Thursday, June 11, 2009

Off to Wales - or Stay to the Left!

About a week before our trip we made a change to our plans. We really wanted to see some old castles – ones that were still much as they would have been when they were in use and not ones that had been renovated or restored during the last couple of hundred years. It seemed that Wales was the place to go. I investigated taking the train there and using it to get to the places we wanted to go since it appeared there were stations within walking distance of three of the four. Chip thought it would be easier and more flexible to rent a car. (Given our great train adventure to Hampton Court, it was probably good thinking on his part!). So we made arrangements to rent a car at Heathrow (easy to turn back in before our flight) and to stay in Cardiff, the capital.

Monday morning we left the hotel early and took a cab to the airport. Since this was a bank holiday, there was very little traffic. Apparently, cars with a manual transmission are the norm in England and since Chip could drive one he decided not to pay the substantial extra amount for a car that was an automatic. In hindsight, that probably wasn’t the best idea.

Heathrow is the third busiest airport in the world and has 5 terminals and roadways full of roundabout intersections (which had only recently caught on where we live). Fortunately, the car rental place seemed to be at the “edge” of the airport and pretty close to the road we needed to head west towards Wales. Unfortunately, it wasn’t quite that simple.

From the moment we sat in the car everything just felt “wrong”. We were both sitting on the “wrong” side of the car, the rearview mirror was tilted the "wrong" direction and although the gearshift was in the middle like it should have been, it was on the "wrong" side of the driver, meaning Chip would have to use his left hand to change gears (kind of like trying to brush your teeth or eat with a spoon with the "wrong" hand). Even the position of the gears was different and it took a few minutes to get the car into the right gear.

As we left the car lot, we asked the gate attendant how to get to the M4 highway. He made it sound simple – turn right out of the lot and at the roundabout we just had to follow the signs (you can see the junction on the top right hand corner of this map and the car rental place was on Northern Perimeter Road). As soon as we turned out of the lot I reminded Chip to “stay to the left”. It would quickly become our new catch phrase. The feeling of driving on the "wrong" side of the road was somewhat unnerving at first and going into the roundabout from the "wrong" side and in the "wrong" direction was confusing. So we really weren’t that surprised that we missed our turn to the highway and found ourselves headed back into Heathrow (just not in the same direction that we had just come from – that would have been too easy!).

We had hoped to find signs that would lead us back to where we wanted to be. But trying to find and read signs while concentrating on staying on the “right” (left) side of the road made it more difficult. We ended up at a parking garage with only two choices: go into the garage or go through the taxi lane. We picked the taxi lane. What we didn’t know was that taxi lanes at Heathrow are not like the ones we are used to in the states (where you can generally drive around the taxi’s parked in line) and we found ourselves behind two stopped cabs with no way to drive around. The driver in front of us politely explained that there was no way to go through or around them (and any possible way would result in some kind of large fine) and that they could be there for an hour or two. Realizing that there was no one behind us, I quickly got out of the car and ran back down the taxi lane to stop any other cars. Luckily, there were none and Chip was able to back the car all the way back down the lane to the entrance of the garage. One through the garage we spotted signs for the rental car lots and before too long, we had found our way to the M4. We were off to Wales and only about an hour behind schedule!

The drive to our first destination was about two hours. The English countryside along the highway looked much like those in the Midwest United States – fields, cows, some houses and the occasional town. Once on the highway, driving on the “wrong” side of the road was easier and we settled in to enjoy the drive.

Over the course of the next day and a half, I must have said “stay to the left” a hundred times! The four locations we planned to visit were fairly close to each other: Tintern Abbey, Chepstow, Cardiff and Caerphilly castles. But the unfamiliar roads, signage and those blasted roundabouts caused us to invariably end up backtracking because we had missed a turn (or two!) and so it always took longer to get someplace than we had planned.

Fortunately, our adventure of driving in England ended easier than it had begun which was a good thing because we cut it pretty close in returning the car and getting to the terminal for our flight. Once back in Denver, as we turned out of the airport parking lot to head for home, I found myself reminding Chip to “stay to the right!”

Details and pictures of our trip to Wales will be posted over the next several days.


1 comment:

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