Oh Britain. You know, you get such a bad rap.
I’m forever told how your food is no good, your beer is too warm, your weather is too wet and your landscape just too small.
I’ve lost track of how many times I’ve defended you.
Told the Australians that the local produce is better than they believe, that the pub fare has improved quite a lot, that the summers can be decent if you give them time to heat up.
I’ve defended and argued, got annoyed then given up.
After three years away, I started to believe the hype and returned to your shores convinced you’d let me down at every twist and turn.
I said to myself that if I spent three long months with you, maybe you’d show me something else? Maybe you’d help me put to bed the negativities and insults? Banish the misconceptions and untruths?
With that, my family and I left Sydney, passport in hand, Sterling in back pocket, Southern Cross travel insurance taken care of.
We were on our way.
Britain, were you ever that Great?
Determined to try harder, we set out from your centre. From London, that ever-expanding metropolis, to get away from the workers, the tourists, the traffic and the smog.
We drove south into the heart of the Home Counties, seeking out the hidden jewels in your British crown.
The Home Counties (Hampshire, South Coast)
We stumbled upon Alresford, a tiny market town set deep in the English countryside. Brightly coloured gardens bursting with wild flowers, ‘chocolate box’ cottages with thatched roofs and white walls, public houses with their doors thrown wide open, boisterous laughter and the sound of clinking glasses within.
You looked just as I remembered you in the peak of a good summer. Bright with colour and picture-postcard perfect.
From there, we headed to the South Coast, avoiding the renowned holiday traffic and diverting towards Hayling Island and the Witterings.
While not the prettiest part of Britain, nothing beats the feeling of sea spray on your face, the wind in your hair and a chance to blow those cobwebs away.
And you… what are your experiences of the south of England in a British summer? Where else should we have gone?
West Wales (Ceredigion, Pembrokeshire)
With our fill of the English South, we headed onwards to the western reaches of Wales, the land of my grandmother. A place I hadn’t often visited during my youth, but you didn’t disappoint us.
Craggy mountains and dense forests, deep green valleys and rugged, jagged coasts, you had it all. Staying in Ceredigion County close to the port town of Cardigan, we trekked coastal paths, spied grey seals, bottlenose dolphins and even the odd harbour porpoise.
The tiny cove of Mwnt was a highlight, with its steep cliffs and treacherous pathway through the rocks to a crescent-shaped sandy beach and spectacular views of the ocean.
We couldn’t resist a quick dip in the ocean, shocking our bodies to the core but rewarding us with a glimpse of passing dolphins as they swam through the water.
From dairy farm to sailing club, fishing village to countryside community, the Welsh cultural identity proudly stands tall – its unique language is spoken everywhere, local traditions closely protected, the rugby union adored. The West Wales region – from Aberporth to New Quay, Cilgerran to Dinas Head – was an outdoors delight and yet we barely scratched the surface.
A final dish of rare Welsh beef accompanied by all the trimmings – broad beans and green peas, crispy roast potatoes, lightly buttered carrots and soft, tender pumpkin – plus a few bottled beers rounded off with a glass of port and a hearty rhubarb crumble.
A fitting farewell to three weeks in Cymru and our first month back in the motherland. You hadn’t let us down.
Have you visited the Welsh coast recently and what were your impressions? Where else in the region is a highlight?
South West England (Devon, Cotswolds)
I can still remember those wide sandy Devonshire beaches and long days spent playing in rock pools but I wanted to know if Devon continued to hold the beauty and charm from childhood holidays spent there.
On then to the mid-Devon countryside and the forgotten village of Ashwater with its lone medieval church and idyllic setting in the rolling countryside, not far from the bustling market towns and farmers’ markets of Launceston and Holsworthy.
Bideford also called to us on this trip with its quaint laneways and shops. It was here that we enjoyed a favourite experience from our visit – the chance to ride along the ten mile Tarka Trail from Bideford to Barnstaple. Free of traffic, passing under bridges, along tiny cycle paths and through open meadows, this was a perfect outdoors treat.
After a week in Devon, we set out east towards Cirencester and the tiny hamlet of Cerney Wick in search of Cotswold country.
A quintessentially English region unspoiled by time and people, ancient limestone villages and rolling wolds countryside greeted us as we explored the waterparks area, rich with beech woods, river valleys and beautifully built homes.
If I had to sum up a typical English countryside setting, the Cotswolds would be it.
Had I missed an opportunity by not travelling into Cornwall and southwards to the South Hams of Devon and the English Riviera? And what of the Forest of Dean and the Wye Valley – have you experienced these beautiful locations?
South East England (Kent, East Sussex)
From the Cotswolds, we travelled cross-country to the south-east corner of Britain – to Rye, Royal Tunbridge Wells, Hastings and Ashford.
Rye is a delightful ancient port town known for its many medieval buildings perched atop a small mound not two miles from the English Channel and at the confluence of the Rivers Rother, Tillingham and Brede.
What fascinated us most about Rye was its history.
A Cinque Ports town, Rye provided ships for the King’s service during times of war. It was involved with the smuggling gangs of the 18th and 19th centuries. And its setting is close to the site of the Battle of Hastings.
Rye is also home to some wonderful castles, including the almost fully intact Bodiam Castle, one of Britain’s finest national monuments. And there were other experiences worth mentioning, including visits to local farms and to a unique rare breeds centre among the best.
Have you visited the south east and what stood out for you? What other gems or nuggets could I have discovered in Sussex or Kent?
Twelve weeks in Britain. Twelve weeks of memories.
Spoiled by consistently good weather, delicious food and the welcome company of family and friends, we flew out of the country in early September all the poorer for having said goodbye to a land that is beautiful and beloved.
In twelve weeks, we explored its countryside, cities and towns, enjoyed its food and drink, visited its landmarks and gorged ourselves on its music, culture, even its shopping and TV.
This post can’t come close to doing the place justice but I wanted you to get just a little taste of where we went and what we did. Don’t get me started on the many little quirks and whimsies I rediscovered, which Bill Bryson describes best:
Suddenly, in the space of a moment, I realised what it was that I loved about Britain – which is to say, all of it. Every last bit of it, good and bad – Marmite, village fetes, country lanes, people saying ‘mustn’t grumble’ and ‘I’m terribly sorry but’, people apologising to me when I conk them with a nameless elbow, milk in bottles, beans on toast, haymaking in June, stinging nettles, seaside piers, Ordnance Survey maps, crumpets, hot-water bottles as a necessity, drizzly Sundays – every bit of it.
I created an opportunity to reconnect with my home, a place that has become increasingly distant to me as time passes. And I took that opportunity with both hands, discovering once again that there are many things to love about Britain.
What do you love about Britain? What do you miss most about being away from the UK?