We Americans were brazen on this, our third trip to Pembrokeshire, Wales, and decided to rent a car.
Truth be told, Jackie and I were bold enough to undertake this exciting idea because her daughter, Jennifer joined us this time. Jenny had a demanding list of things she wanted to to: drink a beer in a pub and converse with someone whose accent she had to work to understand, walk along a dramatic cliff edge, and drive on the opposite side of the road. We managed to accomplish all three in style because she drove us around quite brilliantly in a tiny Toyota AYGO—a car that doesn’t exist in the USA, with the Toyota Yaris being of comparable compactness. The vehicle was small with the rear area being big enough to hold our three eBag Junior Weekender Backpacks lined up in a row. Our suitcase rode beside me in the back seat.
We have to give a shout out to the most excellent fellows at Pembrokeshire Self Drive Hire (PSD). Tom and Louis were not only kind and helpful, they were a sheer delight to interact with. We found them via recommendation of the Facebook group, Pembrokeshire-I love it. This group is primarily made up of photos—taken by professionals and amateurs alike. If you have any interest in seeing the beauty of Pembrokeshire, this is a group to belong to. The PSD fellows were even willing to drive the car to us—maybe a 20 minute trek—for which we were doubly excited: no lengthy bus ride to go that distance and a free driving lesson when we ferried one of the chaps back to his building. Alas, that was not to be! Louis showed up with the tiny car on a tiny trailer behind a tiny truck. It was such a Laugh-in moment that none of us thought to get a picture!
Louis’ best driving advice, “Keep it on the tarmac and you’ll be fine.”#Wales & an American’s adventure driving on the “wrong” side. Click To Tweet
As the sister who gets the least car sick, I was automatically designated to be the back seat driver, with Jackie being the passenger seat driver. And drive the three of us did! Jenny obviously had the hardest part and put up with our constant reminders each time she turned onto a new roadway: “Turn right, stay left! Turn left, stay left!” But for one brief moment in a right lane in a vacant city street, she executed this major driving adjustment in style.
Jackie, the mom, felt reassured when she pointed something out to Jenny and her daughter casually responded, “I got this, Mom.”
Jackie was the sign reader. She kept her eyes on each village and town sign pointed our way and would call them out as they came into view. Keep in mind how funny it is for us to pronounce Welsh names. To our Welsh friends, forgive us for this butchering and know that between the states of Montana (where J&J live) and Pennsylvania (my current home), we could challenge you with a few that tie your tongue, Absarokee (pronounced Ab-zur-key, which is different from the Absaroka mountains, which is actually pronounced Ab-za-row-ca, go figure) and Monongahela (Mah-non-ga-hey-la here in Pittsburgh). For instance, your briefly viewed village of Eglwyswrw became Eye-chart, Clunderwen became Clownten, with Pentlepoir probably getting the most abuse as, Where We Turn at the Chinese Restaurant.
I was the map reader. Having purchased two OS maps on our last trip and as of yet finding zero use for them, I was on the verge of leaving them behind at Edith Cottage in Saundersfoot when we realized, Oh, this is what they call a street map here! My fellow Americans, it’s an entirely new map from what we are used to with neither being better than the other, and with these OS maps being vital for folks without phone data to use Google maps.
Initially, Jenny wanted the little roads, logically thinking we—and the residents—would be safer with less cars around. We were thinking that the main roads would be like driving in no-straight-line-to-anywhere Pittsburgh where traffic is such a hassle. We quickly discovered that the ‘burgh has nothing in common with Wales, even if we had driven in the comparably sized city of Cardiff (both around the 300k population mark). After a day or two of driving on roads often no wider than the car (roads four meters aka 13 feet wide give or take if it’s coded on the map in gold or yellow—my husband’s Yukon is almost seven feet wide), learning to navigate a pull over—often with backing up—as other vehicles approached, Jenny declared it was okay to aim for the A roads.
With that long introduction, here are the tips we learned while journeying 250 miles in a week:
1. Be kind!
First and foremost, these are the nicest drivers you are apt to meet on roads anywhere I’ve ever been, so plan on being polite and generous. We had one horn toot by an elderly woman. Jenny figures we were dawdling and she was on a time sensitive mission. We pulled over if we felt we were going to slow for someone behind us, but not because they were tailgating us.
