September 4 through October 6, 2019 – United Kingdom and Ireland
Written by Jim
Our choosing the U.K. and Ireland as our first destination outside of North America was, first and foremost, a journey to explore Diana’s ancestral roots. With that being said, there also was a certain comfort in knowing the people of these lands spoke the same language as us. That fact allowed us to acquaint ourselves to European culture with relative ease. In wrapping up our trip, I felt it would be fun to highlight some of the unique differences we encountered. If you ever find yourselves making a similar trip, perhaps this post will help in some small way.
Roadways and driving
In speaking with people about our trip, the first thing that usually comes up is the fact we drove a motorhome on the opposite side of the road. While I knew that travelers make that switch every day, there was a bit of fear involved before we got there. We learned early on that we were wise to refer to their style of driving as the ‘opposite’ and not the ‘wrong’ side. Why do they drive that way? Traveling on the left dates back to jousting days, when right-handed swordsmen preferred to keep their opponents on their right. It was the teamsters of the U.S. and France who changed our way of travel in the 1700’s. Using their right hand to whip the teams of horses meant they had to sit on the left. Defense of the wagon fell to the person in the right hand seat, hence the term ‘riding shotgun’. Anyway, the opposite side driving turned out to be a non-issue for me. Perhaps it was the physical act of climbing behind the wheel on the right side of the vehicle that caused me to think ‘this is different’. After a month of driving that way, I was so at ease that I began to fear I’d screw up when I got back home to the States!
So what about driving on the British Isles proved challenging? The biggest issue had to be the varying width of the roads. To be specific, the narrow side roads in England and Ireland which had tall hedges and walls within a foot of the edge of the pavement were the toughest. In a lot of situations, our mirrors were hanging over the lines on each side. I quickly learned to visualize my right front tire (which was under my right foot) tracking just to the left of the center line. Looking in the mirrors on an uncrowded straightaway, I was able to verify that we were centered in the lane. It worked, as we finished the trip with both mirrors intact.
Scottish roads were easier, as roads like this were wide open. If someone had crested the hill in the above photo, I would’ve waited just this side of the pullout to the right up ahead and given a quick two-flash of my lights. They would pull in, I would pass and we’d both give a wave and a smile. And before you think a motorhome doesn’t belong on a road such as this, semi-trucks (known as lorries), tour buses, and farm tractors all use these. Oddly enough, it works well. The main reason it does can be summed up with two words: patience and courtesy. I won’t say road rage is non-existent on the British Isles, but it is extremely rare. Grid lock ends up being a chance to say hi to your neighbors and share a laugh.
Freeways (known as motorways) also present their own challenges. Reverse everything you know, as the left lane is the slow lane. Entrance and exit ramps are also on the left. What is really odd is to look in your mirror as you are entering the motorway and see everyone moving to the center lane. That sort of courtesy is rare in the States. If you ever have the opportunity to drive in the UK and Ireland, its best to leave any aggressive tendencies you may have at home.
Signs take a bit of getting used to. Speed limit signs are round with a red circle around them. I like the red, as it is easy to spot. The UK…including Northern Ireland…are in miles per hour. The Republic of Ireland is in kilometers per hour. That took some getting used to during our five days in Ireland. One note on that: Our rented Tom-Tom GPS only worked in the UK. Once we left Northern Ireland and entered the Republic of Ireland, we totally relied on Google Maps.
Speaking of Google Maps; Diana used it extensively. We had rented a wireless hotspot from Tep Wireless that worked pretty well while on the road. In hindsight, we might have been better to get a SIM card at the airport. There are people in both camps on that subject. When traveling in the States in the same vehicle, Diana would often navigate for me. On this trip, she was more of a co-pilot than navigator, in that I relied heavily on the information she was sending me. She was constantly monitoring the route as if she was driving herself. Roundabouts are plentiful over there, and she developed a great way to get through them.
In this instance, If we entered below and exited at the right, she would say “Roundabout in a half mile. Enter at 6, leave at 3. It’s the 3rd exit, East on A-162”. It was very easy for me to visualize, allowing me to keep my eyes on the road.
A few more things: Signs saying “Slow Down” are there for a reason. The speeds posted going into corners are very accurate. We would go as slow as we needed to. Out of courtesy, we would pull over to let others pass when the opportunity presented itself. With that being said, rest areas are few and far between. In place of that, we found plenty of well marked ‘parking areas’…which are usually a paved pull off on the left. We found those a great spot to not only let people pass, but to also use the motorhome’s bathroom.
On the subject of signs: a few signs had us scratching our heads…especially “Cats Eyes Removed”. Our thoughts immediately went to some poor kitty who had to have it’s eyeballs taken out, and was wandering aimlessly along the roadside. Silly Americans….
