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Sunday, 28 April 2013

England Goodbye...

This blog I decided to write after numerous patriotic symbols of England were posted on Facebook, on the run-up to St Georges Day.
Of my travel experiences, most but not all, were done solo, as that was the way I would have preferred to travel, as testified in previous blogs. But it can be exhilarating to share the experience with one other person. And really, this is as far as I would go - since we have committed ourselves to each other, while three or more would have been a crowd. Such was the time Gary (name changed) and I successfully completed the End-to-End cycling tour southbound from one end of mainland Great Britain to the other in 1990.

The traditional route would have been 874 miles long, but since we did not stick to the official route, but detoured at various places, especially looking for our hostels to spend each night, I would have not been too surprised if we covered closer to a thousand miles in less than two weeks. Each daily leg of the journey was different, and each unique in distance, terrain and weather conditions. In all, if we were to average out even just nine hundred miles over twelve days, this would have brought about 75 miles of cycling a day.

This did not come overnight. In preparation for that holiday, I completed a number of cycling "burn-ups" - fast rides done mostly early Sunday mornings averaging between 25 and thirty miles, along with cycling trips to the coast (up to sixty miles) and Triathlons (Swim, Cycle and Run within one race).

Farnham Triathlon, 1987
Many in my church were impressed with our coming endeavour (Gary attended another church elsewhere.) But teasing came in the form of "Downhill all the way" as we were about to cycle from John O'Groats on the northern tip of Scotland, to Lands End, on the western tip of Cornwall - in other words, the whole journey in the southerly direction. One guy, a devout Englishman who loved his suit and tie, got rather serious with this "Downhill all the way" that I got rather tired of hearing it. Even Gary was confused at one point and I recall, during a coffee stop at a cafe, explaining that the centre of gravity was at the Earth's core, not at the Equator or the South Pole - something I had already known from childhood. I guessed that the "Downhill all the way" idea was gotten after watching water being poured over a sphere, and running down the surface to the underside of the sphere and dripping off the South Pole area. With our planet "hanging upon nothing" in space, and its gravity at its core, little surprise that whenever the road headed skyward, we always found the pedalling a lot more difficult!

After spending the first few days cycling through Scotland, we arrived at the border with England. The A7 main road passed two signboards - one was the massive "Welcome to Scotland" sign, which towered well above our heads. The other, almost directly across the road, was a much smaller sign which simply read, "England" which was low enough to be at chest level.

The contrast between the two signs seemed to have reflected the level of pride between the two nations. Whenever Scotland celebrates its annual St Andrews Day, there is that festive buzz in the air, so I read. Last week we had our St Georges Day on April 23rd. Not only was it a working day, but was just as any other working day of the year. Not a bunting could be seen anywhere, people drove to their offices with glum faces as they always do. Traffic congestion build up then dissipates as more arrive at their destinations. Trains full of silent commuters, not a word spoken, far less a greeting. At the office, computer keyboards are at constant use, phones ring and trading gets underway. Just another day. But at least the city of Nottingham managed to put on a street show with plenty of flags and bunting. But then again, Nottingham is somewhere up north, where according to my experience, people up there talk to each other. Here in the South of England there is as much charisma as in a wet blanket.

Newspaper journalists love to boast of our stoicism, the stiff upper lip, our self control over our emotions which are all hallmarks of being English. According to them, to show emotion, or having a trembling lower lip, is a sign of weakness. One Daily Mail reporter even insist that true masculinity had dissipated since the death of Princess Diana in August 1997. We have, according to them, became a sentimental, mawkish, weepy society, especially when TV presenters or interviewees shed a tear on camera over a crisis or tragedy. I often wonder why the English have such an obsession with stoicism, but I came to the belief that it has all to do with our cool temperate climate.
A good example was last week. Much of the week was bathed in warm, pleasant sunshine with temperatures soaring to twenty degrees Celsius. Supermarkets reported a brisk trade in barbecue items in preparation for the weekend. Come Friday and a cold front from the north moved south towards the Continent. Behind it, we shivered under a cold blast from the Artic and yesterday I was caught out in a heavy hail shower. In such unpredictable weather and scuppered plans, I think stoicism is necessary for keeping sane. Indeed, there will always be an England, even with such rubbish climate!

England, O England! A country which places so much emphasis on social class, higher education, the professionals and the adoration of celebrities. It looks to me that having a university degree is the be all or end all, a must in achieving, or our lives are not worth living. If ever there was a country where personal worth is evaluated by occupation, level of education, wealth, property and mode of transport, then the English seem to have a distinct knack of assigning a slot in the social ladder. For example, as a cyclist (I don't own or drive a car) I need to be weary of the "career girl" the free-spirited professional high-flier driving a two-seater sports car, paying little regard to such a vulnerable cyclist whose presence had forced her to slow down and raise her ire. I don't want to sound sexist here, but I have often found career women in their late twenties and thirties to be more aggressive behind the wheel - maybe having less patience when a cyclist, who shouldn't be there, makes an appearance. Don't get me wrong, a lot of male drivers require a lot to be desired as well when it comes to highway manners. Maybe that is why these days I ride slower, on the excellent cycle path system we have in our area, but even with this, England does not hold a candle to Holland, which to my opinion, have the best cycleway system in the world.

