Incorporating England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, the United Kingdom has something different to offer all its visitors.
Although the islands collectively known as the United Kingdom or the British Isles may cover a relatively small area, around two hundred and fifty thousand square kilometres, they have a great deal to offer a visitor to any particular area. Whether you decide to opt for a stroll in the green countryside of Wales, to dance at a ceilidh in the Scottish Highlands, check out the cosmopolitan social scene in London or step across the Giant’s Causeway in Northern Ireland, you are guaranteed an enjoyable and relaxing holiday.
A leading industrial and maritime power in the nineteenth century, the UK was at the forefront of leading democratic, literary and scientific developments. This all began to go horribly wrong in the first half of the twentieth century when the country saw its strength being depleted by its involvement in two World Wars. And, in the second half it witnessed its Empire, which once covered over a quarter of the earth’s surface, being dismantled. But it also saw the rebuilding of the UK into a modern and prosperous European nation and this is the UK that you will find when you get there today. Now all you have to do is decide which part of this prosperous nation you can fit into your backpacking itinerary.
While the bigger towns and cities offer the visitor every type of world cuisine which they could possibly desire, some of the local delicacies should be tried too.
Roast beef with Yorkshire Pudding is the dish of the day as far as visitors to England are concerned. The traditional Sunday lunch is incomplete without it, and if you are a meat eater, your visit will be too. While the other countries in the UK have a variety of unique dishes, England would appear to be rather lacking. That is not to say the food there isn’t good, it is. London is home to some of the world’s top restaurants. What it is saying, is that they don’t have any of their own. Nowadays, fish and chips, kebabs and pizzas are the preferred choice among the younger generation.
In Scotland, you will learn of haggis – a delightful traditional dish made from sheep’s offal (known locally as pluck). The windpipe, lungs, heart and liver of the sheep are boiled and minced. This is then mixed with beef fat and oatmeal and placed inside the sheep’s stomach. Following this, the stomach is sewn up and traditionally is boiled for anything up to three hours. Today, however, to prevent the stomach from bursting and spoiling, part boiled haggis can be transferred to the oven. There is also a vegetarian version but somehow I think the idea is slightly nonsensical, vegetables cooked in a sheep’s stomach is hardly vegetarian. Other equally appetizing Scottish fare includes scotch broth and colcannon.
In Wales, when you open your menu you will see a variety of local dishes. And the good news is that not all of them contain the insides of a farmyard animal. Of course, Welsh Rarebit is the first on the menu. This is a rather simple affair and is regarded by many as an up-market version of cheese on toast. Other delights are Bara Brith, a type of fruit bread and Laver Bread, which is a sort of seaweed pancake. You should also try traditional Welsh lamb. Apparently, it’s second to none.
Northern Ireland offers you traditional Irish cuisine. This comes in the form of Irish stew – a delightful concoction of lamb (usually Irish, I’m afraid) and fresh vegetables. You should also try some boxty which is a type of potato cake. And, if you don’t get to drink Guinness you can always try it in pie. Steak and Guinness Pie is becoming extremely popular among visitors to the country and as they eat they are getting to sample two of its biggest assets.
Air – London alone has five international airports – Heathrow, Gatwick, Luton, Stanstead and London City – so you can see how accessible the country is by air. International flights also connect with Manchester, Newcastle and Bristol. Flights coming into Scotland from North America will land in Glasgow or Edinburgh but from London and all the other major European cities there are also direct connections with Dundee, Aberdeen, Inverness and Kirkwall. The international airport at Cardiff in Wales is used mainly for charter flights but there are some scheduled flights to Aberdeen, Amsterdam, Belfast, Brussels, the Channel Islands, Dublin, Edinburgh, Glasgow, the Isle of Man, Manchester and Paris. And in Northern Ireland, flights connect Belfast with London’s international airports as well as the British provincial cities. Several major European cities also offer direct flights but the majority of these are to Dublin. The two cities are only about two hours apart by train, however, so it is not too inconvenient.
Ferry – Services between Britain and Northern Ireland operate between Belfast and Liverpool and Stranraer in Scotland. In the Republic there are services between Dublin and Holyhead in Wales and between Rosslare and Fishguard and Pembroke, also in Wales. Services connecting Britain with mainland Europe leave from a number of ports and travel to France, Belgium, Germany, Holland, Scandinavia and Spain.
The Tunnel – The UK also has a land link with mainland Europe – the Channel Tunnel. Two services operate using the tunnel: Eurostar which offers a high-speed connection between London, Paris and Brussels and Le Shuttel which allows motor vehicles to travel between Folkestone and Calais in France.
