Impressions of Great Britain

I spent the first two months of 2018 in a flat in Northumberland, England, and for the month of March I’m staying in a little town called Blaenavon in South Wales.  By now, I’ve become quite accustomed to life in the U.K., and I love it here!  Here are a few observations from a foreigner:

Weather

The Northumberland weather was a pleasant surprise.  With a latitude somewhere between Vancouver and Anchorage, and just an hour and a half drive south of the Scottish border, I expected it to be frigid.  Instead, being just a couple of miles from the North Sea on the east coast, the winter weather was more like Seattle:  damp, dark and cloudy, with temperatures generally in the 40’s.  In early January, the sun rose around 8:30 and set at 3:30, making for a short window of usually gray daylight.

What I really did not expect were the lovely green landscapes in the middle of the winter:

View of the landscape from a graveyard in Ford, Northumberland

As time has passed, I’ve noticed a very significant change in the number of hours of daylight every day – it’s staying light later and later, at a much faster pace that back home in Pennsylvania.  Obviously, that’s a function of the latitude here, but interesting to experience and have it be so noticeable.

They say it rarely snows here, which it didn’t much for the first two months, until the “Beast from the East” arrived at the end of February – more on that in another post!

Lodging

Both places I’ve stayed so far have been perfect for me, and in great locations, within walking distance to shops and restaurants.   A few things about the units are different than what we’re accustomed to in the U.S.

The electrical outlets here have on and off switches.  After a few frustrations thinking that my phone was charging when it wasn’t, I learned to always check that switch.  And there are no electrical outlets in the bathroom – at first I thought it was a quirk of my flat, but I learned that it’s a law here.  There was no light above the mirror in the bathroom in my Northumberland flat, and the one here in Blaenavon is quite useless – I get the impression that that’s typical as well.  So I had to find someplace else to plug in my electric toothbrush, and to do my hair and makeup.  Not a big deal – just different!

Outlet example – on and off switches are in the center.

The heating/hot water systems here are very in-your-face.  In both of my flats, the boiler was visibly hanging on a wall in the kitchen, like this:

The boiler in my kitchen in Wales

My experience with heating systems is pretty much limited to adjusting the thermostat.  At the flat in Northumberland, the fix for an issue with the boiler involved help from a neighbor to make a little tweak because of a change in water pressure or something.  In my house in Blaenavon, I’ve re-set the boiler often, sometimes multiple times in a day, because it seems to randomly stop working.

There are radiators in every room in the house, which have these little knobs down near the floor which you use to control the temperature in each room.  They’re very useful for drying clothes!

Typical radiator, with control knob at the bottom right.

The refrigerator and freezer in both places were smaller than the ones in my RV, which was fine for me being just one person.  For a family, I imagine they must need to visit the grocery store more often than once per week.

Driving

I thought I wouldn’t care about the weather because my genealogy research is very much an indoor hobby.  But as it turned out, initially I wasn’t comfortable driving in either the rain or the dark, which was quite limiting until I adjusted.

Every single time I got into my rental car, I chanted out loud “left, left, left” so I would remember to stay on the left side of the road.  Old habits are hard to break, and I had this fear that if I lost my concentration and focus, I would surely end up on the incorrect side of the road and cause a major accident.

Not only do they drive on the other side of the road, but the British use roundabouts way more often than standard intersections, and they’re completely intimidating at first.  For one thing, everything is backwards.  And there are rules for right of way, which lane to use, turn signal etiquette, and when it’s OK to go right through.

The roads can be extremely narrow, with no shoulder, so it’s critical to be very comfortable with the dimensions of your car.  I don’t know if it’s true, but my theory is that many of the buildings and stone walls were constructed before the automobile was invented, so they can be very close to the road.  Adding to that, cars are often parked directly in the driving lane when in a town, which means you have to weave in and out of the parked cars if traffic is coming the other way.   That’s normal here.

When I first arrived, I bought a British GPS, which they call a sat nav.  I wouldn’t be able to function without it!  The typical way to enter your destination is to use the post code, which is like a zip code only more specific.  So, I had to learn to be prepared each outing with the post code for the sat nav.

