In Part 1 of Moving to the UK, I discussed moving overseas, finding a place, driving on the wrong side of the road, and various oddities of our British friends. In Part 2, I’ll discuss other aspects of British life that makes it a great place to live. We’ll also look at how to shop for food, the British railways, gardening and of course, the pubs. Also, I found that the UK can give new life to an aged hockey player.
The British People
The Brits are a LOT less nationalistic than we are. It’s not that they love their country any less, it’s just that they don’t feel the need to constantly demonstrate it. Instead, they give their loyalties to their football clubs. You are much more likely to see a Preston North End FC banner flying from a flagpole than a union jack. However, if you happen to be Scottish, Welsh or Irish, then you are maniacally nationalistic. Everyone has been oppressed by the English over the years, so nobody likes them. Scotland hates them so much that they won’t put the queen on their money. That’s right, Scotland has it’s own money. It would be like Ohio having it’s own money. Once when I was in Wales, I was directed to five ancient stone houses in a row. “This”, said my Welsh friend, “is the only place in the British Isles where you can find five pubs in succession.” Flying proudly outside were four flags. There was the union jack, the flag of Wales, the flag of Ireland, the flag of Scotland, and a freaking Jolly Roger pirate flag. “Where”, I asked, “is the flag of England?” He answered me, “We use that in the loo.”
They are very polite, but very tough to get to know well. If they invite you in, then you have a friend for life. They love dogs. Every person has a dog, preferably a BIG dog. You see them crammed into the back of these tiny cars so they can get them to the beach an walk them. If you mistreat a British dog, it’s the same punishment as not using your turn signals.
They love their gardens, which we would call “yards”. The typical English garden is tiny, but extremely neat and well appointed. Mine was not, but I was, after all, a foreigner. I had one friend with a US-sized yard of about half an acre. It almost killed him trying to keep it up. You can grow vegetables, but flowers are preferred. The more exotic the plants in your garden, the greater esteem in which you are held by your friends when they come for tea. And they do come for tea, although 99% of the Brits I know drink coffee instead.
One of the most strategic decisions you will make when choosing a place to live has nothing to do with the schools, the commute or the traffic. Instead, it’s “are you within walking distance of a decent pub?” The Brits take drunk driving (which they call drink-driving) laws very seriously. And the tolerance is low so that one pint of strong beer will likely put you near the limit. So the ability to walk to you local pub is of paramount importance. You either love or hate the beer. I love it. It is a low carbonated, creamy ale that is kept, not at room temperature, but at about 45-deg F. This is significantly warmer than the stuff ant home that is kept at 32-deg F. A pint is 20 oz instead of 16 oz. It is also pretty expensive. But one of these will definitely hit the spot. Two and you’ll be wobbling on you walk home.
Most pubs serve food. Some serve excellent food. We were lucky to have a good food pub about a half mile away, and a good drinking pub about a quarter mile away. In the UK, this is “walking distance”. A fun thing to do in the long summer evenings (it can stay light until 11 PM in June) is to take a road trip to a different pub. I like to go to villages where there is only one. You just can’t beat sitting outside of a village pub with a hand-pulled pint of bitter, while Denise enjoyed a hard cider, and Max had a J2O (sort of a un-carbonated soda pop) and a bag of crisps (chips).
What you won’t find in the UK are big national breweries. Back in the 1970s, the UK breweries saw the contraction of the US beer market into just a few national brands like Budweiser, Miller, Coors, etc. Gone were the local beers that had been around since I was a kid. This was hugely profitable for the US breweries, but the quality of the beer suffered greatly as all beer had to be brewed to have a long shelf life (lots of preservatives), and to appeal to the biggest markets (pale and bland). This same movement started in the UK, but was stopped in its tracks by a grass-roots organization called CAMRA (the CAMpaign for Real Ale), who threatened the local pubs with boycotts if they moved from local beer to the national ones. The campaign was so successful that the UK currently has more breweries per capita than any other country. Every pub you enter has a bunch of beers you’ve never heard of. Most are excellent.
