I’m driving around England and Wales, updating our Rick Steves Great Britain guidebook for the new edition. Britain is one of my favorite places to travel — it’s so beautiful, so charming, so welcoming, so compact, and so substantial in its sightseeing. Re-visiting several places I’ve updated before (and finding them even better than I’d remembered), every day I also drive past many other places that seem just as good. I’m beginning to think you could throw away our whole guidebook, start from scratch with all new destinations…and you’d still wind up with a smashing book.
Nearing the end of my time in Britain, I’ve been collecting a list of some of the things I just love about traveling here…along with a few pet peeves. (You can blame Bill Bryson, a fellow American Anglophile whose curmudgeonly Road to Little Dribbling audiobook has been my soundtrack through much of Britain.) I hope you’ll take these as they’re intended — with an undercurrent of great respect for a great nation, and with tongue planted firmly in cheek. Enjoy!
Delightful town names. British maps are peppered with place names that seem like a prank or a put-on. I was never more aware of this than the day I found myself leaving the village of Cerne Abbas on Piddle Lane, en route to Piddletrenthide. In this tiny corner of Britain alone (Dorset, about an hour southwest of Salisbury), you’ll find hamlets named Plush, King’s Stag, Fifehead Neville, Maiden Newton, Mappowder, Hazelbury Bryan, Poopton-upon-Piddle, Stock Gaylard, Bishop’s Caundle, Alton Pancras, Melbury Bubb, Beer Hackett, Sturminster Newton, Nether Cerne, Margaret Marsh, Ansty, Lower Ansty, and, of course, Higher Ansty. (Believe it or not, only one of these names is made up. Any guesses?) Later on my trip, I drove through the villages of Much Birch and Diddlebury. And of course, in Wales, the names are tongue-twisting and (to this non-Welsh speaker) indecipherable: On the 30-minute drive between Caernarfon and Conwy alone, you’ll pass Llanddeiniolen, Capel-y-graig, Llanfairfechan, Abergwyngregyn, Penmaenmawr, Dwygyfylchi, and Llanfairpwllgwyngyllgogerychwyrndrobwllllantysiliogogogoch. (Believe it or not, none of these is made up.) Having grown up in a place with non-nonsense names like Columbus, Cleveland, and Dayton, and I find these irreverent names downright inspiring.
Everyone is so darned friendly. Brits must be about the most socially intelligent people on earth. They’re simply good talkers and fun to interact with. Updating a guidebook, how smoothly my day goes depends largely on the helpfulness of the people I meet. Maybe that’s why Britain is one of my favorite places. They instantly grasp what I need, validate my request, and quickly set about to helping me as efficiently as they can (“Let’s see if we can’t get you sorted!”). I find myself being exaggeratedly polite here, because I’m reflecting back the kindness all around me. Britain really brings out the best in this traveler.
Remarkably courteous drivers. The pleasant British demeanor also extends to the roads. On paper, Britain should be the most formidable place in Europe to drive: You’re on “the wrong side” of the road, and the steering wheel is on “the wrong side” of the car. Major thoroughfares squeeze through constricted village centers, where double-parked cars funnel all traffic — in both directions — into a single, shared lane. Country roads are often barely a car wide, and flanked on both sides by claustrophobic, ten-foot-tall hedges. Roundabouts are endless, at times slinging you from one traffic circle into another, then into another, until you’re somehow right back where you started. And yet, even with all that, driving here is an utter delight. I think that’s largely thanks to the British style of driving: Everyone seems to view the roads as a shared venture, and we’re all in this together. So if you come to a narrow passage, British people are just naturally programmed to take turns in the most equitable way possible. Need to back up to the nearest “passing place”? Have to pull in those side-view mirrors to squeeze through? No problem! When they finally do nudge past each other, drivers raise a few fingers off the steering wheel, in a salute of mutual gratitude. It’s all so…civilized.
