5 Ways England Surprised Us
Monday marked the one year anniversary of our move to England. Craaazyyyyy! We've been rather reflective lately, thinking back on the places visited and lessons learned, what we miss about America and which British customs we plan to bring home. Overall, we have been pleasantly surprised by many aspects of life in the UK. We both feel that the biggest surprise was Wales. We knew absolutely nothing about Wales before moving here, and it is gorgeous! Sparsely inhabited, very reachable from Birmingham, and an outdoor lover’s dream.
1. Walking TRAILS
Despite her finicky and often unpredictable weather, England is a hiker’s heaven. The country maintains a vast network of trails that as far as I can tell, mainly traverse private property and farmland. There’s a distinct walkers etiquette and dutiful adherence to the “leave no trace” rule. The relationship between trusting landowner and respectful walker is impressive. Gates are closed to prevent livestock from wandering, I haven’t noticed any trash on the trails, nor have I seen signs discouraging walkers from approaching. On the contrary, roads are peppered with signs pointing out the public footpaths. Every region of the country is covered in beautiful trails. This leads me to my second surprising item…
2. Varied Topography
I had no idea the UK was so beautiful. I think I assumed England was a lot like Ireland, but the topography is significantly more varied here and thanks to those public footpaths, we have plenty of territory left to explore. Highlights from little mini trips over the last year include the cliffs and coves of North Devon, the Mediterranean looking Jurassic Coast with its fossils and rock formations, the white cliffs in Dover, the rolling dales in Yorkshire, the hills and lakes in the Lake District, peaks in the Peak District (also here) and flat golden fields in Norwich. There’s a saying “When you’re tired of London you’re tired of life,” a popular maxim that may be partially responsible for the fact that no one is talking about the other 95% of the country. And they should really talk about it more often! Visitors need to get out and see the rural areas, too!
3. Well-preserved and accessible history
England has done an astonishing job in this department. London has over 20 free and excellent museums alone (it could be 40… I’m not about to start counting). The English Heritage cares for over 400 historic buildings, monuments, and sites throughout the UK, and the National Trust cares for over 500. Think Downton Abbey when the family realized they could no longer afford the upkeep of such a grand estate. These trusts now care for tons of old manor homes and country houses, many of which still act as family residences. Because of these partnerships many magnificent buildings and iconic sites have been preserved. Both organizations offer year-long memberships at very affordable prices that grant you free access to all their sites. If you visit one place each month your membership is more than paid for.
Aside from these grand buildings and iconic sites (like Stonehenge – English Heritage), individual villages, towns, and their many churches are well-cared for. Conservation and repair is taken seriously. The British Geological Survey formed in 1839 is responsible for identifying and archiving the more than 1,000 different stones used in buildings throughout the country. The geological diversity has become very apparent as we’ve explored different corners of the country. We’ve seen the famous Cotswold stone, a type of limestone that yellows with age; highly textured buildings and walls in the county of Norwich made of pebbles and cobbles; the blue shale-like stones in Wales, and so many others. I love that the British focus on conservation over tearing down and modernizing. Yes, this means country roads are ridiculously narrow because the towns were created before cars were even thought of. So what. If we weren’t forced to slow down, we would miss the gorgeous little villages.
One final thought: The Blue Plaque project that started in London and expanded from there is one of my favorite little history nuggets. Buildings that housed notable people are given a circular blue plaque to commemorate the moment. It’s a fun little treasure hunt. I stumbled upon Graham Greene’s house in the Cotswolds, the building where Guy Fawkes was born in York, and there’s one on our church in Birmingham where John Henry Cardinal Newman lived. Tolkien also lived in the Oratory rectory for years after his mother passed away, and I'm sure there's a plaque hiding somewhere on the premises.
4. Extremely Dog Friendly
Outside London, you can basically bring your dog anywhere and apologize in surprise if reprimanded. Pubs generally admit dogs, especially if you’re somewhere in the countryside. There’s no such thing as a pub needing a permit to have a patio and then a second permit to admit dogs on the patio, which can never be granted if your patio/beer garden doesn’t have a separate entrance than the entrance serving the main part of the building. Good grief. People here just do what they want. Chicago, are you listening?
5. Amusing Names of Cities and Pubs
Apparently the early British settlers who moved to America had little to no sense of humor. They named their new towns after the ones back in England, but didn't choose any of the good ones! I expected Cambridge, York, Boston, etc. But where in America is Little Snoring and Great Snoring? What about Upper Slaughter and Lower Slaughter? Stow-on-the-Wold, Giggleswick, Lickey End, Broadbottom, Bootle, Upton Snodsbury, Blubber Houses, Kirby Grindalythe... Bitchfield... pan around England on Google Maps for awhile. City names are fabulously creative.
Pubs are equally fascinating. Ye Olde Trip to Jerusalem. Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese. The Prince of Wales Feathers. Also, every town has either The Kings Head, The Queens Head, The Kings Arms, or The Queens Arms. Or, if they’re being creative, they’ll make it The Dukes Head.