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Entries about migration experiences

How to Exchange a Canadian Driver's License for UK License

A practical guide to for those Canadians who are taking up residency in the UK on what to expect when going through the process of getting a UK license.

0 °C

If you are planning on moving to the UK from Canada for more than a year, and are planning on driving a car, then you will need to exchange your Canadian license (issued by your home province) for a UK one. I’m going through the process of accomplishing that now, and have found that information I find on the process is either confusing or incomplete. With this blog entry, I hope to detail what I have found out about the process, so others may benefit in the future.


That being said, I am sure others can add to the information in the blog. If you have some information to provide, or a correction, please leave it in the comments. I’ll update the blog accordingly.

Where am I in the process? I now have my full UK drivers license including the ability to drive a manual. This involved exchanging my license for an automatic only license, and then taking a practical driving test on a manual car. I now have a license that allows me to drive manual transmission cars.

What Do You Mean “Canadian License?”

I know, I know... There is no such thing. Licenses in Canada are issued by the provincial transportation authority. In my case, I had an Ontario license. However, the DLVA (Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency) in the UK views all licenses issued from the Canadian provinces the same. Therefore, when I talk in this blog about a Canadian license, I just mean a license issued by a provincial transportation authority in Canada.

Driving On Your Canadian License

So you have arrived in the UK, and still have your BC, Ontario or Quebec license in your wallet. Can you drive? How long to do you have to exchange your license?

Can I Drive A Car with a Canadian License?

Yes. You have up to one year where you can drive a car in the UK on a foreign license. The DVLA website says that “you may drive vehicles up to 3.5 tonnes and with up to eight passenger seats, for up to 12 months from the date of coming to GB,” assuming your license is valid for that period. This applies to both Canadians on working visas now resident in the UK and students studying in the UK.

I Have a Large Truck / Bus License from Canada. Can I drive a Truck or Bus?

No. The DVLA website indicates that you must pass a driving test in Great Britain to be able to drive larger vehicle. In fact, you probably need to take a regular car license driving test as well. The DVLA site says, “Driving test candidates are required to pass a motor car (category B) test first before applying for provisional entitlement for larger vehicles.”

What Happens After One Year?

You can’t drive in the UK legally anymore without getting a UK license.

If I’m Not Planning on Driving, Can I Keep My Canadian License?

For the UK’s point of view, yes. You can swap your license any time up to five (5) years after moving to the UK. You are only allowed to drive on your foreign license for the first year, but if you aren’t planning on driving, you can swap them later.

Living in London, I don’t drive much, so didn’t need my license. I was in the UK for a year and a half before I got around to making the swap, and didn’t have any trouble.

From your home provinces point of view, you’ll have to check with them. Based on this website from the Ontario Ministry of Transportation, looks like you can keep it until you need to renew it, then perhaps you are out of luck. You could do what I did when my license expired and I was in the UK. I flew home and got my photo done.

Do I Need to Make the Switch to a UK license?

Check out the DVLA’s interactive tool on if you need to swap your Canadian license for a UK one, at Can you exchange your driving licence for one issued in Great Britain (GB)?


Making the Switch

You’ve now determined you want to swap your Canadian license for a UK one.

What Do I Do?

First, you need to get yourself an application form D1. These are available at DVLA offices (find them here) or the Post Office (find them here). If you aren’t handy to a DVLA location or Post Office, I’d ask you what you are doing living in the middle of nowhere. However, in that event, you can order the form online from the DVLA at this website.

You then need to get a passport photo done in colour. These can be done at automated photo booths or in a photography shop. The criteria for the photo can be found on the DVLA website, but any photo that meets the passport guidelines is fine.

You need to provide identification of your identity. Valid forms of ID are listed on this page at the DVLA website, but for most Canadians that means your Canadian passport.

Send the completed form D1, along with your ID, colour photo, Canadian driver’s license and a postal order or cheque for £50 (made out to “DVLA, Swansea”) to DVLA, Swansea, SA99 1BT.

What if I Don’t Want to Mail in My Forms?

