What is London, English, British identity?
These are not all the same. Try not to make the mistake of interchanging the terms “United Kingdom”, “Great Britain,” “British Isles,” and “English.” The UK is steeped in history and tradition, which has in turn created many regional differences. Understanding and respecting these differences will be helpful in understanding culture during your semester away.
The United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland (otherwise called the UK), is the formal, political name for the kingdoms of England and Scotland, the principality of Wales, and the province of Northern Ireland. The British Isles refers to the two large islands, Great Britain and Ireland, and thousands of smaller islands around the area. Great Britain is the island that includes England, Wales, and Scotland. The term British refers to these three countries – Northern Ireland is not a part of Great Britain, so residents of that country may resent being called British. English is a term used to refer to only the nationals of England, not any other people in Great Britain.
It is important to understand these differences because there are some regional rivalries and people are proud of their regional background. The English, Welsh, and Scots like to poke fun at each other but is all generally in good jest. For example, the English may mock the football teams of Wales or Scotland for all their inadequacies. Each nation may also make fun of each other’s cuisine or even the way they speak (accent). Because of these strong regional ties, people will first associate as being from England, then from Britain, then from the UK, then from Europe. Even though the UK is part of Europe, there is a bit of an “island mentality” where the UK wants to distinguish itself from mainland Europe. In many ways, the UK is still separate politically and economically.
In addition to regional differences, British society was traditionally based on hierarchy and differences in rank and class. While the focus on economic class has diminished over time, there is still quite a bit of polarization between the wealthy and the poor in London. Like in US cities there are poorer neighbourhoods and more wealthy neighbourhoods and this is also the case in London. You can have big ‘council estates’ that house poorer families and are densely populated within an area of other council estates or have wealthy neighbourhoods concentrated in the suburbs or outskirts. For example, in many wealthy Central London neighbourhoods local residents have access to a private park gardens where a key is needed to get inside thus excluding the general population from entering. You still can have expensive homes located alongside social housing but as is often the case the two cohorts may have limited interaction with each other.
There are some traditional aspects of British culture that are still definitely evident, such as tea time and the Monarchy. Traditionally tea time refers to when people have afternoon tea and cakes or biscuits (cookies) around 3-4pm but because of changes in society and working life this is becoming a less common occurrence. Having ‘tea’ in a household may also mean to have dinner so someone may say ‘tea is ready’ meaning that dinner is ready to be served. The Royal Family are generally quite popular and more so since the younger generation (Prince William et al.) have grown up but even though they are the British Royal Family they are inevitably more popular in England and Wales than in Scotland, for example. The Royal Family are a tradition and the British are very fond of their traditions and do not want to give it up and rather are proud of their traditions as it is what makes the country unique.
In terms of the identity of London, it is often hard to define. London is a truly international city with residents coming from all over the world. London, like New York, has very much its own culture; it is British culture blended in with other cultures to create on eclectic mix. At restaurants, it is just about as common to see chicken tikka masala on a menu as fish and chips. The food available in London is not bland and uninspiring as many people think. The foods here are largely fresh, and you will find a great number of international cuisines due to the population who come from all over the world.
Guy Fawkes Day is an annual celebration on November 5th that commemorates the failed Gunpowder Plot of 1605, where Guy Fawkes and others tried to blow up Parliament. This holiday is celebrated by fireworks displays and bonfires around that date and during that same period of time there are other ethnic celebrations such as the Hindu Diwali (October 21st) and Moslem Eid (October 24th) where more fireworks are let off creating a couple of weeks of fireworks flickering in the sky across the country.
Traveling outside of London will ensure you get to experience the more traditional British culture. The Student Life team at NYU-London sponsors several trips for students throughout the semester, including excursions to places like Bath, Brighton, and Stonehenge. Plan on taking advantage of some of these offerings so that you can experience the more traditional British culture outside of London.
Bath is known for its beautiful Roman architecture. It is the setting for many classic novels, as well as films. Besides the pretty comprehensive tour NYUL brings everyone on, which includes the Royal Crescent and the Roman Baths, it is worth exploring the city yourself on a fine day.
Brighton is a nice seaside town, although the shore consistsof pebbles and rocks rather than sand! You will find the Royal Pavilion, amusement park rides & arcade on the pier, and alleys with cool shops. Growing nightlife scene as well. Brighton also has an excellent established LGBT scene.
During the day, walk around St. Nicholas Markets and cross the famous Clifton suspension bridge. There is great nightlife at this college-friendly city.
The most scenic university town, home of Cambridge University. Charming colleges and church buildings line the Cam river, some of which date back to the 11th century. Make sure to visit King’s College Chapel! If you have the time, hire a flat bottomed punt and pole your way along the river.
The home of one of Europe's biggest music festivals, Glastonbury also supposedly houses the Holy Grail. Make sure to also climb the Tor for spectacular views of the town. It is a long walk but it is worth it!
Greenwich is where you take your time from. Literally! Sites worth visiting are the Queen's House, the National Maritime Museum and the Prime Meridian (make sure to join the masses who have taken photos straddling the Meridian, and put it up on Facebook the next day). Go to the Royal Observatory in Greenwich Park and get a gorgeous view of London.
