Roadtrip: Hogmanay
December 26, 2006 4:27 PM   Subscribe

So we're testing out the other side of the road and driving from London to Edinburgh for Hogmanay. What's to see on the way? What's to eat? What rules of the road should we, naive Yankees, know before striking out?

We probably don't have time for more than a couple stops both ways, but this is our first time in this part of the UK and want to make the most of it. Based on the recommendations of others, we're probably taking the A1 with various detours depending on what we want to see.

We'll start EARLY in the morning on Dec. 30th to get in as much daylight as possible. Big things that stand out on google maps are Durham Cathedral and Hadrian's wall, but I'm not sure how far these are off the beaten path, not to mention what other obvious/not so obvious stops/Kodak moments we're missing.

Most importantly for our actual enjoyment of the drive, what traffic rules should we know besides the obvious other-side-of-the-road? Are there more expensive/less expensive places to buy gas (excuse me, er, petrol)? Rest stops: safe and clean, non-existent or horror-movie inspiring?

(P.S. yes, we know it's a long drive, and it'll be dark, and we'll get tired and cranky. we're ok with that).
posted by xaire to Travel & Transportation around United Kingdom (18 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
Rest stops should be quite regular if you're on the motorways, and can vary from horror movie to safe and clean, mostly safe and clean as run by chains that don't want to ruin brand image. You'll find most are exactly the same as each other, and the food probably won't be anything new or exciting. If you can, stop off for a pub lunch: you'll get a taste of proper english cooking, and it should have a great atmosphere on Saturday, what with the holidays and most people being on holiday, and have been for a week or so.

Pay close attention to the speed limits and speed cameras: we have a hell of a lot of them, and it gets expensive setting them off. Don't be suprised if people just jump on the brakes just cos they see a sign for a speed camera.

I'm sure others will be along soon who are more local to the route your taking. I'm from down south, so not all that well versed in what to see and do.
posted by philsi at 4:42 PM on December 26, 2006

Watch out for speed cameras — and don't fall into the trap of slamming on your brakes as soon as you see one and causing an accident. Don't hog the middle lane — move over.

Google Maps suggests going to Edinburgh up the M6, then to Glasgow and using the M8 to get to Edinburgh. I've never driven from London to Edinburgh, so don't rely 100% on my advice, but that doesn't sound like the most efficient route: surely up the M1/A1 is faster?

If you do go up the West as Google seems to suggest, I would probably do as it says: stick to the M74 all the way to Glasgow and the M8 to Edinburgh (as per Google), rather than taking a shortcut on the A702. I imagine the A702 might be not be much fun if you're unused to UK driving. It'll be dark, and it's fast but with lots of (occasionally sharp) corners. Overtaking opportunities are limited to occasional stretches of straight (Roman?) road, which can be hair-rising.

Rest stops are unlikely to be horrifying, but not necessarily scenic or salubrious either.

more expensive/less expensive places to buy gas

No, just buy petrol in service stations on the journey. Service station ('rest stop'?) food is uninspiring and expensive, but convenient. Ideally, make sandwiches before you go, and stock up on water/Coke from a local shop rather than buying en route.

As for daylight, sunset is around 4pm.

Edinburgh is great at Hogmanay — have you got tickets for the street party in town?
posted by matthewr at 4:58 PM on December 26, 2006

As for Hadrian's wall, it's just a wall. Interesting to read about, but to visit on a dark/cold Winter night? Meh.

Durham Cathedral is pretty darn impressive tho.
/personal opinion.

BTW, surely the train is cheaper and easier than hiring a car and driving?
posted by matthewr at 5:03 PM on December 26, 2006

I've tried the driving-on-the-other side thing in Australia a few times, and it's not hard. The only times I've been confused have been turning in a big intersection, where it's not immediately obvious which lane you're aiming for. The bigger problem for me are roundabouts! You should check with actual British drivers for the legalities of using your turn signal and such. (Be prepared for conflicting opinions. In Australia I've had different people tell me that you absolutely MUST indicate both in and out of a roundabout, and others telling me that you only have to do one or the other.)
posted by web-goddess at 5:20 PM on December 26, 2006

Aside from the wrong-side of the road thing, motorway lane rules are quite different from the US. The slow lane (in this case the leftmost) is for anyone. The middle lane is also for anyone. The fast lane (rightmost) is for anyone except trucks. You are not allowed to overtake on the left, so if you need to pass, you must pass on the right. Since trucks are not allowed in the right lane, they get very upset if someone sits in the middle lane while the slow lane is empty, since they can't pass on the left or enter the right lane to pass (assuming its a 3 lane motorway). Middle lane drivers are a common occurence of course, and many motorways are wider than 3 lanes these days, but the A1 does have some narrow bits. So just remember not to pass on the left, and to pull over to the left if someone wants to pass you.
posted by Joh at 5:42 PM on December 26, 2006

If you go by Manchester, take a day there--great town. And Glasgow is well worth a real visit--wonderful people, architecture, museums--everything (maybe afterwards?)
posted by amberglow at 5:49 PM on December 26, 2006

BTW, surely the train is cheaper and easier than hiring a car and driving?