NOTE - Since a switch in websites from DirectGov to GOV.UK, I can no longer find details on the Premium Checking Service. I am not aware if this service is still available, or if it has been discontinued. All information on Premium Checking Service may no longer be accurate.

I’m with you here! Given the rotating Royal Mail strikes that seem to constantly be happening, who wants to trust sending your passport via the post. I used the Premium Checking Service, details of which can be found on this ARCHIVED DVLA page.

If you are using a Canadian passport as your ID, you’ll need to go to one of the four DVLA offices that can check these documents. They are in Glasgow, Nottingham, Wimbledon and Swansea (main reception on Longview Road). Click on the name of the location for their address.

You will need to bring all the same items as listed above, save the cheque or postal order. You can pay via debit or credit card at DVLA locations. There is a small fee (£4) in addition to the license fee, for a total of £54. Small price in my mind to pay for the security of getting your passport back at the end of the encounter.

I went to the office in Wimbledon. I was prepared for a long wait at the DVLA, but actually it was quite quick. I showed up at about 8:45 AM, 15 minutes before opening. There was a queue outside the building, and I joined in about tenth place. Upon entering, though, folks taking care of vehicle licenses and folks getting driver’s licenses were sent to separate locations (drivers licenses are on the 1st floor, with vehicle licensing on the ground floor), so I ended up being fourth in queue. You take a number and wait for your number to be called.

After my number was called, a clerk checked over all my forms to ensure completeness. He then took the forms and told me to go and wait in a second room. After another ten minutes or so, a second clerk called me, verified my forms again, handed me back my passport and took my payment (via debit card).

He gave me a receipt and told me it should take three weeks to get my new UK license.


Do I Need to Get My Photo Signed?

NOTE - Since a switch in websites from DirectGov to GOV.UK, I can no longer find details on the Premium Checking Service. I am not aware if this service is still available, or if it has been discontinued. All information on Premium Checking Service may no longer be accurate.
If you go to the premium checking service, no. The clerk who serves you will verify your identity.

If you are mailing in with your Canadian passport, then no. The DVLA site says that you only need to have your photo signed if you aren’t using the following forms of ID: an up-to-date passport, UK travel document or an EC/EEA identity card (apart from Sweden).

Will I Get My Canadian License Back?

No. The UK will send it back to the relevant authority in Canada.

What if I Need to Drive After Handing in My Canadian License?

NOTE - Since a switch in websites from DirectGov to GOV.UK, I can no longer find details on the Premium Checking Service. I am not aware if this service is still available, or if it has been discontinued. All information on Premium Checking Service may no longer be accurate.
If you get the premium checking service, the receipt that the clerk gives you can be used as proof of being allowed to drive.

If you mail in, I am not sure of the answer. Anyone know the answer?

What if I have a Provisional or Graduated License?

Some provinces now have “graduated licensing” (as an example Ontario).

Can a Canadian exchange a license with less than full driving privileges for a UK one? I don’t know the answer to this, but if you do - please share in the comments and I will update this section.


Your New License

After you exchange it, you should receive your license in the post. Mine took a little under 3 weeks to arrive, even with Royal Mail’s usual slowness, so I was pleased.

What Does My New UK Driver’s License Allow Me to Do?

My license allows me the following classifications:

  • A - Motorcycles with a power output of up to 33 horsepower (25 kilowatts). This webpage discusses in detail what that means, and this is a list of motorcycles with less than that power.
  • B and BE - Automatic transmission cars, including cars pulling trailers. A “car” is classified as having less than 8 seats and weighing 3500 kg or less.
  • B1 - Three and four wheeled light vehicles, like quadbikes, as long as they are less than 550 kg.
  • GH - Road Rollers and Tracked Vehicles - A “road roller” is what we would call a steam roller. Tracked vehicles are vehicles with tracks instead of wheels. Before you go out and buy a Sherman tank, though, note that the tracked vehicle can’t weigh more than 3500 kg, and the steam roller must be less than 11.69 tonnes. Nor steam powered.

