I am an ex-Pat Brit, living in Canada for the last 30+ years. During that time I have been back to the UK many times, but this year I spent a very solid and busy month on Albion’s shores, and spent a lot of that time reminiscing with some of my (literally) oldest friends. So I thought it might be interesting to note down – in a mostly random fashion – some of the observations that have crossed my mind. I spent a lot of that time driving, as you might come to observe.
I seem to have spent an inordinate amount of time stopped at red traffic lights. They appear to have cropped up everywhere, most notably – and most alarmingly – in the middle of roundabouts. How do you explain to skeptical head-in-the-sand North Americans that roundabouts are a far more efficient traffic management system than traffic lights and stop signs, when up and down the UK we now find roundabouts with traffic lights in the middle of them? I mean, how bizarre is it when, to drive once around a roundabout, you find yourself having to stop at two or three red lights?
Traffic lights in the UK also now have a Murison sensor, which enables them to turn red as soon as I approach. On one trip across the city of Leicester, I had to stop at every single set of traffic lights. I am not kidding here! If it should turn out that the British have higher rates of elevated blood pressure, it would not surprise me one iota.
Tea is such a British thing. Stopping for tea at 3 o’clock. Every home having a teapot. The first thing that happens when you cross any British threshold is that the occupant puts the kettle on for a good old cuppa. You’d have every right to think that Great Britain is the Mecca for tea. The trouble is, you’d be soooooooo wrong. While it is true that the British consume heroic quantities of tea, that tea is of unspeakably dreadful quality. British tea is made from the lowest quality teabags that can be purchased at the lowest possible price. It doesn’t matter how much you warm the pot, whether you put the milk in first, last, or half way through, whether you stir it clockwise or anticlockwise, or whether you serve it in a proper porcelain cup. You can’t make anything other than dreadful tea from it.
In my month here I have not found a single shop that sells decent loose leaf tea. I’m not talking about places that sell frou-frou flavoured teas. I’m talking specialist tea shops that sell selections of Darjeeling, Assam, Ceylon, African teas, black and green Chinese teas of infinite variety, and so forth. In Montreal I have a fairly generous selection of top-quality tea shops I can go to, but I haven’t found a single one in my travels across the UK, where high-end cafes offer a choice of “Tea” or “Special Tea”…where “Special Tea” means either English Breakfast or Earl Grey – in a teabag. Not forgetting Yorkshire, of course, where they serve “Yorkshire Tea”, an otherwise identical cup of common-or-garden teabag tea.
Roundabouts in general are a brilliant traffic routing device – provided they are kept free of traffic lights. Four cars – one coming from each direction – can approach a single intersection equipped with a roundabout, and all four can drive straight through without stopping, barely needing to slow down sufficiently to synchronize with each other. It is a thing of balletic beauty. You don’t even need to construct an actual roundabout – all that is necessary is to paint a while blob in the middle of the intersection. I call them blobabouts. And they work just fine.
In Canada I have been in traffic jams going back miles, all caused by a single 4-way stop sign at an intersection with ne’er a single vehicle on either cross-street. We could do with roundabouts.
I rented a car for my time in the UK. I wanted something I could pilot comfortably along some of Great Britain’s famously narrow and twisty country lanes, but at the same time it had to accommodate four adults, plus, on occasion, a fair amount of luggage or a wheelchair. So I reserved a Volkswagen Passat…“or equivalent”. Now, I understand that you might not get the same exact vehicle as the one you reserved. You might end up with a Skoda, or a Hyundai, or a Toyota, or whatever, but it would at least approximate a Passat in form and function. But no, what I was given was Boaty McBoatface:
For those of you who are not familiar with it, the Seat Tarraco is a full-size SUV, and is not at all the same thing as a Volkswagen Passat even though, as it turns out, they share the same engine and transmission. Not only was it not remotely the same vehicle, but it also came without an Owners’ Manual. Considering that this vehicle is something like 90% App and only 10% Car – it has an iPad glued as some sort of afterthought to its dashboard – this proved to be a huge and ongoing frustration.
While car rental itself is quite cheap, simple add-ons like having your wife as a second driver, and buying a simple insurance waiver, come close to tripling the price! It turned out to be cheaper to rent a second vehicle for my wife (for the one week she needed to drive) than adding her name to Boaty McBoatface as a second driver.
Boaty McBoatface, like almost all European vehicles, came with a manual gearshift. Although I have driven nothing but automatics since coming to Canada, I have never been fazed by stick-shifts (or by right-hand drive for that matter) when coming back to England. But Boaty’s six-speed (plus reverse) gearshift grew remarkably old, remarkably quickly. Not only did I spend half of my vacation changing gears, but due to the rubbery gear selector I found myself selecting the wrong gear far more often than I might have expected – including finding reverse on multiple occasions while struggling to locate first. In all honesty, with modern double-clutch automatics – of European design to boot! – there is no good reason to want to cling to those clunky old manual transmissions.
While Boaty McBoatface turned out to have a SatNav (which I discovered on Day 3, hidden deep in its menu system), it came with an unusably annoying lag. Shirley (the name we gave to the announcer) was apt to shout suddenly at you “Turn Left!!!” as you approached an insignificant left-side junction...followed a moment later by “… in four hundred yards”. So we turned Shirley off. This leaves you relying on the visual display on the impressively large iPad mounted high on the center console. But its display had a habit of zooming in and out on a whim, and whenever you really needed some detail it would inevitably be zoomed out and sometimes even rotated.
