People and Places

A love song to England

Posted on May 22, 2014

We’re leaving London this morning for Paris, taking the Eurostar under the Channel to France, a transportation experience I’ve long wanted to check off my list. We drove into London yesterday, a fairly miserable traffic-bound experience now common to every big city in the world, and I only mention it because I was quite proud of my driving prowess this week, managing single lane country roads, motorways, and busy London streets all on the left side of the road and without incident.  I had two minor tire squeals (rubbing the curb) and one beep of a horn all week (must have been a visiting Frenchman; Brits would never beep) and returned our Ford Focus intact to the Alamo rental faclity near Pancras Station. 

By the way, I know what the English do when they get bored.  They build rotaries (roundabouts in the local parlance).  They have rotaries that immediately feed into other rotaries.  Rotaries where there is no apparent need for one.  You could easily get dizzy driving here. But British drivers are pros — no cruising in the passing lane, everyone uses signal indicators, and on narrow country roads everyone competes to let the other person proceed first.  They revel in rotaries.

We loved our weekend in Dorset.  Flying in the Tiger Moth was an adventure and the whole area is stunningly beautiful in that gentle, rolling hills and farms sort of way.  We wandred through small hamlets with thatched roof houses that looked like they should have had Hobbits inside.

In a country so small and so full of people, it was strange to drive mile after mile on single lane country roads and to rarely see another car.  Our excellent inn, the King John Inn, included a superb restaurant and all the posh locals (a lot of rich Londoners down for the weekend and gentlemen farmers) congregated there for lunch and dinner (children allowed at the former; dogs permitted at all times).  Everyone drove an expensive German car or a vintage 50’s Land Rover.

That’s Guy Ritchie’s with the tire on the hood.  He and Madonna had an estate nearby which he still has post-divorce.  This was a place where ruddy-faced old guys in tweed bragged (in that understated British manner) of catching 18 trout before noon on the previous day while their bird dogs wandered in and out of the restaurant, its walls festooned with pictures of horses, hunting dogs, and fishing scenes.  It was perfect.

We left the horses and hounds nostalgia of Dorset for Oxford on Monday, providing another kind of nostalgia we’ve come to know well since daughter Emma has been there these last two years.  We stayed at another favorite, the Old Parsonage.  It is a beautifully restored stone parsonage, now hotel, with a walled garden and a fire going all year and impeccable service.

The sort of place that welcomes you back by name and the bartender remembers your favorite drink. 

We got to Oxford in time for lunch at the Perch, a short walk across the Port Meadow, a place where public grazing of horses and cattle still goes on.  After a spring of record flooding and cold, the locals were near giddy with the sunny day and everyone was out walking and picnicking and turning bright pink. We sat under an enormous willow tree and had lunch.

We decided to take the long walk back around the Meadows and in a combination of forgetting that Emma is distance-challenged and being thwarted by the muddy remains of flooded areas, our longer walk back turned into a six mile, two hour trek.

Though walking past cows and horses made it feel very bucolic.

We had to hustle back to get supplies as we were meeting Em’s friends for punting.  This is the quintessential Oxford thing to do and we packed in all the required stores for our voyage on the lazy,narrow Isis.  That included proseco, berries, cheese, crackers, and olives.  Ten of us loaded onto two punts, our first volunteers manned the long poles and stood at the rear (in Cambridge, one poles from the front), and after some bumping about, spinning, and going back and forth across the narrow river, we got pointed in the right direction and made our way through the countryside at a pace somewhat slower than walking.  But that’s sort of the point: it’s a lazy, indulgent way to spend an afternoon.

We just delight in the company of Emma’s Oxford friends — they are all so bright, ambitious, and funny. 

Victor serenaded us with selections from Les Miz, Ronan decided he and Pat are “hair twins,” and people took turns showing their prowess with the pole (reverting to use of a paddle was considered a sign of weakness).  The question all Rhodes Scholars are asked is “How will you fight the world’s fight?” and what I love about them is they take up that question seriously.  So batted that one around as well. 

It was a question we came back to more than once over a wonderful post-punting dinner at the Rickety Press (really, the English have a gift for naming) and topics ranged from post neo-liberal economics, “disciplining” captal, education reform, design theory, the creative economy of Ireland, the Palestenian question, and more.  It would be hard to imagine a more perfect day for body, heart, and mind.

