Very near my house is the ruins of a medieval priory. It’s a nice spot, with some grass, some benches and several trees (including a pear tree from which I collect pears in autumn). The church building was one of few that was spared Henry Ⅷ’s mass act of state vandalism known as “the dissolution of the monasteries”. But as bad luck would have it, royalists holed up in the priory church during the English Civil War, a hundred and some years later – and the republicans bombed them out, leaving it in ruins.
If you’re interested in history, it’s one of the places in Colchester worth a visit.
The other day, I was walking past the priory and a lone tourist was standing at the gate that is the entrance to the priory grounds. The gate was closed; the tourist was disappointingly reading and re-reading the sign that explained the opening hours. The thing was that the gate should have been opened for another couple of hours. (It gets locked around dusk because drunks and junkies like to accumulate in such places in towns after dark.)
I wanted to help the tourist but couldn’t work out what to say. “It should be open but isn’t” wouldn’t be of much use to him.
When I got home, one minute’s walk away, I could hear an annoying buzzing sound that I hadn’t previously noticed.
So, what was going on? And what was the link between these two disparate “mysteries”?
It’s only a guess but I am pretty certain that the massive tree in the grounds was being cut back with a saw. Branches would drop to the ground. So the entire priory site was closed.
This is what the English call “health and safety”. Companies and councils take incredible precautions against even the slightest dangers. People cannot be trusted not to sit under trees from which branches are dropping; it’s not enough to tape off the immediate area (in this case, about two percent of the priory site); the whole area has to be secured.
In England, we swap stories about ridiculous examples of “health and safety”. My favourite (i.e. most maddening) was one of my first, several years ago.
I wanted to have a meal in a pub and watch a football game on the TV at the same time. I couldn’t, they said, because the TV is on the ground floor and the kitchen is the basement floor. And the dumb waiter was broken. “You can eat downstairs or watch the football upstairs.”
“Can’t you just bring the plate up the stairs?” I asked. “Not allowed. Health and safety regulations.”
“Okay, I’ll carry it up,” I said. Also, not allowed.
Everyone in England will have a similarly surreal story.
Obviously, the chance of someone hurting themselves by carrying a plate up a few steps is minuscule. But for the company, it’s just not worth the risk. If someone did have an accident, the company would be liable for damages. And there is always the possibility of someone deliberately slipping on the steps because they know they can seek damages. So it’s easier for the company to protect itself with such rules and regulations, however absurd the result.
So I guess the only thing I could have told the tourist was that I am sorry but England is ridiculous.