Friday, February 4, 2005
Living in a walking town in England
Last school year (2003-04) the Brophys of West Street took a family sabbatical to Herne Bay in southeastern England. Michael Brophy had moved there from New York City in 1968 with his family when he was about seven, and stayed in the area through college. We went because we could. We wanted the boys, Taylor and Parker, to see what Michael's childhood life was like, and to experience living in a place different from Carlisle. Since we work for ourselves, we were able to sort out ways to keep working long-distance. It was too good an opportunity to miss.
Herne Bay sits on the North Sea, just an hour and a half by train from London and just 20 minutes from Canterbury. It's a small-scale working-class town of 50,000, not a suburb, not a city. The largest employers are Safeway, ASDA (a Wal-Mart venture with grocery shopping), the County Council (local government) and Pfizer over in Sandwich. Herne Bay has a movie theater, public indoor pool, a park and garden, restaurants and coffee shops, public library, pound shops (as in dollar stores), many pubs, a mini sports arena on the pier, and a waterfront garden with a promenade along the sea. Nearly every destination is walkable.
Renting a five-room flat
We rented a five-room small flat within walking distance of the park, downtown area and the waterfront. It was on the first floor (the second floor in the U.S.) on a road of similar early 20th century two-story flats. The refrigerator, sans freezer, fit under the counter. Our gas "cooker" had an overhead grill perfect for broiling sausages for "bangers and mash." Herne Bay friends from Michael's childhood loaned us a bunkbed, three living room chairs, a table and bench for the kitchen, and just enough other bits to help us fit out an apartment. We had central heating, big flat radiators along the walls — just marvelous for leaning against with a book in the winter, or hanging clothes to dry. The masonry walls meant our flat stayed cool even during the amazing heat wave during the summer of 2003.
Since we were on the top floor and therefore had no back garden (back yard in our terms), we had a back terrace, just large enough for a small table and chairs, but not much more. It looked out over all the back terraces and gardens along the row of houses, and into the play yard for the King's Road Primary and Junior Schools that Michael had attended in his childhood.
We had marvelous neighbors and the shared low wall between the terraces was no barrier to play dates. At least 30 families lived on our part of the road. The sidewalks and alleys were prime playing areas. Kids could safely bike or skateboard around the block. Once Michael got up a game of red-light green-light with all the local kids. We moms would sit out front for a cup of tea and a chat while the kids played.
Yards were tiny by our standards, and packed up against each other. Most houses are connected to one or many others. Some had driveways just long enough for a car to park. Many folks used on-street parking without the benefit of markings or directional expectations. Children walked or were driven to school. Those who went to day schools out of town rode the train or public bus. Though I became quite confident driving on the wrong side of the road, I'd use the park-and-ride to simplify a trip into Canterbury. They just didn't design those alleys and fortifications with cars in mind.
When we went to England in August 2003, Taylor was 13 and Parker was turning ten the day our plane took-off. Taylor was enrolled in Year Nine of the local high school, the one Michael went to. He even had some of the same teachers. Taylor biked, walked or caught a ride to the school about 1.5 miles away. Parker went to Briary School, about two miles from home. We'd take Parker to the walking bus each morning about 3/4 of a mile from his school. A gaggle of ten or so kids and a few parents in yellow safety vests would walk together the rest of the way.
The English school system
Of course the English school system is different in many ways. Kids go to Reception (Kindergarten) at age 4, no one is ever held back for an August birthday, and they stop taking kids when a class is full. Given those differences, Parker didn't attend the school out our back door, and skipped from Grade 4 to Year 6. The King's Road school was too full to take him, as was the next closest one. Luckily we were invited to send him to the newest school, Briary. His teacher, Mrs. Thomas, turned out to be Kent County's Teacher of the Year for 2004. She was marvelous and she coped beautifully with the American kid and the 32 other children in her class.
Both boys played English sports: Taylor played football (soccer), basketball and ran track at school; Parker learned field hockey and tag rugby. Taylor of course also played for the local U-14 football team that Michael helped to coach. The national government spends a great deal of time and energy on keeping kids in school and engaged in positive activities, so the boys also participated in free indoor rockclimbing or outdoor adventure programs on the weekend.
