Different senses of scale create different travel expectations

A friend of mine had a business meeting near London, and he decided to extend it to a tour of Scotland and England once the meetings were over. (This is the same friend who took me on the emergency vacation many years ago.) His plan was to rent a car early one morning and drive from the meeting location all the way up to Aberdeen at one go, then slowly work his way back south, enjoying the sights along the way.

He sanity-checked his plan against his colleagues from Great Britain. “I looked it up on multiple online mapping sites, and they all say that the trip from London to Aberdeen is doable in a day. I take motorway X, then Y, then Z. Does this make sense to you?”

Every single one of his colleagues said, “Oh, no. You can’t do it in a day. You should budget two days travel time.”

My colleague was curious. Is the motorway really congested?

“Not particularly.”

Is the road unusually difficult to navigate, or is the road in poor condition? Something that would prevent me from traveling at the posted speed limit?

“No, the roads are just fine, and driving is straightforward.”

He asked several other questions trying to find out what it was about the trip that required it to take two days. Is there something funny at the England/Scotland border that takes a long time? Do I have to cross a mountain or something?

“It just can’t be done in one day.”

My colleague concluded that it was simply in the mindset of the locals that driving that far in one day is Just Not Done. There is nothing physically preventing it, but it is considered to be highly unusual.

As I recall, he ultimately executed his plan without incident. I wonder if the other drivers on the road looked at him funny.

Bonus story: Another friend of mine was staying in Reading, and he decided to take a weekend excursion to Wales. He pulled out the map, calculated how long it would take him, and noted that the map indicated that there were mountains that he needed to cross to reach his destination.

He set out with what he thought was plenty of time to spare, but it started getting late, and he still needed to cross the mountains, and he was concerned that the people in Wales would start worrying when he didn’t show up.

And then he reached his destination.

He drove over the mountains without even realizing it.

Comments (48)
  1. Brian_EE says:

    My company has a facility in Winnersh, which is a little hamlet a few miles east of Reading, that quite a few of us from the USA offices travel to. It seemed normal for us to drive the hour and half to Bath to spend the evening sightseeing and eating dinner along the canal.

  2. Joe Dietz says:

    I once decided to walk to Stonehenge from the nearest town that I had taken a train too for the purpose instead of getting on the city bus.  I had a map and it indicated it was only 11 (I presumed kilometers).  I didn't entirely understand at the time that 'country roads' in that part of the world do not feature any sort of shoulder.  After a very long and somewhat unpleasant hike I did finally arrive, I realized at that I might have purchased the map in the U.S. and the 11 kilometers was in fact 11 miles.  I probably looked at Stonehenge for 3 minutes and got on the city bus for the trip back.

  3. Chris Crowther says:

    London to Aberdeen is easily doable in a day; I think most people in the UK would just split it in half and take a break for lunch, getting there in time for a quiet bit of socializing and a meal sometime around late afternoon/early evening.

  4. Chris Crowther says:

    Joe: We work in miles in the UK, not kilometers.

  5. Malcolm G says:

    Chris: yet we have long used km based squares on our maps (what does the US use for its map grid squares )

  6. JaredCE says:

    Something my boss recently taught me when comparing americans to us brits: Americans think 100 years is a long time and the British think 100 miles is a long way.

  7. Skip says:

    I'm in Houston, Texas. The distance between London and Aberdeen doesn't even get me all the way across the state. Bonus: El Paso, Texas, is roughly halfway between Houston and Los Angeles.

  8. MC says:

    I'm always surprised how little time it takes me to drive to Wales  (I live approx 150 miles away according to Google Maps)   But going to Scotland (360 miles) phew that's a two day trip!

  9. Ian says:

    I suspect "Roads not particularly congested" and "driving is straightforward" mean different thinks in the UK and the US. "Normal" depends on your experience.

    Normal traffic for a cross-country motorway route in the UK is such that you can't really relax your concentration if you want to stay safe. Driving for more than three hours at a stretch here in "normal" traffic is too much for me. A seven hour drive is the most I'd ever want to do in one day, and only if I had to.

