Astbury Church

I grew up in England just outside the town of Congleton, Cheshire (the same Cheshire where Lewis Carroll wrote about the Cheshire cat). I attended primary school (elementary school, for my American readers) at a Church of England school in Astbury, a small village dominated by St. Mary's Church.

St. Mary's Church is a giant 13th century edifice and it is old. The earliest known church on the site was Norman though it is possible that before that a Saxon church existed there. Putting aside the rebuilding and refurbishment that has occurred since the 13th century, when you are inside that building, you are inside a building that has been in use for 700 years. It has even survived damage from horses stabled there during the English civil war (though some of its furniture and glass did not). It is old, so old that I find it hard to comprehend how much time that is.

I have many memories attached to the church, including harvest festivals, May Day celebrations, weddings, funerals, christenings, Sunday school, Easter, and Christmas, to name a few. I was a choir member for several years and an altar boy, I was even a shepherd or wise man in a nativity once. Joy and grief, life and death, faith and belief; my earliest memories of these things centre around that church and its grey stone walls.

Conveniently placed next to a pub as seems to be required of all areas of congregation for the English1, Astbury Church, as it is colloquially referred, is an imposing sight. From the A34, the church is accessed via either of two lanes that form the perimeter of Astbury's triangular village green, with its giant oak tree centerpiece and carpet of daffodils, grass, or snow, depending on the season. The ground falls away on all sides, and when viewed from the bottom of the green (and assuming you're not trying to look directly through the tree), the church stands against the sky, its weather-vane atop the steeple often silhouetted against clouds or an early morning sunrise, if you are lucky enough to see it.

When I went to visit my family earlier this year, I visited the church for the first time in quite a few years. With my parents, sister, nephew, and wife, we explored the church and its grounds, reminiscing about the occasions that had brought us there previously. If you ever get a chance, I highly recommend visiting this Cheshire landmark and touching 700 years of history. For now, you will have to settle for some of the photos I took; it is a beautiful building that has been considered by some to be one of the most beautiful churches in the country, and is just as impressive on the inside as it is on the outside (though my photosphere below is not great, it should give you a sense of what it is like inside).

To view more photos, go to my Google Photos album for St.Mary's Church.


  1. I presume the pub was there first and they just put the church next door for convenience 

Five Things I Did In England That Might Surprise Americans

We all employ stereotypes to generalise groups of people. Often, a stereotype fills a gap between one cultural experience and another, making assumptions about others to provide an easy answer as to why others are different. It is not a particularly constructive approach to cultural differences, often being divisive to the point of pissing people off. Sometimes that is the intent, to troll people, other times it is a side-effect of ignorance.

That's about as deep as I want to get in this blog entry. However, it sets a basis for the following things I did in England that, due to assumptions (stereotypical or otherwise), may be surprising to my North American friends and neighbours.

1. Sound American

To the community I live in, my friends, my colleagues, and my neighbours, I sound British. It does not matter that there's no such thing as a British accent, the distinctions of Scottish, Welsh, Irish, and English (sometimes even Australian) and any variations thereof are irrelevant; we all sound British. Even now, after 10 years living predominantly in the USA, I sound British. Many are surprised that I have retained my British accent after spending so long here. It does not matter how often I might say to-MAY-toe, zee, or gas, to anyone overhearing me talk, I sound British. I believed them too, until I landed in the UK.

Selected languages and accents of the British Isles (CC BY-SA 3.0)
Selected languages and accents of the British Isles (CC BY-SA 3.0)

Everywhere I went, someone was ready to tell me I sounded American, that I had a twang, that I was losing my accent. Now, at first, I put this down to my saying the odd American word or using an American pronunciation, yet after a day or two, after settling back into my native dialect, the comments kept coming. It seems that immersion in US culture for 10 years does make a difference. Worse still, I could not hear it myself. I was so used to the way I talked, I had not even noticed a change, and I still can't. To one side of the Pond, I sound British, and to the other, American. It has left me a little culturally orphaned, a perennial outsider, a citizen of the mid-Atlantic, land of 80's radio DJ's, bad documentary narrators, and people in old movies1.

