Miles, Ubuntu 11.10 uses Gnome3 under the hood, but they have built their own desktop front end - called unity - to sit on top of it. Gnome3 has it's own brand new interface, which you can use, but it will be equally different to the version you once looked at, they have both changed.
If you want to change the position of the application bar on the left I'm afraid you can't , but if you install the compiz settings manager from the software store, you can modify a lot of other settings. You might not realise but it will hide if you move a window over it, so it never gets in the way. I switched to using it a while ago, and find it very useful.
If you wanted a more classic feel, then Linux Mint are making their distro look more retro, but still based on Gnome3. That might be worth a look, but I'm not sure how long they will be able to keep it that way, as they are all moving forward.
I would also recommend the 64bit version these days, as with the next Ubuntu release 12.04 , it will be the standard.
Let me know how you get on, I'm sure if you give it a little time, you might get to like it.