When I publish this post I will actually be in Britain in two weeks. Just 14 days. It’s been almost three years since I set foot in the green and pleasant land that is Britain. It’s been a long, tough journey with several trips planned and several trips canceled. At one point we even had plane tickets purchased, but had to cancel them at the last minute.
Not a day has gone by for the last three years that I didn’t think “How can I get back to Britain?”
It’s driven my wife mad. It drove me to start this blog and without this blog I would not be getting on an airplane to London in 14 days.
I’ve always had trouble quantifying my love for Britain. WHY oh WHY do I love Britain so much? I sort of have an answer.
To me, Britain, England, London – it’s all about dreams and the power to fulfill them yourself.
This is an essay that not many people will care to read – but if you make it to the end, I hope that you understand where I’m coming from. Maybe you have a similar story – maybe you feel exactly the same way.
While my interest in all things Britain goes back well into my youth, a particular moment is really the beginning of it all. I was in Hobby Lobby during my high school years, I don’t remember why I was there but I was there with one of my best friends.
I loved having posters of far away places on my bedroom walls. I wanted to travel and see the world. I was probably the youngest subscriber to National Geographic Traveler. So, whenever I was in a store that sold posters, you can bet I’d always take a look and see if there was somewhere new that I could hang on my wall.
I came across a poster of a quaint English Village. It didn’t say really say where it was, just ‘Gold Hill Dorset’ which sounded completely foreign to me. If I came across it now, I would call it ‘chocolate box perfect.’ It was the cottages of Gold Hill, bathed in golden sunlight with the Blackmore Vale lit up proudly behind it. I thought the poster was rather cool, it looked like England and I decided that the poster was going to come home with me.
I hung it up on my wall next to my bed. Not a day went by that I didn’t look at that poster and wonder, could I ever go to a place like that? It looked like paradise to someone miserable in high school.
I was miserable in high school. I wasn’t popular (but I wasn’t unpopular) just quiet and antisocial. I went through the motions of high school because I always had one foot out. I was not meant to be there. I wasn’t learning much. I was wasting my time. It was just an obstacle in the way of The Rest of My Life.
I spent my high school years flitting from class to class, wishing for it to be over. Getting a crush on girl after girl and it never going anywhere beyond stupid love poetry. To keep it brief, I was very lonely. But I didn’t really mind.
The toughest part about high school (studying was not a challenge for me) was having to get up so early every day. I don’t do early very well. It was painful to get up every morning for school. To get dressed, eat, get on that bus in the cold of winter and go to a place you didn’t want to be more than anything was cruel.
Yet, every morning, I’d look up at that poster and think “the day won’t be so bad, because one day, I’ll get to go there.”
Where is There?
Thanks to the wonders of the internet – it didn’t take me long to figure out where Gold Hill was. It is located in a small English Village in the county of Dorset exotically called Shaftesbury.
I looked it up in my guidebooks (these were the days before Wikipedia mind you) and realized that it was a place I had been looking at for years. When many people think of England, they think of a scene similar to Gold Hill. Thatched, limewashed cottages, crooked and barely standing on a cobblestoned street.
I wanted to go there so bad. I’d always been taught in life by my wonderful parents, that if you want something, well then by all means go get it. It’s your life and you can do what you want with it.
When I went to England for the first time at 17 – I was not able to go to Shaftesbury. I was with my mother, neither of us had been to England before. We didn’t even know how we would get there. We were afraid to leave the unfamiliar confines of London for the unfamiliar wilderness that was rural England. Even though I hated London on my first trip, I resolved to come back. I expected to Love London one day. It was just going to take more than one date. Shaftesbury would wait – it’d been there for a thousand years, it was going anywhere.
The First Trip to Shaftesbury
By the time I was actually in a position to go to Shaftesbury, I was in a completely different place in my life. Yet, I still clung onto the dream of walking down that cobbled hill one day.
I was in college. I had met the love of my life and was going to marry her. The future was bright. I wasn’t lonely and miserable anymore. Yet the desire to see Shaftesbury in the flesh still burned strongly inside me.
One day I was regaling my girlfriend (now my wife) about stories from my first trip to England and she was very impressed and had done some international traveling herself. She said that she’d love to go to London one day.
I responded, “So, why don’t we?”
She had unwittingly unleashed a can of worms. We decided that we would go to London. She didn’t really believe it would happen – our relationship was still new enough to where she didn’t realize what I was actually capable of. She had yet to learn the lesson that when I set my mind to doing something, I damn well do it.
