I think I owe England an apology.
I’ve realized that I’ve spent a lot of time essentializing “England” in my mind, as if it’s a place that you can actually get to know in a short time. At some point in the last six months, I managed to convince myself that, having done the drive between London and Oxford a few times, I had gotten a pretty good handle on what “England” is. Almost comical comparisons between the size of the U.K. and the U.S.—the whole island is smaller than Oregon, after all—made me think that somehow it is a homogenous and predictable place.
Such a staid and jaded perspective can only be solved by one thing: a road trip. Last week, my housemate Christoph, Jeff (a friend from Princeton who rather amazingly decided to grace me with a visit!), and I rented a car and headed out for a two-day jaunt to the northern regions of the misty kingdom. And while I’m not particularly good at writing travel narratives, our trip did a good enough job at curing my exam-studying blues that I figure a write-up is in order.
Our first destination was Chipping Campden (nestled somewhere between Stow-on-the-Wold and Little Slaughter – yes, really), but we didn’t make it all the way before I insisted we pull over to photograph the wildlife. Sheep, that is. With friends scattered around the world taking safaris and elephant rides, it’s a little bit sad that my adventures in foreign lands have me photographing sheep, but my, are lambs cute. I have far more pictures of sheep from this trip than will ever likely surface. I guess New Zealand ought to be high on my list of future destinations.
Chipping Campden itself was exactly as quaint as expected. The village is tiny and, despite being renowned as the most adorable town in the Cotswalds, still feels sufficiently un-touristy that I was convinced I was experiencing “real” rural England. While there’s not much to say about a town that appears to have no economic activity other than antique shops, I do like the idea that in the year 2010 there can till be a tourist destination for which my guidebook lists “thatched roofs” as the main attraction.
We continued North, but sidetracked to cross a few standard sights off our lists. Warwick Castle would look cheesy even compared to an American renaissance fair, and at eighteen pounds admission, we decided to just stand on a bench and take a few pictures over the fence. Statford-upon-Avon has, somewhat disappointingly, moved on from its Shakespearean glory days and is now, well, a town. Next up was Ironbridge Gorge, birthplace of the industrial revolution. We were sorely tempted by the Museum of Pipes and the Tile Museum, but pushed on past Manchester to the Lake District.
As it turns out, England is a bit larger than expected (at least, long-ways) and so we didn’t make it to our destination before dark. We went straight to our hostel. Christoph – who is an M.B.A. and spent the last few years working as a consultant – was a bit horrified at the prospect of staying in a twenty-two bed dorm room, but I was immediately reminded of why I love hostels. The guy at check-in managed to combine both charm and incoherence, acting like he had never done this before (“Uh, I guess, uh, you can go to your room now. Pay whenever.”) and failing to correctly count out the six beers we ordered. We walked outside and enjoyed the clear night – a rarity, I’m told – and stars better than any I’ve seen since I left Flagstaff.
When we woke up the next morning, I was convinced I had been transported to Yellowstone, or Middle Earth, or really anywhere but England. We were surrounded by snow-topped crags (I think they’re called “fells”) and our hostel was right on the bank of a mountain lake. The whole thing felt surreal: alien-looking moss, rugged feral sheep, archaic stone bridges, and locals speaking a language identifiable as English but otherwise unintelligible.
My man-hormones were telling me we needed to immediately find something tall and climb it, so we drove up a valley until we encountered an imposing looking cliff and waterfall. Free-climbing the mountain side was an incredibly liberating feeling, though credit (or is it Darwin award?) should go to Jeff, who in an display of astonishingly good judgment decided he would take off his shoes half-way through our ascent and brave the sharp rocks and near-freezing wet ground barefoot. Hey, if the sheep can do it…
We spent the rest of our afternoon wandering between mountain valleys and relaxing in tiny hamlets. If I were in the U.S., I would probably find human settlements all over a national park to be blasphemous, but here, they seem to just meld into the landscape – it’s almost impossible to imagine this place without stone walls snaking through it. We closed our adventures with a quick trip to a stone circle and drove home: it’s a bit ridiculous that just 24 hours later I was at a club in London.
It’s easy to sink into the trap of thinking places are timeless when they are, in fact, constantly evolving, but if ever there was a place that seemed to me like a window into the past, it’s here. At the same time, though, it was nice to have my expectations shocked a bit. I’m already one-third of the way done with my degree, but I’ve got a lot of exploring left to do.
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Jukebox: Zwan – Endless Summer