England & The UK
The United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland (the United Kingdom or the UK) is a constitutional monarchy comprising much of the British Isles.
This Union is more than 300 years old and comprises four constituent countries: England, Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland. It occupies all of the island of Great Britain, the north-eastern portion of the island of Ireland and most of the remaining British Isles. The UK is an island nation, but shares a open land border with Ireland. It neighbours several countries by sea, including France, Belgium, the Netherlands, Germany, Portugal, Spain, Denmark, Norway, Sweden, the Faroe Islands and Iceland.
The UK today is a diverse patchwork of native and immigrant cultures, possessing a fascinating history and dynamic modern culture, both of which remain hugely influential in the wider world. Although Britannia no longer rules the waves, the UK is still an overwhelmingly popular destination for many travellers. Its capital and largest city of London is, along with New York, often reckoned to be one of only two cities of truly global importance but many come to see quaint villages and the beautiful and quickly changing countryside.
Click on the city’s name for hotels and activity ideas
- England is just one of the constituent parts of the United Kingdom, alongside Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland. Treating “England” and “The United Kingdom” as synonyms is a mistake commonly made by visitors, which can annoy the Welsh, Scottish & Northern Irish. Similarly, “British” and “English” are not the same.
- It is important to remember that the Republic of Ireland is a completely separate state from the United Kingdom, that seceded from the Union in 1922 and gained full independence in 1937.
The ‘Great’ in Great Britain (Britannia Major in Roman times; Grande-Bretagne in French) is to distinguish it (the island) from the other, smaller “Britain”: Brittany (Britannia Minor; Bretagne) which is a region of northwestern France.
However, for a geographer “Great Britain” (“GB”) refers just to the single largest island in the British Isles that has most of the land area of Scotland, England and Wales. In normal usage it is a collective term for all those three nations together. Great Britain became part of the United Kingdom when the Irish and British parliaments merged in 1801 to form the “United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland”. This was changed to “… and Northern Ireland” when all but the six Northern Irish counties seceded from the Union in 1922 after a treaty granting Irish home rule. “Britain” is simply another name for the United Kingdom, and does include Northern Ireland, despite common misconceptions otherwise.
The flag of the United Kingdom is popularly known as the Union Jack or, more properly, Union Flag. It comprises the flags of St. George of England, St. Andrew of Scotland and the St. Patrick’s Cross of Ireland superimposed on each other. Within England, Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales, the flags of each nation are commonly used. The St. Patrick’s Cross flag is often seen on St. Patrick’s Day in Northern Ireland. Since the Republic of Ireland split from the UK though, St. Patrick’s Saltire is not used for Northern Ireland, as it represented the whole of the island of Ireland. A flag (known as the “Ulster Banner”) was designed for Northern Ireland in the 1920s, which was based on the flag of Ulster (similar in appearance to the Saint George’s Cross flag of England) and includes a Red Hand of Ulster and a crown. Although the flag’s official status ended with the dissolving of the province’s devolved government in the early 1970s, it can still be seen in Northern Ireland, particularly among the Loyalist community and on sporting occasions. As Wales was politically integrated into the English kingdom hundreds of years ago, its flag was not incorporated into the Union Jack. The Welsh flag features the Red Dragon of Cadwaladr, King of Gwynedd, superimposed on the Tudor colours of green and white.
Map showing how far away many Overseas territories are from the UK (click image to see enlargements)
You don’t have to be British to vote in the UK!
The Isle of Man and the various Channel Islands are not strictly part of the UK, but rather are ‘Crown Dependencies’ (or, in the case of Sark, a Crown Appanage): they have their own democratic governments, laws and courts and are not part of the EU. They are not entirely sovereign either, falling under the British Crown which chooses to have its UK Government manage some of the islands’ foreign and defence affairs. The people are British Citizens, but unless they have direct ties with the UK, through a parent, or have lived there for at least 5 years, they are not able to take up work or residence elsewhere in the European Union.
Overseas Territories and the Commonwealth
Again, these are not constitutionally part of the United Kingdom, but are largely former colonies of the former British Empire which are, to varying degrees, self-governing entities that still recognise the British Monarch as their head of state. The key difference is residents of Overseas Territories still possess British citizenship, whereas those of Commonwealth nations do not, and are subject to the same entry and immigration rules as non-EU citizens. The British embassy in your home country however may accept visa applications to selected overseas territories and Commonwealth nations.
The United Kingdom is a constitutional monarchy with the Queen as the nominal head of state. It has a bicameral parliament: The lower house, known as the House of Commons, is elected by the people and is responsible for proposing new laws. The upper house, known as the House of Lords, primarily scrutinises and amends bills proposed by the lower house. The House of Lords is not elected and consists of Hereditary Peers, whose membership is guaranteed by birth right, Life Peers, who are appointed to it by the Queen, and the Lords Spiritual, who are bishops of the Church of England. The Head of Government is the Prime Minister, who is usually the leader of the majority party in the House of Commons. It has a first-past-the post system divided into local constituencies. In practice, the Prime Minister wields the most authority in government, with the Queen being pretty much a figurehead, though all bills that have been passed in both houses of parliament require the Queen to grant royal assent before they become law. The Queen does have limited powers to dissolve parliament and call a general election in exceptional circumstances – for example during times of war, or if an election ends in stalemate; but these are generally never exercised.
