Birmingham, Britain, Canada, Christmas, England, life, life adventures, Manitoba, Nova Scotia, Scotland, skiing, snow, Solihull, Thompson Citizen, Thompson, Manitoba, tourism, travel, Uncategorized, United Kingdom, weather

‘Chasing snow,’ Merry Christmas & many thanks!

By Daniel McSweeney

If anyone asked me to track down even one, single, solitary flake of snow in Solihull, England to help get us in the Christmas spirit, I’d tell them it’s as rare here these days as bird scatology in a cuckoo clock. If we want to wade around in our English wellies in the white stuff, we would pretty much have to head for the snowy highlands of Scotland which boasts five ski resorts.

    Here in the English Midlands, precipitation comes mostly as rain; the grass is still a deep green; the temperature is ‘up’ in the double digits and I even saw a guy today wandering around wearing just a tee-shirt; well pants too of course!  When I walked Sandra to work early this morning, halfway there I had to remove my sweater because it is so warm.  And as I drank my morning coffee, I could see from my window a guy on a lawn tractor cutting the grass. All the while, the radio station played traditional Christmas carols making it all seem so very, very strange.

    Now for people who have lived here all their lives, no snow must seem very normal. But for Canadians who have seen Bing Crosby’s ‘White Christmas’ dream come all too true most years  in the so-called ‘Great White North,’  we are feeling a bit ‘snow deprived.’ That’s because snow is simply just an enduring feature of life in most of Canada; although I might add it is ‘a love-hate relationship.’

    In other words, snow is great for skiing and sledding. It’s also darn pretty at times in a Norman Rockwell Christmas scene kind of way. And making snowmen with your grandkids can be pretty special too. But it’s admittedly lousy for driving; it’s a pain to shovel; and in the spring, its remnants hang around way too long and can look pretty grotty in a mixture of ice, sand and metal-eating salt.

    After the winter of 2014-15 in Nova Scotia, we never wanted to see snow again.  We just didn’t have any place to put it. We even got one of our neighbors with heavy equipment to move 10-foot high drifts away from our driveway. I guess after a while it is like anything else – absence makes the heart grow fonder – although when it comes to snow for some people, admittedly that might not be true.

    Snow here though, is ‘relatively infrequent’ unless you live up in the Scottish highlands and the Pennines, the mountainous region separating North West England from Yorkshire and North East England. And of course, there is lots of snow up in the Shetland and Orkney islands. In simple terms, places up north with higher elevations can get lots; while most of the UK either gets a bit, or hardly any at all.

    Last year, we left Canada before old man winter threw much of a white blanket over South Shore Nova Scotia. And here last winter in Solihull, we only saw one pitiful little snowman; a two-footer that melted away in a day or two into the green English lawn.  So feeling a little ‘snow deprived’ this Christmas, we are ‘chasing snow’ by spending the holidays at Fieberbrunn in the Austrian Alps on the Austrian-German border.  It’s Austrian ski country and the average annual snowfall is 550 centimeters. The good news is that we will not drive in it; nor shovel it.

    On that snowy Christmas note, Sandra and I wish all readers a safe and joyous Christmas season – and of course a Happy and prosperous 2017. I am also bringing ‘mcsweeneysdiversion’ blog to a close.

    Our ‘late life adventure’ of living in England this year has been a slice; but in a couple of months it will be time to head back to Canada. There we will move on to other things like enjoying our property along the Petite Riviere; travelling in Canada and beyond. Perhaps I might  create a ‘new  and completely different blog’ –  or even write ‘the Great Canadian novel.’ It’s all part of staying busy and engaged with life –simply having fun – and distracting me from ‘all things Trump.’

    Thank you to the wonderful people at ‘The Citizen’ in Thompson, Manitoba who ran my blog as a newspaper column. Thompson and its people have a special place in our hearts – and Sandra and I hope to return there to see old friends and colleagues. To everyone – thank you for reading my meanderings about ‘all things British’ – and again Merry Christmas!

architecture, Big Ben, Britain, Canada, communications, Dick Tracy, England, heritage, history, life adventures, telephones, travel, UK culture, Uncategorized, United Kingdom

Save me a booth!

By Daniel McSweeney

Solihull, England — There’s lots of buzz here in England these days about the ongoing demise of those classic cast iron ‘red telephone’ boxes that charmingly populate the UK landscape. ‘Demise’ perhaps is rather too strong a word, because many will remain on the scene serving new and exciting applications other than as ‘phone booths.’ That’s excellent because they are in fact one of the ‘top 10 British cultural icons;’ right up there with Big Ben, London black cabs and red double-decker buses.

    The classic Brit phone booth was designed early in the 20th century by British architect Sir Giles Scott. He was a top-drawer designer who over the years would contribute to other classic Brit design projects including the Liverpool Cathedral and rebuilding work on the Houses of Parliament after World War Two.  When it came to phone booths, he came up with a piece of communications eye candy that has endured for almost a century.

    The red phone boxes actually go back to 1926 when at least another decade would pass before cartoon strip character Dick Tracy started wearing his fantasy radio wristwatch. It was perhaps a portent of things to come in personal, mobile communication technology that would make phone booths increasingly less important.

