Diary Of An ADI

A Driving Instructor's Blog

Trump's Space CorpsLike Brexit, Donald Trump is another anomaly from 2016 that just keeps on giving.

His latest stunt appears to involve restarting the Strategic Defense Initiative – aka “Star Wars” – which was first started by Ronald Reagan in 1983 at the height of The Cold War.

The big differences this time around are that:

  • Ronald Reagan wasn’t a certified nutcase
  • technology wasn’t up to it the first time
  • the key world leaders involved now are bordering on insanity

I think the picture above gives a good representation of what is involved – at least in theory.

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Old-style dial phoneOnce upon a time, a call made to “directory enquiries” by dialling 192 on your phone was free. In the 1990s, BT started charging 25p per call, and this rose to 40p by 2002. At that time, this was already considered a rip-off – an understandable reaction to something which previously cost nothing. The service was discontinued shortly afterwards. To replace it, the 118 numbers appeared. Whereas BT operated 192, any company could start a 118 service. And they did.

The most popular service today is 118 118, widely advertised with those two long-haired and moustachioed blokes, and which was successfully sued a few years ago by David Bedford (a British athlete from the early 70s) for stealing his image.

Before the internet – indeed, at a time when some houses still had gaslights, and many still had outside toilets – directory enquiries was an important service. It was a good way of finding someone’s phone number from their name and/or address, and I used it a few times in my youth. I remember that the operators were very helpful and adept at nailing the number you were after, even if the information you had was quite vague. However, by the time BT started charging for the service, I was on the internet and could find numbers myself. That was over 25 years ago, so it amazes me that anyone today should still need such services as 118 118. But apparently, they do.

I suppose we should be grateful that human longevity is what it is, otherwise we’d all still be wearing clothes made on Jacquard looms, riding Penny Farthings (albeit, clad in Lycra) to work, and I’d probably be giving lessons on how to drive a horse and carriage. Because it seems that more than 2% of the population still uses directory enquiries (more than 4% if they’re over 65). That’s a lot of people.

As I said, 192 calls cost 40p at the time the service was shutdown, and people were unhappy even then. Well, it seems that current 118 services cost as much as £20 per call, with 118 118 charging over £11, and even the cheapest providers charging between £1-£3. Those with the highest profiles – 118 118, Hello Maureen, Yell – are the worst offenders.

The funny thing is that the media was going on about this exact same thing over a year ago, where it was pointed out that 118 operators were free to charge up to £24 per call. The BBC even used the same photo in the article then that they have used in this latest story.

For me, the need for directory enquiries was pretty much gone right when I jumped on to the web. Over 25 years down the line it should be gone for everyone. I mean, you can even talk to your computer or phone (or Alexa) and ask it for a number these days, and unlike the phone services – which are apparently surly and unhelpful – you can ask the question in different forms again and again until you get a result. If you do this, there are no rip offs to worry about in the first place.

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Original article published in 2008. Updated August 2016, and June 2018.

Ford Focus cockpit

The topic keeps coming back because it is relevant to all learner drivers. When I wrote the original story, DVSA – or DSA, as it was then – had just updated its Internal Guidance Document (DT1) to say:

To ensure uniformity, when conducting car or vocational tests and ADI qualifying examinations, only assess the candidate’s ability to control the vehicle and do not consider it as a fault if, for example, they do not hold the steering wheel at ten to two or quarter to three or if they cross their hands when turning the steering wheel. The assessment should be based on whether the steering is smooth, safe and under control.

The part I’ve highlighted was an addition, and in previous versions of DT1 the steering technique was not mentioned. Even so, no examiners round my way ever failed people for “crossing their hands”. You see, all DVSA was doing with this update was making sure that its examiners were clear on the subject (hence the phrase “[ensuring] uniformity”). Reading between the lines, it seems that there had been complaints about one or two examiners around the country who had been faulting candidates unnecessarily. Reading even deeper, I would surmise that these were ex-ADIs who had carried their ideas about “crossing hands” and “holding the steering wheel properly” across with them when they gave up teaching.

The bottom line is that as long as steering is under control it doesn’t matter how a pupil does it. They can steer with one hand, with their palm, use hand over hand… it simply doesn’t matter. And it hasn’t mattered – not officially, anyway – for a very long time. I emphasise again that the change to DT1 was a clarification and not a major change in policy.

A lot of ADIs and PDIs get hung up on this whole business of  “crossing your hands”. Two versions ago, Driving: The Essential Skills (TES) said:

Turning – When turning the steering wheel, avoid crossing your hands. Except at low speeds, this can reduce your control and can cause an accident. Feed the rim of the steering wheel through your hands. Vary your hand movements according to the amount of lock you want.

This is called the pull-push technique.

TES was not saying that you shouldn’t cross your hands. It just quite correctly pointed out that the rapid steering action that a hand-over-hand method can lead to might give rise to a loss of control at higher speeds. But there is a huge difference in the effect produced by whipping the steering round quickly as you’re turning into a road at 20-30mph compared with the same action at 5-10mph.

The only type of  “crossing hands” that ends up being wrong in almost all circumstances is the one where pupils grip the steering wheel tightly and turn from their shoulders, keeping their hands in a fixed place on the steering wheel. This nearly always results in insufficient lock to get round the corner, resulting in wide turns, or possibly over-steering if the pupil suddenly panics and shifts their grip to get the car round. Just about every learner does it like this on their first lesson.

The last two versions of TES (most recently, 2015) have merely said:

You should

  • place your hands on the steering wheel in a position that’s comfortable and which gives you full control
  • keep your movements steady and smooth
  • turn the steering wheel to turn a corner at the correct time

Personally, I rue the loss of the extra detail in the version before this. I see it as a dumbing down exercise, and far too many people are ready to believe that it’s some sort of admission that the “pull-push” method was bad, when it most definitely wasn’t. The pull-push technique – where steering is achieved by alternately pulling the wheel down with one hand, then changing grip and pushing it with the other – certainly isn’t the only way to steer, and people who can already drive shouldn’t be forced to use it. But for most beginners, who have not yet developed a suitable technique, it should definitely be a starting point for them. It requires hand coordination which, in turn, becomes a foundation for good car control.Playing "keepy-up"

A good analogy would be with a professional footballer. He can play “keepy up” for hours on end because it is an important basic control skill – but you will rarely see him do it on the field. However, the coordination required to do it enables him to do other things during matches that he would otherwise struggle with.

