A love letter to… the UK

Travel inspiration

By
June 25, 2021

By | June 25, 2021

It’s been an interesting few years for the UK, to put it mildly, but it’s still top of many peoples’ wish-lists. Here’s why we’re still in love with it

City life

Bath is a Roman city made even more glorious by the addition of elegant buildings spanning Tudor to VictorianBath, England, United Kingdom — Shutterstock

The UK is a busy place. By population, London alone is bigger than a number of European countries. But London has been written about at great length in a million other places, so let’s give a bit of love to some other cities.

Birmingham, the UK’s second city, is sometimes overlooked as bleak, grey and industrial, without the standout attributes of a number of other places, but that’s unfair. It’s undergoing a major character shift, with the factories and canals of the 19th-century endeavor being cleaned up and renovated, a thriving restaurant and bar scene, some genuinely stunning new buildings, and more green spaces than you’d think, it’s well worth your time.

Birmingham city canals, England, United Kingdom Birmingham city canals, England, United Kingdom — Shutterstock

The north-west of England is mainly famous for two things: music and football. Both are the life and soul of Liverpool and Manchester, and though the cities will hate being lumped together, their combined success in both is what defines them. Manchester sees itself as more cosmopolitan and more creative, while Liverpool loves its status as the hard-working underdog, but both are fabulous cities.

Glasgow is another place that works hard and plays hard. Scotland’s largest city is one of grit and grins, dive bars and concert halls, tenements, parks, street art and high culture. Edinburgh, the capital, is Georgian splendor and royal history.

We’ve only just scratched the surface. There’s Bristol, home of trip-hop and Banksy, with Cardiff, the bustling capital of Wales less than an hour away over the Bristol Channel. Bath and Chester, Roman cities made even more glorious by the addition of elegant buildings spanning Tudor to Victorian. Newcastle with its iconic bridge and raucous nightlife. Shakespeare’s Stratford-upon-Avon. The list goes on and on.

It’s not just London, you know.

Wild at heart

Couple on the coastline of Cornwall, United KingdomCouple on the coastline of Cornwall, United Kingdom — Shutterstock

It’s not all urban though. Brits have always loved getting out of the cities and into the countryside or to the sea. The number of national parks and other stunning landscapes within easy reach of some of the biggest cities is incredible. These areas were seen as savage and dangerous in the past, with Daniel Defoe writing of the Peak District in 1725 that it was “the most desolate, wild and abandoned country in all England”.

The Romantics grew to love the mountains and valleys, however: William Wordsworth viewed the Lake District as something everyone should be proud of, calling it a “sort of national property in which every man has a right and interest who has an eye to perceive and a heart to enjoy.”

 

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Hiking in the mountains of Wales or Scotland, mountain biking through the forests and across the meadows, kayaking, rafting, climbing, exploring one of the thousands of castles that dot the landscape — all these activities thrive in the UK. But when it comes to taking it easy, Brits do that very well too.

Cyclists near a lake in Lochnagar mountain, Scotland, United KingdomCyclists near a lake in Lochnagar mountain, Scotland, United Kingdom — Shutterstock

As a nautical nation, there’s always been something about the mystery, danger, and romance of the sea that’s appealed to the soul of Britons for aeons. Nowadays, however, that’s more likely to mean lying on the beach eating ice cream or going for a bracing swim than pillaging enemy ships. Still, some of the most picturesque beaches in the world run around the edge of the island, from the quaint fishing coves of Cornwall and Devon to the vast, windswept stretches of Northumbria or eastern Scotland. Whether you’re taking the air or relaxing in the sun, any excuse to head to the beach is a good one.

In my ears and in my eyes

Colorful Bristol cityscapeColorful Bristol cityscape — Martyna Bober | Unsplash

As mentioned briefly above, something else that flows like blood through the body of the nation is music. But oddly, a couple of hundred years ago, Britain was viewed as utterly tone-deaf, with Oskar Schmitz, a German writer and critic asking himself, “what is missing from this nation? Kindness, love of people, humor, or aesthetic sense? No, one can find all these attributes in England [but] the English are the only cultured nation without its own music.”

