It was my daughters who brought up the subject. They asked rather tersely: Daddy, why do the English drive on the left? No one else does.
I smiled and told them that they (meaning the English) weren’t the only ones who drove one the opposite side of the road just as they (meaning my daughters) weren’t the only ones to ask themselves that question. I have been told that it goes back to the old stagecoach days when the drivers (meaning the ones who drove the horses that pulled the carriage) would sit on the right side of the wagon in order to crack the whips (usually with their right hand) without lacerating the faces of their passengers, which would have been poor for business. This sounded like a nice piece of folklore, but maybe not. Chances are, carriage-driving customs would have had an influence on automobile-driving habits. A little investigation shows that the Romans traveled on the left-hand side. In Europe you had a mix, even within countries. Traffic in Madrid used to be on the left side until the 1920s. That’s why the metro, which is older, still uses it. In fact, Spain is one of those countries which fall under the category of originally having no uniform orientation rules concerning traffic, and I happen to find that fitting.
To some people, taking the motorway may have seemed like a risky way of initiating my experience of commandeering a 1 ton vehicle at high speeds in LHT circumstances, but actually it’s a lot easier. All you have to do is stick to the left lane and let the rest go by and leave you in peace. We stopped only once for a break at a station where my daughters feasted on several Krispy Kreme doughnuts. The success of these sugar-packed pastries in the United Kingdom is nothing short of a puzzlement to me since the first time I had tried one was back in the 1980s in Richmond, Virginia. Krispy Kreme had opened its doors in North Carolina in 1937, but didn’t venture much out of the Deep South until the 1990s…like much of the Deep South itself. They were dirt cheap, a dozen cost something like $1.99, and they efficiently served their primary purpose as excellent fodder for college students with the munchies. I later heard they had expanded rapidly to other parts of the U.S. and even abroad, too fast say some, but I could not have imagined they would be available at service stations throughout Great Britain. This was a kingdom. Royal subjects do not eat Krispy Kreme doughnuts. Good old boys with wavy 70s haircuts and souped up Chevys do. But maybe that was the first sign to expect the unexpected from the English.
If you ask me, part of the blame behind Krispy Kreme’s recent decline must have something to do with the price: in this case, a pack of three went for 4 pounds (That’s about 6 bucks), and that included a discount. I let my children enjoy the Krispy Kreme doughnut experience with the joy that it can bring and quietly said to myself, “That will never happen again.”
There were also other rest stop mainstays: WH Smiths bookstores (there are more of them than actual books in the world…though I should add the company happens to be the inventor of the ISBN catalog system) and Costas, a coffee shop whose ubiquitous presence and food and drink offer make it a kind of hybrid between Starbucks and Dunkin’ Donuts. While in England, I made a point of it of avoiding patronage there as much as possible in favor of supporting the local economy, as usual, it was nice to know that you could get a coffee in just about any nook or cranny of the country whenever you wanted.
Our true destination in Dorset was Weymouth, a lovely seaside town on the southwest coast of the island, was about 2½ to 3 hours away. The trip wasn’t too bad and acted as an infrastructural model for branching out. The route essentially starts out as healthy four-lane highway and then gets progressively narrower from there. Take the M-25 south, then the M-3 southwest. That turns into the A31 and later into the A35, and finally into the A354, which was our road to Weymouth. It’s basically straight on, but toward the end, the roundabouts get a little crazy, especially for a person who has spent the majority of their life circling in the opposite direction. If something was going to go wrong with me at the helm, the roundabout was most likely going to be the scene of the incident, but I fared well enough, requiring only some last-minute assistance from the locals to assure I was heading towards the right place.
We arrived in Weymouth just around dusk, made straight for the apartment we were staying at, which two dear friends had generously made available to us, then tossed our bags in the rooms (after finally learning the secrets of unlocking the front door), and tore down to the harbor for a little dinner because it was close to nine and I knew that meant we were running out of time. We chose a classic meal to kick off the holidays, and a classic place to do so: Fish and chips at Bennett’s on the Waterfront.
You would think that a fast-food venue such as a fish and chips spot would be easy to order at, but that kind of premature reasoning can get a person into all kinds of trouble. It was fish and chips for the three of us. One for each. And large too. We had been traveling all day and the Krispy Kremes had done little more than whet our appetites. The girl who served us was very nice and patient with all of our questions, though she did seem a little startled by what we planned to consume. Large chips too?
“How large is large?” I asked.
She produced a small square paper plate that might have been adequate for a small square sandwich. It looked all right. The three of us were professional French fry eaters. We could handle that. “Go for it.”
What she hadn’t mentioned was that they piled so many chips on that tiny plate, that I could have sworn they used a shovel. The mounds were placed before us and we were invited to poor vinegar on them, which was typical in England but got an odd reaction from my Spanish girls. Clara poked around the top layers of the potatoes and surmised that the portion was so great that the fish must have been underneath. I wished I could have agreed with her, but before I could break the sad truth to her, a slab of crispy fish the size of a surfboard was dumped on top. Ana and Clara were already warning me that there was no way in Hell they would be able to finish that, and I told they that there was no way in Hell I was going to finish mine, so they could forget about Daddy-to-the-Rescue later on.
Ketchup came extra at 30p a sachet, a little steep since I wasn’t used to being charged for ketchup at all, but other than that, everything was great. The good people at Bennett’s shaped the traditional paper used to hold the meal into the shape of a fish, which I said was “cute”, an observation my daughters refused to have me use because in their opinion, “Dads don’t say ‘cute’.”
To turn this typical event into something even more special, we decided to go outside and sit by the harbor to enjoy the food in the cool summer evening air, glad to be able to enjoy anything at that temperature after six weeks of 90+ weather in Madrid. Clara sat her plate on a rock and asked me to take a picture, which I was more than happy to do. Unbeknownst to the three of us, a squadron of seagulls had immediately spotted us as we emerged from the restaurant, they may have even seen us ordering inside, and while I was focused on capturing on film a work of art known as “Hake Atop Mount Chips” one swooped down took a big chunk out of it.
The surprise attack stunned us. Amid dumbstruck laughter and shock, I tried to get each daughter to take charge of her respective plate and retreat to safety before they returned, but they feared that in doing so, the birds would continue to descend on them, this time with the target being in their hands. So my plan was rejected, the girls fled without the victuals, leaving me to grab all three fish plates and run to seek haven from the circling birds. Hitchcock’s The Birds was taking on new meaning in my life. Seagulls with an attitude problem are no fun.
We took cover around a corner and had a good laugh, but the ambush did make things tense for dinner, as each caw from above warranted an immediate search of the skies to see if another terrorist attack was imminent. The gulls stayed away, but they never stopped looming. We knew that the minute we departed, they would dive in and pick up whatever remains we had left behind. The chips were delicious, but the soggy extra greasy kind which would have been great had we ordered just one for the three of us. The fish was tasty too, but the size of the portions and the stress cut our appetite off.
We scrambled to finish what we could, then went for a brief walk down the main pedestrian street, abandoned and almost forsaken at that hour, and afterwards went for a walk on the beach, which we enjoyed very much. It would become our nightly ritual.