There are several reasons for the dedicated motorcyclist to go to Britain. Perhaps the most compelling for the real devotee is that it is the home of many of the greatest motorcycles ever built. Many classic British bikes are housed in the National Motorcycle Museum just outside Birmingham in the Midlands, and Heskeths -- the natural successors to Brough Superiors and Vincents, though produced in even tinier numbers than either -- originated nearby at Easton Neston and are still made in Northamptonshire. And as described below, a motorcycle tour can have unique advantages over other ways of visiting the UK.
The countryside can certainly be beautiful -- it is often likened to a huge garden -- and other motorcyclists are likely to extend a very warm welcome indeed, especially if you can find the pubs they drink in. Look for the bikes outside: motorcycling in Britain is extremely democratic (as it is in most countries) and while the old rockers and greasers may not have much to say to the born-again brigade (the term 'Attila the Stockbroker' was coined in England) at least they tolerate them.
The British countryside exhibits enormous variety: densely populated mega-cities (especially London in the south-east), the almost deserted Scottish Highlands, the rugged cliffs and moors of Cornwall, and more. Even within each part of the UK, there are wide regional variations, including sometimes puzzling variations in regional accent.
Remember that Britain is a collection of countries, and that several of them have small but vocal independence movements. Devolution (local parliaments with limited powers) was an attempt to contain this with respect to Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, but this upset some of the English, who complain that their wishes are less regarded than those of the smaller nations: the population of the UK is 80 to 90% English. There are some unhappy people in Cornwall, too: it's the poorest part of the country, but because it's so beautiful, many English retire there after selling their houses elsewhere (especially London) for vast sums, thereby pricing the locals out of the market.
Probably the majority of Britons regard independence movements as an eccentricity, but among those that pay them any heed you are likely to find very strongly polarized opinions, with some wanting 'the English' out, and others saying 'don't be silly, you're English too'. The latter serves only to make things worse, for obvious reasons: I am no advocate of an independent Cornwall -- to quote an old friend, "I thank God I'm British, and being Cornish is a bonus" -- but I resent being patronized by people from south-east England who tell me I'm English. Sound people out carefully before you get onto this topic.
This general spirit of tribalism extends to motorcyclists. Then again, we have to hang together, because (for example) some pubs still have signs saying 'No Motorcycles' and plenty more have signs saying 'No Leather Jackets' or 'No Motorcycle Helmets': code for the same thing.
To an American,this level of discrimination is still not too bad -- the USA is the only country I have lived where motorcyclists are treated worse than in the UK -- but some Europeans may be disenchanted with the welcome they sometimes receive.
To continue with the down side for a moment, Britain is crawling with speed cameras; the weather is rarely much good; the traditional helpful policeman has by no means disappeared, but some young coppers are not, shall we say, as helpful as they were; accommodation (except in a bed and breakfast or 'B&B') is often overpriced and indifferent; and the same is often true of the food. If you particularly want to visit the UK with a bike, I'd suggest you have a 'Plan B' ready for crossing to Europe and touring there instead if Britain doesn't come up to your expectations. Quite frankly, I find most of the rest of Europe more congenial in many ways.
With the moans out of the way, if your heart is set on visiting the United Kingdom, motorcycling may be the best way to do it, because you will have a ready-made 'tribe' of fellow motorcyclists with whom you can identify and who will make you far more welcome than most strangers could ever hope for. If you have not made any on-line contacts beforehand, then look out for motorcyclists' pubs when you arrive.
Stay away from the obvious tourist honeypots, and better still, avoid the peak summer season, and you can have a really good (if fairly expensive) time. A good solid fried breakfast in a B&B can be enough to set you up for the day, and both the bed and the breakfast will usually be a lot cheaper than an hotel. Best of all, stay with motorcycling friends. If you don't already have any, try motorcycle chat rooms and forums. It is hard to overstate how welcoming other motorcyclists can be.
To be fair, there are also plenty of places where the almost everyone is genuinely friendly and welcoming: much of the Midlands, for example, around Birmingham -- though as already noted, you may find some regional accents a little opaque and 'brummie' (Birmingham or 'brummagem') is especially distinctive. As a general rule, the welcome you receive in any given area is inversely proportional to the number of tourists they regularly see.
Quasar, Bristol, 1970s
British tourist organizations are fragmented, with often competing national and regional tourist boards, but www.visitbritain.com will provide links to all the most useful parts, including some quite informative government sites. The online brochure request from visitengland.com is, however, a bit of a joke as they won't send brochures outside the UK...
Ordnance Survey (OS) maps are probably the finest in the world. If you want the maximum possible information buy an OS atlas. These were traditionally 'quarter inch' (to the mile), or 1:253440. Other popular scales are 'one inch' (1:63360) and for extreme detail 'six inch' (1:10560). Almost all are now metricated -- 1:250,000, 1:50,000 and 1:10,000 -- but they are incomparable and surprisingly often updated. Most good bookstores will have them; so will 'outdoors' shops (for walkers and campers); but supermarkets almost never have them.
There are several other good road atlases but they omit topographical and other information to varying degrees. These are often available at handsome discounts at motorway service stations, and are one of the few bargains you will find at such places. Free maps from tourist offices are for the most part useless or non- existent.
Be careful. British drivers are increasingly aggressive in their behaviour towards other road users. Verbal abuse, rude gestures and even deliberately dangerous driving are distressingly common, especially if you are obeying the speed limit and they don't want to. This is another reason why I no longer go motorcycle touring in Britain for pleasure -- though it's still not as bad as California.
Motorcycles are common in Britain, with the riders ranging from young women going to work on scooters to big hairy riders on big hairy bikes. Fellow motorcyclists will, for the most part, treat you very well indeed. Non-motorcyclists range from indifference to contempt, though at least they won't actively try to kill you. 'Sorry, mate, I didn't see you' is an all too common response after an accident or near-accident.
