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A Holiday Drive 'Cross Wales

April 27, 2017

The last Welshman we interacted with (at about 7:00 in the evening on that long, stressful Good Friday), was a handsome, sandy-blond haired woman of about thirty. She tooted her horn and waved while our cars were idling, side-by-side, at a stop light at the entry to a congested roundabout  (traffic circle), on the east side of Cardiff city.  My wife rolled down her window (left side, passenger front), to see what the woman wanted.

 Welsh Flag

"Are you all right?" the she shouted across to us. "Your 'hazards' are on. Do you need help?"

I'd had the four-way flashers on for a couple of hours by then. It was at least the 5th time someone had either waved at us, flashed their lights or pulled in front of us and briefly turned on their hazards as a signal. "We're okay," I called and waved from my right-side drivers' seat.

"We had a flat tire," my wife explained, pointing to the miniature 'donut' spare on the left side front. We'd been driving on it since lunch time; for the past hundred and fifty miles. "Which way to the airport?" My wife asked, since she had the opportunity and was well practiced at asking for directions.

"Go straight on," the Welshwoman said as the light turned green.

 Cardiff

Her recommendation reinforced our best guess but we'd learned a few times already that "go straight on" can be a difficult instruction to follow at a roundabout. We gratefully accepted the advice, though. After the rough day of driving we'd had, we only sort of believed the picture of the airplane and the arrow on the bi-lingual sign post. Our confidence was shaken. We'd been disappointed by the false hope that we could easily get to where we wanted to go too many times that day.

It was my first day driving 'British style' and we'd set off that morning on a 350 mile drive across Wales; southeast to northwest and back again. Our rental car was a driver-on-the-right, six speed manual transmission with no GPS system. I was a bit nervous at the start but had (misplaced), confidence and a folder full of (useless) maps. Within a few hours, I was frazzled, humbled and more than willing to admit that it was not safe for me to be driving in the UK, especially on a busy, National Holiday Easter weekend.

Complicating my inexperience at driving on the 'wrong' side of the road were: the left-hand gear shift, the innumerable and confusing roundabouts, the narrow hedge or stone wall lined rural roads, the unfamiliar dual-language sign-posts (English and Welsh), and my wife's (shall we say) mediocre map-reading and direction-giving skills. Though I wasn't positively destined for doom (I've been driving for nearly 50 years, after all), I was certainly at a disadvantage. By the time I took the wrong exit at a roundabout for the umpteenth time and ended up in downtown Cardiff (where the sandy-blond haired woman tooted and offered help), we'd already spent half the day lost, stopping to get directions or turning around and trying again to "go straight on."

Before I left for my vacation to the UK, I was warned about the driving by a neighbor who'd recently been to Scotland. Besides getting used to shifting left handed and learning where the rearview mirror was, his biggest problem was staying off the left shoulder of the road. Most of the car, as opposed to an America model, is on the driver's left. My neighbor hit the curb with his left side front tire many times, misjudging the distance.

It wasn't long after we left the hotel at the Cardiff airport--even before we were in Brecon Beacons National Park and the sun was fully up--that I'd done the same thing; hit the left-side curb several times. Once, in what was an ominous foreshadowing of things to come, I hit it hard, jarring and startling us both. The next time we stopped for directions I checked the tire. It was scuffed, but okay.

 Brecon Beacons

It took us nearly twice as long as I expected to get across central Wales to the mountain town of Corris, on the border of Snowdonia National Park. I refuse to say (actually, can't count that high), the number of times we made wrong turns. We stopped at a general store or flagged down a pedestrian in a small town we inadvertently found ourselves in to ask directions half a dozen times. We did, however, get to interact with the delightful Welsh people in a much more intimate way than driving "straight on" to our destination would have offered us. But, that was the only good thing about it.

Snowdonia

We were late for our reservation at King Arthur's Labyrinth but they squeezed us in on the next magical boat ride and hike through the centuries old slate mine. The 'haunted house' style presentation of Welsh myth and the legends of King Arthur and Merlin were well worth the effort, even though the above ground "Story of the Standing Stones" trail and the craft/gift shop plaza of the facility were swarming with kids and Easter weekend tourists.

                  King Arthur's Labyrinth

After seeing all we wanted to see there, we headed south with plans to follow the coast all the way to St. David's. We (me particularly, as the driver), were already a bit travel weary. Then, despite our best efforts, we promptly took the wrong exit at the next roundabout. When we found ourselves heading down, out of the mountains with the Irish Sea looming on the horizon, we, yet again, stopped to ask directions.

The friendly cottage owner who was diligently toiling on a woodworking project gave us two choices: turn around and "have another go at the roundabout" a few miles back, or continue on the scenic byway through Tywyn (Twin), then along the coastal road to Machynlleth ('Mac' he called the town). We opted for the scenic route. After all, we were way up there to see how scenic northern Wales really was.

