Au Revoir France, Hello England and the UK
On our three hour drive from Paris north to the French border we took a short break near the town of Arras to see a Canadian WW1 memorial. France gave this plot of land to Canada after the war with the understanding that it would be used as a commemorative site. The staff running the memorial and museum (at least on the day we were there) were French-speaking Canadian citizens. The site is the location of the Battle of Vimy Ridge in which the Canadian military, allied with the French, attempted to expel the Germans occupying this area. We spent some time viewing the exhibits in the interpretive center and then walked outside down into the trenches. There was an entire area cordoned off with a warning sign to stay away due to the threat of potential undetonated land mines. It was a somber stop and another sad conversation with the kids about the grim nature of war.
Just as we were heading into the border town of Calais we saw a huge area full of tents and tarps and learned that the locals refer to this as the Calais Jungle, a large migrant encampment housing over 5000 people trying to get to the UK where jobs are apparently more plentiful. Once we reached the entrance to the ferry we still had to go through three different gates of passport controls. Each time they had us open our trunk and checked to make sure we weren’t transporting people.
We decided to take the ferry with our car over the English Channel rather than the more expensive and obviously less scenic Chunnel below the water. The ferry hardly had any passengers so Wes & Frankie were able to run around in the deserted dining area, which helped pass the time and expel energy before getting back into the car. It was raining pretty hard as we neared England but we were still able to see the infamous white cliffs of Dover as we pulled into the port.
We spent our first few nights in England in two different country houses – coincidentally both were old cow sheds converted into apartments. One house had neighbor boys about Wesley’s age, which he was very happy about. The three boys and Frankie played soccer for hours in the open field out front.
Stonehenge was our first big destination and we reached it on a gorgeous sunny but very breezy afternoon. Like many of the sites we’ve visited we started out in the museum building and read as much as we could on the history then moved on to the physical monument itself. We were all impressed at the lack of commercialism around the area. This amazing prehistoric array of stones is just out in the middle of a field with sheep grazing in fields all around it. No McDonalds, Subway sandwiches, gas stations, or anything like that nearby. It truly felt like a well-preserved sacred site. Although scientists and historians have made some well-pointed assumptions about the structure, it’s full original meaning and mode of construction is lost to us. That mystery adds to its mystique and appeal.
We spent a day putzing around the adorable village of Bath, aptly named for the ancient site of Roman baths. For a smaller metropolis the town still had quite a buzz. There were very talented street musicians and a witty magician impressing everyone with his sleight-of-hand tricks. Wesley was chosen as his assistant for a few tricks, which added to the entertainment. Our biggest attraction there was visiting the ancient Roman baths, established there around the year 60 A.D. The Romans used the natural hot springs as a religious and community-gathering site as well as for its therapeutic cleansing properties. After Bath we drove through Bristol, home of Wesley’s 5th grade school teacher. We stopped for lunch and a few photos for Wesley to surprise and share.
Our last night before going into Liverpool was spent in a small village in Wales. We stayed at a quirky little house, apparently the oldest one in the area. The kids were both spooked because they were convinced the house was haunted. We didn’t have any supernatural incidents, though. In fact, it was very comfortable with a wood-stocked fireplace so we all sat around the fire while watching Beatles videos preparing for Liverpool.
We’ve been a bit confused about the use of the various terms Great Britain, Britain, United Kingdom, and the British Isles. We asked a local guy and he said that they all refer to the same thing and can be used interchangeably. A quick internet search, though, has brought up many differing explanations so basically we’re still confused. Check out this video for some possible insight and a laugh.