Sunday, February 21, 2010

A guide to small town Britain (in the south)

Hello!! Did you miss me? I know it's been a while since I've blogged but I've been lazy, preoccupied and ridiculously busy. With any luck I'll post regularly for the foreseeable but time will time. I'm currently sat in front of the TV watching the Winter Olympics. I'm not really that big a fan of it, but my body clock has been thrown widely off by the 22 hour door to door trip from my parents house in the UK to my current residence in Vietnam.

Anyhows, my trip to the UK was awesome and it was even better as it was Hanh's first trip abroad. She also met my family and friends for the first time. For me, it was wonderful to see those who are most important to me of course, but it was also lovely to experience my homeland in a different way. You see, Hanh had few preconceptions about what England would be like. And believe me when I tell you that Vietnam and England are worlds apart. The differences are about as wide ranging as they come - developed vs developing country, Eastern vs Western city planning and architectural style, language, customs, climate and transport to name but a few. However, it was this freshness that allowed me to view my country in a new way. Places that I took for granted now have an amazing appeal that they never had before. So let me tell you about the UK through the eyes of a tourist....

New Milton

Let's start with where I grew up. Milly is a place where people bring up a young family or retire to. It's not a place for ambitious young graduates, for those looking for a vibrant nightlife or shopaholics, but it is what it is. That is to say a safe and pleasant family area. It's also very well situated between Bournemouth and Southampton, coast and forest. I was told before I came that there now a lot of closed shops and even more charity shops than the considerable number there were before. This is an accurate reflection. New Milton also felt a bit like a ghost town. On the occasions I walked down the high street there was a lack of buzz that you'd find in cities or thriving towns but I enjoyed being somewhere with no traffic, clean sheets and a slow pace. It's certainly the opposite to my daily life in Vietnam is, or Seoul was, and it was refreshing. I'm not recommending Milly as a place to visit, you'd be bored with nothing to see, but I just wanted to paint a little picture of what Hanh was walking into.

Christchurch and Lymington

These two towns straddle New Milton. I'd say Christchurch has a more historical feel due to the old abbey, ruins and old style houses around the priory whereas Lymington feels slightly more affluent being situated by the sea.

Although I only live a short 10 minute drive from Christchurch, I've never properly visited the Abbey. I learned that it used to be a monastery back in the day before their dissolution in the reign of Henry VIII. Hanh and went inside and the beauty of the old churches in England is clear for all to see. The painted windows, tall ceilings, carved sculptures and wonderful architecture was staggering and it a great example of why we should be proud that our country has managed to preserve and keep available our history. I can't believe that I hadn't been there sooner, but I'd strongly advise anyone who hasn't been to one of the old churches/cathedrals to go a marvel at the architectiure of the time. By the prior was also the ruins of Christchurch castle which was a stronghold of the royalists during the English Civil War. Now I know ruins are just a bunch of rocks, but I for one am glad that we haven't cleared them to build flats or yet another badly designed office block. Keeping our relics keeps the character of our country and our historic sites are unique as in my short time in Asia, I've never really seen anything predating 1900.

Allow me to apologise now that most of the pictures will have Hanh in them. Please believe me when I tell you that it's almost impossible to keep her out of them.

As with most towns (in my opinion) Christchurch is worth a couple of hours but no more. Whilst the priory grounds, river and ruins are nice enough to walk around there's little else in the way of interest. There isn't an overwhelming selection of restaurants or shops but the bottom of town has kept a bit of historical character which certainly appeals to me. No thrills or spills but it's nice enough nevertheless.

With this, I'd like to add that I believe the same to be true of most places. I never really see the point of visiting towns or cities because once you've seen one you've seen them all. Well ok, that's not strictly true, allow me to explain. Towns/cities in a particular town region or country generally grew up on essentially the same principles. Towns in southern England generally have an old church, perhaps an old town hall, some Victorian (or older) style houses and a town square containing the usual clothing, jewelry and fast food chains with a smattering of pubs and banks. And don't get me wrong, I like them. In fact I far prefer them from anything that I've experienced abroad but they all feel the same (really selling it aren't I?!).