So we were reliant a lot on following road signs. Following the road signs is an adventure unto itself. You want to go to Nuneaton? No problem – just keep following the road signs to Nuneaton. But at some point Nuneaton disappears from the road signs. Poof!…it suddenly becomes a non-place, as though it had been sent to Coventry. You have instead choices such as Hinckley, Tamworth, or Market Bosworth, and you have to decide which of those might be nearest to Nuneaton. If you choose well, then after a while Nuneaton might reappear again on the road signs. Aha!…the A47 to Nuneaton is the 2 o’clock exit on a 7-road roundabout with three sets of traffic lights half way round it, plus a spiral pattern of lane markings which are designed specifically to funnel you inexorably towards the wrong exit.
Good British bitter is, quite simply, the best beer in the world, bar none. And yes, a proper pint should be served at room temperature and be totally flat. Chilling and fizzing are marketed as being positive “refreshing” attributes, and on a blisteringly hot summer’s day there is an argument to be made for that. But, global warming notwithstanding, blisteringly hot summers days are the exception rather than the rule, and all that chilling and fizzing accomplishes is to take a bland and mostly tasteless brew and mask its unappealing flavor. I mean, seriously – take a Budweiser, shake the CO2 out of it, and let it warm up. It is revolting.
40+ years ago, proper British beer was disappearing fast, and was being replaced by mass-produced bulk beer, chilled and carbonated, from the brewing conglomerates. Hands up any of you who remember Double Diamond! In 1971 a grass-roots movement sprung up, calling itself the Campaign for Real Ale (CAMRA). It became an instant success, developing a huge and widespread influence long before the advent of Social Media, and within a very short time had a powerful and highly visible impact on British beer consumption. CAMRA laid down some clear yet strong guidelines for what was needed for a beer to be called ‘Real Ale’ and while there is still a fair amount of mass-produced beer on offer (mostly Lagers and other non-‘bitter’ brews) it is rare today that you come across a pub that does not offer a selection of proper Real Ales. And they are truly magnificent beers.
I’ll just report this observation, and move on. It was quite depressing just how many young mothers you see pushing a baby around in a stroller – while smoking a cigarette.
A World on An Island
It is an amazing attribute of the British Isles that it manages to cram so much scenery – indeed so much dramatically different scenery – into its limited space. I’m not sure there is any other place on earth that can make such a claim, but please feel free to weigh in on that! Arguably, unless you live near to either Land’s End or John O’Groats, the whole of the Country lies within a comfortable day’s drive.
In most parts of the Country you will be at most a couple of hours drive from flat, arable countryside to your choice of rolling hills, majestic dales, mountains, lakes, or beaches. The city of Manchester, for example, is but a 1–2 hour drive from such attractions as the Lake District, the seaside town of Blackpool, the famous Yorkshire dales, the Peak District, or even Mount Snowdon in Wales.
Another wonderful attribute the UK possesses is its network of Public Footpaths, designated rights-of-way that cover most of the country at a very dense level. Although Public Footpaths pass through private land, common law requires that the landowner grant the public unfettered access in perpetuity, including means of access and egress, signposting, and protection from hazards such a grazing bulls. No landowner can ever build over a public footpath, and detailed maps (such as the popular “Ordnance Survey” maps) provide detailed routings for hikers and other enthusiasts. The Public Footpath network forms a unique and quite magnificent way to enjoy the highly varied scenery at your leisure, and what’s more, it is no coincidence that most of the paths wend their way past a conveniently located Country Pub or two en route!
There’s no avoiding this, but the cost of living in the UK is punishingly high, especially for the North American visitor. For almost all of your incidental spending while in the UK on vacation, you will find yourself spending Pounds as though they were Dollars. That cup of strong, but cardboard-flavored tea in an everyday tea shop will set you back £1.90 – for a pot of hot water with a tea bag in it. Or £2.30 for “Special Tea”! Eating relatively ordinary pub food – served in American quantities – will set you back a small fortune. And where Indian restaurants used to be really cheap in my youth, that is no longer the case!
Petrol/Gasoline is also prohibitively expensive. This is why Diesel is so overwhelmingly popular. Boaty McBoatface, a full-size SUV, was equipped with a 2.0 turbodiesel engine, but managed an average of over 50 MPG for the duration of my trip, while at the same time having what seemed to be perfectly adequate reserves of grunt (sadly balanced by various inadequacies on the refinement scale). I was blown away by that, although none of my British friends deemed it at all worthy of note.
Please Come Again
My wife comes to England every summer to visit her 94-year-old mother. I don’t normally come, but this year I decided to tag along. I pigtailed onto it a one-week tour around Scotland with my daughter, which meant my wife’s stay was a solid week longer than usual. But at the end of it all we said our teary goodbyes, “this could be for the last time” being the unspoken undertone, as it always has been for the last decade or more.
“Take care of her,” she told me, “she’s very precious to me.”
“And to me too!” I replied.
“I hope you come again next year” she added.
Wow, I thought. She’s never said that before. “I might” was the best I could manage.
“She stays longer when you come.”