A Cornish mile and a Cornish saint

Chris White asked what a Cornish mile is, and since I’d never heard of it, I turned to Google and then asked around.

Let’s start with the asking around bit: According to J., it’s one of those flexible distances people use when a car stops and the driver rolls down the window and asks how far it is to Saint Whoosit.

Cornwall has lots of towns named Saint Whoosit, and Saint Whoosit is always a mile from wherever that car stops. At least that’s what J. tells me. Or else the turn to Saint Whoosit is a mile away, right by the bent tree (we have even more of those than we do of St. Whoosits), and St. Whoosit itself is a mile after that.

And ten minutes later, when the car still hasn’t gotten to St. Whoosit, the turn, the tree, or another person to ask? It’s traveled a Cornish mile.

Irrelevant (and out of season) photo: Flower from our back yard. The bee's blurred, but if you look closely you'll see where the snails hide--something I didn't know until I looked at this on the screen.

Irrelevant (and out of season) photo: A flower from our back yard. The bee’s blurred, but if you look closely you’ll see where the snails go to hide–something I didn’t know until I looked at this on the screen.

On the other hand, according to Wikipedia (never mind a link—the contents will have changed by now), the old Cornish mile measured 3.161etc. to nine decimal points miles. And in case you need to know this, a Cornish gallon was 10 pounds, but a Cornish apple gallon was 7 pounds.

How do you measure a gallon in pounds when you don’t know if it holds a gallon of water or a gallon of honey? It’s a unit of weight, not volume, that’s how. You have to admire the English language. It’s not only inventive, it’s downright hallucinatory. Maybe it was something in that honey they were weighing.

The entry also defines a Cornish lace, which is 18 square feet. Or 18 feet square. I can’t see why there’d be any difference between the two, but since I’m mathematically incompetent we shouldn’t trust me on the subject.

According to the Financial Dictionary, though, a Cornish mile is 1.5 miles. Why a financial dictionary’s defining an out-of-date measure of distance is beyond me, but it may tell us something about economists that its definition doesn’t match the other definitions. Not that everyone else’s agree, but they might want to report that other opinions exist. (I don’t seem to hold Wikipedia to that standard, which tells you something about my expectations.)

The two sources do agree on the Cornish gallon, in case that’s relevant.

The Cornish mile could also be (and sometimes is) taken to refer to any number of places in Cornwall where road signs tell you it’s, let’s say, 3.5 miles to Saint Whatsit and then a mile or so later you find another sign saying you have 3.5 miles left to go. Exactly what that tells us about the length of a Cornish mile isn’t clear, but it’s one of the things people talk about when the topic comes up. Some can even cite exact locations for the signs. I can’t, but I did find one when Wild Thing and I were on the way to Saint Whatsit last year.

On the VWT4 Forum (no, I have no idea), Lord of the T4s wrote, “At the junction at the top of Port Isaac, the village which is used for the Doc Martin TV series, there is a signpost on one side of the road which reads, “ ‘St. Teath 5 miles’ and ‘Wadebridge 9 miles.‘

“Don’t move from where you’re standing and look to the other side of the same junction, and another signpost indicates that it’s now 5 1/2 miles to St. Teath and 9 1/2 miles to Wadebridge.”

Two comments down, Maude explains it all. “It’s basically 9 1/2 miles to Wadebridge from there—but if you hurry you can do it in 9.”

Maude, whoever you are, I love you.

St. Teath, by the way, is pronounced teth, not teeth. She lived in the fifth century (and once again I’m drawing from Wikipedia) and was recognized as a saint in Cornwall and Wales. She was also known as Saint Tecla and Saint Tetha, as well as by a variety of other names (Tethe, Thecla, and so on to another nine decimal points). She was a virgin (why anybody had any business asking I don’t know, but folks back then did seem to be obsessed with a small and useless bit of the female anatomy) and one of the missionary companions of Saint Breaca, who jointly brought Christianity to Cornwall. She may have been the daughter of a Welsh king, which also says that she may not have been. Unlike some of her companions, she wasn’t martyred, and according to one theory her name was inserted into the list of companions by accident.


If you’re considered a saint but you got saintified by accident, are you still a saint?

Regardless, it’s still pronounced teth. And she got a town named after her. Take that, all you other companions of Saint Breaca.

What does this have to do with a Cornish mile? Not a thing, but I felt like I owed you a few more paragraphs. And now that you have them, I’m entertaining suggestions for topics you’d like me to write about. In a perfect world, they’d be related to life in the U.K. or U.S., but you never know what will get me going. If you expect anything sensible, don’t ask about physics, math, astronomy, or anything that looks like it might fall into that same category. I also wouldn’t suggesting asking about lace making, carpentry, fashion, hair, car repair, or raising children–especially that last one, because although people who don’t have kids offer lots advice it tends to be useless in real situations.

However, if you don’t expect anything sensible, it’s open season.

I don’t promise to write about your topic. Some things work and some don’t, and I don’t always know in advance which is which. I haven’t written about either stiles or tipping. I’ve tried, and they’re perfectly good topics, but so far they haven’t gone anywhere. I’ll give them a bit more thought and see what happens.

So ask me questions. Or make suggestions. I’ll address as many of them as I can. And I appreciate getting a push in whatever direction. As long as the train isn’t coming.


