Discover more from The Garden of Forking Paths
My "Life in the UK" Test and a Great British Travel Guide
I passed my "Life in the UK" test and will soon (hopefully) become a dual citizen of the US and UK. I reflect on 12 years in Britain and offer some less obvious UK travel suggestions for you to enjoy.
To Become British, Learn When Jesus Died
I’m a statriotic Minnesotan, but after twelve years, the time has come: I’m going to become a dual citizen.
When I arrived at a bleak office building to take my “Life in the UK” test—a necessary rite of passage before applying for citizenship—I was greeted not with a smile, but by being told to empty my pockets, stand spread-eagled, and await my ritualized once-over with a metal detector wand. Once they had carefully checked both ears for hidden earpieces (I’m not kidding), I sat down to take the test.
Citizenship tests are a strange phenomenon, not because I object to them in principle, but because they force a country to arbitrarily decide what knowledge is necessary to be formally inducted into the nation. But what’s most bizarre about them is that they often involve questions that native-born people couldn’t answer—a bit of a red flag.
One of the first questions I was asked: “What did Saint Augustine do after helping to spread Christianity to Britain?” (The answer, which I got right: “Become the first Archbishop of Canterbury”). Another question asked: “In Scotland, what’s the name of courts that deal with minor criminal offenses?” In England, these are known as Magistrates’ Courts, which I already knew, but it was only thanks to studying for the test that I got the answer right: “Justice of the Peace Courts.” I have asked several native-born English people this question. So far, nobody has answered correctly.
Halfway through the test, I was reminded of the ongoing official role of the Church of England when I was asked to identify the day on which Jesus died. Kudos to those of you who know it’s Good Friday, though I’m not certain why that is necessary knowledge to be British. (Here’s a question that, for reasons unknown, wasn’t on the “Life in the UK” test: Which two countries automatically give religious leaders seats in parliament? The answer: the UK and Iran).
Then, there was another issue: one of the practice questions for the test was factually wrong. It asked “Which king first unified England?” The answer they were looking for was Alfred the Great, but there’s a much stronger case to be made for Æthelstan, Alfred’s grandson. (I decided it was unwise to bring this up at the test center).
When I finished the test, a grouchy lady—I’d be grouchy in her shoes too, wanding people down with metal detectors and checking for earpieces in the world’s most lifeless office space—informed me that I had passed the test.
“Did I get any wrong?” I asked.
“I don’t know,” she said. “The computer just tells me that you passed, which means you got at least 18 out of 24 right.”
This was the final ingenious flourish, to never let future citizens know the correct answers to questions about knowledge deemed essential for one’s ability to thrive in Britain.
Now, America’s immigration system is utterly broken, so I’m not in much of a place to critique Britain’s, but the British visa system is deliberately designed to be terrible. Over twelve years, I’ll have spent roughly £13,000 ($16,500) on visas/visa appointments, which is crazy. If you change the kind of visa you have, it resets the official clock on your path toward citizenship back to zero—ridiculous. And because of the scarcity of in-person appointments, I’ve done a bleak UK Grand Tour, taking trains to sterile offices in Croydon, Solihull, Sheffield, Maidstone, and Cardiff.
Actual Life in the UK
The experience of the “Life in the UK” test is completely at odds with life in the UK. After living abroad for twelve years, I see America’s strengths and weaknesses more clearly, just as I see Britain’s strengths and weaknesses more clearly as an outsider. Life here in Britain has its problems—the cost of living crisis and the general decline post-Brexit are real and serious—but here are some tremendous strengths:
There is interesting history everywhere. When I was a kid in Minnesota, we went on a field trip to one of the oldest grand houses in the state, which was built in 1891. Since moving to the UK, I’ve lived in a cottage that was built in the 16th century (1578, to be precise. It had no closets. The floor was slanted. It was lovely).
Cities/towns are much more walkable than in the US and there are tens of thousands of miles of walking paths, fanning out in every direction. I’ll write more on this in the future, but it really is extraordinary. Where I live, there are several long-distance paths where you can walk out of your door and continue on the same path for hundreds of miles. If baseball and apple pie are America’s national pasttimes, having tea after a countryside walk on Sundays seems to be a fair nominee for one of Britain’s most cherished rituals.
Most villages are utterly charming. There are several bleak industrial towns and cities, but most British villages are picturesque, complete with at least one pub, a church (often a very old one), old terraced houses, and nice walking paths crisscrossing it, often near some body of water. (If there is no body of water nearby, you are, of course, welcome to swim in your own bin).
Healthcare is a guaranteed right and it’s free at the point of service. The NHS has issues, but every experience I’ve had has been overwhelmingly positive.
British political humor is hilarious. (If you haven’t seen “The Thick of It,” watch it). Whenever the prime minister is getting elected, they have to stand, flanked by crazy people and joke candidates, so they end up with photos like this one from 2019. There was even a rivalry among novelty candidates, in this instance between Lord Buckethead and Count Binface).
There is tremendous social capital and people are, for the most part, friendly, polite, and terrified of social awkwardness. (The mathematical definition of a limit approaching, but never reaching, zero is the final morsel of cheese at a British dinner party, which subdivides endlessly, until it is approximately one micron long and one micron wide, at which point it will be thrown away).
You can travel most places in Europe in an hour or two, often for under $100 if you plan ahead. (I once took a morning Eurostar train from London to Brussels—it takes around 2 hours—gave a lunchtime talk at the European Union, had some Belgian beer and a little walk around, then returned home by 5pm).
Pubs are wonderful institutions. Enough said.
