Observations Made While in England

By Nomadic Matt | Published August 14th, 2008

Parliament and Big Ben in London EnglandA month spent traveling England, and I certainly learned a lot about the country.

A month in any country will teach you something. Cultures only really open up to you when you spend a long time in one. There’s only so much to notice in a few days. It’s part of the reason I like to travel slow – you learn more about each place.

A month in England taught me that:

The English will sit in their assigned seats. If a person is assigned a seat right next to you, they’ll sit there, even if the rest of the carriage is empty.

Every night is a drinking night. It’s no surprise that the British like to drink, but what surprised me was the sheer quantity they do it in. No matter what day of the week it is or if there’s work the next day, they’ll drink. I saw a few scenes on a Tuesday that only happen on a weekend in America. The English love to put the drinks back any night of the week.

Two hours away is too far away. “Where you going from here?” I’d get asked. “Ohh that’s very far” was the usual response. In a country that can fit into Texas a few times over, the British sense of distance is slightly warped. For me, it’s a short ride. But not for the Brits. I know distance is relative, but what really shocked me was that most English don’t travel around their own country because “it’s too far.”

The British Rail system is overpriced. You can’t get cheap tickets unless you book far in advance. Otherwise, you’ll pay 50 pounds to go two hours on a train. Like the airlines, the closer to the date you want to go, the higher the price. It’s ridiculous for a public rail system to be so expensive. I think it’s also totally ridiculous that it cost me more to take a three-hour bus ride than it did to fly to Amsterdam. Luckily, I found some cheap ways to get across England and so could avoid this system. No wonder so few people enjoy taking the train.

Everyone loves to hate London. No one likes London, even Londoners. Londoners are cold, the city is overpriced, it’s hectic – the list of complaints goes on. Yet everyone always ends up moving there for a while. The English have a total love/hate relationship with the city. Despite all the downsides, they stay there. As everyone (including Londoners) told me, “London is shit. Wait til you get out of the city. England is much better there.”

No one talks in London. Speaking of London, get on the tube. It’s so quiet. No one talks to one another. They just sit and try to avoid eye contact. No one says anything. Not even any apologies for being bumped. It’s eerie. It’s a bit anti-social.

The English wear wet suits in the water. Since cold water surrounds England, the English go in wearing wet suits so they aren’t too cold. Whether it’s a river, lake, or the ocean, 75% of the English had a wet suit on. When I saw this, I thought to myself, “wimps.” In New England, our water is just as cold, but, unlike the English, we can take it. Well, maybe not me, but everyone else. Babies.

They treat parks as beaches. There’s nothing like a good day at the beach. But if you’re English, your park is your beach. Everyone comes out in beach attire to capture the four minutes of sun each day. They bring footballs, dogs, and frisbees. They lounge like it’s the Greek Islands. Because remember, driving an hour to the beach is simply too far.

The TV shows are awful. I thought shows in America were bad, but the British take it to new lows with Hollyoaks, East Enders, and especially a much less censored version of Big Brother.

England has a lot of Poles.The whole service industry of England is dominated by Polish immigrants. I wasn’t served by an English person unless it was in tiny towns like Cornwall. The Poles come to England for the wages and, since the English have no desire to wait tables, they dominate the service and other low-wage industries. I saw many similarities between the immigration of the Poles into England and Hispanics into the United States. In fact, the debate between a lot of my English friends about whether this is good or bad also mirrors the immigration debate we have in America. Some issues transcend borders.

Overall, the countryside was my favorite. London’s good, but overhyped. There’s a lot to do, but the city really only reveals itself to those with deep pockets. The countryside is much more approachable – prices are reasonable, the people friendlier, and the area far more beautiful. I still can’t decide if I liked the Lake District or Cornwall more, but both are leagues better than London.

And where didn’t I like? One place comes to mind – the city of Birmingham.

England was certainly an interesting place, and one I look forward to seeing again.

For more information, visit my page on backpacking Europe or my country and city guide to England.

comments 22 Comments

HI Matt
Very interesting post – it’s always good to read about your home town from an outsider’s perspective. And, sadly, I agree with most of what you say except for one key point. I love London, I love the buzz of the city, all the parks, the theatre, the cliched multi-cutural melange of society here.
Whenever I travel (and I do quite a bit) I always get excited, not about coming back to England but about coming back to the city.
I’m not sure I’m not the only one but then again, perhaps other people think it’s cooler to be negative about it.

