My personal British bucket list




Regular readers will know that, as the referendum on Scottish independence in September draws near, Blood and Porridge is leaning towards a yes-to-independence vote.  (This is largely due to a succession of great – I use that adjective ironically – political minds from the Conservative, Labour and Liberal Democrat parties urging Scots to vote no-to-independence.  If creeps, windbags and knuckle-draggers like George Osborne, George Robertson and Ian Davidson tell you to do one thing, it’s surely sensible to do the opposite.)  However, there’s still a part of my identity that considers itself ‘British’.  And if that sounds like a contradiction, I would direct you to an article that a while ago Edinburgh author Irvine Welsh wrote about this subject for the website Bella Caledonia:


In his article, Welsh argues that Scottish independence would allow the Scots to get on with running their country free from the hindrances and injustices (real or imagined) that they see as emanating from Westminster under the current system.  They could also get on with being happy geographical citizens of Britain, or the British Isles, or the British and Irish Isles, and with being good neighbours to the peoples who share the island, or islands, with them.  It’s similar, Welsh says, to how you can be Swedish, Danish or Norwegian and still be a proud Scandinavian and participate in the Nordic Council.  (In fact, there’s a body called the British-Irish Council, which has summits twice a year and has a membership comprised of British Prime Minister, the Republic of Ireland’s Taoiseach, the First Ministers of the devolved parliaments in Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales, and the Chief Ministers of the Guernsey, Jersey and Isle of Man governments – but as the council exists outside the ‘Westminster Bubble’, it’s entirely ignored by the London-centric British media.)  Welsh even sees no reason why an independent Scotland shouldn’t continue to have Scottish athletes competing within the British team at the Olympics.


Anyway, the British part of me was interested to see in a newspaper last weekend an article about a ‘Great British bucket list’ – i.e. a list of fifty British-related activities that everyone should attempt to do before they die.  The list was compiled by the search engine Ask Jeeves and it consisted of the fifty most common ideas that came up in a survey of 1000 British adults:


I have to say, though, that I was disappointed when I read through the Great British bucket list.  Some of the British things-to-do-before-you-die seemed depressingly lame: “Eat fish and chips on a seaside pier…  Go on a historic London pub tour…  Watch a box-set of Only Fools and Horses.”  Some other things seemed to involve cheesy tourist-tat Britain at its worst: “Attend first day of a Harrods sale…  See Oxford Street Christmas lights in London…  See the trooping of the colour.”  At least one thing was not such much a thing-to-do-before-you-die as a thing-to-do-to-make-yourself-die: “Be at a recording of The X-Factor or Britain’s Got Talent.”  However, it at least gave me the idea of compiling my own bucket-list of things to do before you die, based on my experiences of England, Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales.


Here, then, are thirty (I couldn’t think of fifty) things I would urge you to do, while you still draw breath, in the four nations that – currently – make up the United Kingdom.  As this is my list, the activities are heavily biased towards walking, cycling and pub-crawling.  Also, I’m afraid I don’t know Wales and parts of Northern and Midland England very well, so those places are under-represented or not represented at all – my apologies to any Welsh people, Northern people and Midland people out there.


(c) BBC


Pay a visit to one of the UK’s cosy little arthouse cinemas – for example, Cinema City in Norwich, or the Tyneside in Newcastle-upon-Tyne, or the Cameo in Edinburgh – and watch a film you wouldn’t normally see in a multiplex.  Have a pint while you’re on the premises too.


Visit the scenic island of Barra in the south-western Outer Hebrides and go for a walk along its main road.  Keep walking along that road and you’ll eventually end up where you started from.  If you fly in, you’ll land on the only airport runway in the world that gets washed every day – for it’s actually a beach called An Traigh Mhor.


Attend a Borders sevens-a-side rugby tournament.  Melrose Sevens is the most famous one but any of them is worth attending.  I’ll use that as an excuse to plug this year’s Peebles Sevens on April 27th:


Attend a gig at Brixton Academy – preferably a drunken, raucous one.  Primal Scream are always a good bet.