 Town of Tywyn

After passing through the quaint, yacht filled, touristy port town of Tywyn the road got narrower and windier. To my left was a steep, rocky, wooded hillside with an occasional driveway leading off to a cottage or home. To my right, the two lane road was edged by a stone wall. Beyond it, a wooded hillside fell off to the shoreline of an estuary at the north end of Cardigan Bay. Traffic was pretty heavy and more than once I was spooked by an oncoming vehicle whose mirror I was sure I was going to clip. I kept a firm, wrist numbing grip on the steering wheel and ignored the car that was tailgating me.

Inevitably, as my previous experiences had foreshadowed, another car surprised me on a sharp bend and I drifted onto the non-existent left-hand shoulder of the road. I hit something, and pretty hard. There were no curbs there, just rocks. Within seconds, by the feel of the steering wheel and the disconcerting sound change, I realized I'd blown a tire. I was still being tailgated and there was absolutely nowhere to pull over. I drove nearly a quarter mile--long after the low tire pressure alarm went off--before I found a driveway to pull into.

These days, American and British style automobiles have miniature, 'donut' type, 'emergency only' spare tires. Ours was in the sink-well in the trunk. Back in Mr. Drauss's Drivers' Ed class, Vic Bartholomew and I managed to change a tire in 17 minutes. Since then, I've slowly become an old man, but I've had a lot of practice changing tires. I unloaded the tools and spare and got to work. It took me about 20 minutes. The sidewall on the flat was ripped open--probably from a rock--and the spare looked totally inadequate.

While I was grunting, groaning and twisting lug nuts, my wife moseyed over to the wooden fence at a nearby cottage where she heard someone working in the yard.  She found out it was only about eight miles into 'Mac' where there was a tire dealer. "Turn left at the big clock," were the instructions. "Good luck, though, since it is a national holiday," was the helpful Welshman's friendly send off.

We were about 150 miles from our hotel near Cardiff. The spare 'donut' had adamant warnings: "Do not drive over 50mph. Do not drive on for more than 50 miles." Okay, but not only was the tire shop in 'Mac' closed, so was every other place we tried--in Aberystwyth, Aberaeron, Cardigan . . . . By then, our fifty miles were used up. We'd long since abandoned our scheduled sightseeing route and were nervous about just getting 'home.'

City of Aberystwyth

Getting lost at roundabouts (again and again), turning around on narrow roads, occasionally clipping a curb  (with the flimsy spare tire this time), increased our stress levels to almost critical. After turning around, getting directions in town, finding ourselves back where we came from and turning around again, we decided to stop for a break at the first 'petrol station' and mini-market we saw.

Being Americans in a remote corner of Wales, we were the center of attention every place we stopped. Customers and employees lingered, or even gathered around to listen to us talk (we had funny accents: for example, our hotel maid's name was 'Con-day.' She spelled it 'Candy' and we incorrectly pronounced it 'Can-dee'). I enjoyed listening to them talk, too. Conversation between locals was carried out either in Welsh, in a combination of Welsh and English or in a dialect of English that was almost impossible to understand. They also had a 'special' dialect that was more comprehensible to people like us.

Welsh Countryside

One Pound, twenty Pence for a liter of diesel fuel (about $6 a gallon), seemed reasonable at that point. For me, a bag of Red Dragon (the symbol of Wales) potato chips and a Coke went down nice. A bottle of white wine and a styrofoam cup were all my wife needed, since she wasn't driving. With a half a dozen people standing around showing interest, the proprietor of the mini-mart gave us concise instructions on how to get to the nearest Motorway (35 miles away), and onto the right track to Cardiff.

Even though our phones didn't work (we hadn't spent the extra $40 for international service, but will next time), we dug out the rental car paperwork and highlighted the emergency road service number. When we finally hit the Motorway (Interstate type highway), I set the cruise control at 48mph and put my four-way flashers (hazards) on. We had hope, but no confidence, that our tire would hold up for the next hour and a half of highway driving. We'd abused it a little more than we would have liked to.

"Go Straight On"

In most cases, in Wales there are no highway exits like Americans are familiar with. Even on the Motorway they use roundabouts. When we got to Cardiff, as was probably expected, I took the wrong turn again. Instead of heading to the airport, where our hotel was, we ended up in downtown. We finally spotted a signpost with an airplane on it and headed that way. It was there, when we were completely exhausted but suspected the stressful day might nearly be over, that the sandy-blond haired Welshwoman tooted her horn and asked if we needed help.

We needed help, all right, but this time the signposts actually worked and we soon arrived at our hotel--safe and sound might not quite describe our condition. Early the next morning, I drove over to the airport rental car plaza and exchanged my limping, battered vehicle for another. The new one had a GPS system, which came in handy the rest of the week. Before I signed the new paperwork, I not only gave the (even larger), SUV a good looking over but I opened the trunk and inspected the spare tire situation. All the tools were there but it had a little donut, too--oh, well. The other one had done its job admirably. Fortunately, I was rapidly becoming an experienced British style driver and didn't need it.

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