England (Cornish:Pow Sows) is the largest of the four “home nations” that make up the United Kingdom. It is also the most populous of the four with almost 52 million inhabitants (roughly 84% of the total population of the UK). On the island of Great Britain, Scotland sits to the north of England and Wales is to the west. Northern Ireland (also part of the UK) and the Republic of Ireland lie across the Irish Sea to west of England (and Wales). France and the Channel Islands are across the English Channel to the south, and to the east is the North Sea.
England is a country that can be divided most generally into three sections, with deep historical and linguistic roots for each of them. These can be further divided into counties, which in turn consist of cities (most of which also have long histories, but have been revised in many cases for administrative reasons).
A vast and diverse metropolitan region to itself, the capital city of both England and the United Kingdom, a global
capital of finance, fashion, and culture.
|South East England
Broadly speaking, the area around and south of London, including the territory along the English Channel.
The often-rugged peninsula extending southwest into the Atlantic and adjoining counties.
The Midlands is roughly the part of England east of Wales (excluding Gloucestershire and Cheshire which are in the West Country and the North West respectively) and across to the North Sea.
|East of England
A low-lying territory northeast of London, mostly rural.
The geographic centre of England, reaching to the North Sea.
The industrial and rural area east of Wales.
Northern England city is anywhere north of Staffordshire in the west and roughly north of the Humber river, in the east, up to the Scottish border.
Regarded as one of the most scenic, varied and interesting of all the traditional counties.
|North West England
Major industrial cities and breathtaking scenery between Wales and Scotland.
|North East England
The urbanised areas of Teesside and Tyne and Wear plus the largely rural large county of Northumberland with its sparsely populated borders with Scotland and beautiful countryside and coastline.
London is already the most touristy city in the whole world, however there are other cities to visit. Listed below are nine of the most popular:
England has many outstanding landmarks and sites of interest. Listed below are nine of the most notable:
Don’t confuse “England” with the the larger “Britain” or “United Kingdom”; .
England has been stereotyped as being cold, grey and rainy since the ancient Romans wrote home, but this is not an entirely accurate picture. Temperatures rarely get very cold or very hot, and while the country certainly gets rain, it’s really not as wet as rumour has it. London alone has lower annual rainfall than Paris, New York and Sydney, and it’s not uncommon for parts of the country to go without rain for weeks. Parts of southern England often have summer water restrictions due to a lack of adequate rainfall during the previous winter. There is some scope for leaving your raincoat at home, but make sure you’ve got one.
Northern and western parts are usually wetter than the rest of England due to the prevailing wind from the north west bringing down cold moist air from the North Atlantic, and the sunniest and warmest areas are in the far south and south east.
Winter and autumn are usually the wettest seasons where the weather is often very changeable and at times quite windy, especially in the north and west, where cold Arctic winds arrive. Spring conditions are very changeable: a day of hot sunshine is likely as not to be followed by a week of cold wind and rain; and vice-versa. Occasional snow even as late as May is not unheard of in northern England, but it will melt quickly. Snow is particularly rare in the south east. Summer is generally warm in the south with average highs usually ranging from 18-23°C, but be prepared for unsettled weather at any time of the year and make sure to check a weather forecast if you plan to be outdoors.
Hot spells of weather can occur from May to September where temperatures may reach 30°C in the warmest areas of England, typically London and parts of the South East. Central Europe has very hot summers and very cold winters, but England is both less extreme (surrounded by water) and milder in the winter (influenced by the warmth of the North Atlantic Drift). If it were not for the North Atlantic Drift, England would be much much colder.
Heavy, prolonged, snow is rare and temperatures are rarely below freezing for more than a few days. Some years there will be a few days of road and rail disruption from snow – even the slightest amount of snow often causes delays on public transport, especially rail. Very severe weather conditions are rare and remedial action is usually taken promptly. Flooding and droughts are unlikely to affect the traveller. High winds occasionally disrupt travel, most often outside summer.
English people are said to have a passion for debating the weather: actually this is usually just an opening gambit to start a conversation with a stranger. Typically, these conversation openers are now heard only among the elderly members of society. Most discussions that do involve weather usually include criticisms of it – including (though perhaps not at the same time) both that it’s “too cold” and it’s “too hot”. Well-known conversational gambits (with due acknowledgement to Peter Kay) : “It’s too cold for snow”; “It’s that fine rain that soaks you through”.