These are ‘cats eyes’, the little reflectors in the middle of the road. Where we have a single reflector in the U.S., they have two…giving the appearance of a pair of cat’s eyes reflecting back at you. The U.K. puts up those warning signs during road resurfacing. 🐱
Groceries and Big-box Stores
If you are an American and you shop at Aldi, the experience of grocery shopping in the UK and Ireland will be nearly the same for you. They also have a chain called Lidl (pronounced like Little) that operates on the same concept. As far as traditional groceries go, Morrisons, CoOp, Tesco, Waitrose, and Sainsbury are similar to the U.S.
Asda stores are the most like a Walmart. They should be, as Walmart actually owns them. In general, not one of the grocery stores has the vast selection we have in the U.S. However, we found prices to be much cheaper than back at home. The greatest grocery success story for me personally was the gluten free selection and pricing.
Especially in the UK (not so much in Ireland), the stores had large ‘Free From’ sections. Bread was fresh (not frozen), tasty and cheap. A normal sized loaf of gluten free bread in the UK could be had for just over £2…around $3 US. That would cost me $10 at Publix in Florida. Downside to that is that I would be much heavier if I lived there. 😉
Check this out. All four wheels swivel on their shopping carts. When I first looked at them, I thought ‘how the heck am I going to control that???’ Oddly enough, I left thinking they were the greatest thing ever.
At the checkout, all of the cashiers are seated in desk chairs. Most foreign credit cards require a signature, unless your card has a ‘tap’ feature. Bring your own bags. This store was on the Isle of Skye, where Gaelic is first and English is second on all of the signage. This woman had met U.S. citizens from 48 of the 50 states, needing only Idaho and South Dakota. I told her we would send our friends Jim and Barb her way from the latter state.
One thing the UK and Ireland do exceedingly well is to reuse older buildings. It is common to walk into a 200-plus year old structure and find it bustling with activity. Nothing nicer than to see modern wares displayed in a building with character. The downside to that is that they are, for the most part, not wheelchair friendly. Having dealt with Diana’s mom’s wheelchair, I thought ‘this isn’t ADA compliant!’ I then chuckled to myself when I remembered ‘ADA’ stands for American Disability Act. The other safety concern I repeatedly encountered was outside doors that opened inward. In a fire situation, that could be deadly. It’s rare to find doors on businesses that are like that in the U.S.
In the U.S., most senior discounts start at either age 62 or 65. A bonus for those of us just below that threshold: concession admissions (senior discounts) begin at age 60 in the British Isles, for the most part.
Almost every part of RVing in Europe is different than in the U.S. We stayed in campgrounds wherever we went, as we liked having services available to us. Where our fifth wheel in the U.S. has four 40 gallon tanks on it (fresh, galley, grey and black), our Scout’s tanks were much smaller. With a little effort, we could’ve gone two days without dumping or refilling. We chose to do that daily, so as to not run into any issues. Dumping the black tank is not as simple as attaching a hose and pulling a lever. Instead, we (Jim 🙂 ) had to physically remove the tank (called a cassette) and take it to a central dump (called a chemical waste point). Not fun, but not terrible either. Grey water was dumped by driving over a drain and pulling the lever. Fresh water required us to fill our tank; there was no way to directly connect a hose. Electricity was 10 amp, 230 volts…so we didn’t have a microwave or air conditioning. Nina at Wheelingit can speak to that better than I can, as I believe they just put A/C in their rig in Europe. We also had only a tea kettle, as drip coffee isn’t a thing over there. Neither are fitted sheets. You get one flat sheet and a blanket…which you sleep between.
Restrooms and showers all featured no-peek partitions. Europeans all think we are nuts for having gaps in our stalls. I agree. Who on earth came up with peek-a-boo stalls?
We also were asked when making reservations if we had an awning. There is an extra charge, if you do. We thought to ourselves ‘why would that matter???’ Well…
…this is what they consider to be an awning. We refer to these as add-a-rooms. Most vehicles are too small to haul trailers (called caravans), so people set them up seasonally in these parks, along with an ‘awning’.
And one of the few campground dryers that’s actually dried our clothes was made in the U.S.A. This unit had a traditional vent on the back that allowed the moisture to be released outside. Most dryers were condenser dryers, meaning the water would condense and fall into a tank in the bottom of the unit. They basically get your clothes hot and humid, but nowhere close to being dry. Our purchase of twenty cheap hangers at Tesco the first night proved to be invaluable. There were times our Scout looked like a rolling walk-in closet, with clothes hung from every cabinet handle. 😊
Most parks had well manicured sites that were gigantic. We rarely felt like our neighbors were on top of us. All in all, we really enjoyed the experience of RVing in the British Isles.
Well that wraps up our posts about the UK and Ireland. Next up, we detail our return to Michigan for a bit along with our trip to Florida for the winter. For now, we leave you with a traditional Celtic prayer:
May the road rise up to meet you. May the wind be always at your back. May the sun shine warm upon your face; the rains fall soft upon your fields and until we meet again, may God hold you in the palm of His hand.
Especially that “May the wind always be at your back” part. 😊
Until next time, safe and happy travels to all!