Learning to drive in London

At the tender age of 28, I've miraculously just passed my driving test on my fourth attempt, having failed spectacularly three times in my late teens. After a gap of, let's see, almost a decade since my last attempt, I suddenly started to dread the idea of turning 30 next year without a licence and becoming one of those cantankerous Londoners who take a stubborn pride in never learning, because outside of Zone 6 there be monsters. So I took decisive action and booked a two week intensive driving course with a test scheduled for the tenth day. The stakes were high - it certainly wasn't cheap, I had a rare window between work and I figured that if I couldn't pass after all this time (and multiple, expensive theory and provisional licence expiries), a perpetual loop of certain failure was destined to follow and I'd have to give up for good. So no pressure!

What lies beyond the M25
A brief history of failure

Now, I'm originally from the West Midlands and my first three test attempts had been in the medieval town of Ludlow, which to some is the idyllic, historical jewel of the Marches; however, to a sub-standard learner driver such as myself it's a nightmarish, dystopian Noddy toy town full of ridiculously exaggerated obstacles such as insanely steep, narrow cobbled streets, antediluvian pedestrians who take pride in walking exclusively in the road and a treacherous maze of suburbs full of fiendish hill starts. These notably include the famous Sandpits Estate, where I once drove past two mean-looking kids in tracksuits walking a miniature pony on a dog lead.

Ludlow's gate of doom
Not to mention that the driving test centre is located in the misleadingly named Broad Street, which requires you to reverse out on a gradient so steep that in the days of yore horses and carts famously struggled to get up it. Then straight after that you have to drive though the dark, narrow town gate built in 1270, designed specifically to make entry as difficult as possible for marauding Welshmen. Which the council have thoughtfully inset with wooden bollards to make it even narrower. And always contains at least two of the famous local pedestrians, just for fun. Anyway, after failed test number three, I swore to myself that I'd never drive in Ludlow again. Especially as in my last test I'd had to reverse down round a steep bend on a hill in a queue of traffic because the lorry in front of me had got lost in the maze of miniature streets.

And then for many years, just like the One Ring was thought to be lost forever, I concluded that I, now a seasoned and fully embedded Londoner, would never need nor want to attempt to drive again (I should also point out that between tests 2 and 3 in Ludlow, I had had a brief but memorable and highly unsuccessful taste of learning to drive in London which I have previously written about, taught by a very un-driving instructor-esque dude in high tops and a tonne of bling). That was the end of it, or so I thought.

The fear sets in

But then last January, the constant low-level parental nagging about driving I'd received since my last test was completely eclipsed by the first looming terror I experienced over the accelerating proximity of my 30th birthday. On a whim with an edge, I retook my driving theory test for a third time, my last two certificates having expired many years ago. Now, if you're not a driver, this test basically involves you memorising (and subsequently rapidly forgetting) a bunch of obscure road signs and frantically clicking a mouse like a maniac when a comically bad CGI swan waddles onto a road on the screen in front of you. I took my first two tests in the city of Hereford, where on the first occasion a guy turned up and asked where he could leave his car keys as he'd driven himself there on his own. This time, I took my third test in London Bridge, which unlike the sleepy sitting room atmosphere of Hereford involves getting searched by a security team and interrogated about your documentation by a no-bullshit receptionist. Good old London. Luckily I passed again, which meant that I had until January 2019 to pass my practical test due to the two year time limit.

I'm not sure exactly what I was intending when I did my theory, because after passing I didn't make any solid plans to start driving again. But then fast forward a year to this March and something just clicked. The 30th birthday terror again, now looming tangibly close and only one more Happy New Year! away. I had obviously decided never, ever to set foot (well, wheels) in Ludlow ever again, and despite several people telling me I was insane, I decided that as a true Londoner, if I wanted to pass my test I wanted to pass here. If I could do it in London, I could do it anywhere, right? I frantically googled intensive driving courses to get it over and done with in one quick, concerted effort, and selecting a prominently listed company I almost parted ways with my hard-earned bucks before my naturally suspicious Londoner instincts kicked in and I checked their reviews. Lucky I did, because several disgruntled customers testified that the buggers had disappeared into the aether with their cash without the customers ever seeing the inside of an instructor's car.

I then came across the website for a company called Intensive Courses who actually taught a bunch of A list celebs to drive. Call me a fool, but I'm a sucker for any product or service that can claim to be 'as seen on TV'. I booked online for a two week course and they got back to me within a few hours. Booking in mid March, I had hoped to book for April at the latest but apparently as it was half term coming up the tests were all chocka so I got booked in for the first two weeks of May. They'd already speculatively booked my test for the 11th May by the time they called just to make sure they'd secured the earliest date possible, which I found impressive, exciting and terrifying in equal measure. I'd have three hour lessons nearly every day for ten days in a row, which at the time didn't sound like a lot but I can confirm in practice is just as it's billed: very intense. And so for the next month and a half I waited, beset with a distant feeling a doom.

