The Writing Traveler: Across the Pond by Bill Thomas

The Edinburgh Castle sits perched high above the beautiful Scottish countryside. Photo:

My English wife and I married in 1977 and committed to making the trip over to London and Scotland and meeting family members l had not yet met.

The British Caledonian Flight was completely booked.  Luggage was squeezed into overhead bins and passengers squeezed into their economy seats as well.  A late afternoon flight found my wife and I cramped in a fully booked aircraft with plenty of Brits boarding for their summer holiday return from the U.S.   We were traveling to reunite and visit U.K. relatives.  The Brits were a part of my life with Audrey and her English Club for the past ten years, and before our departure from Houston, the distinct English accents made me think we were already on the ground in London. With everyone seated and ready for departure I could sense the anxiety of the Brits.  Most were anxiously ready to order their beloved hot tea before settling down for this long overnight flight which would arrive in London early the next day.

This trip was a command performance.  My English wife and I married in 1977 and committed to make the trip over to see family members not yet met.  This trip was delayed several years by work and family adjustments.  We were lagging on our commitment to visit our family across the pond, and five years passed until we found time to visit, During that time we had received visits from my mother-in-law, Audrey’s brother Norman, a niece, and some cousins.  Now it was our time to make good on our commitment.

A few days after my arrival,  Audrey, Jess, Norman, and I stuffed ourselves into a borrowed compact car, complements of Norman.  We planned to visit relatives in the Newcastle area, then on to Edinburgh, and return to London via The Lake District.  We would take advantage of overnight stays with relatives in different locations, and stop at bed-and-breakfast lodging when relatives were not available.

This tour was my first experience with the crazy custom of driving on the “wrong” side of the road.  Although not initially in the driver’s seat, the first thing that struck me was “roundabouts,” somewhat comparable to our traffic circles.  They were numerous and found everywhere in England.  With no traffic lights and only stop signs to tell us when to stop and go, these “roundabouts” and associated road directions could be very confusing and frightening to a foreign driver.    It was not long before I recognized exit street names and highway numbers were painted on the pavement in front of us.  One had to be very diligent to keep his eyes on the road in front and mind the circling traffic on the wrong side at the same time. There was no way I was going to make a quick transition in driving habits mastered in the U.S.  Norman suggested I could help and take driving duties when out of the congested areas: I gingerly agreed.  After about thirty minutes on a major road with increasing traffic while approaching a small village,   Norman told me to “pull over. I’ll do the driving for the rest of the trip. “

From that point on I recognized Norman as being quite smart.  His action probably saved us all from disaster, and may well have extended our longevity several years to come.  Unfortunately, I was never able to adequately master driving there, so elected to leave well enough alone and leave the driving to him.

Traveling from place to place, observing the scenery, customs, and culture, I found some minor differences between us.   On arriving in the Newcastle and Edinburgh area, the Scottish accent overtook the standard British accent.  Interestingly, my English brother-in-law Norman had difficulty understanding the Scottish brogue and accent, and in a few instances, I had to interpret for him.  Perhaps that was just his “hang-up” since the rest of us didn’t seem to have any trouble with it.  Yet another brother-in-law who is a government official in the Newcastle area occasionally spoke a street lingo, “Geordie”, that none of us (including this wife) understood.  Perhaps he used it in communicating with some of his constituents.  But, his wife told him not to speak that way while we were there.

I was highly impressed with Edinburgh, with its imposing castle overlooking the city. The Holyroodhouse Palace at the bottom of the royal mile, and Princess Street shopping occupied my interest as well.  In Edinburgh, I also learned to avoid haggis, a Scottish dish of heart, liver, lungs, and perhaps other unknown internal organs of a sheep mixed with various seasonings.  When I had to ask “what was that foul smell?” in one of the Scottish cafeterias in Edinburgh, I decided I would forego that special dish.  I don’t think my nose would have allowed me to overcome a taste best left to the Scots.  Also when one ordered a hamburger, that indeed was just what it was:  “Where’s the beef?”

The Lake District. Photo:

After a night and day in Edinburgh, we traveled from Scotland to the Lake District, a picturesque area of influence to famous writers such as Wordsworth, Coleridge, Ruskin, and others  About twenty miles from our day’s destination, our car began to run very rough, but we continued to struggle up and down foothills and small mountains leading to the center of the Lake District. The last part of our journey to reach the Lake District, saw us traveling a steep mountain road, when a thousand-foot distance from the mountain top, our car finally gave up its last spark of life  Before coughing its last breath, however, we managed to park in a small rarely used overlook area.   Lacking phones and with limited car traffic to signal for help, we suspected a long wait for help, but Norman spied a pub at the mountain top, and then struck out walking with hopes of finding a phone at the pub to call for help.

The weather was beginning to rain lightly and cooled down to about 45 degrees on that late afternoon.  With little option available,  Norman decided he would need to call a towing service.  Too, at that time and place, mobile phones were not routinely available, and with no vehicles to flag down on this small two-lane winding road, we three remaining passengers would stay with the car until Norman returned.  After a lengthy wait in the car, and becoming somewhat restless and concerned, I too struck out to find Norman to determine if something more was amiss.

My cold-weather walk of a thousand feet in a spitting rain, found me entering the pub to see Norman sitting by a warm fireside enjoying his pint just as if it was the most normal thing to do, and he was not in the least bit surprised to see me.

“Norman, what’s going on?”  I asked.

He casually replied, “Just waiting for the towing service to meet me here, and then ride on back down to the car. ”

With the cold rain and the warm fireplace, I suspected Norman had the right idea.  So, even with two ladies setting in a cold car awaiting our return, I  too decided to wait a few minutes with Norman and his pint.  Fortunately, the tow truck driver came shortly, and with the car hooked up and in tow, we were on our way down the other side of the mountain to the quaint village of Ambleside near Lake Windermere.  Although riding down the mountainside in a towed car, the view, even in the spitting rain, was still impressive.  I began to have a little understanding of the beauty and quaintness that might influence the writing of some of the literary greats.

Arriving at the garage to inspect the problem, our mechanic unhinged the distributor cap and asked if we had taken the rotor out of the distributor. Neither Norman nor I had touched the distributor and had not removed a rotor part, but we knew that its function was to run the engine by distributing the spark plug charge.  There was no rotor for this vehicle and yet it ran for twenty or more miles.  Supposedly it was not to run that way, yet it did.  This is another mystery I still carry to this day and time, one I still could not satisfactorily answer.  The mechanic provided a new rotor part and the car ran smoothly the rest of the trip.

Leaving the lake district the next day, our trip took us to numerous castles, churches, and other places inside of interest along the way, but I’ll not go into detail on these.  I know we wore out my mother-in-law by the time we finally got to Warwick Castle near the end of our trip when she said “I’m not going in the castle with you. When you’ve seen one you’ve seen them all.  I’ll just wait in the car park with the car.”  We knew from that comment, it was time to head back to at home base near London.

All in all this first trip and visit with relatives was outstanding, and I made a reasonable first impression. Although my wife passed from my life in 2008, this most gracious family has continued to include me as one of their own.   In other words. It’s as if I’ve been adopted by them.  I’ve always been invited to the yearly family gatherings, and have attended several of them, and now communicate via the Internet, and phone, and welcome an occasional visit from one or more from across the pond.

Truly my wife Audrey was correct in saying this was not the typical family, and one with a particular aura, one that I’ve come to appreciate more as the years go by.   And still, I am finding English cousins I didn’t know existed!

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