The people of England, like their language, are a mixed bunch who have regularly been infused with new blood – from the Romans nearly 2000 years ago taking control of the ancient British in the region, to the later influences of Angles, Saxons and others from Europe after which created the original idea of the English, to the Vikings and then the Normans about a thousand years ago. Since then, there have been Hugenots, Chinese, Jews fleeing pogroms, people from former British colonies in the Caribbean in the 1950s and 60s, Indians expelled from newly independent former African colonies, workers from new EU member states such as Poland, not to mention people from other UK nations and the Republic of Ireland. The full list is very long, but England has long been used to outsiders making it their home – even before England existed! Like in any country you will get people who are unfriendly to foreign visitors, but England is noted as being one of the most tolerant countries in Europe, and racism is very low when comparing to other nations. Almost everyone will treat you well if you are polite and make an effort to fit in. Smile, be polite, don’t be pushy if you can help it: that’s how to get on with the English.
The English are well used to foreign visitors and you can expect them to be friendly and polite. One thing to bear in mind is that many mostly elderly English people are terrified of giving offence and dislike lying, and so will try to avoid potential pitfalls by sticking to safe (often boring) topics of conversation and occasionally doing the tricky job of avoiding offence by evading a question which worries them, while also trying not to offend you by point blank refusing you an answer. This sort of thing generally wears off as people get to know you. The younger generation are often quite different as far as giving offence is concerned.
Big cities and even some rural areas, like those anywhere, have their social problems, but England is predominantly an affluent country with little visible poverty. Rough areas contain rough people in England as in any country: muggings, car theft, and other street crime are unhappily common in some districts of many towns and cities, but England is by and large a very safe country as long as you use common sense.
In tourist destinations you will meet a mostly friendly people who will take the time to answer a stranger’s question, and who may speak English in a colourful or accented way but will be willing to standardise and simplify their speech if you’re struggling. Some would say there is a north-south divide, with people in the North more friendly and approachable (Liverpool for instance was voted the fourth friendliest city in the world by travel magazine Rough Guide in 2014), while the South (mostly just London though) is a more closed culture with people less willing to stop and speak, but don’t take offence, remember most Londoners you see on the streets will usually be rushing to get to somewhere (eg work) and simply don’t have the time to talk. If anything, the South of England is split between the “overheated” and overcrowded South-East, and the more rural, amiable South-West/West Country where a more laid back, relaxed, friendlier atmosphere beckons. The North/South divide is also somewhat confused by the fact that Bristol (the largest city in the South West) has a very laid back, relaxed, leftfield and mellow atmosphere that is completely different with the relentless hedonistic atmosphere of the likes of Brighton and Bournemouth or the conservatism of many cities in Southern England. In rural areas of the south, particularly East Anglia and the West Country, people are generally much more laid back and enjoy taking the time to have a chat with strangers. In most of England you will usually find that if you are polite and friendly, you’ll get the same in return.
London itself is a very international city where you may meet a variety of nationalities, depending on what part of the city you are in.
Unsurprisingly, English is the main language in England, though it is spoken with many different accents throughout the country. Generally, English accents can be broadly divided into Northern and Southern accents, with natives of Liverpool having a very distinctive accent that is easily distinguishable from that of someone from neighbouring Manchester.
No other languages are widely spoken, but with widespread immigration to England in the past few decades, you might also hear other languages such as Polish, Chinese, German, various South Asian languages or even various African languages being spoken in their respective communities. Cornish is spoken in Cornwall.
When an English person says “Meet me at half five”, they mean “Meet me at 17:30”. If the directions say “go to the top of the road”, that means the end of the road.
Some words mean one thing to Americans and something else entirely to British folks. When an English man says he shared a “fag” with his “mate” that means only that he smoked a cigarette with a friend. If he adds that they also had a “gorgeous” meal, it means it was followed by a nice dinner. If they had a “shag” it means they had sex afterwards. See our English language varieties article for more insights.
Then there are the words unique to British English; a sneaker or tennis shoe, for instance, is called a “trainer.”
Moreover, the diverse history of the country, and the influx of various cultures over the centuries (e.g. Vikings, Normans, Romans, Celtic peoples), have produced a very wide range of accents, and there are still traces of regional dialects (vocabulary and grammar). Best not to imitate the accents, you will be seen as mocking.
