Tourism is a good test of self-knowledge: Why do you want to travel in the first place? While Britain is an ideal place to travel, it behooves you to spend a few minutes reflecting on why you want to go there so that you plan the most meaningful trip. Professor Allitt ends with a few practical tips to help you get the most from your travels.
Click on GREEN links to visit the highlighted location in Google Maps. Hover over BLUE text for more information about that item.
If you have never been abroad before, Britain’s the ideal place to go first. There’s no language problem, apart from a few minor issues of dialect and idiom. The climate is mild—never too hot or too cold. The place is safe so long as you take simple safety precautions, and the police are helpful rather than intimidating.
It’s also a country full of fascinating places, in which distances are relatively short, with plenty of convenient ways of traveling. And, of course, the family tree for many Americans, Canadians, and Australians, has its roots in British soil.
Planning a Trip to Britain
Strangely, some people don’t like the idea that they are tourists. Haven’t we all heard friends complaining about all the obnoxious tourists they found, clogging up Stratford, Stonehenge, and Canterbury Cathedral, even though others could have said the same about them? The best way to avoid that problem is to visit less crowded places, where you won’t be part of a great multitude. It’s easy to do because there are so many less-well-known places deserving of your time.
Think carefully about when you want to visit. The obvious answer in Britain is during the summer when you’re more likely to get good weather. The problem with summer is that the rest of the world is on the move, especially in the second half of July and all of August, which are the British school holiday months. If you can visit in May, June, or September you’re likely to see the gardens blooming and get the best of everything without the burden of too much company.
Where to Eat When Visiting Britain
Let me mention a couple of general points about food. First, Britain through most of the 20th century had a reputation for bad food, which was at least partially justified. The arrival of a large immigrant community from India and Pakistan in the 1950s and 1960s led to a change for the better. By now, the nation is full of Indian, Chinese, French, and Italian restaurants whose collective effect has been to widen British tastes.
Bed and Breakfast guest houses, of which there are thousands, usually offer the “Full English Breakfast,” which consists of fried bacon, fried sausages, fried tomatoes, fried mushrooms, fried eggs, and a handy slice of fried bread. Note the major adjective there. It’s a heart-stopping prospect for people who are not used to it. On the other hand, it’s extremely tasty, and sets you up for a day of vigorous tourism. In Wales, it’s called the “Full Welsh Breakfast.” In Scotland, it’s called the “Full Scottish Breakfast” and comes with black pudding thrown in as well.
Getting Around in Britain
Think carefully about how you’re going to get around. In London, the Underground, or “tube,” is by far the most effective method. It’s a dense system that can take you to every site you want to visit, and the trains are frequent, clean, and efficient. By contrast, the buses and taxis are susceptible to frequent delays, because there is far more traffic than the roads can manage.
Recommended Reading for Your Trip to England
Wherever you go in Britain, you’ll get more out of it if you know something about the place beforehand. There are many good, general histories of Britain, offering you enough to get the shape of the whole story without the burden of too much detail. I would recommend Paul Johnson’s The Offshore Islanders, which you can read over the course of a week by giving it a couple of hours each evening.
Robert Tombs’s book The English and Their History may strike you as a trifle long at over 1,000 pages. On the other hand, there’s a lot of ground to cover and he does it incredibly well.
A gem from the 1930s is Margaret Halsey’s With Malice toward Some, which won the National Book Award in 1938 and became a bestseller.
Among more recent figures, I’m a fan of Bill Bryson, the Iowa-born journalist who has spent much of his life writing affectionately about Britain. His 1995 book Notes from a Small Island is an entertaining travelogue about his adopted country and its curious habits and customs.Simon Jenkins also deserves your sympathetic attention. A major figure in British journalism throughout his life, Jenkins was editor for a while of both the London Evening Standard and the London Times.
Britain’s History and The National Trust
For a while, aptly, Jenkins was chairman of the National Trust, the most important of all Britain’s heritage organizations, which preserves thousands of old houses and landscapes of historical interest. The National Trust was founded in 1895, at the instigation of Octavia Hill, a philanthropic lady who was dedicated to improving workers’ housing and to protecting urban parks.
The Trust gained official support by an Act of Parliament in 1907. It grew steadily through the early 20th century, helped for a while by an anonymous group of female enthusiasts known as “Ferguson’s Gang.” Their leader was Peggy Pollard. She read a book by the architect Clough Williams-Ellis, entitled England and the Octopus. It was a lament about urban sprawl and government short-sightedness in land use.
She and her wealthy friends then set about buying houses and lands that were in danger of destruction and donating them anonymously. They were able to donate Shalford Mill in Surrey, the Old Town Hall at Newtown on the Isle of Wight, a series of cliffs along the Cornish coast, and lands in Derbyshire and Oxfordshire that were threatened with suburban development. The National Trust was so impressed with their work that it invited the gang to speak on its behalf when the BBC offered it the chance to make a radio address in 1935.
In the years after the Second World War, the Labour government of Clement Attlee imposed punitive death taxes on large landowners. The amount of money required from aristocratic families that hoped to retain their estates was so great that many decided to give up the struggle and hand their properties over to the National Trust, which they could do in lieu of payment. Trust employees were a mixture of highly practical men and women who knew about property management, on the one hand, and architectural historians for whom aesthetics were all important, on the other. They referred to each other as the “boots” and the “lilies.”
Those landowners who resisted the National Trust were almost obliged to open their houses to the public in any case, to raise sufficient revenue to keep pace with the tax gatherers. Chatsworth House in Derbyshire is a magnificent case in point, as are the Longleat house and grounds in Wiltshire. As a result, the days of immense private estates from which ordinary people were excluded came to an end. A century’s worth of economic pressure and spontaneous generosity from citizens both rich and poor has had the collective effect of making far more of Britain’s heritage accessible to visitors than ever before.
I hope I’ve inspired you to start planning a trip! If you’re already in Britain or are a frequent visitor, I hope you’ve learned more about it. Britain has long been a very good place; now it’s better than ever!