Around the UK on a provisional licence: Why I had to go to Wales to pass my driving test
An edited version of this blogpost appeared in The Sunday Telegraph.
Everyone remembers the time they passed their driving test. It’s a topic I’ve interrogated many people on yet I’ve never come across an experience like mine. You see, I spent 10 years learning to drive, failed five tests, went through six instructors and in the end travelled to a small town in Wales because it was one of the easiest places to pass in the UK.
Everyone has a tale they were born to tell and, unfortunately, this is mine.
It all began on my 18th birthday when my parents told me they would pay for my lessons. I do not think they realised how expensive this present would turn out to be.
I started, as most London learners do, driving slow loops around Regent’s Park.
At first, it seemed easy. I liked the clink clank clunk of changing gear, the smooth slide of the clutch, throwing my head over my shoulder to check ‘my blind spot’.
My instructor Dave was a cheery East Ender who taught me clutch control in congestion and spoke at length of his hatred of traffic wardens, pondering ‘how they slept at night’.
A few months later he told me that he had decided to quit driving instructing - the first worrying sign - and passed me on to his colleague Mohamed whose optimism or idiocy led him to book me a test when I was so woefully unprepared that I received not only a serious mark - an automatic fail - but also a dangerous.
After chalking up another fail, it was decided that I should abandon all hope of passing in London and instead try Suffolk, where my mother lives.
The next instructor, Derek from Great Yarmouth, was a Mormon who viewed our two-hour lessons as the perfect opportunity to convert me. He frequently told me of his 100 per cent pass rate which I must have seriously dented with two fails on his watch.
At this point my father started to suspect that I was intentionally sabotaging my tests and announced that I wasn’t ‘mature’ enough to drive yet; I was 24 years old.
Not driving didn’t really impact upon my life. In London a car is an inconvenience and though it did smart to see my younger sister and cousins sail through their tests, I filed learning to drive away as one of those things I’d get round to eventually.
Eventually came sooner than expected. I was accepted onto a graduate scheme where I would be sent to Birmingham for five months and required to drive to jobs. I had not told the people who hired me that I could not, in fact, drive.
I had five months to pass the test.
I booked an intensive course in Norwich: five days driving followed by a test on the sixth day.
It cost a sickening amount of money, but seemed a sure-fire solution.
As my boss at the time said: ‘You’d have to be absolutely appalling to fail.’
By some strange twist of fate, my tests coincided with major political events.
On the day of the 2010 election, I failed in Lowestoft when I drove through a puddle and splashed two pedestrians - a failure I still contest.
And my intensive course test was booked for 24th June 2016.
It was a peculiar day: at five a.m. my sister crawled into my bed, murmured that the UK had voted to leave the EU and she was worried about her job; at nine, David Cameron stepped down as Prime Minister; and at 11.20 I had failed yet another driving test.
While the rest of the UK reeled at a Brexit future, I sat sobbing at the kitchen table. Worries for the future of the divided nation were present in my thoughts but admittedly driving took precedence.
‘Just book another bloody test,’ my mother ordered as I snivelled.
But any test centre near Birmingham, London or in Suffolk had a waiting list of over three months. And I was due to start my placement in two.
I weighed up my options. Sienna Miller had said in an interview on Top Gear that she had passed her driving test in the Virgin Islands, jamming to reggae while driving down a lane. I thought I could probably pass if all I had to do was bop to reggae and drive in a straight line.
Other ideas included driving without a licence - 70,000 people do it, you know - and asking my sister to take the test for me.
Then I came upon a BBC article called Where’s The Toughest UK Driving Test?
It included a list of the top ten easiest test centres. Number one was Isle of Mull with a whopping, wondrous 80 per cent pass rate, closely followed by Barra with 77.8 and Brodick with 73.1.
I suddenly saw where I had gone wrong. It was a numbers game and I had consistently picked test centres with paltry pass rates of 50-something per cent.
To my dismay, the Isle of Mull test centre had closed down. Ditto Barra. And on and on as I tried to book tests at all the others until finally number 10 on the list: Llandrindod Wells in Wales.
There was a test available in a month. My mother was enthusiastic.
‘I’ll come too. We’ll make a holiday out of it. Some parts of Wales are lovely, you know.’
She decided that we would need a ‘back story’.
‘Otherwise they’ll think you’re just some uppity London girl who’s come to Wales for an easy ride.’
Which, of course, I was. (Uppity London Girl would have been a brilliant name for this site.)