It’s the same with steering. Being able to use pull-push properly is an important foundation skill that drivers should possess, even if they end up rarely using it in favour of a more chav-like style. Once beginners can do pull-push, they can steer easily without going wide on bends and corners. They are less likely to over-steer into kerbs, and are more confident as a result, being able to adjust their steering in a controlled manner. A major drawback to hand-over-hand steering for beginners who know no other way is that they can easily panic and over steer.

The new wording in TES could actually be taken as a mandate for teaching poor steering methods by some instructors, because it’s easier for them and easier for their pupils. Some people are already under the mistaken impression that it’s “coaching” to let people develop bad habits in preference to teaching them properly.

Incidentally, when someone pull-pushes the steering in one direction, the natural return action frequently involves push-pull. They’re not two separate methods like some people seem to believe. It doesn’t matter whether you pull first, or push.

Why shouldn’t I turn (dry steer) the wheel when the car isn’t moving?

Moving the wheel when the car is stationary is called “dry steering”. There’s no rule or law which says you mustn’t do it, and examiners do not mark you on it. I have much less of an issue with it than I once did when doing manoeuvres. However, it can bad practice for several reasons:

  • it can damage your tyres
  • it can damage your steering mechanism
  • it can damage the road surface

Scrunching your tyres over gravel instead of rolling over the road surface leads to more wear. Doing it on glass or nails can give you a puncture. The extra strain involved when dry steering leads to more wear in the steering mechanism of your car. And scrunching your tyres on tarmac in hot weather can chew up the surface, which holds water in winter, and which can cause cracks if the water freezes – leading finally to potholes. You’ll get some smart arses telling you they’ve never come across an example where dry steering has caused actual damage, but the reality is that every time someone has to replace a tyre, dry steering could have contributed to its overall wear and tear.

Replacing a tyre is going to cost you a few tens of pounds at the very least. Fixing worn out steering will cost hundreds of pounds. Potholes can cause hundred of pounds worth of damage to your car – plus you pay taxes for them to be (eventually) filled in, so it makes sense not to contribute to their formation. However, your car is not going to spontaneously fall apart in the middle of the road if you dry steer occasionally, so don’t worry about it too much.

Except where pupils have a genuine problem and need to dry steer, as the default steering method in all situations it is an excuse for laziness and bad driving practices. Dry steering should be discouraged for most drivers, most of the time.

I find that many pupils can’t control the car and steer at the same time, and they need to dry-steer

That’s fair enough, but make sure you’re not just looking for an easy way out. In all the years I have been teaching, the number of pupils who couldn’t be taught to control the car at low-speed and steer pull-push at the same time, and so have had to resort to dry steering, have been relatively few. The vast majority of learners have initial problems with just about every aspect of driving, but that doesn’t mean they should be taught a dumbed down approach at the first opportunity. In my own experience, based on the observed skills of pupils I’ve picked up from other instructors, that is exactly what seems to be happening. Dry steering is seen as an easy way out.

Some people can’t do manoeuvres without dry steering

Yes, I agree, but it can usually be overcome. Having said that, as time has gone by, I have less of an issue with dry steering than I once did during manoeuvres. The real problem  for most is to do with multi-tasking.

Multi-tasking doesn’t mean doing two things at the same time. The human brain can’t handle that. What it does mean is carrying out several tasks concurrently. I know that sounds confusing, but let me explain.A plate spinning act

Think of a plate-spinning act – the thing where some guy spins plates on the ends of sticks and keeps them all going without any falling off. He starts with one plate, sets it spinning, then uses the time before it starts to wind down to set another going. Now, he goes back to the first and gives it a boost, then he sets a third plate going. He can now go back and boost the second, and maybe the first again. Then he spins up a fourth plate. And so on, until he has many plates all spinning. All he has to do is give each plate a boost as necessary. This is proper multi-tasking – the plate spinner does one thing at a time, following a sequence.

Let’s apply all this to the turn in the road (TIR). In the worst case, a pupil will start moving without having a clue what they’re going to do next – and the car just moves off along the kerb as their brain tries to figure out what’s going on, and what they should do next. Not quite as bad, but still very messy, is the case where the pupil tries to get the car moving, control the speed, and steer all at once. What usually happens is that the car lurches (perhaps stalls), which distracts them from steering. Then, if they try to steer, their foot comes up off the clutch and the car accelerates, which distracts them again and the steering stops. By this time, they’re almost at the opposite kerbside with very little steering applied.

TIR (assuming we’re doing it as a three-point turn) can be broken into three identical stages, each looking a bit like this:

  • select gear
  • find the bite
  • look around
  • release hand brake
  • control speed
  • get full lock on
  • control speed again
  • look around
  • control speed
  • watch the kerb
  • control the speed
  • stop

If we apply the plate spinner approach, where controlling the speed is the same as giving a plate a boost, we have a nice structure that can be followed in a steady sequence. As long as the car’s speed is kept low, everything else just happens.

My instructor is teaching me to dry steer

As I said earlier, you won’t fail for doing it on your test, and I now have much less of an issue with dry steering on manoeuvres than I used to. However, it is bad practice to do it when you definitely don’t need to. It can damage your tyres and other things and it is something you need to avoid whenever you can. If you’re parked in a tight space, the only way you’re ever going to get out is by dry steering.

I can’t master “pull-push” steering

If you can steer safely and in control, it doesn’t matter how you do it. Even using the palm of one hand and driving like the chavs do is perfectly acceptable… as long as you’re in control. However, if you are a beginner and you don’t already have a suitable way of steering, pull-push is a good technique to master. You can easily practice it at home using a book or dinner plate as a dummy steering wheel.

If you want to steer left, move your left hand to the top of the wheel (or dinner plate), grip, and pull the wheel down until your hand is at the bottom. Move your right hand to the bottom, grip, let go with your left hand, then push the wheel/plate up. To continue steering, move your left hand to the top again, change grip, and repeat – although you’ll probably have full-lock on before you complete the third movement.

To steer right, start by moving your right hand to the top of the wheel and pull down, etc.

Using pull-push means you always have more steering available to you. Using big turns is good for getting full-lock quickly, but you can use small shuffles for more precise steering as needed.

Get the dinner plate out and make sure you can do it.

