“What country friend is this?” is the opening of a Shakespeare play. Which can provoke confusing answers if asked of one of his countrymen by a visitor? Easier to ignore the whole issue and just enjoy the best that all four of England, Scotland, Wales and N. Ireland, offer. And that is plenty. London is a great metropolis, for sure, but Edinburgh is an ancient kingdom’s capital, while both Cardiff and Belfast combine long history with exciting modern development. Preferably seated in a pub, bar or tavern in any of them, you can debate the merits of Snowdonia versus the Cairngorms, golf at St Andrews versus Portrush or the Belfry, the English lakes, Scottish lochs or Irish loughs, whether Welsh lava bread is better than Yorkshire ‘fat rascals’, Scotch whisky better than Irish whiskey, salmon from the Spey or the Wye? Just be sure to agree with the locals, whoever they are.
The ‘Granite City’ for the locally quarried stone used to build much of the modern city (it also has an attractive metallic glister). Created a Royal Burgh by Robert the Bruce in the early 14th century, it thrived as a port and especially for its North Sea fishing fleet (plus arguably the best kipper smokeries anywhere). The city was transformed by North Sea oil, becoming the main on-shore base for rigs throughout the Scotland-Norway shelf – its heliport is the busiest in the world. Catering for roustabouts and top executives alike (and their families) has turned the dour Scottish city into an international centre – think Dallas with a Scottish accent.
The heart of the industrial revolution in Britain, England’s ‘second city’ retains many links with that past but boasts a thriving 21st century life and culture. There are still ‘metal-bashing’ factories and the unique Jewellery Quarter, but Symphony Hall and the Simon Rattle-shaped CBSO orchestra are rightly world famous. In the very centre of the city, the two strands come together with the 19th century canal junction around the evocatively-named Gas Street Basin transformed into a glittering nightlife area of cafes, clubs and starred restaurants. The National Exhibition Centre draws countless visitors and Birmingham has the infrastructure to cater for all.
From fishing village origins, ‘Bright-helmstone’ keeps reinventing itself. The Prince Regent came for the sea-bathing treatment (and Mrs Fitzherbert), built the exotic Indo/Chinese Royal Pavilion, and gave the town a slightly raffish image it has never tried to shake off. The twenties and thirties, and the Brighton Belle train, saw its rise as an illicit weekend destination, while more recently a student/’alternative’ population has restored its Bohemian feel. The first ‘Chain Pier’ was swept away in a storm, the elegant West Pier was ravaged by fire, but the gaudy Palace Pier still entices day-trippers. The Brighton Festival offers a counterbalance for lovers of more serious arts however.
Bristol is, and always has been, a seafaring town. Already a major harbour in Tudor times, John Cabot set out in The Mathew from here to discover the fabled North-West passage and it became an essential part of Victorian commerce. Brunel built one of the engineering Seven Wonders in the Clifton Suspension Bridge over the Avon Gorge … and then another with the SS Great Britain, now safely restored in the docks. The harbourside has been transformed into a mix of maritime museum and leisure area with a collection of historic vessels (including the classic tall ship Tangaroa), galleries including the Arnolfini, restaurants and clubs.
Chaucer’s pilgrims may have written the book but visitors have headed for Canterbury before and ever since. The Romans came and built the first town and in the 6th century St Augustine became the first Archbishop and founded both the Abbey and Cathedral. The ‘murder in the cathedral’ of his successor, Thomas A’Becket, in 1170 led to Becket’s shrine becoming a place of pilgrimage for many centuries, including the present day. Although now an important University city, Canterbury’s focus is still the magnificent Cathedral and the Archbishop’s Primacy. Fire, subsidence and WWII bombing have all required restoration work – with Mahatma Ghandi being a famous contributing worker on a visit.
Chester was the important Roman city of Deva, set on the River Dee and almost on the Anglo-Welsh border. So once the Romans withdrew, the locals could continue with the centuries’ long border-town battles of Welsh vs English. It is now one of the best preserved medieval cities in the UK, with almost complete city walls while Victorian additions and restorations are unusually in keeping – notably Jacobean-style timbered public buildings and hostelries. Chester was also important to 19th century rail and canal transport development - a canal stretch beneath the city walls is still much used today. There are many Roman remains and the well-preserved castle is another popular visitor sight.
Durham’s ‘Grey Towers’ of Cathedral and Castle still dominate the city. Founded late in the first millennium by monks from Lindisfarne (Holy Island) off the nearby coast, it is the burial place of miracle-working St Cuthbert (and his chronicler, the Venerable Bede). A place of pilgrimage before Canterbury, it had a key position in the border defences against marauding Scots and the Prince-Bishop was the true political ruler for 800 years. The city rose again with the Industrial Revolution, being at the centre of the Northumbrian coalfields – the Miners Gala, is still held as a factual and symbolic focus for British Labour. If you travel to Durham by rail, you ‘fly’ into it over the spectacularly elevated Victorian viaduct.
