As you may know, I have been in England for the past 11 days, my first visit there in eight years. We spent six days in London and five in the Midlands, and had an excellent time. The occasion was Joe Malchow’s wedding, but that occupied just one day out of eleven. On our flight home, I tried to think of a worthwhile political angle on our visit, but couldn’t come up with one. So the following observations are as much travelog as anything. Skip them if you are only looking for serious stuff.
1) London was its same old self, only busier. The city was thronged with tourists from all over the world, most of them probably on summer holidays. The city–the parts of it where business is done and tourists go–is as fantastic as ever. Simmering problems with Islamic immigrants are out of sight.
2) Everyone we encountered was amazingly friendly and helpful. That shouldn’t be a surprise, but I’ve been traveling overseas for more than 30 years and have never been so struck by the friendliness of people I meet. At the individual level, relationships between Brits and Americans couldn’t be warmer.
3) Great Britain suffers from many of the same economic problems we do. I base this largely on conversations with cab drivers: adult children struggle to make an adequate living and can’t afford to live in London, some are getting rich but most are suffering from wage stagnation caused largely by massive immigration of labor from other EU countries.
4) We stayed two nights in London at the Carlton Club, the historic home of the Conservative Party. It is fun to be in a place that features portraits of the Duke of Wellington, Winston Churchill and Margaret Thatcher, among many others. The first night we were there, David Cameron was having dinner a couple of tables away from us in this dining room, with five aides or staffers:
5) We visited the British Museum for the first time in quite a while. I appreciated the Anglo-Saxon exhibits much more than I would have otherwise, by virtue of reading Bernard Cornwell’s Saxon Tales. I recommend them highly.
6) If the crowds are too thick to get into Westminster Abbey as a tourist, try attending a service there. It clears out considerably, and the service is excellent too:
7) I had never thought of the Midlands as prime countryside, but my wife is a big fan of the Mitfords and the Devonshires and wanted to spend some time at and around Chatsworth. So we did. It turned out to be a great choice. We stayed in a place called Monsal Dale, which is remote (zero phone reception, but wifi in our stone cottage by the River Wye) and beautiful. The first sound we heard when we opened our front door each morning was sheep baaing:
8) Chatsworth is wonderful. If you are a fan of free enterprise, as you almost certainly are if you are reading this, you will especially appreciate it. At some point, the Duke and Duchess of Devonshire decided that they had two choices: either lose their estate to brutal taxation as so many others did, or else turn it into a paying proposition. They chose the latter course, and made Chatsworth–if my youngest daughter’s Google research is correct–the fourth most visited attraction in the British Isles.
It is a business and is run like one, which means that the customer is king. Take photographs? Please do! Feel weary after an hour or two walking from room to room? Take a seat in one of many chairs with various fun themes. Have a dog? Great, bring him along! The Duke and Duchess love dogs, and there are places set aside for dogs to drink. Want to walk on the grass? Hey, don’t stop there–lie down and take a nap! Lots of visitors do. Need groceries? Stop by Chatsworth’s extraordinary farm store. Why are there thousands of sheep on the premises? They sell them at a profit.
The welcoming attitude at Chatsworth is striking, but the house itself is the main attraction:
We actually toured Chatsworth twice. The second time, I did an interview on the Bill Bennett radio show from the estate’s gardens, where I surmised there would be good cell phone coverage, and my wife gently suggested that we should go through the house again. If you are a fan of Jane Austen movies–and who isn’t?–you may remember Chatsworth from the Keira Knightley/
Colin Firth Matthew Macfadyen version of Pride and Prejudice, where Chatsworth played the role of Pemberley.
9) We paid a visit to an ancient place called Haddon Hall. It exceeded our expectations in every way. If you find yourself a tourist in the Midlands, you should check it out. The original structure goes back to the 11th century, and even the “modern” additions are ancient by our standards. A lot of fascinating and educational stuff, plus, it is extraordinarily beautiful.
10) On our last day in London we went to the National Portrait Gallery, a first for me. It is a wonderful collection: I tend to think of portraits as boring, but not these. The quality of the paintings is excellent, and it is fascinating to see what people we have read about all our lives actually looked like. This is my youngest daughter with the famous painting of Richard III (actually a copy of an earlier work, but sensational nonetheless):
11) The English are rational in every way except one: driving. I don’t mean driving on the left side, which I enjoy. Rather, the fact that rural roads are too narrow and–this is the real absurdity–often have curbs. And large trucks frequently come around turns, occupying half your lane. And many roads allow parking on one side, which means that there is not enough room for two vehicles to pass; and some roads are so small that, forget about parking, there is never room for two cars at once. Plus, given these conditions, everyone except you drives much too fast. It is all quite crazy, but the British seem to enjoy it, and so far we can’t complain–we have always returned safely.
12) If your kids think you are pathetic cowards because you don’t want to ride on the London Eye, they are right. But you have plenty of company.
13) One last thing. We spent some time in the grave yard of the village next to Chatsworth. For most people, the highlight is perhaps the grave of Kathleen Kennedy, who married the Devonshire heir, a fine young man who, sadly, was killed in World War II. She died in a plane crash not long after. But for me, the most striking grave stone was this one, apparently that of a Minnesota Twins fan who was born several hundred years before his time:
If by chance you are not familiar with the Twins’ TC logo, here it is:
Is that spooky, or what?