Meanwhile, Michael and I mixed work and volunteering with glimpses of the retired life. Michael continued his silversmithing both at home in Carlisle during visits stateside and at nearby workshops owned by his art college friends. He volunteered for the British Red Cross and coached the boys' football team. He discovered an ex-tennis pro who needed a regular playmate and so had months of great lessons at Memorial Park.
I worked part-time for my American museum clients, all on-line; wrote my museum book; and volunteered. I spent one day a week at the County's museum service one town over, worked on an oral history collection project in Herne Bay, went on a three-day archaeological dig at a Roman villa in Faversham, and washed archaeological finds for the Canterbury Archaeological Trust.
During the retired parts of our days we could walk to the seafront, the library for reading the three national papers, the grocery store and green grocer, and our favorite coffee place Café Latino. The boys' favorites were Macari's Coffee Shop on Sunday mornings, the bait store for crabbing off the pier, the arcades when we drank coffee too long on there weren't many. It's a younger crowd, whether it's a sports pub or not. Perhaps since they grow up with access to pubs, they don't crave them the way Americans do. The boys enjoyed pub visits with us on a weekend afternoon to play pool and have a lemonade before the drinking crowd came in.
Exploring southern England
Since we were so engaged in the schools, volunteering, and just adjusting to daily living, we couldn't travel too far and long. During school breaks we explored southern England, including Stonehenge, Oxford and London and many places in between. It was less expensive to go to France than to travel by train into the north of England. Just as we ended our year abroad, though, they added ridiculously cheap flights out of a small airport just a half-hour away. Another time we hope to take advantage of that. We twice visited an English expatriate living in Brittany — the place for our next sabbatical, I think — and took a whirlwind tour of Paris including the Eiffel Tower, key museums and Notre Dame.
Just a month before we left, Taylor's school dedicated a new fitness and sports facility. Taylor was chosen for the receiving line when Prince Edward and Countess of Wessex came to the opening. We chalked it up to the teachers' confidence that Taylor could be trusted to be on time, well-dressed in a clean and tidy uniform, and using his best manners. The Countess caught his American accent and chatted with him about how he liked England.
We didn't encounter too many logistical difficulties. Michael had contacted the High School before we'd arrived to arrange for Taylor to attend, so there were no worries there. Parker's situation was more difficult because the primary schools required a local address before we could enroll. Once we had the flat we were fine. We did have to pay six months' rent in advance on the flat because the real estate agent wouldn't accept foreign credit records or bank statements.
We felt no animosity towards Americans at all (although Mr. Bush was another story). In fact we were celebrities wherever we went. Even my high school/college French kept us on the good side of Parisians. It did take a good five months for me to feel truly adjusted to life outside the States, though. Map and sign reading became automatic; I knew where to go to get what we needed; I knew all the themes in the newspapers; and we'd learned all language: "pants" are underwear; "trousers" are pants; "trolleys" are shopping carts; and "carparks" just make sense.
We did have a minor scare when English Immigration didn't want to let us back into the country after our third trip to France. On each trip out of England, they'd stamped our passports with "leave to return six months" so we kept staying six more months. In April they took exception to our transience and questioned how it was that a family of four could be living in England without taking British jobs or the dole. In the end they gave us exactly three more months in the country, or else! Fortunately that took us to July 25, three days after school ended.
We left on an ironic note. On departure day the plane was stuck in Boston for repairs and we were stranded in England for an extra day. The fact that we had to leave the country that day failed to produce a plane, however. Still, we were the only happy campers of the traveling hordes. We enjoyed the overnight stay in the hotel provided by the airline, soaking up every last minute of still being in England, and were thrilled with our half-price return tickets as compensation.
Back in Carlisle
We're happy to be home, though we do miss many things: proximity to Europe, a world-view in all the news, BBC all the time, and the absence of snow shoveling. We especially miss the kind of life in a walking town where boys can meet friends at the park, or head to the corner store for milk or sweets or get the take-out Chinese, and where we can walk to coffee and the library.
It's very strange to leave a fully-engaged life and just a plane ride later have it end. The transition to Carlisle was so immediate that it's almost as if we dreamed England. My screensaver full of photos tells me otherwise, fortunately.
© 2005 The Carlisle Mosquito