Balderdash! – Busting 5 Myths About England

Posted by on Feb 8, 2011 in England | 39 Comments

Ah, England!

The mist-shrouded Arthurian ruins, the rolling green hills dotted with sleepy hamlets, nuns on bikes free-wheeling over cattle grids, tankards of warm beer, castles and orchards, jodhpurs and shooting-sticks, where monocles legally replace spectacles and more than two people will automatically form a queue, where everything is quaint and quintessential and steeped and…

On and on.

Planning a first-time trip to England soon? It’s possibly you’ve been told things about the place. Silly things. Things that will mislead and ultimately disillusion you. And that’s no fun at all. So in the interests of having an exciting and fascinating holiday in a truly exciting and fascinating country, let’s burst a few bubbles here.

Tower Bridge, by Sven Wrage - Flickr

1. London is historic?

Cliché

London is the Disneyland of British history. To step onto the streets of London is to be swept into the past, down cobbled alleyways worn smooth by the passage of Celtic tribes, Roman legions, William the Conquerer, Henry the Eighth (and his wives), Sherlock Holmes and Dick Van Dyke. Close your eyes and kick a football, and it will ricochet off a minimum of one parliamentary building, one medieval theatre, one mysteriously abandoned London Underground station, ten Listed structures and at least one member of the house of Windsor. London is relentlessly, unstoppably quaint. It’s one enormous hypercaffeinated Harry Potter street scene, filled with top hats and cheeky urchins (children, I mean – London is well inland), lovable old dears and twinkly-eyed rogues who you can smell a mile off. You will be charmed. That’s London.

Really?

London suffers from what I like to call Athens Syndrome. You turn up expecting a cultural spectacle…and you’re met with a modern city, looking like any other. This is the brick wall of disillusionment that stops many people from seeing past the wearying, faintly grubby modernity that feels strangely low-budget, past the cars and the acres of corporate glass. Historic London is there, but it’s hidden in full view under everything you know already. It takes a while to learn the shape of the city, the spatial relationships that tell its stories so thrillingly. In short, it’s a jigsaw. Don’t be surprised to find it in pieces when you first arrive.

King of Chess, by Kristine Kongsvik - Flickr

2. Everyone Speaks like the Queen?

Cliché

Gee, don’t you just love how English people speak? Seriously? It’s so fruity. All those drawled vowels, the way their nostrils flare and add timbre you can feel in your knees. The way that upper lip curls. And in real English you don’t say “I”, you say “one”! It’s like you’re so aloof you’re not even you! You can hear the silverware in every syllable, the castles, the banquets, the unspeakable in pursuit of the inedible, haw haw. And don’t they just make the best villains?

Really?

Wherever in the world we’re from, we have a dialect. Cypriot Greek isn’t Athenian Greek.  Hokkaido-ben is distinct from Tōhoku Japanese. Every language is lumpy with variety, sounding a little different wherever you go. And sometimes, those dialect evolve into sociolects – ways of speaking that gets pinned on a particular social class. Here, to sound different is to be different. Such is the fate of received pronunciation, better known as “posh English”. The Queen speaks posh English (of course), and the BBC was founded on it. People learned to speak this way to elevate their social status, and in doing so promoted it on the world stage. Consequently, it has become the sound of the English.

But…it isn’t.

Wander the length of England, and you find we can’t even agree on how to say “a”. Most of the English speak in a way that used to be labelled “Common” – in other words, non-posh English. You’ll have heard many variations of it if you’ve seen Peter Jackson’s Lord Of The Rings trilogy. (Round here, we sound like Boromir). British historical dramas rely on this dichotomy: here, Wellington is clearly the man in charge, wheras Richard Sharpe is common as muck. You know that from their first syllables.

If you stick to London, you’ve a good chance of hearing the Queen’s English. But on average, the modern English person sounds as common as muck.

Rain Over Street Lights, by Silent Shot - Flickr

3. It Always Rains?

Cliché

It never, ever stops raining in England. Ever. In the old days, TV weather bulletins involved slapping magnetic weather-shapes onto an upright map of Britain. You can easily imagine weatherpeople having boxes brimming with raincloud magnets, and panicking when they have to show the sun (“I only used it last month, it can’t have got far!”). It’s a statistical fact that in England, every month, no matter what the season, it rains for at least 31 days.

Really?

