Australia and the United Kingdom are like family. They are very similar culturally. Despite that, there have been a few surprises coming here.
Visitors to Australia are often apprehensive about our venomous and dangerous animals. They watch the documentaries listing our venomous snakes and spiders, the man-eating sharks and crocodiles and the deadly (but almost invisible) Irukandji jellyfish. I therefore expected to arrive into the United Kingdom, a countryside settled for centuries to be benign when it comes to dangerous flora and fauna. There may be no large wild animals but there are stinging and thorny plants aplenty!
On our first day here, we were introduced to stinging nettles, an innocuous looking weed common in the countryside. They sting if contacted against the skin. There is also a shin height weed called a thistle with sharp prickly leaves. The Christmas Holly shrub actually has spiky leaves all over. Last but not least are brambles! This hardy shrub grows like a weed. Rough, tangled and prickly with thorns! What a surprise to find so many stinging, thorny and prickly plants in this country! Watch where you walk!
The upside to the thorny bramble bushes are the sweet blackberries they produce. You can find blackberries growing naturally all over as well as wild strawberries. I want to learn more about the edible plants I can forage in this country because who doesn’t love free food! There is a lot to learn actually. There are plenty of strange new trees and plants that I cannot as yet name or identify e.g. yew, cedar, elm, poplar, beech, yarrow etc.
Despite the recent reports of a terrible heatwave, the weather has cooled down significantly. British people are a cold hardy sort, with the ladies wearing their bright summer dresses in temperatures that would have Australians zipping up their jackets! It is so cool that butter is kept out on the counter in a butter dish and the bread is kept at ambient in a bread box! This would not be the norm in Darwin where the humidity and heat would melt the butter and grow mould on the bread.
There has been a discovery of a couple of surprising foods that are new to me. Damson gin is a sweetened gin made with the fruit of the damson tree. A small, dark blue, ovoid, plum like fruit that is too sour to be eaten as is but with gin, sugar and time, it turns into a sweet, port-like drink, perfect for an aperitif or a nightcap.
Another new food is the pork faggot. Pork faggots are meatballs made of pork offcuts, offal and other herbs and seasonings. It’s a traditional food in the UK. Here is another example of a “waste not, want not” or “nose to tail” eating which is a lesson from the past that has lost favour but should be re-invigorated as move into the future. Reducing the number of animals being farmed is good for the climate. This can be achieved by eating less meat and eating all parts of the animals to avoid waste. Consuming non-traditional parts of the animals such as the liver can also be healthier than the usual cuts.
The striking thing about visiting towns in the UK countryside is how the varied the architecture is, reflecting the time when they were built. An example would be the historic old Warwick town with its 1000+ years of history and a majestic, medieval Warwick castle looming over the town. Contrast this against the neighboring Leamington Spa, a more recently built town that grew when it’s waters were purported to have medicinal qualities. The Georgian and early Victorian architecture in Leamington gives it a completely different vibe to the historic Warwick town despite being in such close proximity to each other.
Compare these towns again to the big city of Birmingham with a population of over 4 million people. Skyscrapers, large modern shopping malls, modern architecture adorn the heart of this big city. Birmingham is a city buzzing with the excitement of the upcoming Commonwealth Games which they are hosting.
Another surprise in the UK is the diversity of the accents in the one country. Whilst there are a few regional differences in the way Australians speak, the range in accents is miniscule compared to the variation in accents that can be heard from the UK. These reflect differences in regions as well as socio-economic backgrounds. Despite the differences in accent however, there is one common thread that has been unanimous thus far. Everyone in the UK has been really lovely, kind and warm.
One more thing which I suspect doesn’t change regardless of the country are politicians. We caught the recent debate between the two leadership contenders for the leadership of Britain, Rishi Sunak and Liz Truss. This comes not long after watching the leadership debate in Australia between Scott Morrison and Anthony Albanese. Both the Australian and British debates were the same with the aggressive positioning and posturing, the persistent interruptions and insistent hogging of the limelight. They were both equally hard to watch, undignified and basically seems to confirm that politicians (in general) despite how hard they try, are simply unable to come across like trustworthy, normal human beings with integrity.
A highlight thus far in the UK has been attending a play, Richard III at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre in Stratford Upon Avon. This gorgeous town, the birthplace of Shakespeare has a touristy main street full of old Tudor buildings and a large theatre in a prime location overlooking the Avon River. The production was excellent. It always surprises me how well versed British people are with the history of their kings and queens. Then again, considering how incestuous, violent and drama-filled it all is, it does make a compelling story!