Driving in Cornwall: When Good Technology Turns Bad

My spies tell me that sat navs are called GPSes in the States, but in spite of my last post about keeping my American vocabulary pure I’m going to write about them as sat navs, because I’m writing about the way they work here. And also because the idea of purity in language is complete and total bullshit and I don’t want to take myself too seriously on this subject.

I needed a spy network to pin down the word GPS because I never needed one when I lived in the U.S. Or, well, yes, I could have used one during the five years that I drove cab, but they didn’t exist yet, so the thought I need that couldn’t exist either.

Not that I’d have spent the money on one.

I’m a technophobe. I’m a techno-I-don’t-need-it, but even I have conceded that in Cornwall I need a sat nav. Or, to be entirely accurate, I don’t need one myself but will steal Wild Thing’s now and then. She’s a major prophet of the Church of We Need All the Techno We Can Get, so this seems (to me) like a reasonable arrangement.

Irrelevant Photo: Boscastle, Evening.

Irrelevant Photo: Boscastle, Evening.

Now in Cornwall, and probably in the rest of Britain, before the invention of sat navs, people would leave home with a set of directions to a place they’d never been before and 70% of them were never seen again. On a dark night, you can see the faint gleam of their headlights passing like ghosts, still looking for a house called Craggy Bottom, which was supposed to be on an unmarked road somewhere off the A39.

The incident that made me a sat nav user was looking up directions to a meeting on MapQuest or Google Maps or something like that and reading, “Turn right on unmarked road.” Which unmarked road? They couldn’t tell me. Because that’s the thing about unmarked roads: They’re unmarked. It’s one thing if a friend says, “Turn after you pass the bungalow with the brown egg box out front,” but internet directions won’t give you that level of detail.

But sat navs have their own problems. First, you become dependent on them. They tell you to cross the roundabout, third exit, and you cross the roundabout, third exit. The next time you come the same way, do you remember that? Hell no. You need the sat nav again.

But the second problem’s more serious. In parts of Cornwall, they don’t work. Some years ago, Wild Thing and I were walking the dog past a ford and waved down a guy in a delivery van as he was about to leave a paved (and unmarked) road and go up an unpaved, washed out axle-breaker of a vague memory of a former road.

“You can’t get up that,” we told him.

“The sat nav says.”

I don’t think he quite finished the sentence. He had that blank, terrified look of someone who wasn’t taking in anything we said. Part of it would have been our accents—we couldn’t seem any less local if we carried signs saying “We’re not from around here”—and part of it would have been sat nav dependence. The rest, though? When a man doesn’t take in what a woman’s saying, it’s hard not to go back to the words man and woman and think, hmmm.

But never mind. We told him only a four-by-four could handle the hill he was about to go up. We told him he’d wreck the van. He told us the sat nav said.

We shrugged and watched him cross the ford and start up the hill. If a van can look fatalistic, I tell you, his did.

He was lucky. It was a rainy year and the mud was slick, so he didn’t get far enough up the hill to wreck an axle. He slid back, still looking blank and terrified, and he drove back the way he’d come. On foggy nights, I’ve seen his headlights pass me like ghosts, still following directions from his sat nav.

This kind of thing happens all over the country. Sat navs send massive damn trucks down streets that are so narrow they get stuck.  Really they do. They send cars down stairs. Some of the problems you couldn’t predict, but some of them—well, the truly crazy thing is that people do what they’re told. And yeah, I know I shouldn’t laugh but when I see some of the pictures I laugh anyway. It’s the oldest joke humanity knows: Somebody falls down. Follow the link and see if you don’t do the same.

We’re not, all told, a very nice species.

And maybe our sat navs know that, because with the detached serenity of gurus, they’ll spend hours talking us through the mazes we’ve laid down on the surface of the earth and call roads, and then, with no warning, they turn on us. Wild Thing’s first one did it in the middle of the Tamar Bridge—a long, high bridge connecting Devon and Cornwall.

“Turn left,” it commanded.

We came out of our sat nav trance and decided maybe that wouldn’t be a good idea, so she escalated.

“Turn left immediately.”

There really is a lot of water under the Tamar Bridge. And I’m not much good with either heights or water. We turned the sat nav off. It already had a history of going wild when we crossed the moors. If you’ve read the Brontes, you probably know about the moors as a metaphor for something wild and free and frightening, and our sat nav was in tune with all that. It would tell us, “In 18 yards [and it was always 18 yards], turn right.” Or left. In 18 yards, though, there was no road, only hedge. It had an image of us, I guess, breaking loose and driving wild and free across the fields.

Wild Thing retired it and bought a new one whose quirks are more predictable. But even so, near Scorrier both our new sat nav and everybody else’s try to kill people so consistently that the county’s put up a sign, in a panicky set of colors that they use for nothing else, saying, “Turn off sat nav.” The highway entrances were rerouted at some point and sat navs seize the opportunity to send cars the wrong way down exit ramps onto the wrong side of the highway.

So yeah, you need one around here. And you never turn your back on it.

