Tag Archives: England

England-related thoughts and musings [edited/updated]

One of my favourite things about England is all the footpaths. They’re everywhere: in the countryside, in the middle of cities (there are 120,000 miles of them, according to Bill Bryson). I love walking and the idea of stepping out of my door and within a few blocks being able to find footpaths that would take me through field and forest is wonderful. I realize I live in the countryside here, but walking is limited mostly to the gravel roads, unless I want to drive to a park in a city somewhere. Gravel roads aren’t nearly as nice as footpaths and trails. I envy the British their footpaths. There were a couple of occasions I desperately—well, that’s perhaps too strong a word—wanted to wander down a wooded path, but instead had to be driven somewhere else.

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British television is far superior to North American television (speaking in general and subjective terms, of course). I’m thinking of the BBC programs that I have binge-watched on Netflix: Sherlock, Foyle’s War, Inspector George Gently, Wallander, Doc Martin, and The Bletchley Circle. All of them seem much more interested in character and plot and mood than flash and style. Granted, we haven’t had regular television in six or more years, but every time we visit my in-laws or stay in a hotel I realize how right Bruce Springsteen is: “57 chanels (and nothin’ on)”. Perhaps the same is true in England and it’s just that I’ve managed to have all the crap filtered out first. And I guess we have MythbustersMantracker, Jeopardy, Sienfeld (reruns) and—my current favourite, though it’s not actually on television as such—Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee.

In England we watched a couple of fun game-shows with my aunt and uncle: Pointless and Two Tribes, both of which were fun and informative, neither of which would likely make it in North America (not least, I suspect, because prizes won’t exceed a couple of thousand dollars). And since coming home, I’ve discovered QI (“Quite Interesting”), a panel show hosted by Stephen Fry. The idea of the program is to talk about interesting and obscure things, points awarded for interesting things said (even if completely off topic), points deducted for boring or obvious answers. It’s basically a show about everything and nothing at the same time, filled with English accents and idiom. I love it!

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Tea!

So much of it! So inexpensive! So tasty!

I purchased 2 pounds of my favourite tea (Yorkshire Gold), a box of 240 P.G. Tips tea bags, and another box of 80 Yorkshire Tea bags (because it came in a fun caddy). All of it for a fraction of the cost of buying the same stuff in Canada! No matter that I already had 3 pounds of my favourite tea sitting in our cold room at home!

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I was surprised by all the litter, particularly in London, but in other areas as well. I saw people throw garbage over their shoulders at the train station and down subway stairwells in London, and many more just leaving their trash wherever they were sitting. It’s not entirely the people’s fault, though: London seems to be almost completely devoid of garbage cans (or, rather, “rubbish bins”). I think this surprised me because in my mind’s eye all of western Europe is almost spotlessly clean, though I couldn’t tell you where this idea comes from.

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About three-quarters of the way through our trip I thought I might have gotten over my Anglophilia, but that was short-lived. It’s back full-force: tea and accents and British television and streets and houses. All of it.

My favourite thing right now is the British tendency to turn statements of fact into questions by adding an “…isn’t it?” or a “…weren’t they?” or the like to a sentence. It somehow makes conversation much more interesting and inclusive. Delightful! I wish I was British! Alas, it isn’t nearly as delightful with a Canadian accent, is it?

I’ve been watching a lot of QI in the last couple of weeks. Maybe the panelists aren’t representative of British English as a whole, but it seems like it’s not just turning statements into questions. There seems to be a tendency to add extra words at the end of a sentence which North Americans tend not to do. For example, “What’s the correct answer, then?”, where—I think—would be more likely to ask the same question by emphasizing the word “correct”: “What’s the correct answer?” Another example: “I like it very much, indeed,” where a Canadian would likely say it without the “indeed.” I don’t know what it is about this that I like so much.