Lymington is similar. Instead of having a town square, it has a long high street. It has less chain stores and more small family business than most towns I've been to. At the bottom of the high street there's a small cobbled street that leads to the sea front. On the front you'll find a nice selection of the rich and famous' boats and yachts. As of yet I don't have one but in the future maybe I'll join them. As I said before, go for an afternoon but only if you happen to be in the area. I wouldn't make a special visit there but that's just me.

One thing about Lym, don't park in the Waitrose car park at the top of town! It's a supermarket car park but they didn't use to check your parking so you could effectively use it as a free car park. However, that's changed and I got a ticket for using it so don't say I haven't warned you!


Again, Mudeford is no more than a 10 minute drive. I guess I'd call it a village/residential area on the coast more than anything else. There's no more than a handful of shops and the only real attraction is the beach. Now, before anyone says anything, let me clarify what beaches in the south of England are like. To shatter some illusions, there are rolling white sandy beaches. There are a few nice beaches but they aren't particularly long and in the height of summer you're lucky to find the area the size of a postage stamp to sling a blanket down. What you'll generally find is either stony beaches or eroding cliffs. Now, I love the cliffs as they're beautiful to look at and nice to walk along. I generally find it a very nice place to think.

Mudeford doesn't have cliffs. It doesn't have white sandy beaches. It has some sand which is littered with rocks. It's relatively busy in the summer and a place where dog owners take there dogs for a walk in the winter. It has a path along side so you can walk easily and it's a nice place to go after a big Sunday dinner. You also get great views of the Isle of Wight and the coast line about Hegistbury Head. Again, visit if you happen to be in the area but it's not an essential must see place. Before you continue reading, I'm not writing this as a tourist's guide of places to go. It's more of an honest assessment of what's near where I live.

Salisbury and Stonehenge

This is where I risk feeling the wrath of my good friend James. Now, Salisbury is a small city which boosts a particularly nice cathedral. I might be talking rubbish, and I can't be bothered to check online, but I believe that it's spire is the tallest on the Island. Unfortunately when Hanh and I went they were doing work on the north side of the cathedral so our view was spoilt by scaffolding. However, as we were walking around the grounds I was felt with awe with the architecture and you could certainly sense the presence that the building has on the surrounding area.

Salisbury has also managed to maintain its history. There are a lot of old style buildings and the central part of town is free of ugly tower blocks (hopefully J won't contradict me) The usual chain stores can be found but shopping here is better than the other places I've mentioned so far (not that it's that difficult but I thought I should mention it). However, short of the Cathedral there's not too much of interest. Salisbury is nice, and I believe is a commuter town. It's certainly affluent and is another great area to bring up a family (to be fair I think most places in the South central and South West are) and it definitely worth a visit.

However, Stonehenge isn't. You might find this surprising as I've talked a little about how I little that we've kept our history but the interest and fascination about the mystery rocks still baffles me. So, they were transported and errected at a time when it was difficult to move heavy objects vast distances but big deal, right? I also don't agree with having to pay to see them. What do they do? They just sit there. They don't talk, don't move and they're not even colourful. We had a quick look for a couple of minutes (it was snowing and we were cold) but I really wouldn't bother with it unless you happen to drive past. Infact, driving past them is all you really need to do as it's not as if you get anything more from it than you would if you got out of the car. At least the parking was free :-)

Well the best thing about these places is that:

1) They're not too busy and very pleasing on the eye, far from the concrete ugliness of some cities (e.g. Coventry)
2) If you have a car they're very accessible and easy to get to
3) In the towns you get a bit of a sense of our history. Not much, but enough to remind you of what Britain was like back in the day
4) Finally, it's my home

In the coming days I intend to write about my highlights of my trip home and a bit about London. For now I just wanted to satisfy my need to write about home, which for the first time I've managed to appreciate fully for the first time.

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