Archive for the 'somerset' Category

News from across the pond

No, still no hard news on if we are moving or not, only to say that as of yesterday we’ve confirmed it is still a possibility. To cut the pain of uncertainty I’ve enjoyed reading the British news lately – my favorite (no suprise here) is the very liberal Guardian.

So, since we have no news ON England, how about some cultural commentary FROM England?

Apparently it isn’t just the United States that suffers from puritanical ideals when it comes to breastfeeding.  A woman was told to leave a restaurant when she was inconspicuously breastfeeding her child because, according to the cafe owner,  “I can’t have someone breastfeeding while another table is next to them eating.”  What, you can’t have someone EATING next to other people EATING?  In that case, sir, it’s time to close your doors.

Slate has a hilarious essay up on nursery school admissions in London to which I can totally relate. Of course I was looking for schools in the lazy, hazy countryside of Somerset, which although I like to play off as a low maintenance gal, apparently I’m even more high-strung on some things than most Americans. Oy.

This explains some things about the British diet. My problem besides the lack of items on any given menu and almost complete lack of restaurants can be summed up in four words: where are the veggies? And no, potatoes do not count. I suppose I’m a veggie nut and am not typical but I’d love to have a fresh greens salad that wasn’t drowned by a mayonnaise-like substance or a meal that wasn’t primarily light brown. Before you rail on me, keep in mind, again, I was in Somerset, where things are generally much more traditional. In my experience London itself has amazingly delicious dining options which rivals any I’ve ever tasted. By the way, articles like this with references to shops, brands and other British cultural self-evident assumptions that go completely over my head is part of the reason that I feel like a fish out of water “over there”. I’m even more of a dork in England than in my own country, which says a lot.

And a little insight on why housing is so darned expensive in England. Even in Somerset.

Driving on the wrong other side of the road

While we wait for more definite news to confirm or deny our move to England, I’ll be posting some of the insights I gathered during our 2-week stay across the pond.  First up – how difficult is it to drive on the other side of the road?

First of all, don’t get all “ugly American” on me and to the UK and use the phrase “the wrong side of the road”.  The English are sensitive when foriegners come to their country and imply thtat their way of driving is “wrong”.  In fact, there are good reasons why 25% of the world drives on the left.  In feudal society, the entire world road their horses on the left.  This was to enable a swordsman to have his right arm closer to his opponent if he had to use his weapon while riding.  Yep, ancient drive-by shootings!  In France after the revolution, aristocrats began trying to blend in with the commoners by walking on the peasant’s side of the road – the right – and risk being recognized and losing their head.   And in the American British colonies, our ancestors primarily drove on the left like the mother country until we gained our independence from England and changed to right-sided driving.  Yep, the newly-formed USA had a bit of a ‘tude, even in its infancy.

And can you imagine switching 25% of the world over to the other side of the road?  How would that go exactly?  With modern-day heavy traffic being what it is, the whole ordeal would have to be synchronized to the second.  And let’s not even think of the cost of the thing – road signs, replacing interchanges, and the necessary press to get the word out.

Not to mention the idiot drivers that might not take easily to the change.  Like…errr…me, for instance.

I wasn’t worried about driving until we were at the airport and I decided it would be a good idea to take advantage of PDX’s free wi-fi to check on UK driving laws, road signs and whatnot.  Sure, I know what a yellow light means.  But a yellow light at the same time as a red?  Intimidating.

I must admit, it was a bit harder to drive on the left side than I had envisioned.  Once the novelty of getting used to the steering wheel being on the “passenger side” of the car wore off, I noticed I was white-knuckling it.  First up, just getting your car to stay in your lane is harder than it seems.  It was easy to misjudge how wide my car was, especially on the left side, because I wasn’t used to sitting on the left-hand side of the car.  My left tires slid off the road a few times until I realized that I was trying to align the car by looking at the left painted stripe on the road.  That stripe would have marked the middle of the road back home, but here it was on the outside and far away from where I was sitting.  Once switched to aligning the car by looking at the center line, which was now on my right, I was golden.

Almost.

