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United Kingdom

Lonod - Buckingham Palace Guards

General Information

Area: 244,820 sq km
Population: 59,647,790 (July 2001 est.)
Capital city: London
People: Anglo-Saxons, Scots, Welsh, Irish, West Indians, Pakistanis, Indians.
Language: English
Religion: Church of England, Methodist, Baptist, Catholic and Muslim
Government: Parliamentary Democracy

Visas: EU citizens may live and work free of any immigration controls. Citizens of the USA, Canada, Australia and New Zealand are generally allowed to stay six months without a visa.
Health risks: None
Electricity: 240V, 50Hz
Weights & Measures: Metric (except beer, which is measured in pints).


Geography: the United Kingdom is composed of the three political divisions within the island of Great Britain. Bound by Scotland to the north and Wales to the west, England is no more than 29km (18mi) from France across the narrowest part of the English Channel. Much of England is flat or low-lying. In the north is a range of limestone hills, known as the Pennines, to the west are the Cumbrian Mountains and the Lake District. South of the Pennines is the heavily-populated Midlands, and in the south-west peninsula, known as the West country, is a plateau with granite outcrops, good dairy farming and a rugged coastline. The rest of the country is known as the English Lowlands, a mixture of farmland, low hills, an industrial belt and the massive city of London. 

England's national parks cover about 7% of the country and include Dartmoor, Exmoor, the Lake District, the Peak District, the Yorkshire Dales, the North York Moors, the New Forest, the Broads and Northumberland. English national parks are not wilderness areas, but they do include areas of outstanding national beauty - they also tend to be privately owned.

England's climate is mild and damp, with temperatures moderated by the light winds that blow in off its relatively warm seas. Temperatures inland don't get much below freezing in winter (December to February), or much above 30C (86F) in summer (June to August). The north is the coldest area; London, the south-east and the West Country are the warmest. Rainfall is greatest in hilly areas and in the West Country. You can expect cloudy weather and light drizzle in any part of England at any time. 

the first-known inhabitants of England were small bands of hunters, but Stone Age immigrants arrived around 4000 BC and farmed the chalk hills of Salisbury Plain, constructing the mysterious stone circles at Stonehenge and Avebury. They were followed by the Bronze Age Celts from Central Europe who began arriving in 800 BC, bringing the Gaelic and Brythonic languages (the former is still spoken in Scotland, the latter in Wales).

The Romans invaded in 43 AD and took only seven years to quell resistance and control most of England. The Scottish and Welsh tribes were more of a problem, resulting in the building of Hadrian's Wall across northern England to keep out the marauding Scots. The Romans brought stability, nice and straight paved roads and Christianity; in return, the Brits gave the Romans a headache and a dent in the empire's expense account. The Romans were never defeated, they just sort of faded away around 410 AD as their empire declined.

Tribes of heathen Angles, Jutes and Saxons began to move into the vacuum, absorbing the Celts, and local fiefdoms developed. By the 7th century, these fiefdoms had grown into a series of Anglo-Saxon kingdoms which had come to collectively think of themselves as English. By the mid-9th century, Vikings had invaded northern Scotland, Cumbria and Lancashire and the Danes were making inroads into eastern England. By 871, only Wessex - the half-Saxon, half-Celtic country south of the Thames - was under English control. At this low point, the English managed to neutralize the Vikings' military superiority and began a process of assimilation.

The next invader was William of Normandy (soon to become known as William the Conqueror), who arrived on the south coast of England in 1066 with a force of 12,000 men. After victory at the Battle of Hastings, he replaced English aristocrats with French-speaking Normans. The Normans built impressive castles, imposed a feudal system, administered a census and, once again, began to assimilate with the Saxons.

The next centuries saw a series of royal tiffs, political intrigues, plague, unrest and revolt. The Hundred Years War with France blurred into the domestic War of the Roses and enough Machiavellian backstabbing among royalty to make the present foibles of the monarchy seem even more trifling than they already are. In the 16th century, Henry VIII's matrimonial difficulties led to the split with Catholicism. Henry was appointed head of the Church of England by the English Parliament and the Bible was translated into English. In 1536, Henry dissolved the smaller monasteries and confiscated their land as the relationship between Church and State hit rocky times.