Crash helmets are compulsory, and must be to the appropriate British Standard 'or equivalent'. As no-one seems too sure what the 'equivalent' might be, this means that you can wear virtually anything that looks reasonably convincing, though World War Two steel helmets would probably invite attention from the Old Bill. You do not need to carry a first aid kit or spare bulbs, and daylight riding lights are not compulsory. Unnecessary or excessive use of the horn is illegal but as there is no very clear definition of 'necessary' this is not especially informative. Common sense will suffice.;
Misty morning, Kent
Britons drive on the correct (left) side of the road. If you don't think this is correct, ask yourself a simple question: which side do you normally get onto a motorcycle (or a horse, for that matter). The left? And which side is nearest the kerb? But correct or no, it can be dangerous if you are used to driving on the other side. Be particularly cautious when turning onto a major road (look right for the traffic approaching on your side of the road) and when pulling out of petrol stations, car parks, etc.
Like much of the rest of Britain's infrastructure, British roads are suffering from chronic under-investment. They are for the most part quite well maintained,but many are hopelessly overcrowded. This is especially true of motorways near major cities, including the infamous M25 ring road around London. Fortunately lane splitting' is perfectly legal. On the other hand, most bus/taxi/cycle lanes in towns and cities are not legally available to motorcyclists, and you can be nicked for riding in them. The few towns that have opened these lanes to motorcyclists have universally reported favourably on the results; but most authorities can't be bothered, a part of the usual British attitude towards motorcycles.
Although road maintenance is generally good, when a road is re-surfaced, they never come along a few weeks later to sweep up the grit, which therefore concentrates in patches. This can have you off the bike quite quickly and easily. Watch out for slippery overseal banding ('tar' seams) on repairs at roundabouts too: sometimes it is far wider than it should be.
Priority is normally clearly marked, in the usual way: broken lines for 'yield' (where you don't have to stop if the road you are entering is clear) and a solid line for a compulsory stop. If no priority is marked (normally only in small urban and suburban streets, or tiny country lanes) assume that the road on your left has priority.
Roundabouts (traffic circles) are an art form in Britain. They must be: they certainly don't have much to do with traffic control. The simple, single ones are OK, but you find doubles, triples, quads and even crowns of roundabouts, the latter consisting of a big central roundabout and several more around its periphery. How to handle them? Cautiously! And there are always the old boys who remember when there wasn't a roundabout there and go straight across anyway.
Then again, I remember one road in Cornwall that was one-way in the summer and two-way in the winter. An old fellow who was stopped for driving the wrong way in summer said, "Naw, that's only for they old tourists."
Snow beside the railway tracks, Easton, Bristol
The basic speed limit rules are simple. Except when otherwise signed, they are 30 mph (48 km/h) in built-up areas, 60 mph (97 km/h) on the open road except dual carriageways, and 70 mph (113 km/h) on motorways or roads of motorway standard (which is taken to include most dual carriageways). The speed-limit on poor-quality dual carriageways is something of a moot point, but most will be signed, and if they aren't, 60 mph (97 km/h) will be a safe bet.
'Built up areas' were historically those with street lights not more than a certain distance apart, but nowadays, there will always be speed limit signs. In fact, there are more and more speed limit signs, though the variations are seldom as frequent or unpredictable as in (say) France. Plenty of roads in built up areas are subject to a 40 mph (65 km/h) limit instead of 30, and increasing numbers of open roads are subject for no apparent reason to 50 mph (81 km/h) limits.
There are absolutely insane numbers of speed cameras in Britain: I once counted 23 in two hours' driving in Kent. Matters are made worse by the cynical way in which some police forces use speed traps as a simple revenue generator: it is by no means difficult to make several hundred pounds a minute on a stretch of fast motorway, and some forces do: Northamptonshire is notorious.
The permitted margin beyond the speed limit varies widely. People can be (and have been) nicked for 31 mph in a 30 mph limit, but speed cameras in a 30 limit are likely to be set at anything from 32 to 40: I am indebted for that information to an ambulance driver friend, who regularly tripped speed cameras quite legally in the course of his duties. On the motorway (nominal limit 70 mph, 113 km/h), the unofficial speed limit is about 85 mph (135 km/h), but a money-hungry local police force may well nick you at anything over about 75 mph (121 km/h).
Most speeding fines are 'fixed penalty': that is, there is a tariff and you receive a demand in the post. You can choose to appear in court instead but it will rarely do you much good. You don't usually lose your licence unless you are doing over 100 mph (160 km/h).
It is worth knowing that under European legislation introduced in 2003 you are now likely to be pursued for speeding fines acquired in one country of the EU if you live in another country. Formerly, they just didn't bother.
One Home Office spokesman said, "Our aim is to make speeding as socially unacceptable as drunk driving," and as an example of the doctrinaire 'loony tendency', there was a celebrated example in 2003 of a man delivering a liver for transplant -- something where time is obviously of the essence. He was nicked for speeding; explained why he was speeding; and was told that this was no excuse.
The usual rules govern overtaking: common sense, plus road markings (which often seem to owe little to common sense). A single line may be crossed if it is safe to do so; likewise a double line, one solid and one broken, if the dotted line is on your side of the road. A double solid line may not be crossed, except in an emergency or to pass a stationary obstacle (not slow moving, no matter how slow moving). You may however overtake, even if there is a double solid line, if you do not cross the line.
Granite cross, Dartmoor
The British are pretty good about overtaking only on the outside; that is, on the right. Overtaking on the left (also known as 'undertaking') may therefore be extremely dangerous: Britons are so accustomed to being overtaken only on the right that they may pull in to the left without warning and without looking. The only times when overtaking on the left is tolerated and not too dangerous are in slow-moving traffic in town or on some faster roads where there are specific signs saying STAY IN LANE: examples include the Dartford crossing and parts of the M25. If the traffic is moving slowly enough, or stopped, lane-splitting is regarded as perfectly normal, even on motorways.
Unfortunately the British are less good about driving in the correct lane on motorways, and from time to time you will find the fast lane blocked by someone who refuses either to speed up or to pull over: usually a white van or an old age pensioner. If you overtake on the inside, and a policeman sees you, you are quite likely to get a ticket.
