Going local

British picnic

British picnic

When we first arrived in Great Britain, we were surprised to see couples sitting in cars in car parks (parking lots, in American English) eating lunch, often from styrofoam takeaway (takeout, in AE) containers. Why would people eat in their cars???

Well, we’ve gone local. Yesterday we found ourselves eating a picnic lunch in our car in Wells, England. Why? We couldn’t find a picnic table from Glastonbury to Wells, two beautiful towns in the lovely Somerset countryside. Couldn’t find a park either, or any other green spot to look at while we munched. So we found the first parking spot we could, and had our lunch as shoppers pounded the pavement around us. Maybe it’s time to go home…before we start saying to-mah-to. ;o)

Lyme Regis

the Jurassic Coast

the Jurassic Coast

My guidebook didn’t do justice to Lyme Regis on the Jurassic Coast of England, and I didn’t plan to spend enough time in this cute little town with a gorgeous pebble beach.

And then there’s the historic Cobb, the dramatic stone jetty that was featured in The French Lieutenant’s Woman by John Knowles and Persuasion by Jane Austen.

the Cobb

the Cobb

Land’s End

Land's End

Land’s End

What is it about remote spots that compel me to visit them? Southernmost, westernmost, northeasternmost…. I am drawn to them all. When we were in Portugal two years ago, I just knew that the southwesternmost tip of Europe would be wild and exciting. It was. The photo in the header on my homepage was taken from Cabo de São Vicente, looking up the west coast of Europe. Fantastic!

When I started researching Scotland, I read about John o’ Groats, the northernmost town on the mainland of Scotland – well, on Great Britain, for that matter. I wanted to go. I read about the cold, desolate landscape, the sparse population. Yes! A friend told us of visiting the area and staying in a friend’s castle. He said he was so cold in summer, he had to pull the rug up off the floor and wrap himself in it to stay warm at night. Yes! Yes!

But wait! There are also the Orkney Islands off of the northern coast of Scotland. And then the Shetland Islands are even farther north than the Orkneys, and they have those wild ponies. But then I read that the ferry from John o’ Groats was a bit rough after July. And a woman (hi, Shannon!) we met on Skye had just been and confirmed it. Never mind. I don’t want to see the islands that badly.

So we had the opportunity to see the southwesternmost point of England – Land’s End in Cornwall. That will have to satisfy me. There’s something about that suffix “-most”….

Doc Martin

Port Isaac: Doc's house/surgery (small one)

Port Isaac: Doc’s house/surgery (small one)

My friend Laura introduced us to this fantastic British comedy, Doc Martin, about a brilliant but cantankerous (a la Dr. House) London surgeon who develops a phobia for blood and has to take a job as a general practitioner in a little village in Cornwall.

the doc in local advert

the doc in local advert

We’ve seen all six seasons, and have grown to love the quirky characters who drive the doc crazy, but we also love the picturesque village of Port Isaac (fictitious Port Wenn on the show). We found it on the Cornish coast – just as pretty as it is on camera. I thought it would be weird seeing it in real life, but it was just as if I’d been there before.

Near fiasco

Bowgie Cottage, Cornwall
Two days before we were supposed to check in to a flat we had rented in Plymouth, I went to the listing for it to remind myself of its features and amenities. I happened to see a review that wasn’t posted at the time I reserved the flat back in April. It was a terrible review.

me, in the kitchen

When traveling, or even in our own backyard, I rely heavily on reviews posted by people who have visited the places I am considering. I’ve learned to scrutinize the information; some is honest and constructive, other is petty and mean-spirited. This particular review had some very real concerns: neighbor blasting music at all hours of the day and night and – even worse – singing along, and the police showing up three times looking for two men who had been living in one of the neighboring flats. Then there was the more typical stuff about dirty flat, no cable TV, etc. But when I saw there was no coffee maker – well, that just ripped it for me.

a toy for Marcus to play with

Seriously though, sounded like a rough neighborhood – nothing I wanted to get into for a full week. I tried to get in touch with the property manager on three different phone numbers. No answer; no voice mail. We had less than 12 hours to cancel if we wanted a refund, so we bailed. Then we had less than 24 hours to find a new place to stay.

Long story short, we found this adorable cottage in Cornwall, which is really where I wanted to be anyway. It is relatively new, beautifully built and decorated, and was in the middle of the woods. Lovely!

Cornish pasty



When I was 14, my sister Nancy got me hooked on Gothic romance novels by Victoria Holt (one of a multitude of pen names for author Eleanor Hibbert). Although Holt’s books were set in various exotic locations, my favorites were set in Cornwall. The heroine would often eat
Cornish pasties (pronounced pass-tees). I had never heard of a pasty before, but Holt took great care to describe these flavorful folded pies chockfull of meat, potatoes, and onion coming straight from the oven, typically just as our heroine was about to pass out from hunger. (She always seemed to be running from someone, usually a handsome, misunderstood man, and had to spend her last shilling to fend off starvation.) Holt’s descriptions would make my mouth water, and I longed to try one. Today I got my chance. It was delicious! The pie crust was flaky and tasty, and the steak, potatoes, and onion were seasoned to perfection.

