Road Trip: Driving into Self-Discovery in the United Kingdom

We live in an enormous, diverse, oftentimes dizzying world. But for every person, there’s that one place out there somewhere that can unlock a cache of personal mysteries and help make sense of it all.

For me, that place has always been the United Kingdom.

My mother was born there. My father was born there. There are places there that, had they never existed, I might not exist myself today. And yet I had never once been there while old enough to retain the memory.

This year, I turned 40. For me, it led to the realization that life is far too short to sit around with regrets about the things I’ve never gotten around to doing. The UK had lessons to teach me about life and my own history, and I owed it to myself to get on that plane and learn.

The Massive, Approachable City of London

It didn’t take long to start feeling right at home.

It happened before my travel companion Elaine and I spent a full 14 hours exploring central London on our first day in the UK. We walked until our legs gave out and then switched over to public transit, hopping between multiple Underground train lines, city-operated river boats, and the ubiquitous trademark double-decker buses with commensurate ease.

I felt at home before I laid eyes on Freddie Mercury’s urban home in Kensington and heard the music of my childhood begin to drift through my head. It was before strolling past Kensington Palace, through Hyde Park, and to the streets circling Buckingham Palace in time to see the changing of the guard.

I felt at home before finding those many reminders of my actual home, too – before seeing the war memorial, and before smiling at the sight of Canada House in its highly prominent place on Trafalgar Square.

Before going into the National Gallery just to find the painting from which Terry Gilliam pulled Monty Python’s famous foot, before walking through more than a millennium of human history at the Tower of London and getting a glimpse of the crown jewels, and before standing on Tower Bridge and watching the sun set over the River Thames – I was on the Underground on the way into central London from Heathrow airport.

Few people pay much attention on this portion of the Tube, I would imagine. It passes by one suburban neighbourhood after another, average houses in varying states of repair.

What stood out to me, though, is that almost all of them had washing out on their lines.

For a British household, it’s the most pedestrian of chores. But the sight stirred up a memory for me from when family would come to visit my grandparents’ home in Niagara Falls. The running joke was that the entire neighbourhood knew when my grandmother and her sisters were together because there were four times as many pairs of knickers on the line. (To translate, they had to change their shorts constantly because they would laugh so hard, so often.)

That familiar sight was all I needed. Right away, I knew I’d landed somewhere I belong.

“Wait – you’re going to drive?!”

Many visitors to the UK never bother to get behind the wheel of anything because, frankly, it’s not necessary. The commuter train network travels to just about anywhere a tourist would want to go, and buses cover most of the rest. More importantly, that whole driving-on-the-left thing is painfully intimidating for an awful lot of people, so most never try.

I’m glad that I made the decision to drive, though, and not just because it’s a pastime I happen to love. It’s still the only way to get to the little nooks and crannies in the countryside that most people never see, and those were some of our best and most authentic experiences.

And truly, driving on the other side of the road isn’t nearly as hard as it seems like it ought to be, as long as you can get out of your own head about it. It takes more mental energy and, at first, a little more time to talk yourself through looking in the right directions and ending up in the correct lanes, especially in right turns and roundabouts. Jumping into this in the pressure cooker of central London probably isn’t the best plan, but for a heads-up driver, getting through the countryside is more than achievable.

At Home in a Range Rover Velar

A drive in the UK calls for a properly British vehicle, so the Range Rover Velar fills the role very nicely, at least in the sense that it’s more than fashionable enough to fit in on any given High Street. This is a car that I’ve enjoyed when I’ve driven it in Canada – it feels very capable and right-sized for the way we live and drive. On England’s often-tight two-lane country lanes, however, it sometimes makes for an uncomfortably tight squeeze.

It had never occurred to me before just how good us right-handed people have it in the rest of the world when it comes to car layout. Attempting to operate an entirely touchscreen-driven and occasionally fickle infotainment system with your non-dominant hand is surprisingly difficult and results in a lot of wayward finger-stabbing. I have a new appreciation for what my Australian southpaw husband went through while adjusting to driving in Canada.

