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!

7 thoughts on “Impressions of Great Britain

  1. You bring back memories of my one trip to England after I finished my masters. I drove 600 miles from London to the tip of Cornwall and back, blowing out two tires. One in a “traffic calming” area in Leedstown which teens changed for me and one on a crown road near Tintagel Castle which I changed. Yes, I had to buy two tires for a car I never saw again! Then there was the time when I almost entered the roundabout from the wrong direction! I drove the M4, one of their limited access roads and tiny roads in St. Ives. No sat nav then, just maps. It was white knuckle driving mostly because there were rarely “laybys” or shoulders to stop to get calmer. I too thought and even spoke with somewhat of an English accent and I was only there two weeks! I remember bemoaning things being different when I sat at a restaurant on the M4 for tea and waiting for my check and the waitress saying you just go to the register and they will know. I just wanted something to be the same! Every so many years I get out the photo albums (600 photos) and the journals I wrote to relive my trip.

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  2. As a Brit now living in Israel I really loved this post. I really really really miss powerpoints (or as you call them outlets) with switches. I find it bizarre to have socks in the bathroom – they terrify me! I really miss crumpets – so much so I wrote a blog post about them! (yes really I am not spamming https://417daysayear.wordpress.com/2014/03/23/crumpets/) oh and I promise you that the boiler issue is just a cheap job or a rental issue. Mostly they are found hidden well away in garages and lofts where no one would see them or behind a cupboard door.

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  3. Cousin John here (-:

    I’ve enjoyed your “observations as a foreigner”. Here are a few responses (some as a fellow foreigner – I grew up in Germany, but have been back for over 30 years):

    Weather – yes, Britain is generally warmer than you’d expect from the latitude, mainly due to the “Gulf stream”, an ocean current that flows here from the Caribbean. [Some valleys in the “West Country” – Cornwall etc. – where it actually hits Britain actually have almost sub-tropical microclimates.] And the change in the length of days as Spring progresses is indeed noticeable – even to those of use from the south of England when we visit Northumberland (and points north). [On the east side, there’s a lot of England – Northumberland is a long county! north of Newcastle, before you get to Scotland: at lot of even English people do not realise this. The border is closer to north/south than east/west.]

    I too (having grown up in Germany) find having all the electrical sockets switched rather odd! (And the plugs – to British Standard 1363 – very big, and also prone to lying with their prongs in the air, waiting to be stepped on with bare feet!) And yes, it is a safety regulation that normal outlets are not allowed in a bathroom, although special ones (usually built into an over-mirror lamp) for shavers and, indeed, toothbrush chargers _are_ allowed. I think the flats [apartments] you stayed in were converted with _some_ aspects being on the cheap; most homes, and certainly hotels, would have a “shaver socket”. As another has said, the boiler [you used the English word: I gather the American word is normally furnace! (Which to English ears is something you’d only find in a foundry, blacksmith, or similar …)] is usually more concealed than the one you’ve shown, though not necessarily in the attic. (Also sounds as if your one in Wales is faulty,)

    Freezers and ‘fridges: families often have a second one in the garage, if they have a garage.

    You are not alone in finding roundabouts intimidating – I think most Europeans do too (they’re far commoner here than in most western European countries; I don’t know why!). For driving matters in general, it’s probably not a bad idea to get a copy of “the Highway Code” – a government-produced booklet, which should be findable in any good bookshop, or some newsagents, for a reasonable price. As well as behaviours, it will also explain roadsigns, our weird road-edge markings (don’t park on yellow lines!), “national speed limits” (30, 60, and 70), and other such matters. There’s also usually _some_ guides to such matters (though more likely just roadsigns) in the front of some “road atlases”, available from most bookshops and also garages (filling stations).

    You are of course quite right that a lot of England was indeed constructed before the car, so is too small for it, or doesn’t have space for it so people have to park where they can. (Even the parts built after the car became common _tend_ to be too small, since modern safety regulations have meant cars are now much bigger – in particular, wider – than they were in Britain up to say 1960-1980ish. We never had really big cars – partly because the country _is_ just too small [and/or winding], partly because we didn’t have oil until the 1970s. If you _see_ many British cars before about then, you’ll see what I mean – the _original_ mini [now rare; the BMW version is much bigger] being an extreme example, of course.)

    For what it’s worth, I’d never heard of a speed limiter on a private car, either!

    Groceries: pork is much cheaper than beef here (I had the feeling that this was unexpected?), and “half and half” for milk does indeed mean nothing here: milk is either skimmed, semi-skimmed, or full cream (or Channel Islands, which is even creamier but rare), but then there are the various kinds of cream too. I’m glad you found one that was what you wanted! The bakery items also vary by region, though there are things (pasties, pies, crumpets) you’ll get everywhere. (Northumberland, for example, has “stottie cakes” – not really a cake – and “singin’ hinnies”; other regions have their own specialities.)
    Actually, that’s a general principle: regional differences in all things are quite pronounced, despite it being a small country compared to even some states.
    The bring your own bag rule only came in in the last year or two: actually, what came in was that shops can still supply bags, but now have to charge 5p for them. Introduced not really to raise revenue (I doubt it even covers costs), but to limit plastic bag use: they were becoming a definite litter problem, and of course still are in the world’s oceans. Though it was rather resented by many when introduced, people are in general quite pleased with it now. (FWIW, if shopping by car, I use a cardboard box – you can usually get one from the fruit and vegetable part of a supermarket, when they’re empty of apples or whatever.) Residents, especially the more elderly, often use a shopping trolley (thing on wheels you drag, I mean, not the sort you use to go round the supermarket),
    I remember that miner we met: yes, he did speak broad Geordie (Bedlington variant)! Be not ashamed: a lot of British people don’t understand too well a broad accent from an area they didn’t grow up in (and the Geordie one is one of the strongest – alongside Brummie [Birmingham], Scouse, Yorkshire, and of course the many Scottish and Welsh variants).
    Yes, we do tend to take our old buildings etc. for granted, as we’re surrounded by them, or at least see them when we go into most town centres. (Northumberland is also pretty rich in castles and stately homes – Bamburgh [pronounced bamberuh!] is a particularly fine example.) Much of our ordinary housing stock, especially in what were industrial areas, is well over 100-150 years old, for example (actually more of a problem than a boon for those who live in it, as maintenance is more arduous, and there’s less insulation!).

    Glad you enjoyed/are enjoying your stay.

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