United Kingdom Travel Guide

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King's College, Cambridge - details

King's College, Cambridge - details

Michael Ewart

The United Kingdom has been called the biggest small country on Earth due to its sheer diversity. The UK is short for the "United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland" and is formed by the province of Northern Ireland and the countries of Great Britain - England, Scotland and Wales.  Each of these countries has a very distinct identity and you should not call a Welshman English or vice versa, and some may not like being called 'British', even though the Welsh (and the Cornish) are the original Britons.  Note the term British Isles also includes the Republic of Ireland and is a geographic designation.

In this site the different islands in the Irish Sea (including the Isle of Man)and those North of Scotland are also taken into consideration. The United Kingdom has too many sites to mention.

Though detached from the continent of Europe by only a few miles of water, the UK is permeated by a strong sense of its cultural separateness. Everything is different here: measures (pounds and ounces are still more popular than the now official kilos), traffic (small island, lots of traffic jams), customs and food. Life in the UK retains a strong link with a past that has little in common with its European sisters and brothers.  Some citizens (especially in England, less in Scotland or Northern Ireland) still have problems, not only with accepting the European idea, but also with defining the concept of the United Kingdom itself.  The dominant national culture of the UK is "England" and Englishness.  The non-English are therefore, by extension, often unwittingly and unintentionally cast in the role of lesser mortals.  There is an inherent problem within the UK since many people, including visitors, think that British is another term for English. Therefore the other nations in the UK resent the term British due to its association with English. To illustrate this point, the English national football team's anthem is God Save the Queen (which is actually the British National Anthem).  Therefore booing of the British anthem by the Welsh or Scots at national sporting events is not uncommon.

Overall the country is rich in monuments, that attest to its intricate history; from ancient hill forts and Roman villas, through a host of medieval cathedrals to the ambitious civic projects of the Industrial Revolution.  Generally the tourist infrastructure is very well developed all over the UK and has produced a lot of museums, theme parks and commemorative monuments.  Culturally there are also things that resemble Europe: nationwide shops and businesses rule the appearance of most high streets.

England remains one of the most diverse nations in the world - with ethnic groups from all over the place and a general history of tolerance for the underdog (from wherever they come).  This is reflected in the cuisine they have brought with them from Indian sub-continent to modern European or the Orient, Africa and the Americas, alongside plenty of England's own local and national dishes.

The most popular sites for visitors are, apart from London, Stonehenge (in Wiltshire) , Stratford upon Avon (the home of Shakespeare) and the City of York with its medieval walls and Roman and Viking relics.  Beyond that however there are modern cities (like Leeds or Manchester) trading cities such as Bristol centre of the wine trade and home to Brunel's SS Great Britain (an early steamship that was brought back from South Georgia to be restored in her home port).  University towns like Cambridge or Oxford and a breadth of landscapes that defy the imagination.

All this and yet nowhere is further than 113Km / 70 miles miles from the sea.

Western and northern England fascinate with beautiful landscapes: rugged moorlands, picturesque flatlands and rocky coastlines.  A visit to the South Western peninsula is a must - Dartmoor and Exmoor in Devon and Somerset, and Bodmin in Cornwall.  Also, in Newquay there is world class surfing.

Elsewhere there are small mountains with excellent climbing (in the Lake District in the northwest);  fens and marshes in East Anglia (including the delightful Norfolk Broads, a huge area of connecting inland waterways popular for sailing, fishing and various watersports); and various moors from Devon (see above) to the north of the country.  Forests include the New Forest - in Hampshire (so called because it was New when set up as a royal hunting forest by William the Conqueror in the 11th Century) and the National Forest in the north midlands.  The latter continues to be planted across an area that was subject to mining and industrial activity until recently.  The aim here is to create over 100 years a major new forested area - slowly joining up small patches of woodland.  There is also the ancient Forest of Dean on the border between England and South Wales near Gloucester.

Chalk landscapes are found in the south of the country (the famous cliffs of Dover and the South Downs) and also on the North East coast at Flamborough where a huge chalk headland juts out into the North Sea.

Industrial heritage is everywhere to be found - not surprising since the country was the birthplace of the Industrial Revolution with its beginnings in the 18th century as a network of canals were dug across the country.  Interestingly Birmingham has more miles of canals than Venice - just don't expect them to be as beautiful.

North of the border in Scotland there has always been a strong sense of identity and although not independent sovereign states, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland are still considered countries in their own right particularly in a sporting context.  In the early to mid-nineties there was a reawakening of the Scottish identity to such an extent that the British government had no option but to establish the Scottish Parliament in the Scottish capital, Edinburgh.  However there may yet be further constitutional change within the next decade as the Scottish National Party is the largest political party in Scotland and a large percentage of Scots want a referendum on further powers/independence. The SNP's aim is to dissolve the Union and let Scotland regain her independence as a sovereign state.