Did You Say Only Automatic Cars? That Doesn’t Appear on My License

Check the back. On the back you will see a codes beside the categories, probably reading “78,70CDN”

70CDN means that the license was exchanged from a Canadian license.

78 means Automatic transmissions only.

For more information on the codes, check out this page Information on driving license codes. The detail is in information pamphlet INS57P, in case the link goes dead.

The UK has Different Licenses for Automatic and Manual Cars?

Yup. Its a point of debate. Some people think that it makes sense, as it keeps drivers who can’t drive a stick from stalling in front of you at roundabouts or rolling back into you at hills. Others think it is another sign of the nanny state that the UK is becoming.

Either way, if you are exchanging a Canadian License, you are going to be able to only drive automatic transmission cars.

I Can Drive A Manual Transmission. Can’t I Just Exchange My Canadian License for a Manual License?

Nope, at least not as far as I’ve been able to determine. The DVLA says that to exchange a Canadian license for a UK Manual license, you need to “prove” that you took your test in a manual car. However, they don’t say what they would accept as proof.

I have been driving manual cars since I was 16, and back when I had my Canadian license, drove manual cars here in the UK. Once I made the switch, though, I would no longer be allowed. I tried to find some way to do a direct exchange. Nothing I read indicated anyone has ever been able to do it, especially seeing as I can drive a manual, but didn't take my license on a manual transmission car.

Those who did take their test on manual transmission cars haven't had much luck either. I have read about people trying to prove it, but none that have. Some have provided letters from the driving examiners that the car was a manual, and the DVLA has rejected that as not being sufficient enough evidence.

Basically, you should be prepared to accept the automatic license, and if you want a manual license, take the test.

To paraphrase The Beatles, “ Baby, you can drive my car, as long as it is an automatic!”

Really, There Is No Way to Get A Manual License?

Apparently some people do it, as this freedom of information act request indicates that in 2008, 7,628 automatic licenses were issues and 2,765 manual license were issued. If anyone out there who has done it can shed light on what documentation you provided, please do!


What To Do To Get a Manual License

Okay, so you have your new license, but if you are like me, you want more. You want that manual license. Here’s how to go about doing it.

I passed my test in February of 2014. I had to take the test twice due to a fault I made in my first test.

Do I Need a Manual License?

No, as long as you are fine with not being able to drive a manual transmission car. That’s fine if you own your own automatic car. However, if you are looking to rent cars or join a car sharing scheme like Zip Car, you’ll find automatic transmission cars are hard to find and very expensive to rent. Also, if you ever want to buy a car, you’ll have a much greater selection if you can buy a manual. Automatic cars just aren’t that common around here.

Do I Need to Write the Theory Test?

No. The DVLA website itself says “If you want to upgrade within a vehicle category you won’t normally need to take a theory test. For example, if you have a full automatic car licence and you want a manual car licence you won’t have to take a theory test.” The experience of those who have taken the manual test also confirms this.

However, the people working at the DVLA offices don’t always know or understand this, and may tell you that you need to take a theory test. Once they start the process, though, they will find that they are unable to book a theory test for you, as you already have a license, and should then book your manual test.

I personally had not issues booking either my first or second driving test via the phone. In London, it was about six weeks between the day I booked and the first available test.

How Do I Book a Test?

As you don't have a theory test number, you cannot book on line. Instead, you can book by phone or post.

Do I Need To Study or Take Lessons First?

No. You can just go and take your test.

However, those I have talked to who have done this suggested taking a couple driving lessons first. There is a very low pass rate for the test (35%), and many people without the lessons failed their first test.

Taking a few lessons will help you know what to expect from the test, and provide you with some idea of the more esoteric things that could come up on the test.

I personally ended up taking 10 hours of lessons before my first test, and I consider these invaluable. Even as an experienced driver, it was great to have someone take you through what will be on the test and perform some mock tests with you. A professional driving instructor will be able to run a test exactly like an examiner would. Secondly, as I didn't have a car or anyone to go out with, it was good to practice and get used to driving in the UK - specifically dealing with rounadabouts and intersections, which aren't common in Canada.

