Why are you always going back to Britain?

Birling Gap

So it's time for my semi-annual blog travel update. I just got back from two weeks in England, with a little bit of Belgium thrown in, and thought perhaps I would attempt to answer this question.

Back in my 20s, I set myself a goal of going to London before I was 30. A few weeks now into 34, I've been there six times, so I've ticked that goal off perhaps a few more times than necessary, but I'm not about to stop.

There was something about London that had always appealed to me, long before I actually went there. I wasn't really that into royals (then, at least), and although I've always had a penchant for history and architectural twiddly bits (or, even better, historic architectural twiddly bits), I don't think that was actually the source of the appeal.

I'd heard stories, you see. I'd read Orwell and Dickens and Shakespeare, I'd listened to "Penny Lane" and "Dirty Epic," and yes, all right, I'd seen "Love Actually." Stories of London, and of the whole United Kingdom, had got into my head well before I went there. I had exceedingly high expectations.

Every expectation I had was met, and then some. That hasn't been the case for other places; I think back to the romantic black-and-white prints of Paris that used to adorn my walls, and how they came down after I actually went there. When given the chance to return to the UK not long after I'd been there the first time, I hesitated for about 15 seconds, and then threw in, and once again I wasn't disappointed. In fact I was hooked. The more stories I learned while I was away –  Austen, O'Brian, Doctor Who, you name it – the more I wanted to return and visit the settings of those stories.

By now I should be pretty well saturated even on those settings. And yet while I love cask ale and cream tea and a fine walk on a country morning with the birds chirping, what fully sunk in for me this time is that I love going there because the British are damn good storytellers. Granted, they've got rich material to work from – even just with those royals, you've got a mystical king who may or may not have existed, a guy with six wives, the daughter of one of those wives (one of the two who were beheaded) who ruled over a Golden Age, and that's just scratching the surface.

But everything can be a story, told well. This time around, I visited Dover Castle, and toured the wartime tunnels. When we descended into the hospital set of tunnels (there are three sets, two open to visitors), we stood there in a cool, dimly lit space while our guide told us we would be following the story of a Mosquito pilot who was shot down over the English Channel and brought down to the hospital with shrapnel in his leg. As we continued on through the tour, we alternated between walking through rooms where audio played – nurses and doctors discussing the status of the pilot – and our guide stopped us to explain the purposes of the room, and further advance the story.

It would have been so easy to just lead us around, and say, "here is the operating theatre, where they operated on the patients that came in." To instead be in that operating theatre, listening to the surgeon attempt to save the pilot's leg while bombs rained down overhead, cutting the power so that the lights dimmed – that was a far richer experience entirely. And there wasn't much in the way of special effects to cheese it up – just audio and dimming lights – it was the story, and our imaginations, that did the work.

You encounter things like this all over the country. It's the one place where I will willingly get and actually use an audioguide, because usually it will be good, if not excellent. It's a place where down in the local pub, you hear men spinning elaborate jokes that may take five minutes to arrive at a punchline. There's a reason why this little island has a ridiculously rich literary history. There's a reason why it produced the biggest band in the world, and they then spent an entire album pretending to be "Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band." There's a reason why we're all hooked on Downton Abbey.

I have no doubt that I will be making plans to go to the UK again next year. But for now, some thoughts on my admittedly packed itinerary, which mainly focused on the Southeast (East Sussex, Kent, and a little jaunt up to Norfolk), for anyone who's thinking about going as well.

HastingsThe Battle of Hastings did not actually happen here, but I made it my base for two nights, staying in a medieval-era B&B in the old town. When I got to the street my B&B was on, I thought it would be easy to find – just look for the medieval building, right? Wrong. There were actually several medieval buildings just on THAT STREET. Suffice to say, Old Town Hastings lives up to its name, with narrow streets and plenty of historic buildings and shops. It was a great base.

Rye: This was one of the Cinque Ports, until the sea receded, leaving the town high and dry and very nearly exactly as it was when it was the haunt of smugglers, except with more cute shops. In hindsight I wish I had left more time for here – I would very much recommend a full afternoon here, and it's a quick train ride from Hastings.

Eastbourne and Beachy Head: The dramatic cliffs at the beginning of this post are from Birling Gap, just beyond Beachy Head, which was a spectacular walk. Eastbourne itself is a somewhat typical Georgian seaside town; I took a hop-on, hop-off bus (not usually my thing) as a way to get up to the cliffs without climbing them myself, and then got off and hiked for awhile.

Battle: The site of the 1066 Battle of Hastings is actually in the town of Battle. It's a cute town, but the site itself and its evocative Battle Abbey ruins are the real reason to come here. This is another of those places that featured excellent storytelling – it's not a small thing to make an empty field come alive, mostly through an audioguide. Another short train ride away from Hastings that I highly recommend.

