The mist-shrouded Arthurian ruins, the rolling green hills dotted with sleepy hamlets, nuns on bikes free-wheeling over cattle grids, tankards of warm beer, castles and orchards, jodhpurs and shooting-sticks, where monocles legally replace spectacles and more than two people will automatically form a queue, where everything is quaint and quintessential and steeped and…
On and on.
Planning a first-time trip to England soon? It’s possibly you’ve been told things about the place. Silly things. Things that will mislead and ultimately disillusion you. And that’s no fun at all. So in the interests of having an exciting and fascinating holiday in a truly exciting and fascinating country, let’s burst a few bubbles here.
1. London is historic?
London is the Disneyland of British history. To step onto the streets of London is to be swept into the past, down cobbled alleyways worn smooth by the passage of Celtic tribes, Roman legions, William the Conquerer, Henry the Eighth (and his wives), Sherlock Holmes and Dick Van Dyke. Close your eyes and kick a football, and it will ricochet off a minimum of one parliamentary building, one medieval theatre, one mysteriously abandoned London Underground station, ten Listed structures and at least one member of the house of Windsor. London is relentlessly, unstoppably quaint. It’s one enormous hypercaffeinated Harry Potter street scene, filled with top hats and cheeky urchins (children, I mean – London is well inland), lovable old dears and twinkly-eyed rogues who you can smell a mile off. You will be charmed. That’s London.
London suffers from what I like to call Athens Syndrome. You turn up expecting a cultural spectacle…and you’re met with a modern city, looking like any other. This is the brick wall of disillusionment that stops many people from seeing past the wearying, faintly grubby modernity that feels strangely low-budget, past the cars and the acres of corporate glass. Historic London is there, but it’s hidden in full view under everything you know already. It takes a while to learn the shape of the city, the spatial relationships that tell its stories so thrillingly. In short, it’s a jigsaw. Don’t be surprised to find it in pieces when you first arrive.
2. Everyone Speaks like the Queen?
Gee, don’t you just love how English people speak? Seriously? It’s so fruity. All those drawled vowels, the way their nostrils flare and add timbre you can feel in your knees. The way that upper lip curls. And in real English you don’t say “I”, you say “one”! It’s like you’re so aloof you’re not even you! You can hear the silverware in every syllable, the castles, the banquets, the unspeakable in pursuit of the inedible, haw haw. And don’t they just make the best villains?
Wherever in the world we’re from, we have a dialect. Cypriot Greek isn’t Athenian Greek. Hokkaido-ben is distinct from Tōhoku Japanese. Every language is lumpy with variety, sounding a little different wherever you go. And sometimes, those dialect evolve into sociolects – ways of speaking that gets pinned on a particular social class. Here, to sound different is to be different. Such is the fate of received pronunciation, better known as “posh English”. The Queen speaks posh English (of course), and the BBC was founded on it. People learned to speak this way to elevate their social status, and in doing so promoted it on the world stage. Consequently, it has become the sound of the English.
Wander the length of England, and you find we can’t even agree on how to say “a”. Most of the English speak in a way that used to be labelled “Common” – in other words, non-posh English. You’ll have heard many variations of it if you’ve seen Peter Jackson’s Lord Of The Rings trilogy. (Round here, we sound like Boromir). British historical dramas rely on this dichotomy: here, Wellington is clearly the man in charge, wheras Richard Sharpe is common as muck. You know that from their first syllables.
If you stick to London, you’ve a good chance of hearing the Queen’s English. But on average, the modern English person sounds as common as muck.
3. It Always Rains?
It never, ever stops raining in England. Ever. In the old days, TV weather bulletins involved slapping magnetic weather-shapes onto an upright map of Britain. You can easily imagine weatherpeople having boxes brimming with raincloud magnets, and panicking when they have to show the sun (“I only used it last month, it can’t have got far!”). It’s a statistical fact that in England, every month, no matter what the season, it rains for at least 31 days.
Not too far from the truth. A safe proportion to assume is one in three: that is, for every three days in England, one of them will rain on you. Yet it’s not the millimetres that will wear you down – it’s the sky. England is renowned for a special kind of weather best known as “Off”. Someone somewhere yanks a lever, and the meteorological power is cut, leaving nothing but a dead-channel grey from horizon to horizon. Rain itself can be fun; Off-days never are. You need something in your psychological survival-kit to deal with such days. Chocolate. A loved one. A Wii. Whatever. Just make sure you have it covered.
However, let’s get one thing straight. Yes, it rains a lot in England. But do we get much more rain than anywhere else? No. Depending on what part of England you’re talking abuot, we get an average between 400-750mm of rainfall a year, rarely more than that. Pity, then, the inhabitants of Nanaimo (Canada) whose yearly average between 1841 and 1960 was over a meter of the wet stuff. And then be racked with agonies of sympathy for the folk in Mawsynram, India, who receive twelve meters of rain a year. In comparison, English rain is truly piddling.
4. English Food Is Dreadful?
Here’s how the English make a meal: they put ingredients in a pan of boiling water, and then they boil the colour out of them. The remaining gunk is slopped onto a cold plate, has ketchup slathered over it, and is eaten. This is called Enjoying Your Food. The more acceptable alternative is getting a takeaway. But hey, that’s unfair: traditional English food isn’t like that. Not really. No – it’s usually colourless deep-fried gunk. No need to be xenophobic and narrow-minded about it all.
Across Europe, English food is regarded as something of a joke.
This shows how deeply behind those pesky Europeans are these days. Jamie Oliver. Gordon Ramsey. Ring any bells? English food is finally getting the publicity is deserves on the world stage. It’s not just about fry-ups, pies and fish’n'chips – but frankly, if it were, that’d be no bad thing because the English have turned the making of these foodstuffs into an art form. For example, I truly wish I could take you for a ten-minute walk to my local ‘chippy, the best in York for value and taste and sheer oh-why-not-it’s-a-Friday-ness. Good fried fish and good pies alone would salvage our reputation…but there’s so much more. Treacle sponges, Yorkshire puddings (incidentally, don’t believe a word of this), Lancashire hotpots, Bakewell tarts, clotted cream scones…it’s all heavenly, albeit in that moment on the lips, lifetime on the hips way. (Want to eat heathily? Just eat less. Duh).
5. Morris Dancing
Grown men. Dancing about. With bells on.
I saw the above in Settle. It’s called Morris Dancing, and it’s a branch of English folk culture. Is it popular? Yes and no. It attracts tourists, sure, and it has a small, enthusiastic following and a long and fascinating history. But please, don’t go thinking we all regularly like to clamber into what look like cricket-themed pyjamas, knot garish hankies around our ankles and unselfconsciously gyrate on street corners. I’m sure that’s fun for some people, but not me, thanks…
And this goes for a host of “quintessentially English” cliches, from bowler hats to afternoon tea. Yes, they occasionally happen. But really, you’d be extremely lucky to see them in person.
(And if you hanker for a truly thriving, much-loved English folk experience? Go see Kate Rusby. We love her to bits over here).