Getting from A to B

Can I walk everywhere?
Almost. Thanks to the Ramblers Association and others who've protested and illegally ambled with intent over the years [see Kinder Scout in
transportation links], you're free to roam over a great deal of lovely British countryside without fear of getting caught in the mantraps filled with crocodiles and piranhas that landowners used to scatter about... unless I'm confusing that with a James Bond movie.

Outside the cities and larger villages there's a scarcity of pavements/sidewalks, so you may find yourself on bridleways, waymarked trails, or a meandering footpath that's been in existence for 5000 years and was formerly trod by druids on their way to the Saturday night bingo and virgin sacrifice. You're encouraged to follow the Countryside Code, which boils down to not trampling over crops, leaving gates and cows as you found them, and remembering not to drop litter or slower members of your party.

You may also find yourself on small country lanes and suddenly forced to hug the hedgerows to let motorised traffic by. Watch out for wing-mirrors.

What are wellies?
Rubber boots which reach up over the calf. Green, or in extreme cases blue or black. Authenticity increases with amount of mud spatter. They don't typically provide much in the way of arch support or basic comfort, but are indispensable for mucky fields. Available at various footwear emporiums and Homebase.

Who has right-of-way on roads?
Cars, except on zebra crossings, which are wide striped pathways straddling the road where pedestrians are given special legal dispensation to ford the endless stream of traffic. Contrary to popular belief you are not required to wave at motorists who let you cross.

Is it safe?
Cycling isn't nearly as death-defying as it might look, particularly in urban areas. Naturally it helps if you're comfortable balancing on two wheels in the first place.
Helmets are popular but not mandatory and certainly not a panacea of protection; bear in mind that they aren't designed for impacts at speeds much higher than about 12 mph, and cars usually travel faster. Useful if you bump into a pensioner and she hits you with her cane, though.

You're permitted to pedal on any road unless it's posted otherwise, which means almost everywhere is fair game. Motorways, which have route numbers prefaced with an M and are marked in blue on maps, are strictly verboten, which is a shame because they have large breakdown lanes and purely in terms of elbow room are superior to many other roads. When journey planning remember that roads which look as if they might be quiet and bucolic on a map could very well turn out to be hell on wheels, and vice-versa.

Laws which apply to motorists apply equally to cyclists. More or less everybody who doesn't cycle will want to remind you of this.

Should I use dedicated cycle lanes?
Ride wherever makes you feel safest. Such facilities are often poorly maintained and appear to have been designed to make cyclists feel suitably second-class. When seeking safe haven on pavements consider dismounting to avoid conflict with p
edestrians and police constables.

Can I rent a bicycle?
Mountain bikes are usually available at one end or the other of more popular designated trails, and occasionally you'll find a bike shop or rental stall in a city. Theft is another option, but there's the bummer of going to hell afterwards.

What is Sustrans?
This is a charity organisation devoted to getting people out of cars for at least some portion of their travelling time on earth. Best known for their work on a National Cycle Network consisting of traffic-free paths and signposted routes which in their opinion are cyclist-friendly.

Johnny-come-lately on the British road numbering scene. The first was the Preston Bypass, opened in 1958 and now part of the M6 and M55. Basically just big, fast roads designed to keep everything moving.
A roads
Main trunk roads have single digit numbers, slightly less important arteries have two digits, and on down to three and four. The numbering system gives a rough idea of where you are in the country, for example 100 and 1000-series indicates Greater London, Essex, Cambridgeshire & East Anglia, and 90 and 900 means you're up in northeast Scotland. See Wikipedia link
for a full explanation. Some sections of A roads have been elevated to motorway status in all but name and have been awarded an (M) tag.
B roads
Lower traffic density. Follows the same scheme as A roads but almost always have three and four digits.
Unclassified roads
Not everything has a number. Many singletrack lanes will be narrower than driveways and of necessity be constructed with the proverbial wide spot in the road to enable passing. From the air they look like a snake swallowing a series of eggs.

How difficult is driving on the left?

That depends. Some people tend to do this anyway when they nod off. Britain certainly
isn't the only country that keeps to the left, but is in the minority. It can initially be very unnerving, particularly if you're renting a car with a manual transmission (cheaper and in greater supply) while also coming to grips with shifting with your left hand and talking on your mobile phone, which incidentally is illegal, demonstration though it may be of dexterity and multitasking. By the way, you haven't lived until you've done the above (minus the phone) while attempting to restart a stalled car halfway up a steep hill with impatient traffic idling behind and below.