While public transport in the UK is of a high standard, it is pretty expensive. The cheapest way to get around is by using the multitude of bus services that operate all over. They offer special passes for travel on all services so you should check this out before purchasing your ticket and they are usually a great deal more frequent than the train services.
Having said this, the rail system in the UK is excellent with some services running through sparsely populated parts of the country offering breathtaking scenery. This comes at a price, however, and train tickets are expensive, even for those who aren’t on a backpacker budget. The National Railways Enquiry Scheme does offer some cheaper tickets but you need to book well in advance and you will probably still pay more than you would if you traveled by bus.
Also, in Scotland if you want to visit the islands, you can get a boat to most of them from Oban, Mallaig and Ullappol or you can get a ferry from Aberdeen to Orkney or Shetland.
Edinburgh Castle, High Street, Edinburgh Tel: 0131 668 8800
If you are going to be in Edinburgh during your trip to the UK, then a trip to the castle comes highly recommended. Towering over the city from its perch on top of an extinct volcano, it offers amazing views not only of the city itself but also for miles around. Dating from the Bronze Age, and housing the Stone of Destiny, the ancient coronation stone of the Scottish Kings, it is an attraction well worth visiting. You also get to hear the one o’clock gun salute every day and in August each year the Military Tattoo takes place – a very enjoyable and interesting festival of musical, marching and historical re-enactments.
Westminster Abbey, Parliament Square, London SW1P 3PA Tel:020 7222 5152
This is the venue for the coronations, marriages and burials of the British monarchs so it is an attraction with quite a bit of history. The only exceptions since 1066 were Edward V and Edward VII. It also houses the tomb of the Unknown Soldier, the Coronation Chair, the Shrine of Edward the Confessor, the Royal Tombs, the Royal Chapels and the Poets’ Corner. The building itself dates from between the thirteenth and sixteenth centuries and if you are in London, a visit to Westminster Abbey is a must. Check before you go, however, as it is sometimes closed to the public because of special events.
Abergavenny Museum & Castle, Castle Street, Abergavenny, Gwent NP7 5EE, Wales Tel: 01873 854 282
This Welsh museum presents the story of Abergavenny, a historic market town. It takes the visitor from prehistoric times right through to the present day making it an extremely enjoyable place to visit. The displays on offer include a recreated Victorian farmhouse kitchen and a saddler’s workshop. It’s set within the ruins of the town’s Norman castle. As the seat of medieval lords, this castle was the focus of cross border conflict for over three hundred years. It has been open to the public since the end of the nineteenth century.
Loch Ness Drumnadrochit, Highlands, Scotland Tel: 01456 450573The problem with Loch Ness is that unless you have planned a few days in the highlands, it is quite a trip from any of the major UK cities. The good news is that if you had to spend three days on a bus (and you don’t), it would still be worth it. It is now one of the world’s most famous attractions thanks to the mysterious phenomenon of the Loch Ness monster, or Nessie as he has become affectionately known. The lake itself is twenty-three miles long and over seven hundred and fifty feet deep so if you are looking for specific details on the monster, you are probably better to visit the Loch Ness Monster Exhibition Centre. The scenery in the area is so picturesque you should probably buy a couple of rolls of film in the centre, and one place in particular that you will definitely want to get a shot is where Urquhart Castle sits on the shores of the lake. It’s real postcard material.
The Giants Causeway, Co. Antrim, Northern Ireland
This natural attraction has numerous legends surrounding its origins. The most popular is that Fionn MacCumhaill, a legendary Irish hero, fell in love with a lady giant on a nearby island. In order for her to cross into Ulster without getting her feet wet he built a highway of stepping-stones from Antrim to Scotland, hence the Giant’s Causeway. The unique structure is a mass of basalt columns packed together and the tops from the stepping-stones that lead from the cliff foot and disappear under the sea. There are forty thousand of these columns and most are hexagonal. The tallest reach up to forty feet in height and are up to ninety feet thick. It is a fascinating outcome of the forces of nature and well worth a look.
The Tower Bridge Experience, Tower Bridge, London SE1 2UP Tel: 020 7378 1928If you do get to London then your visit will not be a complete without a visit to the city’s most famous attraction. While the outside of the bridge is impressive in itself, the inside is where the experience lies. Once you step into the heart of the bridge, you will witness displays which bring over one hundred years of the Tower Bridge’s history to life. You will be transported to nineteenth century London where you will see why and how the bridge was built, and the views from the walkway are unforgettable.