Do you have to use “push-pull”?

It’s actually called pull-push, but whatever you call it the answer is “no”. As far as I am aware, you have never HAD to do it that way – you’re probably confused about being told that by your own instructor, or by someone else whose instructor told them. The examiner doesn’t care how you steer as long as you’re in control.

That’s not to say that you can literally steer anyway you like, though. Pull-push (or something very similar to it) done properly is definitely the best way – especially for learners.

What about “palming”?

This is what I refer to as “chav steering” – it’s where someone uses the palm of one hand to rotate the wheel, and it is the favoured method of people who are trying to cultivate an image.

I often pick up pupils who use it, and I don’t immediately try to change them unless there is a problem with control. I’m perfectly happy for them to use it when they’re doing manoeuvres because of the low speeds involved. However, if they try it when turning into a road or round a sharp bend, if my guts flip even a small amount as a result of the change in momentum then I’m right on it, and they will learn how to steer using pull-push.

Palming to steer at normal speeds and in normal situations is pretty much pointless because you simply don’t need to steer that quickly. Beyond that, it comes back to that thing about image again – which is fine for an established driver (where you’d call it a habit), but not for an inexperienced beginner who just wants to look “cool”. Steering too quickly adds an additional sideways component to the forces acting on the car, and that increases the risk of a skid or spin-out, and palming can easily lead to that. And remember that this kind of accident is common among younger inexperienced drivers.

Is it OK to teach learners to “palm” the wheel?

Well, if they remain in control when they are steering then there is no fault for the examiner to mark. However, if they steer too quickly when turning left or right into side roads or bends then there most definitely is a control issue and the examiner might well mark it. With an inexperienced driver, showing them how to palm the wheel is a pointless additional risk.

A decent instructor should not be teaching palming as a preferred steering method for beginners. There’s too much that can go wrong with it. For established drivers the risks need to be assessed and dealt with honestly. Quite simply, too many ADIs steer like that themselves and this is why they teach it. It is bad practice, though – much like dry steering.

How do you teach a pupil to steer properly?

It isn’t rocket science, so don’t let your pupils think it is. Remember that as long as they are in control it doesn’t matter how they steer. Having said that, if they have not driven properly before it is a good idea to teach them how to use the pull-push method first (and to avoid dry-steering), and then let them develop their own style from there. Pull-push requires fundamental skills that they can use in their own style. Let them practice with a large book or diary – if you have a dummy steering wheel, so much the better.

Once they know the principle of steering, the next step is putting it into practice. For most new drivers that’s not a problem and just getting out on the road is enough for them to hone their skills. However, some new drivers need a bit of extra help with knowing how much to steer and when, and finding an empty car park which is big enough to drive around in a figure of eight pattern is great for practising this.

How do I correct someone’s steering while they’re driving?

This is an actual search term used to find the blog. It might be necessary for an instructor to position the car correctly for a learner simply by holding the steering wheel and steering slightly from the passenger seat. The pupil can then zero in on their position relative to the kerb or white lines and learn from that.

How many turns is full lock?

It varies from car to car. In my Ford Focus it is currently just over 1¼ turns either way, but in the previous model it was just under 1½ turns. One of my pupils has a car where it is nearly 2 whole turns.

Is full lock the same as one complete turn?

Read the previous answer. Full lock is when the steering wheel won’t turn any further. It will go “clunk” against the end stop.

One turn is one turn. If full lock is more than one turn, then no, full lock and one turn are not the same.

How much do I need to steer?

Don’t get bogged down counting quarters or halves of turns of the wheel (except perhaps during some manoeuvres). Steer as much as you need to by watching where you’re going and making the car go there.

If you get muddled when it comes to straightening the wheels after having turned to full lock, it can sometimes be useful to count your hand movements needed to get full lock in the first place, then count the same number of hand movements back. Obviously this depends on having a reliable technique – it won’t work if you use hand-over-hand one way, and tiny little shuffles going the other.

What are typical steering mistakes made by learners?

In my experience, the following are all high on the list:

  • looking at the steering wheel
  • looking too close to the front of the car
  • looking at the kerb
  • not looking ahead
  • being distracted by other things
  • gripping the wheel too tightly
  • not moving their hands when steering
  • steering too much or too quickly
  • steering too little or too slowly

The list is really endless, but not all learners make all these mistakes. Most pupils who have problems tend to specialise in one particular fault.

Remember that it is important to identify the precise cause of the fault. Someone might not steer enough going round a corner, but it could be simply that they were trying to change gear or cancel the indicator. In some cases, though, question them and you may well find it was because they were thinking about a mistake they made earlier. The trick is to dig the real fault out.

My pupil keeps moving the steering wheel all the time, even on straight roads

It’s probably because they’re not looking far enough ahead. Think about it: your hands will follow your eyes without you being aware of it, and this means that if you watched a video of yourself driving on a straight road, your hands would be making small corrections the whole time. Learners tend to look much closer to the front of the car, and as a result their adjustments are more frequent, and of greater magnitude. Get them to look a couple of hundred metres further on – point out various things for them to look at – and there’s a good chance their steering will become very smooth.

My pupil keeps taking one hand off the steering wheel

If they’re in control it doesn’t matter. They should try to keep two hands on the wheel, but dropping to one hand now and then isn’t a problem. It can even be a good exercise to get them to steer with one hand – their road position often improves dramatically, because they are concentrating more.

How can I practice steering?

Well, first of all, don’t over think the subject. I don’t think I’ve ever come across a pupil who couldn’t steer within a few minutes – and certainly not within 20 minutes or so – so you shouldn’t worry too much about it.

Occasionally, I do get people who have an initial problem with pull-push steering if they’ve never done it before. What I do in those cases is whip out my diary, which is A4-sized, and get them to pull-push-pull one way, then the other. I demonstrate it first, of course. Once they’ve done the correct hand movements once, it’s no problem after that (it’s a bit like those Chinese puzzles you get, where once you know the secret you can do it with your eyes shut). In the past, I’ve had pupils who have practiced at home using a dinner plate (and even one of those kiddies toy steering wheels would do it – as long as you lock yourself in somewhere with the curtains drawn so no one will laugh at you!)

As I said previously, once people have the ability to do pull-push, I let them develop their own method from it.

