Wednesday, 10 April 2013

British Tourism Part Four - England

So we finally reach the final part of my British tourism overview. It’s been a long journey and honestly I’m glad it’s over. This has taken far, far longer than I ever wanted it to. I covered Wales in PartOne, Scotland in Part Two, Ireland in Part Three. Now at last we come to England, and there’s more stuff in England so it might take a little while longer. More land, for a start. But soon we’ll be done and I can go back to talking about underrated films and being funny about adverts. This has been uninteresting but at the same time I wanted to finish what I started.

If we want to talk stereotypes then good grief, England has dozens of them. We get new ones every decade for each county. Of course we also have the classics like the old image of a fat & grumpy white guy with a downturned mouth, gravy dribbling down his many chins onto his Union Jack waistcoat, a bulldog under one arm and a newspaper under the other.

Yep, exactly like this

But like I said, we’ve also got so much more stuff here. After the click we can find out about a lot of it: the festivals, the castles, the theme parks, the museums, the landscapes and of course the various cities like London – one of the greatest loves of my life.


Brief History

I did a brief historical summary for each nation so far, and none of them have reflected too well on England over the centuries. This isn’t going to be better. But at least there’re more BBC documentaries about English history than about Wales, Scotland or Ireland so I feel like I can gloss over most of it.

It all started off innocent enough. There were several thousand years of people wandering around doing Neolithic and Iron Age things: being scared of bears, lightning, wolves, rainbows and suspiciously shaped patches of grass. The Celts (aka Britons) were then conquered by the Romans, like a lot of other places. Then after the Romans left there was Anglo-Saxon settlement. There were lots of little, aspirational kingdoms up and down the island.

 This is just scratching the surface

Then there were the Vikings (aka Norse) who managed to unite more territories on the islands than anyone since the Romans. A couple of centuries later the Norman-French took the record and made London the capital city. Then there were the Plantagenets, the Lancasters, the Yorks, the Lancasters again, the Yorks again, the Tudors (including some of the most famous Henrys), and the Stuarts (with only a brief interruption by Cromwell’s Great Protectorate), the Hanovers and finally the Saxe-Coburgs who are now the Windsors.

 They’re my favourites so far

A few small generations of cynical little dominative types conquered a fairly large island, and from there it only took a few dozen generations to conquer a quarter of the land mass of Earth, ruling a fifth of the entire human population. It was an empire on which the sun never set. That’s terrifyingly impressive with emphasis on the terror. The English can’t complain too much when Hollywood makes the bad guys posh Englishmen, since we all keenly feel that posh Englishmen are the biggest bad guys in the world.

 I say, he may have a jolly good point, what?

The empire was slowly dismantled over the course of the 20th century. Rebellions, riots and strikes also became less frequent in England itself as fairer, more socialist policies were put in place. The effects of the British Empire have remained nonetheless: English is the most spoken language in the world.

On a personal note, I feel the burden of all this guilt quite personally despite nobody really forcing me to. My ancestors shouldn’t have done what they did. I wish I could make up for what was done over the centuries, which might sound like a strange sentiment considering what’s done is done, etc. This is the shape of the world and we’re stuck with it; could be worse, could be better. But if I ever have descendants then I really hope they do better.


Sometimes the British Isles feel small compared to say, Texas. But I suggest you try walking across it: there are all sorts of various terrains up and down the place. Apparently the variety makes it fun.

The Peak District is actually a national park with some of the most memorable landscapes and… peaks, that you’ll ever trudge across. The hills may be glorious in the sun, but with a soft grey rain trickling down cascading cliffs of slate as you stumble past on paths of damp, squelching gravel? There’s a majesty to it that’s almost beautiful. Afterwards. Once you’re back in your lovely warm rented cottage.

You can also sail, hand-glide, fly a hot air balloon, etc. I haven’t yet but from the pictures I imagine it’s something to remember.

