I am usually very comfortable in Britain. After all, I spent the first one-third of my life there and grew from a twinkle in my father’s eye to a married man there; I spent all those years fully engaged in the social, cultural, physical and educational fabric of Britain. I am familiar with the place; it is embedded in me.
Therefore, I have never been able to engage with or quite understand the images and anecdotes and oddities of Britain reported by the hordes of American tourists who visit my home country every year.
Until this last trip. Now I get it.
For the first time on this latest trip in December, I observed Britain through the eyes of an American tourist and experienced Britain as an American might. I can boil these impressions down to four main things: the beer (of course), driving, history and scenery.
Beer: British beer, that is real British beer, that is cask ale, served through a hand pump into a pint glass actually is flat and warm. In 50 years of visiting Britain on a fairly regular basis, this is the first time I agree with that perpetual complaint of American tourists about British beer.
I would previously retort that the beer is sufficiently flavorful and carbonated for the style and is at cellar temperature, not warm. Now I would simply say — “You are right: the beer’s warm.”
Of course, there is an ample supply in every British pub of highly carbonated and cold beer of the lager variety. Very good beers they are too, by and large. But I spent most of this trip drinking cask ales and frankly, they are indeed flat and warm.
This doesn’t make them bad beers but they sure could use some gas and refrigeration; that simple idea might, in fact, revive these mostly comatose brands; it would turn them into a version of Amercan microbrews.
In particular, I had the opportunity to visit the Hook Norton Brewery in the village of that name in the Cotswolds, “Where progress is measure in pints.” I was told I could not miss the brewery and, to tell the truth, brewing architecture of the 19th century is quite unmistakable; nevertheless, signage was so poor that I found the place only on my third pass through the village. Turns out, this tower brewery was built in a hollow among the hills.
The core products of this brewery, sold in all 47 of its pubs, are called Hooky something: Hooky Dark, Hooky Gold and Old Hooky. The brewery is tiny, by almost any commercial standard, but is a delight to see because it is so traditional in design and operation, including Clydesdales.
For example, they only recently decommissioned the original Buxton & Thornley steam engine that powered the plant and, even now, the new electric engine drives the brewery through the original part-wooden cogs and drive shafts.
The Hook Norton brewery is a museum piece.
Driving: I learned to drive in Britain on the wrong side of the street with roundabouts and rickety roads that led you from one town to the next until you reached your destination. The first motorways (freeways) were appearing as I departed British shores; in fact, my first-ever drive, on sections of the M-1 in 1960, was to London to get my emigration visa.
Much has changed. Now, there are featureless roads that dash about the countryside, unavoidable and tactless bypasses and ring roads of uncommon complexity and roundabouts of stygian proportions often with traffic lights that one navigates with the whiff of fear in one’s nostrils.
For the first time ever, I took the extra insurance with my rental car; I was glad of it.
History: On the other hand, I gazed with a new wonder and a new appreciation at the sheer ancientness of Britain. Britons do not spend much time contemplating their historic surroundings; they are just too engaged in making life work. They take it all for granted; ho-hum, except perhaps when it’s Westminster Abbey on TV at royal weddings or funerals.
But I marveled in those ancient and historic spaces as an American tourist might whose local ancient monument is Sutter’s Fort, and I reveled in the possessions of the National Gallery and the British Museum.
Scenery: The villages of the Cotswolds were quiet this time of year, not traffic-jammed and tiresome hold-ups on the way to somewhere else. So we could wander the narrow streets and poke about in the antique stores and enjoy those old buildings that, perched so perfectly in their farmland setting, simply glowed in the low yellow light of the winter sun.
And the old pubs, with a hint of woodsmoke in the air from the roaring fires, seemed to be forever open and always had a gracious pint of Old Hooky waiting for me; that was familiar and unchanging.
And, flat and warm though the beer be, that alone was worth the trip!
— Reach Michael Lewis at [email protected] Comment on this column at www.davisenterprise.com