The European Country I Know Least
When I lived in America I at least got to travel a bit and see some cool places – not a lot because I was running my own company and the US legal holiday entitlement is among the lowest in the world (along with Chinese and Canadian). My regret is that I haven’t been to Chicago, which I’ve always wanted to visit. But I’ve been to every European country with a couple of exceptions that I’m planning to fix this year.
But to my shame and embarrassment the country I’ve travelled least in is probably Britain. I’ve only been to Wales once, and that was for a day in Cardiff, have only been to Edinburgh and Glasgow in Scotland, not the Highlands, and when it comes to the main body of England my travels are pitiful; no Newcastle, Liverpool, Yorkshire moors, Hadrian’s Wall, New Forest, Gloucester, Wiltshire or East Anglia – the list goes on. Yet on my rare forays into other counties I always marvel at the sheer beauty of the English countryside. So what has held me back?
To start with, friends. They’ve always lived in London, but now they’re either choosing to move out or being forced out, so I visit them. And then there’s the sheer awkwardness of travel in the UK. Long distance train services are fine and much more enjoyable than driving, but organising cars at either end is usually a palaver, and hotels insist on you paying for an extra day at weekends, so that if you just want to stop somewhere on a Saturday you have to fork out for a Sunday you won’t use.
And when it comes to multi-stage trips it’s easier to get around in Poland than it is in England. US tourists apparently go through England’s spine if they visit the country, London to York to Edinburgh, but by doing so they miss out on some amazing sights. When we were younger I’d think nothing of driving all night to get to Cornwall, always a remote and awkward journey, but the nicest way of making that trip is to catch the midnight sleeper from Paddington and wake up there. I took an American friend to St Michael’s Mount (the castle in the sea twinned with the French Mont St Michel) and she was amazed. ‘It’s right on your doorstep!’ But then, 600 miles was nothing to her.
I’d like to stay at Port Meirion, the mad Welsh folly where they filmed ‘The Prisoner’ (see header), or in a cabin in the Forest of Dean, but the very idea of taking holidays in England rarely crosses the minds of Londoners. They think about how precious their days off are and the risk of bad weather, and the travelling, then decide against it. And English holidays are expensive – on average, a weekend away in the UK is nearly double the cost of one in Europe.
Then there’s the English coast, dotted with sad, crumbling, impoverished seaside resorts that lost their grandeur and status a century earlier. I look at how Brighton was wrecked by generations of corrupt councils and think that it’s no wonder my mother burst into tears when we took her back to her home town for a visit, telling us the place might as well have been bombed flat.
To get the best of a British holiday you need to forget the forced-colour photographs in brochures and embrace the idea of bad weather, high prices and unreliable restaurants (there are too many chains in English towns – I went to Oxford and we ended up in Pizza Hut, the only place open at 3:30pm). The other problem is that although Right to Roam has made inroads, many beautiful places are out of bounds to visitors. After weighing all this up, it’s no surprise that people head for Europe instead. But this year I’ll try to travel more in England and report back on what I find. If I can convince anyone to come with me!