2. Waving is important.
When someone gives way—yields—to you, remember to wave at them in acknowledgement. We learned from two people that their matching pet peeve was allowing someone to go and have that driver cruise by with their nose in the air and zero response. It’s not a selfish desire to be thanked, but rather a communication between two humans traversing life via a narrow roadway, the recognition that you shared an interaction. Flip your fingers up from the steering wheel in a sign that is also quite common on the Montana backroads.
3. About giving way.
There seemed to be an understood rule that whomever was closest to a turnout would be the one backing up. How those folks instinctively knew that they were closer than us is a marvel, but know it they did and they were repeatedly kind and put it in reverse. We waved and smiled a lot.
4. Roadway categories.
“A” roads are the largest roads we traveled on, with the “M” roads being the large motorways. “Ms” may be on our maps somewhere, but we never came across one. The “A” roads can be two broad lanes either way or four.
Our only complaint here: what possessed someone to name three highways in the same small square area: A477, A478, and A487. Talk about some confusion!
The “B” roads are secondary roads and are generally wide enough for two cars and often have road lines—a helpful feature when you’re driving on the opposite side of the road. We made friends with a number of these “B” buggers and got around on them quite breezily.
Now for the “generally more than 4m wide” and “generally less than 4m wide….” My was this an unique experience! From an online search, it seems most secondary roads in the USA are 9-10 feet wide—per lane—rather than a 13 foot—in total—wide road. Something that would have been helpful for a navigator in the back seat, driving through spots where the sun dappled the map, wearing reading glasses, would sure be for these roads to be more distinctive colors than gold and yellow. How about a nice blazing purple for that littlest road?
5. Stop signs.
We saw two throughout our roving. The general note on the asphalt is Give Way, which is such a polite command versus our demand to Yield—which has turned into the Reverse Yield, but that’s another post. We talked to two Welsh folks who got pulled over by police in the USA for rolling through our stop signs. For your driving reference, here stop means stop—which is weird since yield has ceased to mean let the main traffic go. But again, I digress!
6. Traffic signals.
I’m fairly sure we saw three, maybe four: in Narberth, in Pembroke when we finally stopped for gas, at a turn we made twice, and one at a road construction area. These won’t be the things that extend the duration of your rural drive.
7. Plotting the map.
Take a couple of highlighters with you if you’re going to use maps the way we did. Mark the route you plan to take in yellow and if it works, mark it in purple on the return trip.
I limited myself to one marker (what was I thinking to pack so light?), so our maps are covered with yellow. Colorizing would have helped us remember which routes we were most successful in taking.
Don’t be above writing on your map and drawing pictures. We frequently found ourselves on Temple Bar Road, but alas it wasn’t named on the map. I wrote it in the sea and drew an arrow. And that one stop light? As a reminder, I drew it on as well!
8. Everything is much closer than you think on this massive map.
If you use data on your phone for directions, you still may opt to plan your route on the OS map, giving yourself an overview of the journey. Our 38-mile drive from Saundersfoot to Newport (Pembs, as the locals say—population just over 1,000k; as opposed to Newport, Gwent—population almost 150,000) took an hour. Having the map with those odd-to-us names highlighted on it made it nice to see what town was coming up around the next bend.
9. Once more about those narrow roads.
According to Pete who was manning the Castlemartin gate that kept us from completing our hike from Stackpole Head to St. Govan’s Chapel drat it, (the military was firing that day), the roads are extra narrow at this time of year because they wait until the pollinators—bees, butterflies and such—are done using the plants and then cut them down. I also read that this trimming can take place four times a year. That’s a lot of growth and a lot of whacking!
10. Stay calm and enjoy the experience.
Once Jenny got accustomed to changing gears with her left hand and relying more on side mirrors to back up than the rearview mirror, she relaxed into the experience of learning to do something utterly new. The only thing the same were the gas and brake pedals.
Tackling the unknown is such a great way to approach life.
Teaching ourselves to do new things throughout adulthood is a great way to keep our brains functioning and wanting to learn. So if you’re debating trying something adventurous on your next vacation, keep in mind what my friend Monika in Bristol, England advised when we discussed the possibility of renting a car, “Just aim straight down the middle and worry when you meet someone coming the other way.” That’s a profound approach to driving and to life—keep going on your intended path and deal with blockages when they actually show up and not before.