Brugge: The Eurostar makes it tantalizingly easy to get over to the continent from London these days, so after two nights in Hastings, I headed here with an "any Belgian station" Eurostar ticket. My two nights (with really an evening and one full day, plus another morning) here were sufficient, though. By late afternoon of my full day, I'd spent way too much on lace and chocolate, explored all the things I wanted to explore, admired the lovely old architecture and canals plenty, and was sitting down at a cafe for a delicious Belgian beer, so that amount of time was sufficient. Everyone here is ridiculously trilingual (Flemish, French, and English), and I found it to be a nice, condensed bit of Europe (canals, cafes, cathedrals, delicious food), but in a friendly and unintimidating way. I would go here again before France or Germany, but will note that at least from the train, I found the rest of Belgium to look rather a lot like Ohio.

King's Lynn: A book I read called this "one of the most historic towns in England." I am now no longer trusting anything in that book. It's not that King's Lynn didn't have historic buildings, such as the cool checkered Guildhall pictured above, but it didn't have nearly so many of them as other places I've been. It was probably only about the fifth most historic town on this particular trip. It did, however, serve as a nice base for the next two places.

Castle Rising: A bus from King's Lynn takes you both here and to Sandringham, below, and the two between themselves made a very nice day trip. This was the home of Queen Isabella, after she and her lover  Roger Mortimer acted to depose King Edward II (see what I mean about just scratching the surface of all the royal stories?). Her son Edward III let her live here after seizing power in a coup and taking his birthright. So, again, interesting stories, and told in a partially intact ruin. Some rooms are whole, while others are left to the elements.  

Sandringham: This is the royal family's country estate, which looks much more casual and lived-in than Buckingham Palace. I'm not sure that I'd go out of my way to see it over other royal sites, but if you are in Norfolk, it's worth a stop, as in addition to the house there's a nice museum, lovely grounds, and of course a cafe where you can get a cream tea.

Canterbury: I originally wanted to use Dover as a base for all of the places I wanted to visit in Kent, but I was not impressed by the hotel offerings there. Looking at my National Rail map, I realized Canterbury could be equally good from a trains standpoint, and that it had a lot more to offer in terms of places to stay (I chose another medieval building, this one an old coaching inn that pilgrims to the cathedral would have used, which was super creakily cool). I'm very glad I made this my base instead of Dover; in addition to all of the attractions it has to offer, it's quite historic, with its narrow alleys crowded in by medieval buildings. As well, there were several Shepherd Neame pubs, and that brewer's Spitfire rapidly became a favorite of mine on this trip.

Ramsgate: I had a string of coastal towns on my list to visit, some of which I think came from the same unfortunate book. Ramsgate is high on that suspect list. A very long walk from the train station down to a largely disappointing harbor. It has some merits – namely cafes around the harbor – but other towns have much more going for them. Thankfully, I hit here, Margate, and Broadstairs in one afternoon, so I only spent the hour between trains exploring here.

Margate: I've had Margate on my list for years as the home of the Turner Contemporary – I'm a huge fan of J.M.W. Turner. Unfortunately, they were preparing for a new exhibit and had very little on display while I was there, although it seems like much of what they're up to is actually pretty far from the gallery's namesake, so I'm not sure I would have liked it anyway, unless I caught a good exhibit. The town itself was an improvement over Ramsgate, although that's not saying much. It had a nice little historic section, although there was also a section with lots of gaming places and bouncy castles on the beach. 

Broadstairs: Now we're getting somewhere. Broadstairs was much more historic and had a charming view down to the beach, below, although as you can see they were setting up for some sort of Celebration of Loud Noise while I was there, which mostly consisted of playing Sting songs at wildly fluctuating volume. My first choice for restaurants was not serving food when I was hungry (my stomach, unfortunately, remains jet-lagged long after the rest of my body has adjusted), so I ended up eating pretty good fish and chips in the Charles Dickens pub, which was the town's assembly rooms in Dickens's time. 

Rochester: Speaking of Mr. Dickens, he looms large in this town. The historic section is nice and intact and charming, although it suffers from lots of shops named for Dickens-associated puns such as those in the picture. This was the site of several houses that inspired those in Dickens's works, including Miss Havisham's house in Great Expectations. It also has an absolutely lovely cathedral, which I visited, and a castle, which I did not (I had to pace myself with castles on this trip).

Chatham: This is another place I've had on my list for years because of its historic dockyard (HMS Victory came to rest in Portsmouth, but she was born here). I was pretty disappointed by the offerings of the dockyard itself compared to the one in Portsmouth, and yet I had a tremendously fun time here. This is because they were doing a "Salute to the '40s" weekend. This is not a thing I knew that the British did, and I was delighted by it; essentially people dress up in '40s garb, and there are historic vehicles, military encampments, an operational Spitfire (the plane, not the ale), singers and dancers, and an hourly air raid siren. It's basically the 1944 equivalent of a Renaissance fair. I enjoyed it so much I didn't even mind the periodic jokes about the Americans being late. I mean, in a 1944 context, I suppose we were.