It didn’t take too long to get used to being on the left.  Since everything was the opposite side of what I was used to (steering wheel, road signs, etc.) my mind easily flipped the entire plane of driving existance around to be the mirror image of what I was used to dealing with.  The only problem?  When my brain did this, it also managed to flip-flop my right and left.  Therefore, when the GPS navigation voice told me to take a right turn, I’d turn left.  I had to resort to my grade-school trick of looking at which hand’s thumb and forefinger made an “L” to verify which was my left hand.

HedgerowI need to mention here that roads in England are narrow.  I’m talking no-thanks-I’ll-just-have-two-diet-pills-and-a-salad-leaf-for-lunch-then-purge-later skinny.  Often, at least in Somerset, there is a hedgerow or stone wall bordering one or both sides of the road.  There is no shoulder where you could pull over – just an occasional small dip in the mud every mile or so.  On an A-road (a primary 2-lane road), lanes are so skinny that there is only about a foot or two of extra space when two cars are side-by side.  And when two cars pass each other going opposite directions, as an American not used to such close traffic, my first instinct was to break and cringe, bracing for impact. 

There are good reasons, other than gas conservation, that British cars are so tiny.

And that is the MAIN ROAD.  On side streets, most are one-lane only.  This means that if you meet another car, one of you must a) pull over to let the other pass if you are lucky enough that there is room; or b) back up until you can find a spot to pull over. 

In Nether Stowey, a charming period village (read: very narrow, one lane streets flanked by historic stone walls on each side, designed for horses and not cars), I met a lorry (truck) coming my way.  Of course, I had been driving up a steep hill where the road had curved.  Since the truck was large, it was my job to find a place to turn out to let the driver pass.  My first instinct?  To back up looking over the wrong shoulder, making it near impossible to get a decent perspective.  After failing at that, I tried to turn into a driveway.  This meneuver required a good 30-point turn and its only effect was to lodge me almost sideways in the road.  After a good 5 minutes, the poor truck driver took pity on me, easily pulling over and letting me pass.  Our side mirrors had a bit of a handshake, then I was off again.

Here are some basic tips I found useful for driving in the UK:

  • if you are an American, you can drive on your valid US driver’s license if you are 17.
  • familiarize yourself with road signs and markings before you leave by reading the Highway Code online.
  • fuel in the UK is expensive – about 87 pence a liter at present (that’s $6.45 per US gallon).  Public transportation is plentiful.  Check train, bus and tube schedules and prices.
  • don’t even bother attempting to drive in London.  There is a high tax to do so, and it is crazy scary.  Take the tube – it goes virtually everywhere.
  • on the motorway, there are usually three lanes.  The first is for going just above the speed limit.  The second is for going fast.  The third is designated reckless driver lane.  Read: 110 miles per hour or so)
  • to align your car to the center of your lane, “sight your car in” by aglining the center line of the road with your right windshield wiper’s pivot point.
  • roundabouts go clockwise in the UK – not counterclockwise as in America.
  • you do not have to stop at a roundabout unless there is traffic where you’ll be pulling out.
  • when approaching a roundabout where you’ll  be taking the first “exit”, signal left and get in the left lane.  If you won’t be taking the first exit, signal right and get in the right hand lane.
  • when in a roundabout, signal left when you are going to take your “exit”.
  • learn the art of backing before you go.
  • when on a one-lane road, pull over for oncoming traffic if there is a place to do so.  Chances are if you can then the other driver can’t.
  • look over your right shoulder to back up.
  • pay close attention to “right” and “left”.  Your brain might try and switch them on you amidst all the confusion.
  • rent the smallest car you can get away with.
  • it is a good idea to rent an automatic if at all possible.
  • rent a car with a GPS or buy a TomTom.  Roads are very curvy and your inner-compass will be off for a while.  You’ll have enough to think about and won’t want to be wrestling with a paper map.
  • before you get to the gas station, find out if your rental car is diesel or petrol.  Hint: Petrol is the green nozzle.  Just like in the US, a diesel nozzle will not fit into a petrol car.
  • you do not have to pre-pay at the gas stations in the UK.

And if you make a mistake, don’t sweat it.  English people may stare in a dignifed sort of way, but they rarely honk!  (I managed to earn a couple anyway.)

