Posts Tagged ‘England’

Notes from a Small IslandI got this book from an American guy I used to work with in Nowon in Seoul, back in 2009. I’ve noticed from one of the Facebook groups that he now also lives in Cheonan. It’s a small almost-island, I suppose.

In this book, Bill Bryson travels around Great Britain over seven weeks, using public transport (or his own feet), staying in modest hotels and wandering around the towns and cities he visits. It starts in Dover, where he recreates the moment a couple of decades earlier when he first arrived in England from France and ended up staying, marrying and having a family. The whole premise of the book was trigger by his imminent (at the time of writing – Notes from a Small Island is nearly twenty years old) move back to the States.

It’s a very entertaining book. Not only does it function as a travelogue, describing the various places and sights as well as his various modes of transport, but it has elements of memoir and polemic. Bryson talks about his first job in the UK, where he met his future wife; when he reaches Yorkshire he even takes a break from travelling to spend a night or two at home. He also rages against the various ugly buildings that have been inflicted on Britain’s High Streets and against the difficulties of journeying on bus and train networks that refuse to provide logical transfer options.

Highlights of his tour include, walking between seaside towns on the south coast, taking mountain train rides in Wales (or was it the Pennines?), visiting a wonderfully preserved Roman mosaic in a forest, only to be told by a reader (this later edition informs us) that it was a Victorian reconstruction, driving to John o’ Groats, watching one of the first IMAX films at what was then the National Museum of Film, Photography and Television and is now the National Media Museum.

And there’s plenty of observations about the British character, from the strange mix of the ancient, the old and the modern, the insular mentality – the bureaucratic to the individual – to endless debates about the best way to drive somewhere, being called ‘love’ or ‘mate’ by everyone, politeness and our genius for queuing.

CPRE Bill Bryson - Hamsphire-  South Downs - 3.jpg

Along the way, Bryson reveals his own occasional lack of politeness. He shouts at a hotel manager who’d locked him out one night and retired; the next morning, Bryson offers a miserable apology and the manager receives it with phlegmatic cheer. One particular low-point – where Bryson loses a few points in the Good Human Being stakes – is when he has a go at a McDonalds worker for asking if he wanted an apple pie with his McBreakfast – and continues to lay into him despite the lad calmly repeating that it’s just part of his McJob.

But this lapse doesn’t really detract from the fact that Notes from a Small Island is an engaging book full of laugh-out-loud moments and interesting musings on Britain and Britishness.

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My dad, as he often did when I was at university there, drove down to Bath with my mum – and arrived on time, surprisingly enough. Then we drove further south to Highcliffe near Bournemouth, where my dad’s mother – ‘Nana’ – and her husband – ‘Uncle Reg’ – live. My dad had reserved a room for us at a nearby hotel.

My parents, on the other hand, stayed with Nana and Reg. As they’re quite elderly, they no longer live in the two-storey bungalow (ie, the master bedroom was on the same level as the attic) that I remember from my childhood, with its big garden with a stream running along it, and, on the far side of the stream, a path leading to a nice big park where I climbed trees. Instead, they have a nicely appointed, but rather plain flat not far from the beach.

They’ve aged a lot since I last saw them – which was a long time ago. Nana was as nice and enthusiastically grandmotherly as she ever was and was a great hit with Habiba; Reg was quieter – his speaking voice was the same, but he didn’t say so much. He’s blind now, so maybe his blindness leaves him in a bit of a world of his own.

In the evening, we drove through the New Forest to an isolated pub for dinner with my dad’s half sister, Lalani, and her mother. Lalani, despite being my aunt, is younger than me or any of my siblings. I’d never met her before – and my dad hadn’t met her until recently. Which facts are explained by my dad’s late father’s estrangement from his first family. Lalani turned out to be a very sweet, friendly person and the meal was a pleasant experience.

The following morning, we went to have a look at the beach at Highcliffe, then set off up north – visiting Stonehenge on the way.

Our specific destination in T’ Nawrth was my sister’s place in the Derbyshire countryside – except not my sister’s place, but her ex-partner’s place because my sister’s place had been devastated by a child- and bathroom-related flood. The family spent a lot of time there and, on the first night, they threw a birthday party for me; later in the evening, we played Star Wars Monopoly.

