Tuesday, 22 September 2009

Surviving In Britain #5: Driving

As I am still barely containing the panic, Paul Anderson (or Mr Julia Heathcote as he's often known at SVP) has very kindly written a final post for all you colonials on the perils of driving on British roads.

Most people coming to SVP will take public transport, but for those brave souls who intend to get a rental, the prospect of driving in the UK may appear daunting. It isn't nearly as scary as you might think. Sure, everything's on the wrong side of the road, the cars are smaller, the roads narrower and twistier, and nothing is set out on a sensible grid system, but apart from that...

Your car

Most cars in the UK are manual transmission, although you may be lucky and get an automatic. The first thing you'll notice is that the driver's seat is on the right, not the left. The gear stick will be at the driver's left hand, which may take some getting used to if you drive a manual transmission in the States. [Ed: you will also need to use the hand brake, situated behind the gear stick. Pull the hand brake up before you release the foot brake to ensure the car does not roll away.]

The car will also generally be smaller than in the US, but more fuel efficient. This is a good thing, because the price of petrol in the UK is far higher than you will be used to. 105.9 pence per litre is about the average at the moment (and it will be higher at motorway service stations), which is approximately $6 to the gallon. As well as being more fuel efficient, you will also be driving shorter distances, so hopefully this won't break the budget. Most cars take unleaded petrol, but be careful in case you get a diesel engine - you don't want to mix them up.

On the road

We drive on the left. Always on the left. Please do not forget this.

The UK equivalent of the interstate is the motorway. These are multilane fast roads, identified by an M followed by a number. Signs on the motorway are white text on a blue background. The maximum speed limit is 70mph, lower depending on conditions, roadworks etc. Junctions (offramps) are numbered and signposted.

After motorways, the UK has A roads and B roads. A roads are the major roadways, but can vary from single carriageway to multilane dual carriageways. Some A roads have more lanes than some motorways. Speed limits on A roads vary from as low as 30mph all the way up to national speed limit (this is 70mph on dual carriageways, but only 60mph on single carriageways).

Within towns, cities and built up areas, the speed limit will usually be 30mph unless otherwise marked.

Speed limit signs are black text on white circular signs with a red trim, with the exception of the national speed limit sign, which is a white circle with a black bar running diagonally from the upper right to the lower left. If you are changing from a lower speed to a higher speed, then you may only travel at the higher speed from the point of the sign. If however you are going from a higher speed to a lower speed zone then you must be travelling at the lower speed by the time you reach the sign.

Traffic signals and other road markings

The sequence of traffic lights is red for "stop", red + amber for "get ready" then green for "go". When changing back again, the sequence is green, amber, red. At pedestrian crossings, after a red light there will be a flashing amber light. You may pass through an amber light only if there are no pedestrians crossing the road at that point.

Sometimes there will be filter arrows that allow you to turn, even if the traffic light is at red. These will apply only to the turn lane, and will be marked by a green arrow that lights up in conjunction with the red light.

Please be aware that unlike in the US, it is not permitted to turn on a red signal even if there is no traffic coming.

Stop signs are few and far between in the UK. More common is the give way sign (yield). It is a red and white triangle with the point downwards, and the road marking is a double white broken line. You must yield to traffic coming from your right.

As well as traffic light pedestrian crossings, be on the lookout for "zebra crossings". These are marked by black and white lampposts with a yellow flashing light at the top, and the road will have white stripes across it. If pedestrians are standing at the crossing waiting to cross, then you must slow down and stop for them if safe to do so.

The most common road signs you will see in the UK can be found here.


These are not nearly as terrifying as you might suppose. Always travel in a clockwise direction around the roundabout, and the golden rule is that if there is traffic coming from your right, you do not enter the roundabout. Only when it is clear for you to do so should you enter. Once on the roundabout, you have priority over other traffic waiting to enter.

If you wish to turn off at the first exit from a roundabout, approach it whilst signalling left, in the furthest left lane. If you wish to exit from the second exit, do not signal left until you have passed the first exit. If you wish to exit from the third exit (or any further exits) then approach the roundabout signalling right. Once on the roundabout, keep signalling right until you are approaching the exit you need. Only then should you signal left to indicate that you are about to exit.

Roundabouts vary in size from mini-roundabouts in towns, to massive multi-exit roundabouts controlling entry to motorways. Some roundabouts also use traffic lights to help regulate traffic flow.