How to block a road

Our friend J. lives on a back road, which since we’re in Britain is called a lane, but what matters isn’t what it’s called but that it’s narrow and has two ninety degree bends where anything bigger than a little red wagon risks getting stuck forever. It also fords a small, unimpressive stream which can rise enough that driving across it would be really, really stupid.

I may have exaggerated those bends by just the smallest amount. If a normal car couldn’t make the turns, the hamlet would have been cut off for centuries and evolved its own language and customs. And probably its own form of government. So yes, an average-size car with a competent driver who’s used to our roads will be fine. If the driver’s an emmit, though—that’s a tourist, to give you the short definition—a normal car won’t get stuck but the emmit may go paralytic with fear and have to be rescued by someone local who has a calm manner and a gentle voice.

Delivery vans can also get through, and residents have been known to order who knows what-all off the internet: groceries, anvils, sex toys—the same odd mix of the necessary and the even more necessary that people throughout Britain rely on the internet to bring into their lives.

A delivery truck blocking the lane. I'd have missed it, but J. pointed out that it says, "Expert Logistics" on the side. Great logistics, there, folks. Photo by Duncan Walker.

A delivery truck blocking the lane. I’d have missed it, but J. points out the lettering on the side: “Expert Logistics.” Great work on the logistics, there, folks. Photo by Duncan Walker.

But even though delivery vans have been known to enter the hamlet and leave unharmed, tales circulate of larger trucks getting stuck on the bends and—well, the longer the story circulates, the longer the truck is caught on the bend and the more complicated the rescue becomes. By the time the story drifts to the far edges of the parish, houses will have to be demolished and put back together again, stone by stone by stone, and half a dozen tow trucks and rescue vehicles will be stuck as well. They’ll be there for months. Possibly years. A campsite has been set up to house them.

When J. talked about what happens on the lane, she mentioned both trucks and lorries. If you don’t know what the difference is, don’t look to me to clarify the situation because I don’t either. I could look it up but something about the murkiness of the British/American miscommunication appeals to me.

On the morning I started writing this, I had to drive down the lane and through both bends because the police had closed off what we call the main road (anyone who doesn’t live here would call it a back road) after an accident. That made the lane the shortest way around the roadblock. No trucks were caught in either bend. No rescue vehicles were stranded. So I can testify that the road’s open after whatever the last rumored incident was–whenever it may or may not have happened.

I’ve said this before, but it bears repeating: We have no secrets in the village, but we do have a lot of inaccurate information. I’ve also written about this particular set of bends and rumors before. The reason I’m coming back to it now is that J. and A., who also lives on the lane, are trying to get it designated a quiet lane so that sat-navs (make the GPSs if you’re in the U.S.) won’t be able to direct drivers down it. Because right now they do, even when a different route would be easier. Even when it would be not only easier but shorter.

Why do they do it? Because, as the kids where I grew up used to say. (The italics are there because they said it in italics. And that was before any of us knew what italics were.) Once because was the answer, the conversation was closed and logic wouldn’t help. No appeal was possible.

More trouble, same lane. Aren't you glad not to be the driver? Photo by Duncan Walker.

More trouble, same lane. You begin to get a sense of the problem here, right? Photo by Duncan Walker.

One grocery delivery outfit tells its drivers to follow their sat-navs no matter what, so even if they know a route’s insane, they follow them. In Cornwall, that can be lethal, and I mean that literally. Sat navs can take you the wrong way down a highway exit ramp. Less lethally but more locally, some of them will take you up a washed-out, unpaved road that will eat your axles for an appetizer and then come back for your springs and your window glass. I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that if you gave your sat-nav an address in Ireland it would take you straight into the ocean. Because, hey, it is the most direct route.

Are the grocery delivery drivers supposed to keep their foot on the accelerator as the water rises? I don’t know. All I can tell you is that they follow their sat-navs around those two tight, stone-walled bends, although there’s a much simpler way to get almost anywhere. Because, like anyone else, they want to keep their jobs.

So here’s this quiet little settlement plagued by drivers who don’t want to be there and who are sporting that panicked, I-have-a-sat-nav-but -where-the-hell-am-I? look.

A. has committed herself to fixing that. She can be a real terrier, and a terrier’s what’s needed for this. She’s already called a couple of the sat-nav companies and gotten the lane taken off their list of ways to get from point A to point everywhere else. But to back all the companies down, the road has to be designated a quiet lane and the parish council has to impose a twenty-mile-an-hour speed limit.

Last I heard, J. and A. were headed for a parish council meeting and it will be taken care of.

But that won’t entirely solve the problem, because sat-navs don’t update themselves. Their owners have to update them. Which involves paying money—something people may quite reasonably not want to do since they already paid money for the damn things and if they’re not broken, why throw more money at them?

We actually did update a sat-nav once. The update wrecked it. Or maybe the problem was connected to that sledge hammer. Me, though? I blame he update.

So—if I understand the situation—the current generation of sat-navs may have to die before the problem will be solved.

Even so, the hamlet’s closer to a solution than places with equally difficult roads but no resident with the skills, the energy, and the commitment to back down half a dozen sat-nav companies and a grocery delivery service. Trucks will get stuck in those places. Rescue vehicles will pile up behind them. Rumors will grow, but they’ll do that anyway.