Incidentally, on a side note, later once I was already doing my course I also came across a review for a different local driving school on a Reddit thread that warned people to avoid them because their instructor 'would have me drive him to the BP garage so he could go inside and buy Ginsters pasties to eat whilst cat calling at women.' I had a lucky escape!

Green and pleasant Wanstead
I should also mention here that the nearest test centre to where I live and where they'd booked my test is Wanstead. Oh that will be nice, I thought to myself, my only knowledge of Wanstead being that in contains large swathes of Epping Forest and a Toby Carvery. This assumption was reinforced with a quick glance at Google Maps, displaying appealing swathes of green and the quaintly named Warren Cottages golf course (though actually that reminds me, in Ludlow there's a stretch of road that runs alongside a golf course and my instructor instilled the fear of god into me by warning me to beware of a constant stream of high velocity golf balls when driving past). However, if you google 'Wanstead diving test', what you actually get is a string of newspaper articles titled things like 'Is Wanstead really the hardest place to pass your test?'. It currently has the third lowest pass rate in the UK, at just 28% for women. As I say, I found this out on Day 3 of 10 on my course, which let's say I didn't find too reassuring.

And so it begins

Anyway, to back track slightly, the first day of my course came around extremely quickly, and before I knew it my instructor had collected me from my flat and was driving me the short distance to Wanstead. After asking me if I wanted to drive myself there and I confessed that I'd completely forgotten the first thing about driving, he said OK but I'd definitely be able to drive myself home after my first two hour lesson. Just think, he said, the next time he'd be driving me somewhere would when he'd be returning me home after my test next week. Very scary! I was curious about this so I've actually just looked it up, I'd assumed this was because you're such a nervous wreck after your test that you shouldn't drive any more, but apparently it's because once you pass you're no longer covered by your instructor's insurance. This sounds a bit apocryphal to me, but who knows what's actually true on the internet!

But in any case he was right. By the end of my first lesson I was well and truly back in the swing of things and all my supposedly forgotten driving skills came flooding back. My instructor was very nice and very relaxed, and definitely my first impression in my first lesson was he was easily the best of all of the, well let's guess six or so instructors I'd had in the past (I've honestly lost track). Also, because I was learning in a deisel car, it turns out it's much harder to stall, and I think I stalled about four times in two weeks (as opposed to about ten times per lesson before), though unfortunately now we know that deisel is much worse for the environment than petrol, deisel cars are rightly being phased out. At the end of the lesson, my instructor said that his teaching style was to deliberately to push me out of my comfort zone to help me get up to speed quickly, and I remember thinking that nah, it was OK actually, it really felt fine and not too difficult at all after all this time. So far, so good.

Now, in my first lesson, my instructor also mentioned with casual brevity that Wanstead really wasn't too bad for tests, it just had 'a few roundabouts'. Now, looking back with the gift of hindsight, this is the equivalent of saying that the sun is a great place for a summer holiday, it can just get a bit warm towards the middle of the afternoon. Wanstead in fact has, and what most definitively causes so many people to fail their test, what I've dubbed the Ring of Despair: a circle of 5 massive multi-lane roundabouts connected by bits of the North Circular, the A12 and A1400 with a few (comparatively) smaller but no less pesky roundabouts chucked in for good measure. Let's pause for a fun little montage of my favourites I've gleaned from Google Maps for you:

Green Man roundabout
Redbridge roundabout

Charlie Brown's roundabout
Waterworks roundabout

Fun, huh? I'd driven round roundabouts in Ludlow before and while I'd never loved them, I can't say they'd particularly bothered me before. But on larger roundabouts, you have three more problems to worry about than on top of just finding a gap and getting into the roundabout (though of course on bigger roundabouts there's three times the traffic whizzing round): 1) you're approaching off a massive, busy road and have to do some high-speed weaving between lanes before deciding which damn lane you need 2) once you're on the roundabout, there are seemingly endless lanes developing and merging and a bunch of pissed off Londoners zipping around you and 3) they're so big it's like playing a game of blind man's buff one you're circling round them, dizzily forgetting where you are and which exit you'd had the remotest faith in finding in the first place. Oh and the traffic lights. The endless sets of traffic lights on some of them taunting you to find your lane for they snap red and everything freezes.

Roadmap 'revision'
As my lessons wore on, my initial feeling of calm optimism in the first few lessons started to give way to feelings of mounting frustration every time I approached a roundabout. After each lesson, I'd go home and try to revise what I'd learned like a swatty sixth former, sketching out A2-size road maps and trying to recollect which lane I needed to enter and traverse these tarmac labyrinths. But despite my best efforts channelling my inner Neil Buchanan, by the time I'd driven around a few I'd completely loose track of where I was and where I was heading.