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In Notes from a Small Island Bill Bryson complains that every British town centre looks identical, because they all have a Boots, a Marks & Spencer, and a WHSmith. It’s interesting how familiarity really does breed contempt. The stores Bryson mentions are the equivalent of Canada’s Shopper’s Drug Mart, Safeway, and…well, I don’t think we have the equivalent of WHSmith (a stationer/newsagent) anymore, thanks to Staples. And yet I liked seeing these stores. They were unfamiliar and therefore, in a way, unique, a novelty.

But, given that it’s the equivalent of our Superstore, I can’t imagine what some of our fellow passengers on the train to London thought if they overheard me telling Dixie, tapping on the window with no small amount of excitement, “Hey, look! A Tesco’s!” (I can’t imagine what I’d think if a visitor from overseas exclaimed, “Hey look! A Walmart!”)

Oxford

>> The England posts: “The Adventure Begins” (the story of our unplanned night in Denver); “First Class” (the story of our flights to London, written in Hemel Hampstead, England); “Made It!” (brief post that chronologically jumps ahead in our trip to share my arrival at the Eagle & Child, written in Somerton, England); “Last Night in Lyme Regis” (a short post written in Lyme Regis, the day before we journeyed back to London and home); “London 1” (first reflection on the trip written in Canada); “London 2” (you get the idea…); and Warwick Castle“. <<

I’ve already written about our visit to Oxford in brief, but I’m going to talk about it some more. People occasionally ask what my favourite part of the trip was, or which part of England I liked most. My answer is always that it’s difficult to pin down any particular place as my favourite–each stop had something special about it: the crowds and landmarks of London; the everyday life of our English friends and family; the history of Warwick and Bath; the beach/holiday life (and cream tea) of Lyme Regis.  Each of the things we did and saw was very special in its own way.

Yet my answer isn’t entirely true.  Oxford stands above the rest for reasons I can’t clearly express (though I do know that it’s not simply because of The Eagle & Child). I think it had a little to do with timing and weather.

Toni dropped us off in Oxford by about 9:30 in the morning. It was a drizzly day and the streets were quiet. We walked down a couple of streets and looked in a couple of shops and eventually found ourselves in a covered market, and it was nearly deserted. A grocery stand, a fish monger, shoe shops, a tea shop, and whatnot.  Its sights, sounds, and smells we had all to ourselves. It was almost as if we lived in Oxford, and we had left our apartment early in the morning to get to the market before the crowds. I wonder if that didn’t set the tone for the rest of our time in Oxford. We were calmed and quiet, and had no agenda, nowhere to get to. So we sauntered. And it helped, too, that I didn’t spend the day with my face behind a camera.

Oxford & Dixie from St. Mary's steeple

But more than that, the history of Oxford seems so real to me. What do the lords of Warwick mean to me? What connection to I have to the famous people buried at Westminster? But Oxford: these are the streets walked by J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis, men who have influenced my thought, my faith and my imagination; it is one of the historical centers of learning and study, which has been part of much of my life.  And yet for all this history, the city seemed so sleepy and unassuming. It isn’t a tourist trap–or, at least, what tourist trappings they have are cleverly hidden.

Pigeon on St. Mary's steeple

This fact hadn’t occurred to me until last night, when I was describing Oxford to my friend Darren.  He asked me what kind of indications there were that J.R.R. Tolkien, C.S. Lewis, and the Inklings used to frequent The Eagle and Child. The answer: very few. Once I thought about it, it was quite a startling and delightful realization. Where in other places you would expect there to be an entry fee, a trinkety gift-shop, and then a roped-off table marking the spot where the group met (Darren thought my suggestion of wax figures was too much), but there is none of that. All they have is three items on the wall: a couple of pictures, a small plaque mentioning who met there and what met there, and a framed letter signed by all the Inklings, thanking the proprietor of the establishment for his hospitality. There is nothing else.  They do sell Inklings-related merchandise, but you have to ask the barman. It isn’t advertised anywhere that I noticed. Considering its cultural significance, The Eagle and Child is a rather unassuming place. If you knew nothing of the Inklings’ history there, it would be just another old pub. It was the same with the university buildings: they were just university buildings and, even though classes weren’t in session, they were mostly off-limits. Initially I found it somewhat disappointing that we didn’t have more access, but in retrospect, that’s one of the things that made Oxford special. It just went about its business.