All of this leads me to a question: What’s going to happen when driverless cars are turned loose on our roads? My partner, Wild Thing, has macular degeneration and has had to quit driving, so we have a more than intellectual interest in driverless cars. Is she going to end up in a car that decides the best route home is up an unpaved road that will eat one axle and both front doors? Or that takes her down the exit ramp to the A30–Cornwall’s main highway? Or to Ireland by way of the Atlantic Ocean?

She has enough vision left to see where she is, and I’m assuming passengers will be able to stop driverless cars somehow, and maybe even reprogram the route. But what happens to passengers with no vision? Do they have to wait until the feel the water rising? Will the driverless car need a driver? A navigator? An editor? Is all the work focused on how the cars follow the road and avoid accidents instead of on the routes they’ll follow?

How to flood a road

I used to copy edit for a magazine whose editorial standards—I’m trying to be diplomatic here, and that’s never easy—were less than stratospherically high. (This doesn’t sound like it’s about floods, but we’ll get there. Stay with me.) Editing for them was hack-and-slash work whose goal was to create something marginally coherent. I’d clear out the irrelevancies, bolt in a few bits of basic grammar, then run like hell before the whole structure fell in.

One day, because it was grammatically correct, I zipped past a sentence that said, “Water here has no choice but to run downhill.” I’d gone three sentences further on before I ground to a halt and thought: Wait a minute. What does water do someplace else? Stop and ask directions?

I deleted it and I’ve gotten more than my share of laughs from it over the years.

Irrelevant photo: thrift growing on the cliffs.

Irrelevant photo: thrift growing on the cliffs.

Imagine how I felt, then, when I found out the writer really did know something, even if he didn’t say it in a way that gave the rest of the human race a shot at learning from him: The structure of the underlying rock in the area he was writing about—a part of southern Minnesota—doesn’t allow water to filter into the ground easily, so most of it runs off.

It has no choice but to run downhill.

Well, water in Cornwall (and possibly the rest of the country, but I don’t want to go out on a limb here) has no choice but to run downhill. Some of it filters into the ground, but less than I’m used to. During the time I lived in Minnesota, I saw a six-inch rain and a ten-incher. The streets flooded, the roof leaked, the neighbors got out hammer and nails and started building an ark, and our street, which I’d have sworn was as flat as an ironing board, turned out to have a dip where the water gathered and the parked cars bobbed around in the (literal) wake of a passing bus.

Over by the University of Minnesota campus, two people canoed down the street.

In north Cornwall, we can get that kind of drama (minus the canoe) out of two inches of rain. Or one if it comes down fast enough. Especially if it falls on saturated ground. And boy, have I learned to recognize saturated ground.

So my definition of a heavy rain has changed. Even the rain gauge we bought here reflects that: In Minnesota, our rain gauge went up to six inches. Here, it tops out at two.

What happens in a heavy rain here? Drive the back roads and you’ll see water pouring off the fields, often in small waterfalls. Wild Thing once saw it bubbling up through the pavement itself. Some of that water will flow into the ditches and through them to the nearest river and some of it, in the absence of a ditch or in the presence of a blocked ditch, will flow down the road so that the road itself becomes part of the drainage system.

But before it gets to that nearest river I mentioned, some of it will form scenic little lakes in low spots on the roads, most of them shallow enough to drive through but a few of them deep enough to kill an engine. One rainy year, a low spot on the way into our village claimed two cars. The drivers either didn’t notice the flood until they were already in it (that happens surprisingly easily, especially in the dark or just after a blind curve) or they misjudged the depth.

And when the water makes it to the rivers? They rise quickly. This is hilly country, and water around here—oh, I can’t help myself—has no choice but to run downhill. Even tame little streams can go feral and flood roads, houses, bridges, fields, villages, towns. Every so often a car gets swept off the road, and people drown. It’s nothing to fool around with.

Wild Thing and I had to drive to Plymouth once just after a heavy storm, and the roads were flooded in several places. Wild Thing grew up in Texas and Oklahoma and is used to fords. She claims her parents had her wade across so they could see if it was safe for the car. She never did get swept away, so we can’t prove child endangerment. I’m guessing the water wasn’t as high as she thought, but I don’t know that for a fact.

Me, though? I grew up in New York City and my idea of what to do when the water rises is go home and eat bagels.

So even though I was driving, Wild Thing was the one who had to decide if we could get through. An orange traffic cone was bobbing around in one flooded bit, and I did have second thoughts about going through it. And third thoughts. But she swore we could get through and we did, in spite of how low our car is.

By the time we came back, the flood had drained away and the Tamar—the river that separates Cornwall from the rest of the country, which had been out of its banks—had already dropped. The writer who taught me about water and choices might well have added that it also has no choice but to flow downstream.

Driving in Britain: courtesy and narrow roads

British drivers are—at least to an American eye—amazingly considerate. Where two lanes narrow down to one, they merge in turn like the two sides of a zipper instead of edging each other out. When you’re stuck on some side street and losing hope that you’ll ever be able to cross the closer lane of traffic and turn into the far lane, someone will hold back and wave you across. And when the road’s too narrow for two cars to pass, most drivers will pull over if they’re close to a wide spot and see a car coming toward them, or they’ll back up if they know a wide spot is behind them.

