For visitors to Blighty:
Now don’t you go expecting any help from me on actually getting to the UK. You need Anglotopia for that. I’m here to help you to discover True Englishness once you reach our shores.
It’s tempting – oh so tempting – when visiting good old Blighty, to book a flight to Heathrow, book a hotel in London and head off with a checklist, ticking off Buckingham Palace, Tower Bridge and The London Eye as you go.
But imagine if I flew to NYC and headed straight for Times Square, the Empire State Building and the Statue of Liberty.
It would be a good trip. Would it be a great trip? Well, I’d have lots of splendid photos, but would perhaps have missed out on the city’s soul.
So, here are a few tips; some to simply make the practicalities a little easier, but most aimed at getting you an intimate encounter with Real Englishness, so you go home feeling you have truly experienced England.
1. Don’t fret (worry) too much about the weather.
Okay, I accept it, we Brits are obsessed with the weather. We really do remark on it all the time. However, it’s actually a case of politeness, rather than a deep fascination with Meteorology.
The fact of the matter is, that we have a very temperate climate and therefore nothing much to remark on. We just seem to be perpetually fascinated by the slight variations we do get.
A couple of years ago we had a (very small) tornado in Birmingham and people are still talking about that!
So forget the weather. Winter may get chilly, but it won’t be too cold. Summer may get hot, but you won’t cook. If it rains there are coffee shops, museums, galleries and cafes galore. Go in one and have a great time. If it’s sunny, walk the tiny old back streets, visit the beautiful green London squares, skate on a rink in the park or go on the London Eye at dusk and have your breath taken away.
2. Talk to ‘real’ Brits
It’s the only way to uncover true Britishness; talk to ‘real’ people. Obviously pick someone who looks like they’re happy to chat and preferably doesn’t have two heads. A black-cab driver is usually a good bet, as many of them will wax lyrical about good old Blighty at the drop of a hat. Otherwise, go wait for a bus and chat to the nice middle-aged lady doing her knitting. She’ll be glad to talk. And of course a great conversation opener is always the weather (see point 1….).
Incidentally, when you chat to people, don’t always ask “touristy’ questions, else you may get the standard answers we give to tourists (yes, I think the sun will come out later on, oh yes Green Park is pretty at this time of year, blah blah). If you’ve read a local newspaper or listened to the radio and picked up on what’s happening in the area you could ask them their views about their village school being closed, or the beautiful new fountain in the square. They’ll be impressed and charmed.
3. Resist the urge to write a list before you come and stick to it!
Okay, by all means write a list. But do you need to stick to it? Will this really be your only trip to Britain, ever? It would be such a shame to only do the things you already knew about before you crossed the Pond. What about uncovering Real Englishness, of the kind you only dreamed about? That would be hard to prepare beforehand.
Now I love the London Eye, I adore the Tower, Buckingham Palace and all the rest, I really do. But it’s no fun to do them all in one weekend; that’s just hard work.
I came to NYC five times before I went up the Empire State building. And I loved the view when I finally saw it. But on the previous four trips other fun things just cropped up. Once I sat in Central Park talking to a lady with her six-month-old granddaughter about living in New York and we lost track of time. Another time I walked through the neighbourhoods and discovered some great little arty shops that I hadn’t been expecting and then stumbled across the legendary Magnolia Bakery by accident, bought some lunch (and a cup-cake, of course) and sat in a small park whilst I ate it and watched kids doing some amazing skateboarding.
So if you have a to-do list, that’s great, but if you don’t do all the things on the list, isn’t that actually better?
4. When in Rome…
Globalisation can be a real experience-killer. Because when you come to the UK you may be disappointed to see McDonalds, Gap, Starbucks, Body Shop and all the things you get at home. But although our malls may look a lot like your malls, what are you doing in a mall anyway? You’re on holiday! Get OUT of there! Shame on you.
So if you find yourself on a ‘globalised’ High Street and you need lunch, turn off the high street, preferably following some be-suited office workers and follow them to a secret arcade or deli on a backstreet and try eating there instead. When I worked in London every morning I used to buy marmite on toast and a cuppa from a tiny little deli on Goodge Street, just before I got to my office. The owner, John, was an absolute character, always ready for a chat and I would LOVE you to meet people like that.
5. Eat British
Okay, I’m certainly not saying you shouldn’t go to an Italian restaurant if you feel like it and we do boast some of the best Indian restaurants in the world, but if you want to try British cuisine, try finding the real thing. And that means avoiding restaurants in Leicester Square with plastic seats and pictures on the menus. They are probably serving the same food that the same kind of restaurant would serve in Times Square or even Red Square!
So if you want to try real British food, why not make a night of it? Head out to Notting Hill or Primrose Hill, find a gastro-pub (a pub specialising in food rather than beer) and order Shepherd’s Pie, or bangers and mash with peas and onion gravy. Followed by summer pudding or blackberry and apple crumble with custard. Now there’s England (literally) on a plate.
I’m asking you to throw caution to the wind. Eat roast lamb (Welsh lamb is sublime). Ask for bread sauce on your roast chicken. Clotted cream on your scones. Try your warm quiche salad with “salad cream” instead of dressing. Put salt and vinegar on your chips (fries) and if you’re feeling really daring, plop them onto a slice of buttered bread, roll it up and have a chip-butty.
