Architecture in England
England's architecture spans some five millennia, ranging from the mysterious stone circle of Stonehenge to London's glittering skyscrapers. If you know what to look for, a veritable design timeline can be traced through any of England's villages, towns and cities, and getting to grips with styles from different eras will greatly enhance your stay. Prepare for Roman baths, parish churches, mighty castles, magnificent cathedrals, humble cottages and grand stately homes.
The oldest surviving structures in England are the grass-covered mounds of earth, called 'tumuli' or 'barrows', used as burial sites by England's prehistoric residents. These mounds – measuring anything from a rough semisphere just 2m high to much larger, elongated semiovoids 5m high and 10m long – are dotted across the countryside from Cornwall to Cumbria, and are especially common in chalk areas such as Salisbury Plain and the Wiltshire Downs in southern England.
Perhaps the most famous chalk mound – and certainly the largest and most mysterious – is Silbury Hill, near Marlborough. Archaeologists are not sure exactly why this 40m-high conical mound was built – there's no evidence of it actually being used for burial. Theories suggest it was used in cultural ceremonies or as part of the worship of deities in the style of South American pyramids. Whatever its original purpose, it still remains impressive, more than four millennia after it was built.
Even more impressive than giant tumuli are another legacy of the Neolithic era: menhirs (standing stones), especially when they're set out in rings. These include the iconic stone circle of Stonehenge and the even larger Avebury Stone Circle, both in Wiltshire. Again, their original purpose is a mystery, providing fertile ground for hypothesis and speculation. The most recent theories suggest Stonehenge may have been a place of pilgrimage for the sick, like modern-day Lourdes, though it was also used as a burial ground and as a place of ancestor worship.
Bronze Age & Iron Age
Compared with the large stone circles of the Neolithic era, the surviving architecture of the Bronze Age is on a more domestic scale. Hut circles from this period can still be seen in several parts of England, most notably on Dartmoor.
By the time we reach the Iron Age, the early peoples of England were organising themselves into clans or tribes. Their legacy includes the remains of the forts they built to defend territory and protect themselves from rival tribes or other invaders. Most forts consisted of a large circular or oval ditch, with a steep mound of earth behind. A famous example is Maiden Castle in Dorset.
The Roman Era
Roman remains are found in many English towns and cities, including Chester, Exeter and St Albans – as well as the lavish Roman spa and bathing complex in Bath. But England's largest and most impressive Roman relic is the 73-mile sweep of Hadrian's Wall, built in the 2nd century AD as a defensive line stretching coast to coast across the neck of northern England, in a line from modern-day Newcastle to Carlisle. Originally built to separate marauding Pictish warriors to the north of the wall (in modern Scotland) from the Empire's territories to the south, it later became as much a symbol of Roman power as a necessary defence mechanism.
In the centuries following the Norman Conquest of 1066, the perfection of the mason’s art saw an explosion of architecture in stone, inspired by the two most pressing concerns of the day: religion and defence. Early structures of timber and rubble were replaced with churches, abbeys and monasteries built in dressed stone. The round arches, squat towers and chevron decoration of the Norman or Romanesque style (11th to 12th centuries) slowly evolved into the tall pointed arches, ribbed vaults and soaring spires of the Gothic (13th to 16th centuries), a history that can often be seen all in the one church – construction usually took a couple of hundred years to complete. Many cathedrals remain significant landmarks, such as Salisbury, Winchester, Canterbury and York.
Stone was also put to good use in the building of elaborate defensive structures. Castles range from the atmospheric ruins of Tintagel and Dunstanburgh, and the feudal keeps of Lancaster and Bamburgh, to the sturdy fortresses of Warwick and Windsor. And then there’s the most impressive of them all: the Tower of London, guarding the capital for more than 900 years.
Stately Homes of England
The medieval period was tumultuous, but by around 1600 life became more settled, and the nobility started to have less need for their castles. While they were excellent for keeping out rivals or the common riff-raff, they were often too dark, cold and draughty to be comfortable. So many castles saw the home improvements of the day – the installation of larger windows, wider staircases and better drainage. Others were simply abandoned for a brand-new dwelling next door; an example of this is Hardwick Hall in Derbyshire.
Following the Civil War, the trend away from castles gathered pace, as through the 17th century the landed gentry developed a taste for fine 'country houses' designed by the most famous architects of the day. Many became the 'stately homes' that are a major feature of the English landscape, celebrated by Noël Coward’s famous song 'The Stately Homes of England', and a major attraction for visitors. Among the most extravagant are Holkham Hall in Norfolk, Chatsworth House in Derbyshire and Blenheim Palace in Oxfordshire.
The great stately homes all display the proportion, symmetry and architectural harmony so in vogue during the 17th and 18th centuries, styles later reflected in the fashionable town houses of the Georgian era – most notably in the city of Bath, where the stunning Royal Crescent is the epitome of the genre.
The Victorian era was a time of great building. A style called Victorian-Gothic developed, echoing the towers and spires that were such a feature of the original Gothic cathedrals. The most famous example of this style is the Palace of Westminster (better known as the Houses of Parliament) and Elizabeth Tower (home to Big Ben), in London. Other highlights include London's Natural History Museum and London's St Pancras station.
Through the early 20th century, as England's cities grew in size and stature, the newly moneyed middle classes built streets and squares of smart town houses. Meanwhile, in other suburbs the first town planners oversaw the construction of endless terraces of red-brick two-up-two-down houses to accommodate the massive influx of workers required to fuel the country's factories – an enduring architectural legacy of the great migration from countryside to town that changed the landscape of England forever.
Postwar Pains & Pride
During WWII many of England's cities were damaged by bombing, and the rebuilding that followed showed scant regard for the overall aesthetic of the cities, or for the lives of the people who lived in them. The rows of terraces were swept away in favour of high-rise tower blocks, while the 'brutalist' architects of the 1950s and '60s employed the modern and efficient materials of steel and concrete, leaving legacies such as London's South Bank Centre.
Perhaps this is why, on the whole, the English are conservative in their architectural tastes, and often resent ambitious or experimental designs, especially when they're applied to public buildings, or when form appears more important than function. But a familiar pattern often unfolds: after a few years of resentment, first comes a nickname, then grudging acceptance, and finally – once the locals have got used to it – comes pride and affection for the new building. The English just don't like to be rushed, that's all.
With this attitude in mind, over the last few decades, English architecture has started to redeem itself, and many big cities now have contemporary buildings their residents can be proud of and enjoy. Highlights in London's financial district include the bulging cone with the official address of 30 St Mary Axe (but widely known by its nickname, the Gherkin), and the former Millennium Dome (now rebranded as simply the O2), which has been transformed from a source of national embarrassment into one of the capital's leading live music venues.
Through the first decade of the 21st century, many areas of England placed a new importance on progressive, popular architecture as a part of wider regeneration. Top examples include Manchester's Imperial War Museum North, The Deep aquarium in Hull, Cornwall's futuristic Eden Project, and the Sage concert hall in Gateshead, near Newcastle.
From around 2010, development slowed and some plans were shelved, thanks to the global slowdown, but several significant projects continued, including the Turner Contemporary Gallery in Margate (opened 2011) and the futuristic Library of Birmingham (2013).
But England’s largest and most high-profile architectural project of recent times was of course the Olympic Park, the centrepiece of the 2012 Games, in the London suburb of Stratford. As well as the main Olympic Stadium, other arenas include the Velodrome and the Aquatics Centre – all dramatic structures in their own right, using cutting-edge construction techniques. The Velodrome also won the construction industry’s 2011 Better Public Buildings Award.