You’ll notice, though, that I left myself some wiggle room in that first sentence: I said, “at least to an American eye.” If I’m reading the tea leaves correctly, British drivers believe that [other] British drivers are rude, thoughtless, and hovering every second on the brink of lethal road rage.

Irrelevant photo: a stone circle at Minions.

Irrelevant photo: a stone circle at Minions.

They also—again, if I’m reading the tea leaves correctly—believe that the sky’s not as high as it used to be. But it’s hard to truly know what other people believe. That’s why I turn to tea leaves. I started buying loose tea not long ago, so I’m ready to check the tea leaves for an answer any question.

I do not, however, guarantee accuracy.

But even given my low standards for courteous driving, there’s always someone who’ll break the pattern, and I met him on a very back road some years ago.

It was the kind of road that hasn’t been graded (that, I think, is an Americanism; it means scraped until the humps fill in the potholes and you can drive it without jarring your fillings loose) since Henry VIII was in power. It also had stone walls on both sides and they were are set very close to the road. And for a long stretch, it had exactly one lane to accommodate traffic that ran in two directions. A lot of roads in Cornwall are like that, but this was a particularly narrow one.

I was halfway down it when another car showed up and instead of waiting for me to reach the end of the narrow stretch the driver drove straight at me. Since we were on the only straight road in Cornwall, he either saw me or was driving with his eyes closed. I assume he thought he could make me back up.

When roosters lay fried eggs he could. I kept going and when we were within pitching-a-fit distance of each other, I pulled as far toward the hedge as I could and turned the engine off. And there we sat. If I’d had a deck of cards, I’d have laid out a game of solitaire on the dashboard, but the best I could do was turn on the radio and stare serenely out into space. Eventually, he pulled as far to the left as he could and started nosing past me. Anything so he didn’t have to back up. There’s a bumper sticker around here that says, “Welcome to Cornwall. Your car’s not as wide as you think it is.” Well, mine is as wide as I think it is, and so was his, and I folded my wing mirror in but even so I wasn’t sure we wouldn’t both end up wearing each other’s paint jobs. And that was before his car tipped gently toward mine as his wheels rode up on a (really, very narrow) grassy stretch beside the road.

At this point I rolled my window down and said, “Are you okay?”

It was a serious question.

He stopped inching and said, “What did you say?” and if I’d wanted a fight I could have had one at a discount, although I can’t see how either of us would have gotten out of our cars unless we’d poured ourselves out the windows.

I repeated what I’d asked, and I don’t remember that he answered me, but he turned away and started inching again, and eventually he got past me and I started my engine and left.

I don’t’ know what, if anything, that tells you about driving in Britain. But it does tell you not to take cultural generalizations too seriously. Even when they’re true, you can always find an exception.

Driving in Britain: road signs and narrow roads

When I first started driving in Britain, it was white-knuckle work. Not because I’m a timid driver. I drove cab for five years back in Minneapolis, which  wasn’t a war zone, I admit, but it was and is a city, and the winter driving in particular could be hair-raising. Still, nothing prepared me for British driving.

The part I thought would be hard, keeping the car on the left, turned out to be the easy part, since that’s where all the other cars were and it’s easy enough to stay with the herd. When there’s no herd it was sometimes harder, but if there’s no one around you’ll do the least damage if you turn into the wrong lane. What was hard? Among other things, finding the steering wheel. More than once, I opened the passenger door, prepared to slip behind the wheel and drive, and instead stood there blankly thinking, Somebody stole my steering wheel. Who’d steal my steering wheel?

Look, I’m not responsible for what goes on in my head. As long as I refrain from acting on it, everything’s okay.

Screamingly irrelevant photo: A couple of people asked what the china cottages I wrote about looked like, and what I did with the ones I didn't send to my friend. Here are the ones I have left.

Screamingly irrelevant photo: A couple of people asked what the china cottages I wrote about in my boot sale post looked like, and what I did with the ones I didn’t send to my friend. Here are the ones I have left. The two with the brown roofs are replicas of the one labeled “Shakespeare’s cottage.” Apparently, he lived in three houses and they all looked alike.

I had similar moments with the seat belt, when I’d be groping in mid-air wondering where it had gotten to. (FYI: In British, that would be got to. I have no idea why.) L.’s husband, she told me, spent a lot of his driving time slamming his hand into the door when he wanted to change gears.

But those are moments. They pass. The roads though? They go on for as long as you’re driving, and if you want to get philosophical about it you could argue that they go on regardless of whether you’re driving or not. So let’s talk about the roads.

Before my first trip here, I had no idea how narrow British country roads could be. At every blind turn (and oh, does this country have a lot of them), I was convinced some big damn truck was going to come barreling toward me with half its wheels—and half its everything else—on my side of the road. Because where the roads are seriously narrow, people can’t help driving down in the middle. And in other places, they could but they don’t. Or they don’t always. Its standard practice around here to shave a bit of the curve off two particular stretches of road. They don’t happen to be blind, but still, it’s not a great habit.

It took a long time, but I’m finally used to narrow roads. I’ve stopped expecting trucks to appear in my lane. I can drive the hour and a quarter to Plymouth, where Wild Thing goes for eye treatments (which are working, thanks for asking; there’s a limit to what they can do, but they’re doing what’s possible; six cheers for the NHS, and cheer fast before the government succeeds in wrecking it) without feeling like it’s a big deal. I suspect I could do it without getting out of bed.