Don't park on the sidewalk (pavement). You might not get a ticket, but there's a good chance you will. There are depressingly few motorcycle parking bays (and steadily fewer, in many cities) and the ones that exist are often crowded solid, but at least they are free. Park outside the limit lines, and you will have a very good chance of getting a ticket: many cities have sub-contracted their parking enforcement to mind-bogglingly stupid companies who get paid by results, and therefore hand out as many tickets as possible.
In the original book I suggested that you can often tuck the bike in between two cars on parking meters, but I wouldn't recommend this any longer. Besides, parking meters are dying out, to be replaced with ticket machines where you buy your ticket and display it on the inside of your windshield. This applies to motorcycles as well as cars. You don't have a windshield? Or you have, but the ticket could be stolen or just blow away? Tough; not their problem.
Most parking in town is controlled by yellow lines in the gutter: broken single lines for parking restrictions for less than the working day, solid single lines for restrictions for all of the working day, double lines for restrictions for more than the working day. Then there are the red lines, mostly in London, which are like double yellow lines with extreme prejudice. Not that this stops delivery trucks.
An added sophistication is one, two or three lines painted on the kerb, every few metres, at right angles to the road. These control 'waiting' (loading or unloading, waiting for someone in a shop, etc.). If you're on the bike, waiting for a partner, you should be OK. The restriction periods are as for broken yellow lines; single yellow lines; double yellow lines. On the open road, look out for 'no stopping' signs. Otherwise, it's mostly down to common sense: brows of hills, bends, that sort of thing.
Although there are quite a few delightful green lanes (unsurfaced roads) in Britain, several factors militate against enjoying them except on foot or horseback.
The first is that there are not very many of them relative to the population, so they tend to act as 'magnets' or 'honeypots'. This in turn leads to access being restricted, often to the point of complete closure to wheeled vehicles.
The second is that as noted above, Britons are inclined to be very tribal, and in this case there are several tribes fighting for use of the same space: walkers, horse riders, off-road bicyclists and off-road motorcyclists and drivers.
The third is that some off-road motorcyclists and drivers are, indeed, extremely inconsiderate -- though I am still trying to work out how they could leave 'ruts four feet deep', as claimed by some of their enemies. If the green lanes were less crowded, any damage would repair itself. As it is, any damage is rapidly made worse. This is true regardless of how the original damage was caused, or of how it is made worse: horse riders and even walkers are far from blameless in this.
Fourth, because Britain is so heavily urbanized, there are relatively few people who have much need for off-road vehicles. Many are therefore playthings and status symbols, and easy targets for the politics of envy and tribalism.
Fifth, there is a strong authoritarian streak in many Britons. This often manifests itself in banning (or at least restricting) anything they don't do themselves. As there are far more people who are not interested in off road riding or driving than there are enthusiasts for either activity, the slightest trouble or controversy is normally used as an excuse for banning off-road vehicles.
As a result, if you really enjoy off-road exploration, Britain is not much of a place to do it. Because Wales and Scotland are far less crowded, the chances are better there, but equally, as an 'incomer' you will be that much less welcome, so on balance, it probably still isn't worth bothering. Most off-road driving for pleasure in Britain is done at 'playgrounds' -- specially laid-out courses where you pay per day to drive through mud and water.
Temperatures normally range between mild and downright cold -- Britain is rarely warm, at least for long -- and the climate is distinctly damp: that's one reason why the countryside is so green. After all, London is as far north as Edmonton, Alberta, but the climate is softened by the Gulf Stream. At its best, the weather can be perfect, a dream of a day, but you can't rely on it -- ever. It is a standing joke between us that when Frances came over for the first time in August 1981 (the month I asked her to marry me), the weather was gorgeous for the whole time. Ever since, she has reckoned that I brought her over under false pretences.
Average daily maximum temperatures never exceed 21 degrees C, 70 degrees F, except in the south-east, and that only by a degree or two, in July and August. Rainfall is remarkably constant across the year: the monthly average of days with more than 0.1mm of rain ranges between one in three and two in three, and the wettest months rarely have more than twice the rainfall of the driest months.
A good spring day in Britain is hard to beat, though some foreigners reckon it's the relief of seeing the sun at all that makes them so welcome. It won't be warm, though: 18 degrees C/65 degrees F in May is regarded as unseasonably high. July and August are the warmest months, and September and early October can be delightful too; but once again, by October, average daily maxima are down to below 15 degrees C, 59 degrees F. Avoid the winter at all costs: from November to February inclusive, it rains between half and two thirds of the days in any given month, and average daily maximum temperatures in most of the country are in single figures C (10 degrees C is 50 degrees F).
Overall, the south is warmer than the north (surprise!) and the west is wetter than the east, but the weather is so variable that this is quite frequently reversed for hours, days or weeks (though seldom months) on end. Sure, to an American who is accustomed to stinking hot summers and bitterly cold winters -- such as you might get in upstate New York, where Frances was born -- British complaints about the weather may seem ill-founded; but it is the rarity of really good weather, rather than the frequency of really bad weather, that ;engenders the moans.
The British have relatively few public holidays compared with most other Europeans, but rather more than Americans. They are generally known as 'bank holidays' because the banks are shut. Most are glued to a week-end, making a 'long week-end' of Saturday-Sunday-Monday. Christmas obviously falls on December 25th but Boxing Day (December 26th) is also a public holiday and most firms will 'bridge' an extra day to the nearest week-end, so if Christmas and Boxing Day are Wednesday-Thursday, Friday will normally be thrown in as a 'bridge' to the following week-end. And if Christmas or Boxing Day or both fall on a week-end, an extra day or two (as appropriate) of bank holiday will be glued on to the end of the week-end.
More and more stores follow the American model in opening (usually for limited hours) on bank holidays; it is not like (say) France where a public holiday is a real public holiday except for restaurateurs, bars and cafés.
