Pink and flustered

Let’s face it: for attempt number two at the driving test I was a bag of nerves pretty much from the outset, even though I had planned it better and had put several hundred miles of motoring in since the previous attempt. I was amazed that at the end of it that I passed because I thought I’d done too many things wrong: in the end it was just nine minor faults – most of which my instructor P. put down to nerves – and some advice to make sure I was in the right gear every time when setting off.

The planning was to pick my starting point better. Newport test centre has four numbered parking bays for candidates, which can be used later in the test if reverse parking into a bay is one of the two required manoeuvres. The exit from the test centre is a short but steep slope with limited visibility down the road to the left, and it seems more usual to turn right as this takes you quickly into the main roads network into and out of Newport.

Bay 1 is tricky to get into and can’t be done as a textbook reverse parking manoeuvre; bay 4 is too close to the exit slope to make it easy to leave the test centre. First time round I had plumped for bay 3 as it’s the usual one I practise on, but made a nervous exit up the slope because it is still a tight turn. So I decided bay 2 was the best bet, and fortunately got into it before the other candidate arrived for his test. So I started the test with a smooth exit up the exit slope, and turned right – and promptly lost my nerves when a car came round the blind corner when I was part-way out. I didn’t know whether I should have stopped and shown hesitancy or, as I chose, carry on and be considered rash. Whatever. I flushed bright pink, and that was it for Mr Calm and Collected for the next 40 minutes.

After that the exact details of the test have become something of a blur. From the St George’s roundabout we turned right towards Sandown – heading left would have snarled us up in market day traffic, and I’d have spent most of the test virtually stationary. Last time this route took me along the road to Arreton, which P. and I had practised often, but this time we continued on towards Rookley and then along the winding road to Merstone, a route I’d never done. Later, in the debrief, P. said that the route wasn’t used often, and that there was a tricky corner that should be done in second gear. I, of course, had done it in third with gentle braking, and at the point of going round it thought I was going to fail on control, because as soon as I’d started round it I knew I should have been in second. More flushing and increased pinkness from yours truly.

It was a lovely sunny day. I suspect inspectors take this route because they enjoy a nice trip out in the country along a winding narrow lane, and because they know the bus timetable means that the candidate is going to come across one of Southern Vectis’s green monsters in one direction or the other. It also brings the candidate out onto a black-spot junction, just next to a sharp bend on the right, and with a hill start to contend with. I stalled, because for some unearthly reason I hadn’t got the car into first gear, just vaguely towards it. And of course we went right, eventually heading back to Newport via Long Lane, making the route predominantly open road driving until we hit the housing estates.

At this point my memory of the route goes hazy. I know that I performed a turn in the road at the same point as in the previous test, facing downhill. And I know I took five stages to complete it. I quickly realised I wasn’t going to make it in three, and decided to be prudent (and listen to my first thoughts about what to do because they’ve been right up to now) because banging the kerb wasn’t an option this test. I know we then got onto Pan estate, and out the back of it on the winding road towards Shide, and I know I stalled again on a blind bend because I was shifting down gear to crawl around it because a car had parked on the bend itself, restricting both width and visibility. And I got caught at too slow a speed in too high a gear with too much braking for a car to want to carry on. It wasn’t the greatest place to stall, but I managed to keep myself together, restart and carry on.

The turning into Shide off the Sandown road automatically brings with it a sense of foreboding, because it presents two possible routes back to the test centre with one manoeuvre still to complete. One is via Queens Road, the road with the steep camber where I failed last time on parallel parking; the other is the direct road to the test centre, with the heady promise of reverse parking into a bay. You can imagine how relieved I felt when we took the direct route: the bays at the centre are about two feet wider than a standard bay, and if I couldn’t reverse park into one of them I should probably have given up learning to drive.

So, nine minor faults, two attempts at the test, and a couple of days over five months of learning and practise and I am able to drive. I lost count of the number of lessons. My instructor’s booklet shows I had 22 lessons, most of them doubles, or about 37 hours of driving. Most were matched by practice with C., R., or J., with 300 miles of driving in the week before my second test, so total driving time is in the region of 70 hours.

Whether that means it takes one lesson for each year of your life is debateable: with double lessons, I probably had a number of driving sessions into the 40s. But then so did C.’s sons, aged just 17. Fairer perhaps to say that 60 to 80 hours of driving experience is required, and that any connection with age and lessons is in some cases hopeful, and in others way off the mark.