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DK07 ZRG - Stupid, arrogant cow with kids in the carI went into McDonalds in Basford this afternoon to use the loo and get a coffee. It was about 2.30pm, and since it was a Friday, the traffic was building.

I got in my car to leave, and I must confess that the thought crossed my mind that some twat would be trying to turn right at the exit (as they usually are, in spite of the NO RIGHT TURN signs). As I reversed out and aimed at the exit, I was confronted with this – a stupid cow, with her brats in the car – trying to turn right. You can see how busy it is.

The traffic lights at the junction just to the right of the exit allow a handful of cars through at a time even if you’re going straight ahead.  If more than one person is turning right at the junction, only 2 or 3 cars get through, which is why people in the right-hand lane approaching the junction won’t let people leaving McDonalds out – especially during peak periods.

She was there for ages – there was no way traffic was going to let her out, but she was simply too f–king thick to work that out. The irony is that if you turn left, you can do a u-turn further down and handle the junction legally.

Note the "no right turn" signs and heavy traffic - DK07 ZRG didn'tEventually, I managed to bump the edge of the pavement and get out while she was still sitting there with her head spinning round looking left and right. This is what she was looking at, and it shows precisely why there are those crystal-clear NO RIGHT TURN signs at the exit. A queue several hundred metres long.

Traffic stretching off into the distance, and DK07 ZRG still expected to manage her illegal right turnThe stupid and arrogant cow in question was driving a blue Ford Focus, registration number DK07 ZRG. She ignored my toot and gesticulations, because SHE wanted to turn right, and f–k everyone else.

Still, at least it has reminded me why I avoid this McDonalds branch for large parts of the day.

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Black Toyota Corolla - KM05 PWXI did my first motorway lesson this morning and everything went completely according to plan. The pupil said it was the best lesson he’d ever had.

Ironically, the only thing that I’ve had any negative thoughts about concerning lessons on motorways is if any pupil should panic and slam the brakes on. So as we left the M1 at Junction 23 to go through Loughborough, we were turning right at the roundabout, and who should try to overtake dangerously on the merge on to the A512?

Yes,a black Toyota Corolla, registration number KM05 PWX – driven by some stupid bitch who shouldn’t be on the road. It wouldn’t have surprised me if she had her kids in the car, either (all five of them, no doubt). You can see how far over she is in the photo – it was a single lane at this point. And she was speeding, too, once she got past us.

Of course, my pupil duly obliged by braking, but fortunately not too hard, since there were cars behind us.

Nothing directly to do with doing lessons on motorways, but just typical of the twats who infest the roads these days.

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Scum pitched on Chilwell P+RAnyone using the Chilwell park and ride car park should be aware that it is currently overrun with vermin. It seems they’ve been there almost a week already.

Yes, for at least the third time in 18 months, filthy “travellers” have moved in and they’ve turned the place into a garbage tip.

I went in there with a pupil yesterday to do a bay park manoeuvre, and the scum have spaced themselves out right across 80% of the park. There is refuse everywhere, and they are using the space behind an electricity box at the end closest to the main road as a latrine. This is the kind of scum that they are.

We watched one of them go behind the box and relieve himself, then walk back to his caravan. There are also what appear to be wet wipes strewn behind that box, so they’re shitting there, too. Even apes in a zoo are cleaner than these animals.

Authorities are no doubt going through all the usual hoops to get them off.

If it was me, I’d just send in – actually, I’d be happy to drive it myself – a big JCB and trash all their bloody caravans, whether they’re inside them or not. They are filthy, verminous scum, and deserve nothing better.

And the sooner the Police cotton on to this, the better it will be all round.

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A motorwayI’ve said it before, but this is about 50 years late. But better late than never.

As of today, 4 June 2018, learner drivers will be allowed on motorways as long as they’re with a fully-qualified instructor and in a car with dual controls fitted.

The Highway Code has also changed with effect from today. Specifically, Rule 253. This paragraph has been added:

From 4 June 2018 provisional licence holders may drive on the motorway if they are accompanied by an approved driving instructor and are driving a car displaying red L plates (D plates in Wales), that’s fitted with dual controls.

Apparently, learners are still not allowed on certain roads – designated “special roads”. Motorways were specifically designated “special roads” until today, but the Law has changed on that. So the big question has to be: what other “special roads are there?”

I have to be honest and say that until I saw this email from DVSA, I had no idea that there was a third category of non-private carriageway beyond normal roads and motorways. After looking it up, it would appear that I wasn’t alone, and a FOI enquiry was made on the subject in 2016 by someone.

It would seem that there is only one “special road” in the whole of the UK. Highways England – and even they had to look into it – responded to the FOI request with:

From the information that we hold, the only non-motorway special road that has been identified is the A282 in Essex and Kent, between M25 junction 30 and south of M25 junction 1b. This section of road includes the Dartford – Thurrock River Crossing.

Why does this country have to be so f—ing stupid? But anyway, the fact remains that as of today (4 June), learners can be taken on any road in the whole of the UK – except for the f—ing A282 in Essex and Kent (unless another one crawls out of the woodwork).

Jesus H Christ.

Update: A reader informs me that there is a stretch of the A55 in North Wales which is also classed as a “special road” (and maybe part of the A1 ‘oop north’). I’ve actually driven on that when visiting Llandudno one time before I became an instructor.

Ahhh. Llandudno. Every other shop is a Mobility shop. And (some) people drive around with wheelchairs on the rhino horns on the back of their cars. I’m not making that up. Much. And you’ll get tarred and feathered if you pronounce “Llandudno” the way it’s spelled while you’re there.

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This article was originally published in February 2014. Updated in 2015, November 2016, March 2017, and June 2018.A Clifton Test Route

I get frequent hits on the blog from people looking for test route information. Test routes are no longer published for Nottingham, or anywhere else – they stopped publishing them in 2010!

If you’re an instructor, it isn’t difficult to work out where the examiners go. To begin with, anywhere near the test centre is bound to be on most of the routes. If you know the examiners to look at, you’ll see them from time to time as you conduct your lessons, so you can add that location to your memory bank. You can also ask your pupils where they went after their tests – some of them will be able to give you some details, though many won’t. If they fail their test, find out where the mistakes occurred – the examiner will be more than happy to tell you – and if it crops up more than once, modify your lesson structure and deal with it going forward. Finally, if you’re desperate to know the exact routes you can sit in on tests and learn that way. If you know what you’re doing you can even log the routes for reference – the picture above shows one of the test routes for the now-closed Clifton Test Centre (the orange dot), which I recorded myself. Click on it for a larger image.

