The ‘scepter’d isle’ of Shakespeare’s Richard III is now a thriving modern country, with cosmopolitan cities and gorgeous rolling green countryside. The capital, London, has earned itself a deserved reputation for being at the cutting edge of fashion, music, art and design. But London isn’t the only city where fabulous live music, bustling farmers' markets and a wealth of great restaurants and hotels are to be found. Easily reached by public transport, Birmingham, Newcastle and former European cultural capital, Liverpool, have plenty to recommend them while England’s many cathedral cities, York, Peterborough and Exeter among them, are home to some spectacular mediaeval architecture the equal of anything to be found in the rest of Europe. Even the food is catching up, with the famously inedible fare found in coastal resorts banished and replaced by menus focused on local, quality ingredients, perfectly-cooked and well-presented.
While England’s cities and towns have much to offer, the real beauties are to be found in William Blake’s ‘green and pleasant land’; the patchwork of farms, fields and picture-perfect villages that make the country’s rural heart. From Dartmoor’s purple heath land and wild ponies in the southwest to the rugged hills of the Peak District in the north, the English landscape is a compelling blend of multi-coloured fields, interspersed with forests, moors and rolling hill country. The 5581-mile (8982km) coastline is one of England’s greatest natural treasures, with jagged coves and rock formations such as Durdle Door in Dorset, giving way to smooth expanses of golden sand. The coastal regions are also home to abundant wildlife, with puffins, gulls, seahorses, cuttlefish and crabs among the many who call the English shoreline home. Inland, wild ponies, magnificent deer and brindled badgers can be found all over the country; even in the cities, you’re likely to come across an urban fox or two, as well as a vast array of birds. Despite the rain, whatever you’re looking for: historical gems, spectacular coastal scenery or just an old-fashioned pint; England has something for everyone.
England and the environment
In common with other first-world nations, the last 100 years haven’t been kind to the English environment. Air and water pollution, industrial-scale pesticide use, continued reliance on fossil fuels and development of green belt land remain problematic as does the massive amount of waste that still ends up in landfill each year. Successive governments have begun to recognise the scale of the problems the country faces, and have implemented a smogasbord of initiatives ranging from wind farms to congestion charging within London. Nonetheless, there remains much to be done, with England lagging behind its Scandinavian neighbours on recycling, alternative power sources and promotion of greener forms of transport. The current government has set itself the challenge of being ‘the greenest government' in history but has so far failed to deliver on many of its promises. Current controversies include a proposed badger cull, a U-turn on the proposed sell-off of England’s forests following a public outcry and continued expansion of unsustainable factory farming systems, plus a worrying over-reliance on foreign food imports. Also attracting criticism are the Government’s plans to invest further in nuclear power and the proposed new airport in the Thames estuary and the expansion of Southend airport.
But despite the dark clouds, there are plenty of reasons to be cheerful with a groundswell of support for greener lifestyles, recycling and conservation of native wildlife and habitats moving into the mainstream. England’s national park scheme, begun in the 1950s, has also proved an invaluable tool for conservationists, with the New Forest, Dartmoor and the Lake District providing havens for endangered species such as the sand lizard, the honey buzzard and the otter. The South Downs, a wonderful chalk escarpment in Sussex, recently joined them, providing protection for the area’s Cretaceous period cliffs and unique habitats.
England’s history has enough twists and turns to fill a Dan Brown novel with mad rulers, tragedy, mystery and romance in spades. The first recorded inhabitants were the Beaker people, named for their fondness for being buried with clay cups, who later developed into an Iron Age society divided into numerous tribes including the Iceni, Catuvellauni and Brigantes. Following the Roman invasion in AD 43, the Britons continued to resist for well over 50 years, and produced one of the most famous warrior queens of all time – the Iceni ruler, Boadicea, whose destructive career was ended by Roman general Suetonius Paulinus at the Battle of Watling Street in AD 60. By 410, the Romans were in full retreat, leaving England exposed and open to waves of invasion from the Angles, Saxons and Jutes in the south, and Pictish tribesmen from the north. The newly renamed Angle-land was split into a number of small monarchies, with Wessex the largest and most powerful. That power was shaken by the emerging Scandinavian nations, whose Viking warriors brought terror to coastal populations and whose eventual invasion led to the country’s partition with the Danelaw dominating in the north and east, and Anglian kings ruling the south and west.
