Exploring post-Brexit Britain while the pound is at an all-time low
21 Dec 2016 - 10:45
Steve Hendrix | The Washington Post
All we ask of Britain is that it never change. It must be a fixed emerald rock in the rushing Gulf Stream of change, always there to infuse Anglophiles with a sustaining dose of stone walls, pub sausages and the chance to say "pants" instead of "underwear."
But the world, worse luck, has been messing with Britain. Or maybe it's the other way around. Whichever, the country's dramatic vote to detach itself from the European Union in June forced devoted visitors like me to wonder: Would our future trips over the pond be - Gasp! - different?
Two months after the referendum, my 19-year-old daughter Isabel and I pulled out of a rental-car garage in central London . . . and immediately turned into the path of a lumbering delivery van. Nothing new about the delights of forcing my right-lane brain into a left-lane roadway!
But, intoning "left-left-left" at every turn, we set out on a week-long sea-to-sea drive across Britain, crossing borders that now seem more meaningful between Wales, England and Scotland, regions of the country that all viewed the leave vote differently. In every corner of the country, we found a post-Brexit tourist scene that was considerably cheaper for Americans and still wrestling with what kind of Britain it wants to be for its returning fans.
"We're in God's hands now," said Molly Breakspear, a tour guide in one of England's most shamelessly backward-looking tourist sites: Highclere Castle, the still-occupied country mansion that is universally recognizable as the set of "Downton Abbey." We made this PBS pilgrimage on our drive to Cardiff, Wales, where we would officially begin our cross-country tour.
Standing in that unmistakable red library - furnished for the real-life Earl of Carnavon exactly as it is for the fictional Earl of Grantham - it is easy to imagine the globe before globalism. The house - like the show - is a window on another age. Maybe not a simpler one, but one with no crowds of Germans, Americans and Arabs driving the hour from London and paying for the pleasure of treading up the magnificent oak staircase or putting on bad Mr. Carson accents in the dining room lined with oil paintings.
"It certainly hasn't hurt us yet," Breakspear said above the multinational murmur. "Plenty of Europeans still and quite a number of English people this year."
One early effect of Brexit has been an uptick in Britons vacationing in Britain.
"What we're seeing right now is a strong staycation market," said Patricia Yates, director of Visit Britain, the country's national tourism board, reporting a 10 percent jump in in-country tourism.
Even among continentals, the post-Brexit fall of the pound seems to have compensated for whatever affront they may have taken. But officials worry that the vote may feel like a snub in the longer term. Most respondents in a snap survey commissioned after the vote said that they were no less likely to come to Britain, but suddenly Europeans, at 69 percent, were far less likely than Americans (84 percent) and Chinese (88 percent) to say that the country is "welcoming to visitors."
"You can see there is some scope for improvement there," Yates said. "It's something we're going to be very mindful of."
To in-bound Americans, the cost benefits of Brexit were quickly apparent, even in the quid-hemorrhaging zone of London where we started our week. In August, with the pound two months away from a 31-year low against the dollar, we had a choice of central city hotels for under $200 a night and the fish and chips we had before visiting the Tate Gallery felt 20 percent less like pickpocketry than previous visits. The rental car we kept imperiled for five days and 450 miles came in at under $25 a day.
In the metropolis, of course, the referendum had done nothing to domesticate a city that's been drawing outsiders since the first stowaway showed up on a schooner filled with nutmeg. At a world food festival in Duke of York Square, a huge crowd of Londoners queued up for Jamaican beef patties and duck sandwiches with hoisin sauce.
"It wasn't the cities, you know," said Harry Amir, a student/Uber driver who was eating an empanada. "You won't find many here who are enthusiastic about being less in the whirl of things."
We found that to be the case in Cardiff, as well, when we settled into the St. David's Hotel on the edge of the harbor with long view toward the Bristol Channel. Wales overall voted narrowly to leave the EU, but this port city voted to remain. After our obligatory view of Cardiff Castle, which has been a defensive keep in the heart of the city since Roman times, we mingled with locals at the waterfront restaurant row and found mostly Brexit skeptics.
Carys Stanton is one of many job-seeking migrants from the Welsh countryside who remain enchanted with the foreign young people she works with at Las Iguanas, a Brazilian cantina, as well as the global clientele she serves.
"It's like the world comes to Cardiff here," Stanton said, just after delivering some fishbowl-sized margaritas to a table of Mandarin speakers. "I would hate to see that change. I don't know anyone that voted to leave, except for my grandfather."
The next day, we drove northwest on the A48 and, after a last gasp of Welsh pronunciation at the town of "Pwllmyeric," we passed a sign: "Welcome to England." (On the other side, it read: "Croeso I Gymru," or "Welcome to Wales.") In my previous visits to Britain, the borders between Wales, England and Scotland felt like subtle historical artifacts. But in the wake of Brexit, there is real talk of a sovereign divorce. Scotland, which voted heavily to stay in the EU, looks ready to revisit the secession vote that narrowly failed to pass two years ago.
We sped into the rolling velds of England's Cotswolds, choosing the narrowest, most agrarian lanes possible in the direction of Stratford-upon-Avon, our next overnight. It seemed impossible that any global upheaval could disrupt this rolling patchwork of sheep fields studded with tawny stone villages.
"My English countryside meter is in the red," Isabel said with disbelief as we emerged from the green woodland tunnel into the high street of Winchcombe, a preserved-in-amber Anglo-Saxon village that practically chloroforms you with Old World appeal. And yet, everything's up-to-date in Winchcombe Village. The traditional cider we had at the Lion Inn went equally well with my fancy foodie-grade wild mushroom risotto as with Isabel's hearty bangers and mash. Both were served by Ula, a 20-something from Warsaw. American blues icon John Lee Hooker growled from hidden speakers.
