Prior to this trip, my visits to England had scarcely gotten me to London. One year, I had a whirl around Piccadilly Circus. Another, I chose a different stop on the tube to explore. But this year, following my trip to Ireland, I was going to get to see the real England, a place that – for me – comprised sprawling countryside, adorable villages, and statuesque gentlemen who politely tipped their hats and said, always with a warm smile, “Good day, old chap.”
I was in England for the specific purpose of a wedding, which was to take place on a farm. However, I was fortunate enough to have a wonderful host who would not only be escorting me to said wedding, but had promised a tour of the town he grew up in.
“I can’t wait to see your town!” I’d told him ecstatically. “Does it have a little pub? Can we walk around?”
“It’s really shit,” he’d replied. (I knew he was just downplaying it. Jamie seemed posh to me – he asserts he has a neutral accent, but he carries himself in a very sophisticated manner – so it was hard to believe he grew up in some hovel.)
I spent the entire plane ride from Shannon to Heathrow jiggling my foot excitedly. Not only would I be meeting Jamie that evening, but I had about six hours to kill before then and my friends were all waiting to meet me at Covent Garden for a little debauchery before my retreat to the countryside.
I’d no sooner emerged from the tube when Loraine greeted me enthusiastically before saying, “This is a strange question, but your friend Jim isn’t here, is he?”
Jim, who was in town for the wedding, had texted me to say that his flight arrived an hour before mine in Heathrow. We’d probably just missed each other, but the fact that he was staying in Covent Garden was especially fortuitous!
“He came out of the tube like…five minutes before you,” Chantelle told me.
Thrilled, I texted him from the bar we went to in Covent Garden and he arrived shortly after. Loraine, Chantelle, Sally, Jim, and I sat drinking beers and swapping tales of summer vacations in Iowa, New York, Ireland, and Egypt. I was on cloud 9, stuck in a limbo between my amazing trip to Ireland and the beginning of another trip to England. There is extreme happiness in the space between vacations! Especially when you’re in the company of great friends.
I had to return to Heathrow to retrieve Jamie – or really, for him to retrieve me, as he’d rented the car. He was arriving from Brazil, and I anticipated he’d be as travel-weary as me, toting a suitcase crammed with dirty clothing and suffering mild exhaustion.
Regardless, I was super happy to see him, and we spent the forty minute car journey to Wycombe swapping our own vacation stories – before we reached the hotel and I promptly passed out after a shower.
The next day, Jamie took me to a riverside town called Marlow, the quintessential little English town. We’d strolled through a park commemorating Steve Redgrave, who I learned was some Olympic rowing gold medalist. (This was hard to miss, considering the giant statue of him in the park, adorned with medals and grasping some oars. Or paddles? Is there a difference?)
This park, christened The Rye, began as a large expanse of grass that stretched on until it bumped up against the Thames, where a wooded walking path carried happy travelers along the river. It was an uncharacteristically sunny day as we walked along the river, through bowed tree branch arches overhead. It was something out of a fairy tale about England. To our right, there was the park. To our left, long boats and paddle boats bobbed in the water alongside bright, elegant swans.
“Watch out for them,” Jamie warned. “They’re nasty. Did you know you can’t kill a swan? They all belong to the queen.”
Of course the Queen of England can choose to own all of the country’s swans as pets. This is what I mean when I say England is so quaint and unique. I can’t imagine President Obama addressing the nation and saying something like, “Good morning. All the bald eagles in the US are my pets now and belong to me. No one else can touch them.” (On the other hand, I can imagine Chris Christie declaring ownership over all of the fowl in New Jersey, because that seems like something he might do.)
Remarkably, the swan is the symbol of Wycombe, according to Jamie, which makes me think that Wycombe is somehow also the Queen’s pet.
But we were in Marlow, not Wycombe, a magical small town that could have inspired the film Hot Fuzz. Ahead of us on the path, a man proposed to his gleeful girlfriend. Elderly couples sat on benches and lingered on wooden bridges, regarding us with warm smiles and a hearty “Good afternoon!” as we passed.
Back in town, we had lunch at a place called St. George and Dragon (I think), where we passed by the recently engaged couple lunching outside. Jamie bought me a whippy and we wandered throughout the village, passing a proud sign declaring Marlow the Best Kept Village through 2009.
We also found a golden mailbox, something I’d heard about from Loraine. She told me that when someone in the UK won a gold medal in the Olympics, the mailbox in their hometown was painted gold. Again, why is this not something we do in the US? Where is our creativity?
In the evenings, Jamie took me to English pubs, small uncrowded places with little pub quiz machines in the corner and good beer on tap. We also played pool, but that’s better left out of this narrative.
On my second full day in Wycombe, I got to learn about the traditional English sport of cricket with Jamie’s father and brother. This seemed like an opportunity not to be missed, since my knowledge of cricket was limited to a Bill Bryson book painting it as a long, boring sport. And – it kind of was. Jamie’s dad suggested that our version would be baseball, which made sense. Jamie would say they fall under the category of stick and ball games, so I guess they are from the same family. Still, it took a long time for me to understand why after a batter successfully hits the ball, he returns to bat again mere minutes later.
After the wedding, Jamie took me to a park in Wycombe called Higginson, another glamorous example of the English doing something extremely well. I’ve been to my share of parks in New Jersey and while many of them offer colorful jungle gyms for kids, nothing could compete with this little haven I found in Wycombe. The path ran around the perimeter of the park, along a small creek and through vibrant flower bushes. Families played games of cricket or watched their children play on what can only be described as the coolest playground equipment ever. I wanted to play on it. And even then, it managed to appear classy and elegant, not like a garish installment for children.
We ate ice creams and observed paddle boats in the water, all under the warm afternoon sun that is apparently so scarce in England.
Often, a place does not live up to my imagined version of it. England, or at least Wycombe and Marlow, absolutely do.