The Dark Ages came to a bloody end in 1066 when William the Conqueror invaded from Normandy, leaving the English King Harold dead on the Hastings battlefield. A period of stable rule followed under William and his sons William Rufus and Henry, but Henry’s death saw the onset of a civil war between the barons who supported his daughter Matilda, and those who preferred his nephew Stephen. Matilda’s son Henry II took control in 1154, ruling over an empire that eventually stretched from the Scottish borders in the north, to the Pyrenees and Languedoc coastline in southern France. The dynasty that he founded was to rule for 300 years before falling victim to a civil war between the York and Lancaster branches of the family. The final battle in what became known as the Wars of the Roses – Bosworth Hill – saw Henry Tudor emerge as King Henry VII; the first of the Tudor monarchs. His parsimonious reign gave way to that of the larger-than-life Henry VIII whose six wives and penchant for dispatching them to the executioner’s block has made him one of England’s best-remembered rulers. His three children – Edward VI, Mary I and Elizabeth I – all died childless, and on Elizabeth’s death, the crown passed to the Stuart kings of Scotland.
While James I proved a competent if uninspiring king, his son Charles’ reign was nothing short of catastrophic with his altercations with parliament proving the catalyst for a bloody civil war. Charles ended up with his head on the block after Parliament emerged victorious. The dictatorship that followed under Oliver Cromwell proved just as deadly and his reign is best remembered for the appointment of a Witch Finder General – Matthew Hopkins – whose reign of terror saw thousands of innocent men and women sent to their deaths. On Cromwell’s demise, King Charles’ son – also called Charles – was invited to return home and resume monarchical rule. Charles II died childless and the throne passed to his brother James, then his nieces Mary and Anne. When Anne too died childless, a distant cousin – George, Elector of Hanover – was invited to take over.
The Georgian period saw huge advances in science and technology, not helped by a moribund, and at times insane, royal family. All that was to change, however, when Queen Victoria came to the throne in 1837. Her accession heralded the dawn of the British Empire, which led to almost a third of the world being ruled from Westminster. The British Empire was put under strain by the advent of World War I, which led to the deaths of millions of young men in the muddy trenches of the Somme. The country had barely recovered from the slaughter when Hitler’s territorial ambitions tipped Europe into yet another devastating war. Post war, exhausted England could no longer afford to maintain her empire and one by one, the colonies were granted independence. Today, England (as part of the UK) plays a smaller role on the world stage but enjoys considerable influence.
When to go
England’s precipitation levels are notorious and for good reason. No matter what time of year you visit, a deluge is always a possibility. The spring months, particularly March and April, are prone to showers interspersed with bursts of sunshine, while late autumn heralds the start of the heavier winter downpours. But England’s weather isn’t all rain and cloudy skies. Summer months, particularly May, June and July can see lots of sunshine with temperatures hitting the high 20s – perfect for indulging in a spot of sunbathing in one of the many parks or beaches. September and October enjoy some crisp sunny days, although it’s not unusual to see morning frosts from October onwards. Winter is mild and yes, rainy, but boasts cold, clear days and some sunshine.
Public transport might not scale the heights of the continental system but England does have an extensive rail network and trains that nearly always run on time. National Rail (084 5748 4950, www.nationalrail.co.uk) is the umbrella organisation that oversees the regional train companies and has comprehensive information on available fares, routes and timetables on its website. In London, all public transport including buses, tubes and trains is overseen by Transport for London (020 3054 5306, www.tfl.gov.uk) who also have a useful route planner and regular service updates online. TFL is also in charge of London’s ‘Boris Bike’ cycling scheme and the two Barclay’s Super Highways that link east and west London. Outside of London, local bus services are frequent (less so in very rural areas) and relatively inexpensive. Arriva (0871 200 2233, www.arrivabus.co.uk) is the biggest bus company and operates routes across the north of England, southeast and Yorkshire. The other main bus companies are First (020 7222 1234, www.firstgroup.com) and Stagecoach (020 7055 9600, www.stagecoachbus.com). National Express (087 1781 8178, www.nationalexpress.com) is the main provider of public intercity bus travel and tends to be cheaper than the rail equivalent.