Day 7: SCHOOLS CHOSEN!!!

Yesterday I was on my own and had grand plans to visit 5-10 schools in the Taunton area (I had only seen Bridgwater schools up until that point), but the day didn’t end up cooperating with me.  It turns out that over the past day or two I had been very lucky, but at most schools you must make appointments to be able to tour the school and chat with the headmaster.  Once I had been turned away from two schools in a row, I realized I needed to go back to my hotel room and make some phone calls if I wanted to be welcomed.  So yesterday I was only able to see one school – it was a very nice school but felt crowded and a little rowdy.  Defeated, I retreated to the safety of my room and managed to work up a bit of optimism and a game plan for the next day (once phone calls were made and appointments were set, of course).

Rich had the day off today, and since our school decision was to be made at 4pm, he didn’t have much choice about the nature of his day.  All his dreams of visiting Bath had to be pushed off to tomorrow – a day of which he will be in control (if he wishes).

After a full English breakfast (cereal, fruit, bacon AND sausage, egg, toast and tomato), we set out for the day.  First up was a school in Trull – the area we drove through that was very quiet and nice, with beautiful large homes that are probably out of our budget.  The school was FABULOUS.  Two children from the oldest class were chosen to give us the school tour, and they did a wonderful job showing us around and answering our questions.  They both were incredibly polite and I really liked how the school gave students the chance to do important work like this.  The school building itself was newer and recently had been added on to.  The children were very well behaved and seemed in control at all times, yet very happy to be there.  There were even extras such as a swimming pool on site!  We had a nice long meeting with the headmaster, who was very charming and kind.  This was our new favorite school.  Sadly, they already have more students applying to get in than are going to be allowed, so our chances to get in were almost zero.

Next up we decided to swing by (without an appointment) to another Church of England school nearby at the Trull school’s headmaster’s suggestion.  Somehow I had not noted it as a school I had wanted to visit, but it was rated very highly and was in a nice part of town, and I’m not sure why I missed it.  Unfortunately they were not able to see us, as the headmaster was out for an undetermined amount of time.  But we did get a prospectus and got to peek down the hall and onto the field, and it looked like a very nice place similar to the Trull school where children were enjoying themselves and well behaved.  This school, site almost unseen, was now our number two school.

I had decided to check out a more rural school just for the fun of it in a village just north of Taunton called Kingston St. Mary.  The area suprised us – we rounded the bend and came across very nice homes and in the middle a darling little school.  I wish I had a picture for you – it is probably 30 years old but is in very good condition.  Only 100 children attend the school and is more of a family atmosphere – the headmaster not only knows each of the children’s names, but really KNOWS the children and their families.  And although it is a village school, it had all the new equipment the other in-town Church of England schools had such as a computer room and an interactive white board in each classroom.  Some of the highlights were the “friendship bench” on the playground where a child who might have no one to play with and was feeling left out could go sit, and one of the older kids (given that job that day to manage the friendship bench) would go up to the child and invite them to play with them that day.  I could give many examples of this kind of caring ethos that absolutely enveloped the entire school’s ethos.  The whole school was inviting and wonderful.  The reception teacher had been teaching for a number of years and was very knowledgable.   I waffled between this being my new favorite choice or my second favorite choice behind Trull.

Finally we had decided to check out one private school.  I should say here that private schools in England are very expensive, so we’re not even sure it’s in our price range, but we thought it would be only fair to look at one at least.  I had chosen King’s Hall Pre-Prep for several reasons, one being that its nursery and reception had been rated as outstanding by Ofstead (a very rare and high honor), one being that its nursery (equivalent to preschool in the US) is contained within the school, and one being that nursery is a montessori program (which Connor is enrolled in a part-montessori program at home).

