We Are Friends

by achuggabug

Well, last night was our first night camping. Following a frustratingly expensive day, we decided there was no way to get around the fact that we had to camp for the sake of money, despite the low temperatures and constant drizzle that define the weather here. The day started reasonably well, in that we woke up in a bed and walked downstairs to get breakfast. It was all downhill from there. First, the tires (already paid for) couldn’t be fitted to our wheels because they were van tires; evidently Nick overlooked this, and, legally, the shop couldn’t put them on. So, we spent another 200 pounds on tires, and we’re hoping the others get refunded without too much hassle.

After the tire shop nightmare, we returned to the hostel to load up our car and get ready for the road. It took a little work, but we were finally happy with our setup, trusting that, while it wasn’t completely waterproof, it would do to keep everything relatively dry; keep this in mind, as it becomes important later in the story. From the hostel we set out to find a military surplus store to pick up the last few supplies we’d need. Being the only on comfortable driving a stick, I was behind the wheel.

Now, there are a lot of little differences you can anticipate about driving in a country where everyone uses the wrong side of the road. For example, I expected to have to turn right across traffic. A few things I didn’t expect: you have to look up and left to see your rearview mirror, the blinker and wiper handles are on opposite sides of the steering wheel, the center line is always white (so you’re never really certain if the road is one-way), and there are next to no signs in this entire country. I mean that last part too. When you reach an intersection, there may or may not be a placard on the side of a building to indicate the street you’re turning onto. Needless to say, these things add up to an infuriatingly different driving experience.

What made all of this worse was the fact that only one of my teammates knows how to read a map, but all of them insist on putting in their two cents about where they think I should be going (or, more precisely, when they “don’t really think this is the road”). I try not to be the guy who snaps at backseat drivers, but I really did have to fight to keep it that way yesterday. In the end, I made Chase ride shotgun and took frequent breaks to read the map myself. After nearly an hour, we made it to the military surplus.

From there it was a bit smoother sailing down to the garage to get our service taken care of. We only got lost once along the way, and we ended up getting there within five minutes of our appointment. We dropped the car off just after two and went into town to try and find some of the lunch we’d managed to skip earlier.

Unfortunately, in a small village on the outskirts of Birmingham, most of the restaurants close between lunch and dinner, being locally owned and unable to afford to keep open. Of the twenty places we saw, two were open; we ate at the pizza and fish bar operated by a very friendly Iranian family. To quote the owner’s son, “We are friends, yes? We love your people, just not your government.” There are days when I can sympathize.

On our way back to the shop, we noticed the road we’d come down blocked off by police, and an officer informed us that we wouldn’t be able to walk down the road due to a “major incident”. Flustered, we walked down an adjacent street and tried to navigate our way back to the car. First, there is no such thing as an adjacent street in this country; every road goes at an angle before twisting and turning into oblivion. The British don’t believe in grids. Second, our shop was located on Birmingham Street, which, according to multiple local, is only accessible by either end. I have no idea where the numerous cross streets we saw went to, but evidently they all ended without connecting. On a sad note, the major incident was a man threatening to jump from a train bridge; we never heard how it was resolved, but after a half hour the road was open again.

At the shop we got more bad news. The pads on our front brakes were 90% worn, not enough to make them useless, but certainly such that they’ll need replacing before we get very far down the road. Also, our front right disk is worn and slightly warped, resulting in a noticeable wobble when braking from speed. Overall, it wasn’t the worst news we could have gotten, but we will have to make sure we drive with our brake situation in mind. Once we replace the pads, I think we’ll be fine, we just have to remember the pull if we need to brake hard.

By this time, it had started raining, not heavily, but just enough to call it rain and not drizzle. This would be the theme of the rest of the evening, as the weather faded between a very light drizzle to a legitimate rain. When we reached the campsite, about half of the stuff on top of the car was drenched. Luckily, that didn’t include any sleeping bags or the tent.

We really didn’t have bad luck getting down here, and Chase decided to drive the second half since we were out of the city. I wasn’t able to sleep, but he did a decent job. We got lost once, misreading the directions Google had given us, but it was in a gorgeous part of the countryside in a tiny little village called Wilton. Once we’d straightened that out, we turned down the A303 going the wrong direction, and Chase decided to get creative about finding a way to turn around. After touring another couple quaint villages, one of which was named Thruxton (I can’t remember the other), we convinced him to get back on the 303 going the wrong way until we found a roundabout. We did, and, with a sense of extreme accomplishment, we headed toward Stonehenge.

We made the monument around 9 last night, with still plenty of daylight to get a good look at it from the road. Even having been there before, I was still amazed at its commanding figure sticking out from the gentle landscape of southern England. Unfortunately, the free camping we’d read about on the internet was nowhere to be found, and the man directing traffic had never heard of it. I suspect he knew exactly where we wanted to be, but we weren’t technically allowed to camp there. He did give us directions down the road to a campsite in Orcheston (not free), and just after dark, in a gentle drizzle, we pitched our tent and bedded down for the night. Hopefully, we’ll be on the road before anyone shows up to charge us for our pitch.

From here, I think we’re going to try to see Stonehenge up close, assuming it doesn’t cost too much for the privilege; we’re in extreme budget mode at present. Luckily it seems to be our default response to a stressful day. After that, we’re on the road to Goodwood to get ready for the Festival of Slow and the official start of the Mongol Rally 2012. Nobody else is awake yet this morning, but, as with most mornings, the night’s sleep has left me in good spirits and with confidence about the day ahead.