The three of us stood at the gate. “We are not going in there”, my sister said. “Sure we are”, I replied, “this is the path”. “Sofia this is someone’s land”, my mother said. “I know it’s someone’s land! But there is right of way and this is the path” I insisted. I looked at what seemed like 100 cows behind the gate. They were relaxed but who the hell knows what cows are plotting. And so, we opened the gate.
One of the best things about England is that the whole country is like one huge, evergreen garden. The English obsession with the countryside and its protection was weird when I first moved to the country but after 20 years here I appreciate it immensely. You can’t move for areas of outstanding beauty and national parks. Everything is maintained, protected, organised. There are signposted paths to take, information online, booking systems and little museums to visit. There are pubs to go to with exquisite food and little tea shops. And there’s beauty, so much beauty. It’s not the wild kind – the one you find in Greece – it’s not the contrasting colours of the Aegean or the breathtaking ascend to the mountains. England, above all, is pleasant and this is exactly the right word.
In my first few years in London, venturing outside the city was not really an option. First of all, I loved discovering the city. Second of all, I was poor. Money is *necessary* to be able to properly enjoy travel in the UK as it’s an expensive destination. I think that the first time I could actually afford taking a long weekend in the UK was in 2008, 6 whole years after I had moved here, even though I had already been on holiday TO SPAIN and the week there was cheaper from a UK long weekend.
When I did venture out however, I fell in love.
When it was possible after the pandemic, my parents stayed with the kid and the husband and I had a weekend together. We only drove about an hour and a half to got to a little village very close to the southern border of London, Ide Hill. This is so close to London that people just live there and commute to work in the city every day. When the husband asked me what I wanted to do I just wanted to go get the newspaper and sit in the garden. Parents with toddlers will understand.
We slept in, we got newspapers and bread from the village shop and then we walked around some scenic walks before jumping in the car to go have lunch at a pub in another village. We sat in the garden the next morning with some coffee, the sun shining. That’s what the English countryside feels like, like having coffee under the sun on a Sunday morning, surrounded by greenery.
To be able to do all this of course requires some sort of income and, ideally, a car. The best places to stay are always out of the way, better reached by car. And to get there you have to learn to squeeze your car through the incredibly narrow (but sufficiently picturesque) english country lanes. This is where – let’s be honest – you squeeze your sphincter when a car comes from the other direction, achieving pelvic floor strength and more driving experience. But you get there in the end and it’s worth it because you end up staying on a farm where they have actual horses and your accomodation used to the the old stables but they’ve lovingly restored them.
That’s another thing to know about England. Coming from Greece – accustomed to the grand ole heritage being thousands of years old – it was initially surprising that there was so much care taken of buildings that were only a couple of hundred years old. But now, every time I discover a crumbling ruin in Greece – for example something from its industrial heritage – going to waste, it drives me crazy.
I think that the way the English do it creates a virtuous cycle. They restore and showcase their heritage. Most aristocratic houses can be visited, in others people hold their weddings and celebrations. The National Trust buys up properties, protects them and opens them to the public. Normal people restore and protect old stables and farm houses – I once stayed at a restored old chapel converted to a house. And because these places are *accessible*, because they have an audio guide, a map and you can have some tea with scones there, YOU FALL IN LOVE. And then you cannot imagine not protecting them and not finding ways to uphold this practice.
Let’s go back to the field with the cows.
Every year since 2015 my mother, my sister and I take a small annual trip together. In 2022 we decided to stay in the UK since we knew that a move to the UAE was imminent. And so we piled in the car and went on a tour of the Lake District. While we usually do city breaks, this time we decided that we should enjoy the nature and so we proceeded to take country walks around the lakes – easy to find online and download the instructions to.
So there we were, we had reached the middle point, I was looking at the map, I was reading and re-reading the instructions and they were absolutely crystal clear. “Open the gate, make sure you have the stone wall to your left and proceed to the next gate”.
Now my mother is a village girl. She grew up in a farm in Greece and learned how to drive on a tractor. And so she went forth, unafraid, using her village magic word with the cows. We followed behind her, silly city girls and discovered that indeed, even english cows obey the magic word.
Obviously, I have a video.
During the London Olympics opening ceremony, they sang William Blake’s poem – it’s serenity in perfect juxtaposition to the chaos of the industrial revolution, his “dark satanic mills”. And I swear, I know that this will be what will make me nostalgic in the future, the thought of this green and pleasant land.
I will not cease from Mental Fight,
Nor shall my Sword sleep in my hand:
Till we have built Jerusalem,
In Englands green & pleasant Land.
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