It was the first time I’d seen Caroline’s kids in a couple of years and they’d grown, as children do. Nelly seemed to be turning into quite a mature teenager, Tom had grown from the clownish cherub I remember into an even-tempered and irreverent boy and the baby, Maisy, had now taken on the mantle of angelic toddler.

Visiting my family is usually a little awkward, as I’m not that close to them – about which I have mixed feelings. But my sister is a friendly, down-to-earth woman and her children are great – which makes them the effective heart of our family. Everyone seemed to take to Habiba very well. I’m sure Habiba felt more than a little apprehensive at meeting them, but she charmed them with her charming charm.

In a slightly bizarre yet completely planned-for turn of events, Lauren, Habiba’s colleague and friend from Korea – whom we’d already met and stayed with in Bratislava – came over to visit one day and we all went to Chatsworth House, a beautiful and very expensive place; the gardens were especially nice. Afterwards, the three of us went shopping at the Farm Shop associated with the house and ate cold pasties in the shop’s car park. Later, we got Bakewell tarts in Bakewell.

On our final full day in the UK, my dad drove us to Runcorn, where we had a nice lunch with my friends from my Liberal Democrat days, Liz and Roger. After chatting to them for a couple of hours about life, we walked over to and around Runcorn Hill. I’d described Runcorn to Habiba as being rather grim with more than its fair share of scumbags, but the parts we saw (with the exception of our brief visit to Halton Lea (which I still think of as Shopping City)) were quite respectable, and the town does have a couple of very nice parks.

After exploring the sandstone crags and views of the Mersey of Runcorn Hill, we walked down to my parents house, where we met my youngest brother, Alex, and their dogs. It was only a flying visit before heading back to Whaley Bridge, where I only just had time to fulfil my promise to give my niece (the elder) and nephew a crash course in Magic: The Gathering.

The following day and before we knew it, it seemed, we had to leave to catch our flight to Iceland and further adventures.

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I think Habiba was feeling a little down on the coach to Bath: she wanted to spend more time in London and was understandably feeling awkward about being on my turf, hanging out with my friends. I called Alex to let him know that we were arriving. I saw him out of the window of the coach crossing the road away from the new bus station; I had to call him again to find out where he was. He looked quite different to how I remember him – his hair is nearly as long as mine used to be. I remember once suggesting he grow his hair long; he said No emphatically, explaining that all the shampoo would cost too much.

Alex paid for a taxi to take us up to his place – his mum’s place, I suppose. We had tea and chatted with them both, then it was back down to the city centre for a spot of sightseeing. Alex, with typical exuberance and generosity, insisted on taking us to a traditional sweet shop to buy various sweets of the traditional kind for Habiba to try, and to a Fudge Kitchen shop to get a pretty expensive box of fudge – all paid for by Alex.

We had a look inside the abbey – the first time I’d been in there, despite having lived in the city for three years. Then we wandered across Pulteney Bridge, peering into the shops that line its length, and to the labyrinth on the other side of the river. I decided to cheat by just walking to the middle.

To accompany the sweets and fudge, we bought Cornish Bakehouse pasties – the best pasties ever – and cookies from Ben’s Cookies and ate them in Victoria Square. After that we took a look at the Royal Crescent and the Circus then headed back to Alex’s. Alex’s grandparents were on a visit from Spain, so we took the opportunity to show Habiba what a good old-fashioned fish and chip dinner looked like.

The following day, leaving most of our stuff at Alex’s, we took the train to Bristol to spend a night with Lawrence. When we arrived, the weather was pretty crappy; we walked around Castle Park in the rain, up to the cathedral in the rain and off to meet Lawrence and his girlfriend Yivei in the rain. We went to a Chinese restaurant for dinner and had a pretty good selection of dishes to share. Yivei is Malaysian Chinese, but she’s lived in the UK for a long time. She seemed like a lovely person and I’m really happy for Lawrence.