24 thoughts on “Driving in Cornwall: When Good Technology Turns Bad

  1. Trust but verify, as the saying goes. Rules to lie by when GPS-ing (or sat-naving.) Sometimes I miss the romance of plotting a route out on an old school map pulled from the glovebox. Or just putting the car in drive and seeing where it takes you :-) Cheers, Ben


  2. Hi Elllen,
    I love this post. Ever so funny. :)
    We do both, the old-fashioned printed map, which is fun, and the new-fangled GPS [from the female voice and its brand we call “her” “Ms TomTom”], which is (mostly) helpful. When we’re two [my wife and me] we normally use a printed map [if we need one at all]. When I’m on my own here in the US, especially in a big city like San Antonio, I use “Ms TomTom”. What I really like about ours is that it gets traffic information and can guide me around traffic jams. But I agree with yoy. “Ms TomTom” does have her quirks in choosing the route. If I recognize this, I override her. Of course, she’s stubborn and it sometimes takes a while before she gives in and does not repeatedly tell me to do a u-turn or some such thing.
    Have a great weekend,


        • Indeed.

          I once thought I had a decent sense of direction, but that was when I lived around roads that ran in predictable directions. Here, where no road or street runs in the same direction for more than ten yards, I haven’t a clue what direction I’m going in unless I’m looking directly into (a) the sunrise or (b) the sunset. But a have a British friend who finds America’s grid-pattern cities disorienting. It’s all in what you’re used to, I guess.


  3. Your posts are just so clever. Thanks for sharing them with me. I hadn’t realized how much difference there is between us and our “mother country.” Your picture is so clever, but you should show your pretty face now and then. I am the one who needs to cover my face all the time! Oh, old age does hurt, though it surely beats the alternative. Take care and say hi to Ida. Love lots, Ruth Anne

    In God We Trust


  4. They don’t work in Seattle, either. Every now and then you get a nice, clear set of pink lines on the little map, then you drive half a block and the whole thing starts spinning. You have to remember what it told you to do and not get sucked into the black hole of confusion!

    And for the sake of my sanity, I have turned off the voice. I’ll follow the map. I’ll follow the funny little car with big wheels on the pink line. But obey that bossy voice and tolerate her guilt-tripping? No way!


  5. I, too, once thought I had a decent sense of direction until my husband and I visited Cornwall. Being a map reader all of my life, I firmly took charge of navigating our travels. (This was a pre-GPS era.) The problem is that I confused map directions with road signs. As soon as I saw the name of our intended destination on a sign, I’d tell my husband to turn and follow it. Needless to say, we took many detours and saw many unexpected backroads and byways–but fortunately never had to back up more than a few hundred yards to avoid getting mauled by a much larger vehicle. I’m not sure which of us was more exhausted at the end of the day: my husband, from driving on the left side of the road, or me, from constantly worrying about where we were and how the heck we got there to begin with.
    Thanks for the memories.


    • We once followed signs to Altarnun for a good half hour. For reasons I can’t reconstruct, they led us in circles. Now that I can find the place and more or less understand road signs here, I can’t understand how that happened–it all seems (somebody throw something, because I shouldn’t say this) so simple.


  6. A friend of mine just hiked into her 3-season cabin, located a couple of miles up a not-really-drivable streambed/road—when she drives it in her 4-wheel-drive truck every year or two, she walks it first and spray paints the rocks where the truck wheels have to go; this after 10 years or more of owning the place—to find a brand-new Subaru wagon with Connecticut plates abandoned at the end, undrivable, the undercarriage gashed to hell. “Who would drive up that?” I said to her, amazed. “Why would they just keep going?” She said, “The GPS shows it as a short cut to Groton.” She has no idea how they’ll get the car out.


    • That’s a real tribute to human folly, isn’t it? She should take a picture, put it on a road sign, and post the sucker at the entrance of the road. It’s got to be cheaper than towing or teleporting the next one out.

      We have neighbors who use an old car as a greenhouse. Does she need a greenhouse?


      • I think she should just deposit the car itself, perhaps upended on its rear bumper so you can see the undercarriage, at the end of the road as a warning sign. But it would probably turn into a roadside attraction, not *exactly* what she’s looking for!

        A greenhouse is an excellent idea! I’ll suggest that to her. Although deep in the Vermont woods as it is, it may not get enough sun . . .


  7. I’ll apologise now for being one of your pesky tourists. My last adventure down there it was just me, my Mini and a sat nav and I spent 2 weeks lost down endless country lanes, reversing in to farm yards and at one point following an ice cream van because he seemed to be the only person who knew where he was going – I saw every beach on the South coast that day! Not only does sat nav not work but the hedges along the narrow roads are so high you can’t see anything but foliage and sky, distance in miles means nothing – 10 miles could take you an hour down endless winding roads. Could this be a cunning ploy to keep us tourists at bay?

    Liked by 1 person

    • Cunning ploy? Absolutely. But it keeps the rest of us at bay too. I went furniture shopping with a friend (she as buying; I wasn’t), and we wanted to check out two stores in an absurdly small town–one that’s locally famous for being hard to find and harder to get out of. So she used her sat nav, which led us into the middle of nowhere and announced, “You have reached your destination.”

      I swear I heard an evil electronic laugh come out of the thing.


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