The image is small but the experience must be huge
The Lake District is another national park and as the name suggests, it’s full of lakes.  Of course there’s a lot more water sports: kayaking, canoeing, sailing, fishing, etc. There is also spelunking, caving, climbing and all sorts of other adventure sports.


Music festivals happen all over the world, of course, but it feels like there are loads in England. There’s the big ones I always hear about like Glastonbury, Bestival, Global Gathering, Reading Festival (pronounced ‘red-ding’), Download and maybe even Sonisphere and Hyde Park Festival if I pay enough attention. Then there’re the ones they hype up in the media like T4 on the Beach, Party in the Park and Radio 1’s Big Weekend. 


From what I’ve gathered, they all look a little like this

But that short list is just scraping the surface of all the music festivals, let alone all the other festivals. It’s not all mud and UV paint, but that’s where the youth is and therefor where the money is.

Theme Parks, Zoos & Aquariums

There are zoos and wildlife parks up and down the country, from Cornwall to York (just putting those two places together feels like a strange juxtaposition, doesn’t it?). Rather than tell you about the best, I’ll tell you about my favourites.

I remember going to Chessington once years ago and the rides were pretty cool. There was something about a dragon. But the read highlight was this:

Those are meerkats, and if anyone still loves them because of that car insurance advert then they’ll also love this. The meerkats are sitting on a transparent dome of plastic, which can be accessed from beneath by your head. There are tunnels beneath the meerkat enclosure and you can stand on a step to poke your head, to experience the world at the meerkat’s own level. The meerkats don’t always sit on top. Along with the roller coasters and other window-dressing, it’s all pretty cool.

There’s also a zoo down in Kent. I remember it fondly because when I was a kid visiting my great-aunt and great-uncle, at night when my family were sleeping in various guest bedrooms, we were so near to the zoo that you could hear the animals at night. I fell asleep to the roar of lions and tigers, the howl of wolves, and the various other exotic creatures that were within earshot. That was pretty cool. I don’t remember too much about the zoo itself though.

London zoo is also cool. If you don’t fancy the entrance fee of upwards of twenty quid then you have another option: if you walk up to Camden Lock from Camden tube station, then turn left to walk along Regents Canal? After about fifteen or twenty minutes you come to the parts of the zoo that cross the water. Some of the huge enclosures, with nets over the top, span the canal so you can walk beneath them. The walk itself is pleasant when it’s not pouring with rain, which is unfortunately exactly when some friends and I decided to walk that path. The canal is serene and peaceful, lined with huge trees and intriguing sights half-glimpsed through the greenery. Of course you don’t get to see the elephants, giraffes, hippos, rhinoceros, monkeys, primates, etc. But it’s free and I’m told the exercise is good for me.

The Coast

Speaking of adventure sports, the surfing in Cornwall and Dorset is excellent. There’s also a town called Torquay which is always cool, down in easy-going Devon on the warm south-west coast while also facing east (away from the big scary ocean). There are a few sailing events around the area throughout the year.

 Colour adjustment is the only explanation for this apparent sunshine and warmth

Elsewhere on the coast there’s Southampton, where I used to live for a while and has a long stretch of pubs, bars and clubs running right up the middle like a spine. There’s also a pub called The Hobbit, which has been having legal troubles ever since the film came out. Their cause can be supported on [the Facebook account Save the Hobbit]. Just look at the beer garden, where I’ve seen people breathing fire, juggling fire, twirling fire and also lots of other performances that didn’t involve fire.

There’s also Brighton which is one of the most fun cities outside of London. My parents met there back in their rock-and-roll phase, so I sort of owe my existence to Brighton (at least in part). Countless generations of fun people have enjoyed the city, mostly because of all the fun people they find there. However there’s one big tourist landmark: the pier. It has arcade games, flashing coin games, food stalls, fairground rides (some of which are pretty extreme) and it’s on the water which is weirdly romantic. Then there’s the beach right there behind you, with a huge party city right behind that! It’s like a tiered cake made of fun!