Not too far from the truth. A safe proportion to assume is one in three: that is, for every three days in England, one of them will rain on you. Yet it’s not the millimetres that will wear you down – it’s the sky. England is renowned for a special kind of weather best known as “Off”. Someone somewhere yanks a lever, and the meteorological power is cut, leaving nothing but a dead-channel grey from horizon to horizon. Rain itself can be fun; Off-days never are. You need something in your psychological survival-kit to deal with such days. Chocolate. A loved one. A Wii. Whatever. Just make sure you have it covered.

However, let’s get one thing straight. Yes, it rains a lot in England. But do we get much more rain than anywhere else? No. Depending on what part of England you’re talking abuot, we get an average between 400-750mm of rainfall a year, rarely more than that. Pity, then, the inhabitants of Nanaimo (Canada) whose yearly average between 1841 and 1960 was over a meter of the wet stuff. And then be racked with agonies of sympathy for the folk in Mawsynram, India, who receive twelve meters of rain a year. In comparison, English rain is truly piddling.

Breakfast of Champions, by peasap - Flickr

4. English Food Is Dreadful?

Cliché

Here’s how the English make a meal: they put ingredients in a pan of boiling water, and then they boil the colour out of them. The remaining gunk is slopped onto a cold plate, has ketchup slathered over it, and is eaten. This is called Enjoying Your Food. The more acceptable alternative is getting a takeaway. But hey, that’s unfair: traditional English food isn’t like that. Not really. No – it’s usually colourless deep-fried gunk. No need to be xenophobic and narrow-minded about it all.

Really?

Across Europe, English food is regarded as something of a joke.

This shows how deeply behind those pesky Europeans are these days. Jamie Oliver. Gordon Ramsey. Ring any bells? English food is finally getting the publicity is deserves on the world stage. It’s not just about fry-ups, pies and fish’n’chips – but frankly, if it were, that’d be no bad thing because the English have turned the making of these foodstuffs into an art form. For example, I truly wish I could take you for a ten-minute walk to my local ‘chippy, the best in York for value and taste and sheer oh-why-not-it’s-a-Friday-ness. Good fried fish and good pies alone would salvage our reputation…but there’s so much more. Treacle sponges, Yorkshire puddings (incidentally, don’t believe a word of this), Lancashire hotpots, Bakewell tarts, clotted cream scones…it’s all heavenly, albeit in that moment on the lips, lifetime on the hips way. (Want to eat heathily? Just eat less. Duh).

Morris Dancers in Harrogate (1) - M. Sowden

Morris Dancing in Harrogate (2) - M. Sowden

5. Morris Dancing

Cliché

Grown men. Dancing about. With bells on.

Really?

I saw the above in Settle. It’s called Morris Dancing, and it’s a branch of English folk culture. Is it popular? Yes and no. It attracts tourists, sure, and it has a small, enthusiastic following and a long and fascinating history. But please, don’t go thinking we all regularly like to clamber into what look like cricket-themed pyjamas, knot garish hankies around our ankles and unselfconsciously gyrate on street corners. I’m sure that’s fun for some people, but not me, thanks…

And this goes for a host of “quintessentially English” cliches, from bowler hats to afternoon tea. Yes, they occasionally happen. But really, you’d be extremely lucky to see them in person.

(And if you hanker for a truly thriving, much-loved English folk experience? Go see Kate Rusby. We love her to bits over here).

More soon.

Images: Mike Sowden, Sven Wrage, silent shot, peasap, Kristine Kongsvik and painted23.

  • Sharon Miro

    OK, really. You’ve convinced me, I now have to come back, with no preconceived notions and with a sunlamp.

    • Mikeachim

      Bring a travel adapter. British plugs are extra prongy.

  • http://www.candicedoestheworld.com Candice

    I freaking love a good English breakfast! I’m not a fan of London, but I LOVED the rest of England and everything about it. Even rain. But mostly the pubs.

    • Mikeachim

      Cheers, Candice. :)

      I too love a good English breakfast. One that’s grilled, not deep fried in fat. You can’t beat a good grill in the morning, but I’ve had the other type – fished out a pan of fat with a slotted spoon after twenty minutes of bobbing around, going black and shrivelled….

      I once was served an English breakfast where the baked beans were *bobbing*. Dancing around on a sea of grease like the heads of swimmers at high surf.

      A good test is poking your fried bread. It shouldn’t ooze grease when you poke it – that should require the flat of a spoon.

      So – what grated about London?

  • Rebecca

    Oh, man, I can’t tell you how VERY disappointed I was to see American fast food joints on my first visit to London. Now, the variety of food choices is one of the very best things I like about London, and what makes it the one place I could stay for really long stretches of time. Even Mexican food is available!!!