Loch, northern Scotland
Bank holidays are surprisingly regional within the UK, as follows:
1 January -- New Year's Day
2 January (Scotland only)
17 March -- St. Patrick's Day (N. Ireland only)
April bank holiday (Scotland only)
1 May -- May Day (not Scotland)
Spring Bank Holiday (Scotland) -- early May
Spring Bank Holiday (England) -- late May
May Day Holiday (Scotland) -- late May
July bank holiday (Northern Ireland only) -- mid-July
August Bank Holiday -- late August
25 December -- Christmas Day
26 December -- Boxing Day
Good Friday and Easter Monday are bank holidays except in Scotland and fall as determined by the Christian calendar.
Your national or US state driving licence is adequate -- you don't need an IDP -- and if you bring in your own bike you will need proof of insurance. If you buy a new bike in the UK, you will need to insure it (expensive by European standards, cheap by Californian standards) and register it: annual 'road fund' or 'tax disk' rates are quite high, though bikes over 250cc can be taxed for 6 months instead of the full year.
If you buy an old or 'classic' bike in the UK, make sure it comes with an MoT (Ministry of Transport Test Certificate) which is required for all motor vehicles over 3 years old. Vehicles from 1972 or earlier do not, however, have to pay road fund.
If you are required by a policeman to produce your vehicle papers -- licence, registration, insurance and (if required) MoT -- you have a few days to produce them at the police station of your choice. I can't remember whether it's three or five days, but you will be informed at the time. A traditional ruse was to choose a really rough nick, where they were more concerned with real villains than with checking vehicle licenses, and produce them there. Of course, they may just give up with a foreign-registered bike, unless it's a reasonably serious offence.
Health care is one of the better aspects of Britain, despite the fact that the National Health Service is (like much else) suffering from years of under-funding. This is currently being remedied, though politicians apparently have some difficulty in understanding that you can't just buy new doctors: you have to send young people to medical school for several years first.
Accident and Emergency (A&E) services at hospitals can be very slow indeed -- several hours -- for minor, non-serious afflictions, but for serious accidents they are as good as just about any in the world. You may be able to get emergency treatment for nothing at a dental hospital (if you can find one) but I wouldn't bet on it. Dentists aren't particularly expensive, on the other hand, so you may decide not to worry.
Make sure that your travel insurance includes health insurance, as there is an increasing tendency to try to recover expenses (usually nominal, but still far from negligible) from victims of road traffic accidents, and unless you are an EU citizen armed with an E111 (in which case everything except care after an accident should be free) you can be charged for any medical care. On the other hand, you will be treated whether or not you have insurance -- they worry about payment later -- and the extent to which visitors are or are not charged seems to be haphazard.
The water is safe everywhere; there are no immunisation requirements unless you are coming from an infected area; and overall, it's a pretty healthy place to visit.
Electricity is the European standard (220v, 50 Hz) but the plug is not the European standard: it is a massive affair with three huge brass prongs and an integral, changeable fuse. Carry a converter. Mobile phone coverage is excellent.
Britain is emphatically not a part of the Schengen group, and although border controls are reasonably swift (especially at the Channel ports) you can expect to have your passport scrutinized with more or less diligence. British immigration authorities, like their American counterparts, seem to be convinced that the rest of the world wants to settle (illegally if necessary) in their wonderful country. Tourists from other rich countries don't normally have too bad a time, but those from elsewhere (including the Indian sub-continent) are subject to visa requirements which can look very racist, and are likely to be given a rough time.
Everyone needs a passport. If you come from a rich country the visa is issued free at the port of entry. If you come from a poorer country in Africa, Asia, and (non-EU) Eastern Europe, visas must be sought in advance: the requirements are strict, inflexible and frankly arrogant. Visa applications can however be made online via www.fco.gov.uk or www.ukvisas.gov.
Customs desks have all but vanished. There are three channels at most ports and airports, 'red', 'green' and 'blue'. 'Red' is 'goods to declare' or for queries -- but last time we had a query, we hung around in the 'red' channel for twenty minutes or so before giving up and walking out. 'Green' is 'nothing to declare' and 'blue' is 'EU Citizens'. Many people (including me) have some difficulty in understanding why there need to be both green and blue channels, as neither is for declaring goods, and neither is manned.
On the other hand, if they do stop you, Her Majesty's Customs and Excise have draconian powers and are not afraid to use them, so it is as well to be inside the limits which are the EU standards.
Currency is the pound sterling, divided into 100 pence. Since Frances and I have been married (in 1982) the exchange rate against the US dollar has varied from just above parity (a pound was worth about US $1.02) to more than double (about US $2.10). Likewise the price of a pound in euros has varied from about 1.25 to 1.50 or more. There is much more about this in the article on exchange rates.
The pound is widely referred to as a 'quid'. 'A couple of quid' is two pounds, for example, but you'd never ask (as some Americans do, thinking to demonstrate their familiarity with the language) "How many quid [worse, 'quids'] is that?" instead of "How much?". The only other thing worth knowing about the currency is that £5 and £10 are 'a fiver' and 'a tenner' respectively.
Many older people (50 and above) still make vestigial references to the pre-decimal system, so that £1.50 is 'thirty bob' (thirty shillings, or one pound ten shillings) and 'five bob' (five shillings) is 25p, but you don't really need to know about this: Frances has resolutely refused to learn any of it, and never refers to a 10p piece as a two-shilling piece ('a couple of bob').
Credit cards are widely accepted, and there is no shortage of hole in the wall machines (autotellers); and of course banks will give cash advances against major credit cards.
The euro is accepted in a very few places, but you would be foolish to rely on it, and the rate of exchange is likely to be miserable. Although I once paid for a haircut in US dollars, the acceptability of the greenback is based more on its value as a curio than on its actual worth, much like the time I spent Tibetan 'sang' in Zurich.
Recovery of VAT (Valued Added Tax, similar to sales tax) is possible for expensive purchases: look for signs in shops offering VAT free shopping for tourists. You pay the VAT up front and recover it at the airport or by letter from your home outside the EU.
