Hymn to the birds and trees

A selection of images of Stourhead

With the Olympics and Queen's Diamond Jubilee, tourism in the UK faces a massive year. The Magazine asked non-British born people to describe the part of the UK that sums up a more unusual aspect of British life. Here, Chinese writer Xinran relishes the countryside of Wiltshire, England.

Love letters to UK places

Countryside footpath

Penned by those born abroad

I came to England in the summer of 1997 with a vision of England created by Chinese textbooks and my grandmother's stories - of rolling green fields, yellow daffodils in spring, red poppies in summer, red and golden trees in autumn, white snow and red berries in winter. Of gentlemen wearing top hats and ladies holding their silk parasols, rowing their boats on park lakes like descriptions from a Jane Austen novel.

The reality of the London I encountered was very different - crowded with people, new buildings mixed in with the old and everybody speaking their own version of English.

Four years later, love and writing led me to a British man, and every day since then my husband, Toby Eady, has shown me his England, the real England.

From 1,000-year-old Roman roads - Fosse Way and Port Way - across Somerset to medieval houses in York containing antique Michael Thonet Bentwood chairs, and early 19th Century hand-painted Josiah Spode porcelain dishes, 17th Century George Ravenscroft wine glasses, antique shops displaying beautiful oriental china or furniture.



British-Chinese journalist and broadcaster Xinran was born in Beijing. She is the author of a number of books, including The Good Women of China, which has been translated into more than 30 languages.

On our long march through British culture, we take breaks at our 17th Century cottage near the Stourhead estate. Compared with the magnificent Palladian mansion next door, our cottage is tiny. An old farmhouse, modernised in the 1960s, it comprises an open-plan living room, dining area and kitchen, with two small bedrooms upstairs.

There are only five families on our lane but it covers every level of society - a sculptor, a lorry driver, a post office worker, a literary agent and a banker. We don't bump into each other every day like in a Chinese village, but we meet up for seasonal gatherings, Easter egg-hunts and parties.

Sometimes, there is a local fair where every generation takes the chance to show off their local produce. Mothers, fathers, sons and daughters bring their cottage pies, pates, fruitcakes, home-grown beans and potatoes, flowers and even butterfly collections.

Every morning I wake up in the cottage to birdsong, a solo quickly becoming a chorus. I often hear my husband's conversation with our neighbours. They talk as if every garden in Britain has as many birds as ours.

Xinran's cottage Xinran's 17th Century cottage is next to one of the most beautifully landscaped gardens in England

When the baby birds hatch, our garden becomes a "pilot training school", and our windows often confuse their uneducated minds and baby birds bump into the clear glass. When I help the dazed birds back to their parents, they wobble around like they are drunk.

I have created five "bird kitchens" outside our cottage window. The great tits are always the first ones to taste their weekend food, but we get chaffinches, robins, blue tits and greenfinches visiting in large groups - once there were 12 different varieties eating at the same time.

I feed the birds twice a day, but sometimes they are really impatient. If we have a drinks party or a picnic under their trees, they will fly around shouting at us until we leave.

I think of the goldfinches as messengers from my mother-in-law, Mary Wesley. The day she passed away, a charm of goldfinches came to say goodbye to her, and now every time they come they bring back memories of her.

My favourite is the siskin. They are tiny but are very brave, and in their large families they are never frightened by other larger, mischievous birds. One woodpecker family comes every day to play, they eat and circle above us at the same time.

Your favourite place


We're asking non-UK born people to describe the unusual places that sum up a less-explored side of the UK. Send your pictures and videos to yourpics@bbc.co.uk or text them to 61124 (UK) or +44 7624 800 100 (International). See our terms and conditions

When the trees turn to green to announce spring is coming, the swallows arrive, bringing back memories of a traditional Chinese nursery rhyme:

Little swallow wearing beautiful cloth, come to see me every spring

I ask her why you come back each year?

Swallow says, because you have the most beautiful spring

A pair of doves made a nest in a tree just right front of our cottage, they let their baby play around between the easily reachable branches. One day we saw it was trying to fly. That day we didn't want to go back to London, we wanted to wait for that moment she took her first flight.

Once we returned from a walk and were surprised to see a peacock with his huge glossy tail in our cottage, wandering around and shouting at the top of his voice. He obviously didn't care that it was our home and we observed his regal behaviour as he made himself at home, oblivious to my husband's anxiety over his precious keepsakes and books.

They are travellers from foreign cultures that change with the seasons. They paint the English landscape with their colours and dancing flowers. Every time we go to the cottage, my husband and I pick them for their beauty and to show our love for each other - over 10 years together and we are still not bored with them.

Pantheon at Stourhead The England that Xinran dreamt of while growing up in China

I often write Chinese messages on these English-born leaves for my Chinese friends and make bookmarks with them for my editors from over 25 countries. I have sent some back to my mother with a greeting from England and with love from my heart.

I can't help thinking back to my grandmother - this is the England she told us about in our bedtime stories, this is the England I dreamt of and I tell everyone of the beauty of the country I have fallen in love with.

I hope the beauty of my birthplace, China, won't be left only in the ancient paintings and classical novels, as its cities spread so fast - from about 470 in 2008 to more than 660 in 2010.

Here is a selection of your comments.

My first time abroad was in 1996 after finishing my University studies in South Africa. I wasn't sure what to do at the time, and was fortunate enough to get a 2 year working holiday visa in the UK. I arrived in London on my first day. While London was exiting it was also very intimidating. I soon tire of busy London and after a bit of research got a job in Knoydart Scotland with the Robinson family. I could never have imagined how "wild" this corner of the UK could be. I remember arriving by train in Mallaigh and getting picked up by boat the next day to be taken to Inverie, Knoydart. This was perhaps some of the most magnificent scenery I have seen up to that point in my life. Still up to this day I remember my experience in "wild" Scotland. After nearly 2 decades, I am planning to go back there soon.

