This Bank Holiday weekend Randi and I took the slow train to Dartmoor in an ongoing quest to explore the UK’s National Parks. I’ll cheerfully admit that we can’t compete against the US for sheer awe, but the British version of a National Park will still provide impressive walks through beautiful countryside and/or other people’s fields of sheep. I had actually forgotten when we planned this that I had already visited Dartmoor a decade ago, but this time we did things our style by rolling up to Exeter Central and then joining a small but merry band of travellers on the ‘Country Bus’ to the village of Moretonhampstead.
I was, in fact, that person who had phoned Country Bus (“the local bus operator with a friendly face”) in advance to check if they took contactless cards, and the guy at the other end (who was indeed very friendly) confirmed that – as of a few weeks ago – they did! “But, just to let you know, it’s not like using your card at Sainsbury’s where you can just tap and be done. You really have to hold it.” He was right, but I was still very impressed by the technological advance. And so we rattled on happily up and down narrow country roads (and past a road sign which said “CAT’S EYES REMOVED” which disturbed Randi as apparently they do not use this term in the US) until we arrived at our destination.
From here we followed a simple formula of eating large breakfasts, going on long walks and then eating large dinners. Wisely we decided to shell out for a paper map rather than relying on our phones, which was good because (a) I don’t think Google Maps is quite comfortable with hiking, and (b) on our second day we encountered a pair of proper walkers – one of whom sounded like a cousin of Gyles Brandreth – on top of Manaton Rocks. They were surprised and impressed that we had made it but also preemptively horrified that we might be using our phones to get around. Fortunately I could put their minds to rest with our laminated ‘Around & About’ (£3.99).
It was a simple but refreshing break, topped off on Tuesday night by the new season of Bake Off for which we were joined by Randi’s new friend Hala who had – surprisingly – never watched it before. Here’s to gentle vibes.
On Wednesday morning I received a 30th birthday e-mail from my 19 year-old self. It was sweetly good-natured as well as containing an alarmingly prescient warning about Boris Johnson, and it feels rude not to reply. To be fair, my 19 year-old self was just procrastinating from essay writing so it would probably be a bad idea to distract him even more. To make up for it, I will find some time to write a reply forward in time to my 40 year-old self instead, who I really hope has just enjoyed a birthday at least half as good as the one I’ve just had.
But I’m getting ahead of myself, and I don’t want to skip over the final few weeks of my twenties which – as promised last time – were all about settling down in our new flat and jobs and building the foundations of a routine. Our move to Tulse Hill was remarkably smooth (thanks partly to my mum who drove down a car loaded with suitcases and boxes!) and although we’re still waiting on some painting before we decorate properly the flat has slowly been filling up with everything it needs to feel like a home. In fact, on the very same day we moved in we also hopped down to IKEA Croydon to fill our backpacks with domestic essentials… and my very first journey on the hitherto mysterious world of London Trams.
In Chicago I really enjoyed my half-hour walk to and from work – not only as a chance to clear my head, but also as the perfect podcast listening time. So I’m really thrilled that I’ve been able to reproduce a 30-minute morning commute walk by heading to Brixton rather than just using the nearest station from our house. And as a bonus, I’ve swapped the industrial vibe of Goose Island (which, to be fair, I now have very fond memories of) for the breathtaking Brockwell Park. We are going to get an awful lot of use out of this park, especially on Sundays when there is an amazing farmers’ market just outside the park at Herne Hill station.
While Josh has the distinction of being our very first dinner guest, I was shocked to realise that the first people to stay overnight in our spare room would be Chicago’s very own Catherine and AJ! As I discovered when I walked into a pub on Wednesday evening and found them waiting at a table, our ‘surprise birthday weekend’ which Randi had organised for my 30th was actually for the four of us, which was both an incredible surprise and very touching that they would fly all the way here for only a couple of days. That night we joined up with my family for a plate-sharing extravaganza of Peruvian food (I was really hankering for some ají de gallina) before heading home together for the night.