Essentially, most shops open from around 0900 to around 1700-1800 but there are plenty of exceptions. Newsagents, which often double as confectioners and tobacconists and may well have a modest selection of general merchandise as well, commonly open very early indeed, perhaps as early as 0500. And there are plenty of small general stores that open early (anything from 0500 to 0700) and close late (anything from 2000 to 2200). Many are run by immigrants; the popular name, 'Pakki shops' (from 'Pakistani') is misleading as most are in fact Indian. But then, most 'Indian' restaurants are Bangladeshi. Even the most politically correct Britons may use the term 'Pakki shop', though probably not to the proprietor's face.
Closing for lunch hours is ever rarer but you may find some small shops closing at anything from 1215 to 1330 and re-opening at anything from 1300 to 1430. Banks generally open from 0930 to 1630, Monday to Friday, but smaller branches may vary. On Saturdays, look for 0930 to 1300. Petrol (gas) stations may be open 24 hours a day, or 0600 to midnight, or 0800 to 2200, or indeed almost any other hours including 0900 to 1730, though normally only small, rural (and expensive) petrol stations will keep shop hours. The reason petrol stations are covered here, instead of under 'fuel, oil and maintenance' (below) is that increasingly many of them also incorporate a general store or even mini-supermarket. Prices tend to be significantly higher than in other supermarkets, and the range of goods they sell is limited, but they are very convenient.
More and more supermarkets are open 24 hours a day, though not necessarily 7 days a week: Sunday hours are often heavily curtailed. A few department stores open until 7 or 8 pm (1900- 2000) but not usually all week. Most (though far from all) shops close on Sundays; a few close on Saturday afternoons; and in many areas there is still an 'early closing day' when shops close for the afternoon. This is normally Wednesday but Tuesday and Thursday are other possibilities; Monday or Friday would be extremely unusual. 'Early closing' is in any case dying out.
The traditional tip was 10 per cent but it is creeping up in line with American practice; 15 per cent is now regarded as the maximum. A few places add an 'optional' tip into the bill without asking you, and they can get very annoyed if you refuse to pay it. Tough. The last time I refused was in an Indian restaurant in London. They had told me categorically that the beer (Cobra) was imported from India. It wasn't. It was brewed under licence in the UK. Instead of apologizing, they argued: 'It is made from imported ingredients'. Result: no tip. Second argument. They lost.
Tip in restaurants, but not in pubs. If you are drinking for some time -- a whole evening, perhaps -- you may care to invite the barman to 'have one for himself'. He may then accept in the most literal sense, pouring himself a drink and adding the price to your round (see under 'Drink', below); or take the money, and say, "I'll have it later" or "I'll have it when I've finished this one"; or he may say, "No, I'm all right, thanks."
The traditional British bobby is still encountered more often than not, and the great majority of police are still polite, at least at first; but 'the occasional cocky young copper' that I referred to in the original Motorcycle Touring in Europe is now regrettably encountered rather more than occasionally. A proper, old-fashioned copper would always start out polite, and most still do, but a few (and only a few) are rude and arrogant from the moment they stop you, treating you as if they were a (very incompetent) schoolteacher and you were a naughty child.
There are also increasing numbers of publicity-hungry chief constables who operate on the principle that there is no such thing as bad publicity: frankly loony initiatives are devised and rigorously applied, and adverse publicity is positively welcomed, partly as a deterrent -- 'You WILL be punished if you break the law' -- and partly as a political sop: 'Tough on crime and the causes of crime'.
Add to this a parade of increasingly authoritarian and centralist home secretaries (to whom the regional police forces, each with its chief constable, are ultimately responsible), and you have a rather nasty cocktail which can occasionally tip almost into neo-fascism. Britain is not a police state, because the British people as a whole, and most British coppers, have too much sense; but it certainly has the full apparatus for becoming one.
The best and most understanding police are the motorcycle cops. All are good riders, or very good riders, or unbelievably good riders, and they aren't too worried about speed limits on the open road (or motorway) provided you are riding safely. I was overtaken by a motorcycle cop once, on my way into London on the A2. He gave me a cheery wave of acknowledgement for pulling to the left to let him pass. I was doing 90 to 95 mph (145-150 km/h) at the time.
You are not obliged to call the police (nor are they obliged to turn up) to the scene of an accident if there are no injuries. If you want to be sure they turn up, suggest to them that the other fellow may have been drinking.
The emergency number for all services is 999.
Litter is offensive
When it comes to breakdowns, there are two national automobile clubs, the RAC (Royal Automobile Club) and AA (Automobile Association). Check with your own automobile club to see if it is affiliated to either of these. If it is, you should be eligible for free roadside assistance, though the cost of parts is extra. There are also a couple of other breakdown chains which were not founded as clubs (but then, the RAC and the AA breakdown services aren't any more) and your insurer may be affiliated with these: check before you go. Or if you have international breakdown insurance, don't worry about it until it happens. I have used international breakdown services three times in the last 25 years, and each time I was very impressed. You just call the number on the card and you get the most wonderful 'hand-holding' service.
Fuel prices are around the European norm, or a little higher: a lot depends on the exchange rate. A surprise to most Europeans is that diesel is more expensive than petrol, not less. The cheapest petrol is usually at the petrol stations attached to supermarkets, though the differentials are nothing like as high as in France, and indeed, other urban petrol stations may be no more expensive than the supermarkets. Small rural petrol stations are another matter: you can pay 10, 20 or even 30 pence more per litre than in a low-cost urban station. Credit cards are universally accepted. Opening hours have already been mentioned above.
If you have an older bike with a thirst for oil, prices at petrol stations are not too bad but prices at motorists' discount stores -- often fairly visible, though not always very frequent -- are significantly better. Once again, the difference is far less than in most of continental Europe.
