I have never felt quite so much like I’m living in a movie than I do here in rural England. My previous experience in the U.K. consisted of a dreadful six months on a student work visa in 1994, during which I worked in London and managed to lose money. My then-boyfriend and I went to Wales for the weekend, and I think also to Edinburgh.
So England outside of London has been created in my mind solely through PBS miniseries. You know: rock walls, grand manors, men in rubber boots walking enormous dogs on the heath.
Uh. It’s all true. So much so that I kind of keep doing double-takes. We arrived on a Monday, cruising up a tree-lined drive past a 17th-century mansion. The next day we went walking and passed not one but two men with giant dogs. And boots, natch. The day after that, I was tempted to tell people they could just stop with the accents now.
- Ale tastes better here, in situ. It’s warming, and drinks like a meal.
- Food is a lot better than when I lived here in 1994. There’s real coffee now, not just instant, and ingredients seem fresher. Here where Peter is doing his thing, the cafeteria serves “Bramshill estate cured venison” at lunch. That’s where we are–Bramshill estate. And I saw the deer–there are scads of them. Somehow, in the U.S., there would be a law against serving that deer to people.
- The only problem with the food is that it’s still British. I mean, a good chicken-and-mushroom pie is a wonderful thing. But after a while, you crave a little spice. Spice and texture. I’ve seen “squidgy” on food packages as a point of pride, not a point of nasty.
- English English is very wordy. You see a warning sign, and you just think, Eesh, I don’t want to read all that. My editing brain is in overdrive, mentally striking out all the unnecessary words, phrases, whole sentences. But then, on the plus side, that warning sign often explains why you’re not supposed to do something, which is helpful.
- It’s a little unfortunate that the tube that goes from Heathrow into London is the Piccadilly line to Cockfosters. And then right near where we live there’s a house called Moorcocks. It goes on. And once you’re in that frame of mind, a place called Hazeley Bottom also makes you snicker.
- Footpaths are fantastic. That’s where the real PBS miniseries feeling kicks in, when you’re striding across someone else’s property, past all their orchards, on a trail that they’re obliged to maintain and signpost. Very classy. We’ve now walked many miles, as the nearest pub is at least 30 minutes away.
The gap between London and the rest of England is vast and real. Not in a bad and scary way, like the difference between rural America and New York City. I know it’s lazy journalism to quote your cab drivers, but the first one we had was resoundingly atheist, solidly left and very well informed on all manner of current issues, and was from the not-even-a-village right here.
Which reminds me of another driver we had. “Yeah, the lottery–they say the winners are very unhappy,” he told us. “It’s because they become classless, you see. They don’t know where they belong anymore.”
I’ve spent most of my traveling life thinking I needed to get below the surface, that the obvious stuff was trumped up just for tourists. Being here makes me think I’ve been getting it very wrong. Or maybe in this case, TV has been getting it right.