Summer is my favorite season anywhere, but there is something about an English summer that gives me joy even more than a Minnesota summer. Maybe it’s because I’m away from my usual surroundings and routine and everything—woods and streams and vines and birds but also even the sidewalk under my feet and the bus stops and the street signage—are different, exotic, even after many visits. I love new and different, the sense of being an explorer.
But there is something else about the English countryside; many other writers have tried to capture it, to greater or lesser degrees of success. You might say, “Oak trees are oak trees, and meadows are meadows wherever you go, right?” So why go anywhere else but home? But they do differ. The English countryside is greener. Saturated with green, drenched in green. Probably because it is wetter, if that’s a word. The trees are much older. They are covered in shiny ivy and holly vines. These are parasites but they add to the greenness.
And there is something about seeing a view of the English countryside from the top of a hill that makes me feel Everything is Okay, because I know it’s the same view that someone would have seen here 50 or a hundred years ago, and if I return in 50 years it will in all likelihood be the same. In the US, we chopped down 90% of our trees to make way for farms, and now farms are rapidly being bulldozed over and replaced by suburban sub divisions or light manufacturing parks.
So I love things new (to me) and old and England ticks both boxes.
After a few days of idyll I had to go into London for a meeting at a big corporate foundation. I had been wearing the same clothes for six weeks and felt pretty scruffy but I didn’t have time to buy anything new. I spent an hour anxiously plotting how I would get there, and in the end it was easy but you don’t know that ahead of time, do you?
Anyone who thinks companies can do anything better than government has never used the UK rail system. I use the word “system” generously. I am not an expert on UK trains, but from what I understand the system has been parceled off to private companies, so I took Southwest Rail into London but one would take a different company’s train from London to Oxford, and a third company served the east coast, and so on.
This was my first time into the city and I was nervous. I knew I had to get off at Waterloo to switch to the Underground. There was no choice for “Waterloo” on the automatic ticket dispenser, so I went to the manned ticket booth and waited in the queue.
When I mentioned the glitch in the machine, the bored attendant’s response was, “Waterloo is called ‘London Station’ in our system.”
“But how would anyone know that?” I asked. She shrugged and jerked her head for the next person.
Soon after we pulled out of the station, the automatic announcement said, “This is a Southwest Rail train for Windsor and Eton.” “For” means “to” in Britain. Hmmm…Windsor and Eton was our departure point, not our destination.
“The next stop is Vauxhall. This train will stop at Clapham Junction, Putney, Sunnymeade, Twickenham, Staines …” My palms started to sweat and I flashed back to my train journey in Italy the previous year. The stops seemed to be in the wrong order but I wasn’t sure.
The announcement repeated three times that we were going for Eton and Windsor, not from. It listed more stops whose names I couldn’t make out. Grittam and Raysbury turned out to be Whitton and Rosebury. I had the urge to jump off, but I was also pretty sure that if I just Stayed On the Train I would eventually arrive at Waterloo.
A live person came on the overhead speakers. “Ladies and gentlemen, we do apologize for the automated message, which is backwards. The next stop is Datchet, not Vauxhall. Vauxhall is the last stop before Waterloo. Thank you for your custom.”