England is a place of contradictions and contrasts. Many of the cities are designed like American ones– freeways circling the city– while most roads we found ourselves on, outside the cities, were one-laners being blocked by tractors (Ireland much?). Or how you’ll be going down a leafy road and there’ll be a traffic camera (Orwell much?). How it prides itself on being the home of higher education and great literature, but you hear more about the riots in soccer stadiums than new universities. How it also prides itself on being a country of labour, of the working class, yet the divide between “Chav’s” (council housed and violent) and the posh Eton kids is growing larger and larger. As my new British friend said, “we’ve got 2000 years of history. We’re a little complicated”.
I’ll give you an example. My aunt and uncle live in a refurbished former industrial workhouse (now housing three what used to house fifteen), a couple steps away from formerly the largest dye factory in central England. It’s now a leafy forest and some stones. The second day we took a walk up the hills around their area. The British countryside is gorgeous. Going to school in Vancouver, being able to look out on mountains on one side and the ocean on the other, you tend to get a little arrogant nature-wise– ‘what’s so special about some hills?’ ideology. But there’s something eminently peaceful about the lands here; walking up you’re with Wordsworth, and for the first time I actually understood the guy.
So we’re walking up gorgeous hills where our only company is the sheep and the cows, reach the top, and Manchester’s on the other side. On one edge of the hill you have rolling green; on the other miles of red brick towers and honking screeching cars. And both of those, beside each other, is what makes England so fascinating.
Manchester’s an interesting city. In 1996 an IRA bomb (which my uncle insists was a conspiracy with city planning) blew up most of the city’s center, so now central Manchester really is just one large shopping mall. The parts that weren’t bombed were bulldozed. At the same time, the place is hard-edged, still has that industrial working class feel even though the factories aren’t running and the workers aren’t working. Everyone seems just a little angrier than just about everywhere else. It’s a hard city to understand, and any of the industrial history is long gone.
However, as far as history goes, Manchester is definitely more of the exception than the rule. England’s history is in every gravestone and each little village we drove by– every village happening to be older than Canada (of course). In no city was this quite as striking as York. Originally one of two Roman outposts in all of England (the other one being Londinium), York has history ingrained. Walking beneath the catacombs of the Cathedral, many of the Roman walls and even a few of the frescoes were still there, relatively untouched. It was a pretty chilling experience, being able to touch the walls of a Roman bath while eight hundred year old bells ring above you. Meanwhile the town itself is an extremely well preserved; medieval, full of curled alleyways leading nowhere, wood houses and the grand wall ringing the city, and the tremendous cathedral taking up the center of town. The city has obviously focussed on its heritage and has become a major tourist attraction for Englanders, so at times the city felt just a little too Disneylandey, with its souvenir shops and strangely high end clothing outlets. But the industry hasn’t killed all of its magic: walking to the edge of the city, in a little park there was a graveyard with heavy trees and a little church that seemed untouched since the 19th century, while near it was the ruins of the Norman cathedral, toppled for the Gothic one that looms before it. Incredible.
As far as history goes, none was as striking for me as my own. Halfway through the week we travelled to my dad’s hometown where his parents owned a pub for most of their lives. It was also where I’d spend a month every one to two years when I was little, so going back there was a nostalgic overload– still the dusty windows, the weeping willow by the river, and the market in the center of the village five minutes away. Inside was a different story, with anything that gave the place character or warmth (memorabilia, pictures) had been taken down, leaving just bare walls and a few customers. It’s part of a trend in Ireland and England, where classic family-run pubs are being closed in favor of your more North American style bar– it may have been still there but it wasn’t the same. Still, going there to have a Guinness and see “Scanlon’s Bar” on the window was worth the trip.
Though in the end Oxford topped everything this week. Few places in England are as proud of its history as the university town. Walking through ancient libraries, sneaking into old colleges (finding dining rooms untouched since the 1500s and thinking “I can’t believe people actually eat here– the plague was around when this was built!”), it’s hard to believe anything about the place has changed in five hundred years. People come and go, but the university doesn’t move. And maybe that’s not altogether a good thing: one of my biggest reasons for choosing UBC is the fact that it’s an up and comer, not one of the ‘established’ (cough McGill). It’s willing to shake things up; we still read Shakespeare but throw in some Highway for good measure. Going to Oxford could be a bit maddening, and there’s definitely a danger of becoming an academic snob in the worst of ways. At the same time, walking along those rivers and the rowers and the bells from every tower, the peace that’s there, then the notion that Waugh or Johnson are watching down at you from the walls– well there’s something enchanting about it all alright.
That’s Oxford. Then we travel for an hour and we’re in the heart of London. Well that’s England.