We stayed almost five months in England, and so we have quite a bit to say, most of it quite good.
If France is a nation governed by bureaucrats, then England still has considerable traces of being governed by its pragmatic people. England has never been a republic and no doubt will never be one. It is a democratic monarchy, with a government formed by the majority party of Parliament, and it is a country with a fierce tradition of independent action -- independent private charities, independent landowners, independent scientists, etc.
Englishmen are more formal in their dress and manners than the French; while they are extremely courteous and helpful to strangers, the famous English reserve is still noticeable. For example, when two family historians meet in America, they will immediately start comparing notes to see if they are related; the English want to get to know you a bit before they admit they might be related to you, however distantly. English school kids often wear uniforms, and it seemed to us that a greater proportion of students go to private schools than in the U.S.
Englishmen don't seem to mind queuing up as much as Americans do, and they're quite willing to bag their own groceries at the store. The interesting thing is that it takes a lot longer for the lines to move past the cashiers, yet the storeowners don't see the economy of providing baggers to move things along.
England is on an island, and there is a certain insularity among its people, together with a seagoing tradition. Yet the island was repeatedly raided and partially overrun by waves of invaders from the European continent. The more remote parts of the island -- Scotland, Wales, and Cornwall -- were essentially untouched by the invaders, and their unique language and customs endured.
England doesn't have any proper beaches to speak of -- at least not in the sense of Miami or Coronado -- but Englishmen nevertheless continue to flock in droves to the seaside for summer holidays. Often they live for a few weeks in rented mobile homes near the beach. They're very traditional, and quite likely to do something this year because they did it last year.
Englishmen travel by public transportation a lot; gas is expensive, and country roads rather difficult to navigate. The trains go to all the major cities and towns, and buses cover the rest of the countryside quite thoroughly. And when the train and bus don't get you somewhere, the English just put on their walking shoes and hike to where they want to go; their public footpaths are zealously defended.
Part of the problems with the roads in England is the lack of shoulders or break-down lanes. A broken-down vehicle is likely to be in the middle of the street. If there's a sidewalk, half of it may be usurped for parked cars; this is such a common practice that the English have developed a special cast iron piece, called a bell bollard, to prevent vehicles from leaving the roadways and squishing the pedestrians on the sidewalks.
Many English towns were founded by the time of the Norman Conquest in 1066, and many of them have an old town centre, with some buildings that go back many centuries. Only the stone buildings have lasted since Norman times -- abbeys and castles and churches -- but timbered buildings go back about 500 years or more in many towns. Just a few houses still have thatched roofs these days. It's expensive, and must be replaced fairly frequently. The English have protected all their old buildings, which makes it a dream for the tourist with an architectural interest, but a nightmare for the English real estate developer. The population actually hasn't grown much in the last hundred years, so there haven't been as many large new housing developments as in the U.S. Instead, many Englishmen live in houses a century or two old. The process of upgrading the utilities in these old houses has been expensive and not always terribly successful. Central heating or air conditioning is still not common; small water heaters are often located right next to the shower head -- turn on the heater if you want a hot shower.
Englishmen seem to avoid high-rises, preferring semi-detached houses (duplexes) or terraced homes (a long string of houses with common walls). If you lived in a high-rise flat, you couldn't have a proper English garden, don't you know. (Although even apartment dwellers have pots of flowers all over their balconies.) And those gardens are for real. In the poorest districts, the little patches of land in front and behind are planted and gardened to a fare-thee-well, and appreciation of gardens is an essential courtesy.
The tiny old villages seem to have remained tiny villages for the most part, so most of the mediaeval place-names are still in use. Our genealogical research helped us find odd places like Sticker and Hewas Water and Pothole and Ferriby and Schoolmaster Pasture. And those names are still on today's maps. Speaking of maps, the English Ordnance Survey is a marvel, which produces maps to almost any desired level of detail. Moreover, the Ordnance Survey has been about its business for quite a while, so just about every house, barn, tower, church, castle and ruin is shown on the 1850 maps, for example. We used to think that only some of the towns in New England were named for towns in old England; but we know of no New England town that doesn't have an English twin, although there must be at least a few.