Servicing and maintenance are largely a matter of looking in the Yellow Pages, or calling into the first likely motorcycle engineer that you see. Most motorcycle engineers are pretty straight with you and will recommend someone else if they think they could do a better job. Many are specialists in older bikes of particular marques, and are very good indeed. I have used numerous British mechanics, and been very impressed with the vast majority of them.
The worst, in my experience, are main dealers. Many charge sky-high labour rates, and they are often so accustomed to 'born-again bikers' to whom money is nothing that they propose unnecessary work. To add insult to injury, they don't even keep common replacement parts in stock. At least one main dealer has lost a franchise over this.
There are quite a few motorcycle hire companies, but note that they often charge extra -- sometimes quite a lot extra -- if you want to take the bike over onto the continent. Some load the hire fee if you have a non-UK licence, and some even ask to retain your passport for the duration of the tour!
For a kick-off, try the two below: from their web-sites, they look like reasonable people without silly booking conditions. More should be added as I learn more from the proprietors of other companies: www.raceways.net (London) and www.tpc.motorcycle.hire.cwc.net (South Coast).
English food is is a lot better than it used to be, but restaurant prices are still inclined to be high by European standards and there is a lot of dross about, especially at the lower end of the market. Many expensive London restaurants have dress codes, too: no collar and tie, no food. I have been thrown out of the Ritz for wearing motorcycle boots.
The best places to eat are usually pubs that also do food. These vary immensely and there is no substitute for local knowledge. Ask two or three (or four or five) people in the street, or in the petrol station, or wherever. If the same pub is mentioned twice or more, it's probably a good bet. Many specialize: one will be known for seafood, another for steaks, another (believe it or not) for Thai food.
In the West Country, look for pasties ('pasty' rhymes with 'nasty' not 'hasty', and it has a long 'a': paasty). These are turnovers of meat, onion, turnip and potato. They go very well with a pint of cider or beer.
Indian restaurants in England are mostly very good, though they are no longer as cheap as they used to be, either absolutely or (more importantly) relative to other restaurants. Most of the 'Chinese' food served in the UK would be unrecognizable to many Chinese, unless perhaps you go to Soho's Chinatown and a few other places, but it is still good and good value. There are some good Greek restaurants, too, often run by Cypriots, and Thai is increasingly popular. Italian restaurants are OK if you like Italian food.
If you dream of the famous British fish and chips, dream on. Forty and more years ago, when there was a fish and chip shop every few hundred yards, the quality varied widely: the best were excellent, the worst, abysmal. Today, both good and bad have all but vanished. You have a choice of the 'Chinese chippie', a Chinese take-away where they also do fish and chips, or a sanitized, McDonalds-ized place where instead of fish and chips you get a 'Fish and Chip Experience'. The worst of these places wrap the food in fake newspaper: real newspaper, the traditional insulator and grease-absorber in a real chippie, is of course inadequately hygienic and besides the ink comes off on your hands.
Cheap but tolerable British restaurants may or may not have 'on licences' allowing them to sell drink to be consumed on the premises. Some are simply 'dry', while others allow you to bring in your own wine or beer; they may or may not charge corkage, but if they do, it is very unlikely to be much: at worst a pound a head, and quite possibly just 50p for the whole party, to pay for washing the glasses.
One of the very best things about touring in Britain is the Great British Fried Breakfast. This can sustain you all day, so you don't necessarily need lunch. Stay in bed-and-breakfast establishments (below) and this is included in the price of the room. A good out-in-the-country B&B will give you cereal, followed by some or all of fried eggs, fried bacon, fried sausage, fried tomato, fried mushrooms, fried bread and baked beans followed by toast, butter and marmalade, all accompanied by fresh-brewed coffee. If you don't like fried food, they may scramble or boil eggs, too. Admittedly a bad one won't give you any cooked food at all, and the coffee will be instant, so check what sort of breakfast they do before you take the room. Traditionally, hotels provided breakfast too, but nowadays, more and more charge you for it, so again, check before you take the room.
Britain is quite a good place for picnics, when weather permits, and the high prices in restaurants mean that there can be quite a financial incentive to buy a sandwich in a supermarket or specialist sandwich shop (high quality, reasonable prices) and find somewhere pleasant to eat it. Another good thing for a picnic is a pork pie: fatty and cholesterol-laden, to be sure, but at its best, delicious. Look for Melton Mowbray pies, preferably without preservatives. Buy a tube of Colman's Mustard to accompany them: one tube should be enough for several pies.
British cheeses improve steadily -- there are now some great Cornish cheeses, which there never were in my youth -- and decent bread is much easier to come by from specialist bakeries, though most Britons still eat disgusting sliced white pap. Then there's celery, strawberries (in season) and the finest cream in the world, Cornish clotted cream. In Cornwall, we don't just put cream on sweet things: a bacon-and-egg pie with cream is amazing. British apples are pretty good, too.
In the West Country, there are a few specialist pasty shops (see above), and throughout the country there are small bakers' shops who will microwave a pasty for you to take away. Proper home-made pasties can be eaten cold, but you don't want to eat a commercial pasty straight out of the chiller case. As well as Cornish pasties you can find cheese-and-potato pasties and more. Most are surprisingly good, though they can be overly salty.
Part of the reason why picnics are such good value is that there is no VAT (Valued Added Tax, at 17.5 per cent) on food bought in a grocer's or supermarket or whatever, but there is on restaurant meals (though not on takeaway meals).
The pub is one of the greatest of British institutions, but it has changed enormously even since I started drinking in them regularly at the age of 16. This was and still would be illegal (the drinking age is 18) but it was not and is not regarded as a serious crime.
It may seem that I have dedicated an unconscionable amount of space to pubs in what follows, but this is because I've been riding bikes and going to pubs since 1966, and for me (as for most British motorcyclists of any age) the two are inextricably linked. A beer with a few greasy mates can be the summa summarum of motorcycle touring in the UK.
A traditional British pub had several bars, each with subtle social implications. The Saloon was much superior to the Public, with carpets instead of sawdust and the beer a penny a pint more expensive. The Snug or Private Bar was for regulars; there might be a Smoking Room, which was a bit louche (smoking in pubs is now illegal); and the Bottle and Jug was for 'off' sales, for beer to be drunk at home. Today, all the divisions are likely to have been torn down, and there will just be one great big bar.
