The Call of the Open Road: Tales of Our Summer MG Tour in the UK

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A long-standing bucket list item I’ve had for a while has been to take an MG driving adventure in the United Kingdom. In June of this past summer I got to check that item off my list. Actually, the genesis of this trip started a couple of years ago at a Fourth of July party when I vocalized my desires and, over scotch and cigars, one of the guys at the party turned to me and said, “Well do it now, because you aren’t getting any younger.” I thought about it and the planning began.

Over the next year I did some serious planning for the trip for the summer of 2012. Knowing it would be cost prohibitive to ship my MGA Mk II back and forth over the pond, I decided to find a company specializing in organizing such a trip, including identifying a classic car rental or “hire” company as the Brits say. After some research I found England & Scotland Specials, which not only planned a splendid 11-day driving itinerary for us in England, Scotland, and Ireland, including booking some lovely B&Bs, but also found Reflections Classic Car Hire, which would rent us both an MGA and an MGB for the trip. You see, even though I am pretty much an MGA guy, I compromised with my wife, (and as it turned out phenomenal navigator) Melissa, by renting an MGB for at least part of the trip because it offers more space and “creature comforts” than the MGA, at least in her mind. So in June of 2012, Melissa and I began our journey in York, England where we first picked up the MGA Mk II.

These kinds of trips inevitably involve a number of different types of adventures; touching and humorous stories, outstanding sightseeing memories, and of course, car adventures and misadventures both mechanical and otherwise. While I will highlight each of these three types of adventures in our travelogue, the humorous stories involving people we met seem to become most deeply embedded in one’s memory.

Historic Yorkshire, Land of Dales and Moors

After a wonderful jam packed day in York, touring such places as the York Minster, (an 800 year old Gothic cathedral), the City Wall, and the National Railway Museum, we picked up the MK II and were off to drive throughout Yorkshire. Ah, but first a word about driving in the U.K. No matter how much you mentally prepare yourself for this new perspective of driving on the left hand side of the road, it will be a challenge to focus on keeping to the LEFT. On turns you really need to look in both directions before turning, not just to look to your right when turning left or vice versa, and there still will be a strong tendency to pull into your right hand lane (instead of crossing over to the left lane) when turning right. And, oh my, the “blind summits” at the top of one lane bridges on the all too common little, narrow, twisty roads, can be especially hair raising. Furthermore, sometimes the roads can be so narrow that when there is oncoming traffic, you must stop and let the oncoming car slither around you or in some cases you must back up until you can find a safe place to pull over so the oncoming car can pass. This situation is always a bigger challenge when the oncoming vehicle is a truck, or a lorry as the Brits call them. Finally, the roundabouts will take a little getting used to, but eventually you will master them.

Grossmans and Hired MGAEach day my confidence in driving in these conditions grew, but the weather was a bit of a challenge as well. After a visit to Howard Castle in Yorkshire, a Garden of Eden-like estate, which has been in the same family for over 300 years, we left the sunshine to drive through one of the most punishing rainstorms I have ever experienced. Here we were driving on the left hand side of the road in a downpour in an MGA whose wipers could barely keep up with the buckets of rain and a defroster which was as typically dysfunctional as any I have experienced in an MGA. My white knuckles were wrapped tightly around the steering wheel. Finally, after the storm subsided, Melissa’s breathing slowed down, and she calmly remarked, “Well that was horrific.” to which I responded, “That’s an understatement.”

So now it was back to our B&B in York for the evening, and wouldn’t you know it, I got stopped in a speed trap, where I explained to the officer what I had been through that day, and that I was still learning to drive in the U.K. The officer politely showed me his radar gun indicating 46 MPH in a 30 zone. Then he said, “We’re not going to ticket you for your speed, but would you mind taking a breathalyzer test.” No problem there because I had only had a half a pint of Guinness at lunch a couple of hours ago. I passed with flying colors, and again profusely apologized to the understanding officer who was very impressed with the MGA and talked to me a little bit about classic cars, but cautioned me to drive within the speed limit. As we drove off, I remembered that I had left the B&B without my driver’s license and passport, which could have proved a further embarrassment had I been asked to produce them.

The next three days were packed with very eventful and enjoyable adventures in Yorkshire. We toured little towns like Pateley Bridge and Grassington, saw Skipton Castle (a superbly preserved medieval fortress) in the Yorkshire Dales, stopped to visit Bolton Abbey via Ripon and Fountains Abbey, and toured around the North Yorkshire Moors (once home to Captain Cook). The highlight for me was Rievaulx Terrace where we took a pleasant easy hike, and we also drove to the North Sea Coast city of Scarborough which reminded me of the Santa Cruz Boardwalk at home.