    And as Sir Giles put the finishing touches on his design submission to the Royal Fine Arts Commission, it would be almost another half century before Motorola’s John Mitchell and Martin Cooper unveiled a 4.4 pound mobile phone handset that looked like a shoe.  Phone booths therefore right up to the latter half of the 20th century had a secure place as a means of communication for the public out and about throughout the British Isles.

    In fact, they were important throughout the world.

   However once mobile phones were refined and commercially available in 1983, phone booths began marching down a road to ‘phone booth graveyards.’  It is said that a third of the UK’s payphones – including about 8,000 of the iconic red phone booths – are now used about once a month or not at all. And yet, it is hard to imagine a British street corner without them; they are an iconic design fixture on the British landscape.

   The good news is that many of are being ‘re-purposed’ for everything from mini children’s libraries; housing for housing life-saving heart defibrillators, mini cafes; electronics repair shops and smartphone repair and charging stations. At least 2,000 have been designated ‘listed buildings.’

     And so what happens to these iconic phone boxes taken out of service?

     Most are taken to ‘telephone box graveyards’ where many are eventually refurbished for local councils and private collectors before they rust away. There they are stripped, repainted and outfitted with new glass for a new lease on life. Once restoration work is completed, they can sell for anywhere from $3,000 Cdn. to as much as around $18-20,000 Cdn.

    As our time in the UK comes to a close in 2017, we would dearly like take one back to Canada and install in our gardens along the shores of the Petite Riviere River in Nova Scotia.  The prices though are a bit above our budget as would be the shipping costs.  To get one back to Canada, we might have to rig it with pontoons and row it across the heaving Atlantic Ocean. And if we did that, we just might have to make a call for help not much more than a few feet off shore!

    The other option is to adorn our gardens with a decommissioned North American phone booth. Somehow though that doesn’t have the same appeal. It speaks volumes about the magic of British design; not only for red telephone boxes, but in so many other things that make the UK such a special place.

Bonfire Night, Britain, England, fireworks industry, Guy Fawkes, heritage, history, Labrador, life adventures, Newfoundland, Solihull, Uncategorized

Fire in the UK sky

By Daniel McSweeney

Solihull, England – A rather curious tradition  lights up the UK night sky every November 5 with the glow of bonfires and fireworks. It’s called ‘Bonfire Night‘ where Britons young and old huddle together around a roaring fire to mark an historic event from 1605.

It  was when a band of rebellious Catholics were prevented from blowing up the English Parliament’s House of Lords; assassinating Protestant King James 1 and replacing him with a Catholic head of state.

It’s also called ‘Guy Fawkes Night’ because ‘Guy’ Fawkes was the Catholic ‘guy’  caught guarding the 36 barrels of gunpowder stashed away in the Parliamentary cellar. Much to Guy’s surprise, one of his fellow plotters had tipped off a friend suggesting he might avoid going to Parliament that day; perhaps best to spend some leisure time at Ye Olde Pub with a brew and steak pie.

The King’s men got wind of the letter of cautionary advice – and they were not pleased.  They swooped down on dear old cellar-bound Guy Fawkes and hunted down his band of fellow blower-uppers. Once rounded up, they received an invitation to attend  an English style necktie party with the King watching from a concealed place nearby.

This upset Guy Fawkes, of course, so much so that in January of 1606, he slipped from his hangman’s noose and instead of swinging by his neck, he crashed to the ground breaking it instead. That didn’t matter to the King et al, dead is dead.

Then the plotters kind of went to pieces; ‘quartered’ by horses ripping their bodies apart and  cut up in pieces which were sent around the kingdom and put on public display. Like I said, the King was not happy with them at all, at all. It was a warning to others not to mess around with King Jimmy; unless you wanted to meet the same fate as Guy and the boys.

From that year on, the people were allowed to celebrate by having bonfires. Since that time, Brits have held tightly to this practice blowing things up in the sky and continuing to light fires to celebrate November 5, 1605 when Guy was arrested.

As one Brit told us though, he finds celebrating an over 400-year old potential act of terrorism a bit odd at times. “In reality though,” he adds, “we are in fact remembering an act of terrorism that was prevented; and that has its merits.”

Brits  do a stellar job in keeping the Guy Fawkes tradition alive; although most folks simply revel in an evening of bonfires on the village green, fireworks, parades and music. How can that not be fun? We attended a ‘bonfire celebration’ here in Solihull and then drifted back home to get away from a crowd that we guessed at between 15-20,000 people. It was not to be quiet, however, because fireworks boomed and rattled until midnight; shooting into the sky from backyards and nearby communities.

It hardly let up even for a moment – the booms and sizzles were almost continuous.

I don’t know what Brits spend on fireworks for this one evening alone; but the numbers must be staggering. And interestingly enough, the UK has only one ‘major’ fireworks manufacturer. While thousands were once employed in the industry; now there is only a handful. Most fireworks are now made in places like China.