An accent will usually reveal where someone was brought up — sometimes to within quite a small area (a criminal was recently caught because his accent on a recorded phone call was traceable to a single neighbourhood). Today, even well-educated professionals are happy to keep their regional accent: the unhappy days when people from outside the South East felt that they had to hide their accent to “get on” have gone. It is now only people who go to public (i.e. private, fee-paying) schools who learn to speak in a “geography-free” way (the “upper-class accent” of colonial rulers, well-known from old British films, or modern parodies). Differences in accent are very real: a visitor who is expecting a particular accent they are familiar with from the cinema or television (perhaps “Dick van Dyke Cockney” or “Hugh Grant Silly Ass Upper Crust”) will usually have to wait a day or two to get really accustomed to the real accents they hear around them. Even English people, familiar with other accents from TV or by knowing neighbours or colleagues who have moved from other areas, can still struggle when far from home. “Geordie”, the accent/dialect of Tyneside, is a famously strong accent when spoken quickly amongst a group of people who do not know that a stranger is trying to tune in. Most people are happy to tone down (or slow down) their accent when a stranger is in difficulty. When encountering a broad Geordie accent it can be quite difficult for someone who is not accustomed to it to understand it, and there are still various dialectic words in common use such as hyem = home, gan/gannin = going, wor = our, divvint = don’t and howay = come on.
Dialects exist, but as a matter of interest, not confusion. People across England would expect to understand anyone from anywhere else in England, because the few everyday dialect words are usually well known from TV. Differences are interesting, but not critical. Some examples from the north of England: “ey up” (“Hello”), “aye” (“yes”, as in Scotland and the North of England); “tha” (“you”, as in thee and thou, still common in South Yorkshire). Real differences are of little consequence these days: for instance, people growing up in Manchester, Leeds and Sheffield use “jennel”, “jinnel”, and “ginnel” as the word for a particular type of narrow alley between houses. Other common words are “wee”, “bonnie”, “lass” (small, beautiful and girl, respectively in Scotland).
A few useful words which may help you understand the English (particularly in the Midlands and North): “ta” = thank you, “ta ra/ta ta” = goodbye, “summat/summit/summink” = something, “nowt” = nothing, “owt” = “anything”, “dunna/dunno” = don’t know, “canna/cannit = cannot.
Be prepared to have to use English to make yourself understood. Few people here speak a second language fluently. However, most people were taught one second language (usually French, German, Italian or Spanish) at school, and may remember enough to be willing to help a stranger in difficulties (if they can get over the embarrassment of being seen to “show off”).
Because of immigration, especially from Commonwealth countries, many languages are spoken in the big cities. There are also smaller places where particular languages are common. Expect to hear (and even see signs in) Urdu, Punjabi, Hindi, Gujarati, Polish, Italian, Greek, Turkish and varieties of Arabic. Because of links with Hong Kong, many Chinese people live here (London and Manchester have thriving communities, and Liverpool has one of the oldest Chinese communities in Europe).
Another English peculiarity is the use of terms of endearment for strangers such as “darling”, “pet”, “love”, “hun”, “duck”, “bab”, “mate”, “sweetheart”, “flower”, “queen” and a few others. It can be confusing, or perhaps even embarrassing, for somebody who is not accustomed to this to be called “darling” by a total stranger; however, this is something which is nowadays mainly used by the older generation and found less in the younger generation although some younger males may call a woman “Darlin” this is usually either as a form of cat calling (and can often be followed by derogatory demands or language but is often harmless) or directed towards a female friend.
You will hear English people say “sorry”. This is not down to guilt or self-consciousness but simply because it is synonymous with “excuse me”, and is used to get somebody’s attention. Alternatively it can be synonymous with “pardon”. Any comments along the lines of “What are you sorry about?” are pointless.
Since England is on an island, it is not possible to drive directly into England from outside Great Britain. Motorists have two choices to enter England from outside Great Britain, by various car ferry routes, or the Channel Tunnel.
A number of roads cross England’s borders with its British neighbours. These roads range from the simple country lanes to motorways. There are no border controls with Scotland or Wales; indeed, on smaller roads the border may not be noticed at all.
There are no tolls to cross into England; however, motorists need to be aware that crossing from England into Wales via the M4 and M48 Severn Bridges will need to pay a toll. Also, there is a M6 toll road to bypass the congestion of Birmingham (England’s second largest city) on the main M6 motorway.
The most important road connections into and out of England are.
England has numerous airports:
London and the South East
The South West
Eurostar links mainland Europe to England. Trains run from Paris, France and Brussels, Belgium (via Lille and Calais) crossing into England via the Channel Tunnel (and often stopping at either Ebbsfleet or Ashford) before continuing to St. Pancras Station in London. Occasional services run from other destinations in France. Book as early as possible as fares can be considerably more expensive if trying to book at the last minute.
From Wales and Scotland regular services cross the borders into England.