There is also an increasing number of 'theme pubs' (especially Irish), but fortunately, there are still enough pubs that you can generally find one to suit you. In the last English village where we lived, Birchington in Kent, there were four pubs at one end of the village, all within 100 yards of one another; one at the other end of the village, a quarter of a mile (400 metres) away; and another in Minnis Bay, effectively a suburb of Birchington, half a mile (under a kilometre) down the road at the sea-side. That's six boozers, shared among a few thousand people (it was a big village).
Each had its own niche. The Powell Arms was the meat-market for young people on the pick-up; the Pewter Pot was the rough pub, after which it was renamed The Three Legged Toad in an attempt to attract the same clientèle as the Powell Arms; the Queen's Head was bleak and dominated by a huge TV screen; the Acorn kept changing hands (and ended up as the best pub in town, serving superb Thai food in the evening and at weekends in a restaurant at the back); the Sea View (formerly the Railway) had two good landlords, and a bad one in between; and the Minnis at the seaside was pleasant enough, with a gorgeous location on low cliffs, but the building was completely without character.
We didn't care much for any of them, until the last incarnation of the Acorn, so we used to walk three miles across the countryside to St. Nicholas at Wade, and drink in the Bell, which was directly across the road from the Sun; two pubs in a village of a few hundred. Apart from those, I've been to motorcyclists' pubs, students' pubs, gay pubs, writers' pubs, Irish pubs, and all kinds of other pubs catering to a particular clientele. Some deliberately set out to win a particular clientèle; others just ended up that way. With the exception of one lesbian pub, where men were clearly unwelcome, all the others were fine.
Pub, Brick Lane
Are pubs safe? I wouldn't even have bothered to put (and answer) such a fatuous question, except that a surprising number of Americans seem to believe that they will be beaten senseless and robbed if they walk through the doors of a boozer. Of course there are tough urban pubs, in the very roughest areas of town where you wouldn't normally want to go: look for the burned-out cars, boarded-up windows and graffiti. But if you feel safe in the street -- and you generally do feel pretty safe in the street, in Britain -- then you should feel even safer in the pub. They are about as dangerous as the average tea rooms or department store, and a good deal safer than American postal sorting offices. A pub that has a sign advertising 'Morning coffee' outside or in the window (as more and more do) is likely to be downright genteel.
Women on their own will not normally be harassed, unless the pub is clearly a meat market or a hangout for the local whores: either should be obvious as soon as you stick your nose through the door. If you don't like the look of a pub, walk (or ride) on to another one. There are plenty.
Children may or may not be admitted, at the discretion of the landlord: some pubs even advertise 'family rooms'. If they are admitted, it is perfectly all right to buy them soft drinks and food.
The safest pubs of all are those patronized heavily by motorcyclists. No-one is looking for a fight; anyone who comes in search of one will be told politely to be quiet, and if they don't take the hint, they will be thumped and thrown out of the door.
During World War One, temporary restrictions were placed on pub opening hours so that munitions workers wouldn't squander their newly augmented wages and get too drunk, too much of the time. For the next 80 years or so, pubs opened at 1030 or 1100; closed again at 1430 or 1500; and then re-opened at something between 1700 and 1900 until 2230 or 2300. When after some seventy or eighty years it finally dawned on the British government that World War One was over (and the replay, and the Cold War) they slowly and grudgingly expanded pub opening hours. To this day, though, very few pubs open after midnight except under special circumstances such as New Year. It is therefore almost impossible to say when any given pub will be open, though nowadays many are likely to be open in the afternoon when you fancy a swift half.
Not only are the pubs different from 30 or 40 years ago: the beer is also much more expensive than it used to be, even after allowing for inflation. In 1966, the cheapest beer (which was what I drank) was one shilling and fivepence a pint: about 7p in modern British money. Today, even two pounds a pint is likely to be a promotional price, and you can easily pay £3. That's an increase of about 30x.
The British traditionally drink their beer at room (or cellar) temperature. Thanks to the British climate this can hardly be called 'warm'. Likewise, the beer is not artificially carbonated: Britons often refer to lagers and American beers as 'maltade'. But to Americans in particular, used to fizzy, ice-cold beer, British beer can appear warm and flat. Well, if you like cold, fizzy beer, drink lager. But there's a lot to be said for traditional beers, too. One of my favourites, appropriately enough, is Old Roger. It's OK in bottles, but it's excellent on draught.
Strength of beer -- and cider
Beers vary widely in strength. Some maltade-style lagers and weak 'mild' beers start at just over 3% alcohol by volume (ABV), which is comparable with many American beers; strong beers and ciders can be twice as strong. Older drinkers often talk about 'high-gravity' beers. This refers to the specific gravity of the unfermented brew: higher S.G. = more sugar = more alcohol when fermented. It does not refer to the apparent increase in gravity that can afflict you when you drink too much falling-down water.
Cider is incredibly more expensive than when I was a lad, because it's taxed now, and it wasn't then. In the 60s I used to drink 'scrumpy' at 8d or 10d (3p or 4p) a pint but now it's the same price as beer, though rather stronger. The clear cider you get in most parts of the UK is strong enough, but the cloudy 'scrumpy' that you get in the West Country has been known to reduce strong men to whimpering wrecks. Always be suspicious if a Westcountryman urges you to drink cider without warning you about it first. In real cider pubs, they used to have two sets of glasses. One set is for cider and is slightly cloudy where the cider attacks them, and there are sparkling bright ones for beer. Walk, don't ride...
On the bright side, the price of 'shorts' (spirits) in pubs is relatively much lower than it used to be, and so is the price of wine. This is even more true if you are buying wine in a supermarket. Again in 1966, a bottle of cheap wine was eight or nine shillings (40 or 45p -- a dollar at the exchange rate of the time) and now it's three quid or under: an increase of only about 7x.