2. Eat Well

Possibly the most misleading stereotype I hear about the UK is that all our food is bad, awful, bland, terrible, sludge that no one in their right mind would ever let pass their lips. Though we certainly have some unusual dishes that I find pretty horrible (haggis, jellied eels, black pudding, and tripe), I know many who think otherwise, and it is not indicative of all British food. Every culture has its "acquired tastes" that others think are disgusting (Velveeta, Easy Cheese and corndogs, anyone?), but that is no reason to disparage every food that culture has to offer.

While I was back home, I enjoyed some amazing food: a steak and kidney pie at my old local pub, a home-cooked roast chicken dinner from my mum, and delicious chicken curry. "But wait, curry isn't British!" you may cry, but the curries served throughout the UK have diverged from their Indian or Bangladeshi origins to meet the palates of Britons. As American as apple pie? As British as a good curry.

Now, you may cry that I am biased and of course, I am. However, I am also a very fussy eater (ask my wife) and I do not take my food lightly, not to mention that we are all biased when it comes to our food; biased toward what we like. If you want to know if what I am saying about British food is right, you can ask my wife, Chrissy (though perhaps she may not agree on which dishes are best). Whether you believe me or not, be a little more open-minded and a lot more selective. Don't base opinions about British food on what you are told or on a single, awful or obscure meal; instead, get some recommendations, you might be pleasantly surprised.

3. Farm Programming

Contrary to the belief of the Comcast representative that sold me my first cable service, modern technology exists in the UK2. I realise that many people reading this, if not all, are already aware of this.

Shakespeare was not amused at the quality of the earring he bought on Etsy
Shakespeare was not amused by the quality of the earring he bought on Etsy

As our trip to the UK was to be a working vacation, I spent some of my time sat in the lounge of my parents' centuries old farmhouse, coding, emailing, and taking part in meetings. Even in the "quaint"3 English countryside, the modern engineer can push commits to GitHub, attend a conference call on GoToMeeting, and surf the Internet for cat photos. WiFi and broadband are everywhere in the UK; in fact, in some places, the speeds should embarrass Americans, who have some of the most expensive and slowest broadband Internet services in the world.

4. Not Meet The Queen

"And I said, Jeff? Of course I know Jeff!"
"And I said, Jeff? Of course I know Jeff!"

No, I don't know the Queen. I also did not meet your friend that lives in Lower Bumblecrap or your great Uncle Charlie from Arserottingham. What I am trying to say, though perhaps a little harshly, is that the UK is a big place. There are over 63 million people in the UK, over 53 million of them in England alone, one of which is the Queen4. She does not tend to hang around and have personal relationships with her millions of royal subjects. I understand the idea that there is some chance I may have met someone's friend or family member, no matter how unlikely, but when I get asked if I know the Queen (even in jest), I want to escape and go have a real conversation with someone else. Why is a country that fought so hard to get rid of the British Monarchy so apparently obsessed with it?

5. Not Stay

The idea of leaving the gorgeous countryside and history of England to live in the US seems unimaginable to some. Like Madonna, Kevin Spacey, and Tim Burton, many Americans would jump at the opportunity to live in the UK. I can see why, it is filled with amazing people, history, and free healthcare, not to mention everyone talks like Dick van Dyke got elocution lessons, but I lived there for nearly three decades, I've done that. Although my family and many amazing friends are there, I don't fit. I never really fit. The culture of cynicism, the Tall Poppy Syndrome, the overcast weather; it just does not suit me, and in the long term, it doesn't make me happy. Although the US is far from perfect and there are many things I miss from my native land5, since moving here I have been happier, more satisfied, more successful, and more accepted. When we returned to the US, the immigration officer said, "Welcome home," and he was right.

Today's featured image is by Lunar Dragoon and is licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0.


  1. Okay, not quite, but I wanted to include the video 

  2. "Do you have computers in England, yet?" he had asked, earnestly 

  3. This over-used description of the UK, or parts thereof, always feels dismissive, like it's just a theme park 

  4. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Demography_of_the_United_Kingdom#Population 

  5. Worry-free (or at least worry-less) healthcare, pubs (no, they don't exist in the US), proper fish and chips, cask-conditioned ale, and the steak and kidney pies from my old local, to name a few 

A Lush Pilgrimage

Before Chrissy and I went on vacation to England, we were discussing the trip and what we might do while over there (besides spending time with my family). Mid-conversation, Chrissy tilted her head and said, "How far is Dorset from your parents' house?"

