A Trip To Britain — a Tourist's View

by Ben Best

The initial motive for the trip was the 1995 World Science Fiction Convention held in Glasgow, Scotland. Since I was offered some financial support to promote cryonics at this event — and since I knew I could share accommodation at Glasgow, as well as be offered a place to stay elsewhere — I decided I would be able to contain my costs.

I flew to London from Toronto, leaving about 8 p.m. (Toronto time) and arriving on August 23 the next morning at 10 a.m. (London time) — a flight of just over 7 hours. It would have been nice to fly to Glasgow from London, but by taking the Underground (subway) to the train station in London I was able to go for about a third the cost. This had the added benefit of allowing me to see the east side of England.

But I can't say the trip to Glasgow was particularly memorable. I spent much of the time catching-up on my sleep, reading guidebooks and reading a novel written by one of the science fiction authors who would be at the convention. The country was mostly flat farmland when it wasn't urban or suburban. (I did see one nuclear reactor.) I saw very little land that hadn't been touched by "the Hand of Man" in one way or another. I didn't spend much time speaking to the person in the adjoining seat, but I did learn that she was from New Zealand and was on her way to attend the Edinburgh International Festival (August 13 to September 2, 1995), which is the largest annual international festival of musical and theatrical events held anywhere in the world. Edinburgh has about half the population, is less industrialized and is more beautiful than Glasgow, but I had to content myself with a view from the train.

Glasgow was a major shipbuilding centre. It is noted for having one of the highest heart attack rates in the world. With the scarcity of fruits & vegetables I saw in the stores, the plentifulness of meat and the high rate of smoking I observe, this was not difficult for me to understand. Nonetheless, the Scottish people are by and large quite civilized and likeable. Having been through Paris, Antwerp, Amsterdam, Berlin, and many of the other large cities of Europe I was struck by how "Scottish" Glasgow is — people of other races were not so frequently seen on the crowded city streets. I did, however, see a number of convenience stores being successfully run by East Indians who were only too happy to keep their shops open for longer hours than their Scotch competitors.

The University of Glasgow is very old, and I saw very few new buildings there. The Adam Smith building may have appeared formidable and impressive when it was built, but it is nothing noteworthy at present. I was pleased to discover that I could gain access to the student study centre and was even more pleased to locate a rare book I had been looking for. The botanical gardens north of the University is one of the best I have seen in terms of unusual plants. One section had trees & shrubs arranged according to the century in which they were introduced into Britain.

At the Science Fiction Convention I hosted a party where I served snack food, handed-out cryonics literature and spoke to a large number of people. I also appeared on two panels — one on Nanotechnology and one on "The Next Thousand Years". One of the other panelists on the Nanotechnology panel had been Mission Planning Engineer for Voyager's flyby of Uranus — as well as for a number of other NASA projects. Near the end of the Next Thousand Years panel I admitted that we were all just guessing what would happen in the next 1,000 years — and I explained why I appeared so optimistic (in no small part the way my argumentative nature reacts to audience pessimism). I asked for a straw vote, and the majority of the audience said that they wanted to be alive for the next 1,000 years provided that they did not age. During an autograph session I had a chat with the author whose novel I had read on the train — telling him that he had spent too much time developing background before getting into the plot.

Almost immediately after appearing on the panel on the last day of the convention I took a bus to the Glasgow Airport to get my rented car from Alamo. I had asked for the smallest of the subcompacts, but I wasted nearly an hour fighting with the sales-clerk over my insistence that I did NOT wanta larger car and did not want or need all the additional insurance options she tried to add to my bill. By the time I drove away I was so angry that my enjoyment of my adventure was poisoned for many hours. Seven years later I rented a car from Alamo in California and got a similar treatment. It urks me that Alamo's somewhat deceptive & high-pressure business tactics are so successful for them — but I will not use Alamo in the foreseeable future.

I was also anxious to drive-down to Hadrian's Wall before it became too late in the day. Had it not been for the delay at the Glasgow rent-a-car I would have made it, but by the time I got there the museum had closed. It was some compensation, I suppose, that I was able to park at no cost and able to explore the Wall and the remains of the Roman fort without paying an entrance fee. The Wall looks old, but I wouldn't have guessed that it is 2,000 years old. Whatever cement they used to hold the stones together was very effective. I walked along the top of the wall and tried to soak-up the history and the view. The most memorable thing about the fort was the latrine — the "toilets" with running water underneath to wash-away human waste seemed like a very civilized part of the lives of ancient Roman soldiers. On the other hand, so many adjoining toilets with no privacy implies a sense of community that is not part of modern civilization.

Adjoining the path to Hadrian's Wall and on the surrounding hills there were great numbers of sheep. Through much of Britain, but especially in Wales and in northern Britain (where it is hilly) I saw sheep everywhere. I couldn't figure-out what the purpose of all their "baa-ing" was. Maybe it means "all is well, there are no immediate dangers".