If you have someone to practice with, you could probably do a couple hours of lessons, and then maybe one or two mock tests and not do as many hours.

What If I Want To Practice In A Manual Before My Test?

Your automatic license is similar to a UK provisional license for manuals. Therefore, you can drive a manual transmission car if you have the L Learner Plates on, and are riding with a fully licensed UK driver over the age of 21. Note that the driver needs to have a full UK license, not an international license.

What is the Test Like?

It is a full driving test. The test is not just to test your ability to drive a manual transmission. It is a full driving test, and you will have to do all the things that someone who is getting their license for the first time. Even though you have a full license for automatics already, you'll still need to prove you can drive a car.

The test is about 45 minutes long, including 10 minutes of independent drivings (where they will ask you to follow signs to a destination, or give you multiple directions to follow (e.g. turn left at the end of the road, then take the second right, then follow that road until the end, and turn right again)). You will be asked to do one manoeuvre - either a reverse around a corner, three-point-turn or parallel park; and potentially an emergency stop. Before you start away, you'll be asked to read a license plate (registration plate) from a distance to test your eyesight. You'll also be asked some questions about the car (the "show-me / tell-me") like "how do you turn on your fog lights, and when would you use them?" or "show me where the brake fluid is, and how do you check it?"

You will be marked on your actions as a minor, serious or dangerous fault. You can have less than 15 minor faults (things like checking mirrors enough or signalling a turn too late). If you have any serious or dangerous fault, you will fail.

The results will be given to you immediately after the exam ends. If you pass, you will be given a pass certificate that you can use as proof to drive a manual car. The instructor will take your license and a new license will be posted to you.

If you fail, you can continue to drive an automatic transmission car without issue, and continue to drive a manual car with L-plates and a licensed driver. You can book another test immediately, though need to have at least 10 days between your first test and your second.

See more here from the gov.uk website.

Personally, I failed my first test with one serious fault - entering a roundabout in the wrong lane (entered in the left lane when I was making a right turn). Even though I negotiated with roundabout without issue and did not impede any other cars progress, it was still a potentially dangerous situation, which is why I failed. I passed the second test with only 4 minor faults. As stated above, I felt that the driving lessons and mock tests I took with a professional instructor were very valuable in having a successful test.

Where’d This Information Come From?

The Direct.gov and DVLA websites, as well as DVLA document INF38 for the most part, plus my own experiences, and information from the internet from forums like Canuckabroad and Thorntree.


Can I Use My Own Car for the Test?

Yes. Alejandro Erickson details the steps to do this in his blog entry. The key thing is being insured for the test. You can get provisional insurance for the test, and there are companies which provide this provisional insurance. Note that


Getting Insurance

When you get a new license - whether the first exchanged automatic license, or passing the test for a full manual license, you are considered a new driver for insurance purposes. As one commenter says, "When you pass a test in the UK, the new license issued is only valid from the day you passed the test, so your past experience, on an automatic full UK license or from a Canadian license, vanishes."

Going Back to Canada

What If I Move Back to Canada?

Heading back to Canada for good and want to get back your license?


If you are moving to live in Alberta, Saskatchewan, Manitoba, Ontario, Quebec, Newfoundland and Labrador, you will be able to exchange a UK licence issued by the DVLA for one issued by these Provinces. For other provinces, If you take up residence in any of these Provinces/Territories, you will be required to take a written test and a practical road test.

Any Other Questions?

Please feel free to post any other questions in the comments. I will attempt to answer them, and potentially add them to the test of the blog if they would assist others.

