Most of our adventures begin the same way. Jen suddenly has a sparkle in her eye, a devious grin on her face and says, “I have an idea.” To which Craig pinches the bridge of his nose, shakes his head, and says, “Tell me what we are doing.”
Jen-“I want to rent a car in England. You can drive. It will be fine.”
Narrator voice-“It wasn’t fine.”
This grand plan to drive across England was set one year in advance. One year of stressing about distance, returning in time for our flight, and discovering if you need an international license or not. (not in England.) We changed it from train to car about a dozen times. The final decision came down to the ability to stop at Stonehenge and to take part in a famous scenic drive. I mean, how do you not? An added bonus was the ability to pull over at any time you wanted and snap a photo of the lush, green countryside that England is known for.
The plan to drive turned out to be one of the highlights of our trip, or as we like to call it, “Jen’s best idea ever.” (insert Craig eyeroll). Driving in England was a great experience, but what we didn’t expect was that it would require so much concentration. Yes, we should always concentrate while driving, but this was different.
First off you are driving on the opposite side of the road than you are used to. Then all the traffic circles go clockwise instead of counterclockwise. They call them roundabouts and you could have a serious drinking game on your hands if you played, “Take a drink every time the GPS says ‘At the next roundabout.'” Well, maybe not a drinking game, but you get what we mean. Add on that your GPS will have a British accent and you will feel like you are in some type of BBC documentary on all the ways American tourists anger the English locals.
We rented a car from Heathrow Airport, which is 45 minutes southwest of London. Luckily, we did not have to navigate through city traffic, or this may have been a deal breaker. Our final destination, five hours by car, was Penzance, Cornwall, which is a port on the Southwest point of England.
To break up the trip, we stopped to see Stonehenge. We will talk in further detail about that in another blog, but what a stop! Our home base was the Camilla House, a Guest House by the Sea, as their website states. http://www.camillahouse.co.uk The hotelier, Fiona, was hospitable, friendly, informative, and always available. She offered suggestions on activities or sights that might interest us during our stay and was able to answer all our questions. We highly recommend staying here if your travels take you to the Cornish Riviera.
Now, let’s take a step into when things got real. We successfully pulled out of Heathrow Airport into some intense traffic after watching a fellow American pull out of Enterprise, circle the roundabout incorrectly and immediately drive back to park the car. We were feeling confident in our abilities to maneuver the highways of the United Kingdom and totally outlasted someone else. We have got this, and it is so easy…….
Then enters Penzance and getting off the spacious highway. Do you ever see those pictures of narrow roads and cars parked together like sardines? You think to yourself, that can’t be real? It IS real. Parking spaces are scarce, so when we circled our accommodations like the Griswolds circled Big Ben, we knew we had to jump on the first parking space available.
Of course, it was a spot not associated with the Guest House, so he had to move. Remember the sardines? Well the cars were packed so tight it made the collision sensors go off the entire time. It almost became a song you could tap your fingers off the dashboard to. Craig successfully gets out of the first spot, feeling good about his incredible driving skills and pulls into the circular drive that house a half dozen “parking lots” for the establishments located side by side.
Now, we use the term parking lot loosely. It is essentially a small road split up by stone walls that require a car like Mr. Bean’s to park properly. Craig attempts to park, hears the continuous beat of our sensors, ignores them, and you guessed it. Car meet stone wall.
On a side note, always get the insurance on a rental car, especially if traveling in a foreign country. Luckily, we followed that advice. When we turned in the car a few days later, they looked at the damage, saw that we had the insurance, said “No problem. I’m glad you weren’t hurt. Have a great trip home.” Trust us; get the insurance!
We arrived late in the afternoon and left that thing parked and walked to have a much-deserved cider at a nearby pub!
As you may remember from our previous blogs, we are planners. The guidebook we used to plan this trip highlighted a route to take by car to get the best views of this beautiful Coast of England. We embarked on the Penwith Peninsula Drive, AKA the scariest drive we have ever taken!
We excitedly told Fiona of our plan, to which she said, “Wow, that is an adventurous drive.” I am sure what she meant was, “Of course the Americans are going to try and do this. Let’s see how this turns out.” It’s a 14-mile jaunt that is sometimes referred to as the Penzance to St. Ives Loop, which takes you through a few coastal towns. We started out driving around the cove of our home base and came upon Newlyn, basically a continuation of Penzance.
The next port was Mousehole, a seaside town with old brick buildings, some of them seemingly built into the side of the cliffs overlooking it. Many of the roads were one-way, but they sometimes opened into two-way streets, which was in a word, insane.
Picture this; driving in a strange place, in a hilly, seaside cliff town, on the wrong side of the car, in the middle of the road, and to your left is a brick building only 8 inches away, and on your right is another brick building only 8 inches away. Did we tell you that some of the roads were two-way?! We even saw a tour bus, yes a giant tour bus, cruising down the streets with skill we will never understand.
How we made it out of there is still a mystery. Jen sat in the fetal position most of the time through this small port town. The little British voice coming from our GPS was our saving grace or we’d still be circling the warren of streets looking for daylight, clutching the wheel with whitened knuckles and praying at every turn. The drive is going great so far!
