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.

Everyday Driving in Cornwall: Who Backs Up?

In response to my most recent post, “The Emmets Come to Cornwall,Motherhen wrote, about driving English lanes, “I often reverse when it’s not my turn, just to save time.”

My turn? I thought. Do we all agree about whose turn it is?

In her experience, yes. In mine, not always.

If you haven’t been to Cornwall, though, you need some background. The roads are narrow enough that in places cars going in opposite directions share a single lane. And it’s a narrow lane. So two drivers will sometimes end up radiator to radiator and have to wrestle with one of life’s deep philosophical questions: Who backs up?

A narrow street in Fowey, Cornwall.

A narrow street in Fowey, Cornwall.

I learned to drive in the U.S of get-out-of-my-way A., and my early experience of British driving destabilized me deeply. Forget about driving on the wrong side of the road. Forget about the steering wheel being hidden on the right-hand side of the car, where I kept forgetting to look for it. Forget the narrow roads, even. They were nothing. What threw me was the courtesy drivers showed each other. I’d see two lanes of traffic merging into one and they’d slot into each other as neatly as the sides of a zipper, with no one jockeying for position. Or I’d see some poor soul stuck in a side road, waiting to cross a lane of traffic, and someone would stop and let her or him across.

Now, that is mind-scramblingly amazing. And impressive. It takes the competitive sport of driving and turns it into a cooperative enterprise.

Back in Minnesota, long before I’d been destabilized by British driving, I got so pissed off at a driver who wouldn’t let me in when two lanes were merging that I allowed his car to slice open my wheel well rather than back down. I was holding out for that zipper arrangement and he was holding out for a him-first arrangement. And in case I’m in danger of sounding noble here, the one-from-each-lane arrangement favored me as surely as the him-first arrangement favored him. But he was driving what I remember as a very large a pickup and I was driving a VW beetle. If his pickup was even scratched, I couldn’t see it. Interestingly enough, neither of us stopped and neither of us reported an incident. I’m not sure what he was thinking, but I didn’t want to explain my part in it to anyone, least of all my insurance company.

The papers here carry the occasional road rage story, and people are duly horrified. And people I know have met some true nutburgers on the roads (as, come to think of it, have I), but all that, I think, is outweighed by the cooperation.

On the other hand, yeah, it’s still the real world, isn’t it? It’s never all sunshine and light. Mr. Slice-my-wheel-well-open has relatives on this side of the water. Where a bit of road has a sign giving priority to oncoming traffic, they ignore it. Where they’re closer to a wide spot, they still want the other driver to back up. Where an oncoming car’s already in a narrow stretch, they enter it—not because they just came around a corner and didn’t have time to react but because they own the world and the rest of us had damn well better make way. So although I’m usually happy to back up, it becomes a point of honor not to. I had a standoff here as well, but it’s a longish tale, and I’ll write about it another time.

Other people I know feel the same way. H. told me a tale about doing refusing to back down in Camelford—a narrow town with serious traffic and two spots that pinch two-directional traffic to a single lane. She turned off the engine, turned up the radio, and made herself comfortable. When T. got into a standoff, he unfolded the newspaper on his steering wheel and poured a cup of tea from the thermos he’d had the foresight to bring along. Mr. Slice’s cousin must’ve been mad enough to chew his steering wheel and spit the pieces.


Note: I’ve been writing madly since I started this blog, and posting twice a week. It’s been great and all that, but Wild Thing reminds me that there’s an entire world outside this house and away from the computer screen. Which is kind of funny, since I remember times when it’s taken two cats, one dog, and a small, fierce person to detach her from her own screen. But in the interest of sanity, and of seeing what’s left of the sun before winter snatches it away, I’m going to post once a week for a while. I’m not sure how long “a while” is, but least in theory I’ll post on Fridays.

The Emmits Come to Cornwall

Summer in Cornwall and the place is full of emmits.

What’s an emmit? A tourist—or in British English, a holidaymaker. And it’s not a compliment. In Cornish, it means ant, and when I asked a friend why tourists were ants she said, “It’s because they line up on the cliffs and look out to sea.”

I’ve never seen ants line up on the cliffs and look out to sea, but I’ve only lived in Cornwall for eight and a half years and all sorts of things happen around here that I don’t know about, never mind understand.

I can’t remember who told me that, but I suspect it was the same person who, when I asked what twee meant, said, “It means”—brief pause here—“twee.”

After that, I bought a dictionary of British English, and just to be on the safe side, one of British slang. Twee, they tell me, means “affectedly quaint.” They don’t mention this, but it does also means “twee.” You just can’t argue with that.

The beach at sunset

The beach at sunset

Anyway, the place is full of emmits. And that’s good, because now that the mines are closed and the seas are damn near fished out, the tourist industry makes up a huge part of the Cornish economy. Emmits rent cottages and flats and rooms. They buy art and ice cream and little plastic spades for the beach. They buy groceries and funny hats and touristy stuff that they’ll throw out in six months. So we need them.

They also drive us nuts.

Wild Thing was driving to Boscastle last week, on a narrow road that for most of its length is too narrow to have lane markings. But that doesn’t mean it isn’t wide enough for two cars to pass. In the winter, we barely slow down to pass each other. But summer brings us traffic jams. The car in front of Wild Thing stopped every time it saw an oncoming car.

