Driving a car in England is no small feat for a Yank, and doing so in London requires a leap of faith. Aside from the obvious problem of driving on the opposite side of the car and a different side of the street, there is the crush of traffic on streets so narrow that it is a wonder that anyone ever makes it out alive from a simple excursion. Nonetheless we were intent on seeing some of the surrounding countryside and towns, so we rented a car and gave the task of navigating it to my brother, Pat, whose resume as a chauffeur is rather impressive. As a college student he had worked for the United States Postal Service delivering mail in one of those paneled trucks with the steering wheel on what is usually the passenger side of the car. He’d also driven a fourteen wheeler for a department store, and both an ambulance and a fire truck for the City of Houston. His credentials certainly seemed to indicate that he was up to the task of taking us out for a little spin.
Aside from the obvious problems associated with driving was the realization that parking is almost nonexistent in London. We wanted to secure a car for a week and travel back and forth to various destinations from our home base at the Holiday Inn in Bloomsbury. Try as we may we had still not found a reliable solution for our parking dilemma after a week of inquiry and we worried that finding a place to store it each evening would be almost impossible. Thanks to the quick thinking and negotiation skills of sister-in-law Becky we were able to set that worry aside.
On the very evening before we were scheduled to secure the car Becky and brother Mike were locked out of their room, forcing them to inquire at the front desk of the hotel as to why this was so. They learned that the manager wanted them change to a different location, an up grade in fact, so that a handicapped individual would be in an adjoining room to his traveling party. They begged Becky and Mike for understanding and even insured them that the process of moving would be taken care of by members of the staff. Becky saw an opening for a special request and boldly mentioned our concern with having a place to park the car that we were going to rent for a week. She noted that there appeared to be a few empty parking spots right in front of the hotel and suggested that they would be ideal. A few words with the manager made everyone happy, as he gladly announced that he would be overjoyed to provide us with the needed parking slot. Our most worrisome problem was instantly solved!
The next morning we all walked to the Hertz rental location taking a long and circuitous route around the neighborhood before finally finding a small office on a hidden street. Since Pat was going to be the driver he had to secure the actual rental agreement which required documents that he had not brought, so there was another brief delay as he walked back to the hotel. Not long after noon we were excitedly piling into a Citroen that was supposedly designed for as many as seven people. We immediately realized that seats other than those in the very front were meant for only the smallest of children. To say that we were cramped is an understatement and the seats were not only tiny but also as hard as rocks. It didn’t take us long to refer to the vehicle as “the Rack,” as in an instrument of torture. Nonetheless we were quite excited about seeing more sights in the country so we squeezed ourselves inside and carried on.
As if driving in the country was not going to be difficult enough, the Citroen came with a manual transmission that required shifting gears with the left hand while steering with the right around corners. The second gear had an irritating habit of getting stuck in the worst of situations. It took Pat a bit longer to adapt than he had thought, but his wife Allison was an ever alert navigator by his side who kept him appraised of directions and alerted him whenever he was about to take off a mirror on a parked car. She came up with a way of telling him how to make his turns that eventually worked out well, “Make a wide right” or “This is a tight left.”
The first trip was to Brighton just to the south of London. It became more of a driving lesson for Pat than anything else and we only had a few close scrapes, but at first there was a lot of screaming and backseat driving as we all adapted to the strangeness of being in a car where everything was backwards. Not even Alice’s adventures in Wonderland were quite as ridiculously scary as our first hours in the tiny car.
By the time we reached Brighton we were famished, a bit shaky, and our limbs ached from the cramped conditions. We were more than ready to find a pub where we might enjoy a good Sunday roast and Google led us to the perfect spot. It was located on a neighborhood street and was packed with revelers giving us a sign that the food would be quite good. Happily we were not in the least disappointed.
We sat at an outdoor table where other diners came with their pets, sweet dogs that entertained us as we waited for our dinner. The meal was perhaps the best of our entire trip and husband Mike was particularly excited by the quality and taste of the Yorkshire pudding which reminded him of his own grandmother’s cooking. We splurged by ordering a sticky toffee dessert that was scrumptious and left full, satisfied and relaxed.
The beach at Brighton looked out on the English Channel. It’s rocky surface was not what we had expected and the piers and hotels were not as elegant as they appeared in movies set in the early twentieth century when women wore long white dresses and carried parasols to shade them from the sun. The famous gazebo and pier that is often associated with Brighton was a burnt out shell ravaged by fire and never rebuilt. The skeleton of its ruins sat forlornly in the water. Still it was a lovely place that looked out onto a route to the continent and to a storied history.
We walked on the rocky surface among hordes of sea birds and I even found one pebble shaped like a heart that I stuffed into my pocket as a remembrance of that day. It was nearing nightfall and we still had the drive back to London so we said our adieus and folded ourselves back inside the confines of “The Rack.”
For the most part our return journey was smooth, if uncomfortable, and Pat was quickly becoming a seasoned driver. He took our kibitzing in stride and we joked and laughed about the drawbacks of the car with a bit of lewd language. With grateful hearts we were soon safely parked in front of our hotel and congratulating Pat for getting us back “home” all in one piece. He and “the Rack” had served us well.