Update History
22 Nov 2009 - Initial Version
25 Nov 2009 - Added information on driving manual as a provisional driver with automatic license
11 Nov 2012 - Added information on insurance, booking test (clarified cannot be online), information on exchanging if you return to Canada, and note of Premium Checking Service to indicate I am not sure if the service is still available.
12 Feb 2014 - Updated with a few points on the manual test
26 Oct 2014 - Updated with points from Alejandro Erickson's experience - http://alejandroerickson.com/home/blog/blog.php?entry=22

Posted by GregW 14:33 Archived in United Kingdom Tagged tips_and_tricks migration_experiences Comments (86)

Drawing Comfort from the Smoke from the Yakitori Grill

Revisiting Japan while never even leaving London. Wandering around the Matsuri Japan Festival at Old Spitalfields Market, and reflecting on what drew me to live abroad. Plus, some really tasty food.

sunny 20 °C

I've been cocooning recently. Working from home and a spat of cooler weather has meant that staying in has been quite an attractive option. So for the past few weeks, other than the one day a week when I head down to my office, my life has pretty much taken place in a small radius of my flat, the outer limit of the radius being the N1 centre, which has a Sainsbury's, pharmacist and movie theatre. With the N1 centre, I want for nothing.

The other day I was re-reading some of the notes I had made after reading about Existential Migration, which I wrote about in my entry I'm not a Traveller, I'm a Migrant. Reading my notes at the time reminded me that I should be taking advantage of the opportunity I have created for myself by moving to England, and getting out and enjoying life in the city.

To that end, I have (for the past 4 days at least) made an effort to get out and see London. On Wednesday I walked up Caledonian Road and checked out Pentonville Prison, which I will admit isn't very high on the tourist trail, but it is a mile from my house and thought I should check it out, in the event there is ever an escape. On Thursday, after taking the train back from my office in Egham, I walked from Victoria Station to my house (about 4 miles), taking in Buckingham Palace, Piccadilly Circus and Soho along the way. Friday I walked around Camden for an hour.

Yesterday, I headed over to Liverpool Street station and the nearby Old Spitalfields Market.



Spitalfields used to be a wholesale fruit and vegetable market, but that was moved in 1991 to the new Spitalfields Market out near the Olympic site in Stratford. Today, the old Spitalfields Market is used as a space for restaurants, shops, bars and the occasional small festival.

Yesterday, there was a Japanese festival called Matsuri.


I quite liked Japan when I was there in 2006. I found it an interesting mix of the familiar and the strange. It is a very modern country (at least the bits I saw of it), and other than a proliferation of neon that you wouldn't see anywhere in the west, the cities seem pretty similar to those of Europe or North America. On the other hand, some of the customs are very strange to Western eyes, and I always had a strong feeling that I was an outsider in Japan. I've read accounts of those who spent more time there, and they all point to this - no matter how long you spend in Japan or how well you speak the language, you are always an outsider.

I was mulling this over while wandering around with my first cold Asahi beer, and realized that may be why I liked it so much. The research on existential migration focused my attention on a potential driver for wanting to live abroad being that I often felt like a bit of an outsider at home. I was popular and had lots of friends and good relationship with my family, but there was a nagging little bit inside me that always seemed to indicate that perhaps I didn't quite belong. In moving abroad, I haven't changed that opinion - I still feel like I don't quite belong. But that doesn't bother me now because I actually don't belong. I am a foreigner, so it is fine to feel foreign. In effect, I have changed my external circumstances to make them match my internal feelings. If you feel like you don't quite belong, move somewhere where you don't actually belong. Then everything is fine.

Anyway, I'll come back to the idea of existential migration in more detail in a future entry. For now, let's just wander around the Matsuri festival and enjoy it...

There was a lot of Japanese goods for sale.









I was mostly there for the food, though. I enjoyed a couple of Asahi beers, had a nice plate of sushi and some yakitori.






There was Japanese entertainment. The drummers were good, and I liked the children's martial-arts-cum-dancing display. There was a Shamisen player from Brazil. The shamisen is a 3-stringed lute. I found it a little too plinky-plunky.



Lots of people got into the spirit of the day and dressed in traditional Japanese dress...



...and taking pleasure from the Japanese activities and art.


It looks like love at first sight!

It looks like love at first sight!

All and all, a good day. I got out and got some exercise walking back and forth from my place and Liverpool Street Station (which I needed after the Japanese food and beer), I got to remind myself of the great time I had in Japan, and I got to ruminate a little more on why I undertook this adventure to live abroad in the first place. To experience a culture other than my own. Which I did at the Matsuri Festival, even if it wasn't quite the culture of the country I am living in.