UK towns and cities are densely populated, and as such parking is often restricted. If there are double yellow lines down the edge of the road it means you may not park there at all. Doing so risks, at a minimum, a parking fine. But in some places it may mean that your vehicle will be clamped, and possibly removed.

A single yellow line indicates that parking is restricted to certain times, which will be signposted close by.

Often there are parking bays marked - usually in conjunction with metered parking. Most towns and cities have several dedicated pay car parks - these will be signposted on road signs. Look out for a white letter P on a blue background.

Some safety reminders
  • It is against the law to use your mobile phone whilst driving.
  • Police traffic enforcement officers may stop any driver they suspect of not giving due care and attention to driving - eating, reading a map etc can all constitute failure to give due care and attention.
  • Wearing seatbelts is compulsory.
  • Please do not drink and drive. It is against the law, and it is taken very seriously by the police.

Monday, 21 September 2009

Surviving In Britain #4: Etiquette

Because I'm having a Week Of Doom at the moment, the wonderful Paul Anderson has agreed to guest-write this post, and probably the next one (about driving on the left hand side of the road!). He rocks.

If you know anything about the British, then you know that we are famed for politeness and good manners.

In Hollywood movies anyway. In real life we can be as crass, arrogant and rude as the next nation (the next nation is France - enough said). Here's a crash course in surviving the bewildering world of etiquette in Britain. There are whole books dedicated to this subject. This is just a taster.

Dining and Drinking

One of the delights of dining in America is the excellent service that you will receive, regardless of the eating establishment. From fine dining to fast food, service is fast, with a smile, and designed to please you. A very good reason for this is tipping. You don't dare incur the wrath of your customers, in case they don't tip, and if you are in the service industry, you need those tips to get by.

Not so in Britain. Thanks to the minimum wage, the service industry does not rely on tips. So lesson one, is that tipping is purely customary. Some restaurants may add a service charge to a table with a large party, but in general anything under 8 will not see a service charge added to your bill. At this point tipping is purely at your discretion, and a good tip is considered to be 10% of the bill. There are also no sales taxes to add on at the end, so don't worry about having to add that on when working out how to split the bill.

The downside of this of course is waiting staff may not be quite as attentive to you as you are used to. This doesn't excuse rudeness of course, but you aren't going to get quite the same level of service as you might expect in the US.

Also worth noting is that tips are generally placed in a pool and divided amongst all the staff on duty for that shift - your own particular server will not get the whole tip.

When in bars you may tip at your discretion - it is always appreciated, but again is not expected. Whilst in the US a dollar per drink is the normal rate, in the UK a couple of pounds per round is perfectly acceptable (unless the round is particularly expensive, or involves difficult drinks to mix, in which case you may consider the 10% option). [Ed: I tend not to tip in the average chain pub, but as Paul says, it is always appreciated.]


Outside of major cities like London, it is rare to see public taxis that you can flag down in the street. Most local councils have licensed taxi ranks from which to get a cab, or you can phone a private minicab company to arrange pick up. Please, for your own safety, only travel in licensed private minicabs or from licensed taxi ranks. There have been a number of cases of unlicensed cars picking up customers, particularly lone females, and assaulting them.

Once again, it is not customary to tip your driver, but you may do so if you feel the service was particularly good.


Note the spelling. If there's one thing the British know how to do, it is forming an orderly queue. Woe betide someone who cuts in line. You will be subjected to a chorus of tutting and repressed hostility. People may even mutter something about "bloody foreigners". The exception to this appears to be on public transport, when it is every man for themselves.

In crowded places like bars, there may appear to be no organised queuing system, but patrons have a general sense of who was there before them. Be aware of this. Often a barman will start to take an order from someone who will indicate that you were before them. Be gracious. If you truly were, then thank them. If you weren't, then say so and allow them to go before you.


It is still considered impolite to discuss religion and politics with strangers. And no matter how much you hear a British person complain about public transport, our food, our government, or our sporting performances, we're allowed to do so because they are ours. The instant a non-Brit starts complaining, we'll close ranks. Remember, you're a visitor, so in a sense you haven't earned the right to moan yet.

Oh, and for god's sake, don't mention the war. Any of them.

Wednesday, 16 September 2009

Surviving In Britain #3: The Language Barrier

George Bernard Shaw said that the US and UK are "two nations divided by a common language". Here's a brief guide to avoid embarrassment.

When you say "pants" you are referring to attire for the bottom half of your body. We call them "trousers". What we call "pants" are underpants. Be careful with this, especially if clothes shopping.