However, despite this, at the end of my fifth lesson and halfway through the course, my instructor asked whether I felt I would be ready for the test next week, or whether I wanted to reschedule, and I valiantly said I wanted to give it a crack. Considering that in just five days I was already driving fairly freely around Wanstead, albeit at an average of 10mph below every speed limit and with my instructor reminding me every time I needed to change gear, I thought I had a fighting chance. I then had one day off from lessons to brood and try not to panic. It's also worth pointing out that over the May bank holiday, the mercury hit 27 degrees, a new record to contemplate while driving for three hours.

As this wasn't my first rodeo, I also wanted to take extra steps to do everything I could not to notch up a fourth fail, so I also listened to a driving test nerves hypnosis video a few times, which I think was very helpful (I actually dozed off on one occasion so it's probably embedded extra deep in my skull by now). Though at one point just as the therapist is saying something about feeling totally relaxed when driving you can suddenly hear a comically loud police siren in the background of the recording, leading him to say 'and NO OUTSIDE NOISES ARE BOTHERING YOU' in a slightly flustered way. I also found a bunch of videos from driving instructors about some of the more tricky parts of the test routes which were really useful, and even a few recordings of actual tests - these days, you can record your entire test to review how you did as long as there's no audio and the camera is pointing at the road so your examiner can't be identified. Oh how times have changed!

Then came the second week, and the fear struck. With mounting nerves, I was still getting confused on the roundabouts, forgetting to change to first gear after stopping and making a pig's ear of right hand turns. Not to mentioned bloody 'undue hesitation'. I hate this part the most - you can fail for driving too slow, say 22mph in a 30 zone in a residential suburb where there are cars parked everywhere and anyone could jump out at any moment. And my instructor was turning up the heat too to make sure I was making the progress I needed to make - he was not letting go of the silly mistakes any more. I'm not going to lie, in the second week my resolve started to slip very quickly and I was pretty certain I was going to fail, and I subjected my long-suffering other half to regular teary rants at how shit I was at life. Plus I now also had bay parking to worry about, a new manouver since the last time I'd taken a test, which seems like it requires you to possess a full set of spider eyes and voodoo powers in order to make a successful attempt. I never managed to do it first time during a single lesson. On the plus side, the odds of me having to do an emergency stop during my test were now a slim 1 in 5 as opposed to a certain fixture of my last tests - apparently too many examiners filed claims for whiplash so the government thoughtfully cut emergency stops from most tests.

Judgement Day

Then after a nerve-jangling penultimate lesson, it was time for test day. After giving myself a pep talk, I had a two hour lesson beforehand starting at 8.45am, just in time to battle the school run. Before I knew it, we were pulling up near the test centre (which inconveniently has no car park so you have to park on a busy road) then trying to keep a lid on the despair, we headed into the waiting room. My instructor had asked whether I wanted him in the car too during my test, which was not something I remember being an option from before, but as he would be required to sit in the seat directly behind me, I would have to make eye contact with him at least every ten seconds when as I checked my rear view mirrors, and having to second-guess the gamut of his emotions from encouragement to despair and perhaps terror was not an added pressure I wanted so I declined.

After waiting for what seemed like an eternity but was probably about ten minutes (during which time I covertly looked at the other six nervous candidates and tried to guess which five or so of us would be statically likely to fail today), the examiner emerged and called my name. He seemed like a pretty chilled dude from the start which was very reassuring, and I must say I felt OK given the circumstances, rather than 'shaking like a shitting dog' (a delightful turn of phase I've picked up from my other half) in my previous tests. Maybe the hypnosis was kicking in.

However, the test didn't really start too well - before I'd even got in the car, I completely fluffed a basic question about checking the anti-lock breaking is working so I thought I'd failed in the first ten seconds, then I fumbled like a fool with the car keys realising I'd never unlocked the car before, not the best start! It was downhill from there and I started to feel the chasm of doom starting to swallow me up. I started with the independent driving section where you have to follow the satnav, and I almost made a series of wrong turns before the instructor helpfully prompted me, and I thought I felt myself clipping the pavement edge when easing into a tight lane in front of some traffic lights, convincing myself I'd failed again.

Windscreen wiper dispair
Soon after, it was time for the 'show me' question where you have to demonstrate how your car controls work, and I was asked to show the examiner how I'd clean the front windscreen. My instructor had shown me how to do this once the day before as it was quite obvious, but as I had to do it while driving along, I got freaked out about the minute delay before the wiper kicked in so I started fumbling with the controls in a blink panic, putting the wipers into the turbo wipe setting I assume is only required when trying to escape from a Category 3 hurricane. The examiner had to get me to pull over with the wipers pounding away so that he could help me to figure out how to turn them off and try again.