The Lake District of Northern England is a splendor of nature and a favorite vacation spot for the English, but I did not think I had time to spend there. I also by-passed the Manchester/Liverpool area, which is the most industrialized part of England and (after London) the most populous. I headed west across Northern Wales onto the island of Anglesey. It was about midnight when I was half-way across the island. I found an industrial park where I could park my car. The traffic proved to be too great for my comfort (I had been rudely awakened by police once when I tried to sleep in my car in British Columbia), but I was not disturbed and I set my alarm for a time earlier than people would be going to work.

I was particularly interested in Wales because of my belief that the Best family had originally come from Wales. Northern Wales is the least "English" part, and bilingualism (including on street signs) is common there. Many names begin with "Ll" (pronounced "hl"). First thing in the morning I drove-on to Holyhead, which is the main point of departure for the ferry to Dublin (Ireland).

Holyhead has a wonderfully homey feel to it. The harbour has lots of sailboats and the meandering streets of the hilly city contain very nice (but simple) houses. The people in the shops I visited (who speak Welsh as readily as English) are friendly and good-natured. Life there seems so innocent of the harshness, strife, crime & ugliness of North American cities. I tried to imagine what it would be like living and working there. I didn't think that any of the people I saw were computer programmers.

I had planned to explore Wales more than I did, but the winding roads through the hilly country made progress very slow. Driving down from Scotland had been very fast because I was on a divided superhighway, but the only such highway in Wales is on the southern edge (to Swansea). Driving on the left side of the road is no problem on a divided superhighway, but it is very unnerving on narrow, winding roads. I kept being afraid that the people in the oncoming cars would forget and drive on the right side. I did this a few times myself when I was turning-through an intersection and concentrating on how to navigate myself to where I wanted to go. I had the opportunity to hear the sound of quite a number of different automobile horns. Fortunately, no collision resulted. Gas prices were a shock also — more than twice what I paid in Canada. (Actually, this was true of many foods and other items, also).

Most of my impressions of Wales were what I saw from my car. The raw shale mountains in the shale-mining region was a memorable sight. Through most of my drive I saw small mountains covered with grass and sheep. It would be difficult to grow crops on much of this land, but the sheep must have been part mountain-goat judging by their ability to make their way through steep and rocky grasslands. I saw a cloud roof rather than the mountain-tops, and there was intermittent rain. I think this is very common weather for this area. The hilliness of Wales protected the Celts from the Anglo-Saxons that invaded the rest of England. Wales remains a more rural and sparsely-populated region.

In the interest of having personal contact with a Welsh person, I picked-up a hitch-hiker. But he turned-out to be a Czech agricultural student who had been working in a farm in Scotland for the summer. The previous summer he had worked in Israel. His main interest was tropical fruits, and he hoped to work in a tropical country after graduating from the University of Prague.

In late afternoon I left Wales and headed to the city of Hay-on-Wye. This small town has more secondhand books than any city in the world. Nonetheless, I only bought two books — Russian language books at a bookshop that specialized in secondhand books on Eastern Europe. My interest these days are mostly scientific, and only up-to-date references will satisfy me.

I drove on to Oxford and reached the city centre at around 10 p.m. I explored the city on foot, trying to orient myself, and it became clear to me that the city is very unfriendly to automobiles — and that I would have a hard time parking during the day. The signs outside the city recommend not taking a car into the city, but to park in a public lot and take a bus. That is what I did (after sleeping the night in my car in an isolated spot).

I had been planning to get a 2-hour walking tour from the tourist bureau, but when I walked past Trinity College I noticed that students were giving walking tours also, so I opted for that. I'm glad I did, there were only a few of us and I was able to ask our tour guide a lot of questions about Oxford history and student life. The place is steeped with history — I saw the original "Ivory Towers" of Academia (All Souls College), the park where Lewis Carroll dreamed-up ALICE IN WONDERLAND, etc.,etc. John Locke had been expelled from Oxford for sedition, William Penn was expelled for defending Quakers and Percy Shelley was expelled for pamphleteering. A few of the people who were not expelled also went on to become famous. I was fascinated by the murderous assaults on the students by the townspeople that had occurred in the 14th century — and I hope to study-up on this aspect of Oxford history sometime.

After more sight-seeing I drove to Dunstable (north of London) where I was the guest of the Paul Michaels family. Paul is the British representative of the Life Extension Foundation (selling vitamins) — and he and his wife had recently received considerable press coverage for having made cryonics arrangements. I was treated to a restaurant meal with Paul, his wife and Paul's biochemist/accountant. After an evening of good conversation I retired to a guest room (with private bath) for a good night's sleep.