Distances here are measured in miles, which is extremely helpful and familiar.  When it came to filling up the tank, though, I had no idea how much the gas cost because it’s expressed in pounds (the British currency) per litre.  After a little calculation, much to my shock and dismay, I learned it’s about $6.33 per gallon!  My little Vauxhall Corsa gets about 40 mpg’s, so at least there’s that.

Oh, and one of the multiple times I had to call roadside assistance was when my rental car, with less than 500 miles on it, seemed to lose acceleration at certain times, as though it had run out of gas.  When the tow truck arrived and the mechanic took the car for a drive, everything worked fine, which was of course extremely embarrassing.  After it happened again, I took it back to Hertz to exchange it for a different car, and they “mansplained” that I had  set the “speed limiter” to engage at 17 mph.  Speed limiter?  Never heard of it.  Turns out its controls are on the steering wheel, so I must have hit them accidentally.  It resets when you turn the car off and back on again, which explains why the roadside mechanic didn’t find a problem.  Lesson learned!

Speaking of limiting speed, it took awhile for me to realize that the camera signs on the side of the road weren’t indications of a scenic viewpoint ahead, but a warning about the presence of speed cameras.  Camera sightings triggered frantic beeps from my sat-nav as well, which were so annoying that I had to disable that feature.  The minimum fine for speeding here is about $140, so it’s no wonder they take it so seriously!

Speed camera sign, from wikimedia commons

I did eventually become comfortable with driving here, to the point where I’m sure it will be an adjustment when I get back home and have to learn to drive on the right, right, right again!

Grocery Shopping

Grocery shopping was initially very time consuming, because so many items were unfamiliar, and, like the gas, I couldn’t figure out how much things cost.  Weights are in kilograms, so price is expressed in terms of pounds (the currency) per kilogram.

For example, a simple purchase like finding half and half for my coffee stumped me.  There’s single cream, double cream, clotted cream, whipping cream – but nothing called half and half.  After some experimentation, I decided that single cream is what I like in my coffee.

The bakery items are fascinating, including scones, hot cross buns, meat pies, and crumpets.  Do you know what a crumpet is?  Because I didn’t, but when I saw it, I was so tickled to realize that it’s very similar to our “English muffin”!

This is a crumpet.

All over the UK, it’s BYOB when you’re shopping:  Bring Your Own Bag.  It was difficult to remember at first, and I showed up at the store plenty of times without one.  In California and Seattle, they also expect you to BYOB.  Now that I’ve gotten used to it, I like the policy and think we need to adopt it everywhere – it just makes good sense to reuse your shopping bags.

In the little town of Blaenavon here in Wales, I often see people walking to the local market carrying their empty shopping bags.  So now, I do the same!

The Language

Although English is spoken here (duh!), there are a wide variety of accents, and in combination with the use of different words for many things, it can be surprisingly challenging to understand sometimes.

In Northumberland, they call it a “Geordie” accent (pronounced with a hard “G”).  One time, I was chatting with an older man who was a retired miner, and frankly, could hardly understand anything he said.  All I could do was smile, nod, and feel foolish.

Another time, I asked someone where he lived, and he said something that sounded like “Geetz-ud”.  Sounded like a German name to me.  It’s a silly question anyway to ask when you’re not familiar with the area, but I had absolutely no clue what he was saying until I asked him to spell it.  It was Gateshead, which I knew was right near Newcastle.

I remember coming home from our year in England when I was 14, and speaking like a native Brit.  I was a total mimic, as we all are when we’re that age and just want to fit in.  I’m obviously not doing that this time, but I do find that I’m thinking with a British accent – so funny to realize!  I imagine that happening when you immerse yourself in a culture with a different language, but not necessarily when it’s English!

I truly love it here.  As a history junkie, I especially enjoy all of the centuries-old buildings – the castles, the cathedrals, the parish churches – which are everywhere.  My son, a real estate agent, posted this photo recently, of a lovely historic home in Bucks County, Pennsylvania.

Bucks County Historic Home, posted by Newtopias

We treasure these rare gems in the U.S.  Here, they’re completely typical and part of everyday life.  Here’s an example in the little town of Hauxley in Northumberland:

A common scene in the U.K.

