As per usual around August and September I spent a decent amount of time in the south west of England. A place so dense and diverse in beauty that one blog post, one picture can barely do it justice. More than a place; a feeling so embedded in the depths of my soul that annual departure can feel like heartbreak. It sounds melodramatic, much like the windswept gorse and heather billowing gold and purple down towards a craggy shore bruised by the Atlantic. In which case, more melodrama will be written in coming weeks…
But what of the rest of the UK, or at least select parts of it? A journey connecting friends and family from Devon to Norfolk to Derbyshire to Lancashire to Wiltshire and Dorset? Travel time in which to reflect on those little things about the UK that may have changed in a year, or remind you of what a blessedly peculiar place this is. I made a few observations as I went along. I don’t know if all of these are unique to England or more a result of exposure which is lacking in my life and surrounds in Australia. But let me just say…
…British coffee is getting incrementally better. My first Costa latte was dire, but the flat whites improved and the discovery of a place called Boston Tea Party heralds promise. On the downside there are even more Costas springing up (or, in Norfolk, a Coasta), along with about twenty Greggs servicing every small town.
…Someone at Heart Radio discovered Spanish and decided they would play two songs over and over again. In between Ed Sheeran, who is rapidly taking his place as an honorary member of the Bus of Doom.
…Nineteen degrees Celsius is scientifically warmer in England than Australia. So much so that every beach in Cornwall takes on the appearance of a shanty town. Circular fortresses of windbreaks and folding chairs spring up, even when the only wind is the sound of Brummie accents moaning about the price of a pasty that was made in a warehouse in Solihull.
…Stop with the speed bumps for goodness sake! I counted 25 on the two miles or so between my Mum’s and sister’s. It seems needless having bumps every ten metres, especially as the roads are so congested with parked cars and other clutter that you can’t even get above 20 mph. Bloody Tories! Or EU more likely, tsssk. Good job we won’t have to bother ourselves with their trade and human rights and security and status on the world stage for much longer.
…British berries are the best. Period. I just had some strawberries in Australia this morning and tasted utter emptiness.
…Nobody wants to hear what dreadful videos you are playing on your phone. Especially in the quiet coach. Please just put the phone down for a few minutes. Please!
…Nowhere does countryside better. It is mystifying how there can be so much of it in a small jam-packed island. It is an asset greater than pork pies and almost as joyous as clotted cream. Almost. But then perhaps I’m being melodramatic.
Anyway, on with the tour…
The tractor fanciers express from Devon to Norfolk
Who would have thought a flight on a Thursday from Exeter to Norwich would have been full? It almost had one spare seat due to malfunctioning cars and delayed trains, but a taxi from Exeter St Davids saved the day. I really must spend a few hours in Exeter some time; as much as it begrudges me to say, it looks pleasant and reasonably civilised. But not today, I need to get to the airport.
Reminiscent of Canberra-Sydney flights it was a quick up, get tea trolley out for five minutes and plunge down into Norwich. Views along the south coast of Devon and Dorset disappeared under cloud, only opening up again over the north of London before we descended towards the wind farms of the North Sea. Thankfully we made a few turns and landed in Norwich, where Jill was waiting to pick me up and really excited about the prospect of driving from a new place and avoiding numerous road closures.
We stocked up on curry from the local Indian in Acle that evening, filling us for the next day of vigorous exercise in a kayak. Kayaking was one of those things we did in Australia a few times, achieving sporadic success in getting from A to B in a predominantly straight line. Today, we equipped ourselves well, navigating a section of the Norfolk Broads without crashing into any other barges, being attacked by swans, or falling into the water. Okay, a couple of times we got a bit friendly with the reeds, but surely the purpose of being in a kayak is to get close to nature, right?
It was a placid foray out onto the water; that is until turning and heading for home which took way longer than expected and I’m sure burnt enough energy to justify a pork pie from Roys. Roys of Wroxham is a bit of a thing it seems, possibly boasting a department store, food hall, toy store, hairdresser and funeral directors. Or something like that.
On reflection – trying to occupy my mind while jetlag keeps me wide awake at three in the morning – this day was definitely in my top five 2017 holiday days. Following the morning’s kayaking adventure a little R&R in the very pleasant garden sunshine preceded a top deck bus ride to Norwich and a pint or three by the river. I should have added above that Britain does pubs and beer better than Australia too. So much so that we had dinner in another before retiring at a very age-appropriate hour.
