Ever since leaving England, and probably far before that, I became incredibly cynical about the motherland. My personal outlook before I left for the other side of world, my gradual decline into disgust at our military policy and the country’s general negative outlook, to name just a few, festered in me. Ironically I’ve seen little of the land I spent my first 25 years in and only embraced travel when living in Australia and eventually being in an economic situation to do so. I fell for Sydney and it’s been a passionate, unbreakable affair ever since.
My wife would regularly remind me when she was living in London, “You never took me anywhere!” although she did herself travel to every corner of Europe in just a year. She naturally has been the catalyst for our travel and the decision to take a month honeymoon to England, New York, Paris and Mexico. I have to confess the UK part of the trip was not my most anticipated, excluding seeing the family of course, that hilariously became more and more like an episode from the genius comedy Gavin and Stacey. I was ready to embrace bad coffee, overdose on tea I didn’t even want and watch Hollyoaks, Coronation Street and Eastenders in that order as I huddled under a duvet on the sofa.
But my steely resolve was to be tested when we embarked on a couple of days in London but more crucially, a Bath and Stonehenge tour by The English Bus Company. Arriving early at Kennington Tube Station on Good Friday we boarded a 16-seater bus. Chris, the driver and tour owner, greeted us looking and sounding extremely polite and pleasant, like a casual English gent in his suede boots, jeans, blazer and striped shirt combo sporting a cool look that may reach Sydney’s shores in 2020.
Immediately comparisons in his speaking style with the English comedian Michael McIntyre filled my head, albeit thankfully a less erratic one. First impressions were good as Chris mentioned Hollywood actress Mila Kunis had taken the exact same tour previously. As he navigated through South and then South West London he described every major landmark and the history behind it in a concise but through way, churning information that had me sounding like a broken record saying: “Wow, I didn’t know that.” From Battersea Power Station past the gaudy ‘Peace Pagoda’ (a gift from Japan that now serves as a cheap set for Kung-Fu movies) through Pimlico, Chelsea and finally to a view of Windsor Castle Chris took us out of the rat race.
With a mixture of Australians, Americans and just my Nan, mum and I the only English contingent, we laughed when Chris asked our international friends if they thought the country road we were driving on was small. Immediately he turned onto a winding country lane that literally only one car could fit down. This was your quintessential English countryside scene. My wife Carolina was stunned by the regular bright yellow fields of rapeseed crop (the product Canola Oil) that formed a patchwork against the green rolling fields. She was even more stunned by “thatch” and the thatched roofs of cottages along the road, something she had never seen before in modern Australia. My explanation failed to do it justice, as she still looked puzzled.
As the roads opened up we entered Marlborough, a beautiful town that has the widest high street in the United Kingdom, and is home to Princess Kate’s former boarding school, an impressive site itself. However the high street is starting to show the town’s submission to the major high street brands as the local stores have been gradually smothered.
Chris faithfully kept us updated over the speaker system about the prehistoric burial site mounds that appeared in fields and the imposing man-made Silbury Hill. We meandered past the lavish estate of the South African family that own chicken restaurant chain Nandos and looked forward to the “Secret Location” we were being taken to. Before entering this hidden gem we vowed to Chris not to reveal the name of the village but I can say it was like stepping back in time and we took a short wander around the place in awe. A real-life set to many famous films and television programmes, the National Trust had been handed the village after World War II and they were doing a damn good job preserving it. It even housed a pub that had been operating since 1381, a mind-boggling statistic.
Munching on the complimentary teacake, back on the bus we headed towards Bath, through Charles Dickens’ regular haunt in Pickwick and hitting the expected traffic jam entering the Roman town. Entering Bath took me back to a past trip to Edinburgh, the Georgian architecture and huge golden stone town houses lining the streets. As Chris pointed out we Brits like symmetry and are still fairly conservative in many aspects of life. We are reminded of the Royal connection as we pass Norland College, a world famous education facility for nannies such as baby Prince George’s current staff and enlightened on the regular blocked-up windows, a relic of the ‘Window Tax’ and the origin of the term “Daylight Robbery”.
