England has roundabouts. This week, I drove from Essex to Dorset and I’ve lost count of how many roundabouts I passed through. This is probably because I went round most of them more than once.
Now before you say I should have been prepared for differences in travel conditions (or maybe even that I shouldn’t be driving in UK at all), I would like to point out that I was prepared.
Even before I boarded my twenty three hour flight to London (yes, London! I have to pinch myself – I am back in the UK), I had printed out maps and directions to every probable destination. Jet lagged and almost sleepwalking, I caught the tube to Holborn, lugged my case up multiple flights of stairs and boarded a Central Line train to Liverpool Street (the station has been done up, by the way – it looks very nice). From there I boarded and Essex bound train and managed to stay awake long enough to disembark in Chelmsford.
At this point, I pulled out the Google Map I had printed prior to departure. Walking down Victoria Street, I turned left onto Duke street, passed Marks and Sparks, Boot’s Chemist, Lush, Debenhams and a roll-call of other English retail names, found Tindall’s Square, and crossed the aptly names stone bridge.
According to my directions, Thrifty Car Hire should have been on the right.
It wasn’t there.
I walked back and forth, scratched my head, retraced my steps. Still no Thrifty Car hire. Or phone. Yes, that’s right my Optus phone plan with global roaming wasn’t working. Neither had my clock switched over to GMT. Not that I needed a clock. Scurrying feet and shuttered shop windows told me it was getting close to home time.
Only, I was along way from home.
At this point, I encountered a couple of police officers. I told them the address: 372 Baddow Road. Showed them my Google map.
They shook their heads.
‘No,’ they said. ‘It’s right down the other end of Baddow Road.’
‘But … how long is Baddow Road?’ I tried to keep my bottom lip from trembling.
‘At least a couple of miles,’ they said. ‘Do you have anyone you can contact?’
Well, of course I had someone I could contact.’
But no phone.
I made a dash for the Vodafone store and managed to squeeze under the roller-door just before it crashed to the ground. But by the time I made my purchase and installed my ten pound SIM card, it was too late to call Mr Thrifty Rent-a-car. He had gone home.
It was time for plan B. Fortunately, I have a godmother in Essex. She came to rescue me.
Now, in addition to my inaccurate Google map of Chelmsford, I had also printed out a map and directions for my trip to Dorset. But I wasn’t taking any second chances. When I picked up my hire car the following morning, I asked if it came with a Road Atlas.
‘No,’ they said, ‘we don’t provide maps.’
‘Well then,’ I said, ‘perhaps I’d better hire a Nat Sav.’
‘Sorry,’ the man shook his head. ‘We’ve run out of those.’
‘Never mind,’ I said. ‘I have Google maps on my iPhone.’
The problem with Google maps, I have found – quite apart from the fact that it is sometimes glaringly inaccurate – is that it require a navigator. Someone to say, ‘take the second exit off the exit roundabout,’ while you keep your eyes on the road. If you don’t have that, you’re in for a long journey.
Google maps gave me an estimated travel time of two hours and forty seven minutes to drive from the village of High Easter to Walkford, on the south coast. But, if you don’t have a navigator, you have to pull over all the time (which is simply not allowed on the M25). Added to which there are the aforementioned roundabouts, or double roundabouts, that look like diagrams for DNA, and have more appendages than Eency Weency.
Hands gripping the wheel, you enter a swirling vortex of British motor vehicles, and pray that you are in the right lane. You circle, once, twice … sometimes even three times, looking for the name on your Google directions. It is not there. Google and British Roads haven’t communicated. Meanwhile, you are driving round and round and round.
In the end you guess. Indicate. Take the second exit, on the first roundabout, drive down the road until you find a wayside stop, pull over, check the little blue dot on your iPhone, only to find you have taken the wrong road. It was the first exit on the second roundabout. You turn back. Yellow plated cars flash past, seismic lorries toot, you hunch forward, a scream rising in your throat, and swing back out into the swirl of traffic, praying you are in the right lane – this time.
It took me two hours to get from Chelmsford to the M25. Six hours to get to Walkham. My uncle was worried sick. The B&B had all but given up on me. At breakfast the next morning (full English – bacon, sausage, mushroom, eggs, tomatoes and toast) the B&B lady said:
‘You’re very brave driving all that way by yourself.’
‘Yes,’ I nodded, munching my toast and trying not to think about the return journey. I had another word in mind, one starting with S and ending with P. I am not doing that journey ever again. Next time I will catch the train.