Additionally, Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales have their own elected bodies (the Northern Ireland Assembly, Scottish Parliament and Welsh Assembly). These devolved governments have a First Minister and varying degrees of power over matters internal to that constituent country, including the passing of laws. For example, the Scottish Parliament in Edinburgh exercises power and passes laws over almost every matter internal to Scotland. In the areas over which it has power, the UK government plays no role. As a result, institutions and systems can be radically different between the four constituent countries in the UK. England has no similar body of its own, with all government coming from Westminster. The exception to this is London, which owing to its huge size and population has partial devolved government in the form of an elected Mayor and assembly, which exercises a range of powers previously controlled by both central and local governments.
There are also local government authorities responsible for services at a local level. Each constituency votes for a local MP (Member of Parliament) who then goes to sit in Parliament and debate and vote.
Using maps and postcodes
Most basic mapping in the United Kingdom is undertaken by the Ordnance Survey of Great Britain and the Ordnance Survey of Northern Ireland. The maps found in bookshops may be published directly by those organisations, or by private map publishers drawing on basic Ordnance Survey data.
One consequence of this for the traveller is the widespread use of Ordnance Survey grid references in guide books and other information sources. These are usually presented [xx999999] (e.g. [SU921206]) and form a quick way of finding any location on a map. If using a GPS be sure to set it to the British National Grid (BNG) and the OSGB datum.
Alternatively, every postal address has a postcode, either a unique one or one shared with its immediate neighbours. British postcodes take the form (XXYY ZZZ), where XX is a 2 or 1 character alphabetic code representing the town, city or geographic area, a 1 or 2 digit number YY representing the area of that town or city, followed by a 3 digit alphanumeric code ZZZ which denotes the road and a specific section or house on that road. Therefore, a postcode will identify a location to within a few tens of yards in urban locations; and adding a house number and street will identify a property uniquely (at road junctions two houses with the same number may share the same postcode). Most internet mapping services enable locations to be found by postcode. Owing to London’s huge size and population it has its own distinct variation of the postcode system where the town code XX is replaced by an area code indicating the geographic part of the city – e.g N-North, WC-West Central, EC-East Central, SW-South West; and so on. Although NE refers to Newcasle upon Tyne, 300 miles away, and S to Sheffield, 170 miles away.
The Ordnance Survey’s 1:50000 or 1:25000 scale maps are astonishingly detailed and show contour lines, public rights of way, and access land. For pursuits such as walking, they are practically indispensable, and in rural areas show individual farm buildings and (on the larger scale) field boundaries.
Although few visitors come for the weather, the UK has a benign humid-temperate climate moderated by the North Atlantic current and the country’s proximity to the sea. Warm, damp summers and mild winters provide temperatures pleasant enough to engage in outdoor activities all year round. Having said that, the weather in the UK is very changeable over both short distances and periods of time and conditions are often windy and wet. British rain is world renowned, but in practice it rarely rains more than two or three hours at a time and often parts of the country stay dry for many weeks at a time, especially in the East. More common are overcast or partly cloudy skies. It is a good idea to be prepared for a change of weather when going out; a jumper and a raincoat usually suffice when it is not winter. In summer temperatures can reach 30ºC (86ºF) in parts and in winter temperatures may be mild, eg: 10ºC (50ºF) in southern Britain and -2ºC (28.4ºF) in Scotland.
Because the UK stretches almost 800 miles from end to end, temperatures can vary quite considerably between north and south. Differences in rainfall are also pronounced between the drier east and wetter west. Scotland and north-western England (particularly the Lake District) are often rainy and cold. Alpine conditions with heavy snowfall are common in the mountains of northern Scotland during the winter. The north-east and Midlands are also cool, though with less rainfall. The south-east and east Anglia are generally warm and dry, and the south-west warm but often wet. Wales and Northern Ireland tend to experience cool to mild temperatures and moderate rainfall, while the hills of Wales occasionally experience heavy snowfall. Even though the highest land in the UK rarely reaches more than 1,100m, the effect of height on rainfall and temperature is great.
Bank (public) holidays
Each country within the UK has a number of bank holidays, on which the majority of people do not work. Shops, pubs, restaurants and similar are usually open. Many UK residents will take advantage of the time off to travel, both within the UK and abroad. This makes transport links busier than usual and tends to increase prices. If your travel dates are flexible you may wish to avoid travelling to or from the UK on bank holiday weekends.
The following 8 bank holidays apply in all parts of the UK:
- New Year’s Day (1 Jan)
- Good Friday (the Friday immediately before Easter Sunday)
- Easter Monday (the Monday immediately after Easter Sunday) (Except in Scotland)
- Early May Bank Holiday (the first Monday in May)
- Spring Bank Holiday (the last Monday in May)
- Summer Bank Holiday (the last Monday in August, except in Scotland where it is the first Monday in August)
- Christmas Day (25 Dec)
- Boxing Day (26 Dec)
Northern Ireland has the following two additional bank holidays:
- St Patrick’s Day (17 Mar)
- Battle of the Boyne / Orangemen’s Day (12 Jul)
Scotland officially has two additional bank holidays:
- the day after New Year’s Day (2 Jan)
- St Andrew’s Day (30 Nov)
In practice, with the exception of Easter, Christmas and New Year holidays, UK bank holidays are virtually ignored in Scotland in favour of local holidays which vary from place to place.
Where a bank holiday falls on a Saturday or Sunday, it is moved to the following Monday. If both Christmas Day and Boxing Day fall on a weekend, the Boxing Day holiday is moved to the following Tuesday.
A full list of bank holidays for future years can be viewed here.
Content copyleft courtesy of the wonderful Wikitravel.