The next day, we went for a long walk with Lawrence around Bristol. We went along Gloucester Road to the city centre looking for Banksy and others’ graffiti, explored the docks area a little and had lunch at St Nicholas’s Market; I dropped into the secondhand bookshop there, where, a few years ago, I’d bought the first of Gene Wolfe’s The Book of the New Sun, The Shadow of the Torturer – they had one of the other three books, but not the direct sequel. Habiba went to the South African stall and bought various comestibles. Our city tour culminated in a fruitless search for a good place to see the Clifton Suspension Bridge.

We headed back to Bath for a final night with Alex. Alex and I indulged in a night of Magic: The Gathering, while Habiba was on her computer. Around midday the following day, my dad and mum arrived to pick us up to visit my grandmother in Highcliffe down on the south coast.

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Having successfully, though narrowly, avoided being sick on the aeroplane to Gatwick, I felt somewhat better by the time we disembarked. Going through Immigration was a breeze for me – there were no queues to speak of and the officer just glanced at my passport before allowing me through. Habiba had no such luck.

We screwed up when it came to preparing for this border crossing. Travelling between European countries was incredibly easy, even the non-Schengen ones, and we partly forgot to makes sure to be ready for the UK and partly didn’t realise it would be more difficult. As a result, Habiba didn’t have any of the print-outs for her onward travel with her.

As I waited in the area behind the desks, I could see and partly hear Habiba getting more and more upset. I moved closer to try to overhear what was going on, but the officer evidently noticed Habiba’s glance and turned around and told me to move away. After another few minutes, the officer left his post to talk to me and ask about our plans; he explained that we had no evidence that Habiba wasn’t going to disappear in the UK and live and work here illegally – with a British boyfriend, this was, apparently, a greater risk.

After this, the officer allowed Habiba to enter the country, although with some sort of flag connected to her passport that would tell future British Immigration officers what had happened.

We collected our bags, Habiba bemoaning the unfairness of her treatment, and headed to the railway station to catch a train to London Bridge. From there we went to the Tube Station, bought Oyster Cards, went a couple of stops along the Jubilee Line to Canada Water and walked to Colin’s place. I made friends with Colin, and also Drew and Pete, when I lived in London in 2007 and joined Pete’s roleplaying game. Colin kindly agreed to put us up for a couple of days and it was great to see him and spend some time with his partner Sally and cherubic young son, Alex.

The following morning, I was feeling worse. Habiba went to a nearby Tesco and got some supplies, including headache pills. After taking a couple each of a couple of different types and resting for a while, I started to feel a bit better. We ventured out and I took Habiba to have a look around Camden Lock and Stables markets – which she loved.

Then we headed a little bit further north to Hampstead and walked through the Heath for a bit (I hardly ever walked from Hampstead High Street to Hampstead Heath, so I wasn’t sure of the way; I have a good sense of direction, though, and I knew which way to head, so we got there by a reasonably direct route). We went from the pond by South Hill Mansions into the middle somewhere and head south again to Parliament Hill. From there we walked to Belsize Park Underground Station, with a diversion via Mansfield Road – where I used to live.

I was pretty tired by this point. Nevertheless, we headed to Leicester Square to meet Colin and Drew to have dinner – Japanese noodle soup at Wagamama – and watch a movie – The Avengers. The former, in my poorly state, didn’t strike me as the height of deliciousness; the latter, despite being expensive and shown on a rather diminutive screen, was a lot of fun. And, of course, it was great to see Drew again and hang out with him and Colin.

The next day, I was feeling better, but we didn’t get out and about until the early afternoon. At which point, I took Habiba on a tour of London. We took the Tube to London Bridge (Habiba wanted to know if it was falling down, falling down, falling down) and walked by the Tower of London, Tower Bridge, along the Thames to St Paul’s and across the Millennium Bridge to Tate Modern, where we got a coffee and ate our packed lunch. Then we continued along the South Bank to the Millennium Eye, Westminster Bridge, Parliament, Westminster Abbey, up to Trafalgar Square and finally through St James’s Park to Buckingham Palace.

The following morning, we said goodbye to Colin as he left for work, hung out with Sally and Alex briefly before heading to Victoria Coach Station to get the 11:00 National Express coach to Bath and our next host – another Alex.

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