BritRail Passes are also available to non-UK citizens which allow the traveller unlimited rail travel in England on one ticket.
With so much coastline and so many ports, England has extensive shipping links with many countries worldwide. Major ports are Dover, Folkestone, Harwich, Hull, Plymouth, Portsmouth, Southampton, Liverpool, Ipswich and Newcastle. See Ferry routes to British Mainland.
If you’re visiting the Cardiff area in Wales during the summer, then there is the opportunity to sail to the West Somerset/ North Devon resorts such as Minehead, Ilfracombe, Bideford and Lundy Island across the Bristol Channel (the funnel shaped stretch of water that seperates the coasts of Wales and the West Country) via the paddle steamers the Waverly and Balmoral (usually Penarth just to the west of Cardiff). This is highly recommended for a few reasons – firstly, the M5, the main route into the West Country is a dreary, slow, lethargic and often congested and frustrating road that is very easily prone to snarl ups – sitting on a hot summers day in a car stuck in traffic on the M5 is frustrating to say the least. Secondly, the journey from Penarth to Ilfracombe on a warm summers day, you can get to see a sea-going perspective of Minehead, Porlock, the picture postcard villages of Lynton and Lynmouth, the wild and raw Valley of the Rocks and the majestic “Great Hangman”, a 1043 feet hogback hill with a cliff face of 820 feet making it the highest cliff in Southern England. Heading west from Ilfracombe to Lundy Island is an opportunity to see the majestic Bay of Naples styled curve of Bideford Bay with the magnificent surf beaches of Woolacombe, Croyde, Staunton and Westward Ho! in all their glory. Sailing from Wales to the West Country is definetly better than driving down the awful M5!!!
England is well serviced by domestic air, land and sea routes.
There are taxi firms everywhere (many are by booking only – find the phone number of the local company and phone ahead), and every town has a bus service. ‘Black Cabs’ are also common in cities and can be hailed from the side of the road. Sometimes in city centres, usually just after the nightclubs have closed, there will be queue for taxis which will sometimes be monitored by marshals or police.
To be safe, make sure you take a registered taxi or black cab; despite government action, many unlawful unregistered private taxi drivers exist – these do have a reputation for being unsafe, particularly if you are a woman.
England has one of the highest densities of railway lines per square mile in the world. There has been much improvement and investment in recent years to the railway network and rolling stock but delays and cancellations do occasionally occur. Overcrowding can be a problem in large cities, especially at ‘rush-hour’ times (7AM – 9AM & 5PM – 7PM, Monday to Friday) so it is best to avoid these times when tickets can be expensive as well. See also Rail travel in the United Kingdom.
Buses are numerous, frequent and reliable in most of the larger towns and cities and an ideal way of getting around. Rural areas are less well served and hiring a car is often the best option to explore the countryside and villages.
The roads are of generally excellent quality (although can deteriorate in rural areas, with cheap materials often used to repair the roads, only for the workmen and resulting road closures to rerun soon later. Potholes are a huge nuisance to locals, as it can takes weeks or months for them to be repaired, although done cheaply using a method called “Patching”). Care should be taken on rural and minor roads, some of which are extremely narrow, twisty and poorly marked, while many are two way roads and only wide enough for one car, meaning a meeting situation can be unpleasant. The signs and markings on most roads are clear, although roundabouts make traffic slow to a crawl during “Rush Hour”. The main problem with driving in England is the sheer volume of traffic on the roads. Unfortunately this is not only limited to rush-hours and large cities, and even cross country motorways can slow to a stop as they pass urban areas. Prepare for travel times being longer than you’d normally anticipate in relation to the mileage. The speed limit, unless otherwise stated, is 30 or 40 mph in built-up areas, 50 or 60 mph (approx 95 km/h) elsewhere and 70 mph (approx. 110 km/h) on motorways and other controlled-access roads. Speed cameras and traffic police are numerous so caution is advised. The traditional British ‘reserve’ and politeness may occasionally dissolve under the stress of congestion on the major routes, especially with the traffic problems in some of England’s larger cities, but generally driving around Britain is an enjoyable experience and it is polite to acknowledge the courtesy of another driver with a nod or the raising of the hand as a form of thank you. Drivers will often flash their headlights to indicate that you are clear to pull out, or otherwise to give way to you, and it is considered polite to say thank you by giving a wave or a quick flash of your headlights. However, be prepared for drivers who do not agree with speed limits, especially newly created ones on roads where for example, the limit has been lowered from 60 to 30 after campaigns from locals. Even if you are driving at the posted limit, there is a chance you will be overtaken and this will be more frequent if you have a sticker in your back window, implying you’ll be sticking to it. Drivers with this attitude often spend ages driving behind you, while driving close behind as a means to make you speed up, even if it means breaking the law. Do not worry about this, maintain your speed, as they are most likely the sort who are already collecting speeding points on their license, while you are sensible and in the right.
