Finding Authentic England: Beyond the High Streets

In the U.K., Main Street is called High Street. Wherever you go these days, from the capital city of London to the secondary cities, a downtown High Street tends to feature the same chain stores. To escape the cookie-cutter High Streets, one needs to explore beyond city center or seek out the much smaller villages of the countryside shires, away from the trodden tourist path.

Character Lost

Be it Robin Hood’s Nottingham, seaside Bristol and Brighton, football lovers’ Manchester, or even Windsor High Street in the shadow of the castle, they all look much the same along the High Street. The erstwhile Ma and Pa tea shop with lacy curtains has been replaced by one of the U.K.’s 766 Starbucks, and the independent bakery featuring scones and cucumber sandwiches has been replaced by McDonald’s and fast-food takeaways. National chain stores, mixed in with far too many realtors (called estate agents), which can afford the high rents along the main drag, lead to an homogenous experience for visitors preferring to discover merry old England. Boots is the ubiquitous drug store with more; Marks amp; Spencer has 703 stores in the U.K.; Tesco, Sainsbury, and Asda fight it out for No. 1 grocery chain; Top Shop, Zara, and H M; are mid-market fashion labels with literally hundreds of outlets each.

Head for the River

Searching out the stereotypical “olde” England while in London, one is well advised to head for the River Thames. From Richmond and Hammersmith in the west to Wapping and Greenwich in the east, all along the river are picturesque pubs with a view for watching the world go by with a pint of the local brew. Looking as though in a time warp, they will be easy to spot, with such evocative names as Prospect of Whitby, Old Ship, Mayflower, The Narrow, and Blue Anchor.

Beyond Britain’s High Streets

Shakespeare’s Stratford-Upon-Avon has retained its quaint appeal. After visiting Windsor Castle, walk across the bridge to see Eton. Castle Combe in Wiltshire is regarded as one of Britain’s 10 most beautiful villages, and Avebury is 20 miles from Stonehenge with its own ancient monuments surrounded by thatched cottages and a charming village pub. The villages in Cornwall and Devon are mainly untouched by 21st-century gentrification. The Cotswolds’ market towns are littered with honey-colored buildings set among meandering stone fences. The New Forest has wild horses roaming in the fields, and the Lake District is straight out of a Victorian romance novel. A former resident, American author Bill Bryson, said about Durham, “Why, it’s a perfect little city. If you have never been to Durham, go there at once. Take my car. It’s wonderful.”

Driving Tips

Outside the main cities, avoid the motorways and get onto the secondary and tertiary routes (marked “A” and “B” on your highway map). If you are unaccustomed to driving on the left-hand side of the road, take special care entering a roundabout and give way to vehicles already moving clockwise in the roundabout or entering it from your right.

Catch an English Channel Ferry to France

When visiting the U.K., how about an English Channel crossing by ferry to France? One of the shortest sea crossings is from Dover to Calais, at approximately 90 minutes. Take the car, too. Say ta-ta to fish and chips, bonjour to a croque monsieur with frites!

Depart From Dover

The drive from London to Dover is about 75 miles, depending on where you set out from in the capital city. Head southeast on the M20. A map and a fuel calculator give an estimate of £16 or so ($25) on fuel costs, varying with vehicle consumption.

Just Drive Aboard

In Dover, there are lots of signs for the ferries, where lines of cars await check-in before driving up the ramp. You’ll want to be certain you are in the correct line for destination Calais, since various ferry lines depart for different destinations.

“Cheap as Chips”

As the popular English expression goes, cheap as chips means affordable. Fares for Channel crossings with a car and up to four passengers are as low as £41.50 ($64) roundtrip, which the English call “return.”

Frequent Departures

With 33 crossings daily to Calais, go whenever you like. Visit Dover Castle or head out straight away for France. Dover is located on the U.K.’s southeastern tip, making it the closest point to continental Europe. The crew will park your car; best advice is not to look, as they are skilled at closing in the narrowest possible gap between vehicles on the parking deck, carefully anchoring cars into place for the ride.

Across the English Channel

Now, all you need do is enjoy the sailing. Views of the chalk boulder White Cliffs of Dover are a highlight, so look back for that view once you’ve sorted the kids out, got your refreshments, or settled into a comfortable seat. Just 26 miles later, you’re in France.

Bonjour, France!

Channel hoppers delight in cheaper goods for sale in Calais, and the town certainly caters to that. Sterling exchange rates to the Euro are currently favorable and many places accept sterling. Credit cards are another alternative, otherwise check carefully at Bureaux de Change in advance. Calais was bombed flat during World War II, so little predates mid-20th century. However, sightseers and history buffs will enjoy the Flemish-style town hall with its Burghers of Calais sculpture by Rodin, Parc Saint Pierre war museum and tomb to an unknown soldier, the Fine Arts Museum, an open-air market at Place d’Armes. A sandy beach with lighthouse provides a lovely spot for picnics and a stroll, or you can head out of town for further French delights. Amusez-vous bien!

Step Into History in York, England

A tour of northern England would not be complete without a stop at the historic city of York, England. From the narrow, medieval Shambles alleyways with their little shops to Clifford’s Tower, there’s a lot to see in the old walled city off the moors.
York is about four hours of a drive from London or about two hours by train, making it accessible within a day’s trip but probably best enjoyed with an overnight stay, possibly at a bed and breakfast. There’s enough to do within the city to keep a tourist busy for more than a day.

Finding Your Way Around

One oddity that requires some getting used to is the use of the word “gate” for nearly every street. The city on the Ouse has numerous roadways, including Micklegate, Deangate, Singgate, and Walmgate — these are all streets. Do yourself a favor and hire a cab to get to your destination if you don’t have a great street map for navigating around town. Note that the Yorkshire accent is a bit different from that of much of the rest of Britain, so you may need to listen closely to understand what the cabbie or locals are saying if you ask directions.

Take a Walk Through the Shambles

The 14th-century Shambles is the tiny, narrow street that time forgot. Once a meat market, the road is now the site of numerous gift shops, restaurants, and bookshops. It’s also close by York Minster, another necessary stop.

Tour York Minster

Open for visiting Monday through Saturday from 9 a.m., last admission 5 p.m.; Sunday from 12 noon, last admission 5 p.m. Winter hours are different, see online.

One of the great northern cathedrals, York Minster was built in the 13th through 15th centuries. After paying the admission fee, there are guided tours through the Central Tour, the Glass Conservation Studio, and the great glass windows.

View Tragic Clifford’s Tower

Clifford’s Tower has a tragic history despite its imposing and impressive appearance. In 1190, English Jews, seeking protection at the keep at the location of the current tower, tried to seek shelter from hostile locals. When mobs threatened the Jewish community, most of those seeking shelter committed suicide and set fire to the keep. The survivors were killed by the mob.

Later in the 13th century, the keep was rebuilt into the unique quatrefoil plan it has today. It is the only example of this layout in England, and the stones can, at times, have a pinkish hue.