    I wasn’t at all wild about those modern buildings, either. I felt the same way – even more so, actually – to see so much ultra modern interior design in Rome my first time there. But there is still sooo very much historical architecture in both places, and all over Europe for that matter, that it’s way more than enough to satisfy any fan.

    As to the language, well, I may not be the best representative in this regard since I do tend to be generally oblivious. But, on one trip to London, my British hosts stopped to ask directions of someone and later joked that it was just their luck they’d chosen a Scotsman. The joke being, of course, that they’d asked directions from someone even more foreign to their location than they were. Then one of them turned to me and asked if I had even noticed that the accent was different from theirs…and I hadn’t.

    In any case, I can’t think of one instance right off hand where the reality of a foreign location being different from my expectations was enough to ruin a trip. I’m almost always plenty happy enough to be somewhere different, no matter what it turns out to actually be like…at least for a while. And that includes various places in my own country.

    I just like a wide variety in my personal environment, but I’m pretty adaptable to wherever I might find myself…again, at least for a while.

  • http://www.thetravelingphilosopher.com Spencer Spellman

    This is great Mike. I’m excited to bust these and many more myths when I go to England later this year. That’s one of the biggest complaints I hear is about the food and the weather, and I just don’t buy it. I spent quite a bit of time and came to love the food I ate in Ireland. I’m a token fish and chips guy, but like many of the other things. Unfortunately, it seems that the likes of France and Italy overshadow the cuisine of England.

  • http://www.thedropoutdiaries.com The Dropout

    Brilliant! Just brilliant!
    When I arrived in London it was sunny and bright. It was bloody cold though, which I wasn’t expecting, having a fairytale concept of “spring” in Europe.
    I found London to be historic, I found I could hardly understand some people and the food was ridiculously expensive because the Australian dollar was low then.
    What blew me away was the racy ads in the telephone booths for spanking and escort services. That was unexpected and certainly changed my view of London.

  • http://katebailward.com/drivinglikeamaniac Katja

    The best thing about London, as someone who’s lived there for most of her adult life, is discovering all the historical bits that get missed on the tourist trail. I’m not talking about things like the Tower of London (although that was fun, too), but things like the Cross Bones Graveyard. The things that you don’t see in the tourist books, but which tell you so much about the history of the city. I miss London.

  • http://www.baconismagic.ca ayngelina

    You know I’m with Candice, I spent a week in London but I didn’t love it at all. I also went up North to Wakefield and really enjoyed it but London was far too expensive for me and the food wasn’t that great, sorry.

  • http://positiveworldtravel.com Anthony

    Ahhhh, there is nothing like a traditional English Breakfast fry up. It is a heart attack waiting to happen! I have been to London 3 times and every single one of those times. Summer, winter, and spring, it rained non stop the whole time I was there! But none the less London has so much to offer. Like New York it has a pulse of its own and you can get caught up in its energy if you are there long enough. For all the bad, there is also a lot of good to enjoy. Just ignore the weather. Sorry I only spoke about London and not England as a whole.

  • http://www.islandmomma.wordpress.com islandmomma

    Thank you so much for this. I intend to print it out and show it to Spanish friends whenever they trot out their misconceptions!

    Oh, and speaking of accents, I went to see the movie “Triage” last week, in English with subtitles – and there were times when I had to read the subtitles because I couldn’t undersand Colin Farrell’s Irish accent!

  • http://thejungleprincess.com Abby

    Great! Why do the Brits and Americans constantly have to defend their food? Everyone I know loves London, but I guess I hang out with a lot of city folk now. I haven’t been myself in ten years. But… I’ll see you in UK soon, Mike! It’d better not rain… Just kidding. Nice post.

  • http://writingthroughthefog.com Cheri Lucas

    Ah, “clotted cream scone” sounds at once wrong and delicious. I looked up images; I’m pretty sure I have never eaten one of those. And I think that is rather sad.

    Timely piece for me; as it turns out, after all the airline scrambling and abandoned Egypt trip, I will be in London for several days at the end of the month. This will be my fourth visit in 10 years, but I feel I’ve only scratched the surface. And I’m embarrassed to say I’ve only been to a few places outside of London (namely Oxford). The first time, I was 17 and on a tour. The second time, I was 20 and there for several weeks. It rained most of the time, and I was with bad company, so I didn’t enjoy my time as much. Then I returned in February 2008, stayed with two close friends, and absolutely fell in love.

    I agree with others above; it is quite expensive and the food isn’t memorable. (But who can say no to a good neighborhood pub? Or hot British accents?) Your words and photos make me look forward to it.