Grossmans and Hired MGBAt the end of the third driving day we returned the MGA to York and exchanged it for a 1973 MGB and headed up to Scotland. On our way we stopped at Hadrian’s Wall, the 84 mile long Roman fortress, built from coast to coast during the reign of the Emperor Hadrian that marks the northernmost border of the Roman Empire. To get there we drove through rich farmland and marshes, which are reportedly largely unchanged since the days of ancient Rome. We also visited Wallington House and Gardens, a beautiful National Trust Property as well as the majestic Kielder Water, a large artificial reservoir in Northumberland.

North to Scotland

On the way we experienced our first memorable car adventure or misadventure as it were. At one point our maps and itinerary called for us to proceed down a very narrow rural road, which was quite wet because of all the rain experienced in England and Scotland in June of that year. At one point as a car approached, I gently nudged the MGB over to the side of the road so they could go around us, thus demonstrating what a courteous driver I was. Then it happened. In the process of pulling over, our left rear tire slipped completely off the edge of the road, and the car was stuck in the mud. Hum, now I really understood the meaning of those signs that read, “Caution, unsafe verges ahead.” Oh boy I thought, was this going to be our first experience using the RAC to pull us out? As it turned out, the couple driving the other car came back to our assistance. Peter and Maryanne were wonderful, telling us they would go to a farmhouse down the road and borrow a tow rope so they could pull the car out, thereby avoiding a long wait for the RAC. Sure enough, about a half hour later, Peter and Maryanne reappeared with a tow rope, and we were able to edge the car back on the road. We thanked them profusely for their help and we were on our way again, finally reaching our next B&B in Langholm, Scotland later that evening.

We spent three days touring Scotland passing through little towns such as Peebles and Moffat and such notable sites as the Grey Mare’s Tail, a majestic Waterfall memorialized by a number of famous Poets such as Sir Walter Scott and Robert Burns. Near Moffat we also saw St. Mary’s Lock, the largest natural loch in Scotland, and bottomless at least according to local legend. What, have they never heard of depth finders?

Makes Da Oirish Loook Perdy Good, Dudn’t It?

We now drove to Cairnryan to catch the ferry to Larne in Northern Ireland where I would finally get to have a Guinness in its motherland. Now you would think a ferry ride would be rather uneventful, but not this one. After tucking the MGB away in the bowels of the ferry, we went upstairs to the dining room and lounge section of the boat to pass our time crossing the Irish Sea. While Melissa sat and ordered her lunch, I stepped over to the bar to order a beer. When I came back to our table I noticed that my money clip with £55 was missing. It wasn’t losing the money so much that bothered me as it was losing my money clip, which was made from a 1921 silver dollar given to me by my mother. I was distraught, and as Melissa and I looked carefully around our table, the barman appeared and asked, “Is this yours?” handing me my money clip. I was stunned, and as I thanked him, he explained that an Irish family over in the corner of the bar had found the clip and returned it to him. As I rushed over to thank them, I thought to myself, aha, now is my opportunity to practice the Gaelic expression for thank you, “go raibh maith agat,” that I had learned from a wonderful little book by Evan McHugh, Pint-Sized Ireland – In Search of the Perfect Guinness, that Melissa had given me before our trip. Then common sense got the better of me, and I reasoned that first, Gaelic is not spoken too much anymore, and probably much more so in the Republic of Ireland than in Northern Ireland due in part to the historical influence of the British occupation there. Finally, I realized I would screw up the Gaelic pronunciation of the phrase, so I decided to just say thank you, which I did when I reached the family. They all smiled and the older woman in the group turned to me and said, “Makes Da Oirish Loook Perdy Good, Dudn’t It?” We all laughed, and once again I profusely thanked them for finding and returning my money clip. When I returned to our table, both Melissa and I both smiled over this part of the story, and our journey continued as the ferry reached Larne in Northern Ireland.

Grossmans at LondonderryAfter a long drive in the rain and the mist we reached our next B&B in Portstewart Northern Ireland. If you visit this part of Northern Ireland, you must visit such sites as the Giants Causeway, a natural wonder of interlocking stone columns resulting from a volcanic eruption; the Bushmills Distillery where legendary Irish whiskey has been made since 1608; and Londonderry (or Derry depending on your political persuasions), a completely walled city. A must see there is the Londonderry Museum which provides a marvelous perspective on the History of Northern Ireland.

During one of our lunch breaks, we stopped in an Irish pub so I could have a nice half pint of real Guinness. I discovered that their Guinness is not too much different from what we drink at the Englander, except it is creamier and does take a while for the head of the beer to settle. As we were sipping our beers, an old toothless smiling woman turned and started talking to us. “I don’t understand me husband. When he drops me off at da pub, he just keeps drivin’ round and round in da roundabouts.” We laughed and I thought to myself, “Well I’m not the only one who keeps going round and round in the roundabouts, in my case, until my navigator sets me straight.”

Another notable side-trip we took while in Northern Ireland was to quaint Ballintoy Harbor where we caught a little sunshine and Melissa lunched on the most delicious Irish stew I have ever tasted. We later took a drive to Portrush where we saw Dunluce Castle, a spectacular castle built on a crag overlooking the sea. We had barely touched Ireland, but were now off on the next segment of our venture.

