There is one question I get asked more than any other: is it difficult to drive in the Cotswolds? Why the Cotswolds specifically? Probably because they are synonymous with quaint villages and narrow lanes. A foreigner’s driving nightmare! Especially when you have to do it all on the “wrong” side of the road. But is it really that bad?
I don’t think so. Yes, I admit it: if you want to reach the more remote villages, you need to navigate narrow lanes flanked by high hedges that offer little to no visibility. But if your focus is the main towns, then it isn’t anywhere near as scary as one might think, so long as you are a half-decent driver to begin with.
In this blog post, I’ll be sharing some tongue-in-cheek advice on surviving Britain’s narrow country lanes when faced with a right-hand drive! I hope to not only put a smile on your face, but also give you the confidence to rent a car and explore at your leisure.
I drive all over the world and have written similar articles for foreigners driving for the first time in the USA and Spain. I’ve driven all sorts of cars and vans on the right and left-hand side of the road, sometimes even on the wrong side (I don’t recommend that!). I’ve tackled the crazy dirt tracks of Tanzania driving a safari truck, the steep hills of Madeira in a car with no clutch, and the aggressive highways of New Jersey in a car with windscreen wipers where the indicators should have been! These experiences have given me a particular set of skills though: a long list of tips to make it easier for first-time left-hand drivers like you!
What's in this post:
Is it really that difficult to drive in the Cotswolds?
Yes, there are narrow lanes. But if you are focusing on the main towns, you won’t need to navigate them. Moreton-n-Marsh, Stow-on-the-Wold, Bourton on the Water and Cirencester are all on the old Roman Fosse Way road. It might not be a highway, but it is straight (thank you, Romans!) and plenty wide enough.
You shouldn’t have any concerns about the width of the road going from Moreton-in-Marsh to Broadway either, except for maybe the village of Bourton-on-the-Hill, where the road narrows for 50 yards and may require stopping to give way to larger oncoming traffic. In fairness, traffic is the main challenge in any of the larger villages and towns. It is slow-moving and often busy with people pulling in and out of spaces.
If you plan on exploring Snowshill, the Slaughters or Castle Combe, you need to be happy with narrow lanes!
The trick to narrow lanes
The hardest part about driving on “the other side” of the car is calculating the width of it, which is why narrow lanes seem so much more daunting. If this is your first time driving a right-hand drive, visit the larger villages first, get used to the width of the car by regularly checking your passenger side mirror against the white line and make sure you are not hugging the line in the centre of the road. Believe me, our cars do fit on our roads with room to spare!
Once you are comfortable here, you will be fine on the narrower lanes. Just take it easy, and if you are driving particularly slowly and causing a queue behind you, pull over to let the locals pass when you get a chance. Once you have mastered your fear of narrow lanes, you will have overcome the most difficult aspect of driving in the Cotswolds: your perception!
Automatic vs Manual
Whether you drive a manual or an automatic at home, I recommend hiring an automatic when you attempt to drive on the other side of the road for the first time. It isn’t so much that changing gears is hard with the other hand. I find it actually comes quite naturally. It is more the fact that having an auto give you one less thing to think about!
What about the pedals?
Fear not! They are not reversed! Your right foot is still responsible for the throttle and brake!
What to do if you meet a horse and rider
One of the joys of driving in the Cotswolds is coming across many people making the most of the beautiful countryside. You will likely encounter dog walkers, cyclists, ramblers, and horse riders. When you meet horses on the road, it is really important to be patient and give them space. Even the most bombproof of horses can become spooked, and never necessarily at anything obvious. They also have a mind of their own and don’t always cooperate, so please bear this in mind when instead of walking quietly on the side of the road, they are instead standing sideways in the middle refusing to move! The rider isn’t doing this on purpose!
As someone who has been sat on a horse during some very hairy encounters with vehicles, please slow right down, only overtake if you have time to do so slowly, and give them at least 2 metres of space. I hope it goes with saying, but don’t rev your engine or honk your horn. If the rider hasn’t heard you approach (maybe you are driving an electric car), just wind your window down and shout a friendly hello!
What to do if you meet a flock of sheep
This is called a Cotswolds traffic jam! There is nothing to do but stop and count sheep (just don’t fall asleep).
What to do if you see a Range Rover
If it is parked on the side of the road, chances are it is broken down. It happens regularly! If it is moving, then don’t expect any courtesies; they own the road! And if you don’t believe me, you just need to watch a British drama! The baddies are always driving black Range Rovers! (Sorry for the plot spoiler!!).
Are roundabouts the most difficult thing about driving in the UK?
Roundabouts are a great way to keep traffic moving. And against urban myths, they are straightforward to navigate. All you have to do is give way to the right. If nobody is coming from your right, then it is your right of way.
