I met a woman on the train while crossing the south island of New Zealand in 2010, who said the best way to see England was to rent a car, set yourself up in a different town every few days, and do day trips out to the surrounding districts from there. I decided to follow her advice.
I was nervous, I admit. I’m not a confident driver at any time so this was always going to be the challenging part of the trip. Still, it wouldn’t be that different from Australia, surely. They drive on the right side of the road – that is, the left. They speak English so I could ask directions if I needed to. No, it would be fine.
I said goodbye to my extremely tasteful accommodation and climbed into the taxi. We wound our way through the medieval streets to York station, where car rental firms were lined up along the platform.
I squeezed myself and my large bag into a tiny office and handed over my first-ever credit card.
‘The car’s brand new,’ said the girl behind the counter. ‘I’ll ring Jason to show you around it.’ She picked up the phone and a young man appeared. He grabbed my case and we took off along the platform and out into the car park.
‘This is it,’ he said, releasing the boot of a sparkling new black Toyota Hybrid, and heaving the case in. He pointed to the driver’s side door and climbed into the passenger seat.
‘Here’s the key,’ he said, ‘but you don’t need it.’
‘I don’t need it?’
‘No, you just push the ignition button. The car knows what to do.’
The car knows what to do. That’s about the most horrifying thing someone can say to me, the suggestion being I give myself over, completely, to a machine, knowing it won’t let me down – like my computer won’t let me down – and my mobile phone, which hasn’t worked properly since I arrived in the country – and my freshly-serviced motor mower.
‘You’re dumping a brand new machine on me!’
‘You just press the ignition button,’ he said, startled, ‘and the car does the rest.’
My experience with new-fangled gadgets is that they are not to be relied on until years of experimentation have ironed out every glitch, and even then they’re dicey.
I considered giving into panic but then a snippet of common sense drawn from somewhere inside me came to the fore.
‘Where is it?’ He pointed to a button where the ignition key would normally be inserted. I put out my hand to press it.
‘The engine’s already on,’ he said. ‘It’s just so quiet you can’t hear it.’ A quick demonstration of the automatic gear shift followed. ‘That’s all there is to it,’ he said. ‘Would you like a practice run before you go?’
‘Yes … right … that would be good.’ I could feel him holding his breath as I reversed from my parking space and crawled to the fence at the end of the car park and back again.
‘Good luck.’ I’ve never seen anyone leap out of a car and disappear so quickly.
My bus ride to Castle Howard the day before had given me a good look at the road out of town. From the station, if I took the right-hand lane along to the first set of traffic lights and turned right, I would end up in the countryside.
I’d planned my day and the route I was to take. The A59 leads through Harrogate to a very pretty-looking market town called Skipton, which has its own castle.
From there, I would take the turn-off to Haworth, birthplace of the Bronte sisters, where I was staying for four nights.
The Saturday morning traffic was heavy but it conveniently paused to allow me out of the station. I flicked on my right-hand indicator and watched the windscreen wipers click backwards and forwards. I hadn’t thought to check the instrument panel. It was a bit late now, in the middle of a turn.
I landed in the right-hand lane and stayed there, ending up where I wanted be, turning right at the lights. I crawled through suburbs for ten minutes and out onto the A59. So far, so good.
This is an excerpt from the third book in my travel series, Planning to the ‘Nth’. The first, The Edge of the World, describing my adventures while road-tripping around Tasmania, is published as an Ebook through Amazon. To download a free sample or to buy the book, click here.