In the Rabbit Room after lunch

I won’t say much about our day. We spent it wandering around looking in shops and at buildings. We spent some time at the Ashmolean Museum, the world’s first museum to be open to the public, which had many interesting displays (and it was free!). After a late lunch, we decided to do a wide loop around the core of the old city, passing by Magdallen College and King’s College and some of the other landmarks, but we soon realized that was out of the question: it had been and continued raining steadily, and we were without an umbrella. We were soaked within minutes. We took a shortcut back to the downtown area.

Stairs down from the steeple

We stopped for a time in Blackwell Books. It is the most amazing bookshop I have ever been in (here’s a picture of just the basement, which actually extends much farther underground than the rest of the building.)  Sadly, we didn’t have much time and had to find our car rental.

Once we got our car, we briefly considered driving back into the downtown to see the areas we missed, but it’s filled with no-access roads, so we decided not to.  We were both a little disappointed with how the day in Oxford ended: rushed and soaking wet.

However! Dixie had bought a shirt that day without trying it on. Back at Chris and Toni’s place in Somerton, she discovered that the shirt was too small. So we decided that the next morning on our way to Bath we would stop by Oxford again.

Oxford

It was a lovely morning, and we saw many more lovely old buildings, and climbed the steeple of St. Mary’s church. We didn’t get to Magdallen College, but we walked around King’s College and through many side-streets. Oxford was busier that morning than it had been the day before–the streets were crowded with shoppers and there were buskers all along the main streets–a golden juggling jester that stood frozen until you put some money in his pot and a very talented opera singer (probably a student) stood out for me. We left Oxford satisfied.

Last night in Lyme Regis

For those of you who had hoped to follow our progress in England here (are there any of you?), I apologize. I had originally planned on posting regularly, but typing posts on my iPod, as the previous two posts were, is not the most efficient or pleasant way to go about it. In fact, after the last one, my hands were semi-numb and tingly. I wrote the previous two posts in the middle of the night (locally) while dealing with some jet-lag related sleeplessness. Once I got back into the swing of sleeping, I could rarely find time (or will) enough to write full-length posts. (I did, however, manage to come up with a couple of informative/witty Twitter/Facebook quips in the intervening days.)

Anyway, all that is unnecessary preamble to an unimportant announcement: tonight is our last night in Lyme Regis. Tomorrow is the beginning of the end: we set out towards London and our lodgings near Heathrow airport. On the way, we will try to visit Stonehenge (I get the impression from the locals that it’s not that special, but it just seems to be a place one simply needs to stop if nearby when on holiday in England) and, with some luck, we will also visit the birthplace of Dixie’s grandpa. The next day (Monday) we fly. This time, however, we know how to take full advantage of our first class status. We will pace ourselves.

It has been a wonderful holiday (I’d like to thank Dixie for planning every bit of it)–good timing for the various locations, which were themselves well chosen. Visits with friends and family, a little history, a little archeology, a little of this and a little of that, and we’re both very satisfied with the trip. The next time I post here will likely be on North American, if not specifically Canadian, soil.

Made it!

I’m jumping well ahead on our journey by telling this, but it’s a significant moment for this blog. Today we went to Oxford and had lunch at The Eagle and Child. This has been a long time coming. A couple of pictures:

Outside The Eagle and Child

In the Rabbit Room before lunch

Plaque in the Rabbit Room

In the Rabbit Room after lunch

Oxford is a beautiful city–at least the old part of it where we spent the day. There are so many beautiful old buildings there I didn’t know where to start taking pictures, so I took almost none.  We got there at about 9:30a.m. Toni dropped us off in front of The Eagle and Child (we picked up our rental car today–a Mercedes! We were supposed to get a Ford Focus) and we walked into the city centre, which is full of shops.  Then we had lunch at The Eagle and Child. The food wasn’t bad, but it wasn’t great either, but that didn’t matter–we were at The Eagle and Child and I had a pint in Tolkien and C.S. Lewis’ honour.