Conducting your lessons only on test routes is rather foolish. Apart from the fact that you’re cheating your pupils by not teaching them to drive properly, examiners can change routes or mix and match from several routes any time they need to. Pupils who try to memorise test routes are far more likely to fail because they’re prioritising the wrong things – worrying about forgetting the route instead of thinking about driving properly. Considering that there are dozens of official routes at any large test centre, it would require a considerable feat of memory to store all of them, and then to be able to recall just one as needed. Based on my own experience, many pupils have difficulty recognising a street we’ve been on a hundred times before, so memorising 20 or more complete routes is even less possible for them.

Having said that, it is important for an ADI to have some knowledge of the test routes so that special features can be covered. Every town or test centre has these – the tricky roundabout with the one-way street and No Entry sign, the unusually steep hill that can only be negotiated in second gear (and which may require a hill start if some jackass in a van doesn’t give way coming down it), the STOP junction immediately after an emerge on to a busy road with a bend, and so on. It doesn’t matter how good someone is at dealing with roundabouts, if they come face to face with ones like the Nottingham Knight or Nuthall roundabouts up my way, without prior practice there’s a high probability they’ll get it wrong. Someone’s first practical experience of such a roundabout shouldn’t be on their driving test.

I remember when I first became an ADI, and religiously downloading all the routes provided by DVSA (then, DSA). The documents consisted of tables of directions which were cryptic unless you knew roads by name and/or number, which I didn’t at that time. I made a single half-hearted attempt to plot a route before giving up – there just wasn’t time – and I quickly realised that it was pointless anyway. These days, I’d probably be able to interpret those route plans quite easily, but these days my pupils get to drive all over – sometimes on test route roads, sometimes not.

Hanging around test areas like a bad smell also gets you a bad reputation. You get in the way of real tests, if nothing else. But you’ll also end up struggling with all the other morons trying to do the same as you.

Where can I download test routes?

You can’t. Not unless some ADI has recorded them and is publishing them independently.

Should I pay for downloadable test routes?

My advice would be no. DVSA stopped publishing them for a reason, and if some smart aleck is trying to profit from selling them then he or she is behaving in an unprofessional manner. If you buy into that then you’re not much better. There’s a good chance you’re being sold old routes, anyway.

A desire to obtain detailed test routes for use on lessons seems to be something newly-qualified ADIs attach high importance to. Trust me: don’t waste your money. If you really want them, record them yourself.

Is it possible to record test routes?

Yes. There are free and paid for apps available for both Android and iPhone which use GPS to record journeys. Similarly, there are numerous GPS tracker devices available which do the same. I use a tracker – if you use a phone app, you have to leave your phone in the car, which raises various problems if it is paired with your in-car audio system, plus you can’t use it at the test centre if you’re not sitting in  – and I know where every pupil goes on their test. I can see where they are while I’m at the test centre in real time, so I know when they are coming back. This is purely for my own information, and publishing my logged routes would be completely against DVSA’s original reason for stopping publication. If it wasn’t already apparent from the rest of this blog, I have absolutely no inclination or desire to go against DVSA.

I have provided an old Clifton test route in the image at the start of this article (Clifton is now closed). This one is overlaid on a satellite image from Google Earth, but you can overlay the .kml data on maps or whatever. Sometimes, it can be surprising how many times you do the same roundabout in a single day – or even on the same lesson if a pupil is struggling with it and you need to keep trying it.

Raw tracker data from a typical dayWhat is interesting from my logged routes is how they change over time. Sometimes, tests follow precisely the same route as previous ones, but other times new sub-sections of route are added (I suspect this happens when existing routes get clogged with instructors). Knowing where a pupil went on their specific test is useful if they fail and you need to identify exactly what went wrong, and where.

You can also record routes using dashcams. As well as my tracker, I also have a dashcam recording all the time. A couple of years ago, I showed a pupil where she’d failed after the examiner explained it in the debrief. She didn’t know what he was talking about (if she had, she wouldn’t have done what she did), but I placed the video online privately for her to look at less than an hour later, and then she understood.

How do I know the routes I’ve bought are correct and up to date?

You don’t – and they’re probably not. They might be totally imaginary, or simply cobbled together to be reasonably close to actual routes in order that the unprofessional person selling them has some justification for the price they charged you. They may even just be the original ones that they stopped publishing in 2010 and which are almost certainly out of date. As I said above, routes change with time.

Do I need to know the test routes for my test?

No. The examiner will give you directions as necessary, or ask you to follow the satnav or road signs. However, if there are one or two awkward features – big roundabouts, steep hills, or so on – then your instructor should know about them and make sure you know how to handle them.

People fail tests because they can’t drive properly far more frequently than they do because they couldn’t recall a memorised route. However, not driving properly becomes much more likely when your brain is scrambling around thinking “now, what is it I have to do here?”

How many test routes are there?

It varies from test centre to test centre, but there could be 10, 20, or more. You couldn’t possibly memorise all of them – and to be honest, even if you drove down your own street on your test the chances are that you might not notice! You will be nervous, and you will be concentrating. The last thing you want is to have to try and remember a detailed list of directions, then to start fretting if you think you might have forgotten something.

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Pills in a blister packI recently saw a forum post from someone who has failed their driving test five times, and who says that the whole test business is too stressful and that they’re ready to give up. The poster says that they fret over the test for weeks beforehand, and that the repeated failures are affecting them deeply.

Many years ago – and I’d not been an instructor for very long – one of my then pupils (let’s call her Clare), who had previously failed two tests, told me she’d been to her doctor and he’d prescribed beta-blockers. I knew what they were normally used for and asked her if she was OK. She told me they weren’t for her heart, and that her doctor had prescribed them to help her with her driving nerves.

Being a naïve new instructor, I’d simply assumed that everyone would be like me, and that “getting butterflies” was par for the course. For most people it is par for the course, but over the years I’ve discovered that a fair number of pupils get it so bad that they are physically sick on test day – literally vomiting – and that is not normal. I’ve had others who start shaking when we arrive at the test centre (or who just break down) and can’t go through with it. And I’ve had a couple who, after committing a non-serious fault (the examiner told me that) while out on their test, suffer a break down and can’t continue. This is not “butterflies”, and anyone who dismisses it merely as “test day nerves” is talking out of their backside.