It was good to get out the house and look at other lands.


Oh, and because I am a great flatmate, I bought my flatmates some presents. I present them to you now in haiku.

White cartoon feline
Hello Kitty Candy box
a gift for flatmates


Dewa mata atode!

Posted by GregW 01:35 Archived in England Tagged events migration_experiences migration_philosophy existential_migration Comments (1)

I’ve Become Boring... and I Love It

I used to think settling is what houses do... or what women do when they decide to date me.

sunny 24 °C

The last day of July was my last day up in Birmingham, and after returning from Toronto, I have been working on developing some internal systems training for my company, which has me working at home most days, but with the occasional trip down to my company’s HQ in Egham.

Getting to Egham requires travelling for about an hour and a half, transferring from the London Underground to Southern Trains at Victoria Station, and then transferring to South West Trains at Clapham Junction, the self-proclaimed UK’s busiest train station.


I snapped the photo yesterday when I headed down to Egham because I thought about writing a blog entry that incorporated Clapham Junction. Either I was going to go all mythbusters on the claim about being Britain’s busiest station or write an entry about commuting.

I tried writing an entry about Clapham Junction, but after reading the though the first paragraph under “Today” on the Wikipedia entry for Clapham Junction, I realized that I really had nothing to add. So I decided to try and tackle an entry on commuting. I figured it seeing as “The Esoteric Globe” has (nominally at least) become a blog about me living abroad, I guess it would make some sort of sense if I gave you an idea of what my commute is like. After all, commuting is part of living abroad.

After writing the introduction for the blog entry though, I re-read it and realized it was as boring as tweets regarding chicken breast deals at Co-Op or ferries in my line of sight. Not that things have exactly been overwhelming interesting in my other blog entries this month - an entry on how flying internationally in economy is annoying (not exactly a novel observation given the 1.5 million hits that come up on Google on the subject), an entry comparing weather forecasts and another entry on flying, though this one having nothing to do me actually flying...


In all honesty, I almost didn’t post my last entry on The first scheduled international flight. I read the article on it and thought it was a vaguely interesting fact. The kind of thing that one should sock away in their brain in the event they are ever at a pub quiz and one of the questions is asked “When was the first scheduled international flight?” It is not, though, the kind of thing that is deserving of its own blog entry, surely.

The fact is that earlier this week I looked at the blog and realized I hadn’t posted anything in a couple weeks and felt I needed to post something. So I posted something tediously dull, and I almost did it again today.

Fact of the matter is that life here in London has become somewhat boring. Not much travel other than the morning commute, and so little to write about. My life has become very domestic of late...

...and I love it.

I realized about a week ago that I was really starting to feel settled here in London. My life is filled up with things that normal people with normal lives do -

Work during the week and relax on the weekends; poker on Friday nights; the pub on Sunday; Wednesday night pizza night; the occasionally film or concert; putting together flat-pack furniture; going to the bank; going to the dentist; watching Top Gear.

The above mentioned concert - U2 at Wembley

The above mentioned concert - U2 at Wembley

It is like I’ve become a real person now, after living much of the last year in a kind of disconnected from real life state.


Before I was experiencing London, but not part of it. It felt like I was a ghost, floating through the town. Now I am here, I am employed, I have a place to live, I have friends, I have plans in my social diary (I am even going to the Opera next weekend). In the past few months it feels like the immaterial and disembodied life in London is becoming corporeal and real.

Back a year and 3 months ago, when I first arrived here, I wrote about floating on the surface of London. I said that, “If the first day I felt like I was floating on top of London, not at all immersed into it, the second day I felt that at the very least I had a toe in the water, slowly sinking into my life.”

I’m no longer floating. I am on the ground - solid and real. The streets are crowded, the tube trains too hot, there are workmen banging on metal like a steel drum band outside my window. It’s dirty and hot and real.

...and I love it.