It should go without saying that you will be laughed at in the streets if you wear a "fanny pack". Over here, they're called "bum bags". However, you should also note that "fanny" is a word describing the female genitals and not the backside.

If someone asks if they can bum a fag off you, this is not an invitation to a homosexual act. They are merely asking if they can have a cigarette. While "fag" is a term for a gay man, even over here, it is also more commonly used to mean "cigarette".

The word "bugger" has a stronger meaning here than it seems to in the US. The verb "to bugger" means "to have anal sex with". Calling someone a "bugger" or telling someone to "bugger off" is a friendlier, softer insult than many you might come across, but be careful if you don't know the person very well.

Here, when we have "chips" we're having "fries" - they may be thick or thin cut. It is the British way to have thicker cut chips than other Europeans or Americans do. If you want what you would refer to as a "packet of chips" you want a "packet of crisps", or perhaps a "packet of tortilla chips".

Soda and pop is referred to as a "soft drink". We only use "candy" to describe boiled sweets - any other confectionery is a "sweet" or a "chocolate".

If we're in a restaurant and wanting to pay for our meal, we ask the waitress for the "bill" and not the "check". Here, a "cheque" (note the different spelling) is something you write from a "chequebook" to pay for an item. You will not be able to use your "chequebook" (or even "checkbook"!) over here.

The paved area of the road allocated for pedestrians to walk on is called the "pavement" here and not the "sidewalk". We usually refer to the "asphalt" as being "tarmac".

Oh yes, and our pints have 20oz in them...

If you have any language queries stick them in the comments and I'll try to answer them!

Tuesday, 15 September 2009

Surviving In Britain #2: Eating Out

Oh you Americans. You have both the best and the worst restaurants on the planet. You will find most of them in Britain. You have probably heard it said (or maybe said yourself) that the British only had the Empire for the cuisine (totally failing to take into account the fact that American food without the immigrant influences is pretty dire). So here is my guide to eating in the UK.


The fundamental unit of breakfast is the Full English Breakfast. If you have booked a Bed & Breakfast room, this will be included in your rate. Otherwise I heartily recommend finding a café or "greasy spoon" which serves breakfast. You will receive, for about £3-4, eggs (fried, sunny side up - don't even contemplate asking for them any other way because we don't know what those other ways are), sausages (not frankfurters!), bacon (real bacon with actual meat on it rather than fried fat), baked beans (these are more like the beans in "Pork 'N' Beans" than your own baked beans), fried bread (hey, don't criticise - you put syrup on your sausage), possibly fried tomatoes or mushrooms, and if you're really lucky, black pudding. Black pudding is basically a blood sausage, and you'll get a couple of slices of it. Don't knock it until you've tried it. If you're a vegetarian, just have muesli or something - the Full English is not for you. The coffee will not be brilliant, and you will certainly not get free refills from anywhere unless explicitly stated. I suggest drinking tea for the week.

Lunch and Dinner

Since you'll probably be going to the same sort of places for each meal, let's combine the two. First up - soft drinks, soda, pop, whatever you want to call them. With a few exceptions (Pizza Hut, TGI Fridays, Subway) you will rarely get free refills on soft drinks. Some restaurants will charge an extortionate amount of money for non-alcoholic drinks. If you go to a Chinese restaurant, your best deal is to have green tea, as that is usually refilled for free. If you ask for water, make it clear that you want tap water, since restaurants have to provide you with free tap water if you want it. Our water does not taste of chlorine.

Our meal portions are generally smaller than yours, and more expensive for what you get. You will not have free chips and dip while you wait for your main course, or all you can eat salad. However, what you see on the menu is what you pay. Tax is included (and this applies to all prices for any goods or merchandise). Your only additional charge will be the waiting staff's tip (more on that with etiquette). If you're on a limited budget, try Wetherspoons pubs (if you can find one). They usually have two meals for £7-8, and they're filling. Wetherspoons also have real ales on tap (you will never go back to Budweiser), and they're often under £2 a pint, which is a price I haven't seen since my student days. If you are at a nicer restaurant though, you can usually get a doggy bag for your leftovers. It never hurts to ask.

What you won't be able to get

You will not be able to get Mountain Dew or root beer. You can get Dr Pepper though. You can buy lemonade and you can buy a Milky Way chocolate bar, but they will not be what you're expecting. You will be unlikely to find iced tea. Bread does not taste sweet over here. Our cheese is delicious. We're not big on items flavoured with peanut butter, although we're increasingly seeing Reese's products available. Kebabs are what British people eat at 3am when they're drunk and have the munchies. Do not consider going into a kebab shop prior to this point.