You must have met the wrong Londoners then! I love London, and so do all my friends. When I was growing up, I always knew there was only one place I wanted to go to University, and that was London. I moved here at 18 for that and have never left, and I adore the place, for all its faults. Whenever I go to any other city on my travels, I always have a fantastic time, but I’ve never felt I would enjoy living there more than London (except maybe Berlin). Most Londoners I know look down on the rest of the country as being a bit backwards, and in many ways we even like it when tourists (or visitors from other bits of the UK) don’t like it – it just confirms to us what we already think we know, that some people just can’t cope with the city.

I wouldn’t agree Londoners are cold either – we just don’t see the point of faking friendliness. British visitors to the US often comment on the over-enthusiastic friendliness of american waiting & shop staff. To us, it comes across as false.

Pretty much agree with everything else you have to say about our little country though!

Ashley

Matt, I just finished my project (2 days ago) that has been consuming my life forever and found your email about your website. I’m so sorry we never got together before you left, but your “review of London” has me in stitches. What are your plans for this winter? I have booked tix already for Sri Lanka and am soon booking for India! Miss you!

Cris

I’ve never been to England, but this sounds exactly like New Zealand!! I guess the Brits did their job when they colonized NZ… it’s a replica!

Apart of that NZ doesn’t have a lot of Poles, it has a lot of Brits.

Cultures only really open up to you when you spend a long time there.

True… great observation.

Some interesting observations there Matt and I’d have to pretty much agree with them –

Although I love Cornwall, you won’t catch me in the water with or without a wetsuit – it’s just too cold!

But you didn’t mention our national obsession with the weather – especially in this wet summer we have to make the most of any little ray of sunshine that comes our way. For any summer outing you need to pack suncream and umbrellas.

Thanks for this post Matt. Moving to London in January 2009 – have heard mixed reviews but doesn’t stop me from doing it. I like having you on the one side (the North American side) and Geoff on the other to truly get a good perspective!

I lived and worked in London for a year a while back. For the first few months it seemed overly subdued–i.e. your example of people not talking on the tube. But when I moved back to NYC I felt like everyone was yelling at me those first few months. London is one of the best travel hubs in the world. I miss going to Istanbul for the weekend and any number of places that are close and reasonably cheap to get to.

Ant

A tough subject to broach, and you did it well. Naturally I don’t agree with everything, but I do want to applaud you on the observation that we, the English do think 2 hours is a long way to go! Its only when I set off travelling and was forced onto buses day and night (and day again) that this myth of our upbringing was dispelled. In all honesty, I think its down to petrol prices – a two hour drive isn’t that long, its just bloody expensive!

Hi Matt
I really didn’t mean to be negative about your friends. Please don’t take offence. I just wanted to point out that there are people here in London who love the city as well as those who love to hate it – as you point out.
I completely agree with you – the Lake District is amazing – but it pales into insignificance when compared to some of the landscapes in your home country!
Tamara

DolceMeta

Very entertaining and quite true! I am returning to England for a second time this fall and only scheduled London for two days this time. On to read your takes on Oxford and Bath…

Hi, i guess you managed to have a good grasp of the Brits over your stay here.
Don’t agree with the London thing. Haven’t met anyone here that didn’t like the city, except old people maybe. Personnally, I absolutely love it and you can definitely enjoy it with a small salary! There are so many free things to do around here! For example, I saw Coldplay last night for free in a very small venue…

Mark

Hi Matt,

I love to visit London, but when I moved there for work a few years ago I too found it to be a quite unfriendly & lonely city. Did you visit Wales on your trip? A very friendly & laid back part of the UK…

Mark

I really have to dispute your blanket assertion that “the TV shows are awful.” Really? They definitely have some turkeys like any other country, but when British TV is good, it’s really good. It helps to have a viewer-subsidized, commercial-free network broadcasting in spots 1 and 2 on the TV dial. Honestly, I could run down the list of quality British TV programs, but it seems so obvious…. but let’s start with Downton Abbey and The Inbetweeners, to use two recent examples. I’m not saying all the quality shows are everyone’s cup of tea, but they are generally inventive and rather groundbreaking compared to many other countries’ TV and certainly compared to free-to-air US TV. Anyway, I’m just surprised you’d mention this of all things, as quality British TV is known the world over for its, well, quality.