And not everyone is happy with fireworks, UK-made or otherwise. A petition is circulating here to have fireworks banned other than for major, highly regulated community events.  The opponents cite pollution and the impact on people’s health, disturbing household pets and harming wildlife amongst other concerns.

So far 50,000 signatures have been gathered; halfway to 100,000 allowing it to be brought to the attention of Parliament. Interestingly enough, that’s where the whole damn tradition of huge bonfires and the passion for fireworks perhaps has its origins.

Newfoundland and Labrador in our native Canada also has a ‘bonfire night.’ Some communities there have bonfires; other do not. Many though have fireworks displays like here in the UK in such places as Paradise Park, Coish in Bay Roberts, Portugal Cove, Conception Bay and Holyrood just to name a few.

Open fires are, however, banned in the capital city of St. John’s.

Emigrants from the UK clearly have carried the Guy Fawkes tradition to other lands; although in most places it has faded away. Newfoundland and Labrador though was a colony and later dominion right up until 1949 when it joined Canada. Old traditions take time to disappear.

And anyway, it’s a great excuse to have a party ‘on the rock’ – and who there in that wonderful Canadian province wants to turn down an opportunity to  enjoy a party, especially one that’s been around for more than four centuries?

aging, Britain, business, Cambrian College, Camino de Santiago, Canada, England, Galicia, heritage, Hollywood, Inco, life, life adventures, Madrid, movies, National Geographic, Ontario, pilgrimages, retirement, retirement living, Spain, Sudbury, tourism, travel, Uncategorized, United Kingdom, universities, Vale, Zoomer Magazine, zoomers

A pilgrim under the Spanish sun

By Daniel McSweeney

Moving to England from Canada has decidedly opened our eyes to considering yet more new adventures when our current UK experiences are over. That’s why we were fascinated with the ‘derring-do’ of an old friend from Sudbury, Ontario, Terry Gray, who last year at age 65 walked an amazing 800 kilometers in 49 days across the legendary ‘Camino de Santiago’ in northern Spain.

The ‘Camino’ is a 1,000-year-old pilgrimage that has inspired people to seek adventure and ‘find themselves’ in the process. Its’ origins are rooted in an ancient pilgrimage to the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela in Galicia, Spain; traditionally known as ‘The Way of St. James.’ It’s been portrayed in movies; books and magazines including National Geographic. Pilgrims leave their ‘regular life’ behind and embrace the unfamiliar and the unknown returning home usually with a different view of the world.

This storied journey of discovery starts in southern France at the base of the Pyrenees; an expedition beckoning pilgrims to traverse gentle hills; imposing mountain terrain, rivers and streams and desert-like flat lands where the heat can be stifling. These ‘pilgrims’ come from across the world from widely varying walks of life; including Canadians like Terry. About 40 per cent walk the Camino for spiritual reasons; others ‘do it as a lark.’

About 180,000 people follow this trail each year; some seeking inner peace; others testing themselves physically and mentally under the Spanish sun. About 10 per cent of the pilgrims walk the entire trail each year; others just parts of it. It’s all highly organized where pilgrims dutifully register at a ‘Pilgrim Office’ so they can stay at the many hostels or ‘alburgees’ along the way.

Signing up ensures they can take advantage of pilgrim rates for food and secure access to medical services. And at the end, they receive a certificate verifying how much of the Camino they have covered. Terry kindly shared his experiences about the Camino while visiting us in England with his wife Barbara. His is a story of discovery, enhanced self-awareness and heart-warming camaraderie.

Getting ‘outside the box’

Terry Gray is a retired business professor at Cambrian College in Sudbury. He also worked closely with Sandra over the years when she was in the midst of her career with Inco Limited in Thompson, Manitoba; now a part of the Brazilian mining giant ‘Vale.’ His 49-day trek over the Camino was something he had dreamed about 10 years earlier when he was 54 and had earned his MBA.

Receiving that degree he says ‘took me out of the box academically,’ and inspired him to explore walking the El Camino. His core motivation was overcoming ‘fear of the unknown,’ and the Camino fit nicely into that category of unfamiliarity.

Terry was in fact quite athletic in his younger years; a cross-country runner; an avid skier and golfer. Time and lifestyle though took its toll on him as it does for most people; his medium-height frame weighing in at about 190 pounds; and his size 38 pants struggling to contain his expanding girth. I asked Terry ‘would walking for a month and a half over rough Spanish terrain really be the tonic that he needed at his stage of life?

 He assured me that the Camino de Santiago was just the remedy; although there were days he had serious doubts. “To be perfectly honest, I didn’t tell many people of my plans,” says Terry. “I worried what they might think if I didn’t finish it.  The folks I told though were quite positive and said things like ‘good on you; go for it Terry.”

When he walked in his neighborhood loaded down with a back pack, people were openly curious. “What are you doing?” they asked like he had two heads. “When I told them I was conditioning myself for a several hundred kilometer long walk across Spain, some questioned my sanity. I think a few walked away muttering under their breath; he’s really lost his marbles.”

The importance of preparation   

Terry is adamant that preparation for taking such a walk is crucial.  When he went to Florida for his annual March golf trip, he walked 15 to 20 kilometers a day over relatively flat surfaces in the Sunshine State. And when he returned to Sudbury, he practiced over a much rougher terrain that is the rugged albeit beautiful landscape of northern Ontario.