The table we sat at had all the plaques and pictures of Tolkien and Lewis and the rest of the Inklings (in the Rabbit Room), but I’m not sure if that’s the room they actually sat in or not. The pub goes much farther back and judging by the stone wall outside may have done so lo these many years (unless they expanded into another shop).

After lunch we intended to head north and then walk a loop east and then down along the river and then back west, passing by Magdalen (‘Modlin’) College, Merton College and Christ Church, which I believe all have some connection to Tolkien or Lewis. Christ Church, at any rate, appears to be one of the more beautiful buildings of the university, as it is depicted on postcards and whatnot.  But the rain was coming down steadily and shortly after we had set out we realized that if we did this walk without an umbrella we would be soaked to the bone by the end of it. So we found a shorter route back to the city centre to find an umbrella.

We stopped at Blackwood’s Books on the way. Stepping inside it looks like an ordinary bookstore, but downstairs it impressively expands into a vast storehouse of books that covers much more area than the building stands on. I’ve never been in a bookstore this impressive in terms of size as well as holdings. It was worth a look, but by the time we found an umbrella, we figured we’d better find our car rental place first–and glad we did, because it was much farther to walk than expected. At the car rental place, I inquired about the restricted-access roads on the map of Oxford. Buses and pedestrians only. To reach these places by car, we’d have to drive all sorts of convoluted routes and back alleys and walking was too far this time of the day, so we decided to skip it. It’s a shame in a way that we were in Oxford for a whole day and didn’t see those famous buildings, but then there are university buildings peppered across the whole old city, so we did see many beautiful college buildings.

Tomorrow we drive to Bath.

First Class

Well, my blog disappeared for a while there. I bet you thought I’d taken myself off the grid–erased all record of me–and gone into hiding in London…assuming I’d arrived there, of course. Maybe this whole England business was a diversion, when in reality I’ve gone to Mexico and am spending my time fixing up a boat on the beach somewhere, waiting for my friend Red to get parole and then break it so that he can come down here and stay with me, assuming he finds the letter and cash I stashed for him under the black moon rock by that tree in that field.

That’s what you thought, isn’t it? ISN’T IT?

Well, in fact, my domain name had expired and the alert had been sent to an email address I rarely check. That’s what really happened, folks.

Anyway, I started writing this two nights ago, so the language is a bit dated, as you’ll see.

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It’s 3:27a.m. here in England and I’m having trouble getting back to sleep. I’ve been asleep since around 10:00p.m., waking every hour or two with a full bladder. I’ve been fighting a cold since before we left and it doesn’t seem to be going away. My aunt and uncle gave me a couple of concoctions to deal with the constant runny nose (I’m making a good effort to rid their house of every last sheet of Kleenex). The second concoction put me out almost immediately, but now it seems to be wearing off–at least the drowsy bit of it. My body has decided that it shouldn’t be in deep sleep at 8:00 in the evening, as it thinks it is.

After missing our original scheduled flight to Heathrow airport in London and sleeping at a Holiday Inn in Denver on United Airlines’ dime, we went through security with some 4 or 5 hours to spare before our flight. After walking around looking at the shops (for some reason I’ve always wanted to buy a book at an airport, and there were several there I was interested in, but I bought none) we made our way to the Red Carpet lounge, to which international first class flyers had access.

We spent a couple of hours there reading and playing cribbage and helping ourselves to the complimentary snacks and drinks (alcohol excluded). I attempted to nurse myself back to health with a combination of fresh fruit and a steady stream of tea, water and orange juice, but to no avail. All the traveling and lack of sleep has just been too much.

There was no class system in our international flight from Saskatoon to Denver, but we flew to Chicago first class. It really is a different world up there. Upon boarding, we went to the seats on the left, everyone else to the seats on the right. They even had the little curtain between us and the proletariat in the back of the plane.

Almost immediately upon sitting down I was offered a drink of juice or water. I don’t think I’d even arranged my pillow nor removed my complementary blanket from its plastic wrap before they approached me. “Orange juice, please.”

