“How did you meet this British elderly couple?” Olivia asked.
“They looked lost. Then we talked. Then I invited them to our apartment in China. And now we are going to their house in the UK.” Annie replied nonchalantly.
We felt like we were living in a fairy tale that went like this: a boy saw a rabbit caught in a trap. The boy freed the rabbit. The next day, the rabbit returned as a princess and gifted a chest of gold.
Traveling in the UK taught us about kindness in return. For us, instead of a princess and a chest of gold, we were surprised with lifelong friends and homes to stay in a foreign land!
Going to the UK originally felt like a consolidation prize. Pre-COVID, we would have been traveling in South Africa, Namibia, Botswana, and Zambia adventuring on a wild safari, celebrating birthdays in the sand dunes, and soaking in the Victoria Fall. Instead, we flew to the UK at the last moment as a stepping stone to allow us to travel in Europe as it is one of the few countries that are willing to take in passengers flying from outside of Europe. It was a difficult decision because the UK was just starting to experience a second outbreak of COVID cases.
Little did we know, God was preparing“rooms” for us and waiting to pour blessings upon our family.
Blessings in Bath, England
Our first stop in the UK was the historical and tourist town of Bath.
My cousin lives there in a rented house just right for her family of five. Although it was a last-minute notice, her family just left for vacation to France and God prepared her empty home to house the five of us instead. My cousin kept saying it is a small place just enough for five persons, but when we arrived we were jumping for joy to have a place with 3 bedrooms, a large kitchen, a living room, and a backyard. It was such a contrast from the 25 square meter apartment that we stayed in Hong Kong for 20 days.
Her neighbors welcomed us like family, answered our questions, and suggested places to buy groceries, hike, and rent bikes and canoes. Like all good Chinese, our first tourist stop is to check out the Lidl Supermarket, the highlight of our cultural experience. We were ecstatic to find that pork is one of the cheapest meat, in contrast to China where pork prices have tripled due to the swine flu.
“I miss the taste of pork!” Enli savored imagining how it would taste like.
We also bought chicken pie, sausages, bread, scones, and other “British” food. We work together by finding our favorite items. For Enli, it is beer and cider. For Annie it is cheese. For Olivia, it is pasta. For Joani, it is chocolates and chips. For me, it is meat.
Buying groceries brings such good memories for our family that during Enli and my one-on-one date, we decided to have it in a supermarket. For 5 pounds, which was our budget, we were able to enjoy a big lunch with bagels, cheese, salami, lettuce, apple juice, chips, and tartar sauce.
For 5 days, we relaxed and enjoyed the surroundings. We played Spikeball in the backyard. We hiked the Kelton Hill and biked along the canal full of narrowboats. Olivia, Joani, and I had fun finding six geocaches which brought us to a crime scene and also to witness a narrowboat passing through the river locks. Annie was really excited to visit the nearby town Cheddar where the Cheddar cheese originated. I was more excited to hike the Cheddar Gorge where Cheddar used to be aged in its caves.
Blessings in Snowdonia National Park, Wales
Enli has a friend in Northern Wales whom he wanted to pass on a gift. So on our way to north England, we decided to camp at the famous Snowdonia National Park and at the same time spend a day with his Welch friend and his mother.
Originally, I was debating whether to spend our time hiking to the summit of Snowdonia Mountain or to spend time with Enli’s friend. After praying with Annie, we felt both at peace that God wanted us to spend it with people.
It turned out to be such a blessing.
Although it rained that morning, when Enli friend arrived, the sun broke through. They brought us to their favorite hike up the forest to a long narrow lake where the mother was inspired to draw several paintings. We would not have found this beautiful hike without their guide. Halfway up overlooking the town Betws-y-coed, we enjoyed all sorts of delicious local food that the mother had prepared the day before. We got to know a lot about the language Welch and the history surrounding King Arthur who came from Wales.
“You came all the way to see us. We are glad that we can share these gifts and our favorite hike,” the mother blessed us.
When we got back to our campsite, we played Spikeball. A 12-year old girl next to our tent was shy but curious so we befriended her to play with us and Joani patiently taught her how to play. Then we also befriended her father. That night while we were watching a movie, we were startled by a loud voice outside speaking to us.
“What are you doing?” A man asked. “You need to come out.”
We thought we were being scolded for being too loud. So I came out of our tent. To my surprised, it was the father of the girl we befriended.
“You should be watching the stars! We came all the way here to camp because this time of the year is when all the shooting stars appear,” the father shared excitedly.