The power struggle between monarchy and Parliament degenerated into civil war in the mid-17th century, pitching Charles I's royalists (Catholics, traditionalists, the gentry and members of the Church of England) against Cromwell's Protestant parliamentarians. Cromwell's victory segued into a dictatorship, which included a bloody rampage through Ireland, and by 1660 Parliament was so fed up that it reinstated the monarchy.

A period of progressive expansionism followed, as England collected colonies down the American coast, licensed the East India Company to operate from Bombay and eventually saw Canada and Australia come within its massive sphere of influence. At home, England exerted increasing control over the British Isles. The burgeoning empire's first setback occurred in 1772 when the American colonies won their independence.

Meanwhile, Britain was fast becoming the crucible of the Industrial Revolution as steam power, steam trains, coal mines and water power began to transform the means of transport and production. The world's first industrial cities sprung up in the Midlands, causing severe dislocation of the population. By the time Queen Victoria took the throne in 1837, Britain had become the world's greatest power. Its fleet dominated the seas, knitting together the British empire, while its factories dominated world trade. Under prime ministers such as Gladstone and Disraeli, the worst excesses of the Industrial Revolution were addressed; education became universal, trade unions were legalized and most men were enfranchised - women had to wait until after WWI.

Britain bumbled into the stalemate of WWI in 1914, resulting in the senseless slaughter of a million Britons and a widening gulf between the ruling and working classes. The latter set the stage for 50 years of labor unrest, beginning with the 1926 Great Strike and growing throughout the 1930s depression. Britain dithered through the 1920s and '30s, with mediocre and visionless government, which failed to confront the problems the country faced - including the rise of Hitler and imperial Germany.

Britain's never-say-die character was forged in WWII under the guidance of Winston Churchill. Britain bounced back from Dunkirk, the relentless Luftwaffe air raids and the fall of Singapore and Hong Kong to win the Battle of Britain and play a vital role in the Allied victory. Despite the euphoria, Britain's resources and influence were exhausted and its new role as a secondary power became clearer as first India (1947), then Malaysia (1957) and Kenya (1963) gained independence.

It took until the 1960s for wartime recovery to be fully completed, but by then Britons had supposedly 'never had it so good', according to their prime minister, Harold Macmillan. The sixties briefly repositioned swinging London back at the cultural heart of the world, as the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, Mary Quant, David Bailey, Twiggy, Jean Shrimpton and Co strutted their stuff on the world stage. But the sixties weren't all mini skirts and Sergeant Pepper: factionalism in Northern Ireland became overtly violent, leading to the deployment of British troops in 1969. The Troubles, as they are euphemistically known, have been dogging the British and Irish governments and ruining Northern Ireland ever since. The 1970s' oil crisis, massive inflation, the three-day working week and class antagonism also brought reality crashing into the party, and in 1979 the Brits elected matronly Margaret Thatcher to come and mop up their mess for them.

Thatcher broke the unions, privatized national industries, established a meritocracy, sent a flotilla to the Falklands and polarized British society. She became the longest-serving prime minister this century and left such a deep mark on the Brits


Culture: england's greatest artistic contributions have come in the fields of theatre, literature and architecture. Although there is not an equivalent tradition in painting and sculpture, England is a treasure house of masterpieces from every age and continent thanks to its rapacious past. Most visitors are overwhelmed by the stately homes of the aristocracy, and England's fine collection of castles and cathedrals. Unfortunately, this significant architectural heritage has failed to lead to anything more inspiring in the 20th century than motorways, high-rise housing and tawdry suburban development. Anyone who has studied English literature at school will remember ploughing through Chaucer, Shakespeare, Dickens and Morrissey, and painful though it might have been at the time, no-one can deny England's formidable contribution to the Western literary canon. Perhaps England's greatest cultural export has been the English language, the current lingua franca of the international community. There are astonishing regional variations in accents, and it is not unusual to find those in southern England claiming to need an interpreter to speak to anyone living north of Oxford. 

