’t care whether other drivers are similarly enlightened.
The British, usually quite polite in person, are as aggressive as anyone else behind the wheel. Tailgating is a way of driving life. When a stranger slows down a tad to try to get oriented, a sharp blast of a very loud horn is common. I’ve been forced out of the circle and ended up heading who-knows-where, because once out of a roundabout, there are no signs indicating what road you are actually on until you reach the next roundabout. That means once you have committed, by choice or by vehicular coercion, you can’t rectify a mistake quickly, and if the next roundabout is also a complicated one, you are toast. The Brits’ secret to all this is: they know where they are going.
My Automotive Odyssey — or Vehicular Labor of Sisyphus
Being without a navigator, or not being the navigator while my husband or someone else drove, I made some hopeless mistakes. I asked for directions from several very nice people, each of whom sent me a different way in roughly the same area. “How far?” ask I, the befuddled foreigner. “Not too far” or “Just a little way,” is the usual answer. Following written directions is not an assurance of reaching your destination either – or at least, they didn’t help me.
When I was trying to find my lodging in the afternoon, I was told to start on the M23, which becomes the A23. The M23 motorway does spill into the A23, but the A23 also passes near Gatwick Airport, which was the root of my initial problems.
Asking for directions can be less than helpful. At one point, early on, having been derailed into a residential neighborhood and asking where the M23 motorway was, a nice young man, gesturing vaguely, said, “Go left and then go straight over and then go left and there it is.” My efforts to find out whether these opportunities to “go left” were at roundabouts or regular intersections were fruitless. “Just keep going left,” he said in the way of clarification. I went left twice, and never found the hint of a motorway.
Later, when I reached Handcross in the fast-waning light, a T-intersection was described to me as a fork in the road (one direction sign had a couple of villages on it, the other didn’t). The very helpful, very pleasant young man had told me to bear right at the fork, so I turned right at the intersection, which got me very close to my destination.
True Dialogue Lost Foreigner Driving Around the Countryside in the Dark (Me): Which way is to Brantridge Park?
Pleasant Local in a Village Pub (He): Go back the way you came and take your first left and then take your first right and a little way from the end of the road, it’s there. It’s all got signs.
Me: Is that left at a roundabout?
He: It’s your first left.
Me: How far is it?
He: Not far.
Me: Does the road have a name?He: I don’t know, but it’s not far.
Me: Once I get to the road it’s on, how far is it to the end?
He: It’s not far.
But once I reached Handcross and Balcombe, the villages nearest to Brantridge Park, things did not improve. The written directions and reality do not match. According to he RCI resort information sheet and Brantridge Park’s own directions, “…exit at Handcross Turning. Take the B2110 signposted Turners Hill. After a mile bear right just after the Victorian brick water tower, then turn right again into Brantridge Lane signposted Staplefield. After 200 yards, turn left into Brantridge Park entrance.”
In reality, the brick water tower is set back from the road, difficult to see in twilight and impossible to see at night. I was looking for a Brantridge Lane or Brantridge Park sign. What I saw and passed several times was a bright yellow sign on a signpost pointing to Ditton Place. The scarred white wooden signpost barely visible at that intersection is not signed Staplefield at all, but Balcombe and Worth. And, as the lady at reception acknowledged when I finally checked in the next morning, “Our sign is broken. So sorry.”
In daylight, I saw that there is indeed a Brantridge Lane sign, down near the ground and placed at the wrong angle to be visible in the headlights coming from the direction I had, having overshot it because I never saw the water tower. I now know that I did pass it several times. How silly of me not to know that I should have been looking for “Ditton Place” instead of “Brantridge Lane,” and “Balcombe” and/or “Worth” not “Staplefield.” And while Brantridge Park is sort of between Balcombe and Handcross, Brantridge School is in Staplefield.
In any case, I knew when I was defeated. I was becoming increasingly uneasy to be driving at night down unfamiliar narrow, winding lanes lined with tall hedgerows and punctuated with periodic deer crossing warning signs, so I eventually hightailed it back to the airport area, checked into an overpriced Best Western and tried again in daylight.
I finally understand why England hasn’t been invaded since William the Conqueror in 1066.