Meanwhile, in the centre of the capital, the tall, jagged Shard was officially opened in July 2012; at 306m, it’s one of Europe's tallest buildings. On the other side of the River Thames, two more giant skyscrapers were completed in 2014: 20 Fenchurch St (nickname: the Walkie-Talkie) and the Leadenhall Building (the Cheesegrater). While in 2015 the Tate Modern unveiled a dramatic new, 64.5m pyramid-like extension.
So London continues to grow upwards, and English architecture continues to push new boundaries of style and technology. The buildings may look a little different, but it's great to see the spirit of Stonehenge alive and well after all these years.
Glossary of English Architecture
|bailey||outermost wall of a castle|
|bar||fortified gate (York, and some other northern cities)|
|barrel vault||semicircular arched roof|
|brass||memorial consisting of a brass plate set into the side or lid of a tomb, or into the floor of a church to indicate a burial place below|
|buttress||vertical support for a wall; see also flying buttress|
|campanile||freestanding belfry or bell tower|
|chancel||eastern end of the church, usually reserved for choir and clergy|
|choir||area in the church where the choir is seated|
|cloister||covered walkway linking the church with adjacent monastic buildings|
|close||buildings grouped around a cathedral|
|cob||mixture of mud and straw for building|
|corbel||stone or wooden projection from a wall supporting a beam or arch|
|flying buttress||supporting buttress in the form of one side of an open arch|
|lancet||pointed window in Early English style|
|lierne vault||vault containing many tertiary ribs|
|Martello tower||small, circular tower used for coastal defence|
|minster||traditionally a church connected to a monastery; now a title signalling a church's importance|
|nave||main body of the church at the western end, where the congregation gathers|
|oast house||building containing a kiln for drying hops|
|pargeting||decorative stucco plasterwork|
|priory||religious house governed by a prior|
|quire||medieval term for choir|
|rood||archaic word for cross (in churches)|
|transepts||north–south projections from a church's nave, giving church a cruciform (cross-shaped plan)|
|undercroft||vaulted underground room or cellar|
|vault||roof with arched ribs, usually in a decorative pattern|
Feature: House & Home
It's not all about big houses. Alongside the stately homes, ordinary domestic architecture from the 16th century onwards can also still be seen in rural areas: black-and-white 'half-timbered' houses still characterise counties such as Worcestershire, while brick-and-flint cottages pepper Norfolk and Suffolk, and hardy centuries-old farms built with slate or local gritstone are a feature of areas such as Derbyshire and the Lake District.
Feature: The Stirling Prize for Architecture
The highlight of the year for aficionados of modern architecture is the announcement of the shortlist for the Stirling Prize for the best new building, an annual award for excellence in architecture organised by the Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA). Established in 1996, this prestigious award is for 'the building that has made the greatest contribution to the evolution of architecture in the past year'. Famous winners include the Millennium Bridge in Gateshead (2002), 30 St Mary Axe (better known as the Gherkin) in London (2004), the Scottish Parliament Building in Edinburgh (2005), the Everyman Theatre in Liverpool (2014), the Burntwood School in London (2015) and the redevelopment of Hastings Pier (2017).
Sidebar: The Construction of Stonehenge
The construction of Stonehenge pushed the limits of technology in the Neolithic era. Some giant menhirs were transported a great distance, and many were shaped slightly wider at the top to take account of perspective – a trick used by the Greeks many centuries later.
Sidebar: Iron Age Hill Forts
There are more than a thousand Iron Age hill forts in England. Impressive examples include Danebury Ring, Hampshire; Barbury Castle, Wiltshire; Uffington Castle, Oxfordshire; Carl Wark, Derbyshire; Cadbury Castle, Somerset; and the immense Maiden Castle, Dorset.
Sidebar: England's Finest Stately Homes
- Audley End House (Essex)
- Blickling Hall (Norfolk)
- Burghley House (Lincolnshire)
- Blenheim Palace (Oxfordshire)
- Castle Howard (Yorkshire)
- Chatsworth House (Derbyshire)
- Cotehele (Cornwall)
- Kingston Lacy (Dorset)
Sidebar: England's Top Castles
- Berkeley Castle (Gloucestershire)
- Carlisle Castle (Cumbria)
- Corfe Castle (Dorset)
- Leeds Castle (Kent)
- Skipton Castle (Yorkshire)
- Tintagel Castle (Cornwall)
- Tower of London (London)
- Windsor Castle (Berkshire)
The English Landscape
When it comes to landscapes, England is not a place of extremes; there are no Alps or Himalaya here, no Amazon or Sahara. But there are still very diverse environments, and understanding those differences can keep you enthralled. The country may be small, but even a relatively short journey takes you through a surprising mix of scenery. Seeing the change – subtle in some areas, dramatic in others – as you travel is one of this country’s great joys.
England has an embarrassment of beaches, from tiny hidden coves in Cornwall to vast neon-lined strands such as Brighton or Blackpool. Other great beaches can be found in Devon, Somerset and along the south coast, in Suffolk, Norfolk, Lancashire, Yorkshire and Northumberland – each with their own distinct character. The best resort beaches earn the coveted international Blue Flag (www.blueflag.org) award, meaning sand and water are clean and unpolluted. Other criteria include the presence of lifeguards, litter bins and recycling facilities, meaning some wild beaches may not earn the award, but are stunning nonetheless.
Back in 1810, English poet and outdoor fan William Wordsworth suggested that the wild landscape of the Lake District in Cumbria should be 'a sort of national property, in which every man has a right'. More than a century later, the Lake District had indeed become a national park, along with the Peak District, Dartmoor, Exmoor, the North York Moors, the Yorkshire Dales and Northumberland. Other national parks (or equivalent status) followed, including the Norfolk and Suffolk Broads, the New Forest and the South Downs.
But the term 'national park' can cause confusion. First, in England the parks are not state-owned: nearly all land is private, belonging to farmers, private estates and conservation organisations. Second, they are not areas of wilderness, as in many other countries – most of the national parks have been managed by humans in some way for hundreds of years, whether for agriculture, forestry or other purposes.
In England's national parks you'll see crop fields in lower areas and grazing sheep on the uplands, as well as roads, railways and villages, and even towns, quarries and factories in some parks. It's a reminder of the balance that is struck in this crowded country between protecting the natural environment and catering for the people who live in it.
Despite these apparent anomalies, England's national parks still contain mountains, hills, downs, moors, lakes, woods, river valleys and other areas of quiet countryside, all ideal for enjoying nature however you like to experience it.
In 2017 England's most popular national park, the Lake District, was granted World Heritage status by Unesco.
