THERE’S A LOT to see and do in the United Kingdom. There is loads of history and beautiful scenery. And there is London, one of the world’s most cosmopolitan, most fun and most interesting cities. And also, unfortunately, one of the most expensive.
First of all, let’s get the terminology right. ‘Britain’, or ‘Great Britain’, refers to the large island that contains England, Scotland and Wales. The ‘United Kingdom’ is a political term for those three countries and the northern part of Ireland. ‘The British Isles’ refers to Great Britain and Ireland and all the little islands around them.
The biggest island, Great Britain, is very heavily populated, with over 60 million people. The amazing thing is that is still plenty of empty countryside – bleak moors, rugged mountains, verdant forests, and beautiful rolling hills. Traveling around this green and pleasant land is one of life’s great joys.
The Top 100 Countries index rates the United Kingdom as the 5th best country on earth to visit. It is 2nd (after the USA) in terms of things to see and do, it is easy to visit, and it has a clean environment and very low corruption. It is in the Top Ten in an impressive six categories. Britain’s socialized National Health System means it’s not a bad place to fall sick or have an accident.
But it is also one of the most expensive countries for visitors, especially in and around London. The good news is that London is worth it. And once you get out a bit it can be pretty good value for money.
Britain’s compactness makes it an easy place to visit. It is not difficult to get around, though the traffic can be horrid if you are driving, and the trains are expensive. It’s probably the best place in the world for a bit of culture – art, music, drama. And most major global sports were invented there – most notably soccer, tennis, rugby and cricket.
It is also very diverse. If you can’t find something to do in Britain or Ireland, or something that appeals, you very definitely have a problem with your brain.
London and the South-East
A HUNDRED YEARS AGO London was the greatest city on earth, capital of the largest empire the world had ever seen. It was the commercial and political hub of the globe.
Its star has faded a little today, but it remains one of the world’s most cosmopolitan and interesting cities, and one of the most visited. It dominates south eastern England. “When a man is tired of London he is tired of life,” said Samuel Johnson nearly 400 years ago. That remains true today.
There are dozens of fabulous attractions that are within a day trip from London. You could never see and do it all in a lifetime of visits. It is impossible to write a list of things you must or should do in London.
The place is brimming with activities, to suit every taste and every budget. Just walking around aimlessly is worthwhile. Places like the Houses of Parliament, the Tower of London and St Pauls Cathedral are musts, and there are dozens more.
The area immediately around London is called the ‘Home Counties’. Beyond them the south-east also includes all the area between the River Thames and the English Channel.
You can easily spend a whole vacation only in this area, It is dotted with pretty villages and pleasant countryside. Only an hour or so north-west of London is the university town of Oxford, which is really worth a visit. The South Coast contains a number of pretty seaside resorts. There is stuff to do everywhere.
This is one of our favourite parts of the world. Even without London it would be worth many visits. With London, it is essential.
We just keep going there, again and again. We love the Sherlock Holmes pub in the West End and the Tattershall Castle pub and restaurant in a boat on the Thames where you can look across to the London Eye. They are only five minutes’ walk from each other.
We particularly like Brighton on the south coast, the hippest and happiest and most alternative place in all of England.
The West Country
WEST OF LONDON, past Berkshire and Wiltshire to Somerset and Dorset and Devon and Cornwall, is one of the most attractive parts of England. The beauty of the Cornish coast, with its picturesque fishing villages, is legendary. Villages like Penzance and Port Isaac and St Ives are world famous for their rugged maritime land-scapes. Land’s End, at Cornwall’s tip, is well named.
The beautiful city of Bath is remarkable for two reasons: the ancient Roman spa that gives it its name, and the regularity of the streetscapes of the residential buildings designed by John Ward in the 18th century, considered the pinnacle of Georgian architecture.
Nearby is the city of Bristol, one of England’s most attractive larger cities and with an extensive maritime tradition. To the south-east is historic Plymouth, also a wonderful town.