The effect on Clare was dramatic. She was already a good driver, but she improved even more as a result of a growing confidence. Previously – and I hadn’t cottoned on – she’d been a bag of nerves on her tests, but after she started taking the tablets she passed on her next attempt. From then on, if I ever suspected someone was suffering from crippling nerves, I would advise them to speak to their GP. If beta-blockers were prescribed to them, there was a marked effect every time – with some bordering on the miraculous. I can only remember one person out of many dozens for whom they seemingly did nothing.

Although beta-blockers are intended to treat heart conditions associated with angina and heart attacks, doctors often prescribe them “off-label” (i.e. not for their licensed purpose) for anxiety. The one they usually prescribe is propanolol. When I read up on the subject it turned out that actors and musicians commonly use them to ward off the effects of stage fright or the jitters when playing instruments. They’re banned in athletics because they give archers and marksmen an unfair advantage (steadier hands than without them) in competition.

Beta-blockers are a prescription-only medicine, and should only be taken if specifically prescribed to you by your doctor for this specific purpose. You must not get them from someone else, as there might be a medical reason you can’t have them, and the dosage might be different. One pupil wasn’t allowed them when she was in the early stages of pregnancy, for example, and was prescribed a lower dose while she was breastfeeding. Another had problems with his blood pressure and wasn’t given them. Another was already taking medication for anxiety and the doctor switched her to beta-blockers instead (which also helped as she was less tired with them), but another was already on anxiety medication and wasn’t given them because her existing medication was stronger. Only your GP knows your medical history and is able to make the call on whether you can have them or not.

Beta-blockers are not “zonk-out” pills. No one knows the precise mechanism by which they can be used to treat anxiety, but one way of looking at it is to consider what someone is like when they get anxious or nervous. Terms like “jangling nerves” sum it up. When I’m explaining it to pupils, I use the example of static hiss on a radio – as the hiss gets louder and louder (representing “nerves”) the music in the background (what they need to be concentrating on) becomes less and less distinguishable, even though it is still there. Eventually, it can be completely drowned out, and that’s what happens to pupils’ concentration if the nerves are hissing or jangling too loudly.

Beta-blockers reduce or even eliminate that background hiss.

Concentration and awareness of what is happening all around is vital when driving. Nerves act like a distraction, negatively impacting concentration and so reducing awareness. In the early stages of learning a certain level of anxiety and nerves is completely normal, and that’s why beginners often make mistakes. It’s later on – in cases where the jangling nerves don’t go away – that people can become discouraged.

One method I use to find out what’s happening with established pupils is to do some scaling to find out what they’re feeling. When I’m scaling pupils, I’ll set up the scale with something like this as we’re sitting parked up in a quiet location:

Imagine you have an inner pressure dial that goes from 0 to 100. Imagine now that you’re sitting at home, feet up, watching TV with a can of beer or a cup of tea. That’s ‘0’ on the dial. Then imagine you have an important job interview tomorrow, and you’ve got to do a presentation to a room full of people you don’t know. You’ve not been well, so you haven’t prepared for it properly, and getting the job depends on how well the presentation goes. That’s ‘100’ on the dial. Now, on that same scale of 0 to 100, what is the dial reading right now?

Most pupils will say something like ‘10’ or ‘20’. A fair number will say maybe ‘30’ or ‘40’. But every now and then, someone will come out with ‘70’ or more – and when that pupil has had maybe 20 or 30 lessons… well, that’s when my beta-blocker stories get an airing.

One of the best stories concerns the pupil who was initially breastfeeding. She’d been taking lessons for a long time before she came to me and wasn’t getting anywhere. She turned out to be one of those people who isn’t a natural driver, and she was going to find things difficult no matter who she was learning with, and no matter how many lessons she’d had previously. It didn’t matter what we covered on a lesson, or how much progress appeared to have been made, because by the next lesson she’d be doing things exactly the way she always did. Every stop was likely to throw me through the windscreen if I wasn’t ready for it, and she was like a cat on hot bricks with every action or movement. Driving in a straight line was fine as long as we didn’t have to stop – if we did, you could see the wheels in her head start to go round, the possibilities start to multiply, and chances were she’d try and turn left or right instead for no reason whatsoever. She was like a guitar string that had been tightened to breaking point when she was in the driver’s seat, and some days were especially bad. I saw her walking down the street a couple of times, and she was always in a massive hurry and looking flustered.

I’d already talked to her about beta-blockers, and when she’d gone to see the doctor – not her regular GP, who was away – she’d been told she couldn’t have them because she was breastfeeding, so we soldiered on for a month or two more. But then she went back to her GP – this time, her regular one – and asked again about using beta-blockers. He told her she could have them, but at a reduced dose.

The effect was astounding. All of a sudden, she was actually learning things, and they were sticking between lessons. If you represent the process of learning to drive on a 0-100 scale, she was at about 10-20% and getting no higher. Beta-blockers suddenly allowed this to climb to 40-50% over a couple of months. Then, disaster! She fell pregnant again and had to stop taking them.

The remarkable thing was that her driving stabilised where it had got to – it didn’t fall back – and we were in a much better position to move forward. Unfortunately, she then had a few family crises all in quick succession and had to put her lessons on hold.

The way I describe it, she was initially enclosed in a shell created by her “nerves”, and nothing new could get through – it was just deflected. Then, with the beta-blockers, the shell was cracked open and information was able to get through so that learning took place. When she stopped the medication, the shell closed up again, but what had previously got through stayed there.

Many of the others have marvelled at “how calm” they feel when they start taking them. One of my current pupils has gone from being stuck on a low plateau since she started last year to being likely taking her test in the summer – and it was definitely down to the beta-blockers.

You see, some pupils don’t like the idea of “relying” on medicine. But as the first example shows, you don’t have to. The medicine appears to allow confidence to develop, and that brings the overall “nerves” down so that the medicine isn’t needed permanently.

So, in a nutshell, if you really are having a problem with anxiety or “nerves” when you’re driving, a trip to your GP might be worth considering.

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Our Silver Birch in June 2017Well, it’s mid-spring 2018, and I’m getting a lot of hits on this. Come on, people. Get your trees fed pronto.