England is a pretty well settled country. There's not much land that an American would call wilderness. The heaths and moors have soil that won't support crops, but they're still criss-crossed with paths and frequented by humans.
We've mentioned that despite the enormous growth of London Englishmen have their hearts in the country; those with country homes get out of the city whenever possible. Although London has the best taxicabs and the best theatre in our knowledge, it's still a crowded city.
City or country, a famous English institution is the pub. Unfortunately, the independent pubs are gradually being bought out by chains, but there is still a local flavor -- in fact "local" is a synonym for pub. Polished or enamelled wood and brass and gleaming mirrors and windows typify pub architecture, with special attention to a large and stylish sign with some kind of artwork relating to the pub's name. The bar is generally not a place one sits, but rather a place one goes to order drinks and food and bring them back to a table. While some pubs may indeed feature darts and sports TV, it seemed to us that conversation is the staple of the British pub, and the pub as community nerve center and information source was so ingrained as a tradition that the Puritan ministers of New England were helpless to block the spread of pubs there!
Just as France is so much, much more than Paris, so is England much more than London. The visitor who confines his or her visit to London is missing the heart of this country. People outside of London are friendlier and have more time to talk, and the roots of American culture are there to be discovered. We especially enjoyed our time spent in Cornwall and Durham, far removed from the hustle of the capital.
While many sports are played in England, football reigns supreme. We could tell this by the large number of football games going on in every park we passed, the huge size of the football stadiums, and the large number of people of every age and description wearing shirts of their favorite team. In fact up North it seemed nearly everyone was wearing black and white vertical stripes in honour of Newcastle United, which had a good year.
Public libraries seemed to be going strong in England, and we think there are lots of readers, young and old. Certainly many passengers read on the underground and even the bouncing buses. The libraries were all bursting with new computer facilities, many of which were paid for by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.
While there's a good deal of educational elitism in England, an Oxbridge degree is definitely not as essential to success as an appointment to a grande ecole is in France. There are plenty of self-made Englishmen who have succeeded in business or politics without a fancy education. On the other hand, class is still important to an Englishman; besides the royalty, there is still a hereditary nobility, although the modern trend is to make a successful businessman or politician a baronet for life as a reward for contributions to the public good.
It seems to us that the English adore the Queen, but certainly as much because she is the embodiment of England as for her own person. So loyalty to the throne in England should be understood as virtually identical to flag-waving patriotism in the U.S. The English are quite patriotic, as are many European countries, and we think the efforts that are now underway to create a very powerful federal European Union may fail to receive the support of the citizens of the member countries, who are reluctant to give up any more of their national sovereignty than they have already yielded.
Like the French government, the English government is undergoing structural change, especially in the House of Lords. This institution once consisted of two groups: the hereditary nobles and the bishops of the Anglican Church. Over the years it has been changed and changed. Now it is limited in size, and only a few hereditary nobles are members, but there are proposals to make it a purely appointive house, and to change its duties and functions. Certain members of the House of Lords have functioned as the highest court of appeal in England, but now the Labour Government is proposing to establish something more like an independent Supreme Court. It's hard for an American to understand the radical changes in government taking place in both England and France.
Saving the worst for last, we have to tell you that, with the exception of tea and strong cheeses, English food is bad. That's not to say you can't get good food in England, because you can. But fish and chips are often greasy, shepherd's pie or Irish stew are plain fare, vegetables are often overboiled and unseasoned, and a sandwich composed of french fries on a hamburger bun is just plan awful. Add to that the fact that the principal condiments of malt vinegar and brown sauce (tastes something like A-1) are squirted liberally over their food by Englishmen, and you begin to get the picture. If you want good food, go to an expensive London restaurant. But if you go to an ordinary English restaurant in an ordinary town, expect the worst and you won't be disappointed.
Would we return to visit England. You bet. It's a great place, and we love it. Would we live there? Well, the answer is no. We enjoy the American people, who are quick and eager, unreserved (certainly more aggressive on occasion), ambitious, creative, and confident in their ability to get ahead. It's something that is much less common in Europe, which is weighed down by tradition. We're glad to be home again.