Having explored a little of the Broads (and I daresay the rest looks exactly the same), the next day was spent on the North Norfolk coast. With the tide out there was ample sand to stroll along before this gave way to a rockier shoreline apparently chock full of fossils. There are more fossils here than caravans. Arguably.
Successfully mounting a rare hill in East Anglia (the Beeston Bump), the reward included fine views of the picturesque town of Sheringham and – more pleasingly – a scrumptious and lovingly recreated version of a bird roll. This was another one of those things we did in Australia from time to time, and it tasted just as good in England. Kudos to Jill for this most excellent and evocative idea. Even Paul Hollywood’s buns were not enough to ruin the experience!
Sheringham provided all the trappings of the English seaside: rows of people sat on concrete sea defences eating fish and chips, about ten ice cream parlours, gritty sand, colourful beach huts, cunning seagulls, and idiots actually swimming in the perishingly cold water. To round out its slightly dated holiday charm, a steam train terminated here and proved more regular and punctual than the actual proper train that should have taken us back to Cromer.
Cromer offered much of the same, though with a slightly more downmarket feel. Still, the pier is an elegant place for ambling and – for many – crabbing. Elsewhere, the pub beer garden is a good way to kill an hour or two experiencing more local ales before it is acceptable enough a time to grab some fish and chips for dinner. Fish and chips on the pier as the sun goes golden. It feels like the summer is never going to end.
The Northern Snail to Edale
It ended the next day, something which may or may not correlate with the fact that I was heading definitively into the north. I even reached Yorkshire, changing at Sheffield for a smaller train into the Hope Valley and the station at Edale, Derbyshire. There is not a great deal to Edale – a few holiday homes, a church and, crucially, two pubs. But the station sits in the midst of a slice of delectable England salvaging the grimy post-industry and haphazard gentrification of several northern cities. Indeed, in theory, Manchester should be half an hour away.
You could spend days, weeks even, exploring the Peak District National Park but my time was limited to an overnight stopover en route to the west coast. Such are the restrictions of only a month in England! Still, it was three o’clock in the afternoon upon arrival at Edale International Railway Terminus and despite greying, occasionally drizzly skies, the tops of the hills could be sighted. I struck out, on a gentle country lane, over stiles and gradually upwards through the patchwork fields of sheep contained by crumbling dry stone walls. This can only be England, and it can never fail to induce utter content.
The climbing got a little more intense up to Hollins Cross, where a view south was becoming increasingly obscured by low cloud and rain, and the wind was a constant companion on a ridge towards the prominence of Mam Tor. Reaching the summit, the summer of yesterday was well and truly finished, and – almost incredulously – I employed my waterproof coat for the first time in two weeks!
Mustn’t grumble…the weather could have been far worse and it offered the perfect conditions for an Edale pub crawl. Walking up to the Old Nags Head, the first ale flowed quickly down as I rested in a pleasingly darkened nook of creaking wood. And back down in the Rambler Inn, where I was staying for the night, a hefty Sunday roast was well-accompanied by a couple of the local brews. I went to bed slightly aggrieved I wasn’t staying longer.
The take what you can get to Ansdell and Fairhaven
Black pudding. Now there’s something I don’t rush back to England craving. However, having opted for the Full English and being one of only two diners that morning and being in the north, I felt duty bound to pay it some attention. Beans and HP sauce can help.
Breakfast was made more stressful with the news that conductors were on strike and trains were not bothering to stop at Edale. Alternative options seemed complex and required significant walking and waiting. But the fact that there was very little in Edale was a blessing in disguise, the manager at the Rambler Inn having to make a trip down the hills to the ooh la la sounding Chapel-en-le-Frith to visit the closest post office. Here, apparently, hourly trains to Manchester were in operation.
Indeed that proved to be the case, and from Manchester I was able to connect with reasonable efficiency on to Preston, Lancashire. I never had the ambition to spend two hours in the city centre, but that was the only viable option to kill time until the next connection. It was pretty much like any other city centre in England but at least that was marginally better than what I was expecting. I think it has improved since I was last here, thanks to pedestrianisation and – largely – an absence of unoccupied stores. Still, no offence, but I don’t think Preston would make the ‘I could live here’ list.
