5 British Things You Can Always Count on

I’m aware that Britain is rather special, if not downright peculiar. Coupled with a weak pound, that’s an asset that may well contribute to its perennial attraction as a holiday destination. In 2016, over 37 million tourists visited Britain, some 4% more than in 2015.

Over the years, I’ve shown visiting friends from abroad some wonderful sights, and I’ve shared some enduring national traditions. These, in my view, are the top five things you can properly count on.

1 There’s always a downpour on a Bank Holiday weekend. If for some strange reason it turns out sunny, as it did last August, you can be sure we’ll talk about it for the next twenty years.

Aldeburgh just before the rains

2 There’s always a queue at a National Trust tea-shop. The National Trust is the custodian of over 350 historic buildings, along with acres of land and miles of coastline. The menu in their tea-rooms is rarely complex, and some delightful people work behind the counter. Why then is the self-service line so long that toddlers wet themselves and the elderly give up altogether long before they reach the till?

To a magnificent 17th C mansion and a working farm

3 English pubs are dying. Every year, about 900 more pubs close, though many find a new lease of life as an Indian or Chinese restaurant.

The Mill, Cambridge. Still a traditional pub, for now.

4 Snow makes everything grind to a halt. British trains and roads aren’t built to cope with anything more than three flakes of snow.

FreeImages.com/Margot H

Thanks to Margot H for the photo

5 The England football team consistently fails to impress. Yes, next year we might very well ‘go all the way’ and carry off the World Cup, but we’ve said that every four years since 1966. It would be lovely to think that Gareth Southgate is a national treasure, and that every England player is proud to step on the turf for his country. As I write, I’m watching England play Lithuania. It is apparently an artificial pitch, and the players are wooden.

FreeImages.com/Christopher Bruno

Photo courtesy of Christopher Bruno

Can you think of anything else that so reliably evokes Britain?

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When Beer is an Aid to Diagnosis

With the FA Cup semi-final, pubs attract their fair share of crowds. Today I spotted a Spurs supporter with deposits of cholesterol around his eyes, along with a physique one can only get from eating all the pies.

This spot diagnosis took me back decades to my days as a medical student at the Middlesex Hospital, when we’d try to convince ourselves that time spent in a local hostelry was equivalent to the same amount of time spent poring over textbooks.  

Three essential texts

I say ‘we’ but the pub pathology sessions were a guy thing. There were just four women in my year. Swots that we were, however, we often tagged along to make sure we didn’t miss out on anything educational.

We didn’t just think of the pub as a causal factor in disease, though it must have been in some cases. One of doctors would regularly claim that the King & Queen had given him spider naevi (small blood vessel swellings typical of liver disease).

In the interests of presenting both sides of the story, I’d like to add that Steve from my year was convinced that impurities in the beer were to blame for all the complications of excess alcohol.

“Pints of Beer” by Simon Cocks is licensed under CC BY 2.0

Anyway, someone would go, “That’s a basal cell cancer over there.”

“Where?”

“Guy at the bar. Left cheek. Don’t stare.”

“So it is.”

“Also known as rodent ulcer,” another student might offer.

“Doesn’t spread to distant organs,” said someone else at the table. “Not ever.”

“Unlike squamous cell carcinoma,” added a show-off.

“You’d never know I had PSORIASIS – SIROIL 1959” by Nesster is licensed under CC BY 2.0

A pint or two later, one of us claimed to have spotted psoriasis. All nodded sagely, even though at that stage we barely knew the difference between psoriasis, cirrhosis, and sclerosis.

It was like winning the jackpot when a man with a stomping gait entered the pub one winter evening. This type of gait occurs in late syphilis, when foot position sense is lost, so the person bangs the foot down hard at each step. Although it’s possible that the man was just been getting the snow off his boots.

I like to think that the fictional GP Geoff from my novels will have once given pub pathology a whirl. On the whole, however, education has moved on. Sitting in the pub is not a learning method I’d recommend to my current medical students. For one thing, misdiagnosis is common. For another, it’s rude to stare.

Though sometimes it’s impossible not to. In one saloon bar, there was a man with a massive swelling down there.  So ginormous did it grow that he needed a wheeled trolley to help him (and it) get around. He finally did seek expert advice, but, it was said, only when one of the wheels fell off the trolley and needed to be replaced.

One keen student was desperate for the chance to shout, “Let me through – I’m a medical student,” but we never witnessed a medical emergency. Lucky, really, as our life support skills at the time would have done nobody any favours.

We never saw anything as dramatic as the stripper and the snake, though we all heard about it, naturally. This particular lady had a snake as part of her act, until the night her sidekick decided to hug her neck a tad too tightly. She was rushed to A & E wearing little more than a sizeable reptile, where an anaesthetist injected the snake with muscle relaxant and saved her life.

Photo FreeImages.com/Marcel Herber

As I say, we all heard about it. But we missed it. We were in the pub instead.

***

GP Geoff and other characters can be found in my novel Hampstead Fever.

You may also enjoy these posts:

What They Don’t Teach at Medical School

What Happens When You Become a Doctor

Hampstead Fever

How Romantic Can August Bank Holiday Get?

The August Bank Holiday weekend is at its best when (a) it doesn’t rain and (b) you get propositioned. Three years ago, I spent a sunny day at the seaside with an old friend I hadn’t seen in a while. We were outside the Red Lion Hotel in Cromer when I rashly asked what he’d like to do next.