Roman Baths & Pump Room, Abbey Churchyard, Bath, Avon BA1 1LZ Tel: 01225 477785
This is the site of Britain’s only natural spring and has been in Bath for over two thousand years. It consists of various different areas including The King’s Bath where you can see the source of the thermal water. You then move on to The Temple of Sulis Minerva who was the Romano-Celtic goddess of the springs. Finally, you enter the Pump Room itself which is a Georgian salon and the social heart of the attraction. Here you can drink water from the fountain or have a coffee while enjoying the music of the Pump Room Trio. There is also a museum where you will see carvings from classical temples, treasures which were offered to Sulis Minerva and sculptures which tell you about the lives of people from throughout the empire.
Big Ben, Palace of Westminster, London SW1A 0AA Tel: 020 7219 5839
This is one of London’s best-known landmarks but the name does not actually refer to the clock tower itself as many visitors believe. It is actually the thirteen-ton bell which hangs inside the tower and was named after the first commissioner of works, Sir Benjamin Hall. The attraction looks its best at night because all the clock faces are illuminated but it is worth visiting at any time of the day. The minute hand is fourteen feet long and the figures are two feet high giving some idea of the sheer size of the structure. You can also climb the inside of the clock tower and see the cells where Members of Parliament can be imprisoned for breaching parliamentary privilege. You won’t see anybody in confinement, however, as this hasn’t occurred since 1880.
According to the Guinness Book of Records, Edinburgh’s Fringe Festival is the largest in the world, and for anyone who has been, it has also been voted the best. For three weeks every August, the city plays host to over six hundred companies who put on a vast range of events for their audience. You will find every art form that you can possibly think of, from theatre and comedy to music and magic. There are up to one thousand shows per day in over two hundred venues so you are guaranteed to find something you like, however obscure your tastes. Most of the shows will not cost you any more than £5 but a large number are free. One thing you do need to remember is that while the festival is on, the population of Edinburgh doubles so you need to book accommodation well in advance. Other festivals in the city during the summer months include the Jazz Festival which takes place from July 30th to August 8th, the Military Tatoo from August 6th to 28th and the International Film Festival from August 15th to 29th.
While there are doubts about whether this festival is going to take place this year are not, there is every possibility that it will. It was cancelled last year too and still took place so keep your fingers crossed. Glastonbury Festival of Comtemporary Performing Arts is now the UK’s largest music festival. It takes place in seven hundred acres of open land in Somerset and the atmosphere is amazing. Over one hundred thousand people attended last year with twenty thousand staff making sure everything runs smoothly. You will get to see music, theatre, circus and cabaret as well as over seven hundred stalls offering clothes, craft and food. With over one thousand performances in three days, if you stumble across something you don’t like, all you have to do is move on to the next area. And, all the proceeds go to charity which should make you feel even better about attending. If it does go ahead it will be at the end of June.
Cats, New London Theatre, Drury Lane, London
If you are going to spend some time in London and have a little cash to spare, then you have to get to West End show. And, the one that we recommend is the longest running musical in the world – Andrew Lloyd Webbers’s Cats. This particular show was responsible for the introduction of long term musical shows both in the UK and across the Atlantic in the States. The New London version is a unique one and takes place in a theatre that looks like it was purpose built, incidentally it wasn’t. It will be a memorable experience and one that you can take on your travels with you.
This is the name that Scots give to the New Year and it is now such a huge event in the country, that it even overshadows Christmas for some people. Ideally, Scotland’s capital is where you should be if you want to be at the centre of the celebrations but wherever you are you will get swept up in the mood. The Hogmanay street parties are now lasting up to three days making it the biggest winter celebration on the continent. It is actually regarded as a festival for the Scottish and visitors where there’s bands, dances and special shows from all over the world taking place for those of you brave enough to beat the crowds. Because of overcrowding in recent years, entry to the city centres is now limited to those who have advance tickets.
This is another music festival which has gone from strength to strength in recent years. It’s completely contained in one arena apart from the campsite which is located outside the main area. While it does take place over three days, there are also one-day tickets for those of you who can’t fit it into your busy schedule, or those of you who just are not up to three days of constant partying. As well as music, you can visit the comedy tent featuring some of the UK’s most popular up and coming comedians, or wander through the multitude of stalls selling all types of cheap and cheerful paraphernalia. It will take place from the 25th to the 27th August, 2001.
