Louisa McGeehan gives an account of her week with us
My driving adventure begins on the Monday morning, catching the 9.45 train, swapping the noise and crowds of King’s Cross for the quiet of King’s Lynn. There’s usually not much that can shift me out of Hackney and heading for the country, but it seems that learning to drive is one such thing. The fear factor of tackling London traffic as a learner has prompted me to head for the hills and not come back until I am competent enough to cope without dual controls.
After years of pretending my inability to drive was the product of a deep commitment to the future of the planet, on hitting 40 I realised it was now or never and never would mean ruling out independence, freedom and the ability to go anywhere without it taking at least an hour on the bus. I did have a go when I was 17 but I stalled when I ran out of money for lessons, not to mention running out of patience with a pervy instructor with a fondness for making knob jokes about the gearstick – I hope he came to a suitably unpleasant mishap in his mini metro. So many years later I am getting behind the wheel again with some trepidation and something to prove to myself.
This week of intensive training is not quite the start of the bumpy journey as I have been spending Saturday afternoons in the company of the lovely Karen in her Corsa. It’s already feeling more than a bit disloyal – cheating on my driving instructor by running off to Norfolk. The guilt is even worse considering that on my first lesson I managed to break her car. Not a big accident and I like to think it wasn’t entirely my fault as she did instruct me not to be too gentle with the indicator and “give it a good push”. Not factoring in the superhuman strength I gained from the pumping adrenalin, it flew clean off in my hand and landed between my feet. A mortifying experience, resulting in the loss of any confidence I could muster while she struggled to improvise a solution with a pencil stuck in the socket. Big apologies to the other student who took their test a few days later and had to make do with a temporary fix. Looking on the bright side, my nearest and dearest suggested that I wouldn’t have to bother learning a turn in the road (as the 3 point turn is now called) as with my superhuman strength I could simply pick the car up and reposition it.
DAY 1 On arrival in King’s Lynn I am met by Pete, my instructor for the week. He is everything I could have hoped for – patient, charming, brimming with expertise and, most importantly, oozing enough confidence for the two of us. Sensibly we get going on an industrial estate to see what I can already do. I am truly pants. I crawl around stalling at every little junction and let myself down thoroughly. Not the best of starts and even Pete starts to sound worried about how I am going to manage to get to a half decent standard by Friday. It turns out I’ve been doing the steering wheel all wrong since my first lesson with the frisbee in 1987. I am also introduced to the revolutionary idea that it might not be necessary to stop at every junction just in case.
Once I’ve convinced Pete I can do the basics and not stall the car every time we stop, he takes it up a gear and we’re off on real roads with real traffic and everything. I don’t know what I imagined – some sort of Disneyland for grown ups where everything goes along very slowly, smiling. Possibly singing “It’s a small world after all”. But no. I’m an innocent abroad and this world is very fast. This may be where London has the advantage – in N16 it’s rare to be able to go faster that 30 but here they are pelting around between 40-60 mph. Until they meet the next set of traffic lights when it is braking all round. Kings Lynn has more traffic lights than anywhere else in the world and they are always just about to turn red. I show willing with the fast driving but it goes against every instinct I have for self preservation and I can’t wait to get back to my 30 comfort zone. Day one ends with me in a trance-like state, not quite believing that it was me doing the driving. In just 5 hours I’ve gone from a nervous Nelly to a sort of ok-ish learner driver. All thanks to St Pete of the Fabulous Fiesta.
Day 2 starts outside the guesthouse without the usual ritual of being driven by the instructor to a safe location. We’re just hitting the road straightaway so it really is time to discover whether yesterday was just a fluke. Soon I am in the swing of it and trying not to wince and ease off the accelerator even when the light is green when suddenly a car decides it would be a good moment to turn right across the road in front of me. Thankfully I prove that I can indeed do an emergency stop. After we do some seriously fast driving – up to 50mph – on main roads with roundabouts, 30 feels fine in town. Pete’s cunning plan works. Then we take it really slow to learn the manoeuvres.
This I love. Nice quiet roads for turning round and reversing. Even turning in roads on a hill and reversing round corners up a slope. It’s like synchronised swimming for cars and it’s all fine by me. Very happy about going backwards as there is no expectation to go fast. It’s all wonderfully under control and the physical dyslexia I feared would strike has been held at bay by crystal clear instructions and the reassuring certainty that turning left is still turning left even when you are going backwards.