Dover: Of all the castles I've been to thus far, I would recommend Dover Castle as probably a tie for the top with Edinburgh Castle, even though I hiked up a tremendous hill to get here (a cab from the train station is advisable if you do not want to do that). It's got my top recommendation because it basically has all of the things a castle complex could possibly have, all together: Roman lighthouse, Saxon church, medieval castle (with restored rooms, including a working fireplace), medieval and Georgian tunnels, and those World War II tunnels (the Dunkirk evacuation was planned here). So you pretty much get the full span of British history all in one compact spot. Oh, and the view is spectacular. It was clear enough to see France when I was up there. The rest of Dover, though, was bombed heavily during the war and replaced with cruddy '50s and '60s architecture, with only an okay seafront to try to salvage it. I am very glad I didn't make it my base, as much as I enjoyed the castle.

Chilham: I watch a lot of Jane Austen adaptations. By a lot, I mean pretty much all of them. I found this place because it was where the BBC's adaptation of "Emma" was filmed (I do this now – if I see somewhere neat in a movie or TV show, I track it down and add it to my list of places I might want to visit). It is an eight minute train ride from Canterbury and seriously one of the cutest villages I have ever seen, right up there with Castle Coombe and Rye. I also had the best meal of my trip here at the Woolpack Inn (mussels even better than those I had in Belgium, and slow-cooked pork belly), another Shepherd Neame pub; these pubs, thankfully, seem to have full independence over their menus, and yet they all stock the same delicious beer, which is a real win in my book. I highly recommend working this in to anyone including Canterbury in their itinerary – it's got much better proximity to the train than the Cotswolds. Come out as I did in the early evening, when the sun is starting to set on the lovely old buildings, have a walk around, and then a delicious dinner.

Sandwich: This was a means to an end, as the closest train station to Richborough, below. I was not expecting to like it so much, although I did consider eating a sandwich here, just so I could say I did. It turned out to be quite historic and cute, though. I wouldn't seek it out as a destination, but it did surprise me.

Richborough: I came here for the Roman Fort, which is one of the larger Roman sites in Britain. It's a two-mile walk from the Sandwich train station, and there are worse ways to spend a hazy morning than walking along a little country road sided with wild blueberry and blackberry bushes. Was it worth the walk? Probably only if you are really into the Romans. Of all the Roman-related sites in Britain I've visited, Bath is still the most extensive and intact, and in the same town as so many other lovely things.

Deal: It's not Lyme Regis, but it was easily the prettiest seaside town I visited on this trip. I came here after the Roman fort four-mile round-trip walk, and was very pleasantly surprised by it, and suddenly felt very compelled to sit by the seaside and drink ale and eat fish and chips. When one is seized by such a compulsion, it's best just to go with it, so I did, and it was indeed quite enjoyable (yes, that's a Shepherd Neame pub there). Afterwards I had a little walk around Deal Castle, which was built by Henry VIII. After Dover Castle, I probably could have skipped this one, but I had purchased an English Heritage Overseas Visitor pass, so I was cool with a quick little walk around, since I wasn't paying separately for it. I don't usually go for the passes, but this one was actually fantastic, and probably paid for itself two if not three times over on this trip.

Whitstable: This was the closest to a working fishing town I visited while I was there, so I had high expectations for the seafood that were not quite met. The Whitstable Bay oysters are impressive, but they were actually so large they were some of the first oysters I've ever had to send all the way down the hatch without any chewing (although, side note, despite consuming tons of seafood on this trip, it was almost invariably crazy fresh, so I had zero food poisoning, yay). I did have a half-pint of Spitfire in a friendly little pub, though, so I will say the people there are nice.

London: London is London, and I've covered it pretty extensively in previous posts in other years. I will note the two major new things I had on my itinerary this time, though. I went horseback riding in Hyde Park (and en route to the stables passed this highly moving "Animals in War" memorial), It was very fun, although as someone who rode for 10 years, my legs hurt for days after an hour of trying to ride the way I used to. I also attended the world premiere of the Blitz Requiem at St. Paul's Cathedral; the Requiem itself was moving, but the most beautiful segment was Ralph Vaughan Williams's "Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis," preceded by "How Shall I Sing That Majesty," which was set to the original Tallis hymn. Independent of location, it was stunningly beautiful; in that cathedral with its epic reverberation, it was something I'll never forget, to hear how the music swelled to fill the space. I also had a chance to meet up with some friends while there, and to check out the Twinings shop, which somehow I've never been to (but now I certainly will be going back!).

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