England's National Parks
rolling hills, rocky outcrops, serene valleys; Bronze Age relics; wild ponies, deer, peregrine falcons
walking, mountain biking, horse riding, climbing, winter kayaking
Best Time to Visit
May-Jun (wildflowers bloom)
sweeping moors, craggy sea cliffs; red deer, wild ponies, horned sheep
horse riding, walking, mountain biking
Best Time to Visit
Aug-Sep (heather flowering)
majestic fells, rugged mountains, shimmering lakes; literary heritage; red squirrels, ospreys
watersports, walking, mountaineering, rock climbing
Best Time to Visit
Sep-Oct (summer crowds departed, autumn colours abound)
woodlands, heath; wild ponies, otters, Dartford warblers, southern damselflies
walking, cycling, horse riding
Best Time to Visit
Apr-Sep (lush vegetation)
Norfolk & Suffolk Broads
expansive shallow lakes, rivers, marshlands; windmills; water lilies, wildfowl, otters
walking, cycling, boating
Best Time to Visit
Apr-May (birds most active)
North York Moors
heather-clad hills, deep-green valleys, isolated villages; merlins, curlews, golden plovers
walking, mountain biking
Best Time to Visit
Aug-Sep (heather flowering)
wild rolling moors, heather, gorse; Hadrian's Wall; black grouse, red squirrels
walking, cycling, mountain biking, climbing
Best Time to Visit
Apr-May (lambs) & Sep (heather flowering)
high moors, tranquil dales, limestone caves; kestrels, badgers, grouse
walking, cycling, mountain biking, hang-gliding, climbing
Best Time to Visit
Apr-May (even more lambs)
rolling grassy chalky hills, chalky sea-cliffs, gorse, heather; Adonis blue butterflies
walking, mountain biking
Best Time to Visit
Aug (heather flowering)
rugged hills, lush valleys, limestone pavements; red squirrels, hares, curlews, lapwings, buzzards
walking, cycling, mountain biking, climbing
Best Time to Visit
Apr-May (visitors outnumbered by, you guessed it, lambs)
As well as national parks, other parts of the English countryside are designated as Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONBs), the second tier of protected landscape after national parks. Some of the finest AONBs in England include the Chilterns, Cornwall, the Cotswolds, the Isles of Scilly, the North Pennines, the Northumberland Coast, the Suffolk Coast and the Wye Valley.
There are also Conservation Areas, Sites of Special Scientific Interest (SSSIs) and many other types of protected landscape that you can enjoy as you travel around.
For a small country, England has a diverse range of plants and animals. Many native species are hidden away, but there are some undoubted gems, from lowland woods carpeted in shimmering bluebells to stately herds of deer on the high moors. Having a closer look will enhance your trip enormously.
In rural areas, rabbits are everywhere, but if you're hiking through the countryside be on the lookout for the much larger brown hares, an increasingly rare species. Males who battle for territory by boxing on their hind legs in early spring are, of course, as 'mad as a March hare'.
Common birds of farmland areas (and urban gardens) include the robin, with its instantly recognisable red breast and cheerful whistle; the wren, whose loud trilling song belies its tiny size; and the yellowhammer, with a song that sounds like (if you use your imagination) 'a-little-bit-of-bread-and-no-cheese'. In open fields, the warbling cry of a skylark is another classic, but now threatened, sound of the English outdoors. You're more likely to see a pheasant, a large bird originally introduced from Russia to the nobility's shooting estates, but now considered naturalised. Barn and tawny owls can sometimes be spotted, especially at dawn and dusk.
Alongside rivers the once-rare otter is making a comeback. Elsewhere, in some areas the black-and-white striped badger has been the subject of trial culls – some believe it transmits bovine tuberculosis to cattle, others argue the case is far from proven. Also at the centre of controversy is the fox – amid much national debate, hunting foxes with dogs was banned in 2005. The animal is widespread in the countryside and well adapted to a scavenging life in rural towns, and even city suburbs.
In woodland areas, mammals include the small white-spotted fallow deer and the even smaller roe deer. Woodland is full of birds too, but you'll hear them more than see them. Listen out for willow warblers (which have a warbling song with a descending cadence), chiffchaffs (which make a repetitive 'chiff chaff' noise) and the rat-a-tat-tat of woodpeckers.
If you hear rustling among the fallen leaves it might be a hedgehog – a spiny-backed insect-eating mammal – but it's an increasingly rare sound these days; conservationists say they'll be extinct in Britain by 2025, thanks to farming insecticides, decreased habitat and their inability to safely cross roads.
England’s native red squirrels are severely endangered thanks to their more aggressive grey cousins, which were originally introduced from North America. As well as being more aggressive and competitive for food, the greys also carry a virus called squirrel pox that is particularly lethal to the reds. Attempts have been made in some areas to limit grey squirrel numbers in order to give the reds a fighting chance: Cumbria is an important stronghold.
Perhaps unexpectedly, England is home to herds of 'wild' ponies, notably in the New Forest, Exmoor and Dartmoor, but although these animals roam free they are privately owned and regularly managed. There's even a pocket of wild goats near Lynmouth in Devon, where they've apparently gambolled merrily for almost 1000 years.
Another recent arrival – or perhaps more accurately returnee – is the beaver, once a native resident of England, but trapped out of existence long ago. The animal have been reintroduced to several locations around England, although the exact sites have been kept secret to ensure their safety.
Mountains & High Moors
On some mountains and high moors the most visible mammal is the red deer. Males of the species grow their famous large antlers between April and July, and shed them again in February. Also on the high ground, well-known and easily recognised birds include the red grouse, which often hides in the heather until almost stepped on, then flies away with a loud warning call; and the curlew, with its stately long legs and elegant curved bill. Look hard, and you may see beautifully camouflaged golden plovers, while the spectacular aerial displays of lapwings are impossible to miss.
Birds of prey are also a fairly common sight on the open moors, particularly kestrels and buzzards.
By the sea, two seal species frequent English coasts: the larger grey seal, which is more often seen, and the misnamed common seal. In areas such as Norfolk and Northumberland, boat trips to see seal colonies are a popular attraction. Dolphins, porpoises, minke whales and basking sharks can sometimes be seen off the western coasts, especially from about May to September when viewing conditions are better – although you may need to go with someone who knows where to look. Boat trips are available from many coastal resorts.
England's estuaries and mudflats are feeding grounds for numerous migrant wading birds; easily spotted are black-and-white oystercatchers with their long red bills, while flocks of ringed plovers skitter along the sand. On the coastal cliffs in early summer, particularly in Cornwall and Yorkshire, countless thousands of guillemots, razorbills, kittiwakes and other breeding seabirds fight for space on crowded rock ledges, and the air is thick with their sound – as well as the cries of various types of seagull, now so numerous they've managed to colonise many English cities as well as its coastline.
In the rolling hills of southern England and the limestone areas further north (such as the Peak District and Yorkshire Dales), the best places to see wildflowers are the areas that evade large-scale farming – many erupt with great profusions of cowslips and primroses in April and May.
For woodland flowers, the best time is also April and May, before the leaf canopy is fully developed so sunlight can reach plants such as bluebells – a beautiful and internationally rare species. Another classic English plant is gorse: you can't miss this spiky bush in heath areas like Dartmoor, Exmoor and the New Forest. Its vivid yellow flowers show year-round and have a distinctive, coconut-like scent.
In contrast, the blooming season for heather is quite short, but no less dramatic; through August and September areas such as the North York Moors and Dartmoor are covered in a riot of purple.
With England's long history of human occupation, it's not surprising that the country's appearance is heavily the result of human interaction with the environment. Since the earliest times, trees have been chopped down and fields created for crops or animals, but the really significant changes to rural areas came after WWII in the late 1940s, continuing into the '50s and '60s, when a drive to be self-reliant in food meant new – intensive and large-scale – farming methods. The result was dramatic: in some areas ancient patchworks of small meadows became landscapes of vast prairie-like fields, as walls were demolished, woodlands felled, ponds filled, wetlands drained and, most notably, hedgerows ripped out.
