When my dad was in his twenties, he spent two years as a missionary in London. He lived in various flats, learned to drive on the wrong side of the road, and wore out shoes walking the streets of the city.
The way Dad talked about this time of his life, it was like listening, wide-eyed, to stories of adventure where he was the hero. He had brought home relics to bring the story to life- a real British Bobby hat, a red double-decker bus toy, journals, photo albums, and letters. And so, from an early age, I began to romanticize the British Isles.
Discovering my English heritage was like a magical moment for me. I learned about my ancestors who first came across the pond from the United Kingdom- my maternal family has connections to a manor that is still standing today. Our family crest is a lion. In a way, I was part of all of this and it was a part of me.
Then Mom introduced me to Jane Austen. I remember my very first encounter. I walked into Mom's bedroom where she was sitting on her bed watching the Pride & Prejudice mini series. Just then, Mrs. Bennett exclaimed, "You'll never be as pretty as your sister Jane, but I will say you look very well indeed." My curiosity was piqued!
And so my love of all things British was born. While we all know about Downton Abbey and Shakespeare and the Beatles, these are some of my favorite recent discoveries and less known favorites from Britannia.
Do you ever feel hesitant when someone recommends a British TV show to you? Sometimes the style of their shows is so different from what we're used to that it's hard to see past the acting, directing, writing, and even sense of humor. For example, I know I need to watch Dr. Who, but I just couldn't get through that first episode when I first tried! Still, there are so many shows from the BBC that I just LOVE, so I'm always on the look-out. So, while Downton Abbey is over and I'm waiting for the next seasons of Call the Midwife and Sherlock, here are a few series and mini series that I am smitten with.
Great British Bake Off | I could watch this sweet little bake show all day! It's reality TV minus the drama and dramatic music, and with the addition of the most lovable personalities baking with accents and characteristic British manners. You fall in love with the hosts, judges, and contestants as much as you fall in love with their food. I've got my eye on a Great British Bake Off cookbook just so I can have even more of this in my life.
Lark Rise to Candleford | My mother in-law mentioned that I might enjoy Lark Rise to Candleford months ago, but I didn't give it a try until recently. It's available on Amazon Prime, and I was between shows on Netflix, so I figured, why not?! It is just darling. It's a 19th century period piece with rich vs. poor themes, but it is mostly about people and relationships. The characters have flaws that make them both endearing and lovable. I watch with a smile on my face and find myself laughing out loud at their quirks and comments. I'm pacing myself as I watch the 4 seasons, mainly so I don't run out too soon, but also because I've started to absentmindedly switch in and out of a British accent :)
The series is based on the book Lark Rise to Candleford by Flora Thompson, which is itself based on the childhood experiences of the author. I've just picked it up from the library. I'm only ten page in, but I'm enchanted with the writing.
"The hamlet stood on a gentle rise in the flat, wheat-growing north-east corner of Oxfordshire. We will call it Lark Rise because of the great number of skylarks which made the surrounding fields their springboard and nested on the bare earth between the rows of green corn. All around, from every quarter, the stiff, clayey soil of the arable fields crept up; bare, brown and windswept for eight months out of every twelve. Spring brought a flush of green wheat and there were violets under the hedges, and pussy-willows out beside the brook at the bottom of the 'Hundred Acres' ; but only for a few weeks in later summer had the landscape real beauty. Then the ripened cornfields rippled up to the doorsteps of the cottages and the hamlet became an island in a sea of dark gold."
Dr. Thorne | Author Julian Fellowes has been busy since Downton Abbey's finale. I read his book, Belgravia, and was all too pleased to discover that he had done a miniseries for Amazon Prime based on the Chronicles of Barsetshire by Anthony Trollope. I watched all of Dr. Thorne in one sitting. It is another 19th century period piece showing a life centered on class and station, but it's less like Lark Rise to Candleford and more like an perfect mix or Jane Austen and Dickens, or Sense & Sensibility meets Downton Abbey.
Broachchurch | Everyone seems to love David Tennant, so I felt safe watching this murder mystery series that he stars in as a detective. Everyone is a suspect. It wasn't too predictable, but it did get to be rather formulaic. Still though, it's riddled with well timed comedic relief and full of all kinds of mesmerizing accents and shots of the coast of Dorset.
My mom and I used to laugh at how whenever we became absorbed in a Jane Austen book, we'd start to mimic the language and diction of her writing in everyday conversation. What is it about these gentry that spending time with them makes me feel more proper, more regal, and more British? The surest way of transporting myself to England is through literature. It's such an escape to a different time and place, and to a history that I feel is partly my own.
Nonfiction: The allure of nonfiction is that these are stories as riveting as any novel, but they are about real people. Lady Almina and the Real Downton Abbey: The Lost Legacy of Highclere Castle and Black Diamonds: The Downfall of an Aristocratic Family and the Fifty Years that Changed England are two books that are portals to another world. These are stories of great families and great houses, stories of triumph and financial ruin, and they document the pendulum swing of time and change through the course of generations.
