Until recently England was generally thought of as a gentle, fabled land freeze-framed sometime in the 1930s, home of the post office, country pub and vicarage. It's now better known for vibrant cities with great nightlife and attractions, contrasted with green and pleasant countryside.
From Stonehenge and Tower Bridge to Eton and Oxford, England is loaded with cherished icons of a past era. But it also does modernity with a confidence and panache left over from its days in the never-setting sun. Fashion, fine dining, clubbing, shopping - England's rates with the world's best.
England is looking forward into the new century while trying to forget many of the developments of the previous 100 years. That period witnessed the fall of the empire, the loss of its trading base and the nation's inability to adjust to a diminished role in the modern world - from colonial empire to member of the EC. But while the Family may have taken a right Royal battering, many of the other august institutions at the cornerstone of British life have muddled their way through with a stiff upper lip and a strong sense of protocol.
Full country name: England
Area: 129,720 sq km
Population: 51 million
Capital City: London
People: Anglo-Saxons, Scots, Welsh, Irish, West Indians, Pakistanis, Indians
Religion: Church of England, Catholic, Methodist, Muslim, Jewish, Sikh and Hindu.
Government: constitutional monarchy
Head of State: Queen Elizabeth II
Head of Government: Prime Minister Tony Blair
GDP: US$1.25 trillion
GDP per capita: US$22,800
Major Industries: Banking and finance, steel, transport equipment, oil and gas, coal, tourism
Major Trading Partners: EU (especially Germany, France, Netherlands, Ireland), USA
Member of EU: Yes
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For the sporty, the traditional Oxford/Cambridge University Boat Race is held in London on the River Thames in late March/early April; the famous but gruelling Grand National steeplechase takes place at Aintree, Liverpool, on the first Saturday in April; the FA Cup soccer final takes place in May; the Lawn Tennis Championships, complete with strawberries and cream, and tantrums by major players, take place at Wimbledon in late June; in the same month the champagne-quaffing set head for the Henley Royal Regatta at Henley-on-Thames; and the Cowes Week yachting extravaganza pushes off on the Isle of Wight in late July/early August.
Those uninterested in ball games and fast-moving animals should check out the Chelsea Flower Show at London's Royal Hospital in May; the Trooping of the Colour pageantry on the Queen's birthday in London in mid-June; the bacchanalian Glastonbury Festival music extravaganza which swamps Glastonbury's paddocks in June; and the riotous (in the best possible sense) Caribbean carnival in London's Notting Hill in late August.
1 Jan - New Year's Day
Mar/Apr - Good Friday
Mar/Apr - Easter Monday
last Monday in May - Spring Bank Holiday
last Monday in Aug - Summer Bank Holiday
25 Dec - Christmas Day
26 Dec - Boxing Day
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Anyone who spends any extended period of time in England will sympathise with the locals' obsession with the weather, although in relative terms the climate is mild and the rainfall is not spectacular. The least hospitable months for visitors are November to February - it's cold and the days are short. March and October are marginal - there's more daylight but it can still be pretty chilly. April to September are undoubtedly the best months, and this is, unsurprisingly, when most sights are open, and when most people visit. However, July and August are the busiest months, and best avoided if at all possible. The crowds on the coast, at the national parks, in London and popular towns like Oxford, Bath and York have to be seen to be believed.
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Currency: pound sterling
England can be extremely expensive and London in particular can be a big drain on your funds. While in London you will need to budget at least GBP32.00 for bare survival (dorm accommodation, a one-day travel card and the most basic sustenance). Even moderate sightseeing or nightlife can easily add another GBP20.00 to this. If you stay in a hotel and eat restaurant meals you could easily spend GBP65.00 a day without being extravagant. Once you get out of the big smoke the costs will drop, particularly if you have a transport pass and if you cook your own meals. You'll still need at least GBP30.00 a day, and if you stay in B&Bs, eat one sit-down meal a day and don't stint on entry fees, you'll need about GBP70.00 a day.
If you eat in an English restaurant you should leave a tip of at least 10% unless the service was unsatisfactory. Waiting staff are often paid derisory wages on the assumption that the money will be supplemented by tips. Some restaurants include a service charge on the bill, in which case a gratuity is unnecessary. Taxi drivers expect to be tipped about 10%, especially in London. You never tip to have a pint poured in a pub. However, at swank cocktail bars a 10% tip is expected.