Quaint and slightly different from downtown London, the area of Hampstead heath boasts many good shops, restaurants, and of course the Heath itself, which is a wonderful place for a stroll or a picnic.
Located in between Zone 3 & 4, Kew Gardens is a far trek, but a worthwhile day trip. It contains a gorgeous botanical garden and glasshouse and is definitely worth going the distance.
Liverpool was named the European Capital of Culture in 2008 and is famous among other things for being the birthplace of The Beatles. Do not miss the Magical Mystery Tour through Strawberry Fields, Penny Lane, the childhood home of Paul McCartney. If you are a football fan, check out Anfield, home of Liverpool Football Club. Take a walk to Albert Dock, which has lots of shops, restaurants and bars that were converted from old warehouses. It also houses the Tate Liverpool and the Beatles museum - The Beatles Story.
Oxford is a charming historical town in its own right as well as being the home of Oxford University. Spend time visiting the different colleges and take a look at the shops. Do not forget to take pictures outside of Christ Church college, where scenes from Harry Potter were filmed. Ask Finance & Operations Assistant Ruth Tucker for some advice...she used to work in the Bodleian Library. Climb St. Mary’s tower for £2 and get a great bird eye’s view of the city.
It is amazing being in the same house that Shakespeare grew up in and to see the small church in which he is buriedl. Do try to rent a small boat and row in the river Avon. Also, do not miss a performance by the Royal Shakespeare Company.
Visitors to Stonehenge tend to be either completely overwhelmed, or entirely under-whelmed. Find out for yourself. If you have time, do check out the neighboring stones at Avebury.
Winchester Cathedral is not only the longest cathedral in Europe but it is where the great English author Jane Austen is interned. In the Great Hall of Winchester Castle you can also find Kind Arthur's Round Table.
Home of Windsor Castle and the beautiful town of Eton. Make sure you give yourself a couple hours to explore everything Windsor Castle has to offer (definitely find the Queen Mary’s dollhouse) and then cross the bridge to find an adorable restaurant for lunch or dinner.
Northern Ireland should not be overlooked! When there are no safety issues, Belfast is an amazing city to explore. Beautiful neighborhoods, friendly people and a scary recent cultural-clash history worth understanding.
The capital of Ireland and an incredibly vibrant town. Make sure to check out Dublin Castle, St Stephens Green and the Guinness Storehouse, an interesting museum and exhibition that retells the story of how Guinness came to be.
Drive through Ireland’s gorgeous West Coast. The people are incredibly friendly and the scenery is breath-taking. Though, bring your woolies and rain gear as the weather can be quite chilly and wet. However, you will see many many many rainbows!
It is the capital of Scotland and one of the most beautiful cities in the UK. The city is separated between the Old Town and the New Town. The Old Town is where the famous sites such as the Edinburgh Castle and the Holyrood Palace exist, and the New Town consists of everything modern – especially shopping.
The “other” Scottish city and the one people tend to forget on trips to Scotland. Glasgow is a booming tourist destination that has many wonderful architectural buildings and museums for people to check out. One of the great museums of Glasgow is the People’s Palace and Winter Gardens that tells the story of Glasgow and its people.
Located in the Highlands of Scotland, a natural and beautiful part of Scotland. You can try to find “Nessie,” the beloved Loch Ness monster, or enjoy a hike past numerous waterfalls and mountains.
The capital of Wales and another recent tour hotspot. Be sure to check out Cardiff Castle, which is still a functioning castle for special events such as wedding receptions, and Millennium Stadium, a massive stadium that hosts the Welsh national football and rugby teams.
The birthplace of poet Dylan Thomas and the second largest city in Wales. There is Swansea Castle, which dates back to 13th century.
“Before we headed into the house for the rest of night, the Patties told us to take a good look at the sky. Although it was a hazy night, we found the Big Dipper (which for me, is amazing, because back home in Queens NY, the only thing I see in the sky are planes headed for LaGuardia or JFK airport). Over hot cocoa, the Patties shared with us stories about their grandchildren, how they ended up living in Inverness, past visitors, and about a long-lost friend they were trying to locate (who we actually helped find the next day through the magic of Google). It was refreshing to chat with them, as they reminded me of my own grandparents at certain points of the conversation, and to listen to their life stories. Although we were leaving Sunday, the Patties did not let us go without an early morning trip to see some ancient Pictish stones, Christian carvings over 1200 years old that are scattered through the Highlands, and a lighthouse that was at the tip of Scotland, opposite of Norway and the North Sea. Jean, of course, had skipped church that morning to make us a final home-cooked meal, with vegetables fresh picked from the garden, and a delicious rhubarb crumble pie with vanilla ice cream. With larger waistlines and warm memories, Jordan and I left from the seemingly magical and hidden world of the Scottish highlands back to our ordinary lives in the chaotic city of London.”
-Excerpted from NYUL Newsletter The Moon on Kathleen Chang’s HOST UK trip to Inverness, Scotland.