    I've also driven in the USA and found, at least outside the main conurbations, that driving is much more relaxed. I'm still not sure I could do much more than three hours at a stretch, but perhaps it's something you become accustomed to.

  10. Bob says:

    "Americans think 100 years is a long time; Europeans think 100 miles is a long way."

  11. Brian_EE says:

    @Skip: Driving east-west across Texas doesn't even get you halfway north-south across Alaska. So… what is your point?

  12. Brian_EE says:

    @MC: Once or twice a year we drive from western part of New York State to eastern Iowa. 800 miles. 16 hours. We do it in one day stopping two or three times for fuel and food. Start at 6am, arrive 9pm (don't forget the timezone change).

  13. parkrrrr says:

    @Brian_EE: the key word there may be "we." It's a lot easier to make a drive like that if you split it between drivers.

    Your point is not invalid, though. I regularly drive the 450ish miles from northeast Indiana to central Pennsylvania. I stop once out of necessity because 20 mpg * 20 gallons is somewhat less than 450 miles. I rarely make any other stops on that drive. When I was in college, I drove the approximately 1350 miles to Houston, Texas several times by myself. That car got better gas mileage, but it had a smaller tank, so I still had to stop three times on that 20-hour trip.

  14. jeff says:

    Similar to what's reported in Bill Bryson's "Notes from a Small Island".

  15. parkrrrr says:

    @Malcolm G: what's a map grid square?

    I know, I know. I've seen OS maps. But we don't have those here. Locator grids on maps (what's a map, grandpa?) are generally scale-dependent and somewhat arbitrary.

    If you're looking at a map of a state laid out with the Public Land Survey System, like most of the midwest, you'll likely see the roads following actual real-world grid squares when they're unconstrained by natural features. Those grids are in miles.

  16. Mark says:

    @Joe Dietz

    The nearest town to Stonehenge is Amesbury which is only three miles away, but that's a fairly small place and also doesn't have a train station. I guess you walked from Salisbury.

    If you walked straight up the A360 that would have been fairly unpleasant. Looking at a decent map (I use Bing maps and switch the view to Ordnance Survey map, but that's probably only available in the UK), it looks like you could walk up a footpath along the river for a while, then a few probably quiet roads through villages and then off road again for the last few miles. I'd have thought that would be quite a nice walk.

  17. Brian_EE says:

    @parkrrr: Oh… I don't like to share driving duties, something my significant other gives me grief about (especially since we usually take her vehicle). Though now, with a baby, we will probably stop halfway for the night in South Bend if we don't just fly.

  18. JDT says:

    It may have something to do with the fact that petrol costs so much more in Britain than it does in the US, and it's simply painful to imagine consuming so much in a single day.

    The trip to Scotland may take longer if Scotland gains independence. I'd be interested to know if Raymond has an opinion on Scottish independence?

  19. Lee C. says:

    Chris: Some years ago I used to always hear that the U.S. was the only major country that hasn't switched to the metric system, usually framed as a lecture that we Americans need to join the rest of the civilized world. And yet, when I read stuff from the UK, I'm always reading about miles, pints, and how much stone somebody weighs. What's the truth?

  20. Mike C says:

    About a decade ago, I was working on a project where we were using satellite trackers to track a British team that was driving from Medicine Hat, Alberta to Tuktoyuktuk, NWT and back.  We put a real-time map with the path of their current progress on a website for their families and children's school classes back in the UK to follow along.  The website also had the ability to add comments.  For the first couple days, the website was pretty quiet.  I then had the idea to overlay the UK on the corner of the map to provide a better sense of scale for the intended audience, and the comments exploded!

  21. Jack B Nimble says:

    Thanks to 'The Englishman who went up a hill and came down a Mountain' I know that a mountain is measured at 1000 feet above sea level in the United Kingdom. I live in a valley that is at 4600 feet of elevation.

  22. JamesNT says:

    This post reminds me of the time I decided to ride my Harley Davidson Road King from Wilmington, NC to Atlanta, GA.  I got there safe and sound and had a great trip.  I just didn't arrive on time.  And I was meeting a Microsoft MVP to boot.