What this drive got me thinking about most, though, is fuel. This Velar is fitted with a 3.0-litre diesel-powered V6, one of two diesel engines and four configurations available in the UK. (The base model Velar here comes with a 2.0-litre, four-cylinder diesel engine, which is the only one on offer in our market.)

It’s a joy to drive with all of its 300 hp and 516 lb-ft of torque and none of the obnoxious grumbling that sometimes turns people off diesels, at least not audibly from inside the cabin.

We’ll almost certainly never see this engine here in North America because buyers here are so sour on diesel at the moment, and yet in Europe – and the UK in particular – diesel-powered mills are still found everywhere. People are hardly abandoning them at the bottom of the Thames. Why? Because perception of eco-friendliness aside, they’re so darned practical. We covered more than 1,400 km over the course of our week there and stopped for fuel exactly twice. In Canada, it’s far more typical to cover such distances, and yet we don’t bat an eye at having to fill up every 400 km. And all that torque would be far handier for us with all the recreational towing and winter driving we do, wouldn’t it? It’s an odd dichotomy.

Anyway, with the sheer concentration I dedicated to turning into the correct lanes and such, it was very nice to have a vehicle underneath me that could go on for days and respond the way I want without a second thought. It’s exactly what I needed on this drive, and it feels as though that’s how every drive should be.

On the Road Toward the Typical

I’d waited a very long time for my first visit to the UK, so I made a conscious decision to get over my pretentious self and go full tourist. For the most part, this worked out.

A proper tea in Essex

Among the successes: driving two hours out of our way to the Tiptree Jam Shop in Essex. This gave us an early lesson on why the British are so loath to drive anywhere on a timeline: the Queen Elizabeth Bridge, one of the country’s many traffic bottlenecks, had an accident on it that added more than an hour to our trip. Even that wasn’t enough to dampen my enthusiasm.

We had proper tea and scones with jam and clotted cream, and I picked up a flat of Little Scarlet strawberry jam – reportedly a favourite of both the Queen and James Bond. Gin is having a huge moment in the UK, so I couldn’t resist the gin liqueurs flavoured with such quintessential British fruits as strawberry, raspberry, rhubarb, and Damson plum. The locals thought we were insane for taking such a long detour for something so simple, but these delights are well worth the effort.

Deal, and the White Cliffs of Dover

I was expecting the White Cliffs of Dover to be busier and over-developed, but that wasn’t the case at all. (To be fair, we started our hike before the visitor centre opened in the morning. It probably picks up significantly later in the day.) The trails along the cliffside are not much more than well-worn dirt paths, and there are no handrails to speak of, even right next to the cliffs – shockingly unsafe by North American standards, but wonderful for the unobstructed views.

Twenty minutes away, we found the seaside village of Deal. With its orange-tinted pebble beaches overlooking the English Channel and picture-perfect pubs and guest houses lined with lush and colourful flower boxes, it’s an ideal base for exploring the area.

Stonehenge – and a surprise in Avebury

From there, we headed west toward Stonehenge. This is a wonder of human achievement, to be sure – to think that the people of a pre-industrial society managed to move these massive stones from many miles away to this precise location, for reasons unknown to this day, is stunning in the truest sense of the word. It’s something everyone should see, right?

Well, it turns out that everyone agrees, so the parking lot is massive and tourists are shipped out to the monument from the visitor centre every five minutes by the busload. Mercifully, no one is allowed to crawl around in between the stones themselves anymore, so the hordes circle around them and their many security guards instead, all while blocking views with selfie sticks, throwing trash and cigarette butts on the ground, and being generally disrespectful of what was clearly once a sacred place of the highest order.

It’s deeply depressing, and it put me into full parent mode: if a few selfish people insist on behaving so inappropriately, then maybe we shouldn’t let anyone go near Stonehenge anymore at all.