Mark

P.S. I do know that the two examples I mentioned aren’t BBC shows. You can say a lot of things about the BBC’s often high-minded programming, but in-depth, multipart documentaries about the Tudors or the spread of the English language, say, aren’t generally called “awful.” Boring, maybe, if it’s not your thing, but awful doesn’t come to mind.

zanurul

I went to Stafford upon Avon last January 2012 with my partner. It still freezing cold at that time. But it was an amazing experience and lots of places to visit with all the Shakespeare history & all.. I even got the chance to experienced a Shakespeare play.. Will definitely recommend everyone to visit the Shakespeare hometown as the price for accommodation & tour is not expensive..

SS

Most Londoners love London… in fact its the rest of the country that hates us and thinks we’re narrow-minded for never even considering the possibility of life outside of London. It seems that all new graduates tend to flock towards the capital though.

We don’t really have any good beaches either that would be warm enough and as others suggested travel there would cost a bomb. I think its Brighton Beach that has pebbles instead of sand! Also New England is a lot warmer than England, so I can see why people wear wetsuits here- we would consider 71 degrees a summer BBQ day here, whereas I know New England can reach up to 85 degrees in summer.

Lol spot on about Eastenders, Hollyoaks etc.

Divina

From my point of view as an Austenian, Dickensian, and almost fell into an Anglophile category, your article sounds masculine, cold and impersonal hehe.. I’ve never been to England, but set the country as my pilgrimage, a must visit place for at least once in a lifetime. For I am an incurable romantic woman, I have this, girly, cheesy view of England based of the romance novels I read with England setting. So I dream of visiting Chatsworth castle in Derbyshire and jump in the pond where Mr. Darcy usually cooled himself down after a ride. Bath, where the Dashwoods sisters moved as their father’s death. Abbey Road and mimicking the Beatles steps. To the old cotton mining in Manchester, some said, it’s inspired Elizabeth Gazkel to write about Milton in her novel, North and South. All of them are fictional characters except the Beatles haha… . Oh I’m an Indonesian, by the way, we have this famous local writer, Mr. Andrea Hirata, who wrote a best selling novel Laskar Pelangi (the Rainbow Troops) and Edensor, that cited Edensor, one of a beautiful village in England countryside as his dream destination. Now the village is most popular in Indonesia, perhaps more popular than London :)).. Now I am not sure, it seems this country is not as romantic as it’s written (is it?)

Stephanie

I can’t believe that you didn’t visit Wales! Cardiff is the most amazing city & west Wales is beautiful… We have roman ruins here & Mount Snowdon. Although, I am very biased. I absolutely Love London, especially Camden. There’s something special about the city … but I do agree the tube is very awkward! The reason we treat the parks like beaches is because we need to get out in the sun as soon as its out otherwise we’ll miss it! Britain is a diverse country & we have lots of different ethnicities and nationalities here, not just polish! It’s what makes our little island unique!

Andy

Are you for real mate? “75% of us wear wet suits in water”, “no one talks in London” and “Londoners are cold”? Hysterical and extremely accurate…not!

Daniel

Quite a few errors here Matt.

I am British and I have extensively travelled all over the world. In fact, I am writing to you from Cambodia. I also used to work in America (New Hampshire.)

* Overall, TV in Britain is far better than America. I am in disbelief that you could possibly claim otherwise. When it comes to impartial news coverage, informative documentaries and ground breaking comedy there is no better country in the world. Two words for you Matt: FOX NEWS. We don’t have the American budget to compete with shows like Breaking Bad and Mad Men but we haven’t done too badly for a little osland.

* London may be expensive and impersonal at times but it is also dense with innovative live music, stand up comedy, gourmet restaurants and history that any American would kill for.

* Distance is relative to where you are. I used to live in Manchester which is around 2. 5 hours from London by train. That distance in Australia gets you no where… BUT… Between London and Manchester you have an insane amount of things to visit and experience: The Peak District, The Cotswolds, Chester, Stratford (Shakespeare’s birthplace) Shrewsbury, etc etc.

That direct approach to travel does not apply in Europe and therefore people will associate distances differently.

* Your article is totally LONDON-ccentric. Like many tourists you have visited our capital and made sweeping statements about the rest of the people residing within the country. It’s the equivalent of me visiting New York and presuming that every American is similar.

* I think more insightful points would be to comment on the amazing regionality of Britain. Comment on the music scene which has produced so many seminal artists. Talk about how moderate our politics are compared to that found in America. How about the British sense of humour and contribution to the arts?

It’s a pretty lazy article Matt and I could have pulled a better one out of my pasty, rain sodden British ”arse.”

Daniel

Let me stress however Matt that I really enjoy your articles and feel your piece about 24 hour friends was incredibly perceptive. Please come back to England and see how it feels a second time around.

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