  23. Jon_S says:

    Raymond's mountain driving story reminds me of the, probably apocryphal, tail of the woman from the UK flying into Seattle who looks out the window and asked her seatmate why someone would clear cut all the trees off the mountain tops.  (The UK not having numerous mountains high enough to have peaks above the tree line)

  24. David B says:

    In college I would drive from LA to Phoenix and back on I10.  Did it once with a car full of friends, including one who was legally blind.  We let him drive 50 miles between Blythe and Phoenix.  

    That stretch of I10 <a href="http://www.google.com/…/data=!3m1!4b1!4m13!4m12!1m5!1m1!1s0x80d121436bd112e7:0x2c6ac2ec5ab225ae!2m2!1d-114.5891744!2d33.6172329!1m5!1m1!1s0x872b12ed50a179cb:0x8c69c7f8354a1bac!2m2!1d-112.0740373!2d33.4483771">between SR60 and Buckeye</a> that looks straight?  It is straight.  Perfectly, Platonically, straight.

  25. Sam says:

    @Lee C.: The truth is that there is no true "metric" country and what you're doing is highly industry dependent. The metric is preferred in the US officially. Look at a food label or toilet paper wrapper and you'll find it always has metric conversions. If you sell anything to the military or auto industries, they will want metric. If you work in aerospace, you will find most of the world is imperial, or soft metric. If you work in science, despite what your schoolteacher taught you, each field has its own set of measurements which may or may not be SI. Example: electron-volts instead of joules, angstroms instead of nanometers, Roentgens, Barns, etc.

    Ultimately it doesn't really matter except to schoolteachers. Everything is done by computer nowadays, especially mechanical design. Unit conversion is clicking a button.

  26. Engywuck says:

    well, after driving over 9 hours in germany (whis is the time bing maps shows, plus rests) I would be pretty done for – and I don't think british roads have so much less traffic than german ones that it's a refreshing ride there, either. So if you don't *have* to go there in one go, why do it.

  27. Engywuck says:

    at the bonus story: some relatives of me were bicycling some ten Kilometers or so in nothern germany, near Bremen – and were asked by incredulous natives "how could you ride *that* road with its steep climbs?". Well, the maximum climb was a few dozen meters (if that much) and they were from (far far more mountaineous) southern germany…

  28. j b says:

    Re. the bonus story:

    It has been said for ages that eskimos have thirty different words for "snow" – and today it is very popular to reject that as an urban myth.

    And then: At social events, I enjoy asking my fellow Norwegians how many different words we can find for elevations of the terrain in _our_ language. Getting up to thirty usually takes less than ten minutes.

  29. j b says:


    I had a good laugh a few years back when one of the best known brand of US rasins here in Norway put a bright yellow banner across their rasin boxes: "Now: Metric pack!" It no longer held half a pound of rasins, but 227 grams.

    A few late, the package size was adjusted to 250 grams.

  30. Erik F says:

    I grew up in Alberta and was used to 3-4 hour trips to get places, but they were geographically quite distant because all the roads were straight (except for correction lines). However, I've been living in Nova Scotia for the past few years and a 3 hour trip doesn't go very far because of the wiggly roads! For example, my dad and I drove from Halifax to Sydney and it took almost 8 hours, where I had thought that it should have been 3-4 hours tops; part of that might have been due to what the Mercator projection does to latitudes.

    As a funny aside, every time I see mention of Reading, England I think of As It Happens' use of Reading as the measuring point for all places UK (en.wikipedia.org/…/As_It_Happens)!

  31. Antonio &#39;Grijan&#39; says:

    The part about the mountains of Wales reminds me of a delicious (if little known) British film titled "The Englishman Who Went Up a Hill but Came Down a Mountain". It's a delicious film set in the dark days of the Great War, almost a hundred years ago, costumbrist, filled with that fine English humor and with a really nice soundtrack. And its plot revolves around Wales' first "mountain" :-) .