Keen to keep UK fatalities down but less worried about road safety elsewhere, the Ministry of Transport (MOT) used to advise motorists "to practise in your country of origin for a week or two before driving in the UK."

The normal learning curve timeline is a few hours of This isn't right but I'd better do as the Romans do followed by a day or two of dreamy unreality, at which point your nervous system will have accepted it and you'll probably only be bothered by the occasional flashback of the way things used to be. Should you continue to be unavoidably drawn to the right, consider a chauffeur or public transport.

Of course, it's that crucial 'getting used to it' period that's of concern to anyone in your potential crumple zone. It may be a weight off your shoulders to know that the courts are notoriously lenient as regards vehicular manslaughter. We won't bore you with common sense advice like practicing in a parking lot (not a school parking lot while it's in session) or Dartmoor (watch out for the sheep). Initially you'll probably be too frightened to drive anywhere else. No, the only real way to learn how to do anything is to just do it. British motorists are famous for their patience and sensitivity.

We found that the mantra left is life, right is death worked wonders. A thick skin also helps.

Do they let anybody drive?
As long as you are in possession of a licence which wasn't doesn't have SPECIMEN stamped on it, from a generally recognised state or country, yes. [Go to the
Driver and Vehicle Licencing Agency site for details.] You aren't required to have an 'international licence'. Visitors can typically drive for at least a year commencing with each new visit; in the case of those from the European Economic Area, indefinitely.

How long can I drive on my foreign licence after becoming resident?
This is entirely dependent on when you want to stop being a law-abiding motorist. The DVLA provides a list of foreign nationals for whom making the exchange is simply a matter of paperwork. Others, including US citizens, have a year's grace to take the written test, bundled with a hazard perception video game, followed by a practical test. The first step in this journey is to acquire a provisional licence, easily done by sending your passport along with applicable form and fee to the DVLA.

If you haven't passed within the year your foreign licence is no longer treated as an honorary British one, and you're immediately demoted to learner driver status with only your provisional licence to sustain you. This means you're not allowed to drive on motorways, and must be "supervised by a qualified driver" (over 21 and held a full UK licence for at least 3 years), even if they were born about the time you first got behind the wheel. To top it off you're required to attach an 'L' plate to your car. You get the feeling they'd like to add 'azy' to it.

Because the British test is more demanding than many others, there is a natural desire to artificially prolong the definition of a year. Visitors get their odometer reset with every booze cruise to Calais. Residents are allowed no such fresh start. According to the DVLA, "Your country of normal residence is taken to mean the place where you usually live and have personal and/or occupational ties." Make of that what you will. Note that students are treated no differently than anyone else.

The truth is nobody keeps track of these things. It won't even come up unless a) your insurance company gets curious, which is quite possible, b) you're stopped by a policeman who perhaps just wanted to tell you to have a nice day, and blurt out the shameful truth in a moment of panic, or c) you break the law in a more obvious way or get in an accident and find yourself in court. You won't go to jail just for driving on an invalid licence, but there will probably be a fine involved (it's up to the judge), with points on your provisional British licence if you have one, generously transferred to your full licence if you get one. Don't have either? Expect a heftier fine delivered with a sterner glare from the bench.

The 'grace year' is theoretically to allow you sufficient time to prepare for the test. PGB opinion is that if you're competent your first day here, 364 days later doesn't change anything other than one's perception that the roads are full of lunatics who managed to pass their test on their Dr Jekyll day. No doubt the year is also meant to keep nonresidents from clogging up the system. Tourism is a big industry, and the government is not about to stop people from motoring from one antique shop to another and giving them sufficient time in which to do it.

About those tests...
The theory test is computerised, multiple choice, and not terribly difficult. Though the unwary can be tripped up by stopping distances on spilled daiquiris and other minutia, if you're blessed with a modicum of common sense it's possible to pass without cracking a book. However, we highly recommend at least a quick scan of the widely available Highway Code
while you're eating breakfast the morning before.

