The Ballards - England


"Oh, England, my Lionheart, Peter Pan steals the children in Kensington Park"
Thus sung Kate Bush in 1977. Is this what it means to be English?

It is said that being English is about driving in a German car to an Irish pub for a Belgian beer, then travelling home, grabbing an Indian curry or a Turkish kebab on the way, to sit on Swedish furniture and watch American shows on a Japanese TV. And to be very suspicious of anything foreign......
Or being idiosyncratic, like train spotters.

Let's lay this "British" nonsense to rest: if you're British this means you're English. Scots, Welsh and Northern Irelanders have their own distinct cultures, but they're not British. I accept this may be an untrendy view.

Maybe it's because we always feel that the English way is "right"; that we have grown up with the feeling that if the rest of the world ran their affairs like we do then things would be better; that we once ruled the world and can't quite get it out of our psyche, even though now we're a second-rate power; we're jealous of the Americans because they have everything bigger than us (as James Bond's boss "M" once stated, grumpily "Americans: overpaid, oversexed and over here...") and because we once owned them; we're too big for our boots because English is the most important language in the world although that's because of America, not us any more.

Rather than just travel abroad, I've tried to visit as many parts of England as I can. Some parts dismayed, others delighted. I have travelled England on foot, by bicycle, by car, by train, by aircraft and by boat. Each has it's own perspective on the land, the people and the weather.

The landscape in our country varies endlessly, and often in a very short distance. Perhaps that's one of the defining aspects of being English; that and the weather..... After all, we do not have a climate, just lots of weather.

On foot

Walking is an undervalued pastime, best approached with a dog who will be your constant companion, eager to explore and needing the exercise. The land passes slowly, smells are readily apparent, the rhythm of walking is natural to the human psyche.

The downsides of walking are that you don't get anywhere very fast, you are open to the elements, and having walked somewhere generally you need to walk back to your car. When we walked the Grand Union in sections we used both cars and dropped one at a canal bridge then drove to the other end of the walk, walked the section towards the first car and picked up the second car. Logistically complex but very effective.

By bicycle

The bicycle is without a doubt the simplest and cleverest mode of transport every devised. Not only will it keep you fit but you can cover a surprising amount of ground in an hour. My digital gadget tells me I average 19.2mph which means that in an hour I can go from central Abingdon to central Oxford.

I love cycling: when I was young I'd go out all day on my trusty green Hercules with it's Sturmey-Archer 3-speed gearbox that was always going wrong and wearing out. I'd cycle all over South Oxfordshire, from the age of about 8 (would I have the same freedom nowadays?) with a sandwich and a spanner in my luminous orange saddle bag. Then I had a break for 20 years during which I swam a lot and the Hercules died.
Returning to cycling in my late 30s things had changed. Handlebars had dropped, aluminium had been invented and the derailleur gear-change had rendered Mr Sturmey and Mr Archer redundant. Using a third-hand 21-speed (21-speed, the luxury!!) Kalkhoff was a revelation. Less than half the weight of the Hercules and with a whizzo gearbox, this was like being Lance Armstrong. Hills? Pah! Change down a few cogs and stand up. Since then I've worked my way through a few bikes, ending up with the present Dawes 301 Discovery: a hybrid road/offroad bike with no drop handlebars (I found I didn't get on well the drops).

By car

The huge advantages the car has brought humanity have been progessively belittled by trendy Lefties in this country, but the car is the single most empowering device the average person can aspire to (I accept the light aircraft is hugely more empowering, but the average person is programmed to believe these are dangerous, expensive and beyond the abilities of the average person to control).
When I was 18 and let loose with a Renault 5 and a driving licence I could not believe the cornucopia of opportunities for exploration the car brought: "so I'm allowed to drive on all these roads, anywhere I like, across the UK and Europe, without asking anyone's permission....?" and promptly racked up thousands of miles with thinly-veiled excuses to explore places I'd only heard about and read about. Lunch in London, rock-buying in Brighton, sandcastle building in Suffolk, drinks party in Bath, Edinburgh Festival, University choosing in the North of England etc etc...
Even with the current rash of increasingly-desperate control devices designed to cover up the endemic lack of road infrastructure investment relative to the number of cars and, especially, lorries in this country it is still possible to cover large distances relatively easily. Evenings and nights on our motorways and dual-carriageways are especially pleasurable as your driving style can become more fluid; more adapted to the needs of the road, not to the other traffic. The epidemic of nonsensical 50mph limits on dual-carriageways may be safely ignored at night as traffic volumes dwindle, and deserted roadscapes lit by mercury make great visual set pieces, as over-used by art house car TV ads.

By train

My problem with trains are a) that you can't see out if the front (which I hate) and b) they're just too slow. English steam trains were doing 125mph in the 1930s; why is an "Inter-City 125" at full whack between Reading and Slough on Brunel's finest ex-broad gauge laser-levelled continuously-welded roadbed only achieving 87mph? My GPS doesn't lie, and it still takes 45 minutes to get to Paddington from Didcot and (staggeringly) 2¼ hours to do 270 track miles (213 as the crow flies) from St Pancras to the Gare Du Nord on dedicated tracks.
The lack of ambition of this average speed of only 120mph truly beggars belief: the Japanese bullet train (first run in the 1960s) runs at over 150mph and can reach 275mph, and the later-designed TGV in France has reached 344mph, so let's aim to do Paris in an hour at 172mph, say? Now we're talking "compete with the aircraft" speeds.
HS2 (the eye-wateringly-expensive dedicated London-to-a-field-somewhere-outside-Birmingham line) is designed to run at 186mph but I'll bet it never does.

That said, I like travelling by train: it's fast(ish), comfortable and pretty reliable. You tend to see is the run-down areas of major conurbations but the countryside is beautiful and because you're not driving you can ogle it for hours on end.

By aircraft

The view from a light aircraft is unparalleled: not only do you get the "God-like view" but you can decide where to go next (unlike an airliner which goes where EasyJet says it will, and flies high enough that you see very little). We've toured low-level over various coastlines, around the Isle of Wight and around the Brecon Beacons - the views are unparalleled. So obviously my favourite mode of sighstseeing transport, but you don't get to smell the countryside.

By boat

There are only two possible excuses for touring England by boat: for chugging around the canals on a barge, and for leaving the country. Now the EuroTunnel has been completed and Duty Free is (mainly) but a memory the whole "queue up for hours, board the ferry, eat an overpriced greasy meal, throw up, queue for half an hour to get off and spend the remainder of the day feeling queasy" thing has disappeared. If EuroTunnel could only dispense with the entirely unnecessary queueing thing and make the trains run a bit faster it would be perfect. Still: 9/10.

I could amost "get" the whole sailing thing if I didn't get cold, seasick and salt in my eyes the whole time. I can understand the satisfaction of reaching somewhere using just the wind, and much of the navigation and planning are similar to aviation, particularly for longer journeys, but the nuts and bolts of whole process, like gliding, are far too dependant on a weak and unreliable source of energy.

Powerboats have the same seasickness and salt drawbacks, but staggeringly they cost even more than aircraft to run per mile. A powerboat captain once told me it costs £2,000 to go from Falmouth to Southampton and back.