In most cases the hedgerows were lines of dense bushes, shrubs and trees forming a network that stretched across the countryside, protecting fields from erosion, supporting a varied range of flowers, and providing shelter for numerous insects, birds and small mammals. But in the rush to improve farm yields, thousands of miles of hedgerows were destroyed in the postwar decades, and between the mid-1980s and the early 2000s another 25% disappeared.
Hedgerows have come to symbolise many other environmental issues in rural areas, and in recent years the destruction has abated, partly because farmers recognise their anti-erosion qualities, and partly because they've been encouraged – with financial incentives from UK or European agencies – to 'set aside' such areas as wildlife havens.
In addition to hedgerow clearance, other farming techniques remain hot environmental issues. Studies suggest the use of pesticides and intensive irrigation results in rivers being contaminated or simply running dry. Meanwhile, monocropping means the fields have one type of grass and not another plant to be seen. These 'green deserts' support no insects, so in turn wild bird populations have plummeted. This picture is not a case of wizened old peasants recalling the idyllic days of their forbears; you only have to be aged about 40 in England to remember a countryside where birds such as skylarks or lapwings were visibly much more numerous.
But all is not lost. In the face of apparently overwhelming odds, England still boasts great biodiversity, and some of the best wildlife habitats are protected (to a greater or lesser extent) by the creation of national parks and similar areas, or private reserves owned by conservation campaign groups such as the Wildlife Trusts (www.wildlifetrusts.org), National Trust (www.nationaltrust.org.uk), Woodland Trust (www.woodlandtrust.org.uk) and the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (www.rspb.org.uk). Many of these areas are open to the public – ideal spots for walking, birdwatching or simply enjoying the peace and beauty of the countryside – and are well worth a visit as you travel around.
Feature: Wildlife in Your Pocket
Is it a rabbit or a hare? A gull or a tern? Buttercup or cowslip? If you need to know a bit more about England's plant and animal kingdoms, the following field guides are ideal for entry-level naturalists:
- Collins Complete Guide to British Wildlife by Paul Sterry is portable and highly recommended, covering mammals, birds, fish, plants, snakes, insects and even fungi, with brief descriptions and excellent photos.
- If feathered friends are enough, the Collins Complete Guide to British Birds by Paul Sterry has clear photos and descriptions, plus when and where each species may be seen.
- Wildlife of the North Atlantic by world-famous film-maker Tony Soper beautifully covers the animals seen from beach, boat and cliff top in the British Isles and beyond.
- The Collins GEM series includes handy little books on wildlife topics such as Birds, Trees, Fish and Wild Flowers.
Feature: Fox Hunting
The red fox, a doglike animal with a characteristic bushy tail and an anthropomorphic reputation for cunning, is a divisive creature in England. The controversy focuses on hunting, and specifically fox hunting with hounds (a type of dog). Supporters say it’s been a traditional English rural activity for centuries, and helps control the fox population; opponents say it’s a savage blood sport that has little impact on overall numbers. Distaste for this type of hunting is not a new phenomenon; the activity was famously described as ‘the unspeakable in pursuit of the inedible’ by Oscar Wilde more than a century ago. Fox hunting has been immortalised in thousands of paintings depicting English country life, and in countless rural pub names. Today, some observers believe the hunting debate has come to represent much bigger issues: town versus country, or the relative limits of privilege, state control and individual freedom. Either way, fox hunting with dogs was banned in 2005 by law – and opinion is still very strongly divided.
Feature: Landscape Facts
Geographic areas (in sq miles):
- England 50,000
- Britain (England, Scotland, Wales) 88,500
- UK (Britain & Northern Ireland) 95,000
- British Isles (UK, Ireland & other smaller islands) 123,000
By comparison, France is about 212,000 sq miles, Australia 2.7 million sq miles and the USA about 3.5 million sq miles.
Sidebar: Wildlife Guide
Wildlife of Britain by George McGavin et al is subtitled 'The Definitive Visual Guide'. Although too heavy to carry around during your travels, this beautiful photographic book is great for pretrip inspiration or posttrip memories.
Sidebar: 21st-Century Hedgerows
Although hedgerows around fields have been reduced, new 'hedgerows' have appeared: the long strips of grass and bushes alongside motorways and major roads. These areas support thousands of insect species plus mice, shrews and other small mammals, so kestrels are often seen hovering nearby, unconcerned by traffic.
Sidebar: The Woods of England
Perhaps surprisingly, England's most wooded county is Surrey, despite its proximity to London. The soil is too poor for agriculture, so while woodland areas elsewhere in England were cleared, Surrey's trees got a stay of execution.
Sidebar: Countryside Online
England’s contributions to literature, drama, cinema and pop are celebrated around the world. As you travel around England today you'll encounter landscapes made famous as movie sets and literary locations, and places mentioned in songs. Here we've picked some major creative milestones and focused on works with connections to real locations – so your physical journey through England will be one that connects culture with place.
The roots of England's poetic and story-telling heritage stretch back to Nordic sagas and Early English epics such as Beowulf, but modern English literature starts around 1387 (yes, that is 'modern' in history-soaked England) when Geoffrey Chaucer produced The Canterbury Tales. This mammoth poem is a collection of fables, stories and morality tales using travelling pilgrims – the Knight, the Wife of Bath and so on – as a narrative hook.
The next significant development in English literature came in the 16th century, when John Milton penned Paradise Lost, charting the tale of Adam and Eve within the framework of epic poetry. But it was a young playwright by the name of William Shakespeare who left an even greater mark. Best known for his plays, penned in an astonishing burst of creativity between 1590 and 1610, he was also a remarkably prolific and influential poet, writing a series of sonnets that are still quoted to this day ('Shall I compare thee to a summer's day?' is one of Shakespeare's).
His birthplace, Stratford-upon-Avon, is stacked with Shakespearean sights, including the home of the celebrated Royal Shakespeare Company (RSC) – although the debate rages on about precisely how Shakespeare penned his plays. Some academics maintain he was the sole author, while others (including the well-known actor and former director of the RSC, Mark Rylance) maintain that the plays were much more likely to have been written as a collaborative effort. The truth will probably never be known, but the plays will endure.
The Romantic Era
During the late 18th and early 19th centuries, a new generation of writers drew inspiration from human imagination and the natural world (in some cases helped along by a healthy dose of laudanum). Leading lights of the movement were William Blake, John Keats, Percy Bysshe Shelley, Lord Byron and Samuel Taylor Coleridge, and perhaps the best-known English poet of all, William Wordsworth. His famous line from 'Daffodils' – 'I wandered lonely as a cloud' – was inspired by a waterside walk in the Lake District in northern England.
As industrialisation expanded during the reign of Queen Victoria, so key novels of the time explored social themes. Charles Dickens tackled many prevailing issues of his day: in Oliver Twist, he captures the lives of young pickpockets in the London slums; Bleak House is a critique of the English legal system; and Hard Times criticises the excesses of capitalism. At around the same time, but choosing a rural setting, George Eliot (the pen name of Mary Ann Evans) wrote The Mill on the Floss, where the central character struggles against society's expectations.
Thomas Hardy's classic Tess of the D'Urbervilles deals with the peasantry's decline, and The Trumpet Major paints a picture of idyllic English country life interrupted by war and encroaching modernity. Many of Hardy's works are based in the fictionalised county of Wessex, largely based on today's Dorset and surrounding counties, where towns such as Dorchester are dotted with literary links.