On Friday morning we ate a variety of English breakfasts at our new (and currently favourite) local café before catching the train to the coast for a long weekend in a small village near Dover. I have taken the Eurostar along the High Speed 1 route before but this was my first time riding the domestic high-speed service and the incorporation of this particular bit of railway nerdery into the birthday plan seems to have been a happy accident. We were all suitably impressed by how fast it was and as we shared cans of M&S cider and snacked on Percy Pigs it was galling to learn that a similar high-speed rail link connecting Chicago, Madison, Milwaukee and Minneapolis very nearly went ahead in 2010 before being scuppered by the asinine Republican governor of Wisconsin.
I had never been to the White Cliffs of Dover before and we were incredibly lucky on Saturday to get a perfect sunny day for a long stroll along the clifftop. The clear view of France across the channel really does bring home how geographically close the two countries are and, as if to make a point, my phone kept latching on to a French mobile network and pretending it was an hour later than it was. I challenge anyone to stare down at the port of Dover from above and casually opine that the single market is a trivial thing to mess around with. Once we got to Dover Castle we appreciated the usual medieval castle features (such a sentence is much less common in the US) as well as the Roman lighthouse and a tour/exhibition on Dunkirk presented in the ‘secret wartime tunnels’ which are signposted all over the site.
When not walking we did a lot of eating and drinking, from tea to vegan sausage rolls to three different chocolate caterpillar cakes (Charlie, Colin and Connie) which are not a staple of American birthday parties but ought to be. We also binged on Channel 4 (The Secret Life of Kids USA is notably didactic about parenting techniques compared to the UK version) and played an extensive game of Grand Austria Hotel, my board game birthday present from Katie. Predictably I also got upset about the cost, frequency and general demeanour of the very-non-London bus from Dover back to St Margaret’s at Cliffe… but I must admit that they do (finally!) take contactless card payments now, which is a real gamechanger if you find yourself relying on an unfamiliar rural route.
My 19 year-old self couldn’t have predicted how I would be spending my 30th birthday or who I would be spending it with, but he did have a hunch that I’d be enjoying myself. I’m really grateful to everyone who proved him right and made it so wonderful, kicking off my thirties in an exceptionally happy way.
Happy new year! I am back in Chicago – in cold, cold Chicago – after my first Christmas back at home in four years. Usually I sorta skip past Christmas itself on this blog, but to mark the occasion I have some actual Christmas photos for once. While in London we also saw Oslo, a play about the Oslo Accords between Israel and the PLO which began as a secret, unofficial backchannel. I learnt a lot about the process, although of course it is somewhat marred by the fact that there is very obviously no peace at the end of it. In a more upbeat spirit, I hadn’t seen Chicken Run since it came out, and it is amazing. Not enough to put me off chicken pies (I had many pies in the UK) but I did start playing the soundtrack on a loop.
Not pictured: all of the games! From racing the cars inside the Christmas crackers – crackers have really upped their game since my day – to the brutality of Scrabble and, of course, the tradition of charades and my Christmas Quiz. (I don’t think I did too badly as there were no physical injuries.) We also played Codenames, Room 25, Citadels, Coloretto and that one when you have to work out the name stuck to your forehead. Oh, and we watched Doctor Who together! Although it was all a bit ponderous this year, and left me more impatient than ever for a fresh start with a new Doctor and her new adventures.
Christmas was wonderful, basically. Special thanks to Carolyn for hosting us, and to my mum for inadvertently doing some of my present wrapping for me.
After Christmas, Randi and I decided to spend a couple of days in the Peak District before New Year. Our journey there was the most British affair ever, as our train slowed to a halt due to ‘horses on the track ahead’. Network Rail had apparently sent a team to herd them away, but as we inched closer it became apparent that the train was going to perform the herding duties itself. On the one hand, it sorta beggars belief that we have literally had railways for longer than any other country and still cannot figure out a way to build a horse-proof fence. On the other hand, we were in no rush and it gave us an impromptu couple of hours to wander around Sheffield. I’d never seen Sheffield before, and it was nice!
Not as nice as the Peak District, though, which was beautiful and perfect for hiking. We did the famous ridge walk to Mam Tor, which offered great views and also an opportunity to experience some sustained and aggressive hailing for the first time. The next day it snowed, and we did some more gentle walking around Hope and the surrounding villages. It is difficult to successfully ‘stick to the track’ on a public footpath through a field which is completely covered in snow, however. Not even if you have a map.