"About four hours, why?"

"Have you ever been to Poole?"

"When I was a kid. There's that photo of me with a python round my neck. Why?"

"What photo?"

"I have that yellow sweater on. Why do you want to go to Poole?"

"I don't remember that photo. You've never shown me."

"I swear I have, but whatever. Why do you want to go to Poole?"

"Oh, no reason. Just asking."

"Bollocks. Why do you want to go?"

And it was then that I discovered Poole in Dorset, England is the home of the very first Lush Cosmetics shop and spa.

Chrissy is a lushie1, she has ordered items from Lush Kitchens around the world, exchanged products with other lushies and generally had a jolly good time discussing Lush products over the Internet. For a while, it felt like a new package arrived every day. There were even three packages waiting for us at my parents' house in England. Chrissy loves Lush and the opportunity to visit the spot where it all began was irresistible. So, I planned a trip to Dorset.

Bournemouth

Our hotel. That'll do for a night or two.

A photo posted by Jeff Yates (@jeff.yates) on

I found a hotel in Bournemouth (about 15 minutes drive from Poole), a seaside resort on the south coast of England where my family had holidayed when I was 8 or 9 years old (the same trip I met the python), and made a reservation for a couple of nights. Since we were going to be passing nearby, I also booked tickets to visit Stonehenge on the way back (it's about an hour and a half from Bournemouth)2. It would be a lovely little break, Chrissy could get her Lush fix and I could reminisce about childhood vacations while enjoying the English seaside.

The drive down was mostly uneventful until the very end. After checking in to the hotel, we had to navigate a road closure to find our hotel car park; this turned out to be gated with a key-coded entry and incredibly narrow. So narrow that the only reason I even attempted to drive in was the knowledge that someone must have done so already. So unbelievably narrow, a motorbike might have paused to consider the best strategy for passing through3. After squeezing our way into the car park, we rested up in our room before strolling down to and around the beach and pier.

Across the street from our hotel. The architecture around here reminds me of #Poirot.

A photo posted by Jeff Yates (@jeff.yates) on

The architecture in Bournemouth is indicative of its popularity and growth during the early twentieth century. As we walked around, I was reminded often of the ITV television interpretation of Poirot.

A photo posted by Jeff Yates (@jeff.yates) on

After a windy wander along the pier, we grabbed some fish and chips for dinner, then went back to the hotel for a good night's rest. The next day was a big one; Chrissy would get to visit Lush prime.

Poole

Chrissy stood outside Lush, Poole
Chrissy stood outside Lush

I think Poole is probably most famous for the dolphin-marked Poole Pottery, but it is also the home of Sunseeker Yachts, a log boat preserved with sugar syrup4, a lot of pubs (and I mean a lot), and the very first Lush store. We parked up near the Quay and, checking directions on the map, walked to Lush.

Chrissy's excitement was palpable and photos were mandatory. Within moments of arriving, it was clear Chrissy had found kindred lushie spirits in the staff. When they realised how far Chrissy had traveled to be there, they offered her a tour of the spa and a free postcard as a souvenir of our visit. I do not recall ever being made as welcome in a shop as I was there, and I was only there because I'm married to a lushie.

At the end of the spa tour5, they asked Chrissy if she would like a treatment. She looked at me for encouragement, which, after a very brief moment of hesitation, I gave —how could I deny her this after travelling so far to be here? Within minutes, we were both6 ready to be booked in for their 80 minute treatment known as "The Good Hour", but there was a snag; they could only fit us in the next morning7. This unfortunate delay, we were to learn, was serendipity handing us an opportunity.

With the treatments booked, we headed out to explore Poole. We wandered the quay, saw Sunseeker yachts in varying states of manufacture and repair, admired some exceedingly old buildings, lost count of how many pubs we did not have time (nor the constitution) to visit, bought some gifts from Poole Pottery, and visited the museum. It turned out that Poole was really worth a visit, regardless of the initial reason we were there.