Perhaps the least appealing aspect of English culture is the food, which is stodgy, uninspiring and expensive. Although London is experiencing a renaissance in quality, creative cuisine, travellers in the provinces or those on a budget should be prepared for uninventive, overcooked meat-and-two-veg and an assortment of fish 'n' chips, eggs and bacon, and mashed potatoes and sausages.


England is extremely expensive and London is horrific. While in London you will need to budget about US$35 for bare survival (dorm accommodation, a one-day travel card and the most basic sustenance). Even moderate sightseeing or nightlife can easily add another US$25 to this. If you stay in a hotel and eat restaurant meals you could easily spend US$90 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 US$30 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 US$65 a day.

Travelers' cheques are widely accepted in English banks and you might as well buy them in pounds sterling to avoid changing currencies twice. Change bureaus in London frequently levy outrageous commissions and fees, so make sure you establish any deductions in advance. The bureaus at the international airports are exceptions to the rule, charging less than most banks and cashing sterling travelers' cheques for free. Cash points (ATMs) are very common in Britain: most are linked to major credit cards as well as the Cirrus, Maestro and Plus cash networks, but if a machine swallows your card it can be a nightmare. Most banks insist on chopping it in half and sending it back to your home branch.

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.

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 very cold. April to September are undoubtedly the best months, and this is, unsurprisingly, when most sights are open, and when most people visit. 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.



London is a cosmopolitan mixture of the Third and First worlds, of chauffeurs and beggars, of the establishment, the avowedly working class and the avant-garde. Unlike comparable European cities, much of London looks unplanned and grubby, but that is part of its appeal. Visiting London is like being let loose on a giant-sized Monopoly board clogged with traffic. Even though you probably won't know where the hell you are, at least the names will look reassuringly familiar. The city is so enormous, visitors will need to make maximum use of the underground train system: unfortunately, this dislocates the city's geography and makes it hard to get your bearings.


Canterbury Cathedral

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 Becket in 1170, the cathedral became the center of one of the most important medieval pilgrimages in Europe, a pilgrimage that was immortalized by Geoffrey Chaucer in the Canterbury Tales. Canterbury itself was severely damaged by bombing in WW II 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 US$5 fee to enter the cathedral



Five-thousand-year-old Stonehenge is the most famous prehistoric site in Europe, but it remains both a tantalising mystery and a hackneyed tourist experience. It consists of a ring of enormous stones topped by lintels, an inner horseshoe, an outer circle and a ditch. Although 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 brought some of the stones all the way from South Wales. 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.


The Cotswolds

This limestone escarpment, 18 miles north-east of Bristol, 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. Renowned villages include Bibury (claimed to be the most beautiful village in England); the chocolate-box town of Bourton-on-the-Water; and the breathtakingly pretty Chipping Camden. The best way to explore the Cotswolds is to walk; the 100-mile Cotswold Way is a gem of a hike, full of history and interesting terrain that make the abundance of quaintness easier to swallow.



Arguably the world's most famous university town, Oxford is graced by superb college architecture and oozes questing youthfulness, scholarship and bizarre high jinks. The views across the meadows to the city's golden spires are guaranteed to appear in three out of 10 English period dramas, but they manage to remain one of the most beautiful and inspiring of sights. 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 the colleges are drenched in atmosphere, history, privilege and tradition. Don't kid yourself you would have studied any harder in such august surroundings.



This proud city attracts millions of visitors, but it's too old, too impressive and too convinced of its own importance to be overwhelmed by mere tourists. For nearly 2000 years it has been the capital of the north, and played a central role in British history under the Romans, Saxons and Vikings. Its spectacular Gothic cathedral, medieval city walls, tangle of historic streets and glut of teashops and pubs make it a great city for ambling around. York Minster is the largest cathedral in Europe, and right up there with the world's great buildings. The city's Museum Gardens are amongst the most beautiful in Britain and include a number of picturesque ruins and buildings.


The Lake District

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. Each of the lakes has its own distinct character: wisdom holds that Ullswater, Grasmere and Windermere are the prettiest, but Wast Water, Crummock Water and Buttermere are equally spectacular and far less crowded. 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 cloud.



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 'city' (population 38,000) huddles into the remaining space on the teardrop-shaped promontory.



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