I’m never able to see everyone I want to see in my visits home, but I did pretty well in the final few days. Randi and I had lunch at Portobello Market with Sanna, and then lots of pasanda and London Underground gossip with Simon on Brick Lane. And on New Year’s Eve, Josh and Anna hosted us and Robert for a quiet night in together. We were much less energetic than we used to be – no midnight pillow fights, just wobbly selfies – but it was exactly what I needed and a perfect way to ring in the new year.
Given that temperatures in Chicago are reaching -20°C, I do somewhat regret accidentally leaving my coat, hat and gloves behind in London. But on the other hand, it was great motivation to rush to REI and stock up on the most warming winter clothing imaginable. So hit me with your worst, Chicago. I’m ready.
For the second week of our trip, we embarked on Dom’s Complete Railway Tour of the UK (Abridged) using our magical BritRail passes, which grant non-residents an unlimited ride on trains across the country. It does feel like a scheme set up in the glory days of British Rail and then buried under a carpet, as the passes you get haven’t been updated in almost 20 years, but weirdly the merest glimpse of one is enough for a ticket inspector to decide not to bother investigating any further. And so, thus armed, we set off for our first destination. (It’s worth noting that our B&B in Bury St Edmunds was several centuries older than the country I’m writing this from.)
Our next stop was a rather wet and windy Cambridge: partly for the history, partly so I could pop into the bookshop. After a day of sightseeing and sheltering, we were joined in The Eagle by Mandler and Calaresu – two of my supervisors from uni – who were kind enough to make time for a drink and some catching up. This also proved to be Randi’s opportunity to try fish pie, which she took up with relish.
(Deviation: I do wish ordering at the bar was more of a thing in the US.)
Heading up north, we impulsively changed trains for Scarborough – which I’ve never been to before – and spent an afternoon at the seaside. There’s not a huge amount to write about Scarborough – and at one point I may have been over-ambitious in my expectations of the cliff lift “tramway” – but it was very nice to stroll along the beach and see the castle from a distance.
Our best B&B was in Durham, because we were hosted by none other than Katie “I live here” Self! The three of us had a great time together touring the city, while also finding time to stuff ourselves with a pretty representative sample of my British food longings: Indian curries, English breakfasts, jacket potatoes and lots and lots of biscuits. It’s not about food being fancy, guys, it’s just about food being great.
Talking of great: bowing to Randi’s repeated requests to see Edinburgh, we headed there next and were equally blown away by how beautiful the city is. Along with the castle, I ticked off a couple of things I didn’t manage last time, including a fantastic walking tour and a hike up Arthur’s Seat.
And of course, I checked back in with my old friend David Hume.
Finally, we headed to Windermere in the Lake District, which was a perfect place to walk and relax at the end of the holiday. There were sheep. There were cows. There was a bus which cost £4.20 per-person. Most importantly, though, there were stars at night – and it’s been a while since I’ve been in proper darkness, able to lie down and look up at the milky way.
So, that’s it: a condensed account of a whistlestop tour, which hopefully did a good job at selling the country to an American. The tourist board can thank me later.
Michele is here! And after a week of English breakfasts, a magical everlasting Indian takeaway, Russian books in Waterstones Piccadilly, pubbing with Vlad south of the river and the British Library’s exhibition on the Georgians (spoiler: they were like us but wrote in longer sentences and with fewer emoticons) we escaped the city for Valentine’s Day weekend and headed first to Salisbury.
The next morning, we took the train down into the New Forest and began our hike from Brockenhurst to Burley. It turns out that the advisable, direct, ‘sane’ route between these two villages is a pretty boring trek by the side of the road, so we made a detour off into the woods and were soon embroiled in an adventure of mud, slippery logs over flooded rivers, fallen trees and wonderfully helpful fellow travellers. By the time we arrived it was almost sundown, but it was with a great sense of achievement that we collapsed into the wonderful deer room, revived ourselves with pub food and watched Robin Hood. Y’know, Disney’s Robin Hood – the awesome one with the music from the Hampster* Dance.
(*Yes, it was spelled this way.)