The European Country I Know Least

Great Britain

PortmeirionWhen 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!



6 comments on “The European Country I Know Least”

  1. Jo W says:

    Be careful what you wish for, could get flattened by the rush to accompany you on your British sojourns. I agree with your observation about getting a mealtimes. I know that some people eat by the clock,but why do eateries only serve by the clock? You can miss so much by having to stop to eat at a certain time. We have found that places to visit are quieter at lunchtime. Btw is that a photo of Aldborough or Deal? We have a difference of opinion here.

  2. Jo W says:

    Too early in the morning for typing! It should be – getting a meal at odd times. Oops!

  3. Alan says:

    That first image looks like Portmeirion…but where was that last shot taken?

  4. Anchovee says:

    It’s definitely Aldeburgh – I’ve sat on that beach eating fantastic fish & chips.

    Out of season there are cheaper breaks to be had across the UK but you’ll always struggle to get something to eat after 2pm (usually on the dot) even at the peak of holiday season. We haven’t moved on from ‘Waldorf Salad’ it appears!

    My personal favourite part of the UK is Northumberland. So much history, fantastic beaches, food & drink and usually crowd-free. Swaledale in the Yorkshire Dales comes close but can get busy.

    And I’m surprised you haven’t been to East Anglia – iirc you’ve set a couple of short stories there and you sum up the bleakness of North Norfolk perfectly!

  5. Vivienne says:

    I may have said before, but I’m gradually walking round the coast of England. Started at Berwick, as originally I couldn’t decide where to go, so now I just start where I left off and have reached Suffolk. I love the beaches and the empty countryside, stunning cliffs in Northumberland, falling-down cliffs in Yorkshire, but I have found I like the run down seaside places and the industrial bits most of all! Saved by a chain in Boston (Prezzo) as they have regulated times. In Norfolk, everything shuts up early except pubs who stop serving food at 7. Didn’t manage to eat a proper meal there for three days. But it’s all worth seeing – and do go to Scotland where they don’t seem to believe in fences, so you can roam.

  6. Helen Martin says:

    Yes, we did the spine – to York and Edinbrough – and enjoyed it. We should have gone to Whitby but didn’t and wanted to see the great wheel outside Edinbrough, but that didn’t happen. There is so much I would like to visit but what I remember was the people we met – the lady so pleased we were photographing the Glasgow Art School, people walking on the world map in Bath, all the weddings we saw. We have seen so little of Britain for all that we spent the whole of September there a few years ago. We have been to Bristol and Portsmouth and Ken went to the GWR museum for a whole day.
    Actually, we were in Bristol when they opened the new hospital and were fascinated by the process of moving patients from one hospital to another. This week they’ve done the same thing in Montreal, closing the old Royal Victorian and opening a huge teaching and research hospital connected to the university and the process was pretty much the same as the English one.

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