This isn’t a bad thing to do, really, and Wild Thing and I are the last people who should be snotty about it, although that doesn’t stop us. When we first came here, we snuggled our rented car into many a hedge and cowered there while other drivers judged the width of the road for us. Not because we’re not timid drivers—we’ve both driven cab for serious lengths of time—but because we weren’t used to the roads. The lanes (where there were lanes) were narrow and almost every turn was blind, on top of which we were driving on the wrong side of the road. It was better to pull over and annoy everyone than to scrape another car.

Now that we’re part of the everyone who’s being annoyed, though, it’s easy to forget all that.

Eventually, the emmit-driven car ahead of her met another emmit-driven car and both of them stopped, each waiting for the other driver to judge the distance. For several long minutes, it looked like a World War I battlefield, with both sides dug into their trenches and no one able to gain ground. Wild Thing was about to get out and ask if she could drive the closer car past when, finally, someone inched forward and, at long last, the deadlock was broken.

She told the story yesterday, when M. and M. and J. all dropped by our house, and J. said that there was plenty of room for two cars to pass. Except, she added as a sort of footnote, in a couple of places.

That’s what we’re like, the everyone the emmits annoy. There’s plenty of room except where there isn’t. What’s the problem? A car and a bus can pass in most places, we agreed, and so can a car and a tractor. You’d have thought it was a highway, the way we talked.

I should now confess that when I’ve written for Americans planning to drive in Britain, I’ve suggested pulling over on the narrowest of roads if the driver’s not sure there’s space to pass. It may drive us nuts but we don’t want an accident either.

Do you notice how neatly I’ve slipped into saying we? Wild Thing and I, with our unreconstructed American accents, don’t think of ourselves as emmits anymore.

When I put emmit into Google to double-check the spelling (I worked as an editor for much longer than I worked as a cab driver, so yeah, I would do that), I was first led to a Wikipedia entry that claimed the word was ancient British. I wasn’t sure what that meant, since ancient British was several languages, so I looked further. Under the spelling emmet, though, I found an entry that defined it as (and I’m quoting from memory), “Holidaymakers who sit their fat asses down on our beaches.” I thought about providing a link but figured someone would edit that out pretty quickly. It now says nothing about beaches or fat asses, but it does say some of the “local Cornish Folk” use the word to describe anyone who hasn’t lived here for twenty-five years.

It’s okay. I drove cab. Believe me, I’ve been called worse.


Wild Thing and I were driving to Launceston on an A road the other day, but before I write about the diversion I have to go on a digression: An A road is a main road, but out here, surrounded by sheep and cattle and windfarms, main road doesn’t mean four lanes and truck stops. It means two full lanes and a white line to divide them.

So there we were, looking at a field with sheep and Dartmoor ponies, when traffic came to a dead halt.

Not a main road

Not a main road

Now, patience isn’t one of Wild Thing’s virtues, but we waited—mostly because I was driving—and after a while the cars ahead were waved onto a narrower side road, heading north (more or less; nothing here runs in a straight line) when we’d all been heading west. The A road was blocked by a police car, so we figured there’d been an accident. Either that or someone decided a nice diversion would thin the herd. It’s hard to know what causes other people to do what they do. But I should take you on a second digression here: When there’s an accident in the US, as far as I can tell the priority is to keep traffic moving, but here they treat the accident site as a crime scene and traffic can go choke on its own exhaust because it’s not the first thing in anyone’s mind. So you might as well shut off the engine and watch the ponies, because you’ll be there for a while.

I’d already done that, so now I started the engine back up and followed the cars ahead, down a beautiful, narrow road that went in the wrong direction, passing trees, wildflowers, oncoming traffic, and bottlenecks where everything slowed to a crawl. Which is fine if you’re not in a hurry and know the area. We ticked both boxes (as they say here), so all we had to do was drive until we picked up a (more or less) parallel road heading (more or less) west, which would get us to Launceston the back way. If you’re a stranger and without a sat-nav, though, all you can do is follow the car in front, if there is one. And if you end up in their driveway, you have to hope they invite you in for a cup of tea and a glance at a map. Because the rest of the diversion isn’t likely to be marked. No one will have had time, and did I mention that traffic isn’t the top priority? You’ll come to intersections and have to take a wild guess, and since nothing goes straight these can be very wild. But eventually you’ll arrive somewhere, and if it’s not where you wanted to go you can at least plan a route.

Our line of cars was led by a motorhome (sorry: that would be called a caravan), and when you see one of these in Cornwall you can pretty well guess that the driver’s used to driving something narrower and lives where the roads are wider. So at every bottleneck we all slowed to a crawl while the motorhome white-knuckled its way past an oncoming car or cowered in the hedge while some truck or tractor driver crept past.

I shouldn’t be unsympathetic. I did all that when I was new here. And have I mentioned that the road was narrow? Two cars would fit past in most places if the drivers know what they’re doing, but if trucks and tractors and nervous drivers come into the equation somebody has to find a wide spot and pull into it before traffic can move on.

Third digression: They do narrow roads really well around here. I once saw a motorhome stuck in between two houses in a village where the road takes a sharp bend and the houses are built right up to its edge. The driver was walking from one side to the other and rubbing his head. When I went back a few months later, the motorhome was gone and the houses were still standing, so either he disassembled the thing and reassembled it on the far side or found a way past.

Anyway, we bumped around Launceston for a while and a few hours later we left the back way. It was still full of trucks—big honkin’ semis. And they’re not called trucks here. They’re articulated lorries.