The next morning, the innkeeper overheard Elaine and I commiserating with another guest about this experience over breakfast. She suggested that we visit the stone circles in Avebury instead. They’re not as instantly visually impressive as Stonehenge, she said, but the location is much quieter and less frequented, and we’d find the magical experience we were looking for.

The circles at Avebury are entangled with the village itself – in fact, the village pub there bills itself as the world’s only pub within a stone circle. We parked the car in the modest parking lot, which took us three passes to find, and began walking around.

First you spot one stone, and then another. They each stand alone, disconnected from the others, yet together they form a curved line. As you continue walking, you realize that the circles are so massive that they can’t be viewed all at once, and you’ve in fact only walked past a small portion of the henge. And then you’re in the middle of some blessedly cooperative farmer’s field, standing in silence among a flock of grazing sheep, staring at a cluster of massive stones placed precisely here by humans some three millennia ago, and your world stops as you become fully encased in awe.

That innkeeper was bang-on.

With Roots in the Major Oak

My grandmother’s final request of me was a simple one: someday, get yourself to Nottingham and have a drink at Ye Olde Trip to Jerusalem.

The Trip, as the locals call it, is famous for its claim – one that’s undocumented and disputed, to be fair – of being the oldest pub in England with a history dating back to 1189 CE.

For me, the connection is much more personal. Both sets of my grandparents spent time stationed in Nottingham with the Royal Canadian Air Force in the early 1950s – that’s how my Canadian-raised father came to be born in the UK – and the Trip was their local watering hole. Their time socializing there is how my parents’ parents became close friends. Were it not for the Trip, I might never have come to be.

We arrived there on an average summer Thursday afternoon. I walked through its sitting rooms, set into caves carved from the sandstone cliffside below Nottingham Castle, ordered a pint, and cried huge, ugly tears. To onlookers, I must have seemed mad. But I could so easily picture the merriment of decades before, and being in a place I knew they’d loved, along with the amount that I miss them all, came on like a flood.

Nottingham held many such experiences for me. We were welcomed and hosted so warmly by relations I’d hardly met, introduced to cousins I didn’t know I had – not quite on the same level as my friend who walked into a gas station in rural Newfoundland and found a new relative, but close – and shown Wollaton Park, which today is a large city park but was very likely where my grandparents would have been stationed with the RCAF. The mere notion that I might have been walking on the same ground as my ancestors had, a continent away from home, was a priceless experience.

That said, Nottingham has plenty to offer to people who are not me. It went through a low spell after the Nottingham lace industry largely shifted to China in the 1980s, but the Lace Market’s four- and five-storey red brick factories are being restored and filled back up with lofts, coffee shops, and trendy restaurants. Nottingham Castle is closed for refurbishment until 2020, but when it reopens it will be a destination for those seeking out medieval architecture and all things Robin Hood. It will go well with the nearby Sherwood Forest and the Major Oak, a tree estimated to be 800 to 1,000 years old which is said to have been a sapling at the time when Robin himself was taking from the rich and giving to the poor. Today, it’s so old that its trunk is 10 metres around and its largest limbs are held up by scaffolding.

Finally, to the Brave North

There’s a perception in England, it seems, that driving is largely a means toward an end. It’s something you do to get to a place, not to enjoy the journey.

That could be, at least in part, because you won’t see a whole lot through a car window in much of England. Some of the seaside roads are lovely, and the Lake District in the north is very scenic, but the rest of the time it’s trees and farmers’ fields, especially from the motorways.

Cross the border into Scotland, though, and the transformation is almost instant. Suddenly, you’re winding through ancient towering hills, dramatic cliffs, and lakes and rivers in abundance.

If you want to explore centuries of some of the best-known human history, go to England. But if it’s stunning scenery and a great drive you’re looking for, Scotland is the destination you’re after.

We had exactly one full day to cram in as much Scotland as we could, and did we ever make the most of it.

