Also known as ‘The Other Bits of England’ blog, in which I endeavour to catch up with special people not living in Devon and partake in the odd jolly jaunt with or, occasionally, without them. Faces and places familiar, with the occasional variation thrown in for good measure. A veritable criss-crossing of a country, conquering the bemusing cost savings to be had through split railway tickets and battling against the perennial issue of available luggage space. Virgin appear to have done something particularly mind-blowing in this regard, where overhead storage accepts nothing thicker than a laptop, resulting in a space largely devoid of content and most luggage littering any spare volume of carriage not taken up by cranky people. They do appear to serve a Rodda’s Cream Tea though, so all is forgiven.
Making these trips is a chance for my inner England to resurface (e.g. by grumbling quietly to oneself at the trains) and to get up to speed with the zeitgeist, mainly courtesy of eavesdropped conversations and leftover copies of the Metro. Scandal in the Great British Bake Off; returning X Factor judges; expensive football transfers; Scotland will they won’t they will they won’t cannae do it aye. And, more personalised, to witness changes to old haunts, to exchange news and share a drink once more with friends, to see if coffee has improved, and to tread the green, green grass of home.
London has a surprisingly decent amount of green, green grass, and I tread my fair share of it each year through the child-friendly parks which often intermingle throughout the northern suburbia around Finchley. Further in amongst the urban grime, parks and leafy squares crop up around random corners, such as Coram’s Fields just south of Kings Cross St Pancras. An undoubtedly charming green space should it be open…which it wasn’t today, due to some very worthy charity event being set up. And so, around another corner, a small bouncy castle appeared over a wall and the local community gardens family fun day was sensitively gatecrashed.
It felt a bit like something that may feature in Eastenders, though it was all much more enjoyable and pleasant, without numbskull deadbeats trying to shift some dodgy motors or a drummer waiting in the corner to signal the occurrence of a dramatic, decisive, cliff-hanging moment. It had a different feel to – say – the contented edamame-chomping family set sprawling across Friary Park in Barnet, a spot in which I recovered the next day from experiencing a decent flat white in North Finchley. They are slowly getting better in places. Slowly.
Back onto the train the next day, a Virgin train with its pitiless excuse for an overhead luggage rack, the green pockets of the capital were to be replaced with greener expanses of beautiful, classical, English landscapes. I am naturally a little biased towards Devon and Cornwall, but there are surely few places as idyllic as the Lake District in the far northwest of England. Rugged rounded ridges, sweeping glacial valleys, dry stone walls and postcard-pretty lakeside villages. The kind of place I end up every year and feel keen to stay longer some other time.
In truth, I only had a few hours in the heart of the Lake District (i.e. inside the national park). Other days were spent within a hilltop forest which possessed its own magical air. Whinfell Forest sits atop a large, sprawling hill and amongst the pines are scattered quiet avenues and quaint timber lodges. There are people wholesomely cycling around and children, lots of children, like Faeries apparating out of the heather. From nowhere a glass dome emerges, filled with restaurant chains and a complex of swimming pools and whirly flumes and tubes. This is a Center Parcs site, an undoubtedly corporatised cash-cow, which somehow retains plenty of charm and attractiveness.
The setting rules here you see, with ample space to accommodate plenty of lodges and a giant glass dome and thousands of Faeries and still have room for quiet forest tracks, gentle glades and red squirrel hang outs. The appeal for me was the setting and I enjoyed nothing more than riding my bike along the car-free tracks, the sun and breeze and smell of pine in the air. That and cherishing time with friends who are more special than most and continue to do amazing things.
Center Parcs does not feel too claustrophobic but I did wonder whether you could escape the perimeter fence. Would the road out be closed? Would a giant thunderstorm crop up to block the way? Would a security alert be concocted to stop you leaving? Was this, in fact, The Truman Show? I could not be so close to the lakes and not give it a try, so I snuck out, hopped on a bus to Penrith, waited forever for another bus and ended up trundling alongside Ullswater before getting off at Glenridding. I didn’t have much idea what was at Glenridding, but as a place name to stop at in the Lake District it sounded about right. And indeed, it possessed all necessary quaintness and opportunity for a short enough walk taking in two valleys and a small hill.