The poet Heinrich Heine agreed, going so far as to say that “the sons of Albion are themselves the most awful of all dancers, and Strauss assures me there is not a single one among them who could keep time. These people have no ear, neither for the beat nor indeed for music in any form, and their unnatural passion for piano-playing and singing is all the more disgusting.” Ouch. Ralph Waldo Emerson simply states in his 1856 work English Traits that “England has no music”.

 

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To which I give you the following: The Beatles, Led Zeppelin, Stormzy, Ralph Vaughan Williams, The Smiths, Edward Elgar, Kate Bush, David Bowie, The Rolling Stones, The Kinks, Black Sabbath, Pink Floyd, Benjamin Britten, Joy Division, Arctic Monkeys, Dizzee Rascal, Chemical Brothers, Nick Drake, The Who, Super Furry Animals, The Specials, The Prodigy, Adele, Radiohead, Roots Manuva, Sex Pistols, The Clash, Blur, Muse, Elton John, Spice Girls, Elvis Costello, Florence + the Machine, Oasis, Pet Shop Boys, Dusty Springfield, John Barry, XTC, Amy Winehouse, Massive Attack, Belle and Sebastian, Henry Purcell, Queen, PJ Harvey, Eric Clapton…

A sense of coziness

Stratford upon Avon, Warwickshire, England, United KingdomStratford upon Avon, Warwickshire, England, United Kingdom — Shutterstock

There’s something of the Hobbit about the British. Tolkien based his fictional Shire on the area near his home in the Midlands; in a letter to his publishers he noted that the Shire was “more or less a Warwickshire village of about the period of [Queen Victoria’s] Diamond Jubilee.”

This sense of homeliness and coziness is strongly felt. Maybe it’s something to do with the weather, wanting to retreat to the warmth of home when the wind and rain is lashing down outside. Maybe it’s a love of routine and of small pleasures: making a cup of tea and feeling awfully daring by having a biscuit with it. Maybe it’s wanting a bit of familiarity, somewhere that feels solid, real and dependable.

Maybe it’s everything I’ve listed above combined. To this end, I propose one of Britain’s greatest treasures is a good local pub. And notice I’ve said pub. Bill Bryson, in Notes from a Small Island enjoys this small but important distinction too, writing “I wonder if other people notice how much comparative pleasure there is in drinking in a pub called The Eagle and Child or Lamb and Flag rather than, say, Joe’s Bar.” I absolutely agree.

There’s nothing better on one of Britain’s endless dreary days than taking yourself off to a good pub and sitting with a pint of ideally-not-lager and a book, maybe in a collapsing but comfortable armchair, simply enjoying being somewhere that has remained essentially unchanged for 400 years. Locals come and go; nods, smiles and inside jokes are exchanged; the world outside continues, but for a blissful while you’re under no obligation to be a part of it.

Be part of the story

Young lamb in Haworth, West Yorkshire, England, United Kingdom Young lamb in Haworth, West Yorkshire, England, United Kingdom — Shutterstock

What’s the book you took with you to read at the pub? A spot of lightweight melodrama? Jane Austen or one of the Brontës perhaps? Something grounded more in our times maybe: an Ian McEwan, a Zadie Smith or an Irvine Welsh. What about some pure escapism: Harry Potter, His Dark Materials, or one of Terry Pratchett’s many works. Whatever you’re reading, you can get involved even further.

There are scores of places that have a thriving trade based around literary tourism. Haworth in Yorkshire is a mecca for fans of the Brontë sisters, being the place where they grew up and indulged in healthful thrashes across the surrounding moors, giving rise to the windswept romance of Wuthering Heights and The Tenant of Wildfell Hall. Hill Top Farm in Cumbria is the site of similar pilgrimages by fans of Beatrix Potter and her twee stories about frogs in waistcoats and such.

It’s not just books, there are movie and TV spots to hunt out as well. Get your photo taken at Platform 9¾, see Sherlock Holmes’ modern London or Lyra’s filmic Oxford. Travel with the Time Lords in South Wales. Head across the Irish Sea to Northern Ireland and Game of Thrones. Sit in a Digbeth pub or head to the Black Country Living Museum in your flat cap to get a taste of Peaky Blinders. It’s completely up to you. After all, visiting the UK will be a chapter in your own story.

Read our love for other countries on Kiwi.com Stories.