Posted by GregW 09:16 Archived in England Tagged living_abroad migration_experiences Comments (1)

“Last Orders, Please!” and the Lock-in

Drinking later than allowed. Shhh, don't tell anyone.

sunny 18 °C

Last Saturday night, both my flatmates had disappeared for the evening and all my friends were busy, so I was on my own for the evening. I had been at home watching some TV, but got bored and decided to grab a quick drink round about 11 o’clock in the evening.

I wandered over to my “local” for a pint. A “local” is the term people use for the pub they usually frequent. I actually have a couple pubs that I call local. My favourite is actually further down the street past at least two other drinking holes, so technically it isn’t my “local,” but it is small and quirky and often has a very diverse crowd, which appeals to me. Unfortunately, it also closes at 11:00 PM, so last Saturday night I’d already missed the closing bell, so I went to my second favourite local, the pub right around the corner, The Thornhill Arms.

It is a proper looking pub with wobbly tables, stained stools and a few moth-eaten couches on which you can sometimes get a seat, which is all a plus. On the negative side, though is the fact that they do karaoke on Saturday nights. Last Saturday night was beautiful though, clear and warm, so I took my pint and grabbed a seat at one of the picnic tables on the pavement outside. Many other folks were also out enjoying the weather, and I happened to grab the last picnic table.

This picture is not actually The Thornhill Arms, but it has a picnic table and beer, so is illustrative of the concept. In fact, none of the pictures in this blog are of The Thornhill Arms, but they do have beer in them...

A few moments later three men wandered out of the pub, pints in hand, and asked if they could share the table with me. I nodded, and the gents sat down. We started talking, and it turns out they were from Ireland, in town for the weekend for a boozy weekend.

“Is there a strip club around here?” one of them asked me. I replied there was a dodgy looking one down by King’s Cross Station, about five minutes walk away. “Nothing closer?” he asked. I shook my head.

The weather must have put everyone in a joyous mood, because soon there was a lot of chatting with the tables on either side of us. I ended up talking to a Brazilian student who was studying here in London, while the Irishmen were getting directions to a nearby “spa” from two bemused women in their early twenties.

The bartender was a woman in her fifties. She came out of the bar and called out, “last orders, please!” I looked at my watch. It was almost midnight, closing time of The Thornhill Arms. I wandered into the pub to get another pint, surprised that the Irishmen had declined my offer to buy them a round. Apparently they had been drinking since 10 in the morning, and had finally become so saturated with alcohol they could take no more.

I returned to my picnic table, glad to escape the awful warble of a man attempting (but failing) to sing Cracklin’ Rose by Neil Diamond. The Irishmen were arguing amongst themselves whether to try and find the spa that the women at the other table had mentioned to them. Finally, one of them decided that he was off to find it regardless of what the others did, and as he was the one holding the card that had the address to their hotel, the other two were forced to follow.

I chatted a little more with the Brazilian student, but soon he and his party were off, and I was left alone. No matter, I had started the night alone and was fine with just sitting back, sipping my beer and enjoying the warmth of the night.


Finishing up, I must admit that it was so pleasant I decided another pint would hit the spot. Of course, the landlady had called last orders, which meant I missed my chance… Unless there was a chance of a lock-in!

The landlady was standing outside, saying goodnight to a couple of regulars. After they departed I wandered up.

“Any chance of one more?” I asked. The landlady shook her head. There would be no more beer for me that night.

I should have guessed that would happen. After all, the Thornhill Arms has no curtains, and curtains are absolutely required for the lock-in.

A lock-in is the term used when a pub keeps serving after closing time. Generally the publican will close and lock the doors, thus locking in the customers and giving the practice its name. The curtains are necessary because otherwise the police would be able to see that the pub is breaking its license and serving out of hours. With the curtains closed and the door locked, no one from the outside knows.


Usually a lock-in is an honour reserved for regulars, but a few times since I’ve arrived in London I’ve been included in a lock-in. I will refrain from naming the pubs (after all, it is illegal), but I will tell you about my first experience with the lock-in.

It was at a pub I was at back when I lived on the Isle of Dogs. At 11 o’clock the landlord walked over and shut the curtains and locked the door. He then walked back behind the bar, and kept on chatting to the two regulars sitting there.