Could I live amongst the gentrified avenues and peering from behind net curtain populace of Ansdell and Fairhaven? Possibly. The promenade fringing the estuary is pleasant on rare days when gales don’t blow off the Irish Sea, the town centre of Lytham is tidy and amenable, there are pubs, and I could even go swinging at the golf club. But most of all there are old friends who are a pleasure to see and spend time with, plus new feline ones who would be quite welcome to stow away in my suitcase.
The thing with this area is I am unsure if there are days when it doesn’t actually rain. Maybe I have just been unfortunate lately (I have heard rumours of hot sunny summer days), but the predominance of dankness simply serves to exacerbate my grim up north prejudice. A thought that was on my mind as I headed out in the drizzle to the tiny one platform station once more.
The so over it to Pewsey
It could be worse. You could be stuck in Wolverhampton for an hour, missing a tight connecting train heading further south. Aghast at such a prospect I carried on to Birmingham New Street which, following a grand redevelopment, is all impressive sleekness and luminosity. Still, it remains Birmingham and I was pleased to see a train in half an hour heading to Reading.
At Reading there was more joy in store by waiting around half an hour for a train to Basingstoke where I could wait another half hour for a train to Salisbury where I could then sit in traffic for a while before reaching the final destination of Durrington. Or I could change plans and board that train destined for Pewsey in the next ten minutes. What would Michael Portillo do, I didn’t think?
Wiltshire. A new place to stay with Dad and Sonia and some different parts of the countryside to explore. With names like the Vale of Pewsey, Netheravon, and Honey Street, it could be something straight out of the pages of Tolkien. The comfortable, idyllic bit, with thatched cottages, gardens prospering in shafts of sunlight, cosy pubs and weird looking hobbits. But lurking behind this, the prospect of dark times and conflict as tanks carry out manoeuvres and prepare for the threat of some dark lord thing with a big fiery eye and fondness for Twitter.
At peace, there was much walking to be had in Wiltshire, with a trip along the ridgelines of the Pewsey Downs and through the vale below. Commonplace around here, a white horse had been etched onto the hillside, looking elegant from afar but entirely distorted close up. And a bit less white, as if it could do with a top up of gravel from Bunnings. Anything for an awful sausage sizzle.
With cloud lifting and just a little sun emerging it was a pleasant walk, a pub beside the Kennet and Avon Canal offering some refreshment but little in the way of good cheer. Better refreshment and more cheer, however, at the Honeystreet Cafe in the form of cake and okay coffee. Alas, I have since heard this spot is going to be closing down, which is a shame since it offers delicious fuel for the trudge back up to the car parked up on the ridge.
The next day was less conducive to walking and so we headed down to Poole where at least the rain was mostly insipid. It’s hard to judge Poole on a grey, damp and cool day. I’m sure on sunny days it would be rather jaunty and the appeal of boat trips and sandy enclaves would emerge. Today, it was an outing, something to do that was better than staying at home.
Back into the Wiltshire countryside, the River Avon provides a ribbon of life and opulence upon which gated estates, woodlands and cosy villages intertwine. Nestled in the middle of southern England, it is a very middle middle England. On an amiable and diverse circular walk with Dad we saw one of Sting’s mansions (unlikely to be at home, busy banishing poverty), passed a very posh lady on a horse, encountered distant views of Stonehenge, walked through a verdant valley, and just about made it back in time before a rain shower.
After the rain had fallen, we popped off to Salisbury, with its impressive cathedral, medieval buildings and pretty riverside parklands. There were the usual shops too, and the trappings of any English town (which now seem to include the ever-expanding Roly’s Fudge Pantries, hello).
I was kind of surprised – given the general affluence of the area – to observe people milling about the town included an assorted jumble of yoofs, chavs, oddballs and eccentrics. But I suppose that is also reassuring and, in many ways, comforting to know that Salisbury is not much different to anywhere else (and you too can fit in!). England is still England, kind of functioning in its own little way, peculiar but familiar, simultaneously appalling and utterly incredible. And really blessed with the best berries grown in the best countryside in the world.