After an evening out in Glasgow, eat a chicken tikka masala – the UK’s favourite spicy dish – at an Indian curry house.  Chicken tikka masala, as any good pub-bore will tell you, was quite possibly not invented in India at all, but in the Shish Mahal restaurant in Gibson Street in Glasgow.




Pay a visit to the Chinese New Year festivities at one of the country’s several Chinatowns, which range in area from the reasonably big (in London) to the tiny (in Newcastle).


Take a stroll through Constable Country along the Essex / Suffolk border, taking in such places as Capel St Mary, Dedham and Flatford.


Go for a tramp around Dartmoor – and keep tramping until you encounter some wild Dartmoor ponies.


Don some black clothes and swig a pint of cider in the Devonshire Arms (alright, I know it’s now called the Hobgoblin, but to everyone who goes there it’s still the Devonshire, or more popularly still, the Dev), the greatest Goth-metal pub in Camden, in London and possibly in the UK.


Enjoy a pub-crawl among the countless temporary bars that spring up in and around the venues for the Edinburgh Festival and then disappear again after enjoying a mayfly-like existence of a couple of weeks.  You can, of course, attend a few shows while you’re at it.  You can even, if you’re feeling ironic and post-modern, attend the Edinburgh Military Tattoo as well.


Hike up the Eildon Hills, the trio of peaks that provide the Scottish Borders with their most famous landmark.  Watch out for the Eildon Tree, where medieval bard and seer Thomas the Rhymer is said to have encountered the Queen of Fairyland and acquired his powers of prophecy.  And don’t forget to visit Melrose Abbey, either before you go up or after you come down.


Set aside any prejudices you might have about Freemasonry and visit the Freemasons’ Museum in London – preferably while a tour of the premises is taking place, so that you get a chance to view the design and symbolism of the most remarkable Art Deco building in London.


Drink a pint outside Newcastle’s Free Trade pub, located on a rise above where the River Ouseburn joins the River Tyne.  The elevation allows you to look up the Tyne and over Newcastle’s famous bridges, and it’s one of the best views in northern England.


Take a picture of yourself draped over one of the volcanic slabs at Giant’s Causeway in County Antrim, like one of those worryingly young and worryingly naked models pictured on the cover of the Led Zeppelin album, Houses of the Holy.


(c) Atlantic Records


Drive through Glencoe in the Scottish Highlands on a misty day.  Keep your eyes open for the Skyfall Estate, the home of James Bond’s parents, which might just appear through the murk.


Play a round of golf at St Andrews.  If you’re an inverted snob, you can thumb your nose at the town’s Royal and Ancient Golf Club and play mini-golf instead.  (That’s what I did.)


Take a stroll along the top of one of the remaining sections of Hadrian’s Wall.


Ride a bicycle along the A686 east of Penrith, up the Hartside Pass to a height of 1904 feet.  It’s gruelling but you’ll feel a sense of achievement when you reach the top.  Then you can luxuriate in the gradual descent on the other side, all the way to Alston, the highest market town in England.


Follow in George Orwell’s footsteps and go hoppicking in Kent.  Although nowadays it might all be mechanised and you can’t go hop-picking in Kent.


Visit that wonderful little museum in London, John Soanes’ House, and make sure you’re in the picture gallery at a time when an attendant pulls back the hinged walls and reveals a hidden cache of paintings by William Hogarth.


Go to Land’s End in the middle of winter, when it’s rainy, windy and desolate and there’s nobody else there.


Go perch-fishing on Lough Erne in County Fermanagh, Northern Ireland.


Have a look around Aberdeen’s Marischal College, the second-largest granite building in the world.  It was rumoured that Adolf Hitler admired it more than any other British building and planned to move into it once he’d invaded and conquered the UK.  But that was just an urban myth started by some naughty Aberdeen University students.


Connect with your inner socialist and attend the yearly Miners’ Gala in Durham.


Visit Nottingham’s Newstead Abbey, which was the home of the young Lord Byron, Britain’s greatest romantic poet.  It even has a dress-up-as-Byron corner where you can don a big baggy white shirt and then inspect yourself in a mirror to make sure you look suitably Byronic.



Taking a walk along the North Norfolk coast – preferably along a route that takes in the eerily desolate salt marshes west of Wells-next-the-Sea.