    And I will be sure to pack my umbrella this time around.

    How far are you from London?

    Cheers,
    Cheri

  • http://www.goseewrite.com/ Michael Hodson

    Jamie Oliver??!!! You brought Jamie Oliver out as a positive? Hmmmmmm. Methinks your brain might be pickled with Myth #6…. all Brits drink way too much beer. ;)

    • http://katebailward.com/drivinglikeamaniac Katja

      *stage whispers* Also, all he cooks is Italian food. But sshh – I don’t think Mike’s noticed … ;)

  • http://www.justtravelous.com/en/ JustTravelous

    GREAT post! really enjoyed reading it! Didn’t hear about Morris Dancing till now! sounds fun! :)
    made me think about all the cliches of Germany… #wearingadirndlrightnowdrinkingbeerandeatingwurst

  • http://www.travelyourself.ca/1 Cailin O’Neil

    I was in London for my third or fourth or fifth time (can’t remember) and I love it every time!!!
    I love the food good or bad, I love the history and big old buildings and the everything.
    All the cliche things people say about it I see when i am there and I love it and I love everything else there too :)
    I don’t think I would ever hate that city, not even the black gunk that gets in your nose from spending too much time on waiting for tubes.

  • http://technosyncratic.com/ Christy @ Technosyncratic

    We plan on traveling around the UK for a few months this summer, so I’m very relieved to hear you bust Myth #4!

    And wait… you mean we aren’t going to see any Hogwarts students while we’re there? Balderdash!!!

    • http://www.postcardfromtheworld.blogspot.com Katy

      You may not see Hogwarts students, but go to Oxford and visit the Bodleian Library – it was used in the films!

  • http://katebailward.com/drivinglikeamaniac Katja

    God. I’ve just realised I’m the only Brit in this comment thread.

    *hides clotted cream from marauding foreigners*

    *adds roast beef and gravy for good measure*

    *dons sensible shoes and joins WI*

    • Jimbo

      You’re not alone. Fancy some eels and mash? I know this caf in Wapping… Less WI more bling and burberry.

      • http://katebailward.com/drivinglikeamaniac Katja

        I still haven’t tried jellied eels – smoked, yes, but not jellied. Are they any good? Well, if they’re not, I’ll just drop them in a Burberry handbag. They probably wouldn’t be noticed for weeks amid the rampant patterning.

  • Jimbo

    It’s the idea Mike sounds like Boromir that scares me. Mike comes from E Yorks not S Yorks like Sean Bean (Sheffield). Two v different accents. As for hearing the Queen’s English in London – well you’re more likely to hear Polish. Most people talk Estuarine.

    History in London – there isn’t that much of it above ground. That big firey thing in 1666, the Luftwaffe and rampant capitalism have done away with most of the old stuff. You could try digging straight down. 9-10m down you can stand on the gravel banks of the prehistoric Thames.

  • Ms Moss

    I have a confession. Despite having lived down here for over a decade now, i still think most English people sound a bit posh. I mean, i can tell you’re not all talking like the queen (ya get me, blud), but there’s still a part of my brain that thinks “english = they must be loaded/have a coronet stashed about their person”.

    (also, i can’t believe you talked about the British weather without using the word “drizzle” – a word made to describe our weather.)

  • belly

    Katja – stay away from jellied eels. they taste like mud! i lived in London for 6 years some time ago, tired them once. NEVER again. the real ‘England’ is full of history though (especially if you’ve come from America or similar – there are buildings over 50 years old here! imagine that) everywhere apart from Milton Keynes, that is. even Hull has history! there are, allegedly, places where there isn’t a Starbucks still! (i’m not sure i believe that though….)
    i do think you should have a go at Morris Dancing though Mike. i’d even pay to watch that.

  • http://www.insidethetravellab.com Abi

    Gulp – a fellow Brit steps into the fray…(who was even made to do Morris Dancing at school.)
    Can’t say I’m a fan of British food – but I do LOVE the diversity. It’s not just in London and the big cities – even small towns will have flavours from India, China, Italy, Thailand, France and – oh, hang on. I’m getting carried away.
    Can’t say you hear a lot of English in London, though. As many languages and accents as there are food. For the closest you’ll get to the Queen’s English without marrying Wills himself, head to Surrey (pronounced “sorry”)

  • nabs

    not to pick wholes in your arguements, but one slight error that nicola has spotted…..Gordon Ramsey is Scottish….but your point remains valid seeing that he trained as a chef in England.