The walk, hastily discovered through some wifi in a Penrith coffee shop, took me gradually upwards for valley and lakeside views, reaching the small, reflective Lanty’s Tarn. From here it was over and down into Grisedale, where sheep dotted the lower meadows, kept in by the dry stone walls and the course of the river. The river tumbled steadily down back towards Ullswater itself, setting the course for the return to Glenridding.
Though fine and warm, it was a cloudy kind of day – what the BBC online weather forecast likes to call ‘white cloud’ as opposed to ‘grey cloud’ (it’s the worst cloud for landscape photos I find). The sun finally emerged into the afternoon only a little before my bus back was due, but this provided time enough for an ice cream and a quick scramble to see the lake for one last time in some sun. The bus came and I left thinking that one whole week here would do nicely thank you very much please.
Leaving the Lakes, the landmarks and landscapes become a little less poetic. For instance, I get to change trains at Wolverhampton. Wordsworth never wrote anything fancy about Wolverhampton. I doubt if he did for Basingstoke either, unsurprising given it never really existed back then. There could be some interesting poetry about Basingstoke (I wandered circuitously like a roundabout…) and he would generally approve of the countryside around the place. You do notice, though, how more built up the southeast is, particularly on a day spent for much of the time in nearby Surrey.
The M25 is nobody’s idea of fun, but it quickly took Dad and I to Box Hill. For those who remember such things, this is a small lump in the North Downs that Olympic cyclists managed to climb nine times (a few too many in my opinion). It remains a mecca for lycra lovers everywhere who enjoy nothing more than getting sweaty on a couple of hairpins. With MAMILs in profusion you would expect a decent coffee at the top, but that is not what you get. However, the area provides a diversity of hazy hilltop views, ancient forest, chalk downs and riverside meadows. On a circular walking route, down to the River Mole and over stepping stones, the climb back up to the top on foot makes you appreciate what the cyclists achieve.
Amongst the procession of affluent commuter towns and fancy golf courses, we also eventually found ourselves at Runnymede. This is a spot on the banks of the Thames that has international historical significance as the signing spot of the Magna Carta by King John in 1215. Being about democracy and all the yanks have attempted to infiltrate this spot with monuments and gifts to the Queen and what not (which, of course, they are free and entitled to do without prejudice or persecution). However, the green meadows and ancient oak trees are oh so English; a scene tempered only slightly by the parade of jets coming in to land at Heathrow and delivering thousands of yanks onto these shores.
Blissfully quieter but also possessing historical royal links and requisite green pleasantness was the New Forest, visited on my last full day of this trip in England. The sun came out and all was well with the world amongst the many shades of green, rescinding in places as September emerges. The cute village of Burley remains somewhere in the sepia toned 1950s, with bunting and shoppes and ice cream and ponies meandering down the streets looking all sweetness and light in an attempt to curry favour and steal your ice cream. I don’t blame them, it was good ice cream. There was also good picnic lunch in a forest and good afternoon cake in Ashurst. And if all this Englishness was getting a bit much, there was good tartiflette (French) in the evening. Finished (yes, there is more) with Pavlova (Kiwi) finished (yes, more) with the last spoonful of clotted cream (Heaven). What a way to go!
It wasn’t quite the end and ruining the culinary picture slightly was a very poor coffee (from one of those chains – yes, Caffe Nero I will name and shame you) the next morning in London. With a couple of hours to spare before flying out of the city, I returned to the south bank with my bags, a scene reminiscent of a few weeks before. And despite the burning bitterness in my mouth, the scene, sat on a bench in the warm sun, was uplifting. St Pauls to my right, while various funky new buildings rise up beyond, trying to outdo the piercing pinnacle of The Shard. The river flows along in front of me, taking the view down to Parliament and the London Eye. If I wanted an iconic British image to depart Britain on then this was perhaps the one to go with.
But there are many iconic, memorable images from a few weeks back home: herds of deer at Knebworth; the M25; Dartmoor cream teas; pasties in Cornwall and Plymouth Argyle; trampolines; sparkling Smeaton’s Tower on Plymouth Hoe; tin mine relics on the North Cornwall coast; a train trundling through excessive leafiness to Looe; Kings Cross St Pancras; poetic Lakeland landscapes; magical forest bike rides; the Thames with a flight path soundtrack; New Forest ponies and cake, lots of cake. And many of these moments cherished more with family and friends who sometimes feel a little too far away. Departing from London City, out over the Thames estuary, over again where it all inauspiciously started – Safffffend – England, again, sadly disappeared from view.