In a few weeks my dear Aunt Margaret will set foot on British soil for the first time. She has been peppering my inbox with questions about what to wear, what to do and whether I have a working hairdryer. I have given the usual advice: bring tough walking shoes, a pseudo-military style water-proof coat and assume it will rain every day so you can be pleasantly surprised if it doesn’t. Despite all this, Auntie Madge is beyond excited about her up-coming visit.
When I travel to new places, which isn’t often, I always purchase a Rough Guide. I love Rough Guides. They never steer me wrong for places to eat or sleep. They also include a nice list of top activities and attractions for their topic country. The England Rough Guide’s list includes many things you would expect: go to the pub, have high tea, visit a castle.
These are all nice things to do, but I think this list needs a more personal touch. It needs me to add details and examples from my experiences in Yorkshire. Auntie Margaret this is for you.
Get on some public transport. I would say train but your great nieces would advise a double-decker bus. Either way, take a thirty-sixty minute journey in a confined space with a bunch of locals. Taking public transport in Britain provides opportunity to enjoy two of the best things about this country: the rural landscapes and the regional accents. If possible, seat yourself near some older people because, in general, their regional accents will be stronger. If you find a flock of old ladies you have hit the jackpot because they will chatter like chickens and you can listen like a magpie, taking away a great culture experience. Since you’re travelling with a Yankee posse, chances are very high that within a few minutes one of the locals will engage you in conversation, especially if you are talking about what you plan to do when you get where you’re going. This is tourist Nirvana and a real aural cultural treat. Disclaimer: none of the above advice works on the London Underground or during Rush Hour on any commuter routes.
Try the weird crisps. You call them chips, but here they are crisps and here the crisps have some rather unusual flavours. Common varieties include: Prawn Cocktail, Steak and Onion, Cheese and Onion, Roast Chicken and Salt and Vinegar, which make them sound more like a full course meal than a bagged snack food. The best bit: all are labelled “Suitable for Vegetarians.” You can also find Wooster Sauce, Tomato Ketchup and Pickled Onion. My personal favourites are Vintage Cheddar and Onion Chutney and Smoked Monterey Chilli with Goats Cheese (best dipped in hummus).
Walk Through Someone’s Back Yard. In the UK we have what is called “Right to Roam.” Without getting bogged down in precise legality, it essentially means hikers can go wherever they like as long as they stick to marked walking paths. Anywhere they like! There is an official organisation called The Ramblers Association who make it their business to maintain the walking paths of Britain, keeping them clear of debris and safe for hiking. The first time I went on a hike in the Yorkshire Dales, my walking companions came to the end of an obvious road, then climbed over a fence into a field full of sheep and carried blithely on. I kept waiting for an angry farmer to run out with a shotgun and see us off. I thought the sheep might try to charge us. Nothing happened. Madonna, when she lived in England, tried to close off the walking path which crossed her land. She failed. Disclaimer: obviously you can’t just walk through anyone’s back yard—marked paths only—but I thought it made a good title.
Drink beer and eat curry. I know you aren’t much of a drinker, Auntie, but surely you might make an exception here because nothing goes better with a curry than beer and I know you like your curry. Indian food is to Britain what Mexican is in the US: our number one foreign cuisine. My first Curry and Beer night was in Leeds. We went for drinks first at Whitelocks. Bitter Ales are what Britain is really known for, and in Yorkshire that has to be Black Sheep. I would put in a vote for anything by Wychwood Brewery which has managed to perfect the balance of great bottle art and great beer. Afterwards, we topped off our nice inebriation at Darbar—easily the most spectacular Indian Restaurant ever with giant Elephant pillars, eye scorching colour schemes and enormous chairs. Once you have sat down in your enormous chair, expect a tray of “pickles”: mango chutney, raitha and the rather sexy lime pickle, served with crispy popadoms big as your head. Order Chicken Tikka Masala a true fusion dish adapted fifty years ago by Indian chefs for British customers unaccustomed to the exotic look and taste of curry.
Go to the seaside. Britain has quite a lot of seaside and you would be a fool to miss it. Don’t bother bringing your swim suit, though. This is the North Sea and you need to be bad ass as my Northern daughter to try swimming in your skivvies. Here most people swim in head to toe wet suits. But that doesn’t mean a day by the Yorkshire coast isn’t one of the best days ever. Sandsend near Whitby is my favourite spot. Walk along the cliffs, collect shells and fossils on the beach, wade into a rock pool at high tide and see what you can find. And you MUST finish your day with fish and chips. The sea air adds a salty sharpness to the food complimenting the vinegar you sprinkle over it.
Find a stone in a ditch. One thing Britain has that America does not is history. Don’t tell the Brits I admitted that because I persist in arguing we have plenty of history, it just took your lot ages to add to it. Evidence of Britain’s long history is everywhere from the walls around York to the stone circle of Ilkley to Hadrian’s Wall further North. My mother, your sister, hunts down history relentlessly when she visits. My husband (and hers to be fair) often tease her about “looking for stones in ditches” but they cannot curb her enthusiasm. Just don’t let on to the Brits how impressed you are to be touching something which has been standing since before the days of Christ because their smugness will be worse than Mom’s after winning a game of Bridge.
Watch a bit of telly. If you do not get the opportunity to eavesdrop on public transport conversations, watching television is the next best thing. News is particularly good for accent explorations, though it would have not been so a generation ago when Received Pronunciation (or as my students call it “talking posh”) was expected of presenters. This is no longer the case. Television presenters tend to use their regional accents, which makes it a great way to tune your ear. In terms of other programming you will learn two things from watching a bit of British telly. First, you will realise just how pervasive American culture is because we import a lot of programs. This was a nasty shock for me when I first moved here, though not as horrifying as the McDonald’s sign fused to an ancient wall surrounding the Tower of London. You will also realise the British are not so different from the Americans. It’s not all Downton Abbey and Sherlock, some of our telly is truly awful. We have fame whores flocking to reality shows, minor celebrities making idiots out of themselves and some truly questionable game shows—sometimes all three at once. But there is new Doctor Who to look forward to and I will keep Mayday and The Secret of Crickhollow on the Sky Plus to restore your faith.
Obviously this is not a comprehensive list but you are only here for a fortnight, Auntie. I will fulfil my standard obligations: take you for tea at Betty’s and to Skipton so you can wander around a castle. Then, when it inevitably gets to be too much, we can ditch the others and sod off to the pub. But do not neglect the little cultural gems which can be found on your first trip to Yorkshire.
In the next installment of this 3-part series I will explain what NOT to do.