Shopping for Food
They have huge Walmart-like stores in the UK called Asda (which is actually a branch of Walmart) and Tesco. These are where you go to buy your groceries. But we learned the hard way not to buy meat or fish. For that, you go to the village butcher and the village fishmonger. How middle ages is that to go to a fishmonger. Denise is a great cook, as many of you MyLifeCookbook fans can attest, but she couldn’t figure out why her Tesco-bought meals just weren’t making the grade. I mentioned this to my friends at work, and they asked, “What butcher shop do you use?”. I was told to go to the Lytham Butchers in the High Street, which I did. I bought a leg of lamb, and a rib roast. The butcher also gave me a packet of sausages. When I told him that I didn’t order them, he said, “They’re on me. You’ll return for more.” We did.
Denise is an avid everyday food shopper. I like to buy everything for the month at one time. She was much more at home in the UK than she is here, at least once she got used to driving. So we always had fresh meat, produce and fish. I’d by cans of everything if it were up to me. Aside from the superstores, there are several grocery chains that are focused more on quality than quantity. Sainsbury, Booths, and Marks and Spencer are a few of these, and are comparable to Whole Foods. Their meats are better than the big places, but it was still better to visit the butcher shop.
My son Max was a huge fan of Thomas the Tank Engine. Thomas was a very useful engine. We also had books and videos all about trains. When were out for a drive and a train would come by, we would have to stop the car so that he could watch it. He knew more about trains at 4 years old than I ever will. The UK runs on trains. So Max was in train heaven.
Lytham-St. Annes is on the Blackpool-South train line. There is a two-car train that runs every 30 minutes or so and stopped a quarter mile from my house. It also stopped about a quarter mile from where I worked, so I became a train commuter. The place I worked was a nuclear facility that was out in the boonies. The train stopped there once in the morning at about 8:15 AM, and once in the evening at about 5:00 PM. Since I was on the same train each day, I would sit in the same seat with the same people around me. Most were headed to Preston which is a medium sized city that was the next stop after Salwick, which was mine. Most trains just zip past Salwick, with the two exceptions that I already mentioned. There is nothing at Salwick except a flock of sheep with which I was on a first-name basis. I was the only one who ever got off or on there. One day, as I was gathering my things to get off at my stop, the train just zipped on by at 80 mph. The proper British lady in the seat in front of me said (in a very British accent), “They’ve missed your stop!”. Which they had. As the train pulled into the Preston station, the driver exited his cab, took one look at me and said in a dejected voice, “Salwick”. He then grabbed me by the hand and hustled me through the station to the line of taxis out front. He negotiated with the cabby, gave him £15 and begged me not to tell anyone. Apparently it would’ve meant his job to have missed a scheduled stop. I kept my promise until now, but I think the statute of limitation has run out on this.
I am a hockey player. Have been for 45 years. So when I went to the UK, I was worried I wouldn’t be able to play. For a (then) 50 year old, a year off would’ve been fatal, so I looked around. I was able to join a club called the Falcons in Blackburn. Everybody was younger than me, but England isn’t a a hockey hotbed. Each team can have up to three non-Brits. Since I was over 40, I didn’t count against their bogie. I asked the coach why he wanted a 50-year old player, and he said, “You’re the best defenseman we have.” I played parts of two seasons for Blackburn, and had a blast.
So Over the Pond We Went
So we took the plunge in the spring of 2008. With a three year old, and a wife afraid to drive, we flew over the pond and became honorary Brits. Ranks as one of the best things I’ve done. Max visited England, Scotland, Wales, Ireland, France, Belgium, Italy, and Latvia. Yes, Latvia. We saw and did things and had experiences that we would never have if we’d played it safe and stayed home. We lived in the UK for 13 months. It went all too fast.
When we came home we did what lots of Brits do, named our house. It’s not enough to have a house number, you need a house name. My buddy lives in Russet Cottage, 9 Catherine Walk, Abbotts Ann, Hampshire. We named ours after our favorite pub.
Look for our adventures in upcoming posts.