We love it. Bristol is a fabulous city, and the streetscapes in Bath are truly amazing. Try and make it to the Hunter’s Rest in the countryside between Bristol and Bath, the archetypal English country pub. Stay over if you can (but book ahead as there’s only four rooms). And the Cornish coast is very beautiful.
The Midlands and Northern England
The Midlands was the heartland of the Industrial Revolution. It is a heavily populated area, with the great cities of Manchester and Birmingham and Liverpool, and other major centres like Coventry and Sheffield. These hard-working cities made England the world’s economic powerhouse in the 19th century.
This region is not normally regarded as a tourist destination, but there is a lot to see. Birmingham is a great place, with a rejuvenated city center and more canals than Venice. Nearby is Shakespeare’s birthplace, Stratford-upon-Avon (which attracts far too many tourists).
Liverpool was home to the Beatles and is a must see for fans of the Fab Four. There are some special Beatles tours, which are lots of fun. Manchester is the second largest city in Britain, with its top two soccer teams.
Further north are the Yorkshire Dales and the Lake District National Parks, with some of the best scenery in England. York-shire often seems like a country in its own right (its inhabitants certainly seem to think it is). Its central city of York is a delight.
The Midlands and the North are much cheaper than London and the South. There is still a bit of a North-South divide in England, with this area more working-class and less pretentious. We’ve had some of our best times in England here.
We’ve spent a lot of time around Durham and Tyneside. Newcastle and Sunderland were once gritty industrial cities, but like the rest of northern England they have enjoyed a remarkable renaissance in recent years.
Not as high on most people’s list as down south, but still a wonderful place. You simply have to do a Beatles tour in Liverpool, and watching a match at Old Trafford - soccer or cricket - is something else. The north of England is worth visiting for the Lakes District alone.
Outside of Newcastle, overlooking Durham cricket ground, is Lumley Castle, now a remarkable upscale hotel. We were lucky enough to stay there once. You should too if you can.
SCOTLAND IS A VERY different country to England. They have been joined politically for 400 years, though there is now a strong movement to tear Scotland away again. Scotland has less than 10 percent of Great Britain’s population, but its effect on British history and British culture has been inordinately large.
A very high proportion of Britain’s best engineers, explorers, philosophers and soldiers have been Scottish. They say Scotland built the British Empire, not England. There is much truth to this. Scotland is the proudest of nations, and rightly so. And they have the bagpipes, though for many this is a mixed blessing.
It is also a great place to visit. Edinburgh is one of the world’s most beautiful cities, and the Scottish countryside can be very impressive. Scotland’s second city Glasgow, once regarded as an industrial wasteland, has become hip and trendy. The third biggest city is Aberdeen, on the coast north of Edinburgh, wealthy from North Sea oil.
The Highlands and Islands are beautiful. There is a road bridge across to the Isle of Skye nowadays, but to really see the islands you need to take some of the small ferries that move between them. Scotland continuously rewards the independent traveller.
Edinburgh is one of those magic places. Inverness is the most wonderful small city, and you can head off to nearby Loch Ness to feed the monster a little piece of shortbread. It was not until we saw the Highlands in winter that we understood the meaning of the word ‘bleak’.
Wales, like Scotland, is a country in its own right, with its own Gaelic language and traditions. It is also very beautiful. There are just three million people in Wales, most of them in the heavily populated South, which means large swathes of the country are wild and almost unpopulated. One great place to see in the south is the ruins of Tintern Abbey, nearly a thousand years old. It’s just a short drive from Bristol or Cardiff.
The island of Anglesey in the north-west, and the country on the mainland near it – in and around Snowdonia National Park - is picture-perfect.
Wales is not as much of a must see as Scotland. The south, where most people live, is rather ordinary, though Cardiff is quite a nice city. But Wales has the best mountains in Britain and some of the best scenery.
NOTE: Northern Ireland is covered in the section on Ireland