The next day, Emma, Pat, and I set out to explore the Cotswolds.  Just to the west of Oxford, this is an area that rivals Dorset for bucolic vistas and charming hamlets.  We started in the medieval market town of Burford, where we wandered the high street (what we’d typically call Main Street) and stopped into little shops.

We found a great little food shop and assembled a picnic lunch of baguette, cheeses (including the aptly named Stinking Bishop), olives, ginger beer, and lemon cookies, and ate by a stream.

We then drove through places like Eastleach, with its 11th C Norman churches

and Arlington, with its medieval weaver’s cottages.

We simply meandered the narrow country lanes, hedges and stone walls on both sides, and through tiny little hamlets like Sherborne and Swinbrook and past picture postcard landscapes.

I kept expecting riders in red coats to come leaping over hedges in hot pursuit of a fox (illegal now to do so in Britain) with hounds baying and barking. It’s that kind of place.

Returning to Oxford, we went from hamlets to the outer reaches of the universe when we went to St. Aldates Tavern for a Pint of Science, a very cool program that has top scientists give talks in pubs — sort of a bringing science to the people movement.  Roger Davies is the head of Astrophysics at Oxford (and father to my assistant Helen) and one of the world’s preeminent people in the field.  He’s also a lovely guy and a wonderful lecturer.

His warm up act was a science comedian from Belguim (who knew?) who was actually very funny, though Roger had to explain some of his science jokes to we non-scientists.  It was pretty funny to hear trash talking between mathematicians, physicists, and engineers (who took the worst beating).  “Any engineers in the room?”  A few hands go up.  “Great to have you with us.  We’ll talk more slowly for you.”  Everone laughs.  That sort of thing.  Though even as he was making us laugh, he did a great exposition on quantum mechanics and its mind bending paradoxes.  And made it funny too.

Roger followed with a fascinating talk about black holes and galaxy formation and aside from the almost unfathomable scale of numbers (“This was just a few billion years ago…”), I actually was able to follow.  This was a striking testimony to Roger’s talents, not my intelligence.  There was a quiz (we failed miserably) and a drawing for a Pint of Science tee-shirt (we won!).  Funny window into our two cultures.  We won a second shirt and the organizers said they’d of course ignore that winning tickets since we had one already.  Everyone agreed.

As Americans, believers in a meritocracy and getting what you earnned fair and square, we had a “Hey, I bought that ticket — give me my damn shirt” moment.  It never occured to the English not to redistribute the wealth.  In truth, we cared not all to have a second tee-shirt, but the different reflexive reactionss were telling.

It was a second day in Oxford nearly as perfect as the first.

I first came to England in 1978 as a backpacking college student and I think I’ve been back about 14 times or so over the intervening years.  We have friends here now.  In-laws too.  And a British son-in-law.  It’s a place I’ve always loved and I don’t know if I’ve ever loved it more than I have these last few days.  I could never live here and I often wonder at the tension between the British independence of spirit and attitude, on one hand, and the constrained bounds of class and etiquette and sheer restraint (if you hear someone say “awesome!” here you can bet all the pounds in your pocket it’s an American) on the other. 

But what society doesn’t have its internal contradictions and tensions?  America can look hellish when held up to the light in certain ways (over 30,000 gun deaths per year; highest incarceration rate in the world; 1 in 5 children hungry; structural racism; a left wing further right than most European right wing parties…..should I go on?).  But our craziness is ours and theirs is theirs and what the British do well is something at which to marvel.

On my list?

  • Tradition.  American’s use “It’s history” as a pejorative; here it is high praise.
  • Pomp and circumstance.
  • The countryside.
  • Drama (almost all good American television is adapted from British sources).
  • Wit.
  • Respect for independence and freedom of thought and speech.
  • A fearless sense of the world.  Is there any place a British traveler won’t go?  Maybe a legacy of empire, but a trait I respect.
  • A social contract, maybe frayed a bit and expensive, but they created national health care and for whatever it’s flaws, no one goes without this basic care. (Not sure what happened with dentistry….).
  • High culture: art, theater, architecture, literature…
  • Pop culture: music matters here; styles go in and out in a week; great television.
  • Wheels: the land of Jaguar, Range Rover (I know…they all wring their hands over Indian ownership), MGs and Triumphs.

And wonderful, befuddling language that almost makes it feel like we speak the same tongue, but not quite.  It’s wonderful — we asked a friend how he is doing after his wife’s passing and he said, “Like a tart’s knickers, up and down.”  Really, you got to love them.  There is indeed much to love about this place and its people. 







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