After this debacle I drove off and left the indicator on for ages, then stopped just inside a box junction (bringing my imagined majors up to five at this point). Soon, I was asked to reverse two car lengths - the easiest manoeuvre, again leading me to convince myself I'd failed significantly and was being subjected to overt pity for the rest of the test. I also realised I was driving at 30 in a 40 zone for ages, then managed to convince myself it was a 30 zone after all after speeding up, then I took a left turn a tad too quickly and very nearly bumped into an emerging car. I had to pull over after this and I was convinced it was because I was driving so badly that my examiner had to drive me back to the test centre for the safety of the public. But I just had to drive on again, though not before obstructing a bus.

After what seemed hours, we were getting close to the test centre and I was asked to turn into a side road to find somewhere to park. I turned too quickly, missing the spot and stopping in a keep clear area, so the examiner had to ask me to reverse back into the actual space. By this time, I'd lost count of the times I thought I'd failed, and I could see my driving instructor looming like a moth round a lamp waiting to pounce for the results and debrief. The examiner started by saying to me, 'Well, you really need to learn some techniques to control your nerves,' and having felt like I'd passed for exactly 0% of the test, I was now miserably trying to calculate the odds and cost of ever doing another test.

Something I never thought I'd see
Then the examiner said seven magical words I never, ever thought I'd hear: 'I'm pleased to say that you've passed!' Despite battling nerves and a terrible sense of direction, I'd managed to demonstrate that I was actually a competent, safe driver. I've never been so surprised in my life. I'd got seven out of a possible fifteen minors, and as my instructor drove me home it slowly dawned on me that I'd never have to take another diving lesson, theory or practical test ever again (unless I got six points on my licence in my first two years of driving, as my instructor helpfully pointed out). But just one final extra fun hurdle: because I've moved addresses since renewing my provisional licence, rather than getting my licence straight away, I had to head to the post office to acquire something called a D1 form, which arrived in a thick envelope with its own 15 page booklet on how to complete it. This took me 40 minutes including waiting time to get sorted, longer than the actual driving test and not dissimilar to taking a GCSE.

Next stop: the open road

Apparently, my licence should arrive within 20 days and I can't wait. First on my wish list is to hire a car and go somewhere, anywhere on a (very slow) day trip, accompanied by one of my friends with a licence for moral support (which rules out at least 80% of everyone's friends in London!). Mind you, I did see a hire cared parked in a designated space in Covent Garden in the evening after my test, and as the manic pedestrians wove in and out of the road around it like drunk flies I thought you poor bastards, driving in Central London on a Friday night must be punishment in one of the innermost circles of hell in Dante's Inferno.

Next stop: the Florida Keys
Also, the other thing I just hadn't fully clocked about passing my test is the sheer amount of things I can now do, the limit only being my imagination. I can buy an ice-cream van! I can go to a drive through McDonalds! I can go to a drive in movie (good old hipster London)! I can go test drive a bunch of Ferraris round Mayfair (well, probably not)! My dream trip is to hire a car in Miami and drive down the Overseas Highway all the way to Key West with clear blue oceans lapping on either side, so I will definitely start making some plans - next year perhaps, to celebrate my 30th. But baby steps first!

It only took me 4221 days since my first lesson on my 17th birthday, easily over one hundred lessons, six or more instructors, three theory tests after two expired, an expired provisional licence and four practical tests to pass, but I got there in the end. And I never, ever thought I'd be able to drive. It is categorically the hardest thing I've ever had to do. So if a big bag of clumsy nerves like myself can do it and pass in London, I sincerely believe anyone can, so if you're trying, don't give up. Just don't try to learn in Ludlow! In all seriousness, this time round the fundamental shift in my mindset I experienced about the whole thing was that I now no longer believe in luck on the day of your test: if you don't feel like you're ready to drive round the hardest possible test route and handle the most unexpected obstacles safely and calmly, your brain is probably telling you that you're not ready to drive independently. Which is a good thing, because once you know you're ready, you'll feel so much calmer and better prepared for your test. I may still struggle finding exits on roundabouts but I'm pretty sure I can drive around them safely.

My final advice is this: if you're thinking of doing an intensive course, I'd definitely recommend it, especially if you've had some lessons in the past and you're short on time. It may seem like a lot of money up front but in the long run it's probably the most cost effective option. Driving may be both a mental and physical skill, but I do think you can improve your chances of passing by revising and preparing for any other exam: draw road maps to remind yourself of things like which lane you'll need for different exits, watch advice videos on YouTube and give hypnotherapy a whirl. Then just get out there, don't let the skills slip away. Whether you're planning to buy a car (maybe not in London) or hire one every so often, there's no time like the present. And I for one can't wait!


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