We awoke in Balloch on the shores of Loch Lomond and started our day with a walk along its bonny, bonny banks past Balloch Castle and through the country park.

That was followed by a visit to Doune Castle, which Python fans might recognize as the filming location of Monty Python and the Holy Grail. As castles go, it’s not the most impressive-looking one around, but it has an interesting history of its own on top of its more recent claims to fame. The retelling of both perspectives in the audio tour by Python’s Terry Jones is more than worth the price of admission. I would have felt ridiculous standing in the courtyard laughing myself to tears had I been the only one doing it, but I most certainly wasn’t.

A more recent Scottish tourism destination is The Kelpies, a pair of horsehead statues opened in Falkirk in 2013 as a monument to Scotland’s horse-powered heritage and to the mythical shape-shifting creatures of the same name. Its completion marked a reconnection of the Forth and Clyde Canal with the River Forth, which opened up east-to-west navigation across southern Scotland.

The pièce de résistance on our final night was Elaine’s initial motivation for suggesting the trip, seeing the Royal Edinburgh Military Tattoo in person. Walking up Edinburgh’s Royal Mile through the Old Town’s cobblestone streets, stone buildings, and clay chimneys to reach Edinburgh Castle and witness the best of pipe and drum music from around the world – now that’s a level of cultural immersion that’s unforgettable.

Joy in the Little Things

But none of these experiences painted as vivid a picture of the United Kingdom for me as did one simple village night.

It should have been completely unremarkable. We were booked into the Barleycorn Inn, with all of its three guest rooms and a pub of maybe ten tables, in a tiny village called Collingbourne Kingston that sits 15 minutes south of Marlborough.

The barkeep welcomed us warmly and checked us in, and once we’d settled we wandered back to the pub for a pint and a bite to eat. A couple in their golden years was seated behind us with their black spaniel laying quietly at their feet while they laughed together over a game of cards.

We quickly noticed the games shelf ourselves and found a 1,000-piece jigsaw puzzle, which we tucked into while waiting for our food to arrive.

Before long, the after-work crowd started to shuffle in. One man sat making casual conversation with the barkeep of the sort one would imagine happens almost daily. Three women in their 20s soon followed. They each ordered cocktails and began sharing details of their recent dating exploits.

With bellies full of rich pub food and several more pints under our belts, our puzzle assembly carried on. The dating conversation shifted into a game of trivia. When a question came up asking for the name of the largest French-speaking city outside of France, we Canadians couldn’t help but interject – Montreal, of course!

And suddenly, we’d drawn attention to ourselves. First, the older couple came over to inquire about how our trip was going. Soon after, the barkeep followed. He’d been tracking our progress on the puzzle and wanted to let us know that he was impressed – we were about three-quarters of the way through it at that point, and he said he’d had it out for a charity event a few weeks earlier and it had taken the entire village three days to finish it.

Naturally, we took that as a challenge. We ordered another round and continued to participate occasionally in the trivia until we put the final puzzle piece into place about four hours after we’d started.

Well, evidently this made us the talk of the village because we heard about it from everyone in the pub and again from the innkeeper the next morning, the same one who advised us to go on to Avebury. “Are you the ones who did the puzzle last night?!” she asked. “It took the entire village three days to finish that!” And so forth.

It’s been some time since I’ve been in a place where word of such trivial things spread so quickly. The whole experience led me to reflect on a few things.

For one, pubs here in Canada are very much a place where one goes to drink. They’re that in the UK as well, of course, but they’re also a lot more. They’re community hubs, places where people of all ages go to socialize and just be around other people of every social strata. Some they may know, some they may not, but everyone is fair game for a conversation because it’s a pub, and pubs are first and foremost for connecting with people.

This village mentality, the idea of a connected community exemplified in the simplest of ways like sharing a pint with a stranger with no motivation other than to be friendly, has been lost here in many ways.

If there’s one thing I learned on this trip, it’s that it’s high time we learned from this concept and brought this sense of community back. We’d all be a lot happier for it.