Eight unmissable sights
York Minster, North Yorkshire
Dominating the mediaeval town of York’s skyline, the construction of the Minster began in 1220 but wasn’t completed for another 200 years. The cathedral is one of the finest examples of gothic ecclesiastical architecture in Europe and is also the seat of the Bishop of York (Dr John Setamu); the second most important clergyman in England after the Archbishop of Canterbury. The wonderful Great East Window is the largest expanse of mediaeval stained glass in the world, while the south transept has a rare and beautiful rose window.
Hadrian’s Wall, Northumberland
Along with the lesser-known Antonine Wall, Hadrian’s Wall began life in 122 AD as part of an attempt to shore up the northern border of the Roman Empire - at the time under attack from Caledonian tribesmen. Built from local limestone, the wall runs for 73 miles, although not all of it still stands. Four of its 30 forts have been excavated by English Heritage and can be visited at Corbridge, Chesters, Housesteads and Birdoswald, with many of the treasures discovered housed in the Great North Museum in Newcastle, or the Tullie House Museum in nearby Carlisle – itself a Roman frontier town.
The Tower, London
Perched majestically on the bank of the Thames, the Tower of London has played a prominent role English history as a fortress, the home of the crown jewels, and notoriously, as the prison of choice for the country’s mediaeval kings. Built by William the Conqueror in 1066, it began life as a royal residence but by the Tudor period, it was also being put to work as a gaol. It was here that Tudor queens Anne Boleyn and Katherine Howard met their ends, as did England’s nine-day queen, Lady Jane Grey and her husband Guilford Dudley. All are buried tiny church in the grounds of the fortress – the aptly named St Peter ad Vincula [St Peter in Chains].
Woburn Abbey, Bedfordshire
One of England’s many stately piles, Woburn Abbey is among the prettiest and boasts a spectacular park that is home to a herd of rare Pere David deer. The building started life as a Cistercian Abbey in 1145 but was given to the Russell family by King Henry VIII in 1547. Extensive renovations followed and the house now enjoys an impressive Henry Holland designed neo-Palladian façade – a far cry from its gothic origins. The Abbey grounds are also home to a network of footpaths, while the pretty neighbouring village of Woburn, with its charming pubs, antiques shops and monthly farmers’ market, is well worth a visit.
Long Man of Wilmington, South Downs
Located in the heart of England’s newest national park, the South Downs, the Long Man of Wilmington is one of the many Celtic chalk men that dot hillsides up and down the country. Along with the Cerne Abbas Giant outside of Dorchester and the nearby Litlington White Horse, the 227ft tall Long Man is one of England’s most important ancient monuments. Like Stonehenge, its origins are unknown but are suspected to be based in the Druidic religion of the ancient Britons. Today, the Long Man plays host to rituals on the Sundays closest to the eight major pagan festivals, while at dawn on Mayday, local Morris dancers come to show off their skills at his feet.
Alnwick Castle, Northumberland
Perhaps best known for its starring role as Hogwarts in the Harry Potter films, Alnwick Castle is the seat of the Percy ducal dynasty and has a bloody history including use as a fortress against the depredations of Scottish armies from the north and as a Yorkist strong hold during the Wars of the Roses. Its period mediaeval defences, including the Abbot’s Tower, still stand although today you’re more likely to be hit by a flying guidebook than an arrow if you stand too close the walls.
