What I love–and loathe–about the U.K.

Posted on March 7th, 2010 by Laura Byrne Paquet in Destinations

I’ve been in the U.K. for a few days now, and my likes and dislikes are becoming clearer by the minute. My likes are legion and my dislikes are few, and I’m passionate about them all.

First, a few of my favourite things.

1. Teakettles

teakettle walesI’m a tea drinker, partly because I can’t abide coffee. So it drives me crazy when I check into a North American hotel room and find a container of lovely tea bags on the dresser…and a coffee maker. Tea made with water run through a coffee pot is an abomination. Not only is the water not hot enough, but it tastes like coffee. What a delight to find a full-sized teakettle in all three of my U.K. rooms so far. Granted, coffee drinkers are probably put out by the lack of a coffee maker. I feel your pain, my friends. But I’m still pleased about the teakettles.

2. Expressions
I first fell in love with U.K. expressions while listening to my Northern Irish cousins as a child. (To this day, I think “brilliant” is a wonderful exclamation of delight.) On a trip to County Down at age 12, I decided “dual carriageway” sounded much classier than “four-lane highway.” Years later, while on a cruise run by a British tour packager, my husband and I decided that “Do you fancy a boogie?” (used in a promo for the ship’s disco) was eminently more fun than “Would you like to dance?” And one of my great joys in reading British home decorating magazines is the line, “Ring [phone number] for stockists.” Stockists! Much nicer than “Where to buy.”

3. Trains
In the U.K., passenger trains apparently don’t have to pull over to a siding every time a freight train needs the track, as is the case in Canada. As a result, the trains actually run on time–at least the ones I’ve been on so far. And those Victorians knew how to build train stations that really made you feel like you were off on a momentous journey–like this one in Manchester.

Manchester railway station
4. Funky buildings
OK, maybe these buildings in Manchester’s redeveloped Salford Quays area are garish. And over the top. And not to everyone’s taste. But I have to admire the ambition and bravery behind them. At least they’re not boring mirrored glass boxes or brutalist bunkers, which seem to be the two favoured styles in most Canadian cities. These are from Manchester’s redeveloped Salford Quays.
Manchester "Salford Quays"
5. Lambs
Ah to be in England (and Wales), now that spring is here. On the train from Manchester to Cardiff today, I saw wee lambs everywhere, playing in green fields with their mums. Too darn cute.

OK, now to a scant few but passionate dislikes.

1. Stairs
OK, I understand the Underground stations. After all, they’re underground, and many were built long before elevators were common. But why, why, why does every hotel entrance have a pointless set of steps? And why are there odd little staircases partway along every hotel corridor? Is it some sort of national endurance test? Was it a way to keep servants fit, back in the days when no one lugged their own suitcases?

2. Plumbing
Admittedly, it has improved from the days when toilets were operated by long chains dangling from the ceiling. But I have yet to hear a plausible explanation for showers like this.

shower plumbing england
Why not just affix the shower head to the wall? The rod-and-hose apparatus may be designed to accommodate people of different heights, but in my experience, when you try to adjust it, it detaches itself from the wall entirely and whips about like a watery snake, turning any hotel bathroom into a miniature car wash. Or maybe that’s just me. Perhaps I should drink the tea first and get a good caffeine fix before attempting to shower.

3. Fire doors
Yes, I know the Great Fire of London was tragic. But it was almost 350 years ago. Do you still need to install massive great doors every few feet along every hotel corridor? And in front of all the elevators? Inquiring minds want to know.

Disclosure: My trip to the U.K. was partially subsidized by Visit Wales.

17 Comments on “What I love–and loathe–about the U.K.”

  1. yvonne

    personally I became quite car sick on their country roads…why cant they build a straight road?

  2. paul

    This was great! Wish I were there, but can't wait until you're back here in Ottawa.

  3. kerry dexter

    getting the hot to cold water ratio in a liveable range is what's interesting to me about those showers — each one seems to differ on that, and extra cups of tea do not help. really with you on the tea thing, too- in US hotels everything tastes of coffee.

  4. Laura Byrne Paquet

    I know what you mean about the hot and cold water, Kerry–I scalded myself this morning!

  5. Gloria

    Most showers are like that in Italy too.

    It was not long ago that having two separate pipes (one for the taps and one for the shower head) was more expensive than just having pipes stop in one spot.
    Now I guess it's just a habit.

    I am used to having the "mobile" shower head, so I prefer that. It also makes it easier to clean the shower… I know, I'm a "desperate housewife"! LOL

  6. Laura Byrne Paquet

    Oh, I didn't realize that about the costs of installing separate pipes, Gloria! The hose apparatus makes sense now.

    And I sympathize with you on the winding roads, Yvonne. I didn't have problems on this trip, but I did get queasy on a trip to Italy a few years ago.


    Tea Lovers Unite!
    I wish that hotel and B&B's would provide more than just one or two teabags and proper milk. I think we should start a campaign for the Proper 'English Tea lovers'

  8. Laura Byrne Paquet

    Thanks for the comment, Chris! I was lucky in that all the places I stayed on my recent UK visit provided ample tea (four to five bags a day) and milk. In one place, they even had a special fridge in the hall just for tea milk!