Tossed Salads and Scrambled Eggs. Every morning for an hour — from 9:00 until 10:00 — Britain’s Channel 4 broadcasts old reruns of Frasier. Every. Single. Morning. Going back at least 10 years. Because that coincides exactly with when I’m getting ready for my day, watching the Crane family antics has become part of my British routine. Why is Frasier, of all shows, a UK mainstay? Maybe its highbrow-yet-farcical tone suits British tastes…literate, wry, but unafraid to become irreverent when called for. For whatever reason, when I hear Kelsey Grammer singing about tossed salads and scrambled eggs, I know it’s time to hit the road. (“Frasier…has left…the building.”)
Now that I’ve buttered you all up, I must admit it’s not all cream teas and sunny spells. After intensely traveling somewhere — anywhere — a few things start to rankle. To balance things out, here are my four pet peeves about traveling in Britain:
Pockets Overflowing with Heavy Change. As much as I love driving in Britain, it comes with a major drawback: The constant need to feed greedy “pay-and-display” parking meters. These appear in any and every parking lot, even for sights where you’re also paying admission. (Especially for sights where you’re paying admission. You stay classy, National Trust.) The vast majority of these machines take only coins. And, making things more difficult, the weighty British pound may be the most literally named coin in circulation. To be sure I have enough coins for my four or five sightseeing stops each day, I’m constantly paying for small purchases with big bills and hoarding the change. My jeans pockets are perennially weighted down with Sterling metal. (I just checked…I currently have £14 in British coins, or about $18, in my pockets.) And recently, Britain has introduced a new (infinitesimally lighter) one-pound coin…but most parking meters I’ve encountered still don’t take these. So now, within my hoard of British coins, I have a sub-hoard of old pound coins, which I guard ferociously. By the end of a trip to Britain, I’m walking with limp from all the extra weight in one pocket.
Curry stains on my nice new shirts. Before this trip, I stocked up on some nice, new, crisp button-down shirts. On my first evening in Britain, I was trying out a trendy Indian street food place in Salisbury — dredging a chunk of naan bread through a multicolored mash of curry and chutney — when a drop broke loose on its way to my mouth…permanently staining my brand-new shirt. I wrote it off to jet lag-induced stupor. But then, a few days later, wearing another new shirt for the first time, I did the same thing. Curry stains in cotton simply do not come out, no matter how quickly or how aggressively you treat them. While the obvious response here is, “Be more careful when you eat!”, this never happens stateside. And so I choose to blame Britain, for having such delicious yet vividly colored food.
Gift Aid. In Britain, certain cultural attractions can charge British taxpayers pay a slightly higher, but tax-deductible, admission fee — called “Gift Aid.” I don’t entirely understand how this works, but I do know that the readers of our guidebook — at least 95% Americans and Canadians — are not eligible. Still, I have to suffer through several conversations each day where an earnest ticket-seller tries to talk me into listing the Gift Aid price in our book. Each time, I have to explain (to their puzzlement, and often guilt-inducing looks) that it’s not relevant to our readers. British people refer to programs like Gift Aid as a “scheme,” oblivious to the sinister overtones to American ears. In this case, that word feels apt.
No right angles…anywhere. The other day, I dropped a coin in my hotel room. As I bent to pick it up, I could hear it rolling, rolling, rolling across the floorboards, accelerating until it finally toppled into a baseboard. I never found it. All those centuries-old houses are a substantial part of Britain’s charm. And, naturally, you have to expect a little settling in a house that was built back when America was an oversaeas colony. Consequently, the most characteristic B&Bs have no right angles. Doors don’t always fit cleanly into their frames. And windows — which tend to be single-pane, and with complex Rube Goldberg counterweights and latches dating from the Victorian (or at least Edwardian) Age — do very little to block out road noise. To be fair, I do find this mostly quaint. But I must admit, at some level I’m looking forward to settling into a modern, business-class hotel at my next stop, Oslo — where at least I know I can set down a round object without fearing it’ll make a break for the nearest corner.
When all is said and done, of course, Britain’s many wonderful qualities far outweigh its few quirks. Perhaps the biggest “problem” I have when traveling around Great Britain is that I keep getting tempted to move here. Hey, wait a tick…then I’d finally be eligible for Gift Aid!