  32. Joop says:

    Well, thank you Raymond for educating us simple Europeans. It's incredible that you Americans are able to travel 850 km in a sinlge day! I really wouldn't have thought it possible. And to think that mountains are so boringly commonplace to you that you don't even register them anymore! Amazing!

    [I'm sure people in Great Britain can travel 850 km in one day, too, but they can't comprehend why anybody would want to. Also, we notice mountains. It's just that the definition of "mountain" depends on what sorts of mountains you grew up with. My colleague probably would have been similarly confused driving through New Jersey's Appalachian Mountains. -Raymond]
  33. Azarien says:

    We, the Europeans, don't just "enjoy the sights along the way". The way is boring. If you want to sightsee a location, you stop and spend several hours walking and actually sightseeing. You don't just drive thru.

    This maybe the source of "you can't do it in one day" – because just driving there and back don't make sense for Europeans, it's just a waste of time and money.

    [Sorry I wasn't clear. The trip from London to Aberdeen was in one day. The trip from Aberdeen to London was over several days, stopping at various cities and spending a half-day to a day or so in each one. -Raymond]
  34. smf says:

    I live in the South of England and I would fly to Aberdeen rather than sit in a car all day for 8+ hours. I've been stuck on a motorway not moving for 4+ hours before, if we get snow then you could get stuck for a day or more.

    For the site seeing on the way down it's probably better to get a train, they can get stuck too but there is usually heating, food and drink and somewhere to relieve yourself.  A lot of our motorways and trains go through cuttings with trees either side to reduce the noise for the nearby residents, so site seeing isn't particularly great.

    Driving up from Aberdeen through the rest of Scotland for a few days would be nice if you like countryside too, but it sounds like he didn't have that much time.

    In 2012 I drove from San Francisco with a fuel stop in LA and an hour of site seeing and then onto Vegas on a whim while a group of us were on holiday for California Extreme one year and we got bored. I didn't stick to speed limit either. We drove back the scenic route over two days. All the Americans thought we were crazy, so I don't think it's an American vs English thing.

  35. Zack says:

    The various languages spoken by "Eskimos" (I am informed that this is now considered pejorative, and at the same time that there is no other umbrella term that covers the same group of people) certainly do have lots of terms for different types of snow; the error in the urban myth is in claiming that this is somehow unusual.  Most Northern European languages (including English) have about the same number, and the specialized vocabulary used by skiers, meteorologists, and so on has even more.

    It's also the case that the "Eskimo-Aleut" language family in particular is "polysynthetic", making very heavy use of affixes instead of standalone modifier words: basically anything that would be a compound noun in English is treated as a single word in, say, Inuktitut.  (Consider "blowing snow", "wet snow", "dry snow", "snow that has partially melted and refrozen", etc.)

  36. voo says:

    @Zack To the best of my knowledge the right term is "Inuit" – or at least that's what I got taught in school ages ago.

    German is about the closest you can get in that regard from the language I know (well that's limited to German, English, French and Latin so far from a conclusive list; I guess Swedish and other languages may be similar). Nassschnee (wet snow), Pulverschnee (dry snow), Faulschnee,…

    I must admit that I still love that particular property of German :-)

  37. GWO says:

    Speaking as a proud Welshman: our mountains may not be tall compared to the Alps or the Rockies, but they're taller than any in bloody England!

  38. Brian_EE says:

    @Sam: "Ultimately it doesn't really matter except to schoolteachers. Everything is done by computer nowadays, especially mechanical design. Unit conversion is clicking a button."

    Tell that to the team that coded the flight control software for the Ariane-5 Rocket back in 1996: ta.twi.tudelft.nl/…/disasters.html

    Or to NASA regarding the loss of the Mars Probe in 1999: sunnyday.mit.edu/…/mco-oberg.htm

    Someone has to write the code that does unit conversion, and write it properly.

  39. bbb says:

    @Brian EE: If your numbers for anything don't include units, the units are wrong.  Unit conversions won't help if you don't know what you're converting to/from.  Also, if the specs don't call out units, they are also wrong.