Arthur: man or myth?

After reading The Once and Future King by T. H. White a few months ago, I want very much to believe that King Arthur is more than a legend. White wrote the character with such finesse and such pathos that I cried in the final scene. It wasn’t even his death scene; it was the scene leading up to the battle in which he would be killed by his illegitimate son, Mordred. But his words and actions summed up everything that he was. I had witnessed him grow from the unassuming innocent, Wart, to the just but tragically human ruler of Britain. A finer man has never lived.

Or did he live? No one knows for sure. There are many tales of Arthur beginning with preliterate stories told round the fire, perhaps based on some noble warrior who distinguished himself in battle. Maybe a beloved king’s deeds were exaggerated to heroic level, or maybe stories of two people, king and hero, merged into one. But myth or reality, they were perpetuated widely, mouth to ear, for centuries until someone with the ability to read and write thought to put them down on paper.

Although carefully referring to him to as a legend, historians place Arthur in the 5th or 6th century. And whether or not he lived, the Scots, Welsh, and Cornish all claim him as one of their own. But when I heard that a highly respected 12th-century Welsh historian placed Camelot in Cornwall, I felt there might be some truth to it. There is very little the Welsh will concede to anyone, least of all the British.

Tintagel Castle

Tintagel Castle

So when I heard that Tintagel Castle, on the north coast of Cornwall, was thought to be the birthplace of Arthur, I had to see it. We had arrived in Cornwall the day before our visit in the driving rain, and had to bypass Exmoor National Park because of the weather. Although the next day started out overcast, I would not be daunted. I had been looking forward to Cornwall for weeks, and I was determined to get out there and see it.

By the time we arrived at Tintagel, an hour after setting out, the sky was brilliantly blue and virtually cloudless. The Cornish countryside, dotted with sheep and rolling down to the sea in great green waves, was stunning against the turquoise sea. As we climbed down into a crevice between two rocky outcroppings towards the shore, we saw the rocky ruins of the castle on a hill above us. Rocks. Another of many ruined castles. But this one felt different. Maybe it was the way it was perched above us on the hill against the unfamiliar blue-sky backdrop, or maybe it was the way in which the weather had changed so dramatically as we approached, but the place felt otherworldly to me. I could imagine a twinkle in Merlin’s all-knowing eye. Such is the power of extraordinary literature.


The main reason for planning a three-month trip to Great Britain was to be able to have time to explore the history, absorb the culture, and get to know some of the people. What better opportunity to get to know the locals than when traveling in an English-speaking country?

While making my B&B reservations last spring, I imagined chatting over a cup of tea with our hosts – exchanging insights into our countries and cultures, exploring and appreciating both the differences and the similarities. We wouldn’t solve the world’s problems, but perhaps we would resolve the curiosities we each had about “those people on the other side of the pond.” It would all be tempered with laughter, of course, and that razor-sharp, self-deprecating British wit that I love.

What we got instead were a string of B&B hosts who seemed exhausted from a busy tourist season, served us breakfast with the briefest of inquiries into how we were getting on, and then retreated to the kitchen to get on with their own lives. What had I been thinking? Of course, these people are running a business – and often the B&B was a supplement to their primary job. They are looking for clients to help them make ends meet, not their next BFF. And so I resigned myself to continue my exploration using only my own observations and assumptions, minus the native commentary.

And then we stayed in a beautiful home in a delightfully remote village in southern Wales. Our hosts, Andrew and Anne, not only cooked breakfast, but also sat and shared the meal with us. We lingered a bit over the meal discussing our respective worlds – nothing terribly significant or noteworthy, but always satisfying and enriching. And then we’d part ways – us, to explore a corner of the world they were so happy to share with us, and them, to return to the daily lives they gladly set aside for a short time to sit and have a chat. We felt like welcomed guests.

The B&B’s I reserved were chosen for their access to the sights I wanted to see. I wasn’t always able to find rooms or flats exactly where I’d hoped, and often had to pick locations I’d never heard of or never would have sought out for themselves because it was the closest I could find. I tend to be an über-planner, and sometimes have difficulty yielding to chance. But I find, as I learn to relax and go with that elusive flow, that more often than not the consequence of serendipity is a brilliant discovery. I need to do it more often.

Do not go gentle into that good night

Do not go gentleI never liked poetry in school. It seems we always started with the medieval Beowulf and never got to the more modern stuff before the school year ended. I just couldn’t relate. But Monday we stopped in at the Dylan Thomas Centre in Swansea, Wales, the proud home of the poet and writer. I was impressed. Not only by his mastery of the English language, but also by the brief life (39 years) of the man himself and the many people he influenced. For starters, financial contributors to the exhibit were, among others, Sir Paul McCartney and former President Bill Clinton. Oh, yes, and Bob Zimmerman chose to change his last name to Dylan in honor of the poet.