The next day I drove to Cambridge. It took me 2-and-a-half hours to get there and 2 hours to get back, despite the fact that it is only 40 miles from Dunstable. Instead of highways with off-ramps, the British have "roundabouts" — small circular roads with poorly-marked directions indicating where the off-branching streets and highways lead. The only saving grace to roundabouts is that you can continue to drive in a circle until you make-up your mind which branch you want to experiment-with. Many times in Britain I had the experience of choosing the wrong road and having to backtrack after driving a considerable distance. This is evidently a common experience for the British themselves when they drive in an area that is remote from their home-town.

Cambridge, like Oxford, is a tourist attraction, but much less so — and there are fewer conspicuous tourist-attracting hucksters. I got a walking tour through the tourist bureau, which consisted of a family (from Toronto!) and one other person. The history of Cambridge is more science-oriented, especially in the more recent years. Many of the famous pranks and student traditions remind me of Engineering-student stunts. Steven Hawkings currently teaches at Cambridge and the old buildings are not wheelchair access — so he must be carried into the lecture hall.

Returning to Dunstable that evening I was treated to a literal banquet which Paul Michael's wife Maureen had prepared. Being a polite guest, I overate the excellent dishes. After more good conversation I went to bed early in preparation for an early departure for the long drive to Cornwall.

Just north of Salisbury, I stopped at Stonehenge. What I found most surprising about this monument is the physical context. The Acropolis sits atop a small mountain in Athens, but Stonehenge is at the peak of a rise-in-the-land which is gradually sloping in all directions for a great distance. Standing alone in the pale dried grass on land that is somewhat flat, Stonehenge is a striking sight. "Henge" means "circle", but the henges (outer and inner) are actually horseshoe-shaped. In 2,000 B.C. peoples of the "Beaker culture" brought 4-ton bluestones from the mountains of Wales 240 miles away, mostly by sea. Not long thereafter, sandstones weighing 44 tons were brought from 22 miles away. Nobody knows why this was done. Stonehenge is roped-off, but you can rent a walkie-talkie that explains the features you see as you walk around it.

In Cornwall I was the guest of John de Rivaz of Longevity Books. Once again I had a nice meal, good conversation and a guest room with a private bath (huge bathtub!). The next day John and his spouse Chrissie took me to the southernmost tip of Cornwall, Lizard Point. The view there is spectacular. Standing atop high glacial cliffs, we looked-out at the panoramic scene of rock, greenery and the clear blue waters of a beautiful summer day. Delicious wild blackberries were in abundance on the footpaths. The winds are strong enough for Cornwall to have numerous windmills. I couldn't help but notice the absence of sailboats. The beautiful waters actually have many treacherous rocks hidden just below the surface. In earlier times the Cornish people were notorious for luring boats inland to be wrecked on the rocks and plundered by the locals.

After more conversation and a good dinner I again went to bed early so that I could get-up for a long drive. I wanted to attend a cryonics meeting near Brighton on the opposite side (east side) of England the next day. The meeting proved to be less salubrious than I had hoped, and the people did not seem as friendly as I had anticipated. I was expecting more socializing and perhaps even an offer of a place to stay, but I was ejected mid-way through the meeting so they could conduct private business. I drove to the battlefield of the battle of Hastings, which was nearby in the city of Battle.

The battlefield itself is not much to look-at — a large sloping field of grass. But there are films, small models of the battle, museums and lots of tourist-oriented facilities. 7,000 Saxons faced 7,000 Normans there, with the Saxons having the high ground. But the superior archery of the Normans and their feigned retreats (which lured the Saxons into a hail of arrows) carried the day. Harold's men had just tramped all the way from York, and good king Harold had sent much of his army home to gather the harvest because he was not expecting an October attack.

The city of Hastings is on the sea, and I spent a few hours in the evening walking along the boardwalk. Then I drove north and found a wonderfully quiet, forested farm-entrance where I could park my car and have a good night's sleep.

I spent my last day in London. I walked around Buckingham Palace (which has a private park and lake in the centre of London). Only a determined commando with wire-cutters would scale the surrounding wall, which is crowned with spikes and barbed-wire. I walked-through Westminster Abbey and then went up Whitehall Street. (In Britain, "Whitehall" is synonymous with the government because the Parliament and other government buildings are there. "10 Downing Street" — the British "White House" where the Prime Minister lives — is a short, blocked-off street in the middle.) I went by Trafalgar Square, Pall Mall, Covent Gardens and visited some of the biggest (and best) bookstores in the world. Peculiarly enough, there is a Japanese-language bookstore on Piccadilly Street right near Piccadilly Circus. After my long day, I took the tube (the "Underground", the subway) to the station near where I had parked my car and was please to see that it hadn't been towed-away. I drove to near the rent-a-car place at Heathrow Airport, slept the night in the car and early the next morning was ready for my flight back to Toronto (which was delayed 4 hours due to a mechanical problem with the plane).