The article has been increasingly popular each year since I first published it in 2014. I’m feeding my trees every couple of weeks at the moment and they’re now in full leaf and not a single one has fallen, even with the breezes we’ve had.

However, back in 2014 it was a different story. Our silver birch tree began to yellow and drop leaves mid-June! We were worried, and Googling for an answer was next to useless.

Most of the technical advice was North American, and focused on the Bronze Birch Borer (a beetle that feeds on white birches), or the perils of trying to grow trees in either a desert or a swamp. Our trees had none of the beetle infestation symptoms other than leaf drop, and although the British never shut up about the bloody weather, we were not growing ours in anything other than normally-drained garden soil.

After I first wrote this article, I discovered that yellowing/leaf drop can be caused by two different things. You can’t do any harm if you just apply both of the remedies I uncovered, though.

The type we had was where the leaves turned bright, canary yellow – just like in Autumn – and began falling off the tree. As I said, it started in mid-June, and although the yellowing/leaf drop wasn’t as widespread throughout the tree as it is during Autumn proper, it was worrying all the same. I can’t honestly remember where I found this now, but somewhere in the hundreds and hundreds of forum pages and obscure “ask the expert” sites rattling on about the bloody Birch Borer I came across two ideas that made absolute sense, and which can be implemented without calling in David Attenborough and Rentokil.Fertiliser and Iron Treatments

Summer leaf-drop and leaf yellowing is caused either by a deficiency of nitrogen in the soil, or a deficiency of iron (or a combination of the two). It affects many plants – not just silver birch trees.

Nitrogen deficiency is easily resolved using ericaceous fertiliser (for lime-hating plants, which is what birch trees are). It is available from various manufacturers, such as Miracle-Gro, and can be bought from most decent garden centres and from many online retailers (including eBay and Amazon, where I get mine). It only costs about £5 a box, and there’s enough to manage a decent sized tree for at least half a season. You can also get liquid and slow-release varieties.

Bear in mind that normal fertiliser is no good – it has to be the ericaceous stuff – and you just dissolve in water and spread it around the tree. Remember that the roots extend outwards quite a long way and you’ll need to cover a wide area, but concentrate on the drip-zone (the area covered by the branches). The slow-release granules of the same fertiliser are just sprinkled on the ground and watered in, and they apparently work for up to 3 months.

Leaves suffering from chlorosisLeaves that look like those in the images here are suffering from iron deficiencyknown as chlorosis. This, too, is easily dealt with by buying some sequestered (or chelated) iron, such as Maxicrop, shown above. It comes as a liquid, and you can mix it with your fertiliser and water it in all in one go. Plants need iron to produce chlorophyll, and since chlorophyll is why leaves are green in the first place, not being able to produce it means leaves become less green and take on a yellowish hue, especially when lit from behind – eventually looking like those shown.

Close-up of leaves suffering from chlorosisAny soil nutrient deficiency may also lead to new leaves being small and misshapen, instead of the classic Birch leaf shape. Some of ours were like that in 2014.

In our case, after a single application of fertiliser treatment in 2014, leaf drop stopped almost immediately once the already-dead leaves had fallen. The tree even threw out some catkins, which had been absent up until then. In 2015, I started feeding every few weeks from March with both fertiliser and iron and we had no leaf drop at all. In 2016, it was the same, with very fat catkins hanging from the branches, along with quite significant new growth. In May 2017 our tree looked like the photo at the top of this article, and here’s a close-up of the leaves from that year. Does that look healthy, or what?

Close-up of our tree's leaves in June 2017An additional treatment for the longer term is to water-in iron (ferrous) sulphate periodically. This replaces iron in the soil, too, but it also acidifies the ground over time, which is good for ericaceous plants. It’s also very good for your lawn – iron sulphate is a moss-killer and a grass-greener (it’s sold for these purposes).

You have to bear in mind that when trees and plants die back in winter, the leaves they shed return nutrients to the soil as they decay. In urban gardens, concerns over appearance mean that people usually sweep up the leaves as soon as they fall – so nutrients end up being removed from the garden and transferred to wherever the refuse collectors take them. Obviously, your trees and plants suffer the most, which is why you need to give them this extra help to recover what they have lost.

Well, I say “obviously”, but it’s funny looking back, now. I used to think that if you planted a tree you just forgot about it and let it grow, when it turns out you need to look after them almost as much as you would a tomato plant or an ornamental cactus! Judging by the increasing number of hits I get on this article, a lot of other people are discovering the same.

A final few words. You have to keep the treatment going about once a month between March and September, and you have to follow the same routine each year (or at least over alternate years). Also be aware that in very hot weather or during drought trees can become stressed and a leaves may yellow and drop for that reason alone. This isn’t too much of a problem, and a weekly deep-watering is all that’s required (hosepipe bans notwithstanding).

A final word: It is 1 June 2018, and my trees have not shed a single leaf so far.  My neighbour has a well-established cherry tree (or something which gets pink blossom, anyway) – they’ve had it for decades. It is dropping yellowed leaves already, and the leaves still on the tree are noticeably pale where in all previous years they’ve been dark green. They keep their garden spotlessly clean, thus removing fallen leaves each year as soon as they drop. It’s a clear case of chlorosis and/or nutrient deficiency.

Can you rescue leaves which have turned yellow?

No, probably not. Not the ones which are canary yellow, anyway, since they’re already dead and will have to fall off the tree. How long that takes will vary, and a little wind can speed things up. The important thing is that by feeding the tree you can stop any further yellowing – and believe me, the first time you do it the effects will be quite noticeable.

I would imagine that chlorosis could be reversed if it is caught early, since the yellowing is not due to leaves dying – they’re just iron-deficient. In that case, you might be able to save some yellowed leaves by applying the chelated iron treatment. However, if not treated then the leaves do die and fall off easily once they are predominantly yellow.

Do you have to keep treating the trees?

Yes. If you don’t, the problem just comes back depending on how long the previous treatment lasts for, and that is dependent on how bad the deficiency is, how big your trees are, what else is growing there, and how your soil drains when it rains. Huge trees will suck up all the nutrients, and if you’re raking up and binning the leaves each year nothing gets returned to the soil. It stands to reason, really, but I was as blind to it as anyone else until I encountered the problem.

Treat your trees from March until September. Feed at least once a month (even two to three times during the earlier months) – and water regularly in hot weather anyway, as they do need moisture.

