Nearly 40 years ago I visited the UK for the first time to study at St Chad's College, Durham. I was in the UK from January 1966 to July 1968, and for the first six months I was there drove buses for London Transport while waiting for the academic year to begin.
Now my wife Val and I have been visiting for a 3 weeks holiday. Val has been to the UK more recently than I have, since she won a ticket to the FA Cup Final in 1996 to watch Manchester United beat Liverpool. Now it's our last day, and tonight we get the plane back to South Africa.
We left home on the evening of 1 May, tired from Easter services from which we had got home at 4:30 am, and on arriving at Heathrow hired a car and drove to Itchen Abbas near Winchester where we visited Richard and Cathy Wood, old friends from Namibia whom we had not seen for many years. Richard had been the Anglican suffragan bishop in Namibia, and was deported a couple of years after I was.
We went on to visit cousins in Bristol and Bath whom we had never met before, and visited some places where my ancestors had lived. My great grandfather, William Allen Hayes had kept the Red Lion pub in Axbridge, Somerset, but it is no longer a pub, but has been converted into a house. Cousin Mary Jane, bold as brass, knocked on the door and asked if we could look round inside, and the new owner, Dave Maclay, an American, let us in and even offered us a cup of tea. He said people still come asking for meals, thinking it is still a pub.
We drove through Glastonbury to North Curry, where my great great great grandfather, Simon Hayes, was born. All sorts of things have been written about Glastonbury and its numinous atmosphere, but it seemed quite banal and ordinary. North Curry was different, approaching it on raised roads lined with basket willows, and coming to the church with its octagonal tower and crumbling stone, with low grey clouds blown by the wind, and the calls of strange birds -- that was numinous, or spooky, or whatever you want to call it. It felt like the castle in Alan Garner's book Elidor, abandoned for a thousand years or more. Inside was quite different, and full of life. The church felt prayed in. There was an ikon of SS Peter and Paul, and candles to light in front of it, and an invitation to pray.
We went on to Cornwall and drove around Bodmin Moor and the surrounding villages, and it was election day, so just about every church hall or village hall or school was being used as a polling station. There was not a Labour poster in sight, and it looked as though everyone was supporting the Lib-Dems, as indeed the result showed -- Cornwall voted solidly for the Liberal Democrats.
We looked at Cardinham church, which had very old pews, and it was quite awesome to think that ancestral bums had sat upon those seats. At Temple there were lots of cars, and at first we thought the entire district had turned out to vote at once, and then we saw people wandering around in strange clothes. It turned out to be a medieval wedding at the parish church, with people in suits of armour and brightly coloured clothes.
At Bodmin we went to look at Scarlett's Well, where my great grandfather, William Matthew Growdon, had been born in 1851 and grown up. It appeared that it was a holy well, and there was only one dwelling there, so it must have been the house he grew up in, and it also made sense of his father's occupation of "woodman".
From Cornwall we went to Cardiff in South Wales, where we visited another cousin, Simon Hayes, then up to North Wales, where we visited Val's cousin Vivienne Jones, married to a farmer near Caernarfon. They ran the farm themselves, and it had been in the family for four generations, but they have one daughter studying chemistry at university, so it looks as though there will beno one to pass the farm on to now.
From there we went to see John and Shirley Davies at Gobowen. John is another retired Anglican bishop, but when I knew him he was chaplain to the University of the Witwatersrand. I had not seen them for over 30 years, and we met their grandchildren who were older than their children had been the last time we had seen them, though they themselves seemed little changed.
We went to Whitehaven, then Girvan in Scotland, and visited more of Val's cousins in Edinburgh before heading south again, visiting Holy Island where early Christian missionaries like St Aidan and St Cuthbert had been based. At Durham we visited my old college, St Chad's, which has about three times as many students as it did when I was there. We stayed the night with Chris and Nina Gwilliam, who had been students in Durham with me. Chris had been an Anglican priest, but they are now Quakers.
