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 The erstwhile Ma and Pa tea shop with lacy curtains has been replaced by one of the U.K.’s 766 Starbucks, and the independent bakery featuring scones and cucumber sandwiches has been replaced by McDonald’s and fast-food takeaways.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.