The 20th Century
The end of WWI and the ensuing social disruption fed into the modernist movement, with DH Lawrence perhaps its finest exponent; Sons and Lovers follows the lives and loves of generations in the English Midlands as the country changes from rural idyll to an increasingly industrial landscape, while his controversial exploration of sexuality in Lady Chatterley's Lover was originally banned as 'obscene'. Other highlights of this period included Daphne du Maurier's romantic suspense novel Rebecca, set on the Cornish coast, and Evelyn Waugh's Brideshead Revisited, an exploration of moral and social disintegration among the English aristocracy, set partly in Oxford.
The 1970s saw the arrival of two novelists who became prolific for the remainder of the century and beyond. Martin Amis published The Rachel Papers then went on to produce a string of novels where common themes included the absurdity and unappealing nature of modern life, such as London Fields (1989) and Lionel Asbo: State of England (2012). Meanwhile, Ian McEwan debuted with The Cement Garden, and earned critical acclaim for finely observed studies of the English character such as The Child in Time (1987), Atonement (2001) and On Chesil Beach (2007), which is set on the eponymous, 18-mile stretch of Dorset shore.
As the 20th century came to a close, the nation’s multicultural landscape proved a rich inspiration for contemporary novelists: Hanif Kureishi sowed the seeds with his groundbreaking The Buddha of Suburbia, about a group of British-Asians in suburban London; Zadie Smith published her acclaimed debut White Teeth in 2000, followed by a string of bestsellers including The Autograph Man and 2012's NW; Andrea Levy published Small Island, about a Jamaican couple settled in postwar London; and Monica Ali’s Brick Lane was shortlisted for the high-profile Man Booker Prize in 2003.
Other contemporary writers include Will Self, known for his surreal, satirical novels including The Book of Dave, and Nick Hornby, best known for novels like Fever Pitch, a study of the insecurities of English blokishness. There's also Julian Barnes, whose books include England, England, a darkly ironic study of nationalism and tourism among other themes, and The Sense of An Ending, winner of the 2011 Man Booker Prize. Not to mention Hilary Mantel, author of many novels on an astoundingly wide range of subjects, and winner of the Man Booker Prize twice, first in 2009 for historical blockbuster Wolf Hall (about Henry VIII and his ruthless advisor Thomas Cromwell), and then in 2012 for its sequel Bring Up the Bodies. At the time of writing, the third and final instalment, The Mirror and the Light, was still a work in progress.
England’s greatest literary phenomenon of the 21st century is JK Rowling’s Harry Potter books, a series of otherworldly adventures that have entertained millions of children (and many grown-ups too) since the first book was published in 1996. The magical tales are the latest in a long line of British children’s classics enjoyed by adults, stretching back to the works of Lewis Carroll (Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland), E Nesbit (The Railway Children), AA Milne (Winnie-the-Pooh) and CS Lewis (The Chronicles of Narnia).
English cinema has a long history, with many early directors cutting their teeth in the silent-film industry. Perhaps the best known of these was Alfred Hitchcock, who directed Blackmail, one of the first English ‘talkies’ in 1929, and who went on to direct a string of films during the 1930s before emigrating to Hollywood in the early 1940s.
War & Postwar
During WWII, films such as In Which We Serve (1942) and We Dive at Dawn (1943) were designed to raise public morale, while a young director called David Lean produced Brief Encounter (1945), the classic tale of buttoned-up English passion, before graduating to Hollywood epics including Lawrence of Arabia and Doctor Zhivago.
Following the hardships of war, British audiences were in the mood for escape and entertainment. During the late 1940s and early '50s, the domestic film industry specialised in eccentric British comedies epitomised by the output of Ealing Studios: notable titles include Passport to Pimlico (1949), Kind Hearts and Coronets (1949) and The Titfield Thunderbolt (1953).
'British New Wave' and 'Free Cinema' explored the gritty realities of British life in semidocumentary style, with directors Lindsay Anderson and Tony Richardson crystallising the movement in films such as This Sporting Life (1961) and A Taste of Honey (1961). At the other end of the spectrum were the Carry On films, the cinematic equivalent of the smutty seaside postcard, packed with bawdy gags and double entendres. The 1960s also saw the birth of another classic English genre: the James Bond films, starring Sean Connery (who is actually Scottish).
The 1970s was a tough decade for the British film industry, but the 1980s saw a recovery, thanks partly to David Puttnam's Oscar success with Chariots of Fire (1981), and the newly established Channel Four investing in edgy films such as My Beautiful Laundrette (1985).
Another minor renaissance occurred in the 1990s, ushered in by the massively successful Four Weddings and a Funeral (1994), featuring Hugh Grant in his trademark role as a floppy-haired, self-deprecating Englishman, a character type he reprised in subsequent hits, including Notting Hill, About a Boy and Love Actually.
The ‘Brit Flick’ genre – characterised by themes such as irony, social realism and humour in the face of adversity – went on to include Brassed Off (1996), about a struggling colliery band; The Full Monty (1997), following a troupe of laid-off steelworkers turned male strippers; and Billy Elliott (2000), the story of an aspiring young ballet dancer striving to escape the slagheaps and boarded-up factories of the industrial north.
Meanwhile, films such as East Is East (1999) and Bend it like Beckham (2002) explored the tensions of modern multicultural Britain, while veteran director Mike Leigh, known for his heavily improvised style, found success with Life Is Sweet (1991), Naked (1993) and the Palme d'Or–winning Secrets and Lies (1996).
In the early part of the 21st century, literary adaptations have continued to provide the richest seam of success in the English film industry, including 2012’s Anna Karenina, directed by Joe Wright and staring Keira Knightley, and of course the blockbuster Harry Potter franchise. Biopics are also a perennial favourite: recent big-screen subjects include Elizabeth I (Elizabeth: The Golden Age, 2007), Margaret Thatcher (The Iron Lady, 2011) and the 19th-century artist JMW Turner (Mr Turner, 2014).
Meanwhile, the oldest of English film franchises trundles on: a tough, toned, 21st-century James Bond appeared in 2006 courtesy of Daniel Craig and the blockbuster Casino Royale (2006), followed by Quantum of Solace (2008), Skyfall (2012) and Spectre (2015). Craig will return as Bond a final time for the 25th instalment, to be directed by Danny Boyle and due to be released in 2019. There is much speculation about who will play the spy next; some critics have suggested that the role should go to a black or ethnic minority actor, while others claim it's high time that Bond changed gender. Watch this space.
Pop & Rock Music
England has been putting the world through its musical paces ever since some mop-haired lads from Liverpool created The Beatles. Elvis may have invented rock and roll, but it was the Fab Four that transformed it into a global phenomenon, backed by the other bands of the 1960s 'British Invasion': The Rolling Stones, The Who, Cream and The Kinks. And the big names have kept coming ever since.
Glam to Punk
Glam rock arrived in the 1970s, fronted by artists such as the anthemic Queen and the chameleon-like David Bowie (whose passing in 2016 triggered a palpable sense of loss worldwide). Also in the '70s Led Zeppelin laid down the blueprint for heavy metal, and the psychedelia of the previous decade morphed into the prog rock of Pink Floyd and Yes.
At the end of the decade, it was all swept aside as punk exploded onto the scene, most famously with the Sex Pistols, The Clash, The Damned, the Buzzcocks and The Stranglers. Then punk begat New Wave, with acts including The Jam and Elvis Costello blending spiky tunes and sharp lyrics into a more radio-friendly sound.
The conspicuous consumption of the early 1980s influenced the era's pop scene. Big hair and shoulder pads became the uniform of the day, with big names including Wham! (a boyish duo headed by an up-and-coming popster called George Michael) and New Romantic bands such as Spandau Ballet and Duran Duran. Away from the glitz, fans enjoyed the doom-laden lyrics of The Cure, the heavy metal of Iron Maiden and the 'miserabilism' of The Smiths.