Being the only UNESCO World Heritage site in the UK, the city of Bath is one of the country’s most prosperous as shown by “The Circus”, a circular residential street with five story town houses. The mega-rich street has a curious history including a German World War II bomb landing on the circular green at the centre of the street, creating a crater seen today, and the fact Nicholas Cage owned number seven. In what is surely a future Hollywood blockbuster, the story of number seven didn’t end there, the subsequent buyer owning a company that sold bomb detectors to governments around the world. The detectors were in fact $20 golf-ball detectors and after amassing a reported £14 million he was finally jailed last year, the number seven now removed from the house’s front door.
Just a short walk away is the most prestigious street in Bath, The Royal Crescent, opened by Queen Victoria in 1830, her only visit to Bath because during the opening ceremony she overheard a resident’s disgust at her aesthetically-challenged appearance. To be fair to the man it was widely acknowledged, of course unfairly, that she had fell from the ugly tree hitting mass branches on her way.
The most controversial site in Bath was next on the list. The “Roman” Baths which are not in fact Roman as they were rebuilt and developed many times over the past few hundred years, with the original Roman city and its remains far below street level. The baths remained in use until an unfortunate death in 1978 when a young girl developed meningitis after swallowing some of the water, when biologists concerns were confirmed. From 1978 to 2006 there were no actual baths in Bath, as the powers that be debated but did very little, until the new modern spa facility was built adjoining the former baths. Controversy surrounded the project and after the original £15 million budget ballooned to £45 million, the planned 2002 opening finally happened four years later. Seeing the finished article first hand left me underwhelmed. A glass-panelled wall down one side of the building does not quite fit with the cobbles, architecture and Bath stone.
We set off for Stonehenge in the late afternoon and the journey in between was just as intriguing. At one stage we passed through an area that looked much like the fields we had seen earlier, just not as lush and green (or yellow). Then a few road signs flashed past the window, at first glance looking like a standard red triangle and symbol, until we noticed they actually said “Tanks Crossing”. This surreal revelation can be compared to the “Kangaroo Crossing” or “Camels Crossing” signs seen back at home in Australia, albeit a slightly more intense version. It transpired the British Army use these fields for training exercises.
Pulling into the visitor centre at Stonehenge our guide Chris became slightly more passionate when he described the farce that surrounded its building. Opened in late 2013 not one tour guide was consulted and at a cost of £27 million apart from some wooden panelling it looked more like something you would see at an airport. It was complete with roof “design holes” that allowed cannons of water to soak sheltered visitors when it rained and a ticket office tunnel that faced the wrong way giving gale force winds the chance to penetrate so strong that they soon realised the building had been built facing the wrong way. Add to that an inefficient shuttle bus system that broke down days after opening and you get to see why Chris harboured a little resentment.
His cheeriness was not depleted however when he spoke of his passion for Stonehenge and the need to think as our prehistoric ancestors may have. No one truly knows what Stonehenge was for but what was clear as we walked around the circular site was the feat it would have taken to build. Although not as vast as I had imagined you could not help be impressed by the fact we were standing where others had stood thousands of years ago. The burial mounds that are dotted around the area add to the mystery.
As we headed back to London Chris pointed out that generally Britain is not a travelling nation, but we also do not appreciate or are aware of the history and beauty on our doorstep. This is not helped by a notorious reputation to spend obscene amounts of money over a long period of time on an “enquiry” or an “investigation” or “research”, without actually doing anything. Perhaps, no, most certainly the government could spend more on media advertising telling people about what is great about Britain and highlighting the National Trust’s properties or sites under their control.
I’m still not clear on what makes someone or something British, be it tradition, conservatism, the ability to remain proud, or to pretend outwardly everything is ok when it is not, but what is certain is my desire to learn more about my birthplace is stronger. Especially the unrivalled history and the rural towns that made the country great. Most tourists believe by going to London they have seen the “UK”; I used to be one of them. It’s ironic that as I write this Prince William and Princess Katherine (Kate to us Brits) are touring Australia’s sights and generating ridiculous levels of media coverage, when they could be drawing more attention to their homeland. More importantly as I have started to feel more Australian than ever, my appreciation for the motherland has ensured I will be back and I have not given up on her yet.