I’m soaking it all in while I can!

January in Northumberland

I pretty much figured that the two months I spent in Northumberland would zoom by, and of course they did.  My time there was a satisfying balance of research, socializing, and sightseeing.  As I’ve mentioned before, some of my extended family lives there (Kay and Peter), and my fourth cousin (John) visited from the south, which made all the difference in my comfort level in an unfamiliar place.

I was eager to get to the Northumberland Archives, and they were only open four days per week, so during the first week of January, I spent several days there doing research along with my cousin John.  I’ll post separately about my genealogy finds.

Northumberland Archives at Woodhorn Museum, Ashington

On the first Sunday of January, I made the short walk down the street to St. Cuthbert’s Anglican Church, where my great grandmother, Mary Payne, was baptized in 1871.  I stayed for the service, and afterwards Vicar Ian was extremely welcoming, offering to take me on an historical tour of the area the following week.  Naturally, I accepted!

St. Cuthbert’s in Bedlington

A few days later, Vicar Ian took John and I to all the local places meaningful to my family, including the beach.  He told us that the coal companies provided the mining families with coal for heating their homes, and that benefit was withheld for striking miners, so during those times, they would have had to scavenge for coal.

The North Sea, showing pieces of coal on the beach
I’d never seen a coal fire before!

We saw St. Peter’s Church at Cambois (pronounced CAM-us), where several of the Payne and Weightman children were baptized.  Unfortunately, it’s now a private home, so we weren’t able to enter it.

St. Peter’s Church at Cambois

We took the Vicar out to lunch at Charlton’s Bar and Restaurant in Cambois, which apparently is owned by Jack Charlton, an English football legend.  He was actually there that day – but much to everyone’s surprise, I had never heard of him, so it didn’t mean much to me.  I was more interested in imagining the historic building as it was back in the days when my ancestors lived there!

Cousin John stayed with me for a week, and together we visited a couple of local libraries, went to the Mining Institute in Newcastle, and took a delightful road trip to Shilbottle and Warkworth which were significant parishes in the lives of our Weightman ancestors.

St. Lawrence church in Warkworth, where my ancestress Jane Weightman and her siblings were baptized in the mid-1800’s.
Altar at St. Lawrence Church in Warkworth

One night, we had plans to go out to dinner with a couple who are long-time friends of John’s, and who are both blind.  We drove a half hour to Newcastle to pick them up, loaded them in the car, and then John’s car wouldn’t start.  While John took care of the car, I was assigned the job of walking the blind couple to a restaurant which was through a dark park in an area where I had never been – all I can say is thank goodness for smart phones, because I totally relied on the map as well as the flashlight feature to guide me!  All worked out well, and we enjoyed a lovely dinner.

John went back to his home near London in mid-January, and by then, Kay and Peter were feeling much better, both of them having been sick for several weeks.  Kay and I enjoyed a couple of afternoons at her dining room table with our computers, comparing our family trees and working on problem solving together.

Kay frequently invited me to have dinner at her house, and one time I went to her sister’s for a meal.  They were all incredibly generous, going way above and beyond to make me feel very welcome.  They took me to visit Newcastle a couple of times, where the Northumberland and Durham Family History Society is located.

A street view in Newcastle

At the end of the month, Kay and Peter invited me to see their two granddaughters perform in a “Pantomime” at the local community center.  To me, a pantomime involves miming (silent acting), but I learned that a pantomime in Britain is a traditional musical comedy stage production.

Pantomime flyer, from bookwhen.com

According to Wikipedia, it “includes songs, gags, slapstick comedy and dancing, employs gender-crossing actors, and combines topical humour with a story loosely based on a well-known fairy tale, fable, or folk tale.  It is a participatory form of theatre in which the audience is expected to sing along with certain parts of the music and shout out phrases to the performers.”

The whole thing was hysterical and the children were adorable – I couldn’t wipe the smile off my face! I truly loved it and I hope I can see another one someday.

Sounds like a pretty darn amazing January, right??  Certainly nothing like any I’ve experienced before.  And more to come!