Fiction: If you like Jane Austen, or regency romance, or you're a woman with a heart, read Edenbrooke. Labeled as a "Proper Romance," this book and its sequel are pure British Chick Lit. Is mystery more your thing? Read any book by Kate Morton... Maybe start with The Secret Keeper. Told from multiple perspectives and from different time periods, her books (although formulaic), are spellbinding. Perhaps you're interesting in WWII? Try The House at Tyneford. It has been a long time since I first read it, but I remember loving it. Here is my book review from 2012:
As soon as I reached the end, I seriously considered picking it up and starting it all over again. It's Downton Abbey with The Guernsey Literary Literary & Potato Peel Pie Society and Sound of Music all bundled together. I loved the style of writing- every time I picked it up from the very beginning, I was there.
Elise, a young Jewess bourgeois from Vienna must leave her family and life of luxury behind to seek refuge in England as the Nazis rise in power. She is granted a work visa and offered employment as a maid at Tyneford House, a large estate by the sea. The war progresses and Elise finds strength and love through her heartache as the fate of her family is uncertain and the residents of Tyneford feel the war edging closer and closer.
It's somewhat based on true events, the author having gained her inspiration from Tyneham House (an actual estate on the Dorset Coast in England requisitioned during WWII) and stories from her own Great-Aunt who, like Elise, managed to escape Nazi Europe by becoming a “mother’s help” in England.
I loved all of the characters- Elise especially. She is a strong, resilient woman. And the story was powerful, providing perspective of the lack of communication and information during that time period, the tragedy of war for a Jew rejected by her own country, and also a glimpse into how changes brought on by the war were forced upon British high society and changed their way of life forever.
Online | My trusted source for all things William and Kate is The Royalist. If ever you need to confirm or contradict a rumor about Kate being pregnant or the Queen abdicating the throne or Harry getting engaged, check here. And have you made an account at Pottermore yet? I've been sorted into Ravenclaw and my Patronus is a heron. Too fun!
Food | The English are not known for their cuisine, but Dad did come home craving several sweets he had encountered while he lived there. Growing up, I remember how Dad would always buy a container of Bird's Custard mix whenever he came across it in the stores. Late at night, he'd cook us up hot custard "on the hob" and serve it with slices of bananas. I once ran into an Englishman while hiking in Yosemite and told him about our dad's love of Bird's Custard, and his response was simply, "Well, that's because he is proper gentleman."
Digestives are another family favorite, but don't let the name fool you! The are yummy British biscuits (aka cookies) that come as plain sweet meal biscuits or covered in caramel and chocolate. YUM. They're such a staple in the UK that when the factory that supplied them had to shut down due to flooding this last year, they had emergency biscuits flown in. I'm not even kidding. This is what I buy whenever I come across them in specialty shops. Matt & I get them in our Christmas stockings, and they're always the perfect gift for Dad.
Expressions | I've never really been a big fan of the "Keep Calm and Carry On" trend as we know it, but I do love its history. This slogan's roots come from WWII motivational posters hung in London as the people there were preparing for what would ultimately become known as the Blitz. It's simplicity and formality are so decidedly British, that I love it, but only in context.
My favorite recently discovered British expression is "Needs Must!" It means both that we'll make due with what we have and we'll make the best of the situation all at once. I'm going to start using it in conversation and see if I can't get it to catch on here in the states. And while I'm at it, I'll use my influence to get others to start calling the restroom the loo.
Kind of a random post, I know, but it was fun to write :) Now I'm going to read some more from Lark Rise and NOT run to the store to get some Digestives!
Update from my dad! Here is some more detailed information about the pictures I posted:
That first photo was at the Southampton High Street right next to the Bar Gate. I’m with Elder Lynn Connelly from Idaho.
The bike photo was outside our flat in Kingston on Thames. The little white wood window trim you see below the big window is where our outdoor water closet was. This is the back of the house
where we entered our below-ground flat. Elder Robert Blotter (from Cincinnati, Ohio) was my Comp. (and my Greenie) This is the flat that my appendix burst in.
The shoes picture was in December 1977 at the Metcalfe’s house in Bournemouth, Dorset England. My comp was Elder Bruce Harris, my trainer from San Diego, CA.
I got to England the day after Thanksgiving 1977 and I left around the 15 of November 1979
Look up the “Bar Gate” in Southampton for a bit of history. Standing on top of the Bar Gate on April 10th 1912 at Noon, you would have been able to watch the RMS Titanic leave port on her maiden voyage. Since she didn’t dock in France or Ireland (only dropped anchor), Southampton was the last place the Titanic ever touched solids until she came to rest on the ocean floor. There is a Titanic Museum inside the Bar Gate (or at least there was one in 1978).