  • nabs

    oh and please ignore typos…..im v tired atm and soon as it posted i spotted some errors.

    ta-ra

  • http://angryasiancreations.com Lan

    fan-flipping-tastic post.
    i still heart me some england and really, you guys sound like Boromir? {swoon}

    and you forgot to mention Nigella Lawson. <3 that woman.

  • http://www.colorfulfootsteps.wordpress.com Sherry

    Wow! I have much to still learn. I will keep all this in mind when I go up to England for the Olympics. Great insights. Love your photos.

  • Lisa

    I hope to return soon to England. I miss everything about it.. even the sideways rain. :) Sometime, I may even see London. So far, it’s just been Milton Keynes, bits of Norfolk and Cambridge. There is always something to see and enjoy, it seems, especially the fresh fish, taking in the beach at the North Sea and the open air markets.

  • http://theminimeinme.blogspot.com/ Pam

    You just completely destroyed my idealistic view of England

    :-)

    Oh, and how are you stranger? Been a while since I’ve been up here!

  • http://alittleadrift.com Shannon O’Donnell

    Muwahahaha! This is hilarious and awesome at the same time. And as much as I enjoyed all five of the cliche’s, it was this “nuns on bikes free-wheeling over cattle grids” that got me…

    I mean, really? Why weren’t they doing that when I was there? I want a refund. Make it happen Sowden. :)

  • Caitlin

    Afternoon tea in the same category as bowler hats?! OK so it’s usually called high tea or cream tea (slightly different things) but afternoon tea is still a thriving cultural tradition!

  • Pingback: Os 10 maiores mitos sobre os Ingleses - Molho Inglês()

  • http://nelliewindmill.com Katherine Herriman

    Our opinions of the weather and the food here are two things Mike and I frequently astonish people with. We’ve left quite the trail of agog Brits when we don’t immediately grumble with them about the weather. I’ll take your summer rain over our 40+ degree summers any day. In fact, we’ve just come from summer in Provence to summer in Old Blighty and I’m much more content, if a little soggy.

    It’s a bit shameful, but we do in fact crave British food after we’ve spent a while on the continent. Namely fish n chips, pub meals and Indian – the multicultural cuisine available in the UK is comparable to that of our home town, Melbourne, and it’s something we really miss in the more mono-cultural countries of the continent. I say “shameful” because I do in fact think the British food cliché is pretty fair. In fact, the difference between diets here and on the continent is literally visible – both Mike and I independently noticed how many more obese people there are here after crossing from Calais after a year on the continent.

    Hmmm, I thought I was agreeing with you at the beginning of this but it seams I’m agreeing with you by disagreeing with you — your weather and food are a bit rubbish but I’m rather partial to them anyway.

    Haha, I just realised we’ve been in the UK for about a week now and I’ve yet to have fish n chips, so we’re going down to the local pub for some tonight! Brilliant.

  • http://wayfarersall.net/category/step-by-step-travel-guides/ Susan

    ah, London, with the Krispy Kreme next to Trafalgar Square…ah, the cacophony of British accents and the delight of those who say they can’t understand my southern accent…ah waking around Holy Island in the rain…ah treacle sponge and, yes, a full English breakfast…ah, Morris dancers in Faversham… http://wayfarersall.net/2009/05/13/finishing-up-at-faversham/

    ah England

  • http://gohomeandaway.wordpress.com/2013/09/21/fratastic-fucktards/ Anna

    Yorkshire pudding is one of my favorite things in the whole world. It was just as good in real life when I came to the UK 2 yrs ago as I had been imagining it for years prior.

    I found point #1 to be most interesting. I always presumed that aside from a few old-timey landmarks people expected a lot of modernity from London – rather than typical European pretty quaintness. I certainly did before coming there, though the city was even more cacophonous architecturally than I thought it would be.

    But I understand the sentiment overall…some time back I came to spend a year studying in Paris and Madrid, and “to be swept into the past, down cobbled alleyways worn smooth by the passage of Celtic tribes, Roman legions…one enormous hypercaffeinated Harry Potter street scene, filled with top hats and cheeky urchins” (well, the French and Spanish versions of that). Aside from the hordes of tourists (especially Chinese ones traveling in ENORMOUS groups and thus impossible to ignore), Paris more or less lived up to the postcard image, at least visually. Madrid did not. And yet the latter was so much more welcoming, real and at the end of the day, enjoyable.

  • Pingback: Os 10 maiores mitos sobre os Ingleses - Molho Inglês()