“Six weeks before leaving, I hauled around 25 to 28 pounds in my pack; increasingly adding weight with every walk.” He admits it wasn’t until two weeks before he left that he finally realized he could “actually do this.” And all through the physical preparation, he watched movies, read books, and surfed the internet for information.

It was, he says, all about being prepared; making the right plans for this challenging journey. Terry notes that people who walk the trail ‘as a lark’ are often the ones who get into trouble. “They jump on a train or plane and hit the trail with little preparation. They soon head home with blisters; a myriad of aches and pains and wonder why they ever chose to attempt the trail.”

In fact the vast majority of walkers only last between two and six days on the trail.

Terry made sure he had all he needed in the way of supplies; and equally important he left behind what was not essential. Before he left on the journey, he had accumulated 42 pounds of gear, but cut it in half for the trek.He emphasizes the need for good hiking boots (about one and a half sizes larger than your normal size) because feet swell on the trail.

He says casual, comfortable evening footwear is also essential when off the trail; allowing time for walking boots and socks to dry. He also stresses the importance of light nylon socks to wear inside heavy socks; a wonderful way of minimizing blisters that can be a killer on the trail.

And without a doubt, he says a high quality ‘properly fitted backpack’ with internal bladder to carry water is essential. Positioned properly in accordance with the wearer’s unique body configuration, “sometimes you hardly know you are carrying anything on your back.” He also says you need good quality trekking poles – and of course toiletries, medications and clothing essentials for both hot and cold weather.

With all his gear and paperwork in place, he flew from Sudbury to Toronto and caught a flight to Madrid. From there he took a train to Pamplona followed by a cab ride to St. Jean where he registered as a pilgrim. And so his pilgrimage began.

What have I done?

“At the end of the first day, I was completely exhausted,” says Terry who had walked only eight kilometres, but had climbed some 900 metres over that distance. “That night I really questioned my sanity. I looked around and realized I was possibly the third oldest person there. I wondered oh my, what have I done?

And then the next day, trekking downhill was even worse with lots of clay, loose gravel and chunks of rocks.  He likens that morning to skiing in the snow down a challenging black diamond run, only in slow motion. “You plant a pole here, take another step, and plant a pole yet and again.”

Over the next few days, he got into the rhythm of the trail; some parts challenging; others simply relaxing and beautiful.  “At times you walk up steep mountains; at other times you wander through picturesque valleys.  You need to be always reading the sky and keeping an eye on changing weather conditions.

If you don’t, you can get yourself into trouble like freezing to death on the trail; or keeling over from heat exhaustion. Consider that when it rains heavily and the steep parts of the trail become slippery, you have to accept that you must hunker down in a town or village until conditions improve. There are risks associated with the journey. In 2015, sadly 13 fatalities occurred, 7  while Terry was on the Camino.

Terry says one of the best parts of walking the El Camino is meeting people from all over the world. The first night in a hostel, he looked around the dining room and there were 40 people from 24 different countries.  Everyone, he says, are part of ‘one big family’ drawn together by the spirit of the pilgrimage.

Not once, he added, did he feel uncomfortable with any of his fellow pilgrims; people simply took care of each other and were more than willing to lend a helping hand if someone encountered difficulties. “At one alburgee, there were 12 cell phones all left on a table being charged. Nobody thought anything of it.  It’s all part of being pilgrims where there is a strong sense of fellowship on the trail.”

The hostels, many run by former pilgrims, are “immaculately clean” including the washrooms.  Pilgrims sleep together either in rooms or dormitories; facilities capable of bedding down 10 to 220 travelers. Rooms are inexpensive ranging from seven to 10 Euros a night. And the food, he says while gleefully rubbing his hands together was delicious and plentiful.

In spite of the trail bounty, Terry shed 25 pounds and increased his lung capacity by “something like 30 per cent.” He still struggles with a few foot problems; but my sense is any painful twinges remind him of what a great time he had.

He is quick to admit though that not every day was roses and chocolates. While edging down a decline, he slipped and twisted his ankle forcing him to stay put for a few days until it healed. And then one hot day on a 28-km long desert-like flatland part of the trail, a re-fill station ran out of water; and he and other weary pilgrims were parched in the 32-degree Celsius weather.

“I can’t ever remember being that thirsty. I can say without hesitation that the remaining three kilometers were the longest I have ever walked.”

The experiences that he ranks amongst the best are people oriented memories of the wonderful friends he made; those he traveled with for days on end and others who appeared on the scene briefly and then melded into the pilgrimage. Consider the ‘minstrel’ from Germany; the couple from South Korea in their mid-70’s; the doctor who treated pilgrim’s blisters and told them to ‘smarten up’ or they would not be treated again.

Then there was lady from England with an exceedingly ‘strong fashion sense’ that ‘only lasted a week.’ And then there was a memorable evening of sitting around a campfire singing songs with a group of Germans who welcomed him into their gathering as if they had known each other forever.