The story we settled upon was that I had a Welsh boyfriend - his name was Dylan because we have no imagination - and I was taking my test in Llandrindod Wells because it was near his parents’ house. We even found my fictional boyfriend’s family home on Google Map Street View.
I booked the test and set about finding an instructor to take me around the route.
Angela would be my first female instructor. This seemed positive; I was sick of men telling me to look in my mirrors.
I called to ask how many hours she thought I would need.
‘Well it depends,’ she said. ‘Do you know that there’s a fourth and a fifth gear in the car?’
I explained that I did know this.
‘I don’t mean to be rude but you get people come from London and they don’t even know that there’s a fourth or fifth gear in the car.’
So I was not the only one trying out driving test tourism.
‘But what should I expect from the driving there?’ I asked. ‘Is there a dual carriageway?’
‘No dual carriageway. There’s one set of traffic lights and three roundabouts.’ Music to my ears. ‘It’s mainly country driving: country lanes, passing places, sheep -’
‘Yes, you need to know how to deal with sheep.’
‘Don’t you just go slow and maybe stop?’
‘Ah,’ sighed Angela. ‘You need to know what a sheep is going to do.’
I liked Angela intensely. I booked six hours with her, my mum found a nice B&B and we were set.
My sister wished me luck in her own inimitable way.
‘I do hope you pass there Issy because if you don’t, where else is there left for you to go? You are kind of scraping the barrel.’
Llandrindod Wells was a pretty, rather faded Victorian town sloping over a series of steep hills - ‘hill starts!’ thought my panicked brain - and Angela turned out to be a heavy-set chainsmoker with a peroxide blonde bob whose car was rigged with cameras.
‘Oh don’t worry, I’m not filming you. But I had a very bad accident recently so I need photographic evidence.’
She was surprised, as my last three instructors had been, by how well I drove.
You see, I could drive. I had driven my mother from Birmingham to Wales. I just couldn’t pass the damn test.
Angela soothingly explained that the reason for my repeated failures was the nature of English examiners.
‘I don’t like to say it,’ she said as I reversed her car around the corner of one of Llandrindod Wells’s many sleepy streets, ‘but English examiners are horrible. They don’t chat to you. But you’ll be fine here because our examiners are lovely, except for the woman. Let’s hope you don’t get the woman.’
On the morning of the test, I was a jittery, jangly mess.
I kept hearing the story that would live in family folklore, rattled out each Christmas after everyone had had too much to drink.
‘Remember that time Issy dragged Mum all the way to Wales for a driving test and she only failed again?’
I asked Angela what I should do about the nerves.
‘Nothing,’ she said. ‘Nerves are good.’
So I kept quiet and concentrated on not wetting myself.
Angela was right about Welsh examiners.
My man chatted away, asking what I did for a living, why was I taking the test in Llandrindod Wells and had I been to the chippy on the high street yet?
I was so nervous I forgot to trot out my Dylan back story and told the semi-truth: that there had been a lengthy waiting list at all the centres near me.
Before I knew it, we were back in a bay at the test centre and I was preparing to face my fate.
How did I feel when my nice instructor turned to me and said I had passed? I don’t possess the skill to tell you; it was a feeling that knocks me clean out of language. All I can say is what happened: I made him repeat it, hugged him, hugged Angela, demanded she take a picture of me with the certificate, then sat on the wet car park tarmac, called my mum and wept down the phone.
It sounds hysterical. It was hysterical, but that pass felt like more of an achievement than my GCSEs, A Levels, degree, masters and job offer combined.
And here’s the part where I come across as an insufferable git if I haven’t already: I had never really had to work hard at anything before.
I’ve never resat an exam; school required little effort; I did well at university with minimal exertion. The world of work was harder, but I’ve never grappled with something like I grappled with passing my driving test.
It was the one thing that confounded me while my friends sailed through without a hitch. As my father said after one of my many fails: ‘Other people pass their test, why can’t you?’
God only knows: nerves, lack of road sense, the fact that I’ve never been completely sure of my lefts and rights?
So yes, it took me ten years, six instructors, five fails and in the end I had to go to Wales. And I don’t even want to think how much money was poured into my decade-long quest for driving success. Also, Birmingham was a shock after dear Llandrindod Wells.
But every time I look at my pink licence, usually when I’ve been asked for ID, I feel a little rush: I did it, I can drive.
I do understand if you never want me to give you a lift though.