On to the Lake District Back in England

After three days of our Ireland adventures, we headed back to the ferry to return to Scotland and then on again back to England, but this time to the Lake District, the mountainous region of North West England where I have always wanted to go because of its legendary beauty. On the ferry back to Scotland, another humorous human interest story unfolded. Mechanically, the MGA had performed well, and the only thing that occurred with the MGB was that the horn popped out of the steering wheel, and having no tools, I could not bend the prongs in it so it could properly be slipped back into the steering wheel. We really needed a pair of pliers. Well as we were parking the car in the ferry, I asked one of the ferry workers if they had a pair of pliers we could borrow. Our conversation was overheard by a gentleman parked ahead of us in a Porsche. He walked over to us holding a brand new pair of pliers and said, “Here take these. I sell tools and am glad to help out. Keep ‘em. I don’t need them.” As we thanked him, we all enjoyed another chuckle, and headed up to the passenger lounge where it was truly delightful watching Melissa, Miss Crafts Queen turned mechanic, try to bend the prongs in the horn mechanism into proper shape. When we disembarked at Cairnyan, we sought out a mechanic to repair the horn because our mechanical skills had proved insufficient. Well, as luck would have it, we found a tractor mechanic who finally made the repair, of course with the aid of our new pair of pliers. We then drove via Dumfries and Gretna Green to Ambleside for our last B&B.

Randy Grossman and Police MGAThe Lake District did not disappoint. Even in rainy weather the boat ride down Lake Windermere, the largest natural lake in England, was still quite enjoyable. And what did we find at the end of our boat ride but the Lakeland Auto Museum, which included a rare MGA that had been adapted for use as a police car. While strolling around the museum, my cell phone rang; it was Eric Baker, my excellent adventure buddy from our local MG Owner’s Club calling to find out how the trip was going and to discuss a picture of a 1936 TA Midget I had just texted to him. It was a riot.

The next day we visited Dove Cottage, the home of the William Wordsworth, the 19th century poet who produced some of the greatest poetry in the history of the English language. It was particularly meaningful for me, as I have enjoyed his work since high school.

But the most surprising event was yet to come. While driving through Grasmere we noticed a sign announcing a classic car show would be held the next day on June 23rd. I casually turned to Melissa and said, “Hey, let’s go to the show and enter our “hire” MGB." Melissa thought I was nuts, but for the fun of it, the following morning we drove to the show, and they let us in. What was really hilarious was that while walking around, we were approached by a Lion’s Club representative, the show’s sponsor, who asked if they could interview us. So the gentleman got on his microphone and said, “Well today we have some very special visitors all the way from California who brought a car to our little car show…well maybe not from California, but they drove an MG from York. Randy would you tell us a little bit about your trip to the UK and your experience with classic British cars.” I explained that I had a 1962 MGA Mk II at home, and coincidentally that if we were home that day I would have been at the Palo Alto Concours, another Lion’s Club sponsored car show. I also put in a nice plug for the MG Owner’s Club of Northern California and directed people to our website, should anyone be traveling to Northern California and want some MG contacts. Melissa was asked if she shared my enthusiasm and she said, “Well to a degree, but I am definitely enjoying the trip including the restaurants we have gone to in the Lake District.” Her comment reminded me of the recent IFC movie, The Trip, which, with classic British humor, features the “foodie” restaurants now dotting the Lake District.

Grossmans being Interviewed at Car Show

On our last day in the Lake District we went to a museum in Coniston which celebrates the life of John Ruskin, the amazing 19th Century artist, teacher, amateur geologist, social critic, and philosopher who authored the famous Until This Last which inspired Gandhi and expressed his sentiment that “There is No Wealth but Life.” In the same museum there was a tribute to Donald Campbell, the famous auto and speed boat racer who broke eight world speed records in the 1950s and 1960s, and raced his Bluebird K7 on Coniston Water, but tragically died in 1967 when his boat, traveling at over 320 MPH flipped and broke apart.

Our last adventure in the Lake District involved driving to a glass blowing factory in Cumbria, which was meaningful to me because I have been taking glass blowing classes at the Crucible in Oakland. Melissa bought me a shot glass so I could enjoy some our fine Irish whiskey when we returned home.

So now we headed back to York to return the MGB and catch the train back to London where we would spend four more memorable days, before returning home, but that is another story. On our way back from the Lake District to York, we experienced our only major mechanical mishap of the trip. Seven miles from reaching Reflections Classic Car Hire, the fuel pump gave out and we were concerned that we would miss our train. Thankfully, we were rescued by Charles Hils, the owner of Reflections, who whisked us off to the train station in time for our departure to London.

On the train we settled down and started gathering our memories. One thing became very clear. If you are going to take your major MG adventure, do it now because you aren’t getting any younger.

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Last updated on May 26, 2013.