Red lion by Matthew Strickland

“If I tell you, you’ll slap me,” came his response.

Reader, I married him. And this Bank Holiday weekend we returned to East Anglia and the sand and the sea to revisit that day.

It was very romantic and very English.  Now I will share some of the very Englishness of the Bank Holiday with you, starting with Cromer pier

Cromier Pier, Norfolk

What’s a pier without a proper end-of-the-pier show?

Cromer end of the pier show

It starts at 4pm on Saturdays, instead of the traditional time of 2.30pm, according to two disgruntled pier show veterans who told me over their limp sandwiches how the change in schedule had spoilt their day.

Fish and chips are staple fare. Belly not bursting yet? The No 1 fish and chip shop also sells ice cream.  

No 1 Fish and Chips, Cromer

Windbreaks are de rigueur. Somewhere not far away, there’s usually a man with a knotted hankie protecting his bald pate. 

windbreak

Very few UK towns or villages have no war memorial.  This one’s in Burnham Market.

War Memorial, Burnham Market, Norfolk

A select few sport decorative village signs. There are more of these in Norfolk than in any other county, but Suffolk comes a close second.

Freckenham, Suffolk

Some have pink-washed houses (the colour’s less pretty when you realise it’s from pig’s blood). 

pink washed house, Swaffham Prior

And pubs complete with ornamental signs and wonky walls. 

Red Lion pub, Swaffham Prior

We caught a traction engine idling outside this one. 

The White Swan, Stow cum Quy

Sunset in late August comes all too soon, so it was time for one last bit of Englishness.  

chicken tikka masala, Saffron Brasserie, Cambridge

I know. Chicken tikka masala was probably invented in Glasgow. It may no longer be the UK’s favourite dish, but it’s the perfect end to a nostalgic day. 

***

PS You might enjoy more quintessential Britishness on the Romaniacs blog.

Easy tweet: How English can a Bank Holiday get? http://wp.me/p3uiuG-13S a romantic look back with @DrCarolCooper 

Eight Things I Got out of a Trip to Cornwall

How I missed you, Cornwall!

It had been a while since we’d had a proper pasty, sampled Cornish Rattler, clambered over slate cliffs, and stumbled over discarded surfboards on Polzeath beach.  A refresher course was long overdue.

The lessons began before we got there.

1 Don’t take the road past Stonehenge.

Stonehenge sign

By the time you spot this warning sign, it will be too late, because you’ll be stuck on the A303, which has been a single carriageway at Stonehenge since time immemorial, just as the Druids left it. In front of us was a Bedford van spray-painted with hippy daisies and fuelled only by flower power. The guys in the back of the van gave us cheery peace signs as they sat cross-legged in air-conditioned comfort (aka holding hand fans).  We were lucky. Behind us was a broken down Austin Maxi, complete with a couple in 80s style dress trying to get it going again.

As we inched along, we had ample time to speculate on what a henge is, and why, according to popular culture, you get a different number every time you try to count the stones. It may depend on what you’re smoking at the time.

"Stonehenge back wide" by Frédéric Vincent - Own work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons - https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Stonehenge_back_wide.jpg#/media/File:Stonehenge_back_wide.jpg

2 You always forget something, no matter how carefully you pack.

On one trip, we’d omitted to pack bookends, much to the distress of my eldest son, then 7 years old, who found he had nothing to hold up the extensive collection of Usborne books he had brought. 

This time it was toothpaste, an oversight easily remedied by visiting the Spar shop in Boscastle, where we also chatted to the locals and their dogs. After that, we had some of the local falling-down juice. And left the toothpaste in the pub.

3 It’s always rainier and windier than you remember.

Wind turbines, photo by Martin Boose

The number of wind farms had doubled since my last visit, and the rainfall had gone through the roof. Quite literally, in the case of the Boscastle flood of 2004. On August 16, 440million gallons of water swept through the town, flooding nearly 60 properties and destroying several of them.

This is Boscastle now, which shows how well it has recovered.

Boscastle Harbour from the bridge

4 There are huge numbers of saints.

Like Saints Hydrock, Petroc, Enodoc, Buryan, and of course Austell and Ives. Some of them are exclusively Cornish, while others arrived via other parts of British Isles. There are even more here.

As you might expect, there are also many churches, most of them small, beautiful, and well worth a visit.

5 Don’t wear flip-flops on cliff walks. 

Slate is slippery when wet. On a windy coastal walk you might want to invoke one or two of those saints I mentioned.

photo by Jeremy Grundy

6 Cornwall is the most haunted part of Britain.

There are said to be haunted jails, streets, castles, even hotels

I didn’t see any ghosts in Jamaica Inn myself, or a single smuggler, just tourists enjoying a hearty Sunday roast. We did however stay in one of the haunted hotels. While I am personally highly sceptical, I can report an unearthly noise outside our door early in the morning, around about the time the staff delivered our newspaper. What are the odds, eh?

7 Take lots of coins, because any place by the sea requires money for parking.

And places away from the sea often come with a sign like this.

cheap camping sign

As thriving as tourism appears to be, further inland towns like Bodmin have hit the buffers. Industry has gone and the heart seems to have left these communities, at least judging from the dilapidated houses and bored teenagers hanging around. Sad sights, and I don’t know what the answer is.

8 All the same, some of the most beautiful places are inland.

bridge in Cornish village

No, I’m not giving away the location of this village. All I’m saying is that it’s not by the A303.