Flashing your hazards (ie, both indicators at the same time) is only used as an indication of danger. Usually it’s used to indicate the car’s broken down or to warn other drivers that there’s a hazard up ahead. But flashing your hazards a couple of times is another way of saying Thank you.
Brown and white road signs indicate nearby tourist attractions, and the blue i sign denotes Tourist Information.
The UK isn’t as cycle-friendly as some other European countries, but it’s still a great way to get around. You’ll see a lot more from a bicycle, have the freedom to stop wherever you want, no parking headaches and once you’ve got the bicycle there is nothing to pay. It is unquestionably the fastest way around London and other major cities – it does have it’s dangers but it’s well worth the risk.
There are many lovely cycle paths where you can avoid the traffic and soak in the cityscape or countryside. Rough examples of journey times at moderate speed: Buckingham Palace to Tower Bridge: 20 minutes; Buckingham Palace to Windsor Castle: 2 hours; Central London to Oxford city: 5 hours. A national online route planner can be found at Cycle Streets
You can hire a bicycle from some local bicycle shops, or purchase a decent one privately for between £0-100 second hand as the UK has a surplus of old bicycles. You must use lights if you plan to cycle after dark and can be fined by the police for failing to do so. A front white light and red rear light are required. Flashing LED lights or bulb based bike lights both meet the legal requirements. Helmets aren’t compulsory. A decent lock is also essential, particularly in the cities bicycle theft is a common problem.
Some of the London Underground trains and all London Overground accept cycles outside of peak hours. Local buses and trams don’t accept bikes. Mainline and suburban trains allow bicycles but normally have restrictions during peak hours on busy services. Policies vary from compulsory reservation of cycles space to no cycle during peak hours – its best to check with each rail operator or on the national rail web site for restrictions that could impact your planned journey. Folding bikes may travel at any time so long as they are collapsed completely. Long distance coaches will normally let you on with a bicycle, as long as they’re not too full. Arrive early for coaches so you get a space in the luggage hold.
There are many tour operators in England, which can take you around the country stress-free. There are options from budget larger groups in coaches to smaller group tours in luxury mini-coaches. The guides may provide an insight into English history and culture you may not be able to learn on your own.
London is the start and finish point for most international tourists. It offers countless museums and historical attractions. To truly experience England, however, you must venture out of the hustle and bustle of the capital and see what the rest of England has to offer. You will find the rest of England very different to its capital city; indeed, if you only visit London, you haven’t seen ‘England’ – you’ve seen one city that bears few similarities with the rest of the country.
If short on time, you may find it more convenient to base yourself in a regional city and take day trips to the National Parks, coast and smaller towns. If you have plenty of time, then you could base yourself in a B&B (Bed and Breakfast) in any of the above. You will find that public transport to and within cities and large towns is acceptable, but that in smaller places off the beaten track then you should research your journey carefully, or consider hiring a car.
Popular places to visit include the counties of Yorkshire in the East, and Cornwall in the South West of England, the National Parks listed above, and the historic cities such as York, Bath and Lincoln.
If short on time, then it is possible to use larger cities as a base for day trips, either by train or coach. For example Leeds, the largest city in Yorkshire makes a great base for day trips to the Yorkshire Dales, North Yorkshire Moors, York and Whitby, whilst offering its own selection of attractions such as the Royal Armories, famed nightlife, theatre and designer shopping in stunning Victorian Era arcades.
Similarly Liverpool, as well as being a popular city break destination in itself with its Beatles heritage and maritime attractions, is centrally located for day trips to the Lake District, North Wales, and Yorkshire.
Plymouth makes a good base for exploring Dartmoor, whilst allowing day trips to Cornwall and offering its own range of attractions and museums.
Bristol, the West Country’s largest city makes for a very enjoyable weekend break. Although until recently overlooked by other Southern English cities such as Oxford, Cambridge, Bath and Brighton, Bristol has come into its own thanks to its leftfield attitude, laid back easy going groove, the West Country’s largest shopping complex, and above all its stunningly creative and brilliant music scene (a back catalogue containing the likes of Massive Attack, Portishead and Tricky). Although Bristol doesn’t have any specific sights (apart from the Clifton Suspension Bridge), it’s a city to just browse and glide through at your leisure and soak up the mellow, amiable vibe of Britain’s most relaxed and laid back city.