 Try not to worry about everything suddenly collapsing into the water and crushing you while you also drown

Ghosts & Monsters

There aren’t many well-known monsters lurking around England. One of the best known is obviously the hound of the Baskervilles, but sadly it only exists in the Sherlock Holmes stories. However there is a tour of ‘Baskerville country’ so that you can go and see the landscape that inspired Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.

It’s really saying something about England’s ghosts and monsters that the Baskerville hound is the only really famous one. Recently there have been lots of stories about wild animals lurking in the countryside, from Devon to Durham. Some years ago there was even a rumour started by farm workers in some of my local pubs who swore that there was a large black panther prowling around rural Hertfordshire, preying upon livestock. Of course this seems ridiculous now in wake of the most recent, most public ‘large cat’ turning out to be probably just an actual house cat.

There are ghost tours around most of the major cities, but around East London you’ll be hard-pressed to miss the street tours specialising in Jack the Ripper – the mysterious Victorian serial killer who’s been featured in films, TV shows, books, comic books, etc but who in reality was a brutal murderer of sex workers. The tour guides often dress in period costume, and the crowds are quite often massive.

 Ignore the cartoon blood, look at the amazingly smooth title font!

Once you start paying attention to England’s ghost stories, you’ll find that there are dozens of pubs with their own share. There’s seldom any point asking the bar staff, because they’re busy serving customers. But the stories are out there in the world, waiting for you. If you’ve ever watched that TV series Most Haunted, I bet the ones you remember best are the ghosts in the pubs. I certainly do. Especially the pub that keeps a silver tankard full of ale on a shelf behind the bar for when the devil walks in.

Castles & Stones

There are lots of ancient stones around England, much like… well, the whole world. But for some reason Stonehenge has become a big deal. I guess it’s something to do with ley lines?

 I sympathise with the underwhelmed tourists

Stonehenge is one of the many, many druid constructions that have hung around. Some say it was an altar for ceremonial druidic sacrifices. Others say it was an ancient calendar for gauging the changing the year. It could have been anything like that, but it was definitely a place to get drunk. What else would the English do when gathered together?

It’s a cliché that Europe, Britain and England have castles lying all over the place. This is technically true depending on how you define ‘castle’. Some are so old that they’re now nothing but lumps in forests, discernible only because archaeologists have uncovered ancient charcoal and broken pottery. While Wales has the most castles out of any country in the British Isles, England has a trump card:

The Tower of London is not actually a tower. Nor does Queen Elizabeth II actually live there. Yes, this is something I have to clarify. The Tower of London is guarded by the ‘Yeoman Warders of Her Majesty’s Royal Palace and Fortress the Tower of London, and Members of the Sovereign’s Body Guard of the Yeoman Extraordinairy’. But that’s a really ridiculous title so at some point in the past we decided to call them the Beefeaters. Try to picture an extraordinary bodyguard of the sovereign’s royal fortress when you see these guys:

 You laugh until you see the big pointy stick

Shush they’re traditional. Another tradition is that the Beefeaters look after the ravens. Legend says the six ravens that live in captivity in the Tower of London are a sort of good luck charm. If the ravens ever leave the Tower then England is doomed or something – it’s a very old legend so it’s pretty vague. Their wings are clipped to prevent any sustained flight so it seems as if England is safe in this respect.

 My lord! He brings word from Winterfell!

The most concrete fact is that the ravens have to be there. During the Blitz of the 40s, when Nazis rained bombs down upon London, all but one of the ravens was killed. Churchill himself ordered five new ravens conscripted to make up the numbers. Yes, I said conscripted. The ravens are officially enlisted as soldiers, and occasionally they have even been reposted or dismissed from service for disorderly conduct. They’ve been known to mimick human language, detect the on-site deaths of human staff, and play pranks. They’re still liable to bite though so don’t feed them. My god they’re such Londoners.

Museums & Galleries

One of the first memories of museums I have is of Tring Natural History Museum. If you know it then that should probably tell you a lot already. My granddad used to take us when we were kids. It’s free and massively interesting. One of the most interesting things is that their galleries hold literally hundreds of preserved animals. This is a taxidermist’s wet dream and Ace Ventura’s nightmare.