Terry harbors feelings of perhaps of ambivalence about one of his fellow pilgrims; someone who inspired him to finish the journey. He learned later that his friend had a rather colorful past. He was even the focus of an investigative journalism program on television; a showdown in front of the cameras between his friend and a room full of women allegedly ‘done wrong.’

“I don’t know where he is now, and in spite of all that’s come out about him; he was a good friend to me.  He clearly had some medical training and prescribed exercises that really helped me complete the journey. I couldn’t have done it without him.”

As for the Spaniards along the way, Terry says they were wonderful.

“They couldn’t do enough for you. They understand the importance of the trail and welcome pilgrims with open arms. One hot day, an elderly lady in this little town spotted me coming down the hill.  By the time I got to her, she had come out of her house with a plate of fruit and some lemonade. In Spanish, she says, ‘Have a seat. Have some shade. It looks like you need some food.’ And when I was finished, she gave me a big hug.”

Terry also notes that people worried about insects, snakes and the quality of water along the trail need not fret. “There were lots of animals of course, including dogs and such; but not one came out chasing after me. Bugs also were not a problem and the quality of drinking water was excellent. It is by no means an easy journey; it is one though that if you go prepared with eyes wide open, it can be the experience of a lifetime.”

Terry was officially credited with completing 775 kilometres. At the end of the trail, he was overwhelmed by what he describes as ‘an E and O’ experience.’ “The ‘E ‘is for ‘empty’ because of sadness that the walk was over; and the ‘O’ for ‘overflowing’ because I was filled with satisfaction about what I had accomplished. I was basking in both a tremendous high and a tremendous low simultaneously.”

He says without reservation that walking the Camino was the best experience in his entire life. “It allowed me to kick out the sides of my box, something everyone should do if at all possible. I would go back in an instant. I get excited every time I talk about it.” I don’t know if we have the energy to walk in Terry’s Camino footsteps; but listening to his stories gets us excited too. It tempts us to throw caution to the wind, and wander the Camino. If that doesn’t happen, we might don our backpacks and hike the trails of Scotland or Wales.

(There is a wealth of literature available on the Camino de Santiago pilgrimage. Check out other ‘blogs’ written by Camino pilgrims. I  highly recommend watching the Hollywood movie ‘The Way’ starring Martin Sheen. It’s a compelling story that also provides spectacular images of the landscape pilgrims encounter on their journey of discovery under the Spanish sun.)

BBC, Big Ben, Britain, England, heritage, life, life adventures, London, pubs, rivers, tourism, travel, Uncategorized, United Kingdom, Warwick Castle

‘Big Ben’ takes a well earned rest

By Daniel McSweeney

London, England — One of the most iconic structures in England is ‘Big Ben.’ Now before you think it’s that ‘big clock tower’ off Westminster Bridge, give your head a firm but gentle shake. That’s actually the ‘Elizabeth Tower’ that houses that wonderful big 13.7 ton bell known as Big Ben. It’s an honest mistake, roundly perpetuated in popular culture.

If you are planning to visit England over the next three years, be prepared to see the Elizabeth Tower clothed in some rather all encompassing work togs (scaffolding ) and even more importantly the big bell known as ‘Big Ben’ inside will have gone silent.

It’s happened on two other occasions (1976 and 2007); but for shorter periods of time when the clock had to undergo major overhauls.

Like everything else in life, things wear out with time. Consider that this the second largest ‘four-faced chiming clock in the world’ has been pretty much ringing the time out for about 157 years. And it’s not only heard in London, but has been heard around the world on BBC radio since 1923 when the Big Ben chimes first announced the arrival of the New Year.

One of the most interesting things  about the Tower is that non residents of the United Kingdom are unable to arrange tours of the clock works a couple of hundred feet above the Thames River. But if you are a resident of England – which we are – tours can be arranged through our Member of Parliament in ‘the fullness of time.’

Now here’s the rub: just the other day we just climbed several hundred feet of stairs down at Warwick Castle originally built by William, the Duke of Normandy in 1068, otherwise known as ‘William the Conqueror.’  He’s the guy who came here from France to lay claim to England and did so at the Battle of Hastings two years earlier in 1066; a military action that helped determine how the United Kingdom developed into the future.

During our visit to the castle with our friends Bill and Karen from Nova Scotia, we climbed (and descended) several hundred feet of stairs that left us pooped and longing for a brew or two at the Roebuck Inn in Warwick, probably the most quintessential English pub I have ever visited. (In fact, we are going back to Warwick soon; some ‘pub grub,’a pint for me and a visit by Sandra to a nearby quilting store.)

When it comes to seeking a tour of Big Ben clock works, we of the weary legs will pass.

Like ancient castles, there is no lift in the Elizabeth Tower – so to visit the iconic bell and get a real close up, it’s a walk up of 334 limestone steps. It makes me believe with renewed conviction that some things are best viewed from a distance. I know just the park bench along the Thames. The trick is I will have to do it soon before the cloaking is applied and the much-needed work begins to keep clock going for another century or so.