But I’ll admit to being thrown by a sign I noticed on a recent trip: Oncoming traffic in middle of road.

The first question I have about this is why it’s worth noting. Even by British standards, the roads in Cornwall can get narrow—something I know because I see panicky British tourists plastering their cars to the hedges while oncoming drivers breeze past, barely bothering to slow down because what the hell, there’s at least an inch to spare. But in most of the places where that happens, you won’t find an Oncoming traffic in middle of road sign. So why put one in this particular spot?

Which was, just for the record, in Devon, not Cornwall, but still, it wasn’t in what I’ve learned to think of as a particularly narrow spot, although once upon a time it would have scared me brainless.

The second question is what they expect me to do what about it. Screaming comes to mind. Some people might want to pray. But neither of those reliably avoids, or even minimizes, an accident.

I can’t answer either question—don’t you love how much you learn from this blog?—but I can happily waste a bit more of your time considering it.

An age or two ago, when I asked what people would like me to write about, Terri suggested British road signs and I tried to be at least mildly amusing on the subject but bored myself silly. I’m not sure I’m being wildly amusing this time around, but I’m still awake, and that’s a good sign, so let’s keep going.

British road signs fall into three categories.

Comprehensible signs

You see a sign that says 30 and you pretty much know you’re looking at the speed limit. Or you see a graphic that shows an intersection, a curve, two lanes turning into one. You can follow those. Or you see words: Ford; Reduce speed now; Slow. Useful but boring, so let’s move on.

Comprehensible (but only if you sent away for the secret decoder ring) signs

A lot of these are standardized European Union signs, which are wordless so that they’re equally incomprehensible in all of the many languages spoken throughout the union. Once you get used to them—well, I won’t say they make any intuitive sense but you can begin to think they do. A circle with a slash through it? Of course that means you can resume the national speed limit. The fascinating thing here is that you just know a whole committee of people spent hours—did I say hours? I meant months, and they felt like lifetimes—talking about what graphics people would intuitively understand. And then finally they looked at each other, said, “Screw it,” and settled on these, after which they went out for a drink.

Make that several drinks. They needed them.

Just to be clear, I’m not blaming them. They were handed an impossible and necessary task. Standardizing the signs makes sense. Making the signs wordless makes sense. Unfortunately, whatever solution you come up with will be absurd.

One of my favorites in this category made me think at first that I was being told to push my car off a pier when, in fact, I was being warned not to drive off one. But after a while, as long as you’re not in the car when it goes over, you begin to figure these things out.

If Britain leaves the EU this summer, a whole ‘nother committee will convene to discuss what to replace them with, because the old ones will be politically tainted. I can hardly wait to see what they unleash on us.

Eccentric signs

Some of my favorites in this category are the signs that warn you about road closures, because the people who write them are paid by the word (it’s the only explanation) and I’ve been a freelancer myself so I understand what they’re going through. They say things like, “We’re really very sorry about this, but we’re going to have to close this road between the hours of 9 p.m. and 6 a.m. on Sunday 3 March in the year of our Lord 2016, and we hope it isn’t too inconvenient, especially since it may actually take a little longer than the time we have scheduled. We’ll finish up as soon as ever we can.”

I don’t care how much you slow down, you can’t read that. Neither can your passenger, even though he or she has the luxury of not watching the road. And you just know the sign writers would have squeezed in a few more words if they’d had a smaller font available.

One of the early signs of Wild Thing’s eye problems was that she had trouble reading road signs. Not just the road closure signs, but you know how it is: If you’re struggling with sane signs and then look at a road closure sign, you forget that you never could read them. Instead, you think, Crap, my eyes are worse than I thought.

So thanks for those, guys. We appreciate your efforts.

Then there are the signs that say “flood.” These are entirely legible to anyone with normal vision and they get put out where a heavy rain will flood the road. Then they get left there through drought and fire and plagues of locusts and they’re still there when the next flood comes around, although they may have faded into illegibility by then. Or been there so long that they’ve gone invisible. When I first saw them, I used to look around for a bunch of badly behaved water. Now, though, unless they’re actually sitting in water I ignore them. Which sort of defeats their purpose.

Directional signs range from the clear to the useless. I’ve driven through cities where the only way to leave a roundabout in the direction you had in mind is to read the markings on the road. (That’s assuming, of course, that you weren’t sharp enough to memorize the graphic of the roundabout that precedes it, which on our first trips here we often weren’t.) Lanes will be marked with things like “City Centre,” “Tavistock,” “Moon Landing Site,” and so forth. So far, so good. You find your lane and follow it. But the lettering on the road is only legible when traffic is thin. The moment other cars are rude enough to think they can share the roundabout with you, what do they do? They drive on the damn pavement. Which means they block the lettering. Which means you go through the roundabout three times, hoping for a gap in the traffic so you can read what they hid last time around.

In the U.S., we hang the directional signs above the traffic. They’re ugly as mud, but you can find them.