Once we left Mousehole, we were introduced to real Cornish country roads. Picture old farm roads with blacktop haphazardly thrown down with no lines. Cornwall’s history is rich with tin mines, the wealth of the sea and the Cornish hedge. Never heard of the Cornish hedge? Let us tell you about them.
They are stone-faced earth banks that line every single road. Every single one. Some are over 4,000 years old and of course are no longer visible, as they are covered in lush green vegetation. They appear to be these soft bushes that will happily soften your crash if you happen to0 go off course. Lies, all lies. They have been there longer than the Colosseum and will gladly test your theory to prove you wrong.
All roads are in fact two-lane roads but give the appearance of one lane road for a single horse drawn buggy. Luckily, there are slight pull-offs every 400 yards or so in case you come upon another vehicle headed towards you, which we did! More on that later.
Our next stop was Lamorna Cove, a hidden cove that was a spot to stop on our itinerary for the day. This part of the drive felt like nothing but blind corners heading downhill. This again is a one lane road trying to be a two lane. Craig is already repeating, “I love my wife, I love my wife” over and over while molding the steering wheel to his grip when we come upon a huge construction truck whipping around a corner straight at us.
Jen, always the calm one of the duo, screams (think Chris Tucker in The Fifth Element.) Craig continues his chant while he swiftly backs up the rental into an abandoned parking lot. Crisis averted! It was cold and rainy by the time we arrived, but we just circled the rim of the underworld, so we were getting out of the car to see the stinking cove. You should have seen Jen’s smile….
Next stop was pulling over to see the Merry Maidens Stone Circle. This was literally jumping a gate, taking a selfie in the pouring rain, and running back to the safety of our car. Jen touched the stones and did not time travel to Scotland, move on Outlander fans.
Does anyone watch Poldark? You know the tin mine that is always present in the show? Well that tin mine is located along the mapped-out drive, and we had to see it. As we are trekking across the Peninsula Craig notices we are below a quarter tank of gas. While Jen is a “let’s roll into the gas station on fumes” kind of person, Craig is the “Oh my God, we are under a half of a tank” kind of person.
Craig takes control of the situation and does a search for gas stations on the GPS, no problem. One pops up that is two miles away and we head that way to ease his mind. We are taking in the unexpected scenery and enjoying the detour. Our favorite British travel companion tells us that our destination is on our right….ummmmm…..that is an abandoned farm. Do you see a gas pump? I don’t see a gas pump. Ok, this is fine. totally fine, no need to panic. We were close to the Minack Theatre, we will just go there, check it off our list and get gas around there.
Minack Theatre is in a word, Spectacular! It is an open-air theater with seats carved out of rock situated on a cliff overlooking the Atlantic Ocean with all kids of vegetation all around you. England takes their gardens very seriously and you feel like you are walking through the Garden of Eden. There is a picturesque cafe on the top overlooking the entire theater. We decide to have a quick lunch, get directions for the closest gas station and head to our next stop.
The friendly wait staff was all too helpful in letting us know that since it is Sunday, all but one gas station would be closed. I’m sorry, come again? The cooks from the back come out and ask how much gas we have left. Craig’s mantra is coming out more like a growl behind me and I give him a small smile and a wink to assure him that we will be totally fine.
One of the cooks informs us that the only petrol station open on a Sunday would be in Penzance. Perfect, we need to go back right where we started. The cook wishes us luck on the amount of gas we have left. Rest easy everyone, we made it on fumes and filled the tank at our home base.
Remember the tin mines we had to see? Forget it, not happening. Craig says to pick two places that do not involve me feeling like I am playing Operation. Easy, we are heading to Land’s End and St. Ives.
Land’s End is a corny tourist dream come true. It is the westernmost point in all of England and has an actual parking lot. There are little shops, cafes and even a couple small rides. There is a photo stand set up that will enter your names, date and a home state. This was a nice breather from the car and gave us a chance to relax.
One more destination. We can do this. The drive to St. Ives is quick and painless now that we are used to near misses with other cars. This beach town is simply stunning and a bright, sunny ending to our adventure. The charming shops surround the small beach and give it a warm, inviting feel. They are famous for their vanilla ice cream and Cornish Pasty. Jen naturally went for the ice cream while Craig indulged in the authentic handheld meat pie. We sat on a pier and silently watched the waves crash the shore. We watched the tourists and locals mingle side by side. We laughed at the day that brought us here. We took in the moment.
When we were ready, we slowly ventured back to our car and soaked in the surroundings. We bought local cheese at a stand we passed and pastries from a small bakery. The drive back to the Camilla House was leisurely and calm. A complete turnaround from the way the day began.
We recalled our near misses and talked about the raw beauty within Cornwall. We managed to pull into our parking spot unscathed and enthusiastically said we would do it again. At the end of the day we said yes to adventure. Yes, to something new. Yes, to the unknown. Yes, to scary. We have another story to add to our life and another time Jen was right. (eye roll.)
Have you ever driven in a foreign country? What is something that you said yes to that scared you? Tell us in the comment section below.
Thank you for reading, and remember, #NeverStopPlanning.