Surviving In Britain #1: Public Transport

It has been an exhausting few weeks, and I'm only just into my first week of teaching at a Popular Further Education College. But I promised myself and some fellow palaeontologists that I would do a short series of posts on how to survive in the UK.

The reason for this is that SVP is coming to Bristol next week - it's the first time the conference has ever been held outside North America, and this is to commemorate the 200th anniversary of the birth of Charles Darwin and the 150th anniversary of the publication of Origin Of Species. The most popular question I've been fielding from American and Canadian friends has been sorting out our terminally bewildering public transport system, and mostly the trains.

Firstly, to prepare yourselves for travelling in the UK by train, read the guide at The Man In Seat Sixty-One. He can explain how our system works far better than I can, and to be honest I'd only be rehashing what he says. As a general rule, flexibility is inversely proportional to the cost of the ticket - if you get a very cheap ticket it is likely to only be valid on the specific train you want to book.

Monday to Friday before about 9:30am is peak travel time, and you probably won't be able to get discounted rates. Some companies also restrict travel between 4pm and 6pm as that's the afternoon commute. It is impossible for a train to sell out of tickets, but you may not be guaranteed a seat, and they really can pack you on like cattle on the way to the slaughterhouse. We used to have a lovely national railway system called British Rail, but then it all got privatised (this has made a lot of people very angry). This is why there are so many different companies, all calling their tickets different things, and with such variation on routes and prices.

However, if you're booking travel from London to Bristol, then this route is served by First Great Western from London Paddington station. You can book with non-UK credit cards, and you can collect your tickets from the self-service points at the major stations.

If you're planning on spending a week or so in London (and especially if you're planning to take buses around the city), you will find it cheaper to buy an Oyster card. This can be loaded with a weekly pass (or longer) or simply loaded with cash to pay as you go. It will save you 50p a day on a daily travel pass for whatever zones you travel in, and if you take the buses only it will cost £1 per journey rather than £2. This will make it well worth the £3 deposit you have to pay to load it.

Beware that the London Underground is not 24-hour, although it is only really shut for five hours tops overnight. We do have night buses, but they aren't frequent and unless you're a jammy sod like me and have a night bus stop at the bottom of your road, you'll have a long and increasingly sober walk from wherever the bus gets you to. Taxis are expensive, but a licensed black cab is trustworthy. We have had problems with unlicensed mini-cabs, and if you are a young woman on your own just get the black cab.

Most of the city of London is pretty safe, and applying the same common sense to London as you would to any American town or city is sensible. Don't go down dark alleys if you're on your own, don't flash your cash around or wear your very expensive DSLR round your neck, and keep alert for disturbances or fights. I personally would not go to Finsbury Park, Hoxton, Brixton or anywhere with a postcode beginning with an E alone after dark. But I have many friends who live in or near those areas who are similarly terrified of the area of London in which I live!

Coming up, eating out, the language barrier and etiquette.

Saturday, 5 September 2009

Millennium Vulture

This is a brief post to celebrate International Vulture Appreciation Day 2009.

Back in March of this year, I spent 10 days in northern Spain as a driver for a UCL fieldtrip. The primary focus of the fieldwork was the brilliant sedimentology, structural geology and sequence stratigraphy of the area. I was also fascinated by the botany of the region, and some of the other drivers were keen birdwatchers. I deliberately hadn't brought my SLR camera with me, and rather regretted it, as I'd probably have been able to borrow the other guys' lenses and get some better shots than this one with my digicam:

I think these are griffon vultures (Gyps fulvus). But to be honest this was as close as we got to them! What I would have loved to see was a Lammergeier (Gypaetus barbatus), known locally as a quebrantahuesos, but we never went high enough into the Pyrenees to see them. On a free morning, I visited the Eco Museum in Ainsa Castle, home to the Fundación para la Conservación del Quebrantahuesos (the site was down when I visited just now - maybe it'll come back online later), where a skeleton was on display:

I bought a cuddly quebrantahuesos (I prefer the Spanish name - it rolls off the tongue), named it Billy, and stuck it in the front of my van so the students could spot our vehicle amid the other identical ones. And because I had a fair percentage of the UCL Sci-Fi Society in my van, by the end of the week the seven-seater Renault Espace had been renamed "The Millennium Vulture". Which beats "The Vomit Comet" and "Clutch Lady's Car", its previous incarnations...
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