Glasgow builds things – better than anywhere else, Glaswegians would say. Built itself by a saint (St Mungo aka ‘Kentigern’) who founded his church from which the city developed in 540AD, it is still renowned for its superb buildings, becoming World City of Architecture and Design in 1999. Charles Rennie Mackintosh designed many, notably ‘The Lighthouse’ now a visitor centre with panoramic views across the city. Sir George Gilbert Scott designed the University; more recently Norman Foster’s Clyde Auditorium, with its concentric shell roofs, acquired a typical local nickname ‘The Armadillo’. The River Clyde was key to Glasgow’s prosperity. The major British port to the Americas turned to shipbuilding after the Civil War interrupted trade and John Brown’s Clydeside yard created the maritime design icons of the 1930’s original ‘Queens’ as well as the later QE2. Glasgow has also ‘built’ probably the fiercest sports rivalry in the world between Rangers and Celtic, once religion-based, now pure fanaticism.
Scotland’s most northerly city, the ancient town of Inverness lies at the mouth of the Moray Firth into the North Sea and, to the west, the start of the Great Glen and Caledonian Canal that almost splits off the Highland region from the rest of Scotland. Following the hills, overlooking the Glen, is ‘General Wade’s’ old military road, peaceful now after the ’15 and ‘45’ risings, and offering magnificent views across the heather landscape. Just outside Inverness itself is Fort Augustus, a still-used army post, while a few miles inland is the battlefield of Culloden, that even today – with a visitor centre – has a grim aspect that easily conjures up one of the bloodiest fights on British soil. The present Inverness Castle is relatively modern but stands on a site that has had successive fortifications for a thousand years (including the replacement for the razed castle in which Macbeth murdered Duncan).
From its beginnings as an agricultural market town in the Middle Ages, Leeds has constantly evolved over the centuries. By Tudor times it was the hub of a huge wool trade, exporting cloth to all points of the known world. The Industrial Revolution added other manufacturing elements and as these declined the City’s life changed again to become the country’s leading financial services centre outside the capital. Part of Leeds’s charm, however, is the superb countryside just outside. The Yorkshire Dales can be sun-swept, can be broodingly magnificent. (The Bronte sisters lived at nearby Haworth.) The city maintains a strong cultural aspect with the only non-metropolitan opera and ballet companies and the internationally acclaimed piano competition. (Don’t seek out ‘Leeds Castle’ though – it’s a hundred or so miles away in Kent!)
One of England’s best preserved mediaeval towns, Lincoln boasts a Norman Castle, a Bishop’s Palace and an exceptionally fine walled Cathedral. The Cathedral holds one of just four remaining copies of Magna Carta, the Bishop having been a signatory in 1215. The Bailgate quarter, especially, is highly photogenic containing many ancient buildings and reached by the fascinating, though aptly named, Steep Hill. The city’s early prominence as one of the major Bishoprics was reinforced by its trading importance and by the large weaving industry – their favoured colour providing Robin Hood’s ‘Lincoln Green’. Lincoln is built around a sizeable natural lake, Brayford Pool, now a busy marina and lively tourist area with shops and restaurants.
Well, which London would you like? The historic city with The Tower built by William the Conqueror and 1,000 year-old Westminster Abbey? Pomp and pageantry, with Trooping the Colour (June) or Changing the Guard at Buckingham Palace (Royal Standard flying – the Queen’s in residence)? Cultural London? Three major concert halls, the National plus West End theatres, and now the unique Shakespeare’s Globe. Business London? Even those with no interest in finance find the modernistic architecture of the new ‘City’ exciting. River London, perhaps? Get a glimpse of all - the Thames is the reason for London’s existence and you can see many aspects from the plentiful boat trips (with mostly accurate commentaries). Go east to Greenwich which measures the world, west to Hampton Court and Windsor, plus the well-known bridges along the way. Visit in 2012 for the London Olympics – or any time at all for the most complete city in the world.
Thanks partly to an unusual tide pattern, Southampton has been an important international port since the 10th century (when nearby Winchester was England’s capital). The Isle of Wight, due south of Southampton Water, causes the double high tide effect and protects the deep-water harbour. Henry V set sail from here for France and the battle of Agincourt, the Pilgrim Fathers originally set out from here before returning to Plymouth for repairs, and the RMS Titanic set sail on its fateful last journey. The home of the great Cunard liners, including both Queen Elizabeths and Marys, as long distance travel took to the air the port transformed itself into the base for long distance cruise ships. As well as the docks, the city has many maritime and other historic buildings including its castle and substantial remains of the city walls.