The reason that some Scots feel more European compared to their English neighbours may be in part down to Scotland's long history of co-operation with France against the common enemy-England.  The alliance provided both countries with military assistance, it also gave citizens of Scotland and France dual nationality until that right was revoked by the French government in 1903.  However the alliance also introduced Scots to French influences in legal, culinary, architectural and linguistic fields.

Scotland was an independent nation until the Act of Union in 1707 when the Scottish Parliament was persuaded to dissolve after the English imposed trade sanctions and offered bribes to the Scottish nobility.  In truth the Scottish nobility had in fact lost a fortune on a venture overseas and it was a significant bail-out of their economy that led to the Union. The Scottish people were furious and the resentment has never fully gone away.  The Act of Union maintained many Scottish institutions such as the Church of Scotland, a separate Education system and Scottish Law.

Scotland's most visited city is the capital, Edinburgh.  It has been called the "Athens of the North" due to the beautiful scenery, architecture and historical background. The city has a very cosmopolitan atmosphere due to the huge number of foreign tourists and students that flock there.  'Edinburgh,' said writer Robert Louis Stevenson, "is what Paris ought to be." There are so many attractions to visit: Edinburgh Castle, The Royal Mile, Holyrood Palace, The Scottish Parliament, Our Dynamic Earth, Museum of Scotland, National Gallery of Scotland, Edinburgh Zoo, Royal Yacht Britannia, St Giles Cathedral, The Scott Monument, Arthur's Seat, Calton Hill, Royal Botanic Gardens, Forth Bridge, Rosslyn Chapel of "Da Vinci Code" fame and many more. Also if you are in the city in August you've just become immersed in one of Europe's greatest festivals; The Edinburgh Festival!  However Scotland has had many capital cities over the centuries - including Stirling and Dunfermline and the Royal Palace at Linlithgow was the birthplace of Mary Queen of Scots.  Edinburgh was merely the last in line.

On the west coast is the City of Glasgow - the third largest in the UK (after London and Birmingham).  Whilst described as a vibrant city it also suffers from decades of neglect and serious poverty affecting a large percentage of the population.  It is also still a centre of religious/racial tensions between the Catholic and Protestant communities echoing the problems that existed in Northern Ireland.  There is also a large Italian community (begun by ex-prisoners of WW2 who, after being held in Scotland elected to return and make their lives there.)  The city houses the Burrell Collection and also the Kelvingrove Art Gallery.  The banks of the Clyde are slowly reviving as shipyards are replaced by flats and a planned area of restaurants/leisure facilities.

However Scotland isn't just Edinburgh or Glasgow, it has so much to offer including mountains and lochs of the Highlands, the wonderful coastline, castles galore, (including Fyvie in Aberdeenshire regarded as perhaps the finest baronial castle in the land).  The small fishing villages and towns such as Pennan and Banff have a character all of their own and of course there are the Scots themselves, who can be warm-hearted and friendly.

There is also an ancient culture still to be found in the Western Isles and Highlands of the Gaels.  The language of Scots Gaelic is at last beginning a revival and you will see dual language roadsigns throughout Argyll.  Their traditions of ships and the sea was evident in the last 200 years of shipbuilding on the River Clyde.  Sadly centuries of repression drove the Gaelic culture to the edges and only now is its repatriation into the mainstream beginning.  The Gaelic (celtic) history of Scotland is far older than the Scots Kings but few modern-day Scots are aware of the heritage which goes back to the late 6th Century.

By comparison the northern isles (the Orkneys and Shetland islands) are predominantly Norse in their culture.  Orkney is the site of the oldest known built domestic heritage in Europe, being older than the pyramids of Egypt (at Skara Brae).  Elsewhere neolithic and bronze age sites abound.

Wales was an independent nation until it was absorbed into England in the Act of Union 1536.  However the Welsh people like the Scots retain a fierce sense of national identity.  The Welsh language is becoming more popular and the establishment of the Welsh Assembly means Wales after several centuries is taking steps towards nationhood (Even though less than 50% of the Welsh voted for an assembly.  Meanwhile, Wales remains a Principality.

The Isle of Man, along with the Channel Island states (Jersey, Guernsey, Alderney & Helm, and Sark) are all semi-independent.  They enjoy financial autonomy and are not part of the European Union but otherwise are very much British in their outlook.  Technically they are not part of the United Kingdom but are generally treated as being part of the whole from an international perspective since Foreign Affairs and Defence are all matters dealt with by the UK Government.

Contributors

February 25, 2006 change by bardofthebroch (4 points)

February 11, 2007 change by anonyuser

May 31, 2007 change by giorgio

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