  9. Lori Henry

    I remember the kettle thing from a past trip with you and thought of you as I travelled through the UK this spring and saw them in all my hotel rooms!!!

  10. Lori Henry

    PS. I finally added a blog roll to my website, so you're on it 🙂 Thanks for having me on yours.

  11. Laura Byrne Paquet

    Yeah, Lori, this thing with me and tea in hotel rooms is pretty much a lifelong obsession! 🙂

    Thanks so much for adding me to your blogroll, too!

  12. Ellen

    I so agree with with this post, having lived in Exeter for a year of university.
    So many great expressions…so confusing at first.
    In a psych class we were given 3-D glasses and were told not to pinch them. Why would I pinch the my paper glasses? Oh, he meant don't steal them.
    My fellow student Fiona told me I looked "smart." She meant I dressed well, not that I was brilliant. And the Brits kept saying how "nice" their food was. And that they were knackered (tired)
    I learned about plimsoles (sneakers) wardens (the woman who ran the dormitory) and Digestive biscuits (are those for aiding the intestinal tract?)
    As for the stairs, it wasn't until I returned years later with heavy suitcases that I realized how many stairs one might have to walk in those Underground stations. Yikes!
    I could go on and on. Instead, I'll just thank you for the memories!
    Ellen at http://www.boldlygosolo.com

  13. Laura Byrne Paquet

    Thanks for sharing your fun memories, Ellen!

    Some made me realize how British-influenced Canada still was when I was a child. I remember people here saying "pinched" in the sense you remember it being used in Britain. My grandmother (born and raised in Canada) used "mind" the way they do in the U.K.–as in the ubiquitous "mind the gap" in Underground stations. And I was addicted to digestive cookies as a kid.

    A lot of those British-isms are fading here in the Great White North, however. I grew up saying "chesterfield," but now I almost always say "couch" instead.

    And there are still a lot of British expressions that leave me puzzled. While reading English and Irish books, I've had to ask a British-born friend to explain "whickered" (lovely word for that snuffling sound horses make) and "shirty" (another great word–it's a synonym for irritated).


  14. traveljunkies

    A comment about some of your comments, but first about those showers.
    Why can't all countries have them like this, it's so much easier to shower those bits you can't reach.
    And about windy roads. We Brits don't like them either but when you're limited for space and some farmer owns the straight bits, we've not a lot of choice.
    But at least it makes life interesting and stops you falling asleep.
    And as for stairs in hitel corridors … again space is the constraint, When land goes up & down, we don't have space for slopes. Plus, a lot of our buildings have been "added to".
    And finally about expressions, we have lots more, you only have to go back a few generations and we can't understand what our grandparents meant.
    Even more finally. I have one more word to add.
    We have a daughter with learning disability and the other day she came out with her new word "Gussit"
    We evantually found out that when she wanted to talk about something, she wanted to "Gussit"

  15. Laura Byrne Paquet

    Traveljunkies: Fair enough about the windy roads! I agree, they're prettier and they do keep one from falling asleep. I was once so hypnotized by a long straight road in Saskatchewan that I buzzed right through a four-way stop–didn't even see the sign.

    And I did know that many British hotels have been added onto in bits, so I understand the stairs. After lugging my bag up and down many, many sets of them during a two-week trip, though, I was just feeling a little cranky.

    And I LOVE "Gussit!" What a useful term!

  16. Edie

    In the late 1980s, I had a job in London translating from British to American English for Rough Guides. There were many, many examples of being divided by a common tongue, some charming, some peculiar, but the one that initially caused me most confusion was “pissed” — as in drunk, not angry. People would say “I really got pissed last night,” and I’d ask, “Why” — until I became aware that you didn’t really have to have a reason to go down to the pub and have a pint or three.

    Lately I’ve seen several “Mind the gap” T-shirts. Who doesn’t love those announcements on the Underground?

    As for the shower — I lived in a flat that didn’t have one. You had to sit in the tub trying to maneuver the snaky thing and I never felt quite clean. In retrospect, I think I would have been grateful to be able to at least be able to stand up to rinse off!

    • Laura Byrne Paquet

      Edie, I had the reverse problem re “pissed,” but this time in a Canadian/American context. Around the same time you were in England, I was doing a short-term, student volunteer project in Germany with an international group. One Saturday night, one of the girls phoned her boyfriend back in Seattle. After she hung up the phone, she was clearly upset. “He was really pissed,” she said. I thought this was funny, as did another Canadian girl in the group. Like the Brits, we thought she meant “drunk.” She kept trying to make us understand. Finally, she said, “No, no, he was really angry!” “Ah, pissed OFF,” we said.

      Since then, usage has changed a lot in Canada, and now “pissed” can mean either drunk OR angry. Which can get confusing. 🙂

      I feel your pain re the lack of a shower. We had only a groovy claw-foot tub at home until I was in about Grade 10. It was lovely for baths but awkward for hair washing.

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