Gorilla perfumes display
Gorilla perfumes display

The next day, we returned to Lush. I do not want to go into details about the "The Good Hour" treatment, if you want spoilers I am certain the Internet will oblige, all I would like to say is that it was fantastic. The massage was excellent, the pirate-theme was whimsical and strangely relaxing, and the conversation with my masseuse, Emma, was thoroughly enjoyable if not a little…different8. After our treatment was over, we were given a nice cup of tea (with the option of a drop of rum) while we relaxed and enjoyed some more conversation with the friendly and lovely Lush staff. Everyone who we met was professional, friendly and chatty.

As we sipped our tea someone said in a low voice, "Mark is in if you'd like to meet him."

Mark was Mark Constantine, the co-founder and owner of Lush. Chrissy did not know what to say at first. Her eyes were wide like a child who just heard the distant chimes of an ice cream truck9. We walked out of the spa into the shop and glanced nervously round the corner at Mark. Megan, one of the amazing staff, stiffened up with nerves. No one was sure who should interrupt the boss and ask him to meet two people from Michigan. They were not intimidated by Mark, they were in awe of him.

"Mark is kind of a big deal," we were told.

Eventually someone got his attention and he came over to where we were stood. We shook hands. Chrissy was grinning so wide that her face sank beneath teeth and eyes. Even I was excited; not only was I getting to meet the owner of the company, but it was possibly the best thing that could have happened on Chrissy's pilgrimage to the Motherlush. The three of us posed for a photo, then Mark went back to his task and we finished up our purchases, ready to head off to Stonehenge. What a great day, it could not get any better.

Then just as we were about to leave, Mark's hand fell on Chrissy's shoulder.

"Wait here, let me get something for you."

Lush Spa and store, High Street, Poole, Dorset
Lush Spa and store, High Street, Poole, Dorset

Mark disappeared upstairs where the Lush labs, responsible for inventing new Lush products, reside. We were informed that much of the work in the labs had been focused on products for the new Oxford Street store10. A few minutes later, Mark returned with a small plastic box containing two sparkly cosmetic items.

"These aren't exactly new. They're existing products packaged in a new way."

As Chrissy nearly passed out from excitement, Megan took the shiny products and, after taking a picture of them for herself (these were new to everyone, it seemed), packaged them up for Chrissy. It was a generous finish to an already fantastic trip, something that I am sure we will talk of often. As we set off on our way to Stonehenge, I reflected on the day and how it would not have been possible on our last trip, when I had not brought my anxiety under some level of control. I could imagine us not getting the spa treatments because I worried about the cost, or because I worried about not making Stonehenge on time11. I could imagine us leaving the shop sooner, to be sure we would make our Stonehenge time-slot, missing our meeting with Mark Constantine and his generosity. Worse still, I could imagine me spilling all these anxieties out all over the place like an untamed fire-hose, drowning them in negativity so that we could never look back on them as the wonderful moments they were.

As it is, our trip to Poole was one of the best parts of our three weeks in England. Assuming Chrissy doesn't drag me off to the newly opened Lush on Oxford Street in London, I look forward to stopping by Poole to pop into Lush and say hello to the friendly staff, and perhaps to take a stab at those pubs.

There are lots of pubs in Poole. We had lunch in one, but there are about 10 almost back to back.

A photo posted by Jeff Yates (@jeff.yates) on


  1. The word used to describe fans of Lush cosmetics 

  2. That's right, the reason we went to Stonehenge was Lush 

  3. OK, that's an exaggeration, but it was bloody narrow 

  4. Sweet! 

  5. I was allowed to tag along too 

  6. Originally, I planned to try one of the many pubs while Chrissy had her treatment, but then I realised it's my vacation too and I deserved a massage 

  7. Each treatment is unique, so the staff need time to setup the room according to the treatment chosen. Ours was pirate-themed…yes, that's right, pirates! 