How often should you feed?

I initially started doing it once a month in the first season, and carried on at the same rate into the second and third. However, I now do it twice a month because one year – and I can’t remember which – towards the end of the season I noticed a few signs a chlorosis about a month before the normal autumn change.

Can heat and drought cause them to lose leaves?

Yes. If they are stressed you may get them dropping a few leaves. It’s a good idea to water them deeply during hot, dry periods. Once a week should be enough.

Is there any other way to deal with the problem?

You have to get nutrients and iron back into the soil. Yes, you could use your own mulch or bought compost, but obviously this is not so attractive in a normal garden (removing it is what got you here in the first place). It would also take longer to have an effect. But it would still work, given time.

When do Birch trees normally start to shed their leaves?

The short – and very obvious – answer is: in the Autumn. It can vary a little up and down the country (just as Spring tends to start earlier the further south you are), but in the Midlands they usually start to show sprays of yellow from early October. The leaves will begin to fall from that point – very lightly at first, then increasing as the yellowing spreads.

In 2016 (almost overnight during the first week or so into October), ours produced a lot of yellow on the inside, whereas the outer canopy remained green – it looked rather nice. The neighbours’ trees had much sparser canopies than ours and they had clumps of yellow all over.

Autumn officially begins in mid- to late-September and you probably can’t do much to fix your trees after August if you’ve got the early yellowing problem. I’d still recommend a good feed or two, but not beyond the end of September. But be ready to start feeding from March.

It’s worth noting that a few isolated yellow leaves on a tree which fall in windy weather are not really indicative of a major problem. When you have sprays of yellow, or if you’re losing dozens of leaves in one go, that’s when you should take action.

How do you apply these treatments?

You make up the required solution as directed on the pack, then water it into the area specified. A single watering can is usually spread over 10 square metres (a medium sized tree probably requires watering over as much as 100 square metres). You can also buy mixer units which have a small tank and connect to your garden hose. You put the concentrate into the tank and the device mixes it with water as you spray the ground under your trees.

What I do is make up a concentrate in a 5L measuring container, then use 1L of that in a 15L watering can topped up with water. It’s quicker this way. I put 250g of Miracle-gro and 250mls of Maxicrop in the container (marked with 1L divisions) and make up to 5L with water. Once dissolved, I just pour out 1L into my watering can, top up from the garden hose, and evenly spread it over about 10-20 square metres, making sure I include flower beds as well as the lawn. I do it at least once every four weeks throughout the growing season (March-September), though I’ve upped that to fortnightly this year.

For the iron sulphate, I dissolve 375g in water in the measuring container made up to 5L, and again use 1L portions in my watering can made up to volume from the hose. I apply this treatment once a month or so – staggered with the fertiliser treatment. Iron sulphate at this concentration will kill moss within a few hours, so don’t worry about any black patches that appear on the lawn – it’s just dead moss, which can be raked out.

I try to time applications of fertiliser to just before (or during) rain to be sure it is fully watered in where the trees can get at it. Otherwise, I put the sprinkler on for a bit. I let the iron sulphate go to work on the moss and let the weather take a natural course – acidifying the soil is a longer term thing.

My tree is losing branches and twigs

If the tree is weak then it is understandable that twigs and small branches might fall off. Once they’re stronger this will stop.

Another likely problem, though, is crows. Yes, the winged variety. From March they will be nest-building, and they are very, very selective in their choice of twigs for the purpose. We get great amusement watching a pair that have nested near us for the last 10 years or so. They will tear off a hundred twigs and drop them until they get the one they want. It’s nature, so we don’t worry.

Mind you, I’ve never seen a crow carry off a branch – they stick to the smaller stuff – so if your tree is dropping large branches you might need to get a tree surgeon in to have a look at it.

My tree is taking a long time to show any leaves

I’m not an expert, but if this happened to me – and knowing what I know now – I’d start feeding it pronto. Of course, it might just be slow – some trees do seem to lag behind others – but a good feed can’t do any harm. Mine is in full leaf now (May 2018) whereas neighbour’s trees are still in the process of producing leaves judging from the light that passes through their canopies.

In the worst case, it might not be in good condition at all, but you’d have to call the experts in for that.

I’ve got catkins but no leaves

Someone found the site in April 2018 with that query. You’ll probably find that in a couple of weeks you’ll have lots of leaves. As I have said in this article, I start feeding mine from March onwards. Leaves started sprouting a week or two earlier than the neighbours’ trees in 2018, and the foliage on mine is much denser. The catkins came before the leaves.

I strongly recommend feeding them regularly as a matter of course.

Are the leaves changing early this year?

This was a generic search term used to find the blog in mid-July 2017. The short answer is no, they are not – not in July, anyway.

In hot and dry weather, many trees can become “distressed” and start to shed leaves. Silver birches are affected by this. Also, greenfly infestations can also cause leaves to die and fall. If a lot of leaves are turning yellow on the tree then you have a problem – quite possibly the one which is the main subject of this article. However, a few leaves falling is probably nothing much to worry about.

In 2016 the first show of yellow up here on all trees was during the first week in October. In 2017, yellowing began a month earlier, and by mid-September they almost all were clearly changing. July yellowing is/was not down to autumnal changes.

Do Weeping Silver Birches lose their leaves in Autumn?

Yes.

When do Silver Birch leaves go all brown?

They don’t. The leaves should go yellow and fall off in the autumn.

If leaves are brown and dead then that’s not a good sign. I’ve had quite a few visitors from this search term, and when I looked it up it seems that extreme cases of chlorosis can result in leaves turning brown. It could also be a disease or infestation which you could treat, but the tree itself might also be dead – especially if it has been having any of the problems I mentioned above over previous years. Best to call in the experts.

Does this advice only apply to Silver Birch trees?

No. Chlorosis can affect many plants, and lack of nutrients is going to be a universal issue. You might need a different fertiliser to address any nutrient problem, but iron will likely fix chlorosis.

Recently, someone found the blog as a result of premature leaf drop in their Betula utilis. This is the Himalayan Birch, famed for its peeling paper-like bark, and it is a member of the same family as the Silver Birch. In the Himalayas, it often grows among Rhododendron plants (look at that fertiliser again – are you seeing the connection, here?), so the advice given above would work for the Himalayan Birch, too.

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