Pete’s end of day two talk has only one real pointer and it is, predictably, speed. How I long for the stuff of TV safety campaigns – “just don’t do it kids, it’s not worth it”. However this talk is about the need to go faster when the road allows it and to be able to get away faster at junctions. Logically I understand that although I feel safer and more in control going slow, it will not actually be safer if everyone behind me has to slow down too. That night in the B&B I give myself a good talking to. I will be brave and fearless. I don’t want my gutlessness to hold me back. I also want to make Pete happy – that level of confidence in the face of a shaky reality deserves reward.
Day 3 and Pete is met with “a completely different driver”. He seems genuinely delighted – I am ready to pull away quickly, I speed up and am altogether less of a wuss. We do parallel parking and it’s not too hard at all – why can’t all those people I see who have been driving for years do it I wonder smugly? I am also quite good at the emergency stop which is really handy as we head off into town to practice on small narrow streets with the old folk of Kings Lynn wandering close to the road everywhere I look. Having successful avoided knocking any over, I join them for a nice pot of tea and watch the world go by while Pete takes someone else off for their test. This is the torture we all must face so I look forward to the post-match analysis later for tips.
Later we do some more town driving without mishap but with me needing to be a bit more self-reliant with signs and road markings. There are some very strange ones in Kings Lynn. One way systems on wide roads, two-way traffic on little cobbled lanes and roundabouts so small and flat you could drive right over them without spotting them at all. I do drive over most of one, but only to avoid the person in the wheelchair on the left-hand curb – taking out a ridiculous circle of worn paint seemed by far the safer bet. It’s fair to say it is a popular choice. No-one would shed any tears over the roundabout that wasn’t even worthy of the name.
And then on to the real roundabouts without even a tinge of magic about them. One so large and fast and downright terrifying that Ermintrude, Dylan and Zebedee would be road kill in an instant. I now feel sure that reducing speed, changing gear, selecting the right road position and trying to make a judgment about whether it is safe to join the flow will be my downfall. I can’t imagine how anyone could carry out all those processes without their brain actually exploding from the combination of over-activity and centrifugal force. The end of day talk, however, assures me it will be possible to be more relaxed about them. Rather than breeding contempt, familiarity will breed confidence I’m told. Yeah right! As Friday looms we’ll also be doing some mock tests to find out quite how bad I still am. Low expectations are probably in order to gain any feel good factor from this.
Day 4, the final full day, means completing the aspects I’m still not sure about and getting on to a practice test. Shortness of time means that we combine the two – roundabouts and dual carriageways then the inclusion of these two horrors under test conditions. As usual, Pete is right. I’m a lot happier about what is going on with the roundabouts once my brain is trained to their peculiar ways. Dual carriageways are also not too bad once you’re on them. It’s the getting on I’m not thrilled by. Even as a passenger I get a shudder of fear hurtling down the slip road.
The mock test was a revelation. With Pete sitting there with his clipboard instead of providing helpful hints I fall to pieces in the most ridiculous situations. Stalling unnecessarily when there was no pressure at all and messing up my gears. Of course I fail. But not by too much, so this is actually really good news. Roundabouts and the dual carriageway were fine with nothing really dangerous. Lots of silly minor things I shouldn’t have done but my downfall was gears and stopping on a road marking that said “keep clear”. I’ll be keeping well clear of that one in future, so tonight I have to give myself a real talking to about gear changes. I think I can get to grips with the slippery devils, but I have been relying on Pete nagging me every time a change is necessary and now I need to pull my socks up and focus.
At the end of the day pep talk, Pete says: “of course you know what the good news is about that roundabout?”. Its imminent destruction is too much to hope for, so I’m mystified. The good news is that it is very close to my guesthouse, so Pete suggests I pay it a familiarisation visit on foot. Strange as the suggestion is, I would never ignore the advice of my guardian angel – yes, Pete, I will also be checking out skid pans in London for practice in slippery conditions.
So off I go for a gentle stroll round the roundabout. My observation post gains me some very odd looks. I must look like a trainspotter on her holidays or a large suicidal lemming in a stripy cardigan. I wonder how many crashes I could cause if I whipped out a clipboard and started taking notes? However I do get a good chance to see how people decide when it is safe to emerge. I plan to report back to Pete on the shocking lack of lane discipline.