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London - the grand resonance of its very name suggests history and might. Its opportunities for entertainment by day and night go on and on and on. It's a city that exhilarates and intimidates, stimulates and irritates in equal measure, a grubby Monopoly board studded with stellar sights.
London is one of the favourite urban haunts of visitors to Europe because of landmark sights like Big Ben, St Paul's Cathedral and the historically rich Westminster Abbey. The city also boasts some of the world's greatest museums and art galleries, and more parkland than most other capitals.
The most impressive and evocative, if not the most beautiful, cathedral in England is the seat of the Archbishop of Canterbury, the Primate of All England. Like most cathedrals, it evolved in stages and reflects a number of architectural styles, but the final result is one of the world's great buildings.
The ghosts of saints, soldiers and pilgrims fill the hallowed air, and not even baying packs of French children can completely destroy the atmosphere. After the martyrdom of Archbishop Thomas à Becket in 1170, the cathedral became the centre of one of the most important medieval pilgrimages in Europe, a pilgrimage that was immortalised by Geoffrey Chaucer in the Canterbury Tales. Canterbury itself was severely damaged by bombing in WWII and parts of the town have been insensitively rebuilt, but it still attracts flocks of tourists, just as it has for the past 800 years - though numbers may decrease now pilgrims are charged a fee to enter the cathedral.
Durham is the most dramatic cathedral city in Britain. It straddles a bluff surrounded on three sides by the River Wear and is dominated by the massive Norman cathedral which sits on a wooded promontory, looking more like a time-worn cliff than a house of worship. The cathedral may not be the most refined in the land, but no other British cathedral has the same impact. The cathedral shares the dramatic top of the bluff with a Norman castle and the University College, while the rest of the picturesque town huddles into the remaining space on the teardrop-shaped promontory.
The most green and pleasant corner of a green and pleasant land, the landscapes of the Lake District are almost too perfect for their own good: 10 million visitors can't be wrong, but they can sure cause a few traffic jams.
The area is a combination of luxuriant green dales, modest but precipitous mountains and multitudinous lakes. Be prepared to hike into the hills, or visit on weekdays out of season if you have any desire to emulate the bard and wander lonely as a cloud.
Arguably the world's most famous university town, Oxford is graced by superb college architecture and oozes questing youthfulness, and despite its views across the meadows to the city's golden spires appearing in 30% of English period dramas, their beauty never seems to wear thin.
Back in the real world, Oxford is not just the turf of toffs and boffs: it was a major car-manufacturing centre until the terminal decline of the British car industry and is now a thriving centre of service industries. The pick of the colleges are Christ Church, Merton and Magdalen, but nearly all them are drenched in atmosphere, history, privilege and tradition. Don't kid yourself, you wouldn't have studied any harder in such august surroundings.
It's the most famous site in prehistoric Europe, and is both a tantalising mystery and a hackneyed tourist experience: tantalising because no one knows why the stones were dragged up from South Wales 5000 years ago; hackneyed because tourists are processed through Stonehenge like cans on a conveyor belt.
It consists of a ring of enormous stones topped by lintels, an inner horseshoe, an outer circle and a ditch. Although it is known that the Henge is aligned to the movements of the celestial bodies, little is known about the site's purpose. What leaves most visitors gobsmacked is not the site's religious significance but the tenacity of the people who dragged the stones. It's estimated that it would take 600 people to drag one of these 50-ton monsters more than half an inch. The downside of Stonehenge is that it's fenced off like a dog compound; there are two main roads slicing past the site; entry is via an incongruous underpass; and clashes between New Age hippies and police at summer solstice have become a regular feature of the British calendar. Each year New Age Druids celebrate the summer solstice, but closer access at other times is strictly limited.
This limestone escarpment overlooking the Severn Vale is an upland region of stunningly pretty, gilded stone villages and remarkable views. Unfortunately, the soft, mellow stone and the picturesque Agatha Christie charm have resulted in some villages being overrun by coach tourists and commercialism.
For nearly 2000 years York has been the capital of the north, and it played a central role in British history under the Romans, Saxons and Vikings. It's a great city in which to amble through the spectacular Gothic cathedral, medieval city walls, tangle of historic streets and glut of pubs.
York is a fascinating city of extraordinary cultural and historical wealth. Its medieval spider's web of narrow streets is enclosed by a magnificent circuit of thirteenth-century walls. The city is thick with museums tracing its long history, and, especially in summer, is a tourist honeypot.
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