BBC, Beatles, Birmingham, Brexit, Britain, Canada, canals, communications, England, immigration, life, life adventures, London, narrow boats, pubs, railways, Shakespeare, Solihull, The Monarchy, The Queen, theatre, tourism, travel, Uncategorized, United Kingdom, universities

A place of ‘choice’

Solihull, England — We’ve been living in the United Kingdom for coming up to a year now and people back home are asking us what’s so great about this place of 64 million people? Is it meeting our expectations? What are our favorite aspects of the English experience? Why do so many people from other countries move here and when they do, dig in and make this country their forever home?

There’s no doubt that living in the UK has been great for us. We knew what to expect from having been here on several trips over the years, so the adjustment was not difficult. We come from a predominantly English speaking region of Canada; and that certainly made it easy to adapt to the UK; the ability to effectively communicate.

The English also have helped tremendously. They are generally friendly to newcomers and welcome Canadians with open arms. That is not to dismiss British societal concerns about larger immigration issues. The nation is jam-packed and without measured controls, the outcome will be bad for both Britons trying to maintain already burdened services; as well as for those newly arriving.

Britain has always though been a ‘country of choice’ by people from abroad and over the years, it has welcomed huge numbers of immigrants. It can’t do it though at all costs.

Consider that from September 2010 to September 2014, an estimated annual average of 478,000 non-British citizens moved to the UK intending to stay 12 months or longer. That sounds like a lot and it is – but consider that about 190,000 non-British nationals emigrated out of the UK – therefore a net migration of 288,000.

Compared with other countries, it is much easier here to get established. In France, migrants meet considerable challenges in finding employment – a regulatory process that can take months and even years. Also many people wanting to move to the UK already have relatives here because of the immigration policies of yesteryear that attracted so many. That makes it easier for them to become part of British society.

It is easy to understand why people from other lands want to live here, whether you are arriving from Canada or any country in the world.

First of all, the United Kingdom enjoys a remarkably positive image. It’s the place that has given us ‘the Queen’ and The Royal Family that many people love to hate or admire.  It’s rich in history, architecture and natural beauty.

It is home to Shakespeare; the Beatles, Marmite, Eddie the Eagle and BBC Drama. It’s the place ‘the boys’ roamed the hills of Yorkshire in ‘The Last of the Summer Wine.’  It is filled with castles, canals, charming little pubs everywhere and colorful characters.

Just writing all this makes me glad we are living here for a while.

The biggest reasons for migration though are economic – immigrant confidence that they will be able to find work. The universality of the English language too is a factor; and so are the many opportunities in the university-rich UK for them to pursue studies.

Indeed, the UK is home to such esteemed institutions of learning as Oxford and Cambridge to the University College London and University of Edinburgh. A total of 18 UK universities appear in the top 100 of the world.

And the UK is a great place to be based for travelling to other countries.

One of the most positive aspects of living here for us is the train system allowing us to easily travel within the UK.

“People have always told us how easy it is to get around the UK by train,” says Sandra. “And they are totally correct. Once you figure out how to read the timetables and learn the routine at the stations, travelling by train is usually a pleasure”

Trains do go just about everywhere here; crisscrossing the country with about 10,000 miles of track; gazillions of rail cars and locomotives moving about 1.6 billion passengers each year. And although it is ‘subjective,’ the train fares are reasonable.

We are particularly blessed with ‘concessionary’ rail fares by being ‘senior’s’ and residents who pay council taxes. This means we were able to secure ‘concessionary’ rail and bus passes.  It allows us to travel on buses anywhere in the UK for free.

As for trains, travel within a specified ‘local’ region where you live also comes gratis to those of us over the age of 60. Consider that Solihull to downtown Birmingham is only a 10-12 minute train trip away. That falls within the local zone so it costs us nothing to travel by train into the Bull Ring in downtown Birmingham, one of the largest shopping centers in all of Europe.

Therefore travelling by train and bus, walking and catching the odd cab, makes the need for a car here somewhat redundant – although certainly without some compromises.

Another winning aspect of life here is the climate that pretty much makes it green all year round; much like the Emerald Isle. And unless you live further up north and in the Highlands of Scotland, there is very little if any snow. And while it does rain here a lot, the problem can be solved with a little thing called ‘an umbrella.

And how can one not fall in love with a country crisscrossed by picturesque canals and rivers? This past week we floated down the Avon River in the county of Warwickshire aboard a narrow boat that served as a floating restaurant. The food was spectacular and so was the scenery.

Some Canadian friends traveling with us on that Sunday afternoon described the experience as ‘floating through a picture book.’ How poetic!

And who could not warm up to a country that boasts a city like London?  In many ways, it is a ‘city state’ within a country; that feels like the center of the world.  It is the largest city in Europe with a population of 8.6 million. And by 2050, it is projected to hit 11 million. (That was before ‘Brexit’ so perhaps that might change in the ‘fullness of time.’)

Just last week we wandered through the city and caught a performance of Roald Dahl’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory at the Drury Lane Theatre on Catherine Street. And then that evening, we dined at a little Italian restaurant at Leicester Square. We ate on an outside patio not far from one of the theater district’s main ticket selling outlets protected by an awning that kept the pouring rain from falling on our heads. As we dined, we watched the world go by; and listened to the pitter-patter of rain above us.

