Variety is the key to the longstanding appeal of the United Kingdom, be it the spectacle and tradition of English pageantry, the beauty of Scottish lochs and highlands, the conviviality of a Welsh pub, or the castles and lakes of Northern Ireland.
Points of Interest
Area:94,247 square miles (twice the size of New York State).Population:57,400,000 (London, 9,170,000; Manchester, 4,050,000; Birmingham, 2,170,000; Glasgow, 716,000).Languages:English, Welsh and Scots Gaelic.
London, Europe’s largest city, is a grand adventure for both first-time and frequent visitors. A city tour aboard a double-decker bus provides an excellent introduction. For another perspective, take a boat ride on the Thames. Cruises leave from Westminster and Charing Cross piers and travel downstream to the Tower of London and Greenwich, or upstream to Kew Gardens and Hampton Court.
Guided walking tours concentrate on a particular district or on a subject such as architecture, or places associated with Dickens or even Jack the Ripper. Independent walkers can follow the Heritage Walk through the financial district, known as the City, or the Silver Jubilee Walkway that covers dozens of major sights.
The Underground (subway) is extensive and easy to use. Spectacles include Changing the Guard at Buckingham Palace (every other day, daily in summertime); and the annual Opening of Parliament in November, when throngs line the route as the Queen rides from Buckingham Palace accompanied by her Household Cavalry. For the fourth year, the palace will be open to the public during August and September.
Popular day trips from London include visits to the university cities ofOxfordandCambridge, and toWindsor, site of Britain’s most famous castle.
The North Countryoffers marvelous landscapes and architecture. The Lake District is an 885-square-mile national park, offering changing views of mountains, lakes and valleys. The Brontë sisters setWuthering HeightsandJane Eyrein the Yorkshire Dales and North York Moors. The Gothic cathedral inYorkand the Romanesque cathedral inDurhamare among Britain’s most magnificent.
Other major cities areLiverpool, home of the Beatles, andManchester, Britain’s second-largest, best known for its libraries and thriving arts scene.Birmingham, in the Midlands, is also a growing cultural center. Sir Simon Rattle leads its superb symphony orchestra.
The West Countryalso is well served in literature.Chawtonin Hampshire is where Jane Austen wrotePride and Prejudice. Agatha Christie lived inSouth Devonand wrote two novels at the Burgh Island Hotel.Dorsetbecame part of Thomas Hardy’s fictional shire, Wessex; andSalisburyis where Anthony Trollope got the idea for his Barchester novels. Wild Dartmoor National Park is the setting for the great Sherlock Holmes story,The Hound of the Baskervilles, and the ruins of the abbey inGlastonburyreputedly hold the remains of King Arthur. The little fishing villages aroundCornwallare settings for many of Daphne du Maurier’s stories. Call thetourist authorityfor itsLiterary Britain.
Also in the West Country areBath, famous for its natural hot springs, Roman remains and Georgian architecture; andPlymouth, starting point for such voyagers as the Pilgrims and Sir Francis Drake.
Scotlandoffers highlands (Ben Nevis at 4,000 feet is the tallest point in the British Isles), lochs (including Loch Ness, of monster fame) and the romantic appeal of ancient gardens and castles.Glasgowhas blossomed into a center of the arts.Edinburgh, the capital, is dominated by its castle, where Mary Queen of Scots gave birth to James VI of Scotland (England’s James I). Garden enthusiasts can admire the magnificent Inverewe Garden nearGairloch.
Walesis a land where song and music are well appreciated. Attend a local choir concert or informal rehearsal, or perhaps an eisteddfod (music festival). Folk dancing, carnivals, amateur theater and opera and tasty food are other Welsh traditions. InCardiff, the capital, is a castle that dates to Roman times. Other noteworthy castles include Caernarfon, site of the investiture of the Prince of Wales; and Powis near Welshpool. Scenic highlights include the mountains of Snowdonia in the north and coastal towns such asSwansea, home of Dylan Thomas.
Northern Irelandis exciting new interest as a result of the peace initiatives. Here are such attractions as the Giant’s Causeway near Ballycastle-huge volcanic rock columns-and the Ulster Folk and Transport Museum.Belfasthosts Britain’s second-largest arts festival in November.
Tower of London.Over the centuries, it has been a focal point of English history, serving as fortress, palace and prison. The Jewel House has been remodeled and now has wheelchair access.
Westminster Abbey, London. Spiritual heart of Britain, where the nation crowns and buries its rulers and heroes. The Coronation Chair is in the Chapel of Edward the Confessor. Entombed here are such literary greats as Chaucer, Dickens and Kipling; behind the high altar are Queen Elizabeth I, Mary Queen of Scots and Henry V.
British Museum, London. Antiquities from Britain, Egypt, Asia, Greece and Rome. Holdings include the Magna Carta, the Rosetta Stone, the Elgin Marbles from the Parthenon and first folios of Shakespeare’s plays.
National Gallery, London. The vast collection features European paintings from the 13th through 19th centuries, including at least one work by every master. The new wing features early Renaissance masterpieces.
Tate Gallery, London. Works by Turner, Hogarth, Blake and Constable, as well as offerings from many of the best artists and sculptors from beyond Britain.
Victoria and Albert Museum, London. A vast collection of fine and applied arts of all countries, periods and styles. Featured are paintings, costumes, jewelry and furniture.
Hyde Park, London. Speakers’ Corner, the Sunday forum for orators of every political persuasion, remains the best free show in town.
Hampton Court Palace, London. Built by Cardinal Wolsey, it boasts a delightful, sprawling garden. The refurbished Royal Apartments house a huge weapons collection and serve as an art gallery.
Canterbury Cathedral, Canterbury. The seat of the Church of England, it contains a shrine to St. Thomas á Becket, who was murdered there, and beautiful stained-glass windows.
Burrell Collection, Glasgow. Renowned collection of Egyptian and Greek antiquities, tapestries, furniture, ceramics, stained glass, silver, pictures.