  40. Joshua says:

    @bbb: I wonder what units we should assign to the numbers called Zero and Gain, Divide,and Shift in this equations:

    Force = (Value – Zero) * Gain / 2^(Divide – Shift).

    Where Force is in pounds and Value is in millivolts.

  41. GregM says:

    Joshua, the units of Zero are millivolts, since you can only subtract values when they have the same units.  Divide and Shift are explicitly unitless, as opposed to unknown units, as they are an exponent.  In order to figure out the units of Gain, we need to know the units of 2.  Since there is a variable exponent on 2, and there are no other variable exponents in the equation, the 2 must also be explicitly unitless, or the equation is wrong.  That leaves Gain as pounds per millivolt.  Now you have checks for all of your input values, and if any of those differ, then you need to apply the appropriate conversions before you can use them in this equation.

  42. Joshua says:

    Ignore Divide. It turns out that's for doing fixed point in integer.

    I'm pretty sure that Shift is not unitless since it's value comes from a table lookup from the stated resistance of a resistor. I can't imagine what its units might be though since there's a value in the table for a wire (and the value isn't zero or -infinity). We have values for 0, 1, 10, and 100 ohms.

    Internally we process as though (Gain / 2^-Shift) is in units of lbs / millivolts. The further decomposition treats shift as a constant, but we know that's not exactly right.

  43. Stefan says:

    This seems to happen when people (in Europe, at least, but I suspect it's much the same in the States) live in large cities or metropolitan areas. People driving from the north of the Netherlands to, say Amsterdam think nothing of it, while people living in Amsterdam think the reverse drive is way too long (while a mere 2 hours outside rush hour). So I think it's a mental thing that people get when they live in large metropolitan areas or big cities.

    That said: I find it a lot easier to drive long distances in the US than in Europe (including the UK).

    [In the States, the same mentality exists in the north and middle Atlantic states. Philadelphia was less than a two hour drive from my home. We never went there. It was too far. -Raymond]
  44. Engywuck says:

    *if* Shift is with units then your "formula" is just shorthand with unit conversions removed, and therefore incomplete (or as my physics teacher would have said: wrong). I have never seen exponents with units.

    But methinks this is *way* offtopic now.

  45. Joshua says:

    @Engywuck: The formula can't be wrong. Gain is computed by using measured Values for known Forces and tests out as linear.

  46. Mark says:


    I don't know where the 1000ft = mountain definition comes from. I don't think most English people would consider something 1000ft tall to be a mountain. Most Welsh people definitely wouldn't, as most of Wales is covered in hills and mountains rather higher than that – the highest point, Snowdon, is 1085m.


    While there is nowhere in the UK that would be above the tree line if it were in the Alps, the tops of our mountains (and yes, we do have some) are all bare of trees. To what extent this is due to millennia of sheep farming, and to what extent this is due to our climate (so the natural tree line would be much lower than it is in the Alps) is very hard to say. If the woman in your story was surprised by a mountain top being bare, she's probably never been near one.

  47. GregM says:

    "I'm pretty sure that Shift is not unitless since its value comes from a table lookup from the stated resistance of a resistor."

    That it comes from a table doesn't mean anything.  Exponents are by definition unitless.  If the values in the table are not unitless then the equation is really Gain / 2^(-TableValue * Magic) where Magic is a constant whose units are the inverse of Shift's units.  In that case, you can simply multiply all the values in the table by Magic to get Shift, and now you have a table of unitless values, and your equation is back to Gain / 2^-Shift.

    "Internally we process as though (Gain / 2^-Shift) is in units of lbs / millivolts."

    Exactly what I said above based on my analysis of the equation.

    "The formula can't be wrong."

    So you have proven that Shift is indeed a unitless value.

    Anyway, this is far enough off-topic for me.

  48. AndyCadley says:

    What your colleague overlooked is that it simply isn't possible to drive from London to Aberdeen in one day whilst fitting in adequate tea breaks and having ample time for a pint of beer or two when you've arrived at your destination. Just driving there simply isn't the done thing, old chap! ;-)

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