She didn’t really believe we were going until I pressed ‘buy’ on BritishAirways.com and bought those first fateful tickets.
It was a whirlwind trip that culminated in a surprise trip to Paris where I proposed to her on the Eiffel Tower. After we had returned to London from Paris, we were sitting in the hotel room with only a couple days of our trip left. I sort of lamented to my wife that I don’t think we’ll be able to go to Shaftesbury. We didn’t know how to travel by train into England. We didn’t know about train timetables or changes or super saver fares. After our hellish experience in Paris (we were pickpocketed), we were rather adventured out. Cost was an issue as we were running out of money.
But my newly minted fiance knew what Shaftesbury meant to me.
Finally she said, “Jon, you’ve been to Britain twice now and you haven’t been to the place of your dreams. That’s ridiculous.”
She picked up the phone and called the train station and asked everything we needed to know and booked our train tickets for the next day. Clearly I had made the right choice to propose to her.
We arose early the next day. The plan was to travel to Shaftesbury, spend a few hours there and then return back to London. It was going to be a long journey. It takes two hours to get there.
And it was a nightmare. I learned that day what engineering works were and also the false concern showed by customer service workers on the British railways. It took us many hours, a bus ride and another train later just to arrive in Gillingham, Dorset, which wasn’t even our destination. Shaftesbury doens’t have a train station, the nearest being Gillingham. We had to take a cab from Gillingham to Shaftesbury.
While the journey was pretty arduous – I was having the time of my life, I was seeing bits of England I had never seen before, I got to travel on a train, travel on a motorway and pretend to be some sort of sophisticated traveler. It was a grand day out. And it had only just begun.
The cab driver was a delight – not quite believing that two young Americans had found there way to his little corner of England – which he thought was boring. He droves us through green rolling hills – the weather was overcast and not very pleasant – but I didn’t care. It was England. I was in the countryside – a place I had not yet been.
The cabbie dropped us on on Shaftesbury High Street – right in front of the town hall and told us that to get to Gold Hill you had to walk behind the town hall and make your way there.
So, we did just that.
The moment we walked around that corner and Gold Hill was revealed to us is one of the happiest moments in my life.
It didn’t quite register that there I was, the place I had dreamed about for so long. I was at Gold Hill. My feet were resting on the cobbles. I was taking a picture with my own camera. I could smell the rich country air. Feel the cool spring breeze. Hear the birds singing. It was a quiet day in March – a Monday in fact and we pretty much had Gold Hill to ourselves.
We sat on the benches of the Salt Cellar – the small cafe at the top of the hill (now a huge restaurant) and I just stared in marvel at where I was. A dream given reality. I could scarcely believe I was staring at those thatched roofs – those limewashed cottages, nestled together on the hill.
Not satisfied with just sitting there – we decided to go for a walk. We walked down Gold HIll, back up it, back out to the High Street. Explored the shops. Walked down Shooter’s Lane and explored the quiet country lanes. As we did this – we were presented with four seasons of weather. Rain. Sleet. Sun. Cold. It was miserable and wonderful. Paradise.
We ate lunch at Wharfe’s Restuarant and had the grand tour from their eccentric owner. Lunch was delicious and English. The place dates back nearly 800 years. It was an amazing experience. After that, we walked down a short lane and was presented with the other great view that Shaftesbury has – over the Blackmore Vale towards Melbury Hill. Many pictures were taken.
After that, with the weather still not quite cooperating (by American Standards) we stopped by Gold Hill one last time and then we headed back to the High Street where the cab was waiting to take us back to the train station. And that was our first odyssey to Shaftesbury, Dorset.
I was in love.
We’ve been back to Shaftesbury twice – each time we’ve stayed longer and longer. I’ve never fallen out of love with the place and everyday I think about being there. In two weeks I will be there. Instead of staying in our usual B&B – we’re going to get to sleep in an actual cottage on Gold Hill – the dream now comes full circle.
As for that fateful poster – we got sick of moving it every time we moved so I finally gave it to my parents. My dad took it and put it in his office. It’s a source of pride for him. He enjoys looking at it and telling visitors that it’s a real place, his son dreamed of going there and actually did. I’ve thought about taking the poster back now that we’ve settled – but I think it has a good home now.
Everyone has a dream and not everyone realizes that they have within them the power to make their dream a reality.
What’s your dream?