England’s most significant ancient monument, Stonehenge is a prehistoric stone circle at the centre of a concentration of Neolithic earthworks. Although several theories have been put forward, including everything from burial ground to site of Druidic worship, thus far no one has managed to come to a satisfactory explanation of why it was built, so its origins are shrouded in mystery. Numerous myths and legends have sprung up around it, including one which says that the Heelstone arrived when the Devil threw it at a local friar, and another which attributes the construction of the henge to the Arthurian wizard, Merlin.
Believed to be the birthplace of the legendary English King Arthur, Tintagel is a craggy ruined castle perched on a north Cornish cliff top, overlooking a picturesque rocky bay. After visiting the gaunt remains of the castle, head to ‘Merlin’s Cave’ – a beautiful rock formation said to have played home to King Arthur’s right-hand wizard. Other famous inhabitants included the sixth century Cornish king Mark, who played a central – if unpleasant – role in the tragic love story of Tristan and Isolde, and King Arthur’s parents, Uther Pendragon and Queen Igraine.
Wild swimming in the Lake District
Boasting 16 lakes and countless tarns (small stretches of water), England’s Lakeland has no shortage of spots for a refreshing outdoor dip. Lake Windermere is the biggest and most famous of the lakes, while Wastwater is overlooked by the snowy heights of Scafell Pike – England’s highest mountain. The Lake District is a paradise for hikers as well as swimmers, so head to Brackenber Moor post beach for a stroll surrounded by leftovers from the Iron Age, including the wonderful Druidical Judgment Seat – a manmade crag that continues to mystify archaeologists.
Walking in the New Forest National Park
An unusual combination of heathland, moorland, peat bogs and ancient woodland, the New Forest began life as a Royal Park, kept exclusively for the use of the ruling familes. Thanks to their protection, the forest has avoided development and is home to myriad species of rare flora and fauna. Crisscrossed by footpaths, it ranks as one of England’s best wildlife and walking spots, where everything from ponies to snakes can be seen. The nearby Devil’s Punchbowl on the Hampshire-Surrey border is also well worth a visit and was the location for the opening battle scene in 2000 film, Gladiator.
Oysters at Whitstable
With its colourful beach huts, golden sand and quaint pubs, Whitstable is the quintessential English seaside town. Vast oyster beds just offshore have made it famous for its shellfish, while the rock pools on the beach contain myriad species of fish, shellfish and seaweed. Take a stroll along the beach on a sunny day, picking up shells en route before tasting some of the town’s famous fish at the pretty Wheeler’s Oyster Bar in the high street. The town also hosts an oyster festival towards the end of July, which includes live cooking demonstrations and the chance to learn more about the town’s history.
Take a ride on the Northern Belle
Sister trains to the legendary Orient Express, the British Pullman and Northern Belle offer similarly luxurious experiences on routes within England. A real grown-up treat, trips set off from Manchester, Birmingham and London Victoria, options include day trips to Canterbury, York, the Glorious Goodwood race meet or the RHS Wisley gardens among many others.
See England’s cricketers in action at Lord’s
After years in the doldrums, England’s cricketers are now the best in the world, and no visit to England would be complete without spending a couple of hours watching the national game. Lord’s is the country’s oldest and most famous cricket ground, along with Birmingham’s Edgebaston and the Oval, and has an excellent museum dedicated to the sport’s 400-year history. Cricket is only played during the summer, so in winter try heading to Twickenham (www.rfu.com) for the other national sport, rugby, instead. If that’s not for you, there’s always the football; a guided tour of Wembley (www.wembleystadium.com) has much for footie fans to love.
Walk the ramparts at Dover Castle
High on a white chalk cliff top overlooking the English Channel, Dover Castle – ‘the key to England’ - has a long and bloody history in its role as the first line of defence against invaders from the south. Having started life as an Iron Age fort, the castle was rebuilt in the 1160s by King Henry II who built the Great Tower and extensive ramparts. Despite their great age, the ramparts can still be climbed today and benefit from spectacular views of the Roman Pharos lighthouse and the modern port below. On clear days, you can even see the French port of Calais, 20 miles away across the water.