When I made my first pilgrimage to Britain 30 years ago, it was understood that eating bad food and sleeping in cold houses was simply the price of admission. Now, of course, a global foodie culture fueled by cooks from around the world and produce from all of Europe gushing from the Chunnell has transformed the tourist's mealtime.
We lingered over good French cheese. On our walk out to the village highlight - Sudeley, a 15th-century castle - we felt that all was right with the worlds, old and new.
We spent the next two nights in the reactor core of traditional English-major tourism, the living Elizabethan shrine of Stratford and the incomparable vistas of William Wordsworth's Lake District. Here, a love of words runs deep, but so does a love of outside visitors. (Another happy find in the very center of Stratford: a room in the worthy Arden Hotel for about $160 a night. I have paid more.)
Sonya Gomez, who works for a hospital outside of her native Madrid, first came to Stratford in the 1980s with her Shakespeare-loving father. Now she is back with her own son, who may not adore the Bard like his grandfather, but was willing to endure a production of "King Lear" for his mother's sake.
"He preferred London," Gomez said as her son took a smartphone picture of the canal boats tied along the banks of the Avon outside the Royal Shakespeare Company complex.
The made-for-tourists town looked very much the same, she said, although the buses that deposited so many Japanese visitors 25 years ago are now filled with Chinese ones.
"I was upset with the vote, yes," she said. "I love the idea of greater Europe. But I do not feel any less welcome here than I did when I first came. The vote was about fear and politics. Being a visitor is about people."
We were on our way to our own RSC play, a gritty modern take on immigration and culture clash called "Fall of the Kingdom, Rise of the Foot Soldier." It was part of the theater's intentionally provocative "Making Mischief" series and it splashed acetate on the polite veneer of the English for a searing look at themes of racism, fanaticism and fear of the other that have echoes all over the globe.
"Wow," Isabel said as we emerged from black-box theater both sobered and grateful for an experience of language that is always one of the joys of visiting Britain. "At least we're not the only country so messed up."
If we wound ourselves up in Stratford, we uncoiled delightfully at Linthwaite House, a superb country hotel in Windermere that has been a favorite of mine for many years. It sits on the brow of a hillside, and the view from the terrace extends over Lake Windermere and a sky full of the puffy whites that inspired Wordsworth's wandering "lonely as a cloud."
Here we divided our time between the hotel's excellent dining room, cribbage amid the grove of overstuffed chairs in the lounge and long rambles in the countryside. That is a Lake District tourist routine perfected by the Victorians and only improved on with the international influence that has descended on local pubs and restaurants.
Yet, in an age of churning influence, it can be hard to remember what comes from where. I was foolishly marveling that good IPAs had reached the remote and ancient Cuckoo Brow Inn during our longest hike when Isabel reminded me the Brits had invented the beer that is now the darling of American microbrews.
At dinner, the Cumbrian lamb was served by a nurse from Krakow who is working at the hotel in order to sharpen her English enough for a medical job.
"To be honest, some of our staff were a bit unnerved by the [Brexit] vote," said Andrew Nicholson, the general manager. "The Romanians and the Poles were asking, 'What's going to happen to us now?' But no one has asked them to leave so far. Our bookings are holding up."
Our last frontier was at Gretna Green on our drive to Edinburgh. Here the sign that reads "Scotland Welcomes You" sits near a colossal pile of small stones that has become a monument to unity. Nervous Brits from both sides of the River Sark began depositing the rocks in 2014 as a way of beseeching Scottish nationals to vote against breaking away from the United Kingdom.
The results of that referendum narrowly saved the relationship that goes back three centuries, but the Brexit result led many to predict that the separatists could yet prevail. Scotland's overwhelming "remain" vote this summer revealed it to be the most Eurocentric part of the country. Rather than be pulled unwillingly from the EU, Scots could well choose to leave Britain.
Truly, it's hard to imagine a scene more worldly than the teeming streets of Edinburgh. At the height of the city's infamous annual Fringe Festival, the Royal Mile was chockablock with revelers, free thinkers and good timers from several continents. Hawkers thrust bills into our hands at every corner, flogging some of the dozens of performances going on in pubs, theaters and pop-up party spaces up and down the city center.
The next morning, before heading to our flights home, we would make our way to the waterfront and a book-end glimpse of the North Sea to complete our pell-mell dash across Britain. But that last night we would spend with Canadian comics, English transvestites, South African playwrights and, even, a friendly band of Scottish Quakers.
It was an unabashed, and uniquely British, celebration of creativity without borders. For this lifelong lover of all-things British, it felt like a vibe both familiar and unlikely to end any time soon.
IF YOU GO
--Where to stay
The Arden Hotel
44 The Waterside
A comfortable, luxurious maze of a place, steps from most of what you want to do in the Bard's abode. The terrace, literally across the street from the Royal Shakespeare Company and the Avon River, is perfect for a pre-curtain cocktail or some late-night tourist watching. Rooms from about $163.
A superb country inn, built and staffed by lovers of the hotelier's art. An ivy-covered mansion on a flat, green ridge with long views of the Lake District, Linthwaite is a lush base camp for rambling, with lounge fires, cozy robes and fine dining to end your hike. Rooms from about $152.
--What to do
Highclere Castle (The "Downton Abbey" house)
Any fan of National Trust-type great houses would love Highclere. But it was its star turn is what has led to an explosion of visitors and, happily, fans are rewarded with a fantastically immersive experience, rambling almost at will through rooms just as they've seen them on TV. Open seasonally, through the summer, certain weeks in spring, and for special holiday tours. Castle and garden admission begins at $19 for adults.