Under the pretense of killing some of the bacteria in my throat, and because it’s “good for the stomach”, I enjoyed a glass and a half of complimentary Cabernet Sauvignon with my meal (a soggy but delicious toasted turkey sandwich, salad, and a bag of sun chips). My brother-in-law warned me that a glass of wine on an airplane in flight feels like three. I seem to recall reading that this was a myth, but then he’d experienced it and I hadn’t. I was ok after the glass and a half. Of course, my body mass index is probably three times my brother-in-law’s, so that could make a difference.

Arrived in Chicago O’Hare with an hour to spare before boarding, so we headed over to the Red Carpet lounge again. This was exclusive to international first-class travelers –club members and business class travelers had their own lounge–so it was much less busy and quieter (no business men their designer jeans and sport coats making a show of wandering around talking on Bluetooth ear-pieces to their associates).

The hostess told us to help ourselves to snacks and drinks, and this time it included alcohol. I’ll tell you now that I didn’t put a dent in that $8,500 worth of alcohol Dixie jokingly suggested I should drink, but here I was presented with an unusual opportunity.

I have a bit of a problem restraining myself in help-yourself/all-you-can-eat situations. I can’t remember the last time I left a smorgasbord or buffet feeling as if I had eaten the perfect amount of food to satisfy; I always leave feeling as if I’d had significantly over-eaten. I guess I would have myself believe I’ll never have another opportunity to try any of these things again, so I’ve got to try it all.

In the Red Carpet Lounge at O’Hare I was presented with a table of shrimp and (I think) sushi, sandwich meats, an assortment of cheeses and fruits, and a variety of desserts. What made my eyes go wide, however, was the fridge filled with all manner of international ales and a shelf with any hard liquor or liqueur I could think of. ALL COMPLIMENTARY AND SELF-SERVE!

I looked up the recipe for some mixed drinks I would like to try but would never pay for at a pub. Brandy Alexander, perhaps? In the end I decided not to try and mix my own drinks. Instead I had an Amstel Light, which is a Dutch beer I’ve always wanted to try but is not available in western Canada as far as I know (it wasn’t that good–couldn’t hold a candle to Heineken), and a bit of 12-year-old Scotch (“I love Scotch. Scotchy Scotchy Scotch. I’m gonna drink it down–down into my belly”). Also: a plate of shrimp and fruit and a couple of buns.

This was a mistake. Before the plane had even finished boarding, we were presented with menus for that flight’s evening meal, which could, if I so chose, include several courses. And I had just stuffed my face with shrimp and dinner rolls. But there was filet mignon on the menu, and I couldn’t pass that up. I ordered the filet, but opted out of the other courses and dessert. I drank water and tea on the flight. I know now to pace myself on the return flight.

I should describe our accommodations on this international first class flight. We each had an individual pod–only six of them in first class–which had a chair that could recline, put my feet up or lay down flat to sleep; there were two pillows and a thick blanket waiting, as well as a toiletries bag with a sleep mask, earplugs, toothbrush, toothpaste, hand sanitized and socks inside; each had our own approximately 14 or 17″ TV with a remote/game controller and a pretty good selection of TV shows, documentaries, films, and video games available on demand. (I got through about half of Iron Man 2; I’ll finish it on the return flight.)

Also, they gave us hot wet cloths before and after every meal. I’m still not sure what to do with them. The first time I used it to wash my face (felt really good), but Dixie gave me a funny look. So from then in I just used it to wash my hands. Waste of a warm cloth if you ask me.

It was a pretty good situation, I’d say. But then, as all those poor families in economy filed in past us, I felt quite stupid with my feet up playing a game of Texas Hold ‘Em. Next time I might try boarding last. I don’t know.

The flight was uneventful. I didn’t sleep well–maybe 3 or 4 hours of the 7.5 hour flight. Maybe less. We arrived at about 11a.m. (6:00p.m. the previous day, Manitoba time) and were off to Hampton Court Palace with my aunt and uncle.