Visit the Eden Project
Built in a disused Cornish clay mine, the Eden Project’s futuristic biodomes are home to a ‘global garden’ packed with endangered flora. Not only does the project aim to educate visitors about the impact of climate change on the world’s eco-systems, it’s also run in the greenest way possible, offers programmes to help local business become more eco-friendly and collaborates with conservation charities worldwide. Added fun can be found in the shape of circus acts and cabaret shows in the grounds, while motoring enthusiasts can take one of the project’s collection of electric cars for a spin, while finding out more about them.
Learn about nature at the Natural History Museum
With a wealth of exhibits covering everything from dinosaurs to the present-day, the Natural History Museum is one of the best – and most beautiful – of its kind in the world. Set in a picturesque neo-gothic building, its warren of exhibition rooms and mighty central hall are home to a world-class collection of animal, bird and insect specimens, dinosaur bones and wonderful botanical art. The museum also hosts an ever-changing roster of temporary exhibitions, which look closely at contemporary issues, including, recently, one on whether insects are the food of the future.
The Savoy, London
A venerable London institution, the Savoy recently underwent a green overhaul and is now one of the most energy efficient hotels in the country. Built in 1889 by theatre impresario, Richard D'Oyly Carte, the 268 room hotel boasts splendid views of the Thames and of Savoy Square, and is centrally located on the Strand, close to Trafalgar Square and Charing Cross station.
One of England’s best-rated eco-hotels, Battlesteads is located in a postcard perfect village of Wark on Tyne in Northumbria and grows all its own vegetables, as well as owning a carbon-neutral central heating system. The homely, charming rooms are comfortable with all mod cons and the hotel also has a restaurant serving a menu based on locally sourced, organic produce.
The Scarlet, Cornwall
A stunning modern eco-hotel situated on a pretty stretch of coastline near Mawgan Porth in Cornwall, the Scarlet boasts an Ayurvedic spa, 37 beautifully decorated rooms and a restaurant serving a menu of locally sourced delights, that changes daily to reflect the produce in season. Offering specialised facilities to walkers and cyclists, the hotel also has an electric car charging point should you decide to go by road.
The Green House, Bournemouth
Set in a renovated Victorian seaside hotel, Bournemouth’s Green House Hotel is a million miles from the English seaside stereotype, with luxe eco-friendly furnishings and a wonderful nine-course tasting menu on offer in the restaurant. The hotel is aiming to become England’s greenest place to stay and along with its use of natural and organic materials in the rooms, also has a completely organic wine list, uses LED lighting and is part solar powered.
Four excellent places to eat
Bordeaux Quay, Bristol
The first eco-restaurant to launch in England, Bristol’s Bordeaux Quay continues to win awards for its commitment to green practice as well as its excellent food. Located in the recently revamped Harbourside area, the restaurant enjoys a gold rating under the Soil Association’s sustainable catering scheme, while the outstanding organic menu has garnered it an AA rosette for culinary excellence.
Due South, Brighton
Benefiting from a location on Brighton beach close to the famous pier and head chef Michael Bremner’s wonderful way with seafood, Due South would have been marvellous even if it wasn’t eco-friendly. As luck would have it, it’s both and the environmental policy is as good as the food served up in the dining room. 85 per cent of its produces comes from within 35 miles of the kitchen and the menu changes monthly to reflect what’s in season.
The Waterhouse, Shoreditch
Part social enterprise and part eco-pioneer with 100 per cent good food, the Waterhouse is owned by the Shoreditch Trust and provides a seasonal menu combined with a secondary role as a training restaurant for deprived locals interested in catering. Eco-credentials aside, the chic décor and canal side terrace have proved a hit with Londoners, as has the £5 ‘Dish of the Day’ – a real gastronomic bargain.
The Glasshouse, Hampshire
For a taste of real English food, The Glasshouse in the New Forest village of Lynehurst can’t be beaten. Banish any thoughts of wilted cabbage and overcooked meat: Chef Richard Turner’s menu of locally sourced treats with a twist is good enough to satisfy the fussiest of eaters.
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