Dance & Britpop
The late 1980s and early 1990s saw the rise of ecstasy-fuelled rave culture, centred on famous clubs like Manchester's Haçienda and London's Ministry of Sound. Manchester was also a focus for the burgeoning British 'indie' scene, driven by guitar-based bands such as The Stone Roses, James, Happy Mondays and Oasis. Then indie morphed into Britpop, with Oasis, Pulp, Supergrass and Blur, whose distinctively British music chimed with the country's reborn sense of optimism after the landslide election of New Labour in 1997.
New Millennium Sounds
The new millennium saw no let up in the music scene's continual shifting and reinventing. R&B, hip-hop and drum and bass fused into grime and dubstep, producing acts like Dizzee Rascal, Tinie Tempah and Stormzy. Initially centred on London, both scenes continue to wield an increasing global influence. Dance acts like Calvin Harris and Disclosure also enjoyed massive international success. Meanwhile the spirit of British indie stays alive thanks to the likes of Arctic Monkeys, Coldplay, Muse, Kasabian and Radiohead.
Pop shows no sign of losing popularity, either: boy bands continue to come and go, most notably One Direction, who clocked up the sales before going the way of all boy bands and splitting up in acrimonious fashion. Singer-songwriters are a strongpoint – Adele's 2015 album, 25, won critical acclaim and proved another international blockbuster, while Ed Sheeran has taken the world by storm; his third album, ÷, was released in 2017, and notched up 10 Top 10 hit singles (a British record) as well as two singles in the US Top 10, becoming the first artist in history to do so. To date, Sheeran has sold more than 26 million albums and 100 million singles worldwide, putting him in the top tier of the world's most successful (and richest) artists.
Painting & Sculpture
For many centuries, continental Europe – especially the Netherlands, Spain, France and Italy – set the artistic agenda. The first artist with a truly British style and sensibility was arguably William Hogarth, whose riotous canvases exposed the vice and corruption of 18th-century London. His most celebrated work is A Rake’s Progress, which kick-started a long tradition of British caricatures that can be traced right through to the work of modern-day cartoonists such as Gerald Scarfe and Steve Bell. You can see it at Sir John Soane’s Museum in London.
While Hogarth was busy satirising society, other artists were hard at work showing it in its best light. The leading figures of 18th-century English portraiture were Sir Joshua Reynolds, Thomas Gainsborough (you can visit his house in Sudbury, Suffolk) and George Romney, while George Stubbs is best known for his intricate studies of animals (particularly horses). Most of these artists are represented at Tate Britain or the National Gallery in London.
Landscape & Fables
In the 19th century leading painters favoured the English landscape. John Constable's best-known works include Salisbury Cathedral and The Hay Wain. The latter is in the National Gallery; you can also visit the setting, a mill at Flatford in Suffolk. JMW Turner, meanwhile, was fascinated by the effects of light and colour on English scenes, with his works becoming almost entirely abstract by the 1840s.
In contrast, the Pre-Raphaelite painters of the late 19th century preferred a figurative style reflecting the Victorian taste for English fables and fairy tales. Key members of the movement included Dante Gabriel Rossetti, John Everett Millais and William Holman Hunt, all represented at London's Tate Britain or the Victoria & Albert Museum.
Stones & Sticks
In the tumultuous 20th century, English art became increasingly experimental. Francis Bacon placed Freudian psychoanalysis on the canvas in his portraits, while pioneering sculptors such as Henry Moore and Barbara Hepworth experimented with natural forms in stone and new materials. At about the same time, the painter LS Lowry was setting his 'matchstick men' among the smokestacks of northern England, and is today remembered by the major art centre that bears his name in Manchester.
The mid-1950s and early '60s saw an explosion of English 'pop art', as artists plundered popular culture for inspiration. Leaders of this new movement included David Hockney. His bold colours and simple lines were groundbreaking at the time, and are still used to great effect half a century later. A contemporary, Peter Blake, codesigned the cut-up collage cover for The Beatles' landmark album Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band. The '60s also saw the rise of sculptor Anthony Caro; creating large abstract works in steel and bronze, he was one of England's most influential sculptors.
Britart & Beyond
Thanks partly to the support (and money) of advertising tycoon Charles Saatchi, a new wave of British artists came to the fore in the 1990s. The movement was dubbed, inevitably, 'Britart'; its leading members included Damien Hirst, famous (or infamous) for works involving pickled sharks, a cow and calf cut into sections (Mother and Child Divided) and a diamond-encrusted skull entitled For the Love of God. His pregnant, naked and half-flayed Verity towers 20m high beside the harbour mouth at Ilfracombe in north Devon.
A contemporary is Tracey Emin. Once considered an enfant terrible, she incurred the wrath of the tabloids for works such as My Bed (a messed-up bedroom scene which sold for £2.5 million in 2014), but is now a respected figure and patron of the new Turner Gallery in Margate, named for the famous English artist JMW Turner. One of her recent works, a 20m light sculpture reading I Want My Time With You, was installed at London's St Pancras station in 2018 (the terminus for the Eurostar), and has been interpreted by some critics as Emin's response to the Brexit issue.
English theatre can trace its roots back to medieval morality plays, court jesters and travelling storytellers, and possibly even to dramas during Roman times in amphitheatres – a few of which still remain, such as at Chester and Cirencester. But most scholars agree that the key milestone in the story is the opening of England’s first theatre – called simply The Theatre – in London in 1576. Within 25 years, the Rose and the Globe theatres appeared, and the stage was set for the entrance of England’s best-known playwright.
For most visitors to England (and for most locals) English drama means just one name: William Shakespeare. Born in 1564, in the Midlands town of Stratford-upon-Avon (still rich in Shakespearean sights), Shakespeare made his mark in London between around 1590 and 1610, where most of his plays were performed at the Globe Theatre. His brilliant plots and spectacular use of language, plus the sheer size of his canon of work (including classics such as Hamlet, Romeo and Juliet, Henry V and A Midsummer Night's Dream), have turned him into a national – and international – icon, so that today, almost 400 years after shuffling off his mortal coil, the Bard’s plays still pull in big crowds.
English Theatre Today
However you budget your time and money during your visit to England, be sure to see some English theatre. It easily lives up to its reputation as the finest in the world, especially in London, while other big cities also boast their own top-class venues, such as the Birmingham Repertory Theatre, the Bristol Old Vic, Chichester Festival Theatre and the Nottingham Playhouse.
Many accomplished British actors, including Judi Dench, Mark Rylance, Ralph Fiennes, Brenda Blethyn, Toby Stephens and Simon Callow, juggle high-paying Hollywood roles with appearances on the British stage, while over the last decade or so several American stars have taken hefty pay cuts to tread the London boards, including Glenn Close, Kevin Spacey, Gwyneth Paltrow, Gillian Anderson, Christian Slater and Danny DeVito.
Venues in London include the Donmar Warehouse and the Royal Court Theatre, best known for new and experimental works. For big names, most people head for the West End, where famous spots include the Shaftesbury, the Adelphi Theatre and the Theatre Royal at Drury Lane. And then there's The Mousetrap – Agatha Christie's legendary whodunit is the world’s longest-running play, showing continuously in the West End since 1952.
