I must be a late bloomer, as unlike many Kiwis who do their big OE (overseas experience) in their teens, my first visit to England is in my 50s. I have been so delighted that England is so much more than I anticipated, and oddly more familiar too. Here’s my top five (pleasant) surprises…
1. It’s prettier than I expected.
England is a ‘green and pleasant land’, with large expansive sky and lovely light. Everywhere there’s lush greenery; nature’s bounty can be found on residential and city streets, parklands, farmland, rivers and gardens. Huge beautiful trees are prolific. In New Zealand, we give big trees names, but not here – there’s just too many.
2. The produce is great.
There’s a big push to ‘buy British’ and I say, ‘Why not?’, when British raspberries and apples are fantastic, cheeses are so good, and bacon and meat products are top class. I’ve made the most of free fruit-laden apple trees and easy-to-pick blackberries found in lanes and parks, and cooked delicious crumbles, which team so well with Cornish custard. Mmm, custard…available ready-made in supermarkets. I just love the English supermarkets – huge and good.
3. I didn’t realise my Kiwi upbringing was so rooted in English culture until I got to England.
This has shown itself in my frequent need for a ‘nice cuppa tea’, to getting a kick out of being on the London streets and locations that were on my childhood Monopoly board. Going into a Marks & Sparks, Harrods and Sainsbury’s for the first time were all a thrill, as I’ve always known of these brands but never been in the real thing (I don’t count M&S’s Asian satellite stores).
4. Wandering the suburbs is great fun.
I love the very different architecture; charming cottages, big mansions and great swathes of Victorian and Edwardian multi-storey, multi-home buildings, so different from NZ’s usual standalone single houses. The people in each suburb are unique too. In parts of Barnet in London, the conversations in African, Greek or Polish is the norm. In Kensington, all the women look identical—slim with long, straight blonde hair. East London is full of street art and in Warwick many locals were keen to stop and chat and share snippets of the history of the town of which they were so obviously proud.
5. England is full of world-class galleries and museums and many are free entry.
The buildings alone are glorious in their own right, but it’s thrilling to have hundreds of masterpieces available to view. Strangely, some were familiar because of books, documentaries and a couple of year’s study of art history. The National Gallery is teaming with paintings by Renoir, Klimpt, Botticelli, Turner, Constable…it was awe-inspiring to stand before a da Vinci painted in 1491 and I surprised myself by being moved to tears looking at Cezanne’s The Bathers.