1. Incredibly polite people. No really - even more polite than that. Chip 'n Dale polite. Hugh Grant, falling-all-over-themselves, apologizing for your mistakes polite. That level of politesse is utterly intoxicating to me.
2. Place names. Enchanting, charming, almost comically toffish British placenames like Witham-on-the-Hill or Clifton-upon-Teme (where we have our cottage this week - go to Google Maps and find it to see just how off the beaten track we are) or Hanley Broad Heath. Just saying them makes me feel like Emma Thompson is about to appear. Or better yet, Keira Knightly.
That said, their pronunciation of said place names can be confounding. Shelsley Beauchamps, for example. Anyone who knows French can tell you it's Bow-shawm ... right? Yeah, not so much. Beecham, thank you, and no, we have no explanation, it just is. Belvoir Castle? Again, the French is Bell- vwar. But locals will send you up the road to Beaver Castle. Oy.
As for Welsh place names ... don't even bother. Nothing is pronounced as it should be, or at least as you'd expect it to be. A sign in Welsh looks like one of those Crypto-quote puzzles in the paper: LLay Llddyywwnnwllynn Ddllayyeenn. Dude, you think I'm kidding? Look at Google Maps again. And you don't pronounce Ll as L. It's ... something else. We were in a town called Llangollen. Pronounced, of course, Clan - GOTH - lan ... at least, near as I can come to it. Except you add a little kinda throat-clear thing when you say the "k" sound, like you're hawking up a loogie. Hilarious. And charming.
3. British Television. There's not much of it - five channels is all we ever seem to get (although with a satellite dish I'm sure they'd get more). But what there is is such high quality - and even if it's not particularly cerebral it's wrapped up in such a bright sense of humour that you don't feel you've wasted your time. Their cooking shows in particular are wonderful, but travel shows, nature documentaries, high quality movies, and sports coverage are rivetting.
4. Cheese. I love cheese so much I would marry it if it weren't a crime against nature. So far this trip I've sampled about 14 different cheeses from various shops. You know the "Sharp" or "Old" or "Extra Old" cheeses you find in North American supermarkets? The difference between our definition of "sharp" or "mature" and the assault on your taste buds mounted by what the Brits call "mature" is like the difference between regular and HDTV, or 8-track tapes and CDs.
5. History. Damn. There is soooo much history here, you trip over it at every turn. Yesterday I was in a tiny town well off the beaten track named Great Witley. Not much to the town - a few ivy covered houses of red brick lining the road. Took a turn down a bumpy gravel lane, drove about a mile, and ended up in front of one of the most incredible churches I've ever seen. The architecture was Italianate Baroque, very ornate with an incredible series of ceiling panels and filigreed screens and fountains and gilded wall accents (almost all the most impressive British churches are Norman or Gothic and - aside from impressive stone carving - are much more austere). The enameled glass windows I gazed up at were the originals, painted in 1721. People, that's 50 years before people in Boston started grumbling about the taxes on tea.
That's five off the top of my head and I haven't even talked about the view from the Malvern Hills (that inspired Elgar to compose "Pomp and Circumstance" and Karl Marx to scribble down a few thoughts on economics); the incredible natural beauty of Wales; the delightful regional accents (and their patience with a fast-talking Canadian); the pubs (I have, in the last few hours, driven past The Fox; The Bull; The Horse and Bull; The King's Head; The Dog; and The Cock. I was sorely tempted to go into The Cock and order some Spotted Dick, but I feared Bucky's head would explode); and a million other things that would cause me to pack up and move to Britain if I suddenly inherited eight billion dollars, which you need to even consider buying a house here.
But there are some things I am less impressed with, most notably:
The Goddamn Roads. Okay, picture a parking spot in an average North American shopping mall. Got it? Now, there's the average lane on a frigging twisty, turny, "A" road in Britain, and you are fully expected to travel at 60 MPH along this, even when oncoming traffic includes a semi-trailer (lorry) whose mirrors encroach onto your goddamn lane. I am not even kidding one little bit about this, people.
AND they don't really bother too much with such niceties as "shoulders" on the road - you'll have to make do with a damn hedgerow that is over your car, so unless you're on a hill there is not much of a view.
"B" roads are like "A" roads, except fewer lanes and less attention to upkeep.
Tomorrow I travel across the belly of Britain to Norwich. More from there, assuming I can get connected. Wish me luck. There may be "B" roads involved.