Other signs are homemade things. Some are little sparkly things asking you not to litter, which are so upbeat and good humored that you want to (first) sink your teeth into someone’s arm and (second) throw candy wrappers out the window. Followed by vodka bottles. Others are assertive black and yellow signs that say “Overhanging Roof” in the hope that if you’re driving a big honkin’ truck you’ll refrain from tearing the corner off their roof. Again. (Did I mention that the roads are narrow?) Or panicky signs that beg you to ignore your sat-nav because it will tell you to drive into someone’s living room, or into a lake, or down a street that’s too narrow for anything wider than Molly Malone’s fish barrow and we all know what became of her. Ever since we moved here, I’ve been seeing newspaper photos of truck drivers stuck in narrow streets, sometimes for days, while the world tries to figure out how to unstick him (to date and to my limited knowledge, they have all been hims)—or more accurately, his truck—without tearing down the houses. Here’s a photo from January of this year and another from March.  And what did they do in the second incident? Arrested the driver. I guess if you’re driving and you see a house in your way you should probably hit the brakes and all, and maybe a traffic ticket really isn’t enough of a response to someone who doesn’t. Still, I can’t help sympathizing with a driver who’s watching the road get narrower and narrower, feeling an escalating sense of panic, and thinking, If I can only get out of here before anyone sees me, this will never have happened.

If there’s a single sign visitors want to learn before they come to Britain, it’s the one that says, “Ignore your sat-nav.”

I’m not sure any of that is what Terri had in mind when she asked me to write about road signs, but if not, ask the question again in a different way. I just might get it right. Or at least be funnier.

Intercultural adventures: Reading road signs in the U.K. and the U.S.

How do the British and U.S. cultures differ? Read the road signs and you can learn a lot.

Ice Badger called my attention to the issue in a comment about calling cats. I admit, the link between the two topics isn’t obvious, but it made sense at the time. So fasten your seatbelt, please, because we’re going to investigate road signs and I hate driving while someone’s bouncing around loose in the back seat.

A few weeks ago, Wild Thing and I drove past a temporary road closure sign on the slip road onto the motorway. I’ll translate that: The sign was about repairs and it was beside the freeway entrance.

Wild Thing was driving, so she asked, “What did it say?”

Damn near relevant photo, from Wikimedia. An American road sign--apparently part of a Highway Department test of dangerous signs. The speed limit isn't really 625 mph, it's 62.5.   Why would anyone bother with .5 mph in a speed limit? Never mind. Someone had fun with it, I hope.) And the edge of the sign went through the windshield in a test crash.

Damn near relevant photo, from Wikimedia. An American road sign–apparently part of a Highway Department test of dangerous signs. The edge of the sign went through the windshield in a test crash. And the speed limit isn’t really 625 mph, it’s 62.5. Why would anyone bother with .5 mph in a speed limit? Don’t ask.

Signs announcing repairs are so wordy here that we’ve stopped trying to read them while we’re driving. They say things like, “We’re terribly sorry to announce that this road will be closed between the hours of 7 a.m. and 4 p.m. on the fifth day of March in the year of our lord 2016 for repairs. We regret the inconvenience but the work is necessary for the smooth functioning of the United Kingdom’s infrastructure.”

I exaggerate only slightly. The repair work is done county by county, so they wouldn’t say “United Kingdom,” they’d name the county. But the fine points don’t matter. If you’re going to write a 500-word essay on a movable sign, you have to use small print, and that in turn means that drivers can’t begin to read it until they’re on top of it. And then they’re past it and they’ve only gotten as far as “terribly.”

When I’m the passenger (which isn’t often; I tend to get carsick and do better when I drive), I try to pick dates or times out of a sea of letters. If I see “p.m.” after the first number, it’s overnight construction and I can toss the road closure into the mental drawer marked “Stuff I don’t need to know” unless we’re planning some late-night driving. If I can’t pick out p.m, I have to shove it into the drawer labeled “Things I don’t know much about but that worry me.” In an odd way that’s good, since it’s overstuffed and this particular worry won’t get much individual attention.

On the other hand, if the road’s going to be closed for days at a stretch, I might actually need to know that and I won’t. So it’s worth a bit of worry. Maybe I’ll lay it neatly on the top layer.

To all of that, the Highway Department (which isn’t called that, I’m sure—I’m importing an American term) says, “Tough.”

Or “We’re terribly sorry, but this is the way we do things here.”

What would an American sign say in a similar situation? “Road Closed, March 5, 7 a.m. – 4 p.m.” Or something along those lines. In large print.

It all goes to reinforce national stereotypes, I’m afraid: Americans are blunt and to the point. Or rude, if you like. Road closed. No apologies and no explanations. The British say about themselves that if someone stands on their foot, they’ll–the person whose foot is being stood on–will apologize, so their signs first apologize and then throw in a bunch of extra words to soften the blow.

The Cornish relay delivery system

Not long ago, someone asked if I could return a handful of leaflets to someone in Truro. Or to someone else in St. Austell. The problem was that I live about an hour from Truro and, oh, 40 minutes or more from St. Austell. I didn’t want to make either drive just to hand over some leaflets, then turn around and drive home.

An aside here: P. told me long ago that time’s an American way of measuring distance, but I swear it’s the only way that makes sense here. Speed depends on the road, and Cornwall’s full of back roads, so distance is only going to tell you just so much.

The solution was to employ the Cornish relay delivery system. Wild Thing and I were meeting with someone relatively nearby (around here, nothing’s truly close) the next morning, and he was meeting with someone else in the afternoon—in Truro. So I gave him the leaflets and asked him to pass them on to the next person, who I’d emailed and who had agreed to either drop them off where they needed to be or let someone pick them up.