Willem , Windhoek, Namibia

Hong Kong was my birth place. This granitic outcrop at the mouth of the Pearl River had changed beyond recognition since I left it. It is now a "Special Administrative Zone". All old HK ID cards had been declared invalid and new ones must be applied in person. I've searched my heart for the answer to this question : "Am I Hong Kong-ese or am I British?" Without realising it, I feel more British than I could ever imagine. I love the change in the seasons, the lushness of the countryside, the spirit of its people and the warmth of the neighbours. I am thousands of miles from where I was born, but to me, home is where I feel happy. I have a very small house, but it fulfilled my dream of "owning a quiet corner of England which I can call my own". It is near the River Wharfe and I love to walk along its bank, watch the weir and feel the joy of nature all around me.

Lina Addy, Boston Spa, West Yorkshire

Having visited Leicestershire just before Xmas the contrast with sunny and busy Athens in Greece was very profound... I have to admit Leicester and Leicestershire hold a special place in my heart and I had previously lived there, so my recent visit was something like a return home and I enjoyed every minute of it. First things first, the train journey there made me appreciate what I was missing whilst in the leafy northern suburbs of Athens: the sense of space and the lush green colour of the rolling hills around so typical of England and of the approach to Leicester from Market Harborough. Seems I had been taking for granted the landscape I now truly miss. Walking through the city, I realised I loved the colours and the grandeur of another era in Town Hall Square with its gold lions fountain and walking though the cobbled streets by the Cathedral and the contrast with the ultra stylish new city centre and its shiny Highcross. This coupled with the beauty and tranquillity of the Leicestershire countryside, a lovely bright crisp morning, frost covering manicured lawns and flower beds, watching early walkers along the footpaths around the National Forest, then some shopping in a quirky village shop in Ashby de la Zouch and a lovely hot roast in the local pub, all in the company of good welcoming friends and chatty locals made it all very special. Seems the simple things in life in Britain far from the hustle and bustle of a big city, is what makes it a favourite for me!

Maria Chaideftou, Athens, Greece

I was born in Malaysia, moved to London ten years ago and married an Englishman three years ago. What I found to be most English is being at the beach in Cornwall in November when the weather is a mixture of the fine and the dramatic while foraging for the oh-so-English shellfishes such as whelks and limpets. I cannot think of anywhere else in the world better to eat such seaside treasures while watching the tide come in,

Emily Dent, London, England

I was born in Santa Monica, California, and lived in West Los Angeles all my life, but I travelled abroad quite a lot as I was an airline brat. My mom was a Brit from Yorkshire, my father from Mississippi. Longer story made shorter, I worked on cruise ships for 13 years, met my husband on board, and we decided to settle in his residence of Hartlepool. That was my choice....A UK citizen now, (thanks to my mother), no ties in the USA now since my parents have passed away, I chose to my husband's relief, to live in Hartlepool. YES, I did say no to LA, to chose a life here in the North East. Taxi drivers, sales clerks, professionals, you name it, ask me why on earth I chose Hartlepool over LA? Simple: the natural beauty of the coast line, the proximity to Yorkshire County and Durham. What more could I ask for in a peaceful life? I have the beauty of nature at my doorstep, but one particular thing that struck me that I feel many residents overlook is the natural, unspoiled now restored beauty of the Durham Heritage Coast, including Hartlepool,as we are an independent and I must say, proud borough. I moved here with no intentions of being a beach comber. My mother who was raised in Cheshire from the age of 6 told me stories of her childhood after WW2 , cycling through Wales and beach combing in sand dunes. I had no idea what the latter meant, until one day, my husband brought me to Crimdon Dene. It was magical. Everything my mom told me about, was on this coast, and it was so beautiful. When I learned of the mining history of Durham Coast's past, it was hard to image that today the sands where clean, pristine almost, and full of rich sea life, birds, and coastal plants. One thing too I discovered: sea glass. It was laying there like a glistening blue topaz. I picked it up along our walk, not knowing what I had found. As soon as we arrived home, I typed : "beach glass" into the GOOGLE search engine, and found that I had opened up a whole new world to my life. A year after collecting, I figured out how to turn this washed up history from Sunderland, Seaham and Hartlepool's past of glass works, into a work of wearable art.

Nikki Collins, Hartlepool

I am an American from the San Francisco Bay Area. I met my British husband when we were both working in Hong Kong. Having lived in Hong Kong for more than 10 years, we both decided it was time for a change and settle down somewhere given we had two very young children. It was either San Francisco or Stratford-upon-Avon where my husband spent his childhood. I had not appreciated fully the splendour of the British countryside until we moved to Stratford in 2004. My children are surrounded by nature, the changing seasons, fresh air and oppportunities to enjoy outdoor activities such as birdwatching. I never thought in a million years I would end up residing in Shakespeare country and be so close to so many beautiful towns, National Trust properties and stunning countryside in Britain. My children feel this even more so when we enjoy our weekend walks in the Welcombe Hills Nature Reserve where we can admire stunning views as far as the Cotswolds, Evesham etc. and they can play hide and seek in the forests and ancient pear trees that dot the Welcombe Hills. We also enjoy the beautiful walking paths along the River Avon that lead into the Stratford town centre. My children always seem to discover something along the way each time we do this walk.

Susan Barnes, Stratford-upon-Avon


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