I wasn’t quite sure what was happening. Was the pub closed and were we meant to leave? I continued to drink my beer and watched the behaviour of the other patrons, the two regulars at the bar and a threesome playing pool at the back of the pub. One of the pool players wandered up to the bar and ordered another round, so once I finished my beer, I figured I was safe to do the same.

The landlord served me without question, and I went back and took my seat, pleased to be included in this strange ritual. It was only much later when I discovered that this practice had a name, and the history of the lock-in. The lock-in dates back to World War I, when opening hours of pubs were changed to keep factory workers from getting too drunk to contribute to the war effort. The tradition continued after the war, and in most cases if things were kept low key, the police didn’t bother to break down the door and arrest everyone inside.


In 2003 the licensing laws in Britain were changed, and pubs and bars could continue to serve alcohol past 11 o’clock at night, depending on the conditions of the license the pub receives (thus why the Thornhill Arms was open until midnight last Saturday night). With this change, the practice of the lock-in apparently has diminished, though I can attest that it does occasionally still happen, as I experience in that pub in the Isle of Dogs.

After I had finished my beer, I decided to head home. The landlord came around from behind the bar and unlocked and opened the door to let me out. I walked out and he closed the door behind me. As I walked away I heard the lock click, the pub still with the three pool players, two regulars and the landlord downing their pints.


Posted by GregW 10:11 Archived in United Kingdom Tagged food migration_experiences Comments (0)

A Year of Building A New Life

Looking back on the last 365 days of living abroad

semi-overcast 14 °C

One year ago, at some time just after nine in the morning British Summer Time, an immigration officer at Heathrow airport brought his stamp down upon my UK Entry Clearance. He passed me back my passport and said, “Welcome to the United Kingdom.”

I walked out of Heathrow airport with an idea of where I wanted to get to, a blueprint for my new life in London. I also had an idea of how that was going to happen, a plan for the “when” and “what” and “how” I was going to get to that new life. A lot has happened in this past year, and not much of it has gone to that plan I had in my head. I’ve lived in 3 different houses, spent 5 weeks working “abroad” in Phoenix, spent 8 months job hunting, finally found full time employment, and got to know London.


Finding a job is probably the biggest accomplishment of the last year. When I arrived here in the UK, North America was just entering a recession but the economy still looked pretty good here in the UK. Within just a few months time however, Lehman Brothers was bust, the phrase “credit crunch” had entered the nation’s vocabulary, and the phrase “hiring freeze” became one of the most frequent phrases I heard from potential employers. Finding a job in a sputtering economy is an accomplishment I take some pride in.

More than that, however, finding a job provides a stability and permanence to my move abroad. Prior to having a job, I never really felt like I was “living” in England. I always felt a little more like a tourist, albeit an extended tourist who spent the majority of his time on Monster.com looking for work. This feeling of impermanence led to a few of my more colourful and wild swings of mood, including the night I spent sitting at home watching Wilson from Cast Away floating on the ocean and my foul-mood on visiting Lullingstone Villa.

Now that I am employed, I feel a lot more like this is home and I am actually living here. I feel like a productive member of English society, like I am giving something to my newly adopted country, and of course getting something deeper than just a tourist’s experience in return.

After failing to visit Lullingstone Villa, I wandered around and eventually my mood improved, mostly because of a change of outlook. I wrote about how that day reminded me that moving here was a fresh start, a “greenfield development.” While I cited my knowledge of the term from IT development, the term greenfield comes from the construction industry originally, to indicate a development on a fresh plot of land never built on before.


To stretch that greenfield metaphor a little more, I now feel like I am past the planning stage. I had a blueprint in my head walking out of Heathrow, one I have had to revise them a few more times than I would have liked, but now those plans feel a lot more complete. I’ve started to implement that blueprint, slower than I might have hoped, but things are starting to progress now. I’m no longer looking out over a greenfield. We’ve started building, and I’m looking a foundation taking shape.

My blueprint is now coming to life.

Posted by GregW 09:55 Archived in United Kingdom Tagged living_abroad migration_experiences migration_philosophy Comments (2)

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