  8. Look out for the short story or perhaps even seven novel series (with derived movie franchise) I hope to write soon entitled, "The Radiator People" 

  9. actually, they were wide like Chrissy had just heard the distant chimes of an ice cream truck 

  10. Lush Oxford Street was not yet open at the time of our visit to Poole 

  11. It turns out we didn't, but that's not the point 

Ten Years

This month marks ten years since I first set foot in the US. As I waited in line at immigration, tired from the flight and daunted by everything that might happen next, it was easy to forget everything that came before. Just three weeks earlier, my workplace had been tense with news that another wave of redundancies was sweeping through and I was unsure in what direction I was heading1. I was ready for a change, but did not want the uncertainty of finding a new job or the certainty of choosing to leave the one I had. I was living a step ahead of my means with little attention paid to the future. I was smoking. I was making dubious decisions or avoiding decisions entirely. I was feeling disenfranchised, misplaced, and numb.

One afternoon our manager called us all into a meeting room. There, he informed us of two positions available in the US and asked if any of us were interested. It felt like the silence lasted a long time although it was probably only a few seconds. No one was volunteering. I do not know the trigger  — my desire for a change, the allure of working in the US, or my need to get control of my life, but slowly, I raised my hand. I remember rationalizing it as no big deal, after all, I was only expressing interest, it was not like I would be whisked away to a plane immediately. With the raise of my hand, so began a series of small, easy decisions that led to the biggest self-directed change of my life so far.

Within the three weeks from when I raised my hand to when I stepped off the plane in Detroit, I packed, paused, and displaced my life. Boxes were filled, paperwork was filed, and farewells were planned. There was no time to stop and think about what I was doing, just lots of small decisions to make — accept or negotiate the contract, pack or throw away my things, take or leave my guitar, stay or go, sink or swim. All along the way, I kept telling myself it was not forever, it was no big deal. I was only going for a couple of months to meet the customer face-to-face; work (and a longer stay) was always going to be dependent on the acquisition of appropriate work visas. It was no big deal.

And so it was. Three weeks flew by. My sister, my parents, my new boss in the US, my old colleagues in the UK, my friends (including my housemate, who was seriously ill at the time), and many more all helped in some way. I am incredibly grateful to their support, it was amazing. During the whole experience, trepidation wrestled with excitement. Seconds after the taxi pulled away, leaving my parents and friends as they waved goodbye, excitement turned to panic.

What the hell am I doing?

I repeated that phrase in my head many times between London and Detroit. When the taxi left my old home. When the taxi left me at the airport. When I was pulled from the security line for "special screening". When I sat on the plane. When the plane took off. At least once per hour during the flight. When I landed. When I got into the immigration line. Over and over.

What the hell am I doing?

I am pretty sure I was terrified, but just like the small decisions that got me there, I focused on the immediate situation and did my best to ignore everything else. I think excitement and terror are pretty much the same thing but with different interpretations. As I accepted the situation as an adventure, the terror would subside and excitement returned.

Blimey, I'm actually going to America!

That was how my first few weeks in the US continued. A mixture of terror and excitement, depending on the situation and how I let myself accept it. It was the beginning of something new and ten years on, I cannot imagine doing any differently if it were to happen all over again. It was by far the best decision I ever made because I learned the value of making a decision instead of letting fate decide. I faced my own anxieties head on and made a decision to challenge my fear. The amazing sense of achievement that came from deciding for myself was life-affirming. While it took me another nine years to take that moment of control over my anxiety and begin learning how to harness it on a day-to-day basis, I still look back on that decision and the many ways it has changed my life. In a moment, I went from feeling disenfranchised, misplaced, and numb, to engaged, excited, and driven.

Of course, that first day in the US was merely the beginning, a lot has happened since and a lot more will happen yet. Though my move was certainly no panacea to my problems — there were many difficult challenges to over come, it was a catalyst for solutions, an opportunity to grow, and a clear example that fear alone could not stand in my way if I could find the courage to face it. It is a lesson that I have applied many times since; from winning the CodeMash Pecha Kucha contest, to marrying my amazing wife, so many achievements began in an otherwise unremarkable moment where I pushed my fear aside and made a decision to try.

So, whatever the next ten years hold for me, it is not fear, but small moments like raising my hand in that meeting room that will shape them. Can you say the same? Where will your decisions take you?


  1. Unlike in places such as Michigan, where employment is considered "at will" and can be terminated at any time, if a company in the UK wants to downsize, they must go through a process of making positions redundant. That means the position will no longer exist and as such, the organisation cannot hire someone else to perform that job. For a better explanation and more information, check out https://www.gov.uk/redundant-your-rights/overview