Drinking in 'rounds' is common, especially if you fall among fellow motorcyclists. Each person takes it in turn to buy a drink for everyone in the group. The advantages are obvious -- it's very convivial -- but so are the disadvantages: six people, for example, means six rounds, which is a lot of beer. Also, a round for six can be damnably expensive: there can be distressingly little change from a £20 note.
It is considered very bad form to skip your round, or to say, "No, I'll buy my own," and almost equally bad form to try to buy another round before it is your turn (i.e. before everyone else has bought a round), but it is very good form to try to get your round in as early as possible. The normal form is being the first to ask "Right, what do you want to drink?". If someone else beats you to it, as soon as the first person has finished his drink, you say, "Right, my round" or "My shout".
If you are not sure how to order, or have problems with the language, a simple formula is to say to someone else, "You get them in, and I'll pay for them." Note that women may or may not choose to buy rounds. Some do; some don't; and no-one thinks much about it either way, except that a woman who 'stands her round' is more likely to be seen as 'one of the lads'.
Queen's Head, Ramsgate
The best place to buy booze for picnics is in a supermarket: prices are very significantly lower than in small shops or in off-licences ('offies', with a licence to sell drink to be consumed off the premises). Probably the best buy to accompany a picnic is cider, available in everything from small (12 oz, 330 ml) bottles or cans to gallon jugs. A litre should be enough for two people; a litre each would probably put you over the limit. Buy it cold from a chiller case if you can: it's better that way. Beer is a good buy, but the cheapest beers are little better than American: go for a decent bottled beer rather than a two-litre plastic bottle, unless you're really thirsty.
As noted above, even wine isn't too expensive any more. The best buys are probably Eastern European or New World, but there are often 'specials' which are quite good value. English wine is all too often a thin, sharp, grossly overpriced version of German wine: the stuff that is worth drinking is even more expensive.
The blood alcohol level is 80 mg/100 ml, which provokes howls of anger from the authoritarians in government and the gutter press alike: they point out that much of Europe has a 50 mg/100ml limit. What they neglect to point out is that at 80 mg/100ml in Britain, you lose your licence for a year, while in much of Europe you are merely fined and have penalty points added to your license if you have 50 mg/100ml, with more serious penalties (some of which may still be less severe than the British minimum penalty) kicking in at higher levels.
Fortunately, there are still enough pubs in the UK that most places you stay will be within walking distance of not one but several pubs; except in villages, where there may only be one. At lunchtime, drink halves, or consider a 'bitter shandy' (half beer, half lemonade).
In most of Britain, drinking in public is entirely legal, but increasing numbers of resorts are introducing by-laws that stop you drinking outside pubs or in certain gathering-places such as town squares and beaches. They say it's because of problems with public drunkenness. I say it's because they're power-crazed authoritarians. These areas are normally well signposted.
This is a phrase you'll see and hear endlessly in Britain. Allegedly, it is increasingly the fashion for young people to drink themselves into insensibility, or at least, into the staggering-about-and-vomiting stage of drunkenness. Of course there are places where this happens, and there is no doubt that it is a lot more common that it was twenty or thirty years ago; but if you avoid city centres with a concentration of pubs and clubs, you may well remain unaware of its existence.
As already indicated, 'bed and breakfast' is likely to be far and away the best value. The room may look expensive next to its continental European counterpart, but the breakfast is likely to be far better than you would get in much of Europe, and it is included in the price. If you mentally knock off a nominal £3, or US $5, per person for the breakfast, the room often looks like much better value.
Note that in Britain, accommodation is quite often priced per person, rather than per room. Prices vary so widely that it may not be clear which they are asking, so always clarify matters carefully. It is still occasionally possible (though ever less easy) to find a double room, with a good breakfast included, for under £30 for two people; and it is quite easy to find exactly the same thing at £30 each.
Cheap hotels are more common than they used to be, but they are often in motorway rest areas or similarly bleak locations where you can't get a decent meal or a drink. Besides, they're not that cheap: the wrong side of forty quid (US $80 or 50 euros) is the least you could normally hope for and £50-60 is a lot likelier.
Some pubs still offer accommodation, but increasingly they polarize into the very basic (no private bathroom) and the overpriced. Still, it's very agreeable to drink until closing time, then roll upstairs to bed. Most of the best pubs that offer accommodation are in the Midlands and North: some in the West Country, and indeed in the south-east, are very attractive, but the prices are likely to be less so. Pubs that make a feature of their antiquity are likely to be disproportionately expensive for accommodation, but there are still pleasant surprises to be had, and besides, it can be worth the extra money to stay at an inn that has been in business for centuries.
Sunset in the Lake District
Camping is legal anywhere, with the landowner's permission, and you are unlikely to be rousted if you camp on public land -- provided you are well out of the way and there are no signs specifically forbidding camping. Most organized camp sites are geared more towards caravans and big family-style tents than towards the kind of small tent you can carry on a bike, and charge accordingly, but they're still not horribly expensive.
Sleeping rough is possible but not desirable: there are many more 'street people' than there were 20 and more years ago, with corresponding rises in crime and police activity -- both of which tend to militate against rough sleepers.
Youth hostels no longer have age limits, but you are required to be a member in order to use their facilities. For England, the web site is www.yha.org.uk, for Scotland, www.sha.org.uk, and for Northern Ireland, www.hini.org.uk.
Public toilets are a lot less common than they used to be (local authorities saw a place to save money), and where they are still open, they range from indescribably magnificent Victorian marble and brass palaces -- the 'Temples of Convenience' of Lucinda Lambton's wonderful book of the same name -- to stinking hovels.
An interesting recent initiative has been local authorities paying pubs, cafés, etc., a subsidy to allow the public to use their toilets. Otherwise, go into any pub; buy a half of beer (or a coffee) and use their facilities.
Well, this site is in English, so we'll assume you can manage that, and the road signs are international, so there's not a lot to say there either.
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© 2008 Roger W. Hicks