As far as indicating goes, think of the roundabout as a giant clock. For anything between 12 and 6 (i.e. using the roundabout to turn right), you want to position yourself in the right-hand lane coming into it (if it are multiple lanes), and you want to indicate right. You will only start indicating left after passing the previous exit, at which point you want to signal to people that you are coming off.
When you are using the roundabout to turn left, you want to approach the roundabout in the left-hand lane (if there are multiple lanes), and you will want to start indicating left once you have passed the previous exit. If there is only one exit between 6 and 12, you will want to be indicating left as you approach the roundabout. If, however, there is an exit at 8 and you are taking an exit at 10, then you approach without indicating. Once you have passed that first exist (8), you will start indicating left.
Some roads involve crossing rivers!
We are so lazy in the Cotswolds that we didn’t build bridges and have to wade through rivers to get to the other side! You know your drive is about to get crazy if you see a signpost warning you of a ford! You will find these in Bourton on the Water, Upper Slaughter and Broadwell (potentially other places I am not aware of!).
OK, maybe river is an exaggeration. They are mainly streams, but still need to be taken seriously, especially after heavy rain. Under normal conditions, simply slow down and drive through slowly but assertively in a low gear. If there has been heavy rain, do not attempt to cross the ford unless you are in a 4×4 and know what you are doing.
Not all speed limits are a target!
Speed limits in the UK are marked by round signposts with a red border. In towns and villages, you will mainly come across 20 and 30-mph speed limits. As you move out of town, these will increase to 40-mph before becoming either a 50 zone, or a national speed limit zone. When you see a circle with a black line through it, you can now drive at the national speed limit.
The national speed limit is 60 mph on single-carriageway roads and 70 mph on dual carriages and motorways (unless signposts tell you otherwise). 60 on single carriages is normally acceptable, BUT it also applies to tiny, narrow roads. Just because you are allowed to drive at 60 mph though, doesn’t mean you should! You need to be able to stop within the range of your eyesight. Hiding round the corner could be a horse and rider or dog walker. You don’t want to find out too late that you haven’t left yourself enough stopping distance!
Don’t be an amber gambler!
When I was in the US, I found that the amber light lasted quite a while, which made me pick up a new habit: Green = Go. Amber = Go Faster! This doesn’t work in the UK. The amber light doesn’t last long enough to use it as an acceleration boost. Unless you are already upon the lights, you won’t make it through on amber like you might do in the US, so please come to a stop!
Green fuel is unleaded, black is diesel – and you will need to dispense your own fuel!
Something else that is different from the US! Green is unleaded, and black is diesel! Don’t put the wrong fuel in the hire car, or it could be very costly! And unlike in New Jersey or Spain, you are also expected to put your own fuel in the vehicle.
Brits are very polite… until they get behind the wheel
Brits are stereotypically very polite, with our please and thank yous and diplomatic responses to questions. Of course, there is a fair share of sarcasm added in for good measure, but generally speaking, if stereotypes are to be believed, we are meek and mild. That is, until we get behind the wheel of a car! Once we are cocooned in the safety of our vehicle, safe in the knowledge that road rage is unlikely to escalate into a shooting, we will let out all our pent-up anger and stress on anyone who makes the slightest mistake! So I apologise in advance for my fellow compatriots if you get the middle finger at any point. Just be aware you probably deserved it 😉(JOKING!).
One of the things I love most about America is the big parking spaces. You could swing a bus into them and still have space! In the UK, not so much! They don’t even make home garages with enough space to open the car doors! And they often take the same approach to public parking spaces. So skip that extra mince pie this Christmas, as you might have a few tight squeezes!
You may also be faced with the need to parallel park. No advice there… just good luck!
When parking, make sure you read the little rectangular signs that tell you how long you can park for. On-street parking often has a time limit, which could include a period in which you are not allowed to return. For example, it might say: “Mon–Sat, 8 am – 7 pm, 1 hour, 1 hour no return”. That means that between the hours of 8 am and 7 pm, you can park for 1 hour, and you can’t return to that same street for at least another hour. However, between 7 pm and 8 am, you can park for as long as you like.
In some places, you will need to pay for parking. Most pay machines now accept contactless, or they are connected with a parking app. I’m a big fan of the apps as they allow you to extend your stay without returning to the car. Something that often comes in handy when I find myself having too much fun!
Make sure you know the highway code
The most important thing you can do before driving in the UK is to familiarise yourself with the Highway Code. Although driving rules are similar across most Western countries, they also differ. So, as much as this tongue-in-cheek article gives you some tips, please do not neglect making sure you know the rules of the road!
Still think it is difficult to drive in the Cotswolds?
I hope that after reading this, you feel more comfortable about driving in the Cotswolds. It isn’t as difficult or as scary as many people believe it to be. However, if you really don’t like the idea of driving, you can always explore by public transport or by taking a tour.
I hope you have a lovely time whichever way you plan to explore the Cotswolds! If you are looking for inspiration, check out the blog posts below.