If the trains aren't already booked up, it's probably about £120 return per person now.

So, what Joh said. Rule one: it's not the interstate.

The motorway system runs between cities more than through them, and service areas and exits are much further apart than yer average I-whatever. Meaning that if you miss your exit, you may have to drive a while to find the next one, and if you're running short on petrol, the next pump may be 25 miles away. (The Mass. Turnpike is the closest thing like it I've driven in the US.) Service stations are clean to the point of anodyne, and quite expensive; some exits now have supermarkets and petrol stations nearby, but you shouldn't rely upon it, and there are no FOOD-GAS-LODGINGS signs to tell you.

You're probably best off doing M1-A1(M)-A1, in spite of Google Maps, and the switch from motorway to A-road can be a little unnerving, because the services are closer to the roadside and there are junctions rather than slip roads [on/off-ramps]. North of Newcastle, the roads are definitely less well-maintained, but as long as you're careful, it shouldn't be a worry. (The A1 is historical, the old Great North Road, and there's some great stuff to see, but I wouldn't recommend unfamiliar left-side drivers taking it when alternatives exits.)

Last point: it's easy to underestimate the second half of the drive, just because the North is more sparsely populated. While the trip isn't long by American standards, Durham is only just past halfway. Also, watch this video [QT, 22Mb] of Jeremy Clarkson doing the round trip on a single tank of fuel.
posted by holgate at 7:50 PM on December 26, 2006

Best service station to stop at: Tebay Westmorland, at the far north end of the M6 near Carlisle. Beware - some services are a couple of miles off the motorway round a few roundabouts and down a back road or two. Be careful not to take the wrong exit and go straight back onto the motorway - that's not fun when you're dying for a wee. Most of them will have a McDonalds or a Burger King (which serve half size meals for double the price), a newsagent-type shop (again overpriced) and toilets, usually clean and open 24 hours. Watch out for the lorries in the car parks and the odd crazy boy racer or three. If you stop in a town, you might want to stock up on food supplies there instead of buying at the services.

On lorries, watch out for one slowly catching up to another in the slow lane. This signals the start of what I like to call 'Truck War', where the lorry behind will pull out and attempt to overtake the one in front. Very, very, very slowly. The entire middle lane will at this point usually have to brake quite sharply as the offending truck inches past the slower one, and on occasion (if this takes place on a hill, for example) the lorry will fail to get past and will hold the lane up even more as it concedes defeat and has to fit back in behind its foe. If you are the unlucky car right behind the attacking truck, you're stuck as every other car behind you will pull out into the next gap in the fast lane before you can. If you're in a hurry this is highly frustrating, especially when it's a two-lane road and you can't pull out and overtake. On the other hand if your car is knackered and you're taking it slowly, it can be quite entertaining to watch, especially when the attacking truck loses.

If you take the M6 route, take the M6 Toll road and bypass Birmingham. It's £3, but it's worth it. I would actually recommend taking the M6, just for the views through the Lake District. (of course it may be dark by the time you get there, but if not..)

Roundabouts: give way to the entrance on your right. It's best if you indicate both coming on and going off.

If you break down, there are little orange roadside phone boxes every half a mile along the hard shoulder from which you can contact a breakdown service and they'll know where you are from which phone you use.

(Going north, the M1/A1 in my experience tends to be slower than the M1/M6 because of the A1 not being a motorway, but I rarely go further north than Liverpool and have never driven to Scotland, so ymmv. Literally.)

on preview: wow, essay. have fun!
posted by corvine at 7:22 AM on December 27, 2006 [1 favorite]

Driving in the UK shouldn't be a problem as long as you've got a good idea of where you're going and what lane you need to be in. The majority of drivers are pretty sensible and polite as long as you don't cut people up, tailgate, change lanes without warning or block them when they want to get past you. If you haven't worked out your route in detail yet try the free planners from the RAC and the AA:

In heavy/slow-moving traffic on the motorways people will pass you on the left hand side, although technically it's illegal, so watch your mirrors.

With roundabouts the rule of thumb is to think of it like a clock face. You're approaching at 6. If you want to take an exit at less than 12, use the left-hand lane and use your left indicator immediately before the exit you want (whatever you do don't use it too early or someone may pull out in front of you - if in doubt just don't bother with the signal). At greater than 12, use the right-hand lane. If you want to go straight on you can use either lane but if you're unfamiliar with the road you're probably safer sticking to the left. On big motorway roundabouts with four or five entrance lanes all bets are off: make a best guess and if you find that you're forced off in the wrong direction you'll have to try again.

Overall if you just take your time and drive defensively you'll be fine. Oh, and the speed cameras generally tirgger if you're more than 10% over the posted limit so watch out for 'em.
posted by boosh at 10:41 AM on December 27, 2006

Another vote for the west side (M6/M74) - I always prefer this route, especially through the Lake District (but then I am biased - that's where I live!) and southern Scotland. Traffic should be OK because of the holiday season, but still gets very busy near the big towns on either route during the day.

