When many people think of a trip to England, images of Clark Griswold driving around Marble Arch extolling the virtues of Big Ben comes to mind. Indeed, perhaps in the minds of many, London equates to England. If you decide to follow us on our recent trip to Old Blighty, you will see another side of the country that most tourists will never get to see!
In early June, we flew from Ottawa to Heathrow via Air Canada for a short vacation to attend my stepfather’s 80th birthday celebration. Our tickets were $1400+ each, the most we had ever paid to cross the Atlantic but we decided that we would pay the extra to avoid the harrying experience of connecting through overcrowded hubs like Toronto, New York, Chicago or Atlanta. We had been able to find tickets for just under $900 Cdn but we just couldn’t face the extra travel time and stress. It would ultimately turn out to be the right decision.
Air Canada makes checking in at Ottawa a painless experience, especially if you have checked in online as we did. There was no appreciable line as there typically is for most trans-Atlantic flights at most airports. Online check-in also meant that we already had chosen our seat assignments. Boarding was also orderly and painless and we were soon installed in our allotted bulkhead seats. The only flea in the ointment was a very young baby seated in the same row already crying before the flight had even taken off.
Apart from minor disturbances from the aforementioned baby and food that was mediocre at best, the almost 7 hour flight was reasonably pleasant and I was able to get a few hours of fitful sleep. Deplaning and crossing customs at Heathrow went smoothly. My only minor complaint would be the inordinately long distances that one is forced to walk between the ramp and the customs hall. Having rented a car through Alamo, we found our way, with help from airport personnel, to the appropriate shuttle stop and, about 90 minutes after touchdown, we were setting off for Bluewater in our blue Vauxhall Meriva.
In reality, we were heading for a tiny dormitory town in Essex called South Woodham Ferrers where my brother Kenn and his family reside. Since we knew that no-one would be home until 6 PM, we had all day to get there. Personally, I had already visited Bluewater Mall a couple of times on previous visits but my wife had not yet seen it and as you can well imagine, was not averse to a little shopping! Although I knew pretty well where it was, we still elected to use our newly-purchased TomTom GO 930 GPS (or SatNav for the Brits). We had previously owned the 920 and, crazy as it seems, it was only marginally more expensive to upgrade the machine than just to update the maps (both North America and Europe).
Even though it was mid-morning and rush hour was over, traffic on the M25 London ring road was solid but moving smoothly. Our GPS accurately predicted our arrival time at around noon. As it turned out, today was one of those days, for both Dorothy and myself, where neither of us was really in the mood to buy anything. It felt like that old quotation: “water, water everywhere and not a drop to drink!” Nevertheless, our window shopping did help us work up an appetite so that we could do justice to our first meal on English soil. It was indeed fitting that this first meal should be ‘High tea’ served at that most iconic of British shopping institutions, Marks & Spencer. For a full review of this meal, see our Un-Chef sister site
Although what we chose was quintessentially English, not much else about our surroundings was! The deli counter at which we sat was more reminiscent of France. Furthermore most of the clientele were siting in front of open-faced baguette deli sandwiches which were being washed down with copious amounts of wine. This is something which is totally European and would have been unthinkable as little as 15 years ago. One of the sharpest differences that I noted on this trip was the amount of alcohol, both wine and beer that the British consume at lunch and during the afternoon. Britain might be an island but some of its insular nature is being rapidly eroded by the continental onslaught of the European Community. I, for one, do not necessarily consider this a bad thing (except perhaps for the increased alcohol consumption). Obviously, tacitly if not overtly, most of the Brits would seem to agree.
Once again, putting our faith in the trusty TomTom, we set off for South Woodham Ferrers. Even though I travel to the U.K. fairly frequently, I never ceased to be amazed by the sheer volume of traffic in comparison to North America. Even without the obvious detriment of right-hand drive, manual-shift vehicles, many less adventurous travellers would be well advised to stick to public transport. Personally, I enjoy returning to where I first learned to drive and consider it a matter of pride not to be intimidated by the challenge.
It was at my brother’s home that we started to see parts of the English ethos that has not changed. Although Brits are not universally known for their work ethic, neither Kenn nor Kym his wife could be accused of being slackers. Both work long hours and yet time is still found to put a home-cooked evening meal on the table. Whether by chance or not, we sat down this evening to roast beef, potatoes and 3 veg. Dessert was served with copious amounts of fresh double cream and /or custard. Now that’s English cooking!
After chatting and reminiscing for a couple of hours, we all turned in. It was still only 20 hours since we had boarded the plane in Ottawa but it already seemed a distant memory.
Check back soon to read the continuing sage of our England adventure