It was all so very nice.

No matter what the weather, the city vibrates with energy; and it pulls you willingly into it like a magnet. Pretty much all of the UK is like that; its big colorful cities are a draw – and so are places like Scotland and Wales where the beauty is much like Nova Scotia.

When we move back to Canada sometime next year, we will miss the UK. I suspect we will return; such is the magnetic pull of the British Isles. On the other hand, the congestion and crowds in this great land can be taxing at times – and a return to a less populated place will be just the ticket for two wandering Canadians on a late life adventure in England.

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A ‘wee taste’ of Scotland

By Daniel McSweeney

Isle of Skye, Scotland — If you are someday planning to visit Scotland, you are in for a real treat; all kinds of them in fact like the rather strange Scottish pub delicacy of a ‘deep fried Mars bar.’ You might even be tempted to don a kilt and feel how the ‘winds blow high and the winds blow low’ underneath your kilt while walking down Glasgow’s Buchanan Street. It’s ‘smashin’ to visit this country not just because of enjoying  a ‘wee dram’ while cruising Loch Lomond; visiting historic Edinburgh Castle and seeing the Crown Jewels; dining on haggis and neeps; buying a Harris Tweed jacket in quaint little shops on the High Street; or wandering the heather-covered hills to the lilting music of a lone bagpiper. It’s all that and much more – history, beautiful scenery and friendly people – all reminding me of my native Nova Scotia that is in fact ‘New Scotland.’

Sandra and I along with of friends from Sudbury, Ontario just returned this past week from a trip across ‘Old Scotland;’ watching for the illusive Nessie on Loch Ness (without success I might add); wandering around 13th century castles – and most importantly visiting the remote and spectacularly beautiful ‘Isle of Skye.’  And at the other end of the spectrum, we trekked the bustling ‘Royal Mile’ in Edinburgh, the country’s capital since the 15th century.  Both places – urban and remote – offered us a tapestry of the things that make Scotland what it is;  and  left us with memories of a unique country that fuels a remarkable level of exceptional creativity in world class literature and art.

A lot like Cape Breton & Labrador

The 639 square mile Isle of Skye is described as ‘the largest and most northerly major island in the Inner Hebrides’ and is home to about 10,000 of which one third speak Gaelic. A drive across the island to the capital of Portree offers a vision of rolling hills and in places  rugged, windswept mountains  of over 3,000 feet; one in particular  near Sligachan that looks like a classic dormant volcano.  It is by all definition a rocky remote place where not everyone could live at ease. For islanders though, it is probably ‘heaven on earth’ with its panoramic beauty and a unique island lifestyle.

This is not the first time we have been to the Isle of Skye; we were there about a year and a half ago, a trip that whet our appetite to see more of this wonderful place. Our first visit only allowed us to view Skye through drizzle and low hanging clouds; perhaps the more ‘normal’ state of weather conditions on ‘the Skye.’  This time though, the weather was ideal for a peek at ‘harri coos’* and quaint little villages – although I am sad to report there was not one of the long-haired beasties to be seen anywhere; a source of amusement amongst our band of travelers.

The sun shone brightly; the air was reasonably mild and the winds across the island that can blow up to 100 miles an hour this past week when we were there were no more than stiff breezes that we leaned into while overlooking watery vistas surrounding the island. In many ways, parts of the island are reminiscent  of Cape Breton in Canada; beautiful rolling hills; and winds that blow like the strong southeast winds  in Cape Breton’s west coast known as ‘les  suetes.’ And the mountains are not unlike those in northern Labrador, Canada – albeit that is a place even more remote than Skye.

If you are driving, the roads are excellent.  But when you get up to the northern part near Uig Bay, they pretty much narrow down in places to single lane.  That’s no problem, however, because there are numerous allotted spots to pull over allowing traffic to flow smoothly and safely. One of the most spectacular views is from above Uig Bay where you can look out over the village of Uig that is home to several hundred islanders. And interestingly enough, I learned that Uigg, Prince Edward Island in Canada (near where we live in Nova Scotia) was named by settlers from this area of Skye.

A city of literature

My first visit to Edinburgh in 2015 was not unlike our first exposure to the Isle of Skye; it had a downside. It had nothing to do with weather. I was holed up in a hotel room on the outskirts of the city as ‘sick as a dog,’ (not that I understand that expression about our canine friends.) My impression of this great capital city of Scotland was therefore clouded by a stuffed, congested head and an aching body that made me want to hunker down behind closed curtains and die. So when people asked me what I thought about Edinburgh, I threw up my hands and described a hotel room ceiling; a bedside box of Kleenex and drinking dinner through a straw – hardly much of a visit to this great city.

And even before I made my first non-visit there, I erroneously surmised that dear old, ancient Edinburgh with its scads of old buildings – was pretty much a stodgy old place with castles, museums and hairy-legged guys in kilts. Now I like ‘all that history stuff’ and gladly line up to climb the ramparts with the best of the castle and cathedral crowd. And I have nothing against the bagpipes played between the hours of 10 a.m. and midnight.  What I didn’t know though was that Edinburgh is a rather youthful swinging city with 20 per cent of its population in its 20’s. Its downtown streets are lined with restaurants, pubs and night clubs – all within a city rich in history and literature.

