We Americans were brazen on our third trip to Pembrokeshire, Wales,
and hired a car.
Jackie and I were bold enough to undertake driving in Wales because her daughter, Jennifer joined us this time. Jenny had a demanding list she wanted to experience–
Drink a beer in a pub
Converse with someone whose accent she had to work to understand
Walk along a dramatic cliff edge
Drive on the opposite side of the road
We accomplished all in style because she drove us around brilliantly in a tiny Toyota AYGO. This car doesn’t exist in the USA, although the Toyota Yaris is of comparable compactness. The vehicle storage area is big enough to hold three eBag Junior Weekender Backpacks lined up in a row. Our small suitcase rode beside me in the back seat.
Hiring a Car in Wales
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 delightful! We found them via recommendation of the Facebook group, Pembrokeshire-I love it. (This group is primarily photographic—professionals and amateurs. If you have any interest in seeing the beauty of Pembrokeshire, this is a group to join.) The PSD fellows drove the car to us, which saved us a lengthy bus ride. We also thought we’d receive a driving lesson ferrying one of the chaps back to their office. 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’s best driving advice, “Keep it on the tarmac and you’ll be fine.”
Designating Our Driving Roles
Getting the least car sick, I was the back seat driver and Jackie became the passenger seat driver. And drive the three of us did! Jenny had the hardest part and put up with our constant reminders each time she turned onto a new roadway. We’d shout, “Turn right, stay left! Turn left, stay left!” Barring a brief moment in a right lane in a vacant city street, she executed this driving adjustment in style.
Pointing something out to Jenny, Jackie felt reassured with her daughter’s casual response, “I got this, Mom.”
Jackie was the Road Sign Reader
She would call out each village and town sign pointed our way as they came into view. To our Welsh friends, forgive us for our mispronunciations of your towns. For instance, your briefly viewed village of Eglwyswrw became Eye-chart, Clunderwen became Clownten. Pentlepoir got the most abuse as, Where We Turn at the Chinese Restaurant. In Montana (where J&J live) and Pennsylvania (my current home), we could challenge you with a few tongue-twisters. Absarokee (pronounced Ab-zur-key, which is different from the Absaroka mountains, which is actually pronounced Ab-za-row-ca, go figure). Monongahela (Mah-non-ga-hey-la here in Pittsburgh). Or nearby Punxsutawney.
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. Trust us, the OS maps are 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 believed the main roads would be like driving in no-straight-line-to-anywhere Pittsburgh-hassle. After driving on roads no wider than the car, navigating pull overs, often with backing up, Jenny declared we could hit the A roads. (Aside: 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.)
With that introduction, here are tips from driving over 250 miles in Wales in a week:
1. Be a Kind Driver!
First, the Welsh are the nicest drivers you are apt to meet anywhere, 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 too slow, but not because a follower was tailgating us.
2. Give a Simple Wave
When someone gives way—yields—to you, remember to wave in acknowledgement. Two people said their pet peeve was allowing someone to pass and that driver ignoring them. It’s not a selfish desire to be thanked. Rather a communication between two humans traversing life via a narrow roadway—the recognition that you shared an interaction. Flipping your fingers up from the steering wheel in a sign of hello is also common on Montana’s backroads.
3. Give Way While Driving in Wales
There is an understood rule that whomever is closest to a turnout would be the one backing up. How those folks instinctively knew that they were closer than us is a marvel. Know it they did and they kindly, repeatedly, put it in reverse. We waved and smiled a lot.
4. Welsh Roadway Categories
“A” roads are the largest roads we traveled, 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 complaint here: what possessed someone to name three highways in the same small square area: A477, A478, and A487. Talk about 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 quite breezily.
Now for the “generally more than 4m wide” (13 feet) and “generally less than 4m wide….” Was this an unique experience! From online research, most USA secondary roads are 9-10 feet wide—per lane—not 13 feet in total. For a backseat navigator, with sun dappling the map, wearing reading glasses, more distinctive map colors would be helpful. Gold and yellow are tough to see. How about a nice blazing purple for that littlest road?
5. Stop Signs aren’t Used the Way They are in the USA
We saw two specific stop signs throughout our roving. The general note on the asphalt is Give Way. Such a polite command versus our demand to Yield—which has turned into the Reverse Yield. We talked to two Welsh folks who got pulled over by USA police for rolling through our stop signs. For your driving reference, here stop means stop. Weird since yield has ceased to mean let the main traffic go. But again, I digress!
6. Traffic Signals are Rare (Outside of Cardiff, at least)
I’m fairly sure we saw three, maybe four. Narberth and Pembroke when we stopped for gas, at a turn we made twice, and one at road construction. These won’t be the things that extend the duration of your rural drive.
7. Physical OS Maps are Great for Plotting Driving in Wales
Take highlighters if you’re going to use maps the way we did. Mark the route you plan to take in yellow. If it works, mark it in purple on the return trip. I limited myself to one marker (what was I thinking?), 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 Closer Than it Appears This Massive Map
Even using your phone for directions, you may opt to plan your route on the OS map. It’s a great way of giving yourself an overview of your driving in Wales journey. Our 38-mile drive from Saundersfoot to Newport (Pembs, as the locals say—population 1,000; not Newport, Gwent—population 150,000) took an hour. Having the map with odd-to-us names highlighted made it nice to see what town was around the next bend.
9. Once More about Driving in Wales and Narrow Roads
Pete* said roads are extra narrow in June. They wait until the pollinators—bees, butterflies—are done using the plants then cut them. I read that this trimming can take place four times a year. That’s a lot of growth and a lot of whacking!
*Pete mans the Castlemartin gate that kept us from completing our Stackpole Head to St. Govan’s Chapel hike. Drat it, the military was firing that day. We visited with Pete for quite a while—don’t hesitate to chat with folks in random places!
10. Stay Calm and Enjoy the Driving Experience
Jenny easily got accustomed to changing gears with her left hand. She relied more on side mirrors for backing up than the rearview. Relaxing into the experience of learning to do something new, Jenny had a blast. My niece is fearless when tackling the unexpected in life. Her courage shone on this adventure—as did her kindness and humor. Some of us are blessed as challenges bring out the best of us, not the worst.
Jenny is that person.
Tackling the Unknown a Great Way to Approach Life
Teaching ourselves to do new things throughout adulthood keeps our brains functioning and wanting to learn more. Don’t debate trying something adventurous on your next vacation. Just 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 only worry when you meet someone coming the other way.” That’s a profound approach to driving and to life. Keep following your intended path, dealing with blockages when they show up and not before.
In the meantime, indulge in the pleasantries you’ll discover by renting a car to explore the ever scenic Pembrokeshire, Wales.
*More Wales blogs here