I didn’t expect that the school would be so excellent that it would want to sway me from the state schools that I found quite good, but it just might.  There is a small fenced-off forest in the back of the school and nursery and reception classes have a few days of “outdoor education” where they learn how to use a compass, make a shelter, whittle, play in the mud, and all kinds of wonderful things.  There was a beautiful pool on the grounds.  Also there was a log cabin that functioned as the library made just for the nursery and reception class.  The teacher to student ratio was much stronger than the other schools.  Only positive reinforcement was given, unless a child made a very bad mistake and broke one of the eight “rules” – all worded positively of course such as “be honest” and “be kind” and then if it happened two times in a day they might have to lose 5 minutes of “golden time” – free-play time where the children can choose to do whatever they want.  Activities were extremely well-planned and done very much in advance.  I could go ON and ON – just like I do for Connor’s current school.  If we can afford it, this is the school home I’d like to make for him.

I’ll say here that generally I find Britain’s schools to be very good.  Teachers go a wonderful job planning lessons that really inspire and encourage the child to learn.  No dry lessons here, folks!  Whatever school Connor ends up at, I’m sure he’ll do just fine.

So, only less than an hour ago, I sent in my state school choices via email – I won’t post them here for privacy’s sake for now.  But the current line of thinking is to check the budget and perhaps enroll Connor into King’s Hall for Nursery for the remainder of this year, and then as we see how the budget goes we can easily switch him to whichever state school he gets in to next September at the beginning of the school year.

Finally the schools are chosen and it is out of our hands.  Tomorrow – a “spa day” in BATH!!!

Day 4

Today I accidently slept until 11 am or so – so although I’m getting a full night’s sleep, obviously the jet lag is still somewhat in effect.

After a shower I drove straight to the village of North Petherton – a large village right between Bridgwater (where Rich will be working) and Taunton (the largest town of Somerset).  It has a very highly rated infants’ school (ages 4-5 through 7-8) so I wanted to check it out and look at the local area especially since it would be so convenient for us.

I liked the school.  I don’t have anything to base it on seeing as it is the first one I’ve toured but I would be happy if Connor ended up here.  Although he will not be entering into full-time school for another year, I thought it was important that we check it out since chances are we’ll be here for longer than one year.

Afterwards, I went across the street to the childcare center – also highly rated – that has a preschool session.  I got the assurance that preschool is publicly funded for 3-4 year olds up to 16 hours a week.  Yippee – there goes 125 dollars from our monthly budget! (not that England isn’t expensive…)  The childcare center was a very nice place.  I really liked the school’s owner, and the ratios are very good.  However I get the feeling it is a little less structured than what Connor is used to and I have no idea if this is a British thing or just at this school.  Although it has sessions, it is also a full-time child care centre and I would prefer it be only open for preschool (or as they say, playgroup).  The school is very highly rated through Ofsted and it seems they follow themes and there was a lot of interaction with the teachers and students.  I think it is a good choice for Connor, however I need to look at a few more schools before I decide.  And who knows where a rental (letting) will be available for when we need it.

After the school tours, I went for a little walk around North Petherton.  I saw several new neighborhoods and young families, which is a huge plus for us.  The houses looked nice, and there was a big field with some playground equipment like a slide, etc. in the middle of it.  I’ve included pictures of the schools, neighborhood and park below.

My growing muffin toppers and thighs are thanking me that tonight we went to dinner somewhere else.  The Plough is a nice pub right down the road from our inn.  The proprietor was a Canadian and we were at a table full of Rich’s American workmates – all very nice people.  There was one Scottish fellow and no, I didn’t tell him his accent was “thick”.  Lots of stories were told and we had a great time.  I’m sure we’ll see a lot more of these folks in the (weeks?/months?/years?) ahead.

Playground in North Petherton

Playground in North Petherton, originally uploaded by american_mum.

This nice large field a block from the neighboorhood above and a couple of blocks from the school has play equipment in it. The sign reads, “No Dogs or Animals Allowed in Playing Field” – sorry Zoe…

House for Sale in North Petherton

House for Sale in North Petherton, originally uploaded by american_mum.

This is a typical new home – most newer homes in Somerset look almost identical to this. This particular one is across the street from the open field in the former picture.

New Neighborhood in North Petherton

New Neighborhood in North Petherton, originally uploaded by american_mum.

As you can see there is a block in the middle of the neighborhood that is open field – no playground equipment here but still it could be a nice place for a family picnic and for the kids to run around.


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