Two sides of England

Driving from the Isle of Wight to Maidenhead we stopped at a small village called Farnham, in Surrey. It is a beautiful little place on the side of a hill with a castle crowning the heights. The streets are narrow and crooked, the houses are old, the surrounding countryside is green and gentle. It is quintessentially English.

We were struck by the obvious wealth of the community. We had coffee and snacks at Starbucks, on a cobbled lane free of traffic which led down to the high street, and then browsed in Waterstones Bookshop. The lane was lined by ancient leaning, timbered brick houses (?Tudor), now converted to exclusive shops – Monsoon, Jaeger, Laura Ashley, a fishing outfitters, a handmade toy shop, another coffee house. The locals all seemed beautiful, well dressed, casual, self confident, and predominantly white Anglo-Saxon, but with a sprinkling of wealthy Asians. Even the school kids looked rich, the girls fresh faces subtly made up, with glimpses of tasteful tattoos (if that is possible) on their upper arms, the boys with trousers fashionably falling off their backsides to reveal designer underwear.

The youths all possessed that look of self assured nonchalance which is so sought after among today’s teenagers, and which I have never felt for a moment either as a teenager or since. I felt my usual mix of jealousy and inverted snobbery as I regarded the cream of England, drinking their coffees and toting home their bags of branded merchandise. We headed for the only charity shop I had spotted (I remembered my brother Peter’s advice – go for the charity shops in the rich towns), down the high street, but we were too late and it had closed.

Later in the evening we drove into Maidenhead and decided to go to a Dominos Pizza shop we had seen a week before. There was a Dominos in Tamworth, back home in Australia, where we had been regular Friday night customers, and Hanna in particular had been keen to relive old times! I sat with the boys in the car and watched the passing parade of life while Maria and Hanna waited for the pizza they had ordered. Running in and out of the shop were the delivery “boys” – but boys they were not. Most were middle aged men, immigrants from India, Pakistan, the Middle East. They piled their pizza loads into clapped out second hand vehicles and headed off into the suburbs to drop food to the ones who were lucky enough to be home on a Thursday evening, not out working. The average price of a family pizza seemed somewhere between 8 and 10 pounds, about three times the price in Australia.

Dominos itself was on a busy road, the A4 between Slough and Maidenhead. It was in a terrace of ugly, worn out houses, everything rather down at heel. The area was by no means squalid, but it was tattered, and ordinary. Opposite was a building site advertising a new development of luxury housing, but now it was just scaffolding and concrete. The quintessential charm of England, which we have come to appreciate so much on our travels, was noticeably absent.

Two sides of England. The rich, and the poor. The beautiful and the ugly. The traditional and the modern. The lovely and the ordinary. Both equally true, different views of the one reality. Britain in 2007.

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2 thoughts on “Two sides of England

  1. Hello David,
    It’s great to read of your travels back in the motherland, and very interesting to read about Maidenhead.

    I was born there back in 1973, but left to move north to Cheshire back in 1977, so i have very few memories of life there. What was interesting in what you wrote was the absence of the ‘english charm’ you had only just experienced – despite that, maidenhead is THE most expensive place to live in the UK. Amazing considering how delapidated the place seems nowadays.

    If you get chance to, I think you would love to visit the north, yorkshire and Cumbria are a firm favourite with me. I’m getting steamy-eyed thinking about it, especially as today was the coldest winter day in Australia for 35 years!

    Have fun

    Chris

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