Going into day 5 and my attempt at the test I would say I’ve probably got a 10 percent chance of success. To have any prospect at all really is a miracle considering where I started on Monday morning. Unlike most candidates I won’t be gutted with a fail. It will be a triumph to have got this far at all. I just don’t want to let myself down, or disappoint Pete. Thankfully he prefers not to come on the test itself, so when I do disgrace myself at least I won’t be seeing his face in the rearview mirror at the time.
Making an early start to get the maximum extra practice in, the morning goes well and I am driving like a pro, or at least someone who might just make it through the test. Sadly the nerves kick in when we arrive at the test centre and my brain turns to mush. What previously felt safe and under control becomes a blur carrying me along with it in terror. My cool head is a distant memory as all around me people are behaving badly and hooting each other. Not me at least. My shaky start becomes a shaky middle and I finally seal my fate on the biggest roundabout King’s Lynn has to torture me with. Everything seems like it is going at breakneck speed and I miss my turn off. Trying to be clever I stay on to have another run at it, but am now so disorientated by speeding around the centre I get confused by a rogue traffic light. I stop and stall and in pure panic some little part of my brain tells me to put the hazard lights on. Once I finally recover from the stall there’s no brain telling me to turn it off again. Just an irate examiner. I have no idea how long it was on before she pointed it out or how I finally made it off the roundabout and safely back to the test centre but the “I’m sorry you haven’t passed” came as no surprise at all. I wouldn’t have passed me.
During instructor feedback, Pete is a star. I know I’ve not done him or myself proud but he still finds a bright side. I am the only person ever to fail by driving around the roundabout with the hazards on. We talk about how it was looking v unlikely that I should actually take the test on Monday and touch and go at points during the week so we agree that getting this far is success in itself. And it is. I even remembered that this particular examiner likes people to visibly check for trains on the level crossing even when it’s open. I can confirm that there were no trains but if there were I’m sure I would have put the hazards on before running for my life.
I was always going to be happy to go home safe enough to practice in a regular car without dual controls and I’ve made it. Thanks to Pete. I couldn’t have done it without him. And I managed not to break his car. Success!
Louisa’s Diary – The Return
Eight weeks later it was Déjà vu all over again as I headed back to King’s Lynn for round two – another day of training followed by the test at the end. This time the first challenge was to re-adjust from my lovely new petrol Fiat 500 to Pete’s diesel Fiesta and to remember how to get above 30 miles an hour – something that I hadn’t managed since my last trip. And, of course, a lot more practice and confidence building. The incentive of having bought a car is a powerful one as it is hugely annoying to own a sexy new car and not being able to drive it without L plates and a co-pilot. So this time I meant business!
Thankfully I could still manage the manoeuvres. The dreaded roundabouts had to be looked directly in the eye and tackled, along with the pesky slip roads and dual carriageways. I hate to admit that even by the morning of the test, the roundabouts were still winning the battle. Poor Pete suffered endless circuits with me failing to get the right exit as my own particular form of physical dyslexia struck over and over again.
Arriving for the test itself, I struck lucky and managed not to get the same examiner – a re-run of July’s horror show on wheels would probably have finished us both off. At last here was my chance to impress. Or, being pragmatic, at least achieve my target of fewer than 10 minor faults. Top priority was to get nerves under control and brain in gear, ideally in harmony with hands on steering wheel and feet on pedals.
As if some celestial being was smiling on me, most roundabouts involved the first or second exit. But the benevolence finally came to an end with a direction to take the fifth exit. Remembering Pete’s instruction to count them off, I did a mental impression of Sesame Street’s Count character: “5 wonderful exits…..ha ha ha” and somehow pulled it off. No lightening bolt lit up the car but the elation carried me back to the test centre to show off my bay parking.
By the time Pete joined us for feedback I had no idea whether it was good news or not. It was only when the examiner said “you can smile now” that it dawned on me. And I kept smiling all the way back to Hackney. Nothing could beat the sense of achievement, thanks to Pete’s brilliant tuition. I’d like to say I’d do it all over again but if I see those roundabouts even one more time….