The London Tube is fantastic. It’s clean, safe, and reliable. Most of the time, it’s so reliable that waiting anything beyond two or three minutes for a train in central London is deemed an annoyance.
Most places, there are very few annoying bugs (Scotland’s midges are a notable exception). You can just leave your doors and windows open without screens.
Almost everywhere is dog-friendly: bars, restaurants, bookstores, you name it. Zorro can accompany me just about anywhere. Here’s a photo of him in a pub. (He’s always a good boy after a few pints).
A Few Lessons I’ve Learned in Britain
There are oddities, too, such as:
To turn the light on in many bathrooms, you need not find a lightswitch, but a little string hanging from the ceiling, which you pull. Nobody knows why.
To get warm in the winter, many people—yes, even in the 21st century—boil water and pour it into a red rubber bag, sometimes with a furry cover over it if you’re extra fancy. These “hot water bottles” are staples of British homes.
Tiny country lanes that would be considered sidewalks in America are supposed to accommodate two normal-sized cars going, at speed, in opposite directions, often flanked by unforgiving hedges. When you encounter another car, one of you will reverse, sometimes a great distance, often over tree roots, into a tiny little “passing place.” (Both drivers are obligated, by British social law, to wave. The punishment for failing to comply is deep personal angst for days that they might have thought you were rude, which, to many British people, is worse than death).
What an American would called a kids’ size popcorn at a movie theater (sorry, “cinema”) would be the largest size available in Britain.
The word “quite” is often used to reduce intensity in British English rather than enhance it. In America, “quite” always means “very,” whereas in Britain “quite nice” often means “sort of nice” instead of “extremely nice.” (I learned this the hard way three years into my time in the UK, when complimenting someone. I was told I had been inadvertently rude).
In Britain, “middle class” refers to well-off professionals such as doctors and lawyers, not the middle of the economic Bell curve, as in America.
You can learn much more about a person by their accent. Accents can change even in the span of a few dozen miles. (When I first moved to the UK, I once went cycling in Wales, encountered someone on the top of a big mountain climb, and couldn’t understand a word he said. I told him I didn’t speak Welsh. It turns out he was speaking English, albeit with a Welsh valley accent. I’m sure he still tells that story about the American idiot he once met). There is even a special accent associated with Eton, a school for posh boys. Whereas when I talk, I sound like a generic suburban Midwesterner and could conceivably be from an area with a 1,000-1,500 mile radius.
Now, if I’ve enticed you with these tantalizing observations, you might be eager to travel to Britain, or if you already live here, to explore more of your own country. So, I’ve put together a little UK Travel Guide, with some top tips of things that are less likely to be on the standard itinerary for a trip to this lovely, quirky little country (with photos)!
The Great British Travel Guide
The Peak District
Especially: Castleton, Eyam, Bakewell, Matlock Bath, and Edale
This is one of Britain’s hidden gems, which gets a lot less press than its more famous cousin, the Lake District. But whereas the Lake District is heaving with people during weekends and holidays, the Peak District is a bit quieter, a bit less grand, but overflowing with charm.
The mountains aren’t that big, but the hiking is spectacular, the pubs are wonderful, and the historic stone buildings give the entire place a cozy feeling. If you’re a cyclist, this is paradise. Here are a few photos I took while cycling around the Peak District.
If you can only go to one village, go to Castleton, but there are dozens that are lovely.
The Brecon Beacons / Bannau Brycheiniog
Especially: Pen y Fan, Crickhowell, and the Four Waterfalls Walk
The Brecon Beacons aren’t well-known internationally, but it’s home to sweeping mountainous terrain, and a rugged, remote feel, even though it’s only two hours from London. There are top-notch campsites, charming towns and villages (try exploring Crickhowell) and the river Usk is wonderful. If you’re keen on climbing a mountain but don’t want to have to train or get any equipment, Pen y Fan is the highest peak in South Wales, but the path to the top is extremely accessible, even to children.
Here’s Zorro at the summit, from one of the three times I’ve climbed it, as well as a photo of the “four waterfalls walk.”
The Isle of Skye
Scotland is beautiful, but I particularly like the Scottish Highlands and the isles that are peppered just off the mainland. They’re all lovely, but I found Skye particularly spectacular. If you like whiskey, there are plenty of distilleries to visit, including Talisker. But driving around the island and hiking it were the real treats. It’s mostly empty, which is rare for the densely populated UK. Pictured below are the Old Man of Storr and the Fairy Pools.
In London, aside from the obvious tourist hotspots, go to the cafe in the Sky Garden (a free way to get an extraordinary view), clamber up and down the HMS Belfast, check out the Cabinet War Rooms, make a trip to Highgate Cemetery (but definitely pay for the tour of the West Side, not just the more commonly visited East Side), walk around Regent’s Park, go to the gruesome Hunterian Museum, and mosey along the South Bank. If you’re looking for a great cocktail bar with a view, albeit an expensive one, check out the Oxo Tower.
In The Lake District, check out Grasmere (get the Grasmere Gingerbread—it’s worth the queue), go to Aira Falls, rent a little boat on Lake Windermere (it’s very affordable), check out Great Langdale and go for a hike up the Pike of Blisco that starts or ends with a pint at the Old Dungeon Ghyll Hotel. Then, cycle or drive “The Struggle” (Kirkstone Pass).
But what do I know? I’m not even a citizen yet. So, please, if you know the UK, share your tips below in the comments, so others can benefit from them too. I’ll be sure to let you all know when I’ve become a citizen and pledged my allegiance to the King.
Thank you for reading The Garden of Forking Paths—and for your generous support. Please do share this widely to help the ranks of us grow!