The currency used in the UK is the Sterling pound and it’s divided into one hundred pennies. The coins in circulation are 1p, 2p, 5p, 10p, 20p, 50p and £1. Notes come in denominations of £1 (coin is now more common and notes have been discontinued in England), £5, £10, £20, £50 and £100. Some Scottish banks including the Royal Bank of Scotland, Bank of Scotland and Clydesdale Bank, do issue their own sterling notes which are legal tender throughout the UK. Occasionally, however, some places in England are reluctant to accept them.
The native language in the UK is English but many people in Wales also speak their own native language known as Welsh. Furthermore, there are also some areas in Scotland where gaelic is spoken but this generally on the remoter islands.
Although it is a relatively small country, the weather varies considerably in the different areas. The west coast is warmer than the east but it is also wetter and it gets colder as you travel north. In general, the winter months are colder and wetter and have shorter daylight hours. Spring can be very cold and doesn’t arrive until March and October is the crossing point for the winter weather. From April to September the weather is at its best and this is also the best time to visit as you are guaranteed that all the tourist attractions are open.
Greenwich Mean Time which is five hours ahead of Eastern Standard Time is the time zone used by the British.
Shops are generally open from 9.00am to 5.30/6.00pm from Monday to Saturday but some close early on either Tuesday or Wednesday afternoon in Scotland and Wales or on Wednesday or Thursday in the smaller English towns. Businesses are open from Monday to Friday between 9.00am and 5.00pm and most banks are open from Monday to Friday between 9.30am to 3.30pm. Again in smaller towns they may well close for lunch between 12.30pm and 1.30pm and close at lunch-time on Friday. The main post offices are open from Monday to Friday between 9.00am and 5.00pm. Finally, pub hours are 11.00am to 11.00pm daily. On Sundays in Scotland, however, they are usually open between 12.30pm and 2.30pm and 6.30pm and 11.00pm. It is worth noting that these hours vary widely from pub to pub and from city to city.
Electricity in the UK is 240 volts AC (50Hz)
A 17.5% sales tax (VAT) is levied on all goods and services in Britain at the moment. It does not apply to books or food. By law it must be included in your hotel or restaurant bill. With regards to shopping, this tax can be claimed back on goods taken out of the country by non-nationals but not all stores participate in this ‘Retail Export Scheme’ so, before purchasing, look for a sign or enquire.
Citizens of EU member states are free to live and work in the UK without a visa and visitors from the Republic of Ireland do not even need a passport to enter the country. American, Canadian, Australian, South African and New Zealand nationals are allowed to stay for up to a period of six months without a visa. Visitors from all other countries should contact the British Embassy in their area for entry details.
While traveller’s cheques are widely accepted in the cities, they may prove difficult to use in the more remote parts of the country, particularly for cheques worth over £20. If you heading north or to the further flung parts of the UK, you should obtain cash before you go. Banks are generally open from Monday to Friday, some also open on Saturday mornings. Bureau de Changes tend to open later than banks but these are only to be found in the larger towns.
Visa and Mastercard are also accepted but some of the smaller hotels, restaurants and B & Bs in the north will probably want cash payment. You can also use your credit card to obtain money from an ATM if you have the pin. Remember, however, that you do pay a charge every time you withdraw cash. ATMs are available throughout the country.
To call the UK from abroad you first dial 00, followed by 44, the local area code and the local number. If you wish to call abroad from the UK again you dial 00, followed by the international calling code for your particular country and then the local number. It is worth noting that you also need to drop the first zero from the local area code for both types of call.
Thanks to the world of cinema, most people associate bright red kiosks with British public telephones. Today, however, these are very rare and have been replaced by smoked glass kiosks which will usually have the British Telecom (BT) logo. Most take coins and phonecards. Cards can be purchased in newsagents, tourist offices, train stations and a variety of other outlets. They come in denominations of £5, £10 or £20. The cheapest time to make international calls is after 8.00pm on weekdays and all day on Saturdays and Sundays.
Post offices in Britain are open Monday to Friday from 9am to 5:30pm and from 9:30am to noon on Saturdays.
Tipping in the UK is not compulsory, but as with everywhere else it is greatly appreciated. If you are happy with the service you should leave some amount, however big or small. In some restaurants a fifteen per cent service charge is included in the bill. Where this is the case, you will probably feel less obliged to leave a tip. If you are paying by credit card, the final total is left blank so you can leave a gratuity if you so wish. Taxi drivers and hotel porters are usually paid a small amount for their services.
It is worth noting what the public holidays are before you travel to a country as the majority of businesses, banks and shops usually shut for the day. In the UK they take place on January 1st, Good Friday, Easter Monday, the first and last Mondays in May, the last Monday in August and December 25th and 26th. It is a good idea to check the particular area too as certain towns and cities also shut down during special events.