West End Musicals
As well as drama, London’s West End means big musicals, with a long history of crowd-pullers such as Cats, The Wizard of Oz, Les Misérables, Sweeney Todd, The Phantom of the Opera and The Lion King, with many of today’s shows raiding the pop world for material, such as We Will Rock You, inspired by the music of Queen, and Abba-based Mamma Mia!
Feature: Jane Austen & the Brontës
The beginning of the 19th century saw the emergence of some of English literature’s best-known and beloved writers: Jane Austen and the Brontë sisters.
Austen’s fame stems from her exquisite observations of love, friendship, intrigues and passions boiling beneath the strait-laced surface of middle-class social convention, and from the endless stream of movies and TV costume dramas based on her works, such as Pride and Prejudice and Sense and Sensibility. For visitors today, the location most associated with Jane Austen is the city of Bath – a beautiful place even without the literary link. As one of her heroines said, 'who can ever be tired of Bath?'.
Of the Brontë sisters' prodigious output, Emily Brontë's Wuthering Heights is the best known – an epic tale of obsession and revenge, where the dark and moody landscape plays a role as great as any human character. Charlotte Brontë's Jane Eyre and Anne Brontë's The Tenant of Wildfell Hall are classics of passion and mystery. Fans still flock to their former home in the Yorkshire town of Haworth, perched on the edge of the wild Pennine moors that inspired so many of their books.
Feature: Wallace and Gromit
One of the great success stories of English TV and cinema has been Bristol-based animator Nick Park and the production company Aardman Animations, best known for the award-winning man-and-dog duo Wallace and Gromit. This lovable pair first appeared in Park's graduation film A Grand Day Out (1989) and went on to star in The Wrong Trousers (1993), A Close Shave (1995) and the full-length feature The Curse of the Were-Rabbit (2005). Known for their intricate plots, film homages and amazingly realistic stop-motion animation – as well as their very British sense of humour – the Wallace and Gromit films scooped Nick Park four Oscars. Other Aardman works include Chicken Run (2000), Flushed Away (2006) and The Pirates! (2012).
Feature: Rock and Roll Locations...
Fans buy the single, then the T-shirt. But true fans visit the location featured on the album cover. The following are a few favourites:
- Abbey Rd, St John’s Wood, London – Abbey Road, The Beatles
- Battersea Power Station, London – Animals, Pink Floyd (the inflatable pig has gone)
- Berwick St, Soho, London – (What's the Story) Morning Glory, Oasis
- Big Ben plus a corner of plinth under Boudica’s statue, London – My Generation (US version), The Who
- Durdle Door, Dorset – North Atlantic Drift, Ocean Colour Scene
- Salford Boys Club, Manchester – The Queen is Dead, The Smiths
- Thor's Cave, Manifold Valley, near Ashbourne, Peak District National Park – A Storm In Heaven, The Verve
- Yes Tor, Dartmoor, Devon – Tomato, Yes
Feature: Anish Kapoor
The sculptor Anish Kapoor has been working in London since the 1970s. He is best known for his large outdoor installations, which often feature curved shapes and reflective materials, such as highly polished steel. His recent works include a major new installation, called ArcelorMittal Orbit, in London's 2012 Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park. At over 110m high it is the largest piece of public art in Britain, and one you can actually slide down, in a hair-raising 40-second glide.
Feature: Turner Prize
Named after the enduringly popular landscape painter JMW Turner, the Turner Prize is a high-profile and frequently controversial annual award for British visual artists. As well as Damien Hirst, other winners have included Martin Creed (his work was a room with lights going on and off), Mark Wallinger (a collection of anti-war objects), Simon Starling (a shed converted to a boat and back again), Rachel Whiteread (a plaster cast of a house) and Antony Gormley (best known in England for his gigantic Angel of the North).
Sidebar: Bridget Jones' Diary
Helen Fielding's book Bridget Jones's Diary, originally a series of newspaper articles, is a fond look at the heartache of a modern single woman's blundering search for love, and the epitome of the late-1990s 'chick-lit' genre. It's also (very loosely) based on Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen.
Sidebar: Ealing Comedies
The Ladykillers (1955) is a classic Ealing comedy about a band of hapless bank robbers holed up in a London guesthouse, and features Alec Guinness sporting the most outrageous set of false teeth ever committed to celluloid.
Sidebar: An English Literature Primer
For extra insight, the Oxford Guide to Literary Britain and Ireland, edited by Daniel Hahn and Nicholas Robins, gives details of towns, villages and countryside immortalised by writers, from Geoffrey Chaucer's Canterbury to Jane Austen's Bath.
Sidebar: Terry Pratchett and Douglas Adams
For other worlds and otherworldly humour, try two of England's funniest – and most successful – writers: Douglas Adams (The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy and several sequels) and Terry Pratchett (the Discworld series).
Sidebar: Film Magazines
The UK's biggest film magazine is Empire (www.empireonline.com). For less mainstream opinion check out Little White Lies (lwlies.com).
The British Film Institute (BFI; www.bfi.org.uk) is dedicated to promoting film and cinema in Britain, and publishes the monthly academic journal Sight & Sound.
Sidebar: English Music Movies
English music-scene movies include: Backbeat (1994), The Beatles' early days; Sid & Nancy (1986), Sex Pistols' bassist and his girlfriend; Quadrophenia (1979), mods and rockers; Velvet Goldmine (1998), glam rock; 24 Hour Party People (2002), Manchester scene; Control (2007), biopic of Joy Division singer Ian Curtis; and Nowhere Boy (2009), John Lennon pre-Beatles.
Sidebar: Great English Sculptors
Some of Henry Moore’s work can be seen at the Yorkshire Sculpture Park. Barbara Hepworth is celebrated at the eponymous gallery in Wakefield; her home and garden are also open to visitors in St Ives, Cornwall.
Sidebar: Shakespeare Venues
You can enjoy Shakespeare plays at the rebuilt Globe Theatre in London or at the Royal Shakespeare Company’s own theatre in Stratford-upon-Avon.
If you want a shortcut to the heart of English culture, watch its people at play. In this sports-mad nation thousands turn out each weekend to cheer their favourite football team. Events such as Wimbledon (tennis), the Six Nations (rugby) and test matches (cricket) keep millions enthralled. And then there are the efforts of enthusiastic amateurs – be it in pub football leagues or village cricket matches, the English reveal a penchant for rules, hierarchies and playing the game.
Along with Big Ben, The Beatles and a nice cup of tea, cricket is quintessentially English. Dating from the 18th century (although its roots are much older), the sport spread throughout the Commonwealth during Britain's colonial era. Australia, the Caribbean and the Indian subcontinent took to the game with gusto, and today the former colonies delight in giving the old country a good spanking on the cricket pitch.
While many English people follow cricket like a religion, to the uninitiated it can be an impenetrable enigma. Spread over one-day games or five-day 'test matches', progress seems so slow, and dominated by arcane terminology like ‘innings', 'cover drives', 'googlies', 'outswingers', 'leg-byes' and 'silly mid-off’. Nonetheless, at least one cricket match should be a feature of your travels around England. If you're patient and learn the intricacies, you could find cricket as absorbing as it is for all the Brits who remain glued to their radio or computer all summer long, 'just to see how England's getting on'.
Causing ructions is Twenty20 cricket, a relatively new format that limits the number of balls each team has to score off, putting the emphasis on fast, big-batting scores. Traditionalists see it as changing the character of the game, though there's no doubting its popularity – most Twenty20 matches sell out.