 Row upon row of dead stuffed animals, much like the Houses of Parliament

There are plenty of other museums around England but the next ones I have the best memories of are all around London. There’s the Natural History Museum which is mostly free (also boasting a large collection of taxidermy and I highly recommend the Spirit Collection Tour of the jar rooms, including a giant octopus, which is also free), the Science Museum, the Transport Museum in Covent Garden, the Clink Prison Museum and the Museum of London. That last one is a favourite of mine, partly because the whole thing is so surreal.

 How do I even get in?

There’s also an art gallery in almost every town of England. I hate to keep harping on about London but it also has all the best galleries too, including some that move. There are galleries about boats of course, and also on boats but there’s also one that I’ve been trying to track down for months amid sketchy reports, intimidating facades and my own half-hearted laziness. Anyway, the big ones are obviously all the Tate Museums. There are Tate Museums in Liverpool and St Ives, but London has two: the Britain and the Modern. The Tate Modern is a world-renowned venue for impressive installations, because the Turbine Hall – which used to be a turbine hall – is a massive space regularly devoted entirely to one artist’s vision. There have been giant alien sculptures of strange spider-creatures, cities made of cardboard boxes, aesthetic cracks, spaces entirely devoid of light, etc.

London Itself

I love this city. To be honest I’ve not been to many. I’ve never been to New York for example. Other people are also entitled to their favourites. But it doesn’t matter where I go in the world; when someone says ‘home’, my mind is in London. She’s a bitter old woman with a beguiling twinkle in her eye. She’ll chew you up without a thought but her intestines are big enough for everyone.

There are the obvious landmarks that everyone recognises: Big Ben, London Bridge, the London Eye, and I guess everyone might remember the Olympic stadium if I cared to jog their memory (I do not). Here’s a couple of things though…

This is not Big Ben:

The name ‘big ben’ actually refers to the bell inside the clocktower.

This is Big Ben.

Additionally, this is not London Bridge:

That is Tower Bridge, so named for being very close to the Tower of London. London Bridge itself is actually massively uninspiring, unless you hang around for long enough to see tourists making the same old mistake. It still happens regularly, even now. London Bridge is actually massively uninspiring.

For some reason people get fascinated with the transport infrastructure of London. Platform 9 ¾ is now a tourist attraction at Kings Cross train station but there’s also Neverwhere by Neil Gaiman (based in and around the tube network) and the dozens of feature films that have scenes set in the tube.

Interestingly, there are a dozen disused tube stations hidden around the city. Some of them can be visited by appointment, others can only be visited by walking there through the tunnels. You’d be basically asking for death though, since there’s no light, speeding trains and the tracks themselves are electrified with thousands of volts. Don’t do it. I heard a story years ago about how they were digging some new tunnels and discovered a pocket of gas that contained flesh-eating bacteria, so that’s something else to be wary of.

Even on the platforms and trains there are still the other passengers to deal with. A mysterious Commuter X has been writing a blog for quite some time about the annoyances that can be found down there in the tunnels.

If you’re not an underground person, you can travel by bus without much of a delay. Of course there’s always the famous river Thames. Taking the boat costs more money but you get to go past all the landmarks dotting the shore, and how often do you really see them from that perspective? You’ll probably see a lot of things on the river that you’d never noticed before.

That thing right there is the Duck Tours amphibious car-thing, and it’s probably quite an experience.

What I love most about London is the pub life. I love me a good pub, I do. If I had to recommend just one then I would struggle. There are roughly 2000 pubs in London, but the definition of ‘London’ varies as much as the definition of ‘pub’ so it’s hard to tell. My goal is to visit every single one, which may be impossible. But if we’ve learned anything from these stupidly long tourism articles, it’s that the journey is often preferable to the destination.

Now that it's over, next time we can get back to laughing at the silly brainwashing! Hooray!


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