You know that thing people do in the States where they say the word town instead of city? Oh man! Chicago—great town. I never thought twice about that expression before moving to England. A friend called me out on it, asking for clarification, and could I please tell him just how big Chicago was; he’d been under the impression it was a major U.S. city.
And of course, that makes sense. Because Chicago absolutely is not a town. It’s a giant sprawling urban landscape, ergo the very definition of a city.
Much in the same way that I learned the specific nuances between towns and cities, I learned about villages. (And hamlets, but we can save that for later.) The British are still marvelously specific with their language when classifying their… oh, damn, I was about to say towns again. So, when I was finally invited to Northumberland to visit a few new friends I’d met while studying at the conservatory, I jumped at the chance to see some of these English villages up close.
Northumberland, the northeastern most corner of England that brushes up against Scotland, boasts some of the most gorgeous landscape in the country. (As I wrote that, I could actually hear my friends from every other single county in England, Wales, and Scotland moaning loudly about that statement being a boldfaced lie. But in the terrains I’ve personally managed to cover thus far, I will stand by it.) And on that gorgeous, untouched, serene, picturesque Northumberland coastline, I made my way up to B’s house in the 958-person village of Felton.
It was hard for B to assess my reaction to the Northumberland countryside, mostly because my reaction was a little inappropriate. “This is just… like… going back in time,” I think I mumbled. More than once, actually. And it really was. I think I’d for some reason had the idea in my head that, sort of in the same way that when I say town instead of city, B couldn’t possibly have actually meant village when she said village.
But she really, really did.
There’s a pub, a hairdresser’s and a bakery—that’s village tour. Not that I had a problem with it, because the warm three-cheese scones completely changed my life. Seriously, if you’ve ever got time to go to The Running Fox, it’s worth a pit stop. But throughout the tour, I did the typical human thing and attempted to compare this life against my own childhood.
I tried to imagine it, and that was where the muttered “back in time, back in time” phrase kept rising to the surface. No stoplights. No school, no cinemas, no grocery store until the next big town over. (See correct usage of ‘town’ in previous sentence.) It was hard to place my own history in that kind of existence, in that kind of context.
On the edge of town, we went for a stroll out in the fields to see the sheep—I had obviously been promised some sheep; this was the English countryside. We, of course, immediately ran into my next culture-shocking moment.
“B… we’re in the field, aren’t we? As in, there are no fences between me and the sheep, are there?” I’d never felt like such a city rat in my entire life; I didn’t even know the term could apply to me. B thought it was the most hilarious thing she’d ever heard—my surprised realization that I could possibly be sharing my walking space with the lambs of northern England. She cackled brilliantly at that, while snapping photos.
Strolling and walking are what the northerners seem to do best. Later on in the day, we made our way down to the seaside for a second meander out on the sand. This particular beach was covered with what looked like huge concrete Lego blocks cemented into the sand—giant dystopian-looking battle guards. I came to find out that they were blockades left over from the war, a hopeful armor to protect against German sea invasions in the night. That history, which I learned about as a dead thing of textbooks, is still a vivid and recent occurrence to many a British family.
Up north in July, the sun doesn’t set until almost midnight. As we neared that point in the evening, B took me to yet another seaside village just up the road, to see some of her favorite pubs. Most of the pubs in the area are also inns, and they looked to be beautiful and isolated holiday destinations for reading, watching the sea, and drinking ale. We stumbled into The Ship—and I stumbled over the pub dog—and came across a traveling Canadian bluegrass band that took up half the room.
I was, of course, ecstatic. We had to wait until their first set was over to get a pint, because the bass player was blocking the way to the bar. The music fit the place, and it felt as if the band had been playing there every Saturday for thirty years. It was the ideal introduction to the northern bliss of England—and I drank in every bit of it. Among the Canadian bluegrass, the pub dog, and the thick Northumberland accents, I drank a pint and gave thanks for the villages of England.