The hazard perception test, which consists of a series of scenarios involving woolgathering pedestrians, always-scary cyclists, your fellow randomly motivated motorists, and dangerously unpredictable road furniture, is trickier because it's perversely biased against drivers who have cultivated fast (i.e., lifesaving) reflexes; click too soon too often and you'll fail. Save yourself unnecessary heartache and wear out a good practice CD.

The practical test is, in many people's experience, a nightmare of mirror-signal-maneuver moments and nervous laughter. Your date for 45 minutes will be a polite but no-nonsense examiner who has been invested with the awesome responsibility of Keeping British Roads the Safest In The World. The tension will mount until that final reverse into a parking bay, when you will be given the news and either enjoy an adrenaline rush of euphoric relief or be struck dumb with the beta blocker of despair, a condition later likely to develop into an acute case of dull rage in which lack of volubility is not a noted symptom. It's all a bit of a drama; a rite of passage wasted on experienced drivers, who are inevitably advised to be grateful they've erased those 'bad habits' picked up in years of somehow managing to stay alive on non-British roads.

Has this man read
the Highway Code?
Is he reading
it now?

What is the Highway Code?
A melange of strongly worded suggestions spiced with red-hot nuggets of law signposted by numerous MUST and MUST NOTs. Its purpose "is to prevent accidents by ensuring that we all adopt the same rules when we use the road." You're advised to purchase a copy at the nearest convenient bookshop [or read it online], absorb its almost biblical wisdom as some would have it, then simply follow Sgt. Esterhaus' advice on that old American TV show Hill Street Blues: Let's be careful out there.

What is a roundabout?
Evidently you haven't been to Milton Keynes. Roundabouts, also called gyratories, are a mystery to anyone used to having their junctions meet at angles, mostly of the 90 degree variety. Traffic streams around a central island - except for mini-roundabouts, where it streams around a central spot of paint - after first yielding to anyone coming from the right. There is true genius in the circle: it allows for smooth changes in trajectory, and if you've taken a wrong turn an easier way to get back to from where you've come has yet to be found, unless it's staying home in the first place.

There is no truth to the rumour that Valhalla is to be found deep in the hearts of the islands in the larger roundabouts. Once upon a time some people went round and round and round and got a little too dizzy. Happened in Milton Keynes.

What is 'pay and display'?
Ubiquitous system whereby a communal parking meter spits out a permit after being fed exact change. You stick it inside your windscreen or lay it on your dash and hope that the dog or baby don't eat it - neither of which should be left unattended in a car we hasten to add, but sitters are expensive.

What is Vehicle Excise duty?
Also a form of pay and display. Popularly known as road tax, though it isn't, as cyclists and certain other users of the Queen's highway justifiably get a free ride. The fee buys you a small round piece of paper which must be displayed on the vehicle's windscreen at all times, and the satisfaction of knowing your money is being spent wisely on more roundabouts.

What or who is the MOT?
Acronym for Ministry of Transport. Also, annual test to ensure your vehicle is still roadworthy and has components (emissions systems, brakes, soft toys in the rear window) which meet the required legal minimum standards. Many garages do MOTs. New cars are exempt for the first three years.

Can I ship my car over?
Yes indeed. It's a crowded little island but there's always room for one more. You can choose between container service (car goes in box) or roll-on roll-off (car sits in parking lot on big boat). The former is more expensive, but you can stuff the container with other worldly possessions. If you fail to ship it over within a year of moving to the UK you'll be asked to pay vehicle import duty or claim an exemption given compelling circumstances. In any case you'll also have to cough up a paperwork fee.

Piloting a vehicle which has its steering wheel on the left is not to be greatly feared. Passing is more difficult, but smacking cyclists upside the head becomes easier.

What is the Knowledge?
Taxi drivers in London are required to pass a test which requires that they download the A-Z [a popular street atlas] into their brain. It's not surprising that the Highway Code can get squeezed out to make room. When taking a cab you should tell the driver where you're going before getting in so he has the opportunity to decide how good a tipper you might be.

Is fuel expensive?
Yes. Most of it's tax. Small price to pay to enjoy the most convenient and devastating mode of personal transportation ever invented.

Larger cities have their own system, e.g. London's tube, or the East Hill Lift railway in Hastings, which runs 81 metres up a 1:1.28 gradient and is chiefly of interest to those escaping the amusement arcades on the promenade. Everything else may safely be called British Rail, though it's actually National Rail and consists of many companies
which go under many names, some more colourful than others.