Indeed, we didn’t realize how clear and numerous are the stars above. It reminded us of our stargazing tour in the desert of northern Chile. If the father didn’t call us out, we would have missed this beautiful night sky. A blessing that came out of the kindness in return!
Driving up to Snowdonia was where we found our favorite place in the UK, the Morrison Supermarket Cafe. It has all sorts of British meals that we have been eyeing but at a very affordable price. On top of that, a blessing of COVID is that for the month of August, which is exactly when we are in the UK, the government pays half of your restaurant bill from Monday to Wednesday! It is called “Eat out to Help Out”. We couldn’t believe it. We ordered full entrees of fish & chip, Chicken Tikka, and lasagna for a total of only 7 pounds because the government blessed us with the other 7 pounds! Eating at Morison became our favorite stop as we drove around the UK.
Blessings at the Hadrian’s Wall
“This is my dream house!” Olivia yelled out with extreme joy as she laughed on the floor of the loft. “Dad, can you buy me one like this?”
“No, this is my dream house,” Joani contested. “This is literally a million-dollar view. I can sit here and not go out of the house for the entire quarantine. I couldn’t think of a better house that we had stayed anywhere in the world.”
Joy, laughter, and surprise were bursting out of the loft room. Five of us all stood there with our mouth wide open and unbelievable looks. In front of us is a full glass wall with a panoramic view of green pasture, milk cows, garden, and pond. The view felt it was straight out of a dream vacation magazine.
After camping in Snowdonia, we drove north and stayed at an empty country house belonging to the two cyclists my wife serendipitously helped out in Kunming 2 years earlier during the cyclists’ 20-month long journey from England’s Hadrian Wall to China’s Great Wall. They were on a month-long cycling trip to Scotland and welcomed us to stay there while they were away. Little did we know that my wife’s small kindness to help them when they were lost would be returned 2 years later with a 5-night stay in this “dream” home.
Their friendly neighbors to the right gave us 15 free freshly laid eggs from their hens and lent us a bike to cycle around the countryside. The neighbor to the left drew a detailed map of a hike to the summit of Cold Fell mountain. Joani also kept going to the neighbor to play with their kitten called “Tom”.
We loved the house so much that we wanted to thank them face to face. Luckily, they were only on their 2nd day of the journey so after an hour and a half drive north crossing from England to Scotland, we met up with them to have a picnic at the park in Hawick. We learned that the husband was only the third wooden box maker in the UK when he started and the wife was a mid-wife. We kept asking them questions about their beautiful home and reminiscenced their incredible journey through the Silk Road in their 60’s. The husband broke his femur after 1000 miles in Hungry but after recovery decided to restart their journey and finished it after 20 months. Although he walks with a slight limp, on a bike he looks like a young man.
On our third day, we head out to hike the famous Hadrian Wall which stretched across northern England from coast to coast, which was only a 15-minute drive away. We started at the Roman Military Museum where we learned about Roman’s 400 years of occupation of Britain and how life was like being a soldier in the Roman legion. The museum was very interactive with 3D films and other short videos and holograms that really exhibited British humor. It oriented us well as we began our hike on the actual 2000-year-old wall. The wall was built along the top of sharp cliffs, which made the scenery quite dramatic despite the scattered rain and biting winds. Next to the wall, Annie and I planted a symbolic mustard seed as we prayed for the wall, asking God to forgive the blood that was shed and for God’s kingdom to come on earth as it is in heaven. To cap off our day at the Hadrian Wall, we watched the movie about Eagle the Ninth.
“It is such a blessing to have this beautiful house full of sunlight to relax and work out our family relationship,” I gave thanks during our meal.
Indeed, due to the bad weather and strong wind, we stayed indoors most of the time and there was no better place than here to be trapped indoors. We had a family meeting and another family counseling session with counselors online to discuss issues that we are working out as a family and how we can travel better as 5 adults. It was difficult at times and as issues were brought out some very painful moments where some of us had to head out of the house for long walks to decompress. One afternoon, sunray pierced through the rain clouds, and a perfect rainbow formed out of the pasture. I felt it was God’s message for our family to not lose hope in the midst of family storms.
On Sunday morning, we listened to a sermon by the Bible Project about what the Bible really said about heaven, earth, and hell. Hell was never created by God. Hell was created by us. God’s desire is for his heaven (kingdom) to come on earth and to drive out the “hell” that humans had created. Our prayer is that God will work among our family to “get the hell out” of our family.
Blessings at Stamford
“This is definitely the highlight of our trip in the UK,” Joani yelled joyfully, wanting to jump up and down but afraid that she might fall off the paddleboard.
Olivia was ecstatic as well, “Let’s keep paddling, at least to that green field.”