Irrelevant photo: Spot the direction of the prevailing wind.

Irrelevant photo: Spot the direction of the prevailing wind.

The same system delivered a leg of lamb to our house a few years ago. Wild Thing—the household meat eater—had bought a leg of lamb from A., who raises lamb, but when she went to pick it up, it had already left. J. had stopped by and was on her way to see a neighbor of ours (let’s call the neighbor J.2 for the sake of either clarity or confusion, take your pick). As far as A. was concerned, it had been delivered. Only we didn’t have the meat.

We went home and Wild Thing called J., who’d stopped by our house, she said, but we were out, so she left it with J.2, who stuck it in her refrigerator.

Are you still with me?

Wild Thing went to J.2’s house, collected her leg of lamb, and stuck the meat in the oven.

We thought it was all very villagey and—here we go again—quaint until we used the same system ourselves. Then we thought it made perfect sense.

Delivery Trucks and Village Gossip on the Cornish Roads

On Monday, I drove to a nearby hamlet to pick up a couple of blueberry plants. The hamlet’s locally famous for its road, which is one lane wide, closely hedged on both sides, and shaped more or less like a gigantic Z. Periodically, a delivery truck will get stuck on the one or the other of the Z’s angles. Or maybe that was only one truck, one time, but by the time the story worked its way to our end of the parish it’s happening once a week, and the trucks get stuck so thoroughly that road only stays open because of a Bermuda Triangle effect: No sooner does a new truck got stuck than it’s wafted bodily to wherever it is that trucks go when they’ve been not just good but a tiny bit careless as well.

Irrelevant Photo: Late Afternoon Light

Irrelevant Photo: Late Afternoon Light

So there I was, leaving with my blueberry plants, and what should I end up following but a truck. It was a blocky, one-piece thing—the kind that could deliver a dining room table, say, or a couch—and it was moving creeping along the way driver do around here when they’re looking for an address, which is another way of saying that it was lost. Except for one small patch of the village, addresses out here have nothing to do with street names and house numbers. Most of our roads don’t have names and most of our houses do, although they don’t necessarily display those names where you’d think to look for them. Most drivers find the post code they’re looking for, then wander helplessly, hoping to spot a name plaque.

Abandon logic, all ye who enter here.

I should have turned around and taken long way home, but—I guess it was curiosity that made me follow the truck. Here was parish legend, about to enact itself in front of my eyes. How could I turn away?

The truck reached the bend and stopped.

It sat there.

I sat there.

Beside the bend is a farm gate, and from behind the gate a dog barked.

I walked up to the truck to ask if they were okay. I mean, what with Bermuda Triangle effect and all, I might be the last person to talk to them. Before I could ask, though, the driver jumped down and asked if I knew where Tre-something was.

This being Cornwall, half the houses are called Tre-something. “Tre” is the Cornish word for homestead. Or according to some people, place. Or town. I don’t speak Cornish, so I can only report the muddle that’s passed around in the name of wisdom. Half the villages are also Tre-something, so I expect the rumors are right: It means both.

The villages that aren’t Tre-something are Saint Whosit.

I’m not good at remembering which house is named what, so I didn’t have a clue where Tre-something was. I asked about the post code and the passenger called it out to me from inside the truck.

This might have been helpful, but I didn’t know the hamlet’s post code.

I can’t think what they’d have done if they hadn’t run into me.

At this point in most can-you-tell-me-how-to-find conversations, the driver decides I’m not worth listening to because with my accent I can’t be local, but these guys didn’t do that. They were desperate, on top of which I hadn’t offered any information for them to dismiss, but even so it made me absurdly fond of them.

Finally the dog barked long enough to bring first one person out of the farmhouse and then two more. The driver asked the first one asked about Tre-something and she asked the other two, then one of them asked who lived there and all four of us shook our heads and said we didn’t recognize the name. At intervals, one after another, we repeated “Tre-something” as if that would help, and we shook our heads some more.

The dog kept barking. I began to suspect it knew Tre-something.

I asked about the farm’s post code and we established that it was the same as the one the guys in the truck were looking for.

If we’d gone on any longer, we’d have asked what they were delivering and what color it as and whether it matched the curtains, but instead one of the people from the farm said he was fairly sure Tre-something was on the other side of the ford. I was fairly sure it wasn’t, not because I knew the first thing about it but because I was convinced that post codes change when they cross water. But honestly, I’ve lived in the parish for eight years. The people on the other side of the gate have spent their lives here. I know—on rare occasions—when to shut up, and I did.

“If it’s not there,” the man said, “you can ask at the post office.”

This is the universal answer to can-you-tell-me-how-to-find questions. The driver headed for his truck.

At this point, I noticed that the truck’s front bumper was snuggled sweetly into the farm’s stone wall, which forms the most unforgiving part of the Z bend. The truck wasn’t, strictly speaking, too big to make the turn, but it was big enough not to make it easily.

I backed up to give it space. It backed up, with the help of some gesturing from behind the fence. In addition to an altruistic desire to help, the people behind the gate wanted to protect their wall.