This past week  I saw Edinburgh up close for three days; clearly ‘the city of literature,’ where each August an International Book Festival is held – ‘the largest celebration of the written word in the world.’ Edinburgh is in fact the first ‘UNESCO city of literature’; named so in 2005. It is a place Sir Arthur Conan Doyle of Sherlock Holmes fame once called home; also Sir Walter Scott who wrote Ivanhoe and Rob Roy; Robert Louis  Stevenson who penned Treasure Island and Jekyll and Hyde; and of course  Scotland’s  National Bard Robbie Burns. And Edinburgh also boasts such great contemporary authors J.K. Rowling of Harry Potter fame and noted crime writer Ian Rankin. And there are so many others too numerous to mention. It is indeed a place that Ernest Hemingway and my favorite writer J.D. Salinger would have felt the literary warmth.

A city of hills

We arrived in Edinburgh from Birmingham by train pulling into the Waverley station in mid- afternoon. We made a little error in exiting and wound up on a side street; that to reach our hotel we had to haul our luggage up a wormhole set of stairs that left us exhausted by the time we got to the top. As we emerged into the light, a smiling Edinburgensian, (one version of what you call a citizen of said city) lent a helping hand and welcomed us to his historic hometown “One thing you will learn about Edinburgh,” he said smiling to a Canadian friend accompanying us on our Scottish adventure, ‘is that when you are not going down a hill, you are going up one.” We all laughed and with the help of a few other obliging folks, found our hotel over on St. Mary Street.

The most predominant feature of Edinburgh, of course, is the famed Edinburgh Castle that is perched high atop the ‘Old Town’ guarding the city from invaders for some 1,100 years. As you drive by the castle on Kings Stable Road, you have to crane your neck to drink in the view of the towering fortress above you. In doing so, it’s easy to understand the challenges faced by castle attackers confronted with such a seemingly impenetrable fortress. In fact, in 2014 it was determined that the castle was besieged 26 times; making it the most besieged places in Great Britain and ‘one of the most attacked in the world.’ Today though, it is just besieged by wide-eyed camera-carrying tourists; some million and a half each year anxious visit its museums, gaze upon ‘the Crown Jewels’ and in August of each year, attend  a grand military tattoo that alone attracts more than 200,000 people.

One of the most intriguing places in Edinburgh is just below ’Castle Rock’  known as ‘The Royal Mile’  where there’s a plethora of shops so you can buy cashmere goods, kilts of course from all the clans,  and ‘all other things Scottish.’  There’s also a wonderful place called ‘The Royal Mile Market,’ the converted ‘Tron Kirk’ church  that is now a retail outlet with high almost cathedral high ceilings; stain glass windows that flood the old church with gentle hues of multi-colored light; and even a café for scones and a spot of tea. The 17th century church has many stories to tell; including  an alleged haunting by a little drummer boy who in the 1800’s is said to have  disappeared beneath the High Street while exploring secret underground passages from nearby Edinburgh Castle.

Name that artist!

To be honest, I have never had any real connections with Edinburgh; although one of my school chums was born there. I also once had my picture taken with a famous Scottish rock group that I thought came from the city. I couldn’t though for the love of me remember the group’s name so I asked a fellow in the Royal Mile Market. He seemed quite friendly and was sharing information about Edinburgh with enthusiasm. So I approached him and suggested I had a rather ‘silly question’ to ask about the Scottish music scene.

I gave him the name of one of the group’s biggest hits; a question that made him grab my arm as if he had seen a ghost. “Why on earth would you ask me about that particular song,” he asked. ‘You might not believe it,’ he added, “But the fellow who wrote that song is an old friend of mine.” To be truthful, I have not been able to verify his claim so I won’t go into detail about the tune. He claimed a Scottish musician sold the song for a meager 75 pounds. And from there, it became a hit recorded by numerous artists. Then his eyes wandered suspiciously around the cavernous market perhaps listening for the faint sound of a little drummer boy wandering beneath our feet in the subterranean passage below. You know, he said, ‘this is not the first time strange things have happened in this church.’

Edinburgh has so many attractions to see and we only scratched the surface.  It might take a lifetime to really get to know such an historic place in this historic country. I will say though the National Museum of Scotland was an unexpected treat. I have spent time in the British National Museum in London; and it indeed does feel like a museum; perhaps the greatest in the world.  The Scottish museum though offers a ‘sense of fun’ with displays of airplanes and motorcycles hanging from the ceilings as well as all other sorts of artifacts to be found in a grand public institution. The pubs and restaurants in Edinburgh were great too. I probably drank more ale there than I have in my entire  life. Even without the bending of the elbow, Scotland would still look great through the eyes of this aging ‘New Scotland boy’ now calling the UK home in the English Midlands

*Hairy cows – a Scottish cattle breed originating in the 6th century in the Highlands and Western Isles of Scotland.