If you stay at a bed and breakfast (or guest house, inn, or hotel) in Britain, the first question your hosts will likely ask in the morning is: “Will it be the Full English?” Full English? What could that even mean?!
What it means is history, tradition, and…lots of protein.
As far back as the 14th century and into the pre-war 20th century, if you were landed gentry with the usual baronial “country house”, you were expected to provide your weekend guests with a sumptuous breakfast—especially if there was a fox hunt to follow. This might include a groaning sideboard laden with sliced cold roast beef, lamb, ham, tongue, cheeses, squab, pheasant, fish, kippered (smoked) herring, and more. And, of course, tea (there is no mention of vegetables).
Then came the Industrial Revolution, and to keep one going through those long factory hours, the “full English Breakfast” evolved. Unlike that precious (and miserly) “Continental breakfast” (bread, butter, maybe a dry pastry, jam, coffee) the full English remains a hearty mainstay—to such an extent that there are cafes across the land that offer it all day.
The “full English” is, simply put, a protein bomb. You may begin with juice and a choice of cereals, but the main event is the hot breakfast: invariably two fried eggs, fried sausage, back bacon, fried halved tomato and cubed mushrooms, fried bread and, in rare cases, a slice of fried black pudding (don’t ask). Also toast, marmalade, and tea. For obvious reasons, this is known as “a proper fry up.” Somewhere along the way, baked beans appeared. I’m not sure why, but they may have been a cheap source of protein during WWII. The beans persist today. And the brand is always Heinz. Nothing else will do, apparently. Tradition, you see.
If you’re a vegetarian, I can understand that this might not appeal. But let me tell you, it is sustaining. Some years ago, I put a pack on my back and walked roughly 1,400 miles through much of southern England. It took three and a half wonderful months. When I wasn’t camping in some farmer’s field, I stayed at B&Bs (one does need a shower and shave occasionally). And I had, always, the “full English.” I might stop at a pub at midday for a pint or two and a bag of salted crisps (potato chips), but that protein bomb kept me fueled all day.
In the evening, I’d repair to a good local pub for supper. These days, pub food has gone gourmet. At least in my beloved Cornwall, there are “gastropubs” everywhere. The menus can be sophisticated and surprising, with the freshest local ingredients.
But I know myself and, after a long day’s hike, I’ll probably tuck into a pub mainstay: “bangers and mash” (grilled local sausage, buttery mashed potatoes, caramelized onions, fresh peas). And a couple of pints of Doom Bar, St. Austell’s Tribute, Skinner’s Betty Stogs, or whatever other local ale is on tap.
Tradition, you see.
Not too many years ago, you could wander into any British town or village—or any rural area, for that matter—and be assured of finding homey and affordable accommodation in a spare bedroom in someone’s home. For centuries, of course, there were inns with rooms upstairs, but the authentic British B&B emerged especially after World War II. We tend to forget just how broken the British economy was after the war. Even in the late 1960s, when I lived there, it was a rare family that had more than one car and shop shelves were often only sparingly stocked.
In those days, if you were an empty nest couple or a war widow, renting out a spare bedroom (typically with a shared bathroom) was a brilliant way to help make ends meet. And the “full English” breakfast served in some warm kitchen or sitting room could sustain a traveler all day (see earlier blog). As recently as ten years ago, when I took a three and a half month walk through southern England, I seldom had any trouble finding a place to spend the night. There would be a sign in a cottage window or on a post out along the roadside inviting visitors. My favorite was farmhouse B&Bs, which somehow always felt especially welcoming. To this day, I remain friends with some of those hosts.
But I began to see change coming in the 1970s and early 1980s. The British Tourist Authority established a rating system for lodgings of all kinds, from simple B&Bs to posh country house hotels, and added a host of mandatory safety standards. Comfort and reliability increased, but the cost of meeting these standards (installing fire doors, etc.) put a lot Mum and Pop B&Bs out of business. The supply shrank and prices rose. Then, when the London financial boom hit in the first years of the new millennium, wealthy Londoners snapped up every available countryside cottage and disused barn to convert into weekend and holiday getaways. Skyrocketing real estate values pushed a lot of older folks out of their villages.
