As a writer, piles of scribbled notes, papers, file-folders, and edited manuscripts seem to collect on my desk. During my last effort to sort this out I stumbled on a photograph of a group of forty total strangers, yours truly standing in the center of the back row, a thatched-roof house as a backdrop. I stare at it now, remembering the group with bittersweet nostalgia. They were all strangers to me, but after eleven days on a bus in England, I remember them fondly.
When I told my father I wanted to visit England, he said in his heavy Yorkshire accent, “What the bloo-dee ‘ell dya want to go there for?” Not Mr. Happy at the best of times, he had a low opinion of his former country. What I wanted to say in reply was, “I’d like to know if your psychological problems are societal in nature or based on individual idiosyncrasies,” but I held my tongue. I was determined to one day visit the land of my forefathers.
I listed for him the many reasons for visiting England. The main reason was, apart from being an Englishman by blood if not by citizenship, the country is a great cultural influence of the modern age. The birthplace of many luminaries from Shakespeare to Churchill, the country has spawned an endless list of notable historic names in every field of endeavor. Just because he wasn’t one of them was no reason to sour on them all.
Like hugging an octopus, one has to choose how to approach England. You can buy any number of rail passes for reasonable rates which allow you to get on, get off at any time convenient to you. A slew of options exist, from London walking tours to guided bicycle tours, or renting motorbikes and staying in Bed-and-Breakfasts. The problem is figuring out which one would suit you best. In the end I opted for a guided coach tour of England, leaving out Wales and Scotland, both of which I’m certain are great but would have extended the tour by another ten days.
A friend who did the coach tour recommended it to me. The reasons became obvious after awhile. The English drive on the other side of the road and after a lifetime of habitually making easy right turns here, they suddenly become extremely dangerous over there. You’ll appreciate the coachman’s driving skill once you’ve seen how narrow some of the roads are. To make things easy, the trip itinerary is planned for you. On Day One you see Windsor Castle, Stonehenge, and Salisbury Cathedral, stay in the hotel in Plymouth, leave in the morning to continue the tour through Devon and Cornwall, and so on.
Be warned, the tours in the catalogues change frequently, if not every year. The tour I had decided to take a year earlier was no longer being offered. I settled for an eleven day tour of England. The coach would leave London and go in a clockwise circle around the country stopping in quaint villages and towns along the way. The pace was listed as ‘busy’ itinerary, code to say that it wasn’t exactly leisurely. Sometimes, when stopping, we’d only have time to buy coffees and use the washroom and then get back on the bus. A slower pace means you’ll be able to spend more time at each stop, but also means fitting in fewer sites in the same timeframe. So if you stop at Bletchley Park on a ‘busy’ tour, you’d better be able to understand subtraction encryption in twenty seconds or you’re back on the bus without the full dope on the German Enigma machine. That’s the thing about designing your own tour; you can stay as long as you like if something interests you.
Think of the coach tour as Introduction To England 101. They give you the overview and you decide what it is you’d like more of for your next visit. Another good thing about England is that they speak a form of English there. Well, outside London they do. Within London, you’d be hard pressed to find any English people other than the Queen. In fact, throughout England, except for blokes dressed up as medieval falconers and your tour guide, you might have difficulty finding any genuine English people. Those wonderful PBS programs such as Downton Abby, Upstairs Downstairs, and the like are all a sham, reflecting a nostalgic, non-existent view of England – England as she used to be. That, in a way, is what the coach tour presents.
You see, England exported its lower ranks, people such as the Schofields, and not having chucked the class system yet, needed to import a new batch of servants and coal miners from the colonies. That’s where all the foreigners fit in. Every wait staff, hotel concierge, room cleaner you meet will be from abroad, few of whom have a decent command of the language. The first clue should have been the customs agent who was African and spoke with a heavy French accent asking me “Way you are hare? Wuz da porpoze you visit?” Bloo-dee terrorists, I thought, the plane’s been diverted to the Middle East while I was asleep! I was driven to my hotel by a Russian who answered all my questions with unintelligible grunting. The Egyptian concierge had it in for us colonials, the Polish room cleaner didn’t understand that I wanted her out of the room, and the Serbian maitre d’ pointed to the buffet and made vigorous hand signals – “Eat!” he said, “Zix o’clock – eat!” Ah, jolly old England!
All the hotels have buffet-style breakfasts. I’ve heard it said that if you wish to eat well in England eat breakfast three times a day. The English murder their food with a hammer and then boil it for a day to remove any remaining taste. When you travel the world, notice there are no English restaurants, only a lot of Scottish ones (MacDonald’s). Eat the buffet, it’s the best on offer and it’s included in the price.