If you have a little longer, you may be able to spend a week more locally based, for example staying in Ambleside in the Lake District.
If you want white sand beaches, turquoise sea, Arthurian atmosphere and a raw, misty eyed Celtic landscape head to the West Country coastline of Devon and Cornwall – particularly, the magnificent surf blasted beaches of North Devon’s Bideford Bay and King Arthur’s birthplace in North Cornwall’s Atlantic coastline (Bude, Tintagel, Padstow, Polzeath etc).
A number of ‘umbrella’ organisations are devoted to the preservation and public access of both natural and cultural heritage. Membership with them, even on a temporary basis, means priority free access to their properties thereafter – travellers to England seeking to see a large number of sights would do well to join one or more of them:
English Heritage has an especially wide-ranging remit and manages more than 400 significant buildings and Monuments in England. They also maintain a register of thousands of “listed” buildings, those which are considered of most importance to the historic and cultural heritage of the country.
England has traditional dishes famous the world over from Beef Wellington and Steak and Kidney Pie to the humble sandwich. However, a modern English meal is just as likely to be Lasagne or Chicken Tikka Masala, with the traditional Italian and Indian meals taking on a decidely English flavour. The English are great adopters of other countries’ cuisines.
There are many low-quality establishments and mediocre chain restaurants, and the motorway services can often still manage to produce food that is barely edible, however, you can generally expect pubs and restaurants to provide interesting and well-presented meals.
“A meal out” is the usual way to celebrate a special family event, and people expect the meal to live up to the occasion. Cooking programmes are now among the most popular on the television, supermarkets have turned many previously unknown foods into everyday items, and Farm Shops and Farmers’ Markets have surprised all the commentators by becoming extremely popular weekend “leisure” destinations where people can buy excellent English meat, fruit, and vegetables.
Typical/traditional English food:
Pubs are a good place to get reasonably priced food, though most stop serving food at around 9-9:30PM. Others may stop serving food between lunch and dinner. Pub food has become quite sophisticated in recent years and as well as serving the more traditional hearty English fare, more exotic dishes are now prepared in the majority of the larger pubs and specialist “gastropubs”.
English food has recently undergone a revolution with many larger cities having award-winning restaurants run by the many ‘famous’ TV chefs who have now become part of the English obsession with food. Eating out at a high-quality restaurant can be an expensive experience: at the very top end (Michelin Star level) expect to pay £100 per head including wine. A decent three-course meal out at a respectable restaurant will normally cost around £30-£40 per head including wine.
If good quality and cheaply priced food is more your choice, try one of the many ethnic restaurants such as Chinese, Asian or Mexican. Eating a curry or balti in an Indian restaurant is tantamount to an English obsession. These restaurants are found everywhere — even the larger villages have them — and usually the food is of good quality and they will cater for most tastes. A good curry with side dishes can be had for around £10-15 per head, and some without liquor licences allow you to bring your own alcoholic beverages in. Eating a curry out is a social occasion and often you will find the men try to challenge their own taste buds to a duel, opting for spicier curries than they find comfortable! In the towns and cities these restaurants are usually open late (especially on a Friday and Saturday night) to cater for people eating after the pubs have closed. It is at this time that they can get very busy and lively, so if you want to avoid the crowds then visit the restaurants before the local pubs shut.
Unlike many other European countries, vegetarian (and to a lesser extent, vegan) food is widely available and appreciated in pubs and restaurants with several dishes usually appearing on the menu alongside the more normal meat and fish options. However, vegetarians may still find the variety of dishes rather limited – particularly in pubs, where certain dishes such as “veggie” lasagne or mushroom stroganoff feature all too regularly. Tipping is generally expected in restaurants unless a service charge has been added to the bill, with a tip of around 10% considered to be the norm. Tipping in bars and cafes is less common.
The traditional drinking establishment is the “pub” (short for “public house”). These are normally named after local landmarks or events, and most will have a heraldic (or pseudo-heraldic) symbol on the sign outside; more recent establishments may poke fun of this tradition (e.g. “The Queen’s Head” featuring a portrait of Freddie Mercury, lead singer for the rock band Queen). England seems to have an incredible number of pubs. While in a city you are usually not more than a 5 min walk from any pub.
The pub is an English institution, though a declining one. Tastes are changing, smoking has been banned inside pubs, beer is ever cheaper in supermarkets, drink-driving is taboo, and pub landlords are often squeezed by sharp practice by the big firms which supply beers, and which also own many pub buildings.
