Saturday, 16 September 2017

An Ode to England

Dave and me, March 2017
Just off Palace Green, in Durham
I intended this blog as a reflection on life in another country -- specifically England, where Dave and I've made our home for more than two years. But "Wuthering Yankee" soon became a different creature than the one I had planned; the political landscape of late 2016 and so far of 2017 seemed to require my looking back -- at my roots in the United States, at the people and places I came from before I landed on this other shore of the Atlantic.

Today's post will be my last for "Wuthering Yankee." In honor of my original purpose for this blog,  and in honor of my adopted country, I've decided to sign off with a list of what I've come to love about England.

Here it is, then, in no particular order:

1. The walking culture. Everyone walks in England. Tiny tots who would almost surely be in strollers,* in the U.S.; old frail-looking people with canes; schoolkids on their way to and from school; teenagers on dates; middle-aged couples headed to parties. At all hours of the day, when I look out my windows onto Albert Street, there is at least one person walking up or down our long hill.

I love the walking culture because it encourages a lighter carbon footprint. I love it because it encourages overall good health, for people of all shapes, sizes, and ages. I love it because it fosters a sense of community, too. The center of Durham, thick with shops and restaurants and pubs, is also thick with people. You almost always run into someone you know, while you're walking in town or doing your shopping.

Typical summer day in Durham
Too, you almost always hear at least one street busker -- often four or five, in a given walk -- singing or playing guitar, or trombone, or the bagpipes.

The pedestrian culture also makes such features as the Durham Market and the Saturday outdoor market -- which happens all year round, in all weather -- viable enterprises. People arrive at both markets on foot; the markets are big, friendly, pedestrian spaces right here in the center of town.

All the pedestrians out and about in our town gives Durham a sense of vibrancy and face-to-face engagement that seems hard to find in many U.S. towns of this size.

2. All the footpaths. England is threaded with footpaths, which cut through all kinds of property -- public, private, farm- or business-owned -- and are open to everyone. (You just make sure to close the gate firmly behind you, if you're walking through a cow or sheep pasture.) In my experience, these paths -- even the ones that cut through deep woods or along lonely cliffs -- are well maintained. And people use them. On footpaths alone, you can walk the length and breadth of the country in 100 ways. So far, I've mainly used footpaths as a shortcut to a friend's house or for an afternoon's jaunt, but it's also a common practice to use them for week-long walking tours or walking vacations. I can't think of a better way to see the country.

One of the many footpaths
outside of Durham.
3. Carry bags. (Re-usable shopping bags.) My impression is that every household in England owns several of these. You hang them on the coat rack beside the door, and take them with you whenever you're shopping. Yes, you do see some people carrying groceries or other purchases in plastic bags, but it's much rarer than in the U.S. It's assumed here that you'll bring your own re-usable bag. ("Do you need a bag?" clerks sometimes ask, and if you do, they charge you five pence for one.)

4. No clothes driers, no ACs. Surely there are some, in some houses, but it's far from the norm. It's another way that I see people in England living out their ecological concerns.

It's true that the climate of England makes it easier for most people to live without air-conditioning than it would be in much of the U.S. (Here, opening a window is often the most you need to do!) On the other hand, the English weather would seem a real obstacle to drying your clothes on a rack or a clothesline. But everyone whose house I've seen in England does find a way to do this.

5. The weather. Seriously. English weather gets a bad rap in general. Yes, it's fairly rainy. Yes, it's hard to guarantee that, even at the peak of summer, you'll ever have a really hot, jump-in-the-swimming-pool day, at least here in the North of England. But I find the overall climate to be very mild and unstressful. So it rains some. You wear a raincoat, or carry an umbrella. (Really, most English people don't seem to mind a little drizzle falling onto their heads. I'm often breaking out my umbrella when everyone else on the street is still walking along, uncovered.) But the English rain passes quickly. It's rarely a downpour. A typical day, in my experience, involves waves of sun and cloud and light rain breaking over the land at gentle intervals.

Speaking of temperate weather:
Here's a tree blooming in late December!
Maybe it's just me, but after having grown up in the heat and humidity of North Carolina summers -- then having lived through ten years of Chicago winters -- I find the temperature of Northern England to be quite mild. Highs in 70s / 20s (F/C) in the summer; lows in the 30s / 0s (F/ C) in the winter: You do get four different seasons, but none of them slam you.

6. The general attitude toward the weather. No one, as mentioned above, really seems to mind a little rain. They just have the appropriate clothes for it. They go right out into the wet. I've been at backyard barbecues where it started to rain, and everyone just carried on barbecuing and eating and standing around in the rain. Similarly, the winter months don't turn Durham into a ghost town, with everyone hunkered inside. The outdoor markets continue; there is outdoor seating (with heat lamps) year round. People just sit out there, having their pint of ale or their fish and chips, in their coats and hats.

I really do love this -- this straight-on engagement with, or defiance of, local inclement weather. You get the impression that people around here are pretty well acclimated or adapted to their environment.

Outdoor eating (and drinking!) in midwinter.
7. The railways. Just as the country is threaded with footpaths, so too it is webbed with rail lines. It's an efficient, environmentally friendly, generally low-cost and stress-free way to get yourself almost anywhere in the UK. Driving to London from Durham, for example, takes five hours if you're lucky -- the last hour of that through dense suburban traffic -- but Dave and I can walk from our house to the train station in five minutes and catch a train that will take us to London in under three hours. Plus, rather than having to keep your eyes on to the road, you get to sit back and look out the train window.

Dave and I have not owned a car since 2003. This has had much to do, obviously, with where we have lived: Guatemala City, Chicago, and now Durham, England. In this country, I love that I can get almost anywhere I want to by train -- or by some combination of train / bus / metro. Some of my favorite trips recently have been to visit my friend Marta, who rented a summer cabin in Dumfries and Galloway, Scotland, or to visit the seaside resort town of Saltburn with my friend Jo -- two trips I made by train.**

Marta and I at the Dumfries rail station.

Jo and I touring Saltburn-by-the-Sea

8. I could go on and on about what I love in this place. Hen and stag parties on weekend nights in the streets of Durham and Newcastle. Mushy peas. Extremely well-behaved dogs. How the sea is never more than 50 miles away, wherever you go in England. Swans on the rivers. How people in this part of the country say "aye" and "ta" ("yes" and "thank you"). Bubble and squeak and white bait on the menu. Kids playing on beaches -- in their coats and Wellies -- all year round. Dave's happiness teaching at Durham University, and how the kids in his classes really like and appreciate him -- despite (or possibly because of) his rigor as professor! University students walking to around in the twilight in black tie and evening dresses. Pub culture. The grocer on North Road who yells about his fruit for sale. An eleventh-century castle and a World Heritage Site-listed cathedral in view out my living room window.

It's not perfect, of course. Of course, no place is. But I feel lucky and grateful to have landed, at least for now, in this windy, friendly, rain-and-sun-mottled sweet green corner of the globe.

View out our window: train on the viaduct, cathedral behind the winter tree.
A hen do! (The stag do's look equally entertaining.)

Me in the North Sea: It was chilly!

* They're called "pushchairs," in the UK. Can I just say that I love this?
** Also, doesn't this look like one of the most fun ideas ever -- to hop on a sleeper car in London one night and wake up in the Scottish Highlands?