It was a beautiful sunset at Stamford (not to be taken for granted in England). Joani and I were on one Stand-up Paddle (SUP) and Olivia and Enli were on the other. We were paddling calmly upstream with fields and occasional British houses on either side. The water was so calm that our reflection can be seen clearly and a white swan even came up to us swimming right behind. None of us could think of a more beautiful and romantic atmosphere than there at that moment.
This blessing came out of our unplanned meeting in China with another two cyclists who had an emergency during their 18-month cycling trip around the world. One of the cyclist’s father suddenly passed away and had to terminate their trip. They needed help to figure out how to ship their bikes back to England. They contacted me and we hosted them for 2 days at our apartment in Kunming and found a bike shop that can box their bikes and bring then and the bikes to the airport. Little did we know that we would be coming to England and that we were able to have a reunion in Stamford!
We were excited to meet our hosts at Stamford partly because we had so many questions about British culture but had no one to ask since we stayed in empty houses in Bath and near the Hadrian’s Wall. When we arrived after a 5-hour drive, we immediately asked them questions that had been in our minds for the last two weeks.
“What is a Yorkshire pudding?”
“Well…Yorkshire pudding is really not a dessert pudding but like pancake batter that is baked and shaped like a bowl that is filled with salty fillings,” our host explained.
“What is a Free House?”
“Well…a Free House is a pub that the government has given license so the pub is ‘free’ to serve alcohols,” our host explained as well.
“Is the city Bath pronounced as ‘a’ or ‘ou’?”
“If you are from the south, it is ‘ou’ and if you are from the north, it is ‘a’,” our host explained.
“So Americans must have came from the north,” Enli mused. “That’s why we also pronounce it with an ‘a’!”
As you can tell, we had many odd questions and the explanation has been quite amusing as well. Our host made an ‘amazing’ desert for us that combined the East and the West. It is a chocolate mousse that is made of tofu! If we were not told what it was made of, we would not been able to tell it was tofu. Another important thing we learned about British culture.
To top off our British cultural lesson, our hosts brought us to a long walk to a huge castle-like Lord Burly House, with deers and a kilometer of green lawn, which still house a real Lord and our hosts ordered traditional Fish and Chip with curry and mash pea dipping sauces and sausages fried in batter. We had it at the park overlooking the historical town center as the sun began to set. The nearby pub was hosting a birthday party with a live performance that we can hear clearly. It was another of the many perfect moments we had at Stamford. What an interesting contrast to the meal of Yunnan BBQ “chicken feet” that we offered to them when we ate in China! “Fish & Chip” versus “Chicken & Feet”!
The next day we lost ourselves in the ‘Finest Stone Town in England’ with its white limestones and narrow alleys. Even modern shops and restaurants kept traditional limestones decor. Many movies used this town as the backdrop and we can see why. Olivia and I had our one-on-one date and we sat on the grass under a large elm tree watching and listening to the howling wind combing the leaves. We had a good time eating the 50% off meals and relaxing and sharing about her ‘feelings’ on how sometimes she is not sure whether she ‘feels’ enough.
Later in the day, we had an entertaining time playing Spikeball and Codename with our hosts and Annie cooked a large plate of savory Thai Chicken. It was a great ending to the cycling reunion.
Blessings at London
“Welcome back after 4 years!” Lucy and Paul greeted us as we came in with our big and small bags.
Four years ago, we ended our 2nd gap year in London staying with our Kunming friend the Lennards. God has a funny way of bringing us back here to pick off where we left off to start our 3rd gap year at exactly the same house and with the same friends.
Perhaps God knows that just as they gave thanks to God to the ending of our last gap year, God wanted them to pray for us to prepare the path ahead of us as we begin our new Gap year. It was so needed as we navigate the uncertainties of pandemic travel and working on our family healing journey.
On our last day in London, Annie and I decided to go for a 4km walk to the Greenwich, the “center of the world” where the east longitudes meet the west longitudes. Standing on the line with one foot on the East and one foot on the West, Annie and I prayed for the world. We also planted another symbolic seed right on the line for God’s kingdom to come on all nations. How fitting to begin our journey at the meeting of the East and West just as our family is a fusion of the East and the West.
Our next stop is Portugal, here we come! What do you have waiting for us?
One thought on “Blessings from the UK – Traveling in the Midst of the Pandemic”
Today is Sept 6. Jonathan, it is amazing to read your family’s journey. Reminds me of His blessings and His work in every one of us even when we did not know. Stay safe and healthy. Alice Ho from Tianjin, China (55 more days I will retire)