Today, there’s both bad news and good news. The bad news is that the supply of B&Bs has shrunk further. The good news is that what B&Bs remain are much more luxurious than the old days (with prices to match). There’s one other advantage: thanks to the Internet (and AirBnB and VRBOs), you no longer have to worry about finding a vacancy in some beauty spot (like my Cornwall) at the end of a day of wandering; you can book ahead and be reassured.
But you know, I miss the adventurous hit-or-miss days when you could just stumble on a lovely room and meet wonderful people. Here’s an example from that same long walk a few years ago: I was in Somerset and after a long day of walking I arrived late in a tiny village and asked if there was a place to stay. I was directed to a farm some distance from the village that did B&B. But when I got there the lovely hostess told me a wedding party had booked her rooms and she had no vacancies. I was worn out and started walking back toward the village before an idea occurred to me. I turned around and went back and when the surprised hostess opened the door to me again, I grinned and said, “Look, I have a tent in my pack and you have a field. I’m tired and desperate for a shower. Let’s do tent-and-breakfast tonight.” She burst out laughing. “You must be an American to be so bold, but sure! Set yourself up and come in for a bath and tea.”
I stayed the next night, too, but in a lovely room. At breakfast, her guests asked me how far I’d come. “From Heathrow Airport,” I said, and their jaws dropped. I’d been walking for more than a month.
My Davis & West mystery series is set in Cornwall, England. A fingertip shaped county at the far southwest of England, it’s not on the way to anywhere (except America) and has only grudgingly acceded to British rule over the centuries (they still have their own flag—a piratical white cross on a black background). It’s a dramatic landscape—storm-whipped on the Atlantic edge, pastoral on the English Channel side. Bronze and Iron Age stone monuments are thick upon the ground. It is an ancient place, full of legend.
Also, great food: pasture-raised beef, lamb, and pork and, because the climate is mild (for Britain), a year-long range of fresh vegetables and fruits. Several of London’s most famous chefs have restaurants in Cornwall. Ah, but the finest Cornish delicacy (and the best lunch on earth) is the Cornish Pasty (not to be confused with the skimpy bits of an exotic dancer’s “costume”).
The pasty has a long and storied history. But first, the recipe itself: a pasty is a folded crescent of short butter crust in which are nestled chunks of skirt steak, potato, onion, salt and pepper, a bit of flour and butter (to create a thick gravy), and “Swede,” or what Americans call rutabaga. Its curved edge is crimped, almost braided, and the whole is brushed with an egg wash and then baked. The golden result is a stunningly savory handful of perfection (to be accompanied, of course by a pint of local Cornish ale. Or two)!
Pasties are first mentioned in the 13th century, but it wasn’t until the 17th century that they became synonymous with Cornwall…and tin mining. The Atlantic coast of Cornwall was the world’s center of the tin (and later copper) mining industry. Vertical shafts were dug deep into the cliffs and drifts (tunnels) often reached a mile out under the ocean floor, often at several levels or tiers.
Pasties were the miners’ lunch deep underground. Their wives baked them, often incising their initials in the crust. They stayed warm in their flaky blanket for hours and some wives would put jam at one end as a sweet. The crimped crust wasn’t just decorative; it was a safety measure: the miners’ hands were often covered with arsenic dust, so they held the pasty by the edge and discarded the last bit.
Now, how do you find the quintessential Cornish pasty? My recommendation, if you’re there, is to ask around. There are pasty shops in any town in Cornwall, but the best are usually family-run bakeries. There is also a chain, called Warrens, which makes downright respectable pasties. If you want to make them at home (it’s not complicated) there are recipes on the Internet.
By the way, pasties are not for dieters. For that matter, neither is the ale…
At the dawn of the Industrial Revolution, from the mid-1700s to the mid-1800s, it occurred to some folks in England that horse-drawn carts were not a particularly efficient way to move raw materials across country or finished goods to market. Their solution? Canals and horse-drawn barges. Thousands of miles of canals were dug by investors and industrialists linking existing waterways with industrializing cities.