Before the truck had backed far enough to try the bend again, I understood, with all the clarity of revelation, I didn’t want to be behind it if and when they didn’t find Tre-something on the other side of the ford. The road doesn’t make any sharp bends on that side, but it’s still only one lane wide. If they got into another long conversation, it wasn’t going to be as interesting—especially since I’d be out of excuses for jumping out of my car and joining in. So I backed up 100 yards (I’m making up the numbers, as I make up most numbers, but it was a fair distance) before I could turn in someone’s driveway, and I went home the long way, sacrificing my chance to see if the truck made the turn.

By the time I passed the post office, the truck was parked outside.

I never found out what they were delivering, but I bet someone in the post office did.

Consulting the Internet and the Chicken Entrails about Cornish Roads

I went to a meeting the other day, and I consulted the internet about it the night before. That’s the modern version of killing a chicken and consulting the entrails to find out how your trip’s going to go.

The internet entrails told me I’d need one hour and one minute to get there.

I figured I’d allow myself an extra ten minutes and be heroically early.

In the morning, I forgot about the ten minutes, but how many meetings start on time anyway? I punched the post code into the sat nav I stole from Wild Thing because I don’t believe in them unless I need one, in which case see I steal hers. That gives me access to both a sat nav and the moral high ground.

The sat nav spit the post code back out. I punched it in again. The sat nav offered me a list of alternative post codes, some of which were close but close wasn’t what I needed. I could find the town without the damned thing. What I needed was the final details.

mulfra 098We went through this several times until it accepted the post code. I will, of course, swear that I entered it correctly all sixteen times and that the sat nav was both pigheaded and wrong for the first fifteen, but you probably won’t believe me. I’m not sure I believe me either.

I was now going to be late. I was also now ready to accept that you can’t get from my house to Pool, where the meeting was, in one hour and one minute. And I’d kind of known that the night before, but I wasn’t ready to question the wisdom of the chicken entrails then.

I drove, telling myself I’d make up lost time. This was, of course, a crock. (A crock, my writers group tells me, is an Americanism. It may also be as out of date as I am, so if you need guidance, allow to me ask you, ever so delicately, to imagine what I’m implying is inside the crock.) Unless you’re on one of our few four-lane highways (or the occasional, very short, three-lane stretch), you have to be a whole lot crazier than I am if you’re going to make up time around here.

At the Pool turnoff, I realized that the sat nav hadn’t been speaking to me since I left the house. Why hadn’t I noticed? Because I don’t enjoy her conversation, so I hadn’t missed it. Our sat nav, by the way, is a her, and her name’s Dorothy, and she’s been losing her voice a lot lately. The last time it happened, Wild Thing fought with her until she started speaking again but she—Wild Thing, that is—wasn’t sure what she’d done, so I stood no chance of reproducing it. It involved a lot of swearing, which I can reproduce effortlessly, but I’m guessing that wasn’t the effective part. And I didn’t have time to wrestle with the sat nav anyway—I was already heroically late—so I drove into Pool trying to keep one eye on the little brown arrow.

Tell me, I begged the universe, that this isn’t a part of the county where sat navs don’t work.

I didn’t expect the universe to answer and it didn’t. Begging the universe is just one of those things I do to pass the time when I’m coming unglued. I fully expected the little brown arrow to direct me into an abandoned mine shaft or the frozen food aisle of the nearest supermarket. That optimism meant I was ready for it when the little brown arrow told me to turn where there wasn’t a street.

You can’t fool me, I told Dorothy, and I drove on.

The hell she couldn’t. The little brown arrow disappeared.

I turned around and tried again, somehow expecting to get different information this time. The little brown arrow still wanted me to turn onto a non-street, but it was at least paved, so I tried it and ended up in a supermarket parking lot.

I turned around before we got to the frozen food aisle and I drove back to where the arrow had disappeared, pulling into the parking lot of a small business. I walked inside and threw myself on their mercy.

They must’ve been used to this. Not only were they kind, they’d heard of the complex I was looking for and gave me usable directions.

“Sat navs,” I said, trying to look as befuddled as, in fact, I was. I felt—I have no idea why—that I owed them that.

“Sat navs,” they said, nodding and looking wise.

I got to the address, which turned out to be a Free Public Attraction (please note the capital letters, because they’re not mine; I’ve borrowed them from a sign I passed) about Cornish mining. With a not-at-all-free parking lot. I hadn’t counted on that and hadn’t brought much change, but I plugged in what I had, which was enough to carry me to the 11 a.m. break, when I might be able wangle change out of someone somewhere.

Or leave if the meeting turned out to be as pointless as I sort of suspected it would be.

I could probably have used my phone and credit card to pay, but (remember the internet and the chicken entrails?) I was late.

So in a gentle Cornish mizzle, I walked in through what must once have been a working mine complex and now that the mining’s gone is a tourist attraction. I thought melancholy and ironic thoughts about hard, dangerous work and low pay and tourist attractions but didn’t have a lot of time for them because I found the right building and went into a tasteful and (I assumed) expensive modern lobby where there was no sign pointing me to my meeting, only one saying Memory Café.

You know about memory cafes? They’re for people with some degree of dementia, to orient them to I have no idea what. Reality, I suppose, which at the moment didn’t strike me as a particularly wondrous gift.

I found an office and asked a woman about my meeting. She gave me a blank look. I produced my agenda.

“That’s tomorrow,” she said.

I could have gone to the memory café but reality wasn’t looking particularly good so I drove home.