All expats have a home somewhere else and generally, the visits back to that home involve spending time with family and catching up with old friends.
Rarely do our visits home involve being tourists.
SEEING HOME AS A ‘TOURIST’
That changed recently when I traveled to the UK with a group of expat bikers, and I got to see my country through a tourist’s eyes. It was a weekend of fun and laughter with fellow riders from the Netherlands, Israel, Portugal, the USA and the UK.
For me, more than the thrill of hills and swooping roads was the chance to re-visit “home” and view it through the eyes of a visitor.
It was fun to experience the arrival into the UK on the ferry with other internationals. Everyone was standing looking at the White Cliffs of Dover … well, we do live in the Netherlands so anything over the size of a molehill is exciting!
The general buzz was “how do we ride on the left” and at our first gas stop the conversation was all about how weird it was to go around roundabouts clockwise.
This changing from left to right side of the road is something I do so frequently I rarely think about it anymore, but of course someone had to go around a roundabout the wrong way once…. and who was it?
My British husband!
That did cause howls of laughter.
Riding through the English countryside was a delight, and the weather even cooperated with occasional sunshine. As we rode through southern England, I was struck by how many beautiful small villages we have, each with their pubs and individual stores, roads strung with charming cottages, like beads along a necklace.
The most obvious difference to the Netherlands, as we travelled through from the south to the southwest, was the difference in style of the buildings. In the Netherlands, villages look pretty generic, brick built, beautiful but similar.
In the UK, the available materials from each area, such as flint stones and limestone, created varieties in each region’s housing and church buildings.
The countryside was awash with golden fields of wheat, and tractors and combine harvesters were gathered to start the harvest. At some point, I was convinced I would see Bathseba from Victorian novelist Thomas Hardy’s “Far From the Madding Crowd.” It was so quintessentially British.
The delight in each biker’s voice when we stopped was always about the rolling hills and the curvy roads, something any motorcyclist misses in the Netherlands.
The destination of our weekend was the southern county of Wiltshire, an ancient Neolithic area and my birthplace.
The rolling chalk downs, carved White Horses on the hillsides and Neolithic sites such as Stonehenge all go toward making this area a fascinating region to visit. Each time I return I feel something buried deep in my genes stirring with recognition, as if the Wiltshire countryside and the generations of my family who lived here in the past, were saying, “Welcome back.”
I invariably release a sigh of “Aahh, home,” despite not having lived there for 30 years.
BACK TO MY ROOTS
We spent a few hours visiting the ancient site of Stonehenge, a prehistoric site consisting of a ring of standing stones, each four metres high and two metres wide, believed to be built around 2000 BCE and thought to be a temple aligned with the
movements of the sun.
This is one of the UK’s most famous tourist destinations, visited by thousands each year, and as we waited for our fellow bikers who took the early tour, we watched bus after bus roll in and eject a never diminishing line of tourists. My husband and I decided to forgo the tour and exhibition in the shiny new visitors’ centre as we have, over the years, visited many times.
During our childhood in the 1960’s and 70’s the stones were unfenced and we even picnicked amongst them!
The ride continued over the rolling downs of Salisbury Plain, a sparingly populated space due to its role as a training area for the Ministry of Defence. There is “live firing” in restricted areas most of the year, and you often are confronted by a passing tank or observe parachuted military bodies tumbling from planes above as you drive through … not this time, though.
As we enjoyed the open, quietly undulating roads, I thought how ironic it was that the very presence of the military here had protected the land from development and created a wildlife haven.
Our next stop was Silbury Hill after driving through the pretty and historic village of Avebury. Avebury, like Stonehenge, contains three Neolithic stone circles built about 3000 BCE for possibly religious purposes and is now a popular place for modern day Pagans to visit.
Silbury Hill, just outside the village, is a 40-metre high man-made mound, the largest in Europe built between 2400 and 2300 BCE. No one has yet determined its function despite surveys and excavations, although evidence of a Roman village was discovered at its base recently.
These days it is closed to the public, although once again, my childhood was spent clambering up and down this intriguing mound.
The remainder of the weekend was spent winding back through the countryside toward Dover and the ferry.
I realized that despite the misguided decision of Brexit, we are an ancient nation that has faced trials for eons and we have always found a way to endure challenges.
Our country remains a beautiful, unspoiled destination, for the most part, and we can only hope that future generations will continue to protect and preserve our ancient history and our diverse countryside.
The next time I travel to the UK will probably be to visit family, but I will make sure that I look to the left and the right as I pass through.
Maybe I will even be a tourist for a few minutes and buy a postcard.
About the author: Jackie Harding was born in the United Kingdom. As a longtime expat, she’s lived in Boston, Mass for 12 years, and in the Netherlands for the past six years.
Jackie is becoming an expert at reinventing herself!
Trained as a nurse in UK, in the United States, she worked for nine years as a special education teacher’s assistant. Since moving to the Netherlands, she has discovered writing and runs the Hub newsletter and writes for the Eindhoven News.
She’s married to British businessman Martin Harding and is the mother of two international adult children.