Have a wander around Roslyn Chapel, south of Edinburgh, and see how many pagan green men you can count carved on its walls.


Admire the streetmurals in Belfast, surely the UK’s largest (and most contentious) open-air art gallery (


Get on the Metro in Newcastle-upon-Tyne on a Saturday morning and nip along to Tynemouth Station, where you can check out the antiques, crafts and curios market that every week is arranged across the platforms there.


Take a trek along the top of the historic York City Wall, the biggest defensive wall still standing around the centre of a British city or town.  And feel free to drop in on any pubs you see along the way.


Barcelona, by George


Last week I was in Barcelona for a short holiday.  On April 23rd, two days after my arrival there, the citizens celebrated St George’s Day.  Now I’d known the dragon-slaying saint was held in high esteem in quite a few places – he’s the patron of England, obviously, and he’s also much admired in Ethiopia, where I’d lived from 1999 to 2001.  I hadn’t known, however, that the Catalans think a lot of him too – Sant Jordi, they call him.  In fact, last week, I saw them make a big deal of his day.



St George cakes and chocolates were on sale in shops and at street-stalls, as were Disney-fied toy dragons.  Playing up the romantic side of his legend, in which he slays the dragon to save a princess — which makes the story seem like a retelling of the Greek myth of Perseus and Andromeda — April 23rd has also been turned into a Catalonian equivalent of St Valentine’s Day.  Roses were on sale everywhere, and in the evening I scarcely saw one lady heading homewards through the streets or on the subway who didn’t have a St George’s Day rose in her hand.



The other gimmick used in Barcelona to market St George’s Day is… books!  Yes, every street corner and stretch of pavement above a subway exit seemed to have a stall piled high with good, solid, traditional volumes of reading matter.  There wasn’t an e-reader in sight.  This is because, I was told, April 23rd is also the day that both William Shakespeare and Miguel de Cervantes passed away — although when I Googled Cervantes later, I learned that he’d actually died on April 22nd.



All this is in contrast with England, where every year around this time the newspapers have a right old moan about the English not doing enough to celebrate their patron saint – and by extension, their own Englishness.  After all, the Irish have profitably turned St Patrick’s Day into one of the biggest hooleys in the world’s calendar.  And while the Scots and the Welsh make less of St Andrew and St David, they at least – thanks, perhaps, to devolution – have a greater sense of their own identity nowadays.


The English media also sees an annual debate about how they should celebrate St George’s Day.  Should they play a little cricket?  No, that’d be boring, surely.  Should they indulge in some Morris dancing?  No, that’d be way too embarrassing.  Meanwhile, liberals voice their suspicions that making more of St George’s Day would encourage nasty groups on the far right to crawl out of the woodwork.  After all, the St George’s cross has often been visible at gatherings by the likes of the English Defence League, British National Party and National Front, and there’s even a neo-fascist organisation on the go called the League of St George.


Well, the Catalans provide two examples of how St George’s Day can be peacefully celebrated, in a romantic manner with roses and in an intellectually stimulating manner with books.  Mind you, in this era of Catalonian nationalism, when speculation is rife that Catalonia might soon secede from Spain, I suspect they use St George too to differentiate themselves culturally from the Castilian Spaniards.


Incidentally, during my week in Barcelona, I think the only time I saw a Spanish flag was when I was in the Place Sant Jaume.  Compare that with Edinburgh, where the most prominent flag in the Scottish capital is the Union Jack flying high above the ramparts of Edinburgh Castle – a none-too-subtle reminder for the Scots that the real power still resides in London.  Cheekily, someone used St George’s Day in Barcelona to hang this banner on the façade of the Banco Espanol de Credito building at Plaza de Catalunya:



Regarding the English far-right’s fixation with St George, when I lived in Ethiopia I found it ironic that the saint’s image could be seen nearly everywhere – and often he was depicted slaying that pesky dragon.  This being Ethiopia, though, St George was black.  And why shouldn’t he be?




Finally, it was a pity that the enthusiasm expressed in Barcelona for St George, or Sant Jordi, didn’t inspire the local football team to give a better account of themselves that day.  April 23rd saw Barcelona FC get gubbed in the Champions League, 4-0 by Bayern Munich.