The last few weeks have been a soft launch to our year of travels. We spent a few days in my hometown of Sitka, Alaska before flying to London to spend time with Paul’s friends and family. We’ll properly start our travels across Asia tomorrow, when we’ll fly to Istanbul.
As many of you know, Paul is from England, and we met in London when we were both students in 2006. After a stint of travel in India and Nepal in 2007, we returned to London for the 2007-2008 academic year before moving to the US and getting married in August 2008. Back then, we lived in a shared flat in London, one of the most expensive and crowded cities in the world. We were focused on finishing my master’s degree and saving money for our move to the US, so we didn’t take advantage of the many sites and activities in London or further afield in Britain.
By the time we left London, we were sick of the crowds, expense, pollution, and stress of living in London. We didn’t go back to England for the next seven years. With so many destinations to explore closer to Seattle, and so little vacation time allotted to workers in the US, we didn’t make the effort to come back. But at the start of our big trip, we came back to London and circled England, visiting friends and family in Yorkshire, the Midlands, the Peak District, and the south coast. What we found outside of London was a country so beautiful, relaxed, and rich in natural and cultural attractions that we’re considering coming back for another visit on the way home from Asia. Here are the reasons we want to return.
Every inch of Britain is steeped in human history. One of the oldest man-made structures is the stone circle at Avebury. We spent a night in this tiny village to get some peace and quiet after a few too many nights at the pub. Whether you believe that the stone circle is a portal to the underworld, a message to extraterrestrials, or just a prehistoric sports arena (this is my theory–it’s another example of how human beings spend their energy on utterly pointless pursuits), it’s impressive.
We spent some time with friends who live in a restored farmhouse in Whitby, on the Yorkshire coast. Their dining room has a view of the medieval abbey, stripped by Henry VIII during the Reformation. Compare this to Seattle, where the oldest buildings are barely a century old.
It’s a cliché that British food is bland, and indeed I once remarked that a suspiciously large portion of the food on our plates was white (cod, chips, white bread, potatoes, pork). But we’ve enjoyed some great food like curries, fish and chips, smoked mackerel, roast garden-fresh vegetables, and the venerable full English breakfast. The Brixton Market in our old neighborhood in London has been regenerated, with a host of new cafes and restaurants, although none are as tasty as the mouth-watering oven-fired pizzas at Franco Manca. We also made a point of having a cream tea consisting of a pot of tea, scones, cream and jam. Just the thing on a cold afternoon in the Peak District.
On the other hand, as an American I am amused by the phenomenon of the chip butty. For Americans who are unfamiliar with this delicacy, it consists of buttered white bread filled with french fries (“chips” in England). In other words, it’s a french fry sandwich. Paleo people, you might want to stay home.
There’s nothing quite like an English pub. Originally built as travelers’ rest houses, pubs are still the center of social life in many towns, as we found out in Leek. Paul’s four uncles took us on a pub crawl in this small market town with one of the country’s highest rates of pubs per capita. Not much has changed in these establishments over the last few decades: musty floral wallpaper, cozy nooks, and hand-pulled taps are the norm.
The best pint we found was in the Georgian spa town of Buxton, which we visited because Buxton is Paul’s last name. The Buxton Brewery’s Wild Boar IPA is citrusy and hoppy with a smooth finish, similar to American IPAs. Oddly, none of Paul’s relatives liked the Buxton offerings, finding them too sharp and hoppy for the English palate. I hope the Buxton brewery finds enough English fans to stay in business, because they make some excellent beers.
London is a crowded, gritty sea of people. Outside the big city, England is a country of natural beauty. Our first stop after London was Yorkshire, where our friends drove us across the misty moor to their restored farmhouse outside Whitby. It felt like the modern version of a Jane Austen country estate, surrounded by fields with a village below.
We visited Paul’s family in the market town of Leek in Staffordshire, with a day trip to the spa town of Buxton, Paul’s surname. The bus ride from Leek to Buxton took us across the Peak District, past the highest settlement in England and an area of eerie rock formations called the Roaches. Frustratingly, we only saw this landscape out of the window of the bus. We’d like to go back with a rental car in order to do some trekking and exploring.
We went to England to visit friends and family, and were met with hospitality and friendliness everywhere we went. It was great to spend several days with Paul’s parents and extended family in Wolverhampton. Another highlight was meeting Paul’s relatives in Leek. You haven’t experienced England until you’ve been herded from pub to pub until the early hours of the morning by a group of sixty-somethings. In general, I’ve found the English people to be friendly and easygoing, especially outside the big cities. It’s a pleasure to travel through their country.
We’re excited to take off for Turkey tomorrow, where our traveling life will properly begin. After Istanbul, we’ll cross into a whole other world in Iran and Central Asia.
Until next time,