Intercity trains do just that. They're large, reasonably comfortable and fast, and stupidly expensive. Suburban lines bring the commuters in from the provinces and also tie together the villages and towns but with less showiness than the intercity trains. You buy a ticket at the station, though in some cases can acquire it from the conductor en route.

Nice when it all works.

You'll hear a lot of complaints about the state of services, augmented by a litany of apologies ringing hollowly from tannoys on the platforms.

A great pruning of the national rail network began under British Transport Commission chairman Richard Beeching in the Sixties and carried through the early Seventies, when 40% of the network was dismantled or abandoned to the elements. (Bits of it are now bicycle lanes, thanks to Sustrans.) Then came privitization in the Nineties: the system was broken into pieces which through the magic of capitalism as applied to a vital public service became less than the sum of their former whole. And thus it remains to this day, a shadow of its former glory.

Late? We're sorry. Cancelled? Sorry. Overcrowded? Sorry. The only thing that keeps them from encouraging passengers to ride on top like you see in old movies set in India is low clearance in tunnels, rooftop electrification on some lines, and reports in rural areas of brollies blowing away and getting caught in the sheep. One of the biggest complaints is the appalling lack of communication with passengers. It's quite possible to sit in a stationary carriage for an hour or more without a clue as to the delay and nothing to sustain you but gossip and overpriced tea. When and if you are brought into the loop it will likely be to dispense another volley of apologies as a way of passing the time.

It is not a good idea to leave bags or packages unattended at a station unless you want to get it closed down because of a bomb scare and/or have your bag destroyed or opened by the authorities, who will subsequently have no compunctions about making fun of your taste in knitwear if it hasn't been remotely detonated first.

Can I take my bicycle?
The government is purportedly keen on integrated transport. The message doesn't seem to have filtered through to the train companies. Uttered a Thameslink spokesman who may still be ignorant of how Le Shuttle and many ferries operate: "I have always found it strange that people would choose to take one mode of transport and put it on another." Nevertheless y
ou can usually get your bike on board; it's all down to the the company, and when you wish to travel. Rush hours are a bad idea. Convenient times in general are frowned upon. On intercity and other routes you're required to book in advance and pay a small fee. There is a draconian limit of no more than three on many trains. It's all very chaotic - or thrilling, if you're a glass-half-full person.

Can I talk loudly and at some length on my mobile phone on the train?
No. Although there is technically no death penalty in Britain, repeat offenders will be punished by drawing and quartering. Phones of the departed will then be smashed into pieces and buried in separate corners of the kingdom so they can never ring, or sing, or bleep, again.

(Psssst. Intercity trains typically have a quiet car.)

A rose by any other name. These large people movers are of the same genus but a slightly different species; coaches are usually bigger, better appointed, and go further than buses.

Cheaper than trains, and often unavoidably slower, these provide the missing pieces in the overland transportation puzzle. National Express run the largest intercity network.

Every city and town has buses lurching through its streets, and most villages are on some route, no matter how desultory the timetable. In metropolitan areas a skeleton service may run all night, unlike the trains. They also take over from railways when there are engineering works, heavy-duty raking of leaves off the line, etc.

The classic double-deckers in London are on their way out, by the way. The future is bendy.

It's only natural that an island nation composed of lots of little islands (over 6,000 at last count, but most are home to birds and BBC nature documentary film crews) would have lots of ferries. While over the years bridges have in many places obviated the need for boats, it's still possible to, for example, catch a ride across the Thames at Woolwich in London. Short of hiring a small airplane it's the only way to see most of the western isles of Scotland and other places of interest. The Isle of Wight also remains untethered.

Suffice it to say you can fly between various points within the UK if you're in a hurry. There are dozens of airports, many of them international as borders aren't terribly far away. Most incoming tourists and future taxpayers will be processed through Heathrow or Gatwick, both of which are connected to London with speedy umbilicus.

Balloons are also a transport option but usually take circular routes. You'll see them on a summer's day, filled with toffs spilling their champagne over the groundlings below.

In 1979 Bryan Allen pedalled/flew the extremely light aircraft Gossamer Albatross across the Channel. Away from England.