|The Ballards - England|
my Lionheart, Peter Pan steals the children in Kensington Park"
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
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.
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.
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.
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).
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.
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.
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.
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.