Driving in Britain, with its hellish roundabouts and silly road rules, is a right pain in the backside. What’s a girl to do? Take to the skies, of course, says Daisy Prince
One of the turning points in a foreigner’s existence in London is when an inevitable question presents itself: should I get an English driver’s licence? If, like me, you are someone who grew up in a city and has only recently been enticed to spend any time in a place where you are more likely to chase sheep than cabs, then the Herculean effort that must be expended in order to get a UK licence seems completely insane. Still, driving means freedom, so I reckoned I ought to at least give it a go (despite having a perfectly valid US licence).
The DVLA recommends that to pass the test for your UK licence, you need at least 45 hours of professional tuition, and so I dutifully went out and hired a driving instructor who had all the pedantic attitudes of a customs inspector crossed with my high-school maths teacher. Needless to say, the lessons were not a success. I’m not the most patient person at the best of times, and I’m afraid that I tried my driving Instructor’s patience more than once. I’m sure that ferrying around a bolshie American who would argue loudly with him about the impracticality of having to do a reverse turn around a corner was really not his idea of a good time any more than it was mine. English driving is all about rules that don’t really seem to make much sense to someone used to driving on big interstate highways. I could get to grips with zebra crossings and I could even deal with my fear of driving on the left side of the road, but it was the roundabouts that really got me.
America doesn’t have roundabouts, so every time I approached one I felt a little as the soldiers must have when going over the top at the Somme. Cars fly around them at a terrific speed and with no sign of a gap that you can wiggle into. Eventually, white-knuckled with fright, I found my way into the fray. I also developed a habit of raising one hand from the wheel to signal that it was my turn to go. This used to make my instructor bury his head in his hands. After a civilised period of time (five lessons), we decided that a short break from driving lessons wouldn’t necessarily be a bad idea.
Still worse were the lessons I would have with my husband on country roads. Driving in the English countryside is like constantly playing a game of blind chicken with the oncoming car. Roads are so narrow that barely one car can fit along them, let alone two. I kept forgetting to pull out onto the left side of the road and it was really only when Hugh would start shouting, ‘Left-hand side, Daisy, LEFT!’ that I would pull the car quickly out of the way of an approaching lorry.
So for the sake of all concerned I have decided to leave driving aside for the moment and have moved onto an entirely different way of transporting myself. I’m going to take up flying. Maybe I’m just going through a Pussy Galore phase but I’ve always loved small planes, and the danger and speed of flying a small aircraft. It could just be in my blood, as all three of my cousins have their pilot’s licences, and I have a great-uncle who died while serving in the Lafayette Escadrille in France during World War I. Or perhaps it is because flying instructors seem marginally more relaxed than driving instructors.
Even stranger is the fact that though it costs significantly more to get a pilot’s licence (the skills test alone costs £150), the amount of practice recommended before going for your licence is the same: around 45. I took my first lesson at the flying club in Kemble, Gloucestershire. It’s the largest private airfield in Europe and has all the glamour of a 1960s Bond film. I’m not a nervous flier and I’ve always loved little planes in particular, ever since I was a child, as they usually meant going somewhere hot and fun, but I’ve never taken the stick of one before, let alone been allowed to take off.
The instructor had me ease the plane out onto the runway and as we accelerated to 60 knots an hour I gently eased the plane into the air and suddenly we were flying. The flight was pure joy. It was a beautiful, hazy day but we flew across the river Severn to Wales and back. We tried to find our cottage outside Marmesbury. I couldn’t find it. Nervously, I asked the pilot if having a bad sense of direction was a problem in a pilot. He didn’t answer.
Flying back, I simply couldn’t believe how quickly the hour had gone by. It was exhilarating and not at all scary. As we taxied to landing, I was already hooked and thinking about the next time I could fly and how long it would take me to get to my first solo flight. It takes on average fifteen hours of lessons to be allowed to fly on your own – apparently one of the coolest things you’ll ever do. That is definitely my goal for this summer. I only hope that my husband won’t mind driving me to the airfield.