Driving in Britain Then & Now

Driving in Britain Then & Now


Driving…if you dare

A friend head­ed for Eng­land who heard about their speed cam­eras asks how many he’ll encounter. Answer: a lot. Even out in the coun­try, they snap away at you.

Hav­ing logged about 80,000 road miles in the UK since 1974, I’ve noticed this and oth­er changes that turned dri­ving from a joy to drudgery. Of course a lot has to do with the huge growth of cars on cramped roads. Per­haps the mod­ern depre­da­tions of the State are a result rather than a cause. Head­ed into Dorch­ester one Sat­ur­day morn­ing, I had to resort to an Ord­nance Sur­vey map to get in using one-track roads—all the arter­ies were packed and stuck.

Big Brother is watching

I recent­ly drove exten­sive­ly in the West Coun­try and the Scot­tish High­lands, and those yel­low cam­eras (some dum­mies) were every­where. They love to put them on the tourist routes. Thank­ful­ly the UK has only a few basic speed limits—30-50-60-70, maybe some 40s, not those incre­men­tal 5 mph changes that bring in so much rev­enue else­where. But an Oxford­shire friend told me he was nailed for 53 in a 50 by the ever-vig­i­lant cam­eras of Big Brother.
Triumph Dolomite Sprint. Still remember the number plate: MVC301M. Where is it now? Probably a Toyota.
Tri­umph Dolomite Sprint. Still remem­ber the num­ber plate: MVC301M. Where is it now? Prob­a­bly a Toy­ota. (Pho­to: Wiki­me­dia Commons.)

When I first vis­it­ed in 1974, I drove a hot Tri­umph Dolomite Sprint from the British Ley­land press pool, 800 miles from Cotswold sto­ry­book land to the Lake Dis­trict and Scot­land. On the way back I drove Carlisle to Lon­don, 300 miles, in four hours. The same lim­its exist­ed, but fast cars went up to 90 on the motor­ways, lane dis­ci­pline was superb, and if you looked like you knew what you were doing you were usu­al­ly left alone. If not and they got you for DWI, the roof fell in, and right­ly so.

It was like dying and going to heav­en. We diced on back­woods A- and B-roads and on wider ones we even passed on curves (“because we don’t have any­thing else,” one Brit told me)—the oncom­ing dri­ver and the passee polite­ly moved over to cre­ate a lane and nobody got ter­ri­bly excited).
All this is gone in the hyper-reg­u­lat­ed age of the all-pow­er­ful State and the Me Gen­er­a­tion. In 2009 I drove a fast six-speed VW Pas­sat Diesel from Edin­burgh to Skye and back and those bloomin’ yel­low R2D2s were all over the place.
Wrynose Pass, Lake District. Phil Rigby's article is linked herein.
Wrynose Pass, Lake Dis­trict. Phil Rigby’s arti­cle in The Guardian is linked in this post.

Possible exceptions today

The only roads you can still have fun on over there are one-lane coun­try tracks with “lay-bys” for pass­ing, where, when an oncom­ing car approach­es, you only argue about who has the hono(u)r of revers­ing. Hard Knott and Wrynose Pass­es in the Lake Dis­trict are still won­ders, though you need to be wary of sheep: here’s a video from a motor­cy­cle.  In flat­ter ter­rain where you can see ahead, you can go like clap­pers. No cam­eras. (I think!)

Adden­dum: click here for a slight­ly clear­er video, but who will watch this for 20 min­utes? That poor bloke had to fol­low a red van. I was nose-to-tail with an MGBGT dri­ven “with assur­ance,” and it was well that only sheep were com­ing the oth­er way.

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