The importance of Stirling is where it lies. ‘The Gateway to the Highlands’ may now apply primarily to visitors leaving the Lowlands and Edinburgh for wilder landscapes but it was the strategic key to repeated Anglo-Scottish expeditions and battles over centuries. It became a Royal Burgh in 1134 and the infant James VI (later James I of England) was crowned here. Nine hundred mostly bloody years later, it became a city in 2002 as part of Elizabeth II’s jubilee. The still-impressive castle perched high on its craig was besieged many times, including by Bonnie Prince Charlie. Earlier, even greater moments in Scots history were William Wallace’s victory at Stirling Bridge (1297) and Robert the Bruce, at Bannockburn (1314) sending King Edward ‘hame to think again’. Wallace’s story was brought vividly to life in the film ‘Braveheart’.
A charming riverside town, on the edge of the Cotswolds, full of attractive historic buildings … oh, and someone famous was born here. In fact Shakespeare’s Stratford is a lovely town, well worth visiting in its own right, but the main point of interest is inevitably the greatest ever playwright. Perhaps the special attraction is that while most of his actual work was in London, in Stratford we get a glimpse of Shakespeare the man. His mother, Mary Arden’s house (sizeable farm actually) where he (probably) went to school; the house he lived in on his return from London (as well as his wife, Anne Hathaway’s cottage); and finally the church where he was baptised, married and buried. The Memorial Theatre on the banks of the Avon is beautifully situated and (mostly) provides superb performances. (If you want see the performers off-duty, try the ‘Dirty Duck’ pub opposite.)
Wimbledon is a pleasant urban village in London SW19, with excellent restaurants and very attractive residential property – for 50 weeks in the year. For the remaining fortnight it’s the centre of the tennis world, and has been for well over a century. The ‘All England Lawn Tennis and Croquet Club’ organises ‘The Championships’ for both ‘Gentlemen’ and ‘Ladies’ with a smooth skill that makes this the trophy that players most want to win. Now the only grass court major, the setting is superb, the tennis is scintillating (turf provides a faster game) … and the traditional strawberries and Pimms aren’t bad either (if wickedly expensive). Tickets are balloted for months ahead – but only the two show courts so anyone can use the famed queue and see top class play at close range on the outside courts. (If you’re lucky enough to get to Centre Court, at least rain can’t spoil your fun thanks to the 2009 roof.)
Other cities may rival Winchester’s antiquity, but the capital of Alfred the Great’s Kingdom of Wessex is where William the Conqueror’s Domesday Book was actually compiled in 1086. The city centres on the outstanding Gothic cathedral, the longest in Europe and arguable the loveliest, where King Canute, William Rufus and St Swithun are buried (it rained for the proverbial 40 days after his remains were moved). Jane Austen, who lived in nearby Chawton, is also buried there, while another literary connection is Keats who wrote ‘Ode to Autumn’ here. The handsome Castle has Arthurian connections and houses a ‘Round Table’ (more fiction, as it’s only 700 years old) and the knightly paintings on it were commissioned by Henry VIII. A more modern feature is sculpture, with works by Anthony Gormley, Elizabeth Frink and Barbara Hepworth publicly displayed.
Some 20 miles from the centre of London (and Buckingham Palace) Windsor is the country estate of the British royal family, and has been for over 900 years since William the Conqueror built the original castle. At the time of the first World War, the family adopted Windsor as their name to replace the Germanic connotations of their original house. The castle is on a low hill and dominates the town, looking down over meadows to the River Thames. It has two parks, Home and Great, which to the surprise of many visitors, are much used by locals for recreation, including a golf course and cricket pitches. St George’s Chapel within the castle grounds is the chapel for the Order of the Garter. The castle is much used for ceremonial occasions, including state visits, as well as being a week-end retreat for the Queen. Much of it is open to visitors and the Changing of the Guard is a daily attraction. The town itself is very attractive with pretty river frontage and a pedestrian-only bridge to the school town of Eton.
Voted European Tourism City in 2007, York’s attraction is its long and variegated history, with an impressive amount of surviving elements. The Roman city of Eboricum still features in the ‘Ebor’ signature of the Archbishop of York – second in primacy only to Canterbury. The Danish invasion and settlement turned this to Jórvík and the Jórvík Viking Centre is a fascinating interactive visit to 8th century life. In medieval times, following the Norman Conquest York became an important wool trading town and the ‘Snickelways’ tangle of backstreets includes the wonderfully-preserved ‘Shambles’, named for the butchers’ shops there. York was the White Rose side in the Wars of the Roses, still constantly alluded to in Yorkshire-Lancashire antagonism 600 years later. York Minster is arguably the most beautiful of all the great cathedrals with its wondrous Rose window; it was brilliantly restored after the fire of 1984. If you tire of history, the city is fringed by wonderful countryside – the Yorkshire Moors and Wolds, and the Pennines.