Service station petrol is very expensive - the big supermarket chains (Asda, Morrison, Tesco) sell cheap petrol at many of their sites, with many near to motorway junctions (store locations can be found on their websites).

I wouldn't bother with Hadrian's Wall, it is impressive, but not really worth the time/effort to reach the best bits (and not with the weather at this time of year). Durham cathedral is worth it.

Newcastle is also worth a visit if you take the M1/A1, a great city, and the Northumbrian coast is impressive, if a bit bleak.

Have a good drive - we've had some snow today to make the hills look even better, but none at low levels).
posted by badrolemodel at 10:43 AM on December 27, 2006

Well, we're proving Bill Bryson's point that Brits like nothing more than a good argument over directions. I'd be open to the M6-then-east except that (as a biased north-easterner) it just feels wrong. Durham's fantastic, and very easy to reach from the A1(M), and if you want to see bits of Roman Britain, you might be better off stopping in York or Carlisle than the wall, though Housesteads and Vindolanda are always options.

I personally think that the coastal road north of Newcastle is one of the most beautiful runs in the country (and the railway line runs even closer to the coast) and it would be a shame to miss it, but there's also a sublimity to the backdrop of the M6 as it rolls through the Lakes.

So split the difference, perhaps, and do the east coast run one way and the west coast back? It's a great way to see the contrasting landscapes of Northumberland and the fells, especially with Kathryn Tickell's Debatable Lands as your soundtrack.

I will advise you to pick up your car from somewhere outside central London, if at all possible: I've done a couple of trips in Britain with Americans at the wheel, and the first few miles out of the capital are much more stressful than hours on the motorway. If not, leaving early should ease things, but see if you can borrow a Brit who'll get you to the North Circular.
posted by holgate at 11:43 AM on December 27, 2006

Yep, another vote for the M6 / M74 but one option occurs to me. If you had another reason for this, you could start up the A1 (From London) and then switch over to the M6 / M74 at Scotch Corner just South of Newcastle going across the A66 which is a brill road and starts to prepare you for the beauty that is Scotland further up.

Once over onto the M6, about 90 minutes short of Edinburgh you will go past Gretna Green (where people used to elope to get married!) and then you are in Scotland and will see some great lowland views (albeit, you will need to venture an hour or so past Edinburgh some other time to really see the big highland views).

Another place you might like, is Richmond, which is just before/after Scotch Corner so you could pass through this as a scenic corner cut!

Finally, is it worth breaking the journey with a cheap but clean stop-over. Can certainly recommend things like Travelodge (£26 per room) and Hotel Formule One (from £23 per room). This way you can really enjoy the journey rather than trying to sort it all in one go.

posted by pettins at 12:27 PM on December 27, 2006

then switch over to the M6 / M74 at Scotch Corner just South of Newcastle going across the A66 which is a brill road and starts to prepare you for the beauty that is Scotland further up.

Oh no, no, no. The A66 just west of Scotch Corner is a deathtrap, with its single-carriageway stretch, then sporadic dual-carriageway bits that encourage drivers to speed past caravans and lorries before the return to single-carriageway. The run up the Pennines past Bowes is spectacular, and it's an easier drive once you get that far, but I've done that drive plenty of times and it always scares the bejeebers out of me. So I really wouldn't want to send anyone along that road who's unfamiliar with it. (Plus, if it snows, it'll be closed off.)
posted by holgate at 12:55 PM on December 27, 2006

Wow. Many thanks to everyone! As the passenger in this little journey, I won't be making the final call, but I do like the suggestion of taking one route up and another back. I also would not mind splitting the trip into two days, but if you've ever seen any of the National Lampoon's Vacation movies, you'll understand why I (female, non-driving half of this pair) may not get to make that call.

For those who wondered at our skipping the train, we began sniffing around train and flight tickets a few months back. Because of our quite limited days we want to travel on, the holiday prices are sky high, twice and sometimes three times the normal amounts! Since we both love a road trip and consider seeing part of the countryside as much of a vacation as anything else, we decided to go with the (MUCH) cheaper car rental.
posted by xaire at 2:04 PM on December 27, 2006

I've driven up many times from Manchester using the M6 / A702. The 702 can be slow in the dark, but the road's generally very good and you get to go through Biggar and marvel at how they're going to light that enormous bonfire without immolating the whole town (it'll be on your right). By the way, if you don't have tickets to the street party, a great place to watch the fireworks is Bruntsfield Links - just wander up there and you'll see all the locals gathered at the top of the hill. If you have time you could even have a round on the winter course beforehand.
posted by primer_dimer at 8:08 AM on December 28, 2006

Hoo if your dude's name is Ross, you're on p3 of a national newspaper tomorrow....
posted by bonaldi at 9:58 AM on January 1, 2007

xaire, bad luck having Hogmanay cancelled.

bonaldi, why?
posted by matthewr at 5:33 PM on January 1, 2007

Picutres of foreigners who came for a rained-out hogmanay
posted by bonaldi at 6:58 PM on January 1, 2007

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