The tour was very reasonable at $2200 Canadian and put us in moderately good hotels. Be forewarned that an English hotel that’s rated four-star is probably a three-star hotel in the US or Canada. After my coach tour I stayed two days at a dive that was below motel par but rated three stars. Our prisons have nicer accommodations. That single-bed room with paint peeling off the ceiling and eerie red blotches dripping down the walls cost $250 per night. There were better options I’m sure, but it was conveniently located for my planned excursions to Oxford, and the Imperial War Museum in the other direction the next day.
The visit was great after leaving London. We stopped at Salisbury Cathedral and saw a copy of the Magna Carter. The lawyer in our group said that it made the trip worthwhile. Lawyers must be Toastmasters by nature; each time he spoke to me I felt he was orating to a sleeping jury, his loud, slow pronouncements being heard three counties away. We took a boat tour of Plymouth harbor and saw the steps where the first settlers to the New World would have departed on the Mayflower.
We visited some quaint towns on the Cornish coast, notably Tintagel, home of King Arthur’s court, and Clovelly, a curious little cliff-side fishing village where donkeys still cart provisions up and down the steep cobblestone roads. The retired judge from South Carolina scuffed his trouser knees as he took a tumble. We visited Stratford-on-Avon, birthplace of Shakespeare, Bath, an old Roman village, and Chester, a quaint, narrow-streets Elizabethan town lined with Tudor houses, where our talented tour guide helped us understand the history of street lavatories, which I almost made a contribution to owing to the length of his discussion. In the ancient hotel in Stratford, the directions to my room were “Two staircases up, turn left, down one flight, mind your head, then to the right and then up one flight of stairs.” By this time you’ve developed a Bill Bryson English accent. “Cheers,” or “Jolly good, then,” you reply.
Next it’s off to Liverpool, a surprise because it wasn’t the city I thought it’d be. I’d lived there as an infant and heard many tales of its gruesome living conditions. It was also the second most important port in its day. Beatles fans will get to see the Cavern Club, Penny Lane, and relevant houses. This thrilled a young lady from Texas whose mother had bought her the trip for her nineteenth birthday. She knew more than the tour guide about the Fab Four. Liverpool, now quite modern, is also home to the White Star Line head offices of Titanic fame. I bought a coffee from a Liverpuddlian but his English was worse than the Russians in Devon so I gave up trying to ask for milk and sugar, taking what was handed to me. Be warned, average coffee prices are two pounds, about $3.75 Canadian. Think of it as a visit to another planet and you’ll be okay, don’t try to make sense of it all. “Meat an shooha ova da, mayeet. Ta.” He says that, then you give him money. Smiles all around. Until you drink the coffee.
From there we went to the Lakes District and took a boat tour of Lake Windermere, at ten miles long, the largest lake in England. Home to many brooding English authors and poets, it made me laugh because we have thousands of lakes, all bigger. They got us beat on brooding poets though.
Next, it’s off to York, a gem of a city. We had dinner at a private manor where a well-to-do couple graciously served all forty of us. It was at this soiree where two ladies from Singapore enquired, “How long do you have to stay married to a Canadian before you can get half the property?” One year, was the reply, to which they both smiled broadly.
The last stop on our tour was Cambridge, and King’s College. I found a shop that sold outdated military surplus, including Grenadier Guards tunics and bear skins. Street hawkers were selling punts up the River Cam, the famous flat-bottomed boats where a pole is used to propel the craft. Oh, yes, and lots of girls on bicycles in flimsy dresses! Sorry I couldn’t stay for a doctorate or two.
I’m a big fan of Inspector Lewis and added a trip to Oxford after the coach tour concluded. I wanted to see the little college town where three people are murdered each week, many of them, fittingly, academics. I also wanted to be able to tell people “I went to Oxford,” and delight in their reactions as they draw the wrong conclusions. I sat on a bench beside the Thames chatting with an older couple who knew Collin Dexter, the creator of the original Inspector Morse.
On my last day in England I visited the Imperial War Museum in Lambeth, an easy trip by Tube to the south side of the Thames. World War Two has been an enduring interest of mine since the age of fifteen. The museum turned out to be smaller and busier than I’d imagined. One day is enough to cover the exhibits, but I suspect I could have spent a lifetime in the library upstairs.
I had an uncle who died in that war as a pilot and I wanted to know if he was one of ‘the few’ to which Churchill referred in his famous speech. The librarian said the military archives were now in Kew, but since my flight home was for the next morning, that would have to be another trip.
If you’re looking for an enjoyable, safe trip, I highly recommend England by coach. If you’re an Anglophile – well, what are you waiting for! And no, not everyone in England is as miserable as dear old Mr. Happy.