There are many different kinds of pub. Some are traditional ‘locals’, and a real part of the community. In most neighbourhood pubs you will find all generations mingling together, which often gives patrons a feeling of community. It would not be uncommon to see three generations of one family congregating in a neighbourhood pub. Nevertheless, pubs can vary widely in character. Depending on the area, you can find a warm and friendly welcome, or drunken youths spoiling for a fight.
However, pubs are becoming more and more specialized. In city centres, many have been taken over by big chains; some are soulless, some are moderately pleasant. Some independent pubs have become wine bars or cocktail bars; perhaps the least pleasant are those pubs which pack in customers on their way to a nightclub, with loud music, no space, and super-cheap spirits to make sure their clients are as drunk as possible by 11pm.
However, many pubs are evolving in a more healthy direction. There are now many pubs which pride themselves on serving ‘real ales’ – beer brewed on a smaller scale to traditional English methods and recipes. Any visiting beer lover should track these down. Many pubs, both in the countryside and in cities, have moved towards serving good food. And while most pubs will serve food, it’s in these ‘gastropubs’ that you’ll find well-prepared food, generally a mixture of traditional English dishes and international influences. The prices will tend to match.
Pubs have a little of their own etiquette. At any proper pub, service is always at the bar. It’s polite to strike up a conversation with anyone else who is standing or sitting at the bar. And if someone buys you a drink, you will be expected to ‘stand your round’ later on, buying for whoever you’re drinking with. If you’re planning to leave promptly, or don’t have enough money, then you should politely decline the offer.
Although traditional pub licensing laws severely restricted their hours of operation, laws enacted in 2005 allow pubs to request more flexible opening hours. Few pubs have requested anywhere near the “24 hour drinking” that is theoretically possible: as a general rule more traditional pubs will close at 11PM still. Some of the more trendy bars will close nearer to 1AM, filling a niche in the market between traditional pub and nightclub. However in most cities and many towns, centrally located pubs and bars will stay open anytime from 2AM till 6AM, especially on Friday and Saturday nights. Also, at public holiday times, many pubs extend their closing times — especially New Year’s Eve.
England is home to a huge variety of alcoholic drinks. As well as wines and spirits (mainly imported, but some local), all pubs sell several beers and at least one cider. The main types of beer you will come across are lager , bitter and stout. Real Ale is not a separate classification, it refers to beer made and served by traditional methods.
Lager — Predominantly the pilsner type: pale, fizzy and cold. Because of the popularity of this type of beer amongst the young, there are many mass-market national brands brewed in the UK (and widely advertised with “having fun” type ads) which may disappoint anyone wanting more than simply cold, fizzy, alcohol. Some national brands are much better, and often stronger, and may be sold in bottles as well as on draught. Purists often prefer imported European-brewed lagers.
Bitter — The most common example of the English type of beer technically called “ale” (see below). They are typically darker than lagers – they are called bitter because they have more hops than mild (another less-common kind of ale). Again, there are well-advertised national brands for the mass market, usually less strong than lagers. Most are now not “real ales”: they are not matured in the barrel; they are often called “smooth” or “cream” (which means that they are infused with nitrogen to give a small-bubbled head) and are often served very cold from a small tap on a tall, illuminated stand.
Stout — A dark, heavy, usually very bitter beer. Originally called Porter, Arthur Guinness decided he could do better and made Guinness which he branded a Stout Porter. Guinness is one world-famous Irish brand that is available almost everywhere in England, often in “normal” and “extra cold” versions.
All of the mass-market types above can be bought in cans – often with a “widget” that when the can is opened, forces nitrogen bubbles through the beer to simulate “draught” beer.
Ale — This is not simply another word for “Bitter” or “Beer”. Technically it simply means any beer other than lager (ie it is a beer brewed at cellar temperatures using floating yeast, ie bitters, milds and stouts). However, these days “ale” is often used a little self-consciously, usually either as a “matey” word for any type of beer (“Anyone fancy a few ales?”) or in a consciously “traditional” way (“Try a pint of good old English ale”). To ask for “A pint of ale, please.” would sound like a line from a period film. However “Real Ale” is an accepted term, so to ask “What real ales do you have on?” would be quite normal.