Grounds include Lord’s in London, Edgbaston in Birmingham and Headingley in Leeds. Tickets cost from £30 to well over £200. The County Championship pits the best teams from around the country against each other; tickets cost £5 to £25, and only the most crucial games tend to sell out. Details are on the website of the English Cricket Board (www.ecb.co.uk).
The easiest way to watch cricket – and often the most enjoyable – is stumbling across a local game on a village green as you travel around the country. There’s no charge for spectators, and no one will mind if you nip into the pub during a quiet spell.
The English Premier League (www.premierleague.com) has some of the finest teams in the world, dominated in recent years by four top teams (Arsenal, Liverpool, Chelsea and Manchester United), joined in 2012 by a fifth big player in the shape of Manchester City. Their big pockets weren't enough in 2016, however, when unfancied Leicester City stunned the pundits and delighted neutrals by winning the title – although Man City returned to take back-to-back titles in 2017 and 2018.
Down in quality from the Premiership, 72 other teams play in the English divisions called the Championship, League One and League Two.
The football season is the same for all divisions (August to May), so seeing a match can easily be tied into most visitors' itineraries, but tickets for the biggest games are like gold dust – your chances of bagging one are low unless you're a club member, or know someone who is. You're better off buying a ticket to see the less fashionable teams – they're cheaper and more easily available. You can often buy tickets on the spot, or at online agencies like www.ticketmaster.co.uk and www.myticketmarket.com.
The tradition of horse racing in Britain stretches back centuries, and there’s a ‘meeting’ somewhere pretty much every day. For all but the major events you should be able to get a ticket on the day, or buy in advance from the sport's marketing body Great British Racing (www.greatbritishracing.com).
The top event in the calendar is Royal Ascot (www.ascot.co.uk) at Ascot Racecourse in mid-June, where the rich and famous come to see and be seen, and the fashion is almost as important as the nags. Even the Queen turns up to put a fiver each way on Lucky Boy in the 3.15.
Other big events include the Grand National steeplechase at Aintree (www.aintree.co.uk) in early April; and the Derby at Epsom (www.epsomdowns.co.uk) on the first Saturday in June. The latter is especially popular with the masses so, unlike at Ascot, you won’t see so many morning suits or outrageous hats.
A wit once said that football was a gentlemen’s game played by hooligans, while rugby was a hooligans’ game played by gentlemen. That may be true, but rugby is very popular, especially since England became world champions in 2003, and then hosted the Rugby Union World Cup in 2015. It’s worth catching a game for the display of skill (OK, and brawn), and the fun atmosphere in the grounds. Tickets for games cost around £15 to £50 depending on the club’s status and fortunes.
There are two versions of the game: Rugby Union (www.rfu.com) is played more in southern England, Wales and Scotland, and is traditionally thought of as the game of the middle and upper classes. Rugby League (www.therfl.co.uk) is played predominantly in northern England, stereotypically by the 'working classes'. Today, leading rugby union clubs include Leicester, Bath, Exeter and Gloucester, while London has a host of good-quality teams (including Wasps and Saracens). In rugby league, teams to watch include the Wigan Warriors, Bradford Bulls and Leeds Rhinos.
Tennis is widely played at club and regional level, but the best-known tournament is the All England Championships – known to all as Wimbledon (www.wimbledon.com) – when tennis fever sweeps through the country in the last week of June and first week of July. There's something quintessentially English about the combination of grass courts, polite applause and spectators in straw hats, with strawberries and cream devoured by the truckload.
Demand for seats at Wimbledon always outstrips supply, but to give everyone an equal chance tickets are sold through a public ballot. You can also take your chance on the spot; about 5000 tickets are sold at the gate each day, including those – at the earlier stages of the championships – for the show courts. But you’ll need to be an early riser: dedicated fans start queuing (how English) the night before. See the website for more information.
Feature: Sporting History
England’s intriguing sports have equally fascinating histories. No one can say when football was invented, but the word 'soccer' (the favoured term in countries where 'football' means another game) is reputedly derived from 'sock'. In medieval times this was a tough leather foot-cover worn by peasants – ideal for kicking around a pig's bladder in the park on a Saturday afternoon.
In contrast, rugby can trace its roots to a football match in 1823 at Rugby School, in Warwickshire. A player called William Webb Ellis, frustrated at the limitations of mere kicking, reputedly picked up the ball and ran with it towards the goal. True to the sense of English fair play, rather than Ellis being dismissed from the game, a whole new sport was developed around his tactic, and the Rugby Football Union was formally inaugurated in 1871. The Rugby World Cup is named the Webb Ellis Trophy after this enterprising young tearaway.
Feature: The Ashes
The historic test-cricket series between England and Australia known as the Ashes has been played every other year since 1882 (bar a few interruptions during the world wars). It is played alternately in England and Australia, with each of the five matches in the series held at a different cricket ground, always in the summer in the host location.
The contest's name dates back to the landmark test match of 1882, won (for the very first time) by the Australians. Defeat of the mother country by the colonial upstarts was a source of profound national shock: a mock obituary in the Sporting Times lamented the death of English cricket and referred to the sport's ashes being taken to Australia.
Later the name was given to a terracotta urn presented the following year to the English captain Ivo Bligh (later Lord Darnley), purportedly containing the cremated ashes of a stump or bail used in this landmark match. Since 1953 this hallowed relic has resided at the Marylebone Cricket Club (MCC) Museum at Lord's. Despite the vast importance given to winning the series, the urn itself is a diminutive 6in (150mm) high.
The recent history of the Ashes is not without drama. In the 2010–11 series England thrashed Australia, winning on Australian turf for the first time since the 1986–87 series. Then in 2013 Australia thrashed England 5-0, repeating the humiliating clean sweep they had inflicted in 2006–07. But the 2015 Ashes saw England – to national delight – defeat Australia 3-2, only to fail to win a single test in the subsequent 2017–18 series. Plus ça change.
Feature: The Sweet FA Cup
The Football Association held its first interclub knockout tournament in 1871–72: 15 clubs took part, playing for a nice piece of silverware called the FA Cup – then worth about £20.
Nowadays, around 600 clubs compete for this legendary and priceless trophy. It differs from many other competitions in that every team – from the lowest-ranking part-timers to the stars of the Premier League – is in with a chance. The preliminary rounds begin in August, and the world-famous Cup Final is held in May at the iconic Wembley Stadium in London.
Manchester United and Arsenal have the most FA Cups, but public attention – and affection – is invariably focused on the 'giant-killers': minor clubs that claw their way up through the rounds, unexpectedly beating higher-ranking competitors. One of the best-known giant-killing events occurred in 1992, when Wrexham, then ranked 24th in Division 3, famously came from a goal down to beat league champions Arsenal in the third round.
Sidebar: Sporting Calendar
For the dates and details of major football and cricket matches, horse racing and other sporting fixtures across the country, a great place to start is the sports pages of www.britevents.com.
Sidebar: A Very Royal Race
Queen Elizabeth II is a great horse-racing fan, and the royal stables have produced many winners. The 2005 Grand National famously clashed with the marriage of Prince Charles; rumours abound that the start was delayed so the Queen could attend the nuptials and see the race.
Sidebar: The Six Nations
A highlight of the international rugby calendar is the annual Six Nations Championship (www.rbs6nations.com), held in February and March, in which England battles against teams from Wales, Scotland, Ireland, France and Italy.
Sidebar: Strawberries & Cream
Around 140,000 punnets of strawberries and 10,000L of cream are consumed each year at Wimbledon during the two-week tennis championships.