o one enjoys knocking England more than the English, but – modesty and self-deprecation aside – it’s a great place to visit or explore, and whether you’re a resident or tourist the country retains a boundless capacity to surprise, charm and excite. England has always had a history and heritage to be proud of, and a glorious regional diversity – from coast to hills, festivals to foodstuff – with few parallels. But for all the glories of the past, in recent times it’s had an injection of life that makes it as thrilling a destination as any in Europe.
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As more and more people choose to holiday at home, it’s worth recalling just how much England has changed in the last two decades for locals and visitors alike. Who could have predicted city breaks and shopping sprees in Leeds and Bristol, or the all-conquering march of music and arts festivals, or that camping would become cool? Accommodation and food in particular, the two essentials on any trip, were once a lottery, with many English hotels and restaurants seemingly intent on removing hospitality from the hospitality industry. Not any more. In boutique B&Bs, designer hotels and yurt-festooned campsites, there’s an embarrassment of rich beds for the night, while an ever-expanding choice of real English food and drink – locally sourced and championed in cafés, restaurants and pubs, at food festivals and farmers’ markets – challenges every lazy stereotype.
The English also do heritage amazingly well. There are first-class museums all over the country (many of them free), while what’s left of England’s green and pleasant land is protected with great passion and skill. Indeed, ask an English person to define their country in terms of what’s worth seeing and you’re most likely to have your attention drawn to the golden rural past. The classic images are found in every brochure – the village green, the duckpond, the country lane and the farmyard. And it’s true that it’s impossible to overstate the bucolic attractions of the various English regions, from Cornwall to the Lake District, or the delights they provide – from walkers’ trails and prehistoric stone circles to traditional pubs and obscure festivals. But despite celebrating their rural heritage, the modern-day English have an ambivalent attitude towards “the countryside”. Farming today forms only a tiny proportion of the national income and there’s a real dislocation between the population of the burgeoning towns and suburbs and the small, struggling rural communities.
So perhaps the heart of England is found in its towns and cities instead? Many, it’s true, have a restless energy and a talent for reinvention. So for every person who wants to stand outside the gates of Buckingham Palace or visit the Houses of Parliament, there’s another who makes a beeline for the latest show at Tate Modern, the cityscape of downtown Manchester or the revitalized Newcastle waterfront. Yet this flowering of urban civic pride is not a new phenomenon. In fact, it’s been steady since the Industrial Revolution, and industry – and the Empire it inspired – has provided a framework for much of what you’ll see as you travel around. Virtually every English town bears a mark of former wealth and power, whether it be a magnificent Gothic cathedral financed from a monarch’s treasury, a parish church funded by the tycoons of the medieval wool trade, or a triumphalist civic building raised on the back of the slave and sugar trades. In the south of England you’ll find old dockyards from which the navy patrolled the oceans, while in the north there are mills that employed entire town populations. England’s museums and galleries – several of them ranking among the world’s finest – are full of treasures trawled from its imperial conquests. And in their grandiose stuccoed terraces and wide esplanades, the old seaside resorts bear testimony to the heyday of English holiday towns, at one time as fashionable as any European spa.
To begin to get to grips with England, London is the place to start. Nowhere else in the country can match the scope and innovation of the metropolis, a colossal, frenetic city that’s going through a convulsion of improvements as it gears up to host the 2012 Olympics. It’s here that you’ll find England’s best spread of nightlife, cultural events, museums, galleries, pubs and restaurants. However, each of the other large cities – Birmingham, Bristol, Newcastle, Leeds, Sheffield, Manchester and Liverpool – makes its own claim for historic and cultural diversity, and you certainly won’t have a representative view of England’s cities if you venture no further than the capital. For the most part it’s in these regional centres that the most exciting architectural and social developments are taking place, though for many visitors they rank a long way behind ancient cities like Lincoln, Canterbury, York, Salisbury, Durham and Winchester – to name a few of those with the most celebrated of England’s cathedrals – or the university cities of Cambridge and Oxford, arguably the two most beautiful seats of learning in the world. Most beguiling of all, though, are the long-established villages of England, hundreds of which amount to nothing more than a pub, a shop, a gaggle of cottages and a farmhouse offering bed and breakfast. Devon, Cornwall, the Cotswolds and the Yorkshire Dales harbour some especially picturesque specimens, but every county can boast a decent showing of photogenic hamlets.
Evidence of England’s pedigree is scattered between its settlements as well. Wherever you’re based, you’re never more than a few miles from a majestic country house or ruined castle or monastery, and in many parts of the country you’ll come across the sites of civilizations that thrived here before England existed as a nation. In the southwest there are remnants of a Celtic culture that elsewhere was all but eradicated by the Romans, and from the south coast to the northern border you can find traces of prehistoric settlers, the most famous being the megalithic circles of Stonehenge and Avebury.
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Then of course there’s the English countryside, an extraordinarily diverse terrain from which Constable, Turner, Wordsworth, Emily Brontë and a host of other native luminaries took inspiration. Most dramatic and best known are the moors and uplands – Exmoor, Dartmoor, the North York Moors and the Lake District – each of which has its over-visited spots, though a brisk walk will usually take you out of the throng. Quieter areas are tucked away in every corner of England, from the flat wetlands of the eastern Fens to the chalk downland of Sussex, the latter now protected as England’s newest national park. It’s a similar story on the coast, where the finest sands and most rugged cliffs have long been discovered, and sizeable resorts have grown to exploit many of the choicest locations. But again, if it’s peace you’re after, you can find it by heading for the exposed strands of Northumberland, the pebbly flat horizons of East Anglia or the crumbling headlands of Dorset.