When I go to the States I’ll do anything to avoid McDonalds. So I find a really nice neighbourhood, pick a mid-range restaurant or family diner and ask them what they do best. Okay, it’s pot-luck. But I’ve had great meatloaf and divine chicken with mashed potatoes and corn. I’ve been served Shoofly pie without even knowing what it is. But I feel like I’ve had a real American meal, not burger and fries from McDonalds. I feel like it was cooked by someone’s Mum (because it was). And the service has always been warm, friendly and chatty. Which brings me onto point 6….
6. Don’t expect great service
I am really sorry about this one. Great service is something you can expect in the US. Whether I’ve been in L.A. or deepest Alabama, I’ve always experienced friendly service with a smile. This is not always the case in the UK.
Firstly, in the UK tourist industry, you’re not likely to meet many Brits, as most people working in hotels and tourism are young people from Europe getting some experience whilst seeing England themselves. So there may be a language barrier that you didn’t expect.
And secondly, you’re even less likely to get good service if you are served by a Brit. I don’t quite know how that happened, actually. A couple of decades ago everyone used to be quite polite and courteous and would smile a lot, but now…well let’s just say there are a lot of stressed people out there.
So if you get great service, I’m really pleased for you and I hope you meet some real characters to make your stay more enjoyable. But if you don’t, please try not to take it personally, or wonder what you’ve done. Chances are they’re just what we in the UK tend to call a “miserable old git” (and you don’t need me to tell you that’s not very polite and not one to say to their face).
7. Head far from the madding crowd
I can understand why anyone would want to see London. Or Edinburgh. But if it’s real Englishness you’re after, why not try Cornwall, the Cotswolds or the Lake District? London is indeed our capital city, but if you think that the population of Greater London is around 7 million, that leaves 54 million of us living around the rest of the UK! Even her Majesty manages to spend a great deal of time at Windsor, Sandringham or Balmoral.
So whilst London is well worth a visit and is the place for pomp and ceremony, posh restaurants and museums, I would argue that much of Britishness is about market towns, country walks, farmer’s markets and great little pubs serving mouth-watering roast-lamb Sunday lunches.
There are historic houses, polo matches and quintessentially English village fetes to be visited. Curious events such as cheese-rolling, pancake racing or hill-rolling (yes, honestly!). Festive times such as Apple Day, Harvest festival, Bonfire night. And, of course, cafes everywhere offering the fabulously REAL English delicacy of a cream tea (which British people do actually partake of).
8. Prepare to steep yourself in Englishness.
When I’m going to the States, I often buy books by American authors to read on the plane and get me ‘in the mood’ for my trip. It could be a modern author or even Mark Twain or Jack London.
Why not have a go? Always meant to read some Jane Austen? How about Jerome K. Jerome’s “Three Men in a Boat”? If in doubt, just buy a Stephen Fry offering.
And certainly if you’re headed for Stratford upon Avon (or The Globe) and intending to watch a Shakespeare play, it’s a good investment to read a bit first. Even us Brits will admit that it takes a few minutes to “tune one’s ear in” to the words at the beginning of a Shakespeare play, because of the archaic language. And if you’re watching a fast-paced comedy such as Much Ado About Nothing, you don’t want to miss the caustic humour because you’re still translating it in your head.
9. Don’t drive in rush hour in London.
Just trust me on this one. You’ll be in a rented stick-shift car, you’ll spend all your time wondering where you can park and then crying when you realise you’ll need a new mortgage just to pay for an hour’s parking on Park Lane. The one-way systems are a nightmare unless you know them (or have the world’s best Sat-nav) and British people park in the smallest parking spaces known to man. The petrol costs a fortune and it would be quicker to walk anyway.
Convinced? Yep, I thought so.
Try the tube. Grab a cab. Hire a bike. Or even better, walk, meander, mooch, perambulate. You’ll notice lovely old bookshops down side streets. Secret little parks. And you’ll actually get to know the geography of London, rather than just seeing little disjointed bits of it. You’ll start accidentally discovering Real Englishness.
10. Try Skipping London Altogether
Gosh! Did I really just say that? Shame on me!!
I like big cities in the US and I love London. But I can’t help thinking that every time I came to the US, I learned more about the country and the people and felt more as if I understood America when I was working in small towns or tiny villages, popping into a tiny newsagent to buy a local paper and eating in local diners that hadn’t seen a tourist in years.
So why not combine a trip to England with something you do anyway?
Love sailing? Try the Isle of Wight.
Adore folk music? Try Fairport Convention at Cropredy (Oxfordshire) next August.
Fine Art? Visit Upton House, near Banbury.
Jane Austen fan? Try Bath. Or picnic on Box Hill!
Old cars? Go to the Goodwood Festival of Speed, or visit the Gaydon Heritage Motor Museum.
Walking? Head for the Cornish coastal path, Peak district or Lake district.
Birdwatching? Lots of beautiful places for “twitching”.
Classical music? Take a picnic to Kenwood (or one of the other concerts at stately homes all over the UK).
Medieval history? Start in Stratford or Warwick or York.
There has to be somewhere in the UK that was meant for you to discover. As well as London!
So there we have it. Ten tips to help you have a ‘more English’ experience on your trip to England. Before you know it, you’ll be planning another trip; dry-stone-walling with the National Trust in Yorkshire and then hopping on a canal boat in Warwickshire!