Posted by: cousindampier | 21 August 2013

Driving in England

This began as a post about mountain biking; but you can see where my mind goes when thinking of transportation. The English have an unfair reputation over many things, but what they secretly do well is breakfast and driving.

On the ride over to Seattle, my Dad and I were discussing why it is so hard to implement a train system in America. The obvious point was the massive amount of infrastructure it requires to make it cheap enough for people to ride it.

But another issue is what most people refer to as the driving culture. Americans love their cars and love to drive. More the point, though: the money needed for upkeep on the Interstate Highway System is way less than the amount of money needed to build brand new infrastructure in a massive scale for train use. Airlines and cars are all we need, because it’s all we want to pay taxes for.

I arrived in London on Friday, and after a quick stop to store my luggage I was on the train to Cheltenham, a place I can’t pronounce the right way. I can say it phonetically, but that English accent gives me fits.

I was off to Cheltenham to meet Din and Becky. I’ve known them going on seven years now, having first met in 2006 when I studied here. I’ve seen them every time I’ve passed through London since, and aside from making me feel enormously tall, they are wonderful friends – and I don’t simply say that because there’s a decent chance they are reading this. I think I say it more because every time I show up they feed me.

I awoke Saturday morning to a bland gray sky, that kind of sky that doesn’t scream rain – it just screams that it is going to threaten to rain all day long. The wind was nearly non-existent. It was around an hour to the mountain biking place we were headed to, and we started that way along a green and gray scene.

And about halfway there, it occurred to me an underrated thing about the English is how wonderful the driving is; and further than that, it is exciting.

Granted, driving is often ruined by other drivers – and England seems to be full of ‘other drivers.’ But it is a beautiful land. It is rolling farmland, rarely forever flat. The road may be on a straightway, but off to your left are small plots of land, broken by short, green hedgerows. Occasionally, the brown dots of sheep broke up the green and gray landscape. Every house was set back, looking warm but deserted of people. Din and I drove through them, Dreamtheater blaring over the speakers, Din doing most of the singing, me occasionally drumming. We talked about guitar chords and how Dreamtheater is an album band where you just can’t listen to one song.

The roads were flat, the kind you could push the pedal down (if there were no ‘other drivers’). Din drives a Toyota station wagon, and he had the bikes loaded in the back, but none of that matters because it was a stickshift and that makes driving infinitely better.

And we made towards the national park and the small section of it devoted to mountain biking, with a rental place, cafe, and those large outdoor seating areas you see at ski resorts. And we hit no traffic – the only problem with English driving is that the occasional massive traffic jams.

But none of that mattered on a day devoid of traffic jams, as we made our way under gray sky and through green fields to take part in a sport growing quickly in popularity, and as Becky passes us she holds one finger up against the window, and Din laughs as she takes the lead.

Another story:

It is Sunday afternoon and Sophie is driving me to the Fareham train station. There is a train at 1:54, which I miss by two minutes. The next train is an hour away. So Sophie asks what I want to do.

“The beach,” I respond.

She pauses. “It is far away, and I don’t want you to miss your next train.”

Fareham has a small dock, where people park their boats. “Let’s just to walk around there,” I tell her.

She is driving at this point. I didn’t look over, but I can imagine her smiling as she answered. “No, I have an idea.”

And so she takes me out towards Portsmouth.

We drove east along a ridge, and it fell away quickly and dramatically to our right. It was grassy, long mixtures of brown and green, dotted by trees, with a winding bay in the distance, and the road seemed to run forever. Portsmouth sat below us, stretched out like a port city, buildings packed on every available space near the water. Only back towards the land did some greenery appear – or, in the case of the middle of the bay, a fortress.

We stopped in a small parking lot, where an ice cream stand and mobile burger joint rested. Sophie and I left the car and sat on a small hill, overlooking the town and the ocean beyond. The gray skies of yesterday were gone, and those fluffy clouds dotted the sky, providing a bit of shade for a bit of the bay, and we sat in the sunshine looking down at the ants dotting the sea below, and the wind blows and makes us cold but we endure it, talking lightly until the time comes we have to stand up and drive back.   

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