When someone like me has travelled the world, particularly around the Mediterranean, I have found that it becomes easier to compare Englishness to cultures of other countries. For example, in Sicily I have found residents sitting outside their open front doors chatting away with their neighbours. Walk along a typical residential street and I would walk past lines of happy, chattering people and children playing.  Here in England, in the South (i.e. in the Home Counties bordering around London) there are quiet, almost deserted streets under this constant air of melancholy, which is tied in with the well-familiar saying, "Mustn't grumble" as if there was much to grumble about. Our lousy, unpredictable weather certainly doesn't help, making outdoor life a rare thing to be seen. While I was backpacking in Australia, it was not unusual to see public, coin-operated barbecue stoves permanently set up in city parks. Try finding these here. Such an outdoorsy sort of lifestyle would not be suitable in our climate and matching culture.

Yet England does have beautiful natural places which I'm sure, would, delight the eye of the beholder. One of my favourite areas is the Jurassic Coast Path, particularly from Swanage to Weymouth in Dorset. Here dynamic cliffs provide spectacular views of the coast including the famous Durdle Door rock formation.

Other beautiful places visited also included the Lake District National Park, in the northern county of Cumbria. Notoriously wet, taking in such scenery can be quite difficult, even in the Summer. But on one occasion in 1992, Gary and I were climbing Scaffel Pike, England's highest mountain which was shrouded in thick fog. As we carefully hiked the well-marked trail, we were nearing the summit when this fellow was moaning as he was coming back down.

"Several times I have climbed to the top and it was always shrouded in fog!" he declared as we passed him.

We pressed on until we arrived at the summit. Suddenly the fog began to lift, and as it did so, the whole of the panorama began to come into view. With steam rising in cloud columns, at first it looked a bit like a scene from Dante's inferno. Then the sun broke through to give us a magnificent view of the mountainous park, with Sty Head Tarn a couple of miles away as the crow flies.

No doubt, away from the sprawling suburbs, England does have its beauty, and as a believer in Jesus Christ, I have no problem in giving such credit to God's power in his handiwork. Yet also as a believer, our true home is in Heaven where there is not only a mansion being prepared for every believer, but even while we live here, we are already seated in Heaven, and Paul reminds us to set our minds on things above, where Christ is seated, rather than on things of the earth. Celebrating St Georges day is okay, but how much more are we to celebrate our redemption into God's Kingdom.

In Hebrews 11, there is a list of the Old Testament men of faith who has made it into this hall of fame. Within this list, the writer adds that if they wanted to, these guys could have returned to their homeland. Abraham was one good example. He was called out of Ur, in the region of Babylon, to live as a nomad in the desert land of the Canaanites, a people totally foreign to him. Some time ago, I read that in the ancient Babylonian culture, education was high on the list. Astrology along with mathematics were two of the most important subjects. Back there, children was taught the approximation of Pi, the square root, possibly the cubic root and all branches of geometry.

Shades of England.

But instead, Abraham and his fellowmen of faith looked forward to a city whose founder and builder is God himself. His longing for the promise was enough for him to leave behind his homeland and culture, and not knowing where he was going, allowed himself and his family to a nomadic lifestyle while remaining focused on God's promises.

Moses was another great example. With him, the writer of Hebrews emphasised that Moses preferred to suffer disgrace along with the people of God, that is, his fellow Hebrews, than to wallow in the Egyptian culture of the day. He too, was focused on the heavenly city God had promised, and he was willing to give up everything to be part of it. And it is interesting that ancient Egypt deified their monarch in much the same way as the English deify the Queen today. But as Moses and Abraham looked to better things God had promised, shouldn't we too?


  1. Hi Frank,
    that's right. There is no comparison on this earth with what God has to offer to us. As for class system - God is no respecter of persons, and neither am I, nor ever have been, to be honest. God bless.

  2. Dear Frank,
    I admire your bravery, cycling all over England, which must have been a dangerous yet rewarding experience! It is wonderful to hear your insights on England (and the photo is breathtaking too!) God's creation certainly attests to the glory of the Creator, and we can only imagine what He has in store for us when He takes us home.
    Thanks for the great post and God bless!

  3. When we think about the beautiful things God has created here on the earth, knowing it is only temporary, one can only wonder at the beauty he may have created for things that are eternal. I'm looking forward to seeing those better things while enjoying the temporary, beauty here. Unfortunately some people miss both.

  4. I can read about travels all the time, and I love reading about your many travel experiences Frank; God has blessed you magnificently, with wonderful experiences, and a ready wit and sharp turn of phrase that always makes for good reading. I wish that I could travel more myself but at least I can read about yours.

    It's certain that we do live in a beautiful set of isles, and though relatively small compared to other countries, there is so mcuh beauty and so many wonderful places to see.

    As for the stiff-upper lip, I have always found it a sign of weakness rather than a sign of strength to be honest. A person who is not in touch with their own emotions can have no clue about anyone else's; not a recipe for getting on with people or understanding other people.