But the craze, while profitable, was short-lived. The advent of railways (an even bigger craze) rendered the canals increasingly obsolete and many fell into disrepair. Then, after the Second World War, a light bulb came on at the British Waterways Authority and it flashed: Recreation! Economic revitalization! Canals throughout central England were renovated, boatyards flourished, canalside pubs were reborn, and a new generation of steel-hulled “narrowboats” were launched (narrow because the canals and their locks were never widened).
Think of today’s narrowboats, available for weeklong rentals, as sixty foot-plus stretched out floating luxury RVs, complete with fitted-out living area, fully-equipped kitchen, bedrooms, central heating, bathroom with shower, fuel, water, household items, and more (like wi-fi and TV). With a small diesel engine in the stern and a rear tiller by which to steer, they serve as transportation, accommodation, recreation, restaurant, and home as you meander through some of the most pastoral countryside in Europe.
It’s best to hire these boats with close friends (you will be close!), in part because opening, closing, and filling the locks that carry your canal over hill and dale are manual, but fun. There are charming villages to visit along the way, lots of waterside wildlife, sheep and cows, and some stunning engineering marvels as well: tunnels through mountains, aqueducts over gorges, cuts across hillsides, and more. I’ve navigated several lovely circular routes, but my favorite is the Llangollen Canal which takes you deep into the mountains of North Wales along a route studded with “van Gogh” lift bridges, long dark tunnels, and the amazing Pontcysyllte Aqueduct, soaring a few hundred feet above a narrow gorge—breathtaking in more ways than one.
But here’s the thing: you won’t go fast and you won’t go far. To protect against bank erosion, you cruise at only four miles per hour, and you can only go one-way, as places to turn (“winding holes”) are few and far between. In a week, though, you can cover a fair swath of central England. Stress, hurry, and worry are pointless. You just let the countryside slip by and the only decision you have to make is when to break out the gin and tonics in the afternoon, what imaginative repast to whip up in the kitchen for dinner, and where to tie up for the night. And at dawn, with birdsong and the morning mist rising from the water, you’re off again, adventure just around the next bend.
Crazy hours at work? Trapped at home in the pandemic nightmare? This is the ideal mental health break. Britain is opening again and there are narrowboat hire companies on dozens of canals on the Internet.
Slow down. Breathe.
England and America: two countries separated by a common language.
As you might expect, given that my mystery series is set in Cornwall, England, I have a wonderful group of fans in the UK. They are loyal, but not uncritical, thank goodness (I love critiques!).
They have a common “beef”: Americanisms. That is, words in American English which are different in the U.K. It is a fair criticism, but one that is diabolically difficult for American writers to resolve. Many years ago, I published a popular three-book series called The Best of Britain’s Countryside: A Driving and Walking Itinerary. Amazingly, the books are still available (used) via Amazon and are still getting great reviews. But I always included a glossary of American/British translations, if only to help American visitors avoid embarrassment—because, let me tell you, confusion and misunderstandings are common between two people claiming to be speaking the same language (personal experience below).
Here are just a few befuddling examples:
There is no end to them. It’s astonishing we can even converse! The meeting of the G7 nations was just held in Cornwall. The foreign leaders had translators. Did Biden and Johnson have one too?
I have spoken to other American authors of British mysteries and we seem to have all arrived at a common solution: If a British character is speaking, we use British words and spellings. In descriptive narrative (since most of our readers are Americans) we tend to use American terms. This system manages to make everyone unhappy, equally.
But there are times when the language gap can be humiliating, as I learned when I took a job in London, my first trip to England. I admired the snappy leather suspenders some of the men used to hold up their trousers and resolved to purchase a pair. I marched over to the men’s department at Selfridges, on Oxford Street, and asked a dapper salesman to see their suspenders. He blinked, just once, and directed me to women’s lingerie, which is where I learned that “suspenders” in British English are ladies’ garter belts.
You can’t be too careful.
Write something about yourself. No need to be fancy, just an overview.