We visited more cousins in Leeds, and went through Thorne, Crowle and Epworth, and other towns in the Isle of Axholme, where my Vause ancestors had come from. We spent the night with Fr Michael Harper and his wife Jeanne. He is Dean of the British AntioChian Orthodox deanery, and we discussed theological education for Orthodox Christians in English-speaking countries.
We visited more cousins, Michael & Karen Hayes from Bristol, who live on the flat fenland, and had moved there to get away from the big cities.
We spent a weekend at the monastery of St John the Baptist at Tolleshunt Knights, attending the Vigil and the Divine Liturgy. The monastery was started by Fr Sophrony, a spiritual child of Fr Silouan the Athonite, in 1959, using the old rectory. There are now several buildings, and the refrectory won an award as the most imaginative reuse of a chicken shed.
The last few days we have been spending in London, in a cottage lent by Frank Cranmer, another former fellow student at St Chad's whom I had not seen for over 30 years. He too has become a Quaker.
There have been several changes in Britain since I was last here 38 years ago.
One, of course, is that London Transport, where I worked, is no more. Brixton bus garage is still there, and still has Routemaster buses running from it, with the BN label on the side, but they have another logo. It is rather sad to see sone of the best public transport systems in the world being broken up and privatised, and it has certainly made public transport more expensive. The former Southern Region trains are certainly more colourful in their bright livery than the old dull green ones, but the service does not seem to be any better.
Sixties kitsch has gone
Some changes are for the better. Not once have I seen a sixties pub with shin high tables and muzak. Chips are back, and I have not seen the "french fried potatoes" that were ubiqutous in the 1960s, though "chips with everything" seems to have continued.
In the 1960s I mostly ate Indian food, because English cooking was so awful, and it seems that even the pubs now serve Indian food, though the English cooking has improved enormously -- no more plastic and breadcrumb Walls sausages that were so common in the 1960s.
Uniformity and diversity
In the 1960s people spoke with a variety of different accents. Now estuary accents are everywhere -- in Somerset and Cornwall everyone spoke like Londoners, in many cases because they were Londoners who had moved out of the city. The first time we heard a Bristol accent was when we visited our cousins in Cambridgeshire. We asked some people about this, and most seemed to think it was the influence of television. When I was in Britain in the 1960s most TV newsreaders and continuity announces spoke with RP accents, which probably did not influence many other peple because they were considered posh. In the 1960s, too, black people often spoke with West Indian or West African accents, but now most seem to speak with estuary accents too.
We stayed in a number of bed and breakfast places on this trip, and it was interesti ng to see that the more you paid, the less you got, and very few of them make any provision for anyone to write anything, not even a postcard. There was TV in most of the rooms, and it was rather a surprise to see that most of the TV news was very insular and local, on both BBC and independent channels. South African broadcasting suddenly jumped in our estimation, as we see much more international news. The BBC world service (available in South Africa on satellite TV) offers more variety, but the BBC local stations seem to have much less news coverage, and in many parts of the country radio reception was poor or non-existent, with only one station available, and even that not audible much of the time.
In spite of the growing uniformity of accents, and the spread of Londoners and London culture to other parts of the country, there seems to be a growth in regional loyalties; bilingual road signs in Wales, soldiers who had been killed in Iraq with Cornish flags on their graves. In the 1960s the union jack was everywhere. It became fashionable to put it on everything, in a tongue-in-cheek send up way. Now most of the flags one sees are English, Welsh, Scottish or Cornish.
There have been many other changes, but some were not as noticable because they have been changes all over the world, as part of the globalisation of culture. When I first visited the UK in 1966 I suffered from culture shock. I had thought that because people spoke English, and because most of the books I had read were published in Britain, it would not seem as strange as it actually did. Reading books did little to prepare me for the reality of the cultural differences. But this time the differences did not seem nearly as great. Perhaps that is one of the effects of globalisation.
Tonight we return home, and I'll be sorry to leave. There are lots of good things in Britain now -- I just wonder, though, how anyone can afford to live here. It would be good to have more time to spend with people. It was good to meet old friends and cousins we had never met before. One never knows with relatives -- sometimes you meet them and rather wish you weren't related, but we enjoyed all our meetings with cousins, and with old friends too.