Real Ale — The Campaign for Real Ale (CAMRA) has been a very successful consumer campaign, its aims have been to ensure that mass-market beers do not completely force out beers made in the traditional way. CAMRA created the term “Real Ale” to summarise the type of beer they wanted to keep alive: it must be allowed to continue maturing after it leaves the brewery (ie not be pasteurised or filtered to remove living yeast; be stored and served without additional gas (ie does not have carbon dioxide or nitrogen forced into the beer); and be served at the appropriate temperature for the style: traditional ales are not generally served warm, as many people believe, but at the temperature of the ‘cool’ cellar they have been maturing in for several days (ideally, 8–12°C) . Most real ales are served from the distinctive “handpumps” which allow a pint to be “pulled” from the cellar by several full-length strokes requiring visible effort on the part of the server. Most “real ales” served in ordinary pubs are bitters, but these come in a wide range of strengths, colours, and bitterness. A majority of pubs now serve at least one or two national brands of real ale, and perhaps one or even two local ones.
“Real ale pubs” — At a pub which especially caters to lovers of real ale, or at a beer festival, there will be more local brands (and “guests” from some distance away) and a wider range of bitters, and even a good choice of other types. Expect to see summer ales, winter ales, exotic beers (containing ingredients such as heather, honey or ginger), light milds, dark milds, lagers, stouts and, increasingly, porters (like a stronger dark mild, or a lighter, sweeter stout). These will be served from a long row of handpumps or (even more traditionally) straight from barrels sitting on the bar or (especially at beer festivals) in racks. There will also be a wide range of “bottle-conditioned” beers (“real ale in a bottle”) usually either versions of English bitters, often called “pale ales”, or very strong beers from France or Belgium. There will also be several ciders and perries.
Cider — In England this means an alcoholic drink made from apples (often much stronger than beer). These are generally brewed in the West Country (Somerset, Devon & Cornwall) but not exclusively so as Herefordshire is also another region famous for its cider. The more commercial brands of cider, served from pressurised kegs and so available at any pub, are clear, fizzy and cold , and quite strong (they are usually moderately or very sweet, so the high alcohol content may go unnoticed by a novice). A real ale pub will usually sell at least one “real”, unpressurised, cider, perhaps from a barrel sitting on the bar. This may may be clear or slightly cloudy, but will be almost certainly be still, not too sweet, and very strong (7% alcohol is only average for this type of cider). The most traditional cider is called Scrumpy and is usually very strong, very cloudy and possibly (but not always) rather sour. Some commercial ciders have “scrumpy” in their name, but these are not quite the same as a gallon jug bought at the farmhouse door.
Perry — Similar to cider but made from pears (is sometimes called pear cider, especially if imported). Farmhouse perry was always difficult to get hold of outside the West Country, but this is improving, and there will nearly always be some available at a beer festival. Keen perry-spotters might notice the sweetish “undercover” commercial versions : advertised nationwide with a “girls night out” theme and sold in wine-shaped bottles with “inexpensive white wine”-type labels bearing the legend “Perry” in small letters.
Tea is widely drunk throughout the country, almost always hot, usually strong, usually with milk, and quite often with sugar. There are many popular brands (the most recognisable brands are PG Tips and Tetley). Tea is usually drunk at home or at work or to accompany breakfast in inexpensive restaurants (where it will usually arrive with milk in a separate jug), or with afternoon tea (scones, cream, jam, and cakes) at a “tea-room” (less-frequently seen these days, except in expensive hotels or in holiday areas). It is often the cheapest drink in coffee shops. Tea is often served in pubs and bars too.
Coffee is as popular as tea. Instant coffee (made with hot water, hot milk, or “half and half”) is much used at home and work, and in inexpensive restaurants. If it is made with just hot water, then it is “black coffee”; with added cold milk it becomes “white coffee”. Percolators are little used, and machines with paper filters are less common than they once were: they often fill a restaurant with a coffee aroma, but a mediocre restaurant will often leave the made coffee heating for too long. Therefore, at dinner parties or good restaurants, the “french press” (cafetiere) has become the standard way to serve “real” (“ground”) coffee: the customer can leave the coffee infusing until it as as strong as they like, then press the filter down to stop the brew and restrain the grounds from getting into the cup. The drinker then adds their own milk (hot milk is often provided; cream less often) and sugar. Seattle-style coffee bars serve the usual types of espresso-based coffees (but with a less-bewildering choice of combinations of coffee, milk, sugar, and flavourings). Decaffeinated coffee is available, but not standard. A Pub may serve coffee, and indeed chains (especially Wetherspoons) invariably do, but “Bar” type